Mark Car­war­dine

The broad­caster and cam­paigner airs his views on our per­cep­tion of the state of wildlife and wild places, and in­vites your thoughts on the sub­ject.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents -

Wildlife con­ser­va­tion and the dan­ger of Shift­ing Base­line Syn­drome

One of the great­est chal­lenges in con­ser­va­tion is tack­ling some­thing called the Shift­ing Base­line Syn­drome. In essence, it means that each gen­er­a­tion has a lower ex­pec­ta­tion of wildlife and wild places than the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion. What my gen­er­a­tion sees as abun­dant or pris­tine is seen by our par­ents as rare or de­graded; and what we con­sider to be rare or de­graded is seen as abun­dant or pris­tine by our chil­dren. We each as­sume that the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion – the one we know from first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence – is the norm. And so, over time, the ‘base­line’ shifts.

It’s a fright­en­ing con­cept: as a so­ci­ety we ac­cept en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, sim­ply be­cause we can’t imag­ine how the nat­u­ral world used to be. What seems OK to us to­day would have been con­sid­ered piti­ful a gen­er­a­tion ago. Con­se­quently, most peo­ple don’t have a clue about how much wildlife we have lost.

Even over my 59-year life­time I can see the Shift­ing Base­line Syn­drome in ac­tion. When I was a young boy, grow­ing up in sub­ur­ban Hamp­shire, our gar­den was a ver­i­ta­ble wildlife par­adise. Cuck­oos were the per­pet­ual sound­track to sum­mer, the flowerbeds were alive with umpteen species of but­ter­flies, and four or five hedge­hogs would come to be fed on our pa­tio ev­ery night. I took it all for granted, be­cause that was the ‘norm’.

Not any more. I can’t re­mem­ber the last time I heard a cuckoo, I ac­tu­ally regis­ter ev­ery time I see a but­ter­fly, and I could count on the fingers of one hand the num­ber of (un­squashed) hedge­hogs I’ve seen all sum­mer. And, in case you’re won­der­ing, I’m not view­ing my child­hood through rose-tinted spec­ta­cles: the facts speak for them­selves.

Over my life­time, in the UK we have lost three-quar­ters of our cuckoo pop­u­la­tion, three-quar­ters of our but­ter­flies have de­clined (some by as much as 96 per cent), and we have lost nearly 97 per cent of all our hedge­hogs (there were 30 mil­lion when I was grow­ing up – now there are one mil­lion). It’s a won­der there is any­thing left at all.

But per­haps the best ex­am­ple of the Shift­ing Base­line Syn­drome is the so-called ‘wind­screen test’. I re­mem­ber how, when I was a boy, long sum­mer car jour­neys would leave my fa­ther’s wind­screen com­pre­hen­sively splat­tered with squashed moths, mosquitoes, flies and other in­sects. Nowa­days, there may be one or two. Or none. I also re­mem­ber bliz­zard-like clouds of moths in the car head­lights. But now the air seems to be devoid of all life.

Yet my norm is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from my par­ents’ norm. I can’t be­gin to imag­ine how much wildlife was around in their day. There are still pock­ets of rel­a­tive abun­dance (your chances of hear­ing a cuckoo are bet­ter in the Scot­tish High­lands, for ex­am­ple) but, over­all, the shock­ing, rapid and calami­tous de­cline in our wildlife is there for all to see.

At least, it should be. Thanks to this gen­er­a­tional blind­ness to en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion, we are sim­ply not grasp­ing the sever­ity of the sit­u­a­tion. And that is the prob­lem. The con­cept of a shift­ing base­line has been around since 1995 – when it was first pro­posed by marine bi­ol­o­gist Daniel Pauly – but we are only just wak­ing up to what it re­ally means.

The so­lu­tion is con­tin­u­ously to mea­sure and record as much as we pos­si­bly can – the UK’s State of Na­ture re­port is a per­fect ex­am­ple – to pro­vide a more ac­cu­rate and tan­gi­ble base­line. And then we have to shout about it from the rooftops.

If we don’t, we will al­ways be sat­is­fied with much too lit­tle, and we will al­ways aim far too low. Surely, the se­verely de­pleted wildlife we are be­com­ing ac­cus­tomed to in the UK should not be any­one’s norm?

MARK CAR­WAR­DINE is a frus­trated and frank con­ser­va­tion­ist.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? If you want to sup­port Mark in his views or shoot him down in flames, email wildlifele­t­[email protected]­me­di­

Thanks to a gen­er­a­tional blind­ness, we aren’t grasp­ing the sever­ity of the sit­u­a­tion.

Lost sound­track to sum­mer: we have lost 75 per cent of our cuckoo pop­u­la­tion in the UK.

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