The si­lenc­ing of the birds

Let us not be the gen­er­a­tion that presided over the de­cline of song­birds, urges Robert Mid­dled­itch

Country Life Every Week - - Opinion - Robert Mid­dled­itch

LOS­ING 60% of our song­bird pop­u­la­tion in one year would, by any mea­sure, be a dis­as­ter, but the fact that this cat­a­strophic de­cline has hap­pened so slowly, over sev­eral decades, means that few peo­ple have no­ticed. The tree spar­row has plum­meted by a stag­ger­ing 95%, the spot­ted fly­catcher and star­ling by 89% each.

The UK sup­ports a bil­lion-pound con­ser­va­tion in­dus­try, which sug­gests that we are con­cerned, yet we have still al­lowed the lo­cal and re­gional ex­tinc­tion of some song­birds to threaten to turn into na­tional ex­tinc­tions over a mere two gen­er­a­tions. Do we want to be con­demned as the gen­er­a­tion that pas­sively per­mit­ted such a crash in avian bio­di­ver­sity?

On the plus side, plenty of birds are do­ing very well: pi­geons, crows, jack­daws, mag­pies, non-na­tive para­keets and some birds of prey—all of which ei­ther com­pete with or eat song­birds. When you add to this the huge in­creases in preda­tors and scav­engers such as do­mes­tic and feral cats, grey squir­rels, foxes and badgers, all of which also eat song­birds plus their eggs and nestlings, the picture is not so rosy.

It’s wish­ful think­ing to claim that preda­tors and prey nat­u­rally find their own bal­ance. We haven’t had a self-reg­u­lat­ing eco-sys­tem since Ne­olithic times and vir­tu­ally all preda­tors are now gen­er­al­ists and op­por­tunists. In ad­di­tion, the greater num­bers of reared game­birds help to sus­tain un­nat­u­rally high num­bers of preda­tors and scav­engers.

Huge num­bers of birds are taken by cats, but the spar­rowhawk is the song­bird’s main avian preda­tor. This is nat­u­ral, but the over­all rate of at­tri­tion, com­bined with the num­ber gob­bled up by other preda­tors, ap­pears un­sus­tain­able.

Man is now the sole mam­malian apex preda­tor, but we have gone soft, hooked on an­thro­po­mor­phic TV. His­tor­i­cally, we’ve man­aged the bal­ance of wildlife, but the sub­ject has be­come taboo. Most of the largely ur­ban pop­u­la­tion can’t bear the thought of any­thing be­ing killed un­less it’s per­ceived as a pest, such as a mouse, cock­roach

or rat.

In ad­di­tion, el­e­ments of the con­ser­va­tion com­mu­nity it­self are now con­flicted. A de­clin­ing wildlife is good for busi­ness, at­tract­ing rises in mem­ber­ship and lega­cies. Adopt­ing a ro­bust pol­icy on preda­tors, let alone de­struc­tive non-na­tive in­va­sive species, could alien­ate sup­port­ers. Preda­tor con­trol is an un­palat­able, no-go area for most politi­cians, who are in­tim­i­dated by the an­i­mal-rights lobby.

The Gov­ern­ment may have di­rected £500 mil­lion a year to­wards the 73% of farms now in agri-en­vi­ron­ment schemes via wild­flower field mar­gins, bee­tle banks, sky­lark plots and so on, but the BTO ac­knowl­edges that this has failed to de­liver a net ben­e­fit for all farm­land song­birds. Why? Be­cause cre­at­ing a par­adise for wildlife can also cre­ate a par­adise for foxes, crows and other scav­engers.

Un­til now, the pre­vail­ing line has been that song­bird de­cline is solely due to habi­tat loss and modern farm­ing. How­ever, broad- leaved wood­land has ac­tu­ally in­creased by a third since the Sec­ond World War, to­tal tree cover is back to a level not seen since 1300 and hedgerows are up 11% since 1990. We need to ad­dress all the driv­ers of de­cline.

Ex­per­i­ments have shown that preda­tor re­moval can bring pos­i­tive re­sults. How­ever, if only one or two species are re­moved, oth­ers will take over. An­other ob­sta­cle to re­search is the re­luc­tance of li­cens­ing au­thor­i­ties, such as Nat­u­ral Eng­land, to grant ex­per­i­men­tal li­cences to con­trol preda­tors—in­deed, there are calls for le­gal preda­tor con­trol to be banned or re­stricted.

Sci­ence alone will never be enough to re­store bio­di­ver­sity, but per­suad­ing the pub­lic that we must adopt a re­al­is­tic, ro­bust ap­proach to wildlife man­age­ment is be­com­ing more dif­fi­cult. When ev­ery­thing seems to in­volve cost to the tax­payer, bet­ter wildlife man­age­ment need not cost the earth—for ex­am­ple, the restora­tion of red squir­rels in An­gle­sey has in­spired lo­cal vol­un­teers to con­trol the non-na­tive grey squir­rels there and on the Welsh main­land.

Soon, few peo­ple will re­mem­ber the magic of a full dawn cho­rus or will have the re­solve to do any­thing about its loss. If we re­ally want to re­store song­bird pop­u­la­tions then, as well as restor­ing de­graded habi­tat and mit­i­gat­ing the ad­verse ef­fects of farm­ing, we must wake up to the ne­ces­sity of preda­tor and scav­enger species con­trol.

In­creas­ingly, the pub­lic, the me­dia, politi­cians and some con­ser­va­tion­ists dare not face this un­com­fort­able truth, but this cul­tural dis­con­nect from re­al­ity has be­come a scan­dal. We will leave a shame­ful legacy for our grand­chil­dren if we con­tinue to do noth­ing. Robert Mid­dled­itch is chair­man of Song­Bird Sur­vival (www.song­bird-sur­vival. org.uk; 01379 641715)

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