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Scarcity and absence: the 'new normal' for British wildlife?

Monday, 1 February 2016

Water Vole eating creeping buttercup leaf, Derbyshire
Christine Gregory's new book The Water Vole centres around the plight of Britain's water vole population, which has plummeted over recent decades. However, Christine's interest goes far beyond a single species; the story of the water vole mirrors the rapid widespread loss occurring throughout the UK's natural habitats. In this, an extract from The Water Vole, Christine discusses the 'new normal' to which we have become accustomed, whereby wildlife sightings are becoming increasingly rare as human activity throws fragile ecosystems out of kilter.

The water vole is Britain’s fastest declining mammal. The Vincent Wildlife Trust conducted two national surveys, between 1989 and 1990, and 1996 and 1998, that first demonstrated the dramatic decline of this cherished species across Britain. Since then the number of sites once occupied by water voles has diminished even further, but they are doing well in some parts of Britain where conservation efforts have been focused.

Over several years spent searching the rivers and canals of Derbyshire I have met many people who know and love their water voles; they can point to their burrows and places where they feed and they know when the voles have gone. I have also had numerous conversations about places where you ‘can always see water voles’, but when pressed I have found that ‘always’ is not this summer or even the last, and ‘recently’ may stretch back as far as five or even ten years.

Today there is much talk of the ‘new normal’ where we have become used to scarcity and absence and any wildlife sighting is a cause for celebration and reassurance that all is well. In the spring and summer of 2014 I knew of several places where I was likely to see water voles; in 2015 I have struggled to find any at all.

Twenty-five years ago I moved to Youlgrave and lived with my family in a cottage perched high above Bradford Dale. Water voles were a common sight then, sitting close by the paths quietly munching their way through grasses or waterweeds they had dragged to their favoured haul-out platforms. Walks along the River Bradford were often punctuated with the distinctive plop sound of the water voles’ watery vanishing trick. Around the mid 1990s the water voles vanished altogether and there were rumours of mink in the dale. In 2007, after a slow process of recolonising the river over previous years, the water voles were back and I spent many May mornings filming their antics on a camcorder amid the reeds at the southern end of the dale. On 25 June 2007, a summer deluge caused devastating floods and the deaths of two people in Sheffield. It also washed away this small colony of water voles.

Four years later the river dried up completely and later flooded in 2012 in a pattern of extreme weather events experienced all over the country. Water voles have been seen sporadically on the Bradford since then but are currently scarce. Their fortunes on this little limestone river over the last quarter-century mirror a more general picture of a species under pressure from numerous threats.

Scientists are now in agreement that we face a biological crisis on Earth, so great that it is without precedent in the planet’s history. In an article in The Observer on 21 June 2015, Jan Zalasiewicz, professor of palaeobiology at the University of Leicester, drew attention to new research indicating that the Earth is now on the brink of the ‘sixth great mass extinction.’ The fifth was that which extinguished the dinosaurs. The current crisis is caused entirely by human activity. In a scientific paper published on 19 June 2015, Gerardo Ceballos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and his colleagues judged that by the most conservative estimates the rate of vertebrate species extinctions since 1900 is between 10 and 100 times faster than long-term baseline rates (rates vary between different groups of animals with amphibians the fastest declining). The baseline or background rates are determined before ‘the period during which Homo sapiens truly became a major force on the biosphere.’ Since 1900, across all vertebrate groups, nine extinctions would be the baseline figure of naturally occurring extinctions. But in that time 468 species no longer exist, 69 of which are mammals.

In his shocking article Zalasiewicz also draws attention to the sheer bulk of humanity as measured by scientist Vaclav Smil, of the University of Manitoba. Smil has calculated that humans now make up a third of land vertebrates in terms of mass and the animals that we keep to eat make up most of the other two thirds. All of the world’s wild animals constitute just five per cent of land vertebrate biomass on earth. Humans have pushed wild animals to the brink. The water vole is close to extinction in Britain although it is not on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as it is still common elsewhere. But the story of the water vole’s demise, long before the arrival of American mink, reflects the global picture of the replacement of wild animals with those kept to feed humans.

The immense wealth of scholarship and detailed research dedicated to the cause of the water vole leaves no room for doubt as to how we can best save it, but despite many public policy statements on protecting biodiversity, wildlife comes low on the government’s agenda in austerity Britain. As Chris Packham says in the foreword to The Water Vole, love may just be the thing that saves the water vole – that and public pressure.

Water Vole swimming, photo by Christine Gregory
Water Vole swimming. Photo by Christine Gregory.

The otter has returned to Derbyshire unaided by any reintroduction programme. As a top-level native predator, its presence is a symbol of hope for the future. Photo by Christine Gregory.

Kingfisher, water vole, reed warbler, common frog. Photos by Christine Gregory
Some of the species that form part of a healthy river ecosystem. Top left: kingfisher; top right: water vole; bottom left: reed warbler; bottom right: common frog. Photos by Christine Gregory.

Click HERE for more information and to buy a copy of The Water Vole.


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