It is the starkest warning yet. Scientists have calculated that the world's wildlife has declined by a staggering 58 per cent over just less than half a century. If that isn't a very loud wake-up call, I don't know what is! The African elephant is apparently at the top of the hit-list with a massive slaughter currently being perpetrated by poachers which is putting their very existence in jeopardy. Of course, this killing spree is in pursuit of ivory, a much-vaunted material coveted by those who carve it into ornaments in China and other parts of Asia to be sold on for vast profits! It is a highly illegal trade of course but money talks...as usual. There are always those who are prepared to work outside the law in pursuit of wealth.
However, over-fishing, over-hunting and the wanton destruction of the natural habitats of so many creatures, again in the universal pursuit of money, plus the continuing escalation of the world's human population are all factors influencing these dramatic declines. The destruction of rain forests in Asia, Africa and South America continues to be a major cause for concern because such activities clearly reduce habitat and thus threaten the survival of creatures for which the rain forests are key. In addition the loss of millions of trees which play an important role in absorbing carbon, is also contributing in a major way to climate change. All of which seems to highlight our inability to halt a seemingly headlong charge towards self-destruction.
I was further shocked when I read reports which disclosed the quite amazing fact that Iceland, which happens to contain in the region of two hundred and seventy glaciers, imports almost all the ice it needs from Britain, Norway and America. The explanation for such a bizarre turn of events is that apparently they have calculated that it costs forty per cent more to produce their own ice as compared with importing it! But just think of the amount of energy required to maintain the ice at the necessary low temperature whilst it is in transit and of course the energy needed to transport it in the first place. Talk about 'coals to Newcastle', which incidentally did happen during a miner's strike, to the enormous profit of the merchant who despatched alternative supplies (from America!) and indeed the sand that was apparently sold to Saudi Arabia. What a strange world we live in!
On a cheerier note this week I found myself watching a mass of birds, some of which come from that icy island in the North Atlantic to winter in our allegedly more temperate landscape, birds which happily, actually buck the trend of declining populations. What I saw was a field absolutely blackened by a huge flock of pink-footed geese. Thanks to our greater awareness of the ethos of conservation and in no small measure to those who work in that sector, the annual migration of these birds not just from Iceland but from Greenland and Svalbard, has been steadily growing in number each and every year. The current wintering population in Britain is estimated to be in excess of 350,000, a huge growth from the estimated numbers of some 50,000 in the nineteen sixties. Each year, we see and hear these birds in this airt, with the first skeins of non-breeding birds usually arriving in mid-September and the bulk of them touching down in October.
The Solway Firth in the south-west and Montrose Basin on the east coast are major destinations for pinkfeet wintering in Scotland and in recent years increasing numbers have been descending upon Norfolk too. I have always thought that nothing is more redolent of the wild and bleak northern tundra where these birds breed, than the noisy passage of thousands of these birds in their well-ordered skeins, as the days shorten and the leaves begin to fall. Is there a wilder sound? I doubt it! Their shrill sounding contact calls just tell you that winter is on its way!
And what a start in life the approach of autumn signals for this year's crop of young birds. At barely three months of age and only a month after achieving lift-off for the first time in their short lives, they are suddenly uprooted from the tundra where they first came into the world and where they have been nurtured, to begin the flight of their young lives. In the case of those birds reared in eastern Greenland, there is a stop off in Iceland before they are launched on a flight of the best part of a thousand miles across the hostile waters of the North Atlantic.
They do of course, have the benefit of parental guidance and are imbued with the confidence and reassurance provided by the constant vocal contact they have with their parents and other members of the flock. There is always noticeably present when geese fly, that continuous vocal banter. This is provided by the familiar vee-shaped formation in which they fly - their skeins - which give the younger birds some shelter from the worst of the elements as they are always flying partly in the lee of those at the front.
Geese, whatever else they may or may not be, are organised and disciplined. Each skein is led by a succession of senior, experienced members of their flock, which take it in turns to head the vee and steer the best course. Nevertheless, that first sea crossing, which is of the essence non-stop, must be a daunting, exhausting experience for the youngsters. Each small skein represents a family group but many such groups may join up to form massive skeins containing hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds.
The year's crop of young birds produced by all migratory birds face similar challenges I suppose but those that have bred here, which head for Africa, I guess do not face the extreme hazards tackled by geese flying across nearly a thousand miles of unfriendly northern ocean. The greatest sea crossing facing the Africa bound hordes for instance, is likely to be the Mediterranean which is a mere hop, skip and a jump compared with that flight from Iceland. And, such is the organisation of geese that they are capable of ascending to surprisingly high altitudes, as a means of avoiding life-threatening weather systems, so common in those northern latitudes at this time of year.
The capacity to remain always aware of potential danger is constantly present among geese. For instance, you will find you can get closer to grazing geese if you are not carrying anything resembling a gun such as a walking stick. Posted round the edge of the flock as it grazes, are guards - they are the ones which always have their heads raised - which, at the slightest hint of danger loudly alert the flock. There follows a spectacular and extremely garrulous mass evacuation as the flock noisily takes to the air.
Even more engaging is the descent of geese on to suitable grazing ground, on which occasions; the uniformity of the skein is momentarily lost as they break ranks and 'waffle' down to earth like leaves tossing on the autumn breezes. The voices of pinkfeet are pleasantly and quite musically high-pitched compared for instance, with the coarser, deeper resonance of the rather less welcome Canada geese.
As I said, the pinkfeet buck the truly worrying trend of the serious depletion of so much of the world's wildlife. And, as it happens, around ninety per cent of the entire world population winters with us here in Britain. This suggests that therefore, we bear a considerable responsibility to ensure this population at least, continues to rise in contrast to what is happening to so many species on a universal basis. Does it matter? Well, yes it does, for if the world's wildlife populations are depleting at such an alarming rate, we could be next! We have been warned!