Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 18th September 2020

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At the moment, the word on lots of lips is extinction. Quite rightly, there is universal concern at the number of insects, birds and animals we are losing.

Extinction is a real threat and it is a phenomenon that exists on every continent across the world. Perhaps the most worrying factor in this drama is the volume of rain forest we are losing in Africa, Asia and in the Americas where the massive Amazon forest is sadly becoming less and less by the day. Anyone who watched Sir David Attenborough’s TV programme on the topic this week could not help but be both concerned and alarmed at the litany of failures at the hand of man to ensure that the world as we know it remains unchanged.

And the fact is that we in Scotland are not immune to this catastrophe. I’m sure that there even now people  reading this article who, for instance, will identify with the loss of the Scottish wildcat which may even now be on the brink of extinction. The problem has been caused by the existence of feral cats, perhaps former farmyard animals that have forsaken the comfort of farmyard meals and simply gone wild. Unfortunately wildcats have bred with these feral cats producing a hybrid strain and consequently diluting the purity of the true indigenous cat.

The news that captive wildcats housed at the Highland Wildlife Park have recently produced four kittens is indeed welcome, for these four youngsters may well at some time in their lives be returned to the wild and themselves breed and save the wildcat from total extinction. In some parts of the Highlands there has also been a project launched to neuter feral cats and thus restrict their ability to breed. Let’s hope that this scheme is successful and that as a consequence, the cross- breeding of wild animals with feral ones will come to an end.

Habitat loss is another problem and the destruction of the rain forests for beef farming or to make way for growing soya for use in animal feeds, further degrades the habitat of thousands of creatures. In other parts of the world, rain forests are also making way for vast palm plantations for the production of oil which rob further legions of animals, insects and birds of their natural habitat. Pictures of pathetic orangutans held in miserable captive conditions rightly appalls us all and in Africa, resorting to the production of what is called ‘bush meat’ results in the slaughter of our nearest animal relative, the gorilla, amongst other animals.  

However, I must also voice my personal concern that the Movement now holding protests such as the recent blockade of printing presses as a result threatens the freedom of speech that we currently enjoy. My fear is that other people with very different causes at heart are threatening to take over from the true believers. The Extinction Movement should be extremely watchful of the fanatics who are simply using the movement as a cover for other less worthy causes. I cannot believe that painting graffiti on the statue of Sir Winston Churchill has anything to do with the extinction movement.

And, whilst these protests are being made, in England it has just been announced that seven new areas have been identified for the further control of badgers by culling. Bovine TB is a dreadful disease but surely the badger, which is after all protected under an Act of Parliament, deserves better.  Culling continues to defy the best scientific knowledge that the alternative – vaccination – would solve the problem without this brutal intervention.  Opponents of the cull have previously criticized the practice as “ineffective and inhumane”.  

I’m sure that some voice the opinion that losing such animals as rhinos, gorillas, orangutans and badgers doesn’t really matter and there are those who believe that whatever we do, the planet will somehow recover.  However, I suspect that in the long term, our existence as inhabitants of this planet may also eventually lead to the extinction of the human race. We are very much at the end of that line and we ignore at our peril, the nefarious activities of those who attempt to scrape some sort of a living by slaughtering gorillas, without recognizing that the poverty that exists across the world is the driver of such happenings.

And we also ignore climate change at our peril. The world is heating up and if it continues at the current rate, the threat of total extinction is very real. Recent scientific research has revealed that 55 million years ago, huge volcanic eruptions may have caused deep-sea mass extinction by warming up sea temperatures. It is thought that the eruptions took place in an area around what is now Iceland and sent huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which was then absorbed by the oceans over thousands of years consequently increasing the temperatures. As a result, many marine species were killed or impaired but those same scientists are warning that the current effects of human-generated pollution are far worse than during that event all those millions of years ago. Yet the Presidents of the United States and Brazil simply don’t believe these facts so the first thing we must do is to persuade politicians that the course we are currently steering can only end in disaster for generations as yet unborn. It is a global problem that requires our politicians to act now, not tomorrow or the day after. They must start thinking outside the box of ‘profit at any cost’ and instead think of those future generations and the long term prospects for us and our planet.

It isn’t that here in Scotland, we have not experienced the extinction of various birds and animals. The osprey disappeared after a so-called naturalist shot the last breeding pair on Speyside. The sea eagle and the red kite went the same way. Both were exterminated during a period in our history when war was waged on all raptors. The polecat was also destroyed in Scotland and long before that of course, the wolf, the lynx and the Brown bear. There are those who want to restore some of these creatures to the Scottish landscape. However, the landscape has changed vastly since the days of the wolf, bear and lynx. And extensive livestock farming, particularly with regard to sheep, covers large areas of the Highlands. Indeed, the economy of Highland Scotland is still dependent upon these factors, albeit that the re-introduction of beavers – less contentious perhaps – has restored these one-time residents to the Scottish landscape.

The recent proposal that lynx should be released in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park has unsurprisingly caused much concern in the farming community who strongly resist the proposal. Surely, the fact is that we need to look after what we have got rather than introduce more animals and doubtless light another fire of disquiet and conflict.

By using large amounts of pesticide and herbicide we are also doing further damage by killing insects, the pollinators that drive the entire eco-system. The reduction in farmland birds in this country is perhaps explained by our manic obsession to get rid of anything that is not productive such as insects and weeds, the very things that many farmland birds depend upon.

Man’s capacity for destruction seems to know no bounds. It’s about time we started to think much more constructively about our future and about the future generations.

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods