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Wildlife… it’s just too much work.

In light of the UN report on species extinction just unveiled, many people are talking about how worrying it is that we have so many species close to the brink of annihilation due to our activities.

And at the same time, it’s hard to move people towards doing very much in the way of helping reverse the trend.

Nature is seen as something outside our own environments, nowadays. It’s an abstract idea, or at best something we visit. We’ve become used to not having it especially present in our daily lives. Even a fly entering a classroom is viewed as an event.

And because we’ve gotten used to living without nature, we don’t value it very much, and often see it as an inconvenience.

Where we do allow it to exist in our city, it must be controlled and tidy.

Pamplona is a very green city, with plenty of parks and farmland around us, and mountains visible from almost every street, yet even here, wildlife must conform. The ducks in the park have few places to nest because any undergrowth is cleared, the scrub needed to house any other birds than pigeons, sparrows, magpies and a few blackbirds is practically non-existent outside building lots left abandoned until the apartments pop up in new neighbourhoods.

Take a simple city lawn. As soon as the dandelions bloom it’s time to mow. Citizens complain if the city is slow to mow, since the seed heads look untidy.

I passed a lawn full of dandelions, daisies and clover yesterday.

There wasn’t a bee to be seen. The horse chestnut trees are blooming right now, their scent amazing. But there are very few bees to be seen or heard pollenating them.

 

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a large copse of horse chestnuts full of blooms, but I saw more trees than bees in the five minutes I stood watching. Note the absence of any undergrowth.

Coincidentally, upon arriving home, my neighbours warned me of a swarm which had just settled on the Persian blinds of a nearby (empty) flat, and were going to call the city council to come and remove them. It’s all right having some bees up high in a tree, but down here amongst the houses, they induce fear.

I don’t know where bees used to live in cities, but there were more of them, and they must have lived somewhere. Now, though most people appreciate the work of bees, a hive is only acceptable outside our daily surroundings.

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the dark patch on the very top of the blind is a swarm of bees slowly moving into the space for the Persian blinds to roll up into.

The local newspaper has been busy talking about a bear recently released in France which has the temerity to enter Navarra and attack some sheep flocks. The bears have declined in the western part of the Pyrenees to such an extent that only two males, father and son survive. Two females from Slovenia are hoped to start saving the population, but bears are only tolerated if they stay well away from humans and their buildings.

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There might be some basic understanding that bears should not go extinct in the Pyrenees, though they are close to that right now. Bears are still tolerated in the Picos de Europa, further west of Navarra, but here the local farmers’ union is opposed to this attempt and recovering/rewildling/conservation/call-it-what-you-like-putting-bears-ahead-of-sheep.

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The first photo is today’s back page of the local paper. I will translate the last few lines… the farmers union call on the Navarra Government to ….. “demand the French authorities cease their actions of reintroducing a wild species in a humanized terrain. “We are not in Yellowstone,” they conclude.

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What else can one say about that?

Nothing comes to mind that I could print in that paper.

Bears, you might say, are a pretty big nuisance when they want to be.

They kill sheep, which, whatever one’s personal opinions of them, are the basis of a type of farming that some still cling to. And I will grant that, despite my immediate question as to how they’re alive and thriving in Asturias and Slovenia – surely they’re an inconvenience there, but a tolerated one, by farmers who are used to doing a bit more work to look after their stock.

And yet, another iconic species is also slowly disappearing in Navarra, according to the same local paper.

Storks.

Now, doesn’t love storks?

They bring us babies, they don’t attack sheep…

And yet, their population is declining in Navarra, too.

Why?

Because they are annoying, inconvenient.

Or at least, their nests are.

So nests are destroyed in the towns and cities where they’ve traditionally nested. Some have made nests in large trees, where these are still available – it’s common for mature trees to be heavily pruned in cities, and really old ones are felled as soon as they show signs of rot for fear of falling and causing damage or injury.

And a pair that can’t build a nest is a pair that has to go elsewhere, or doesn’t breed.

There are seven fewer pairs than last year, for a total of 939.

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This photo is from the linked article, taken in an abandoned factory. When this is demolished, where will the storks nest?

There are many reasons for our ecosystems collapsing. Wilful destruction, wilful ignorance, and wilful rejection of any inconvenience it might mean to our lives. The last is what most of us will be guilty of.

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The Lepidopterist’s Dream

Turning on a mountain track

We stumble upon a lepidopterist’s dream:

Butterflies abounding, bouncing from

Bramble to buttercup, clover to cornflower;

A dancing profusion of colour in heat

Haze of August morning amplified

By the addition of dragonflies, damsel

Flies, hoverflies and bumblebees, with

A host of other insects humming and

It occurred to me, that there were once

Such sights in my own suburbs, along

The hedgerows down below and beyond.

That once everywhere outside the city

Centre was an entomologist’s dream, and

The countryside the same for ornithologists

Now they lament the stark scenes

Silent callows empty of corncrakes, and

The bees barely seen in park trees,

Moths no longer litter windscreens

Of a night drive, and these hills, though

Still roamed by pigs and roe, seems so

Similar to those of South Africa, they should

Also hold antelope, lions and leopards

And once they did, until all were lost,

Along with the bison, auroch, and rhinos.

 

As for the sea, it also should be teeming

They say in the seventeenth century,

Thrashing tails were seen from shore.

Now trawlers roam for days, and only

Coral reefs this century remain, as

The bramble banks of the sea. Yet

How long can its rainbow dance continue?

We watch their wonderful choreography

Holding on to those tiny joys to keep going

But the world is crumbling, we are bumbling

While the coral is bleached clean. Unless we care

More than before, these brambles will be as bare.

 

 

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if you zoom in, you should be able to see some of the hundreds of butterflies up along this track. I took a video, but it wasn’t very steady…

The kind of Park I like to see.

Last year, I spotted a park in Pamplona that had a section planted with wild flowers. It was a beautiful sight in late spring and all during summer, and attracted all the passers-by. Including kids who couldn’t resist plucking a few blooms – and good luck to them (if only I could convince a certain 70-year-old to stop plucking the orchids she comes across on her walks in the country – she does it knowing I’ll give out to her if I see the flowers later…).

This year I’ve seen another park, not too far away, in the town of Mutilva, which gave me another emotional lift to see that not every park needs to consist of close-shaved grass.

 

20160425_171501They have only mowed the grass along the verge of the paths, and a few extra paths to walk through the grass between the unmown sections, inviting visitors to stroll through the meadow and get close to the wildflowers that are already coming up and blooming – the kids will just go straight into those flowers.

20160425_171348It also means the hillside will be greener for longer this summer when the rains stop and it won’t need to be watered – like much of the public gardens here.

20160425_171410The smell of cut grass is nice, but the scent of wildflowers that blew down the hillside when I just took a walk there was a whole lot better.

It’s not the only park in this suburb, and many of the others have only daisies and shorn dandelions today, but it’s nice to see even one exception to the rule of lawns, so good on the town council. I hope their example will be followed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What, Exactly, Is Rewilding?

 

I read an interesting article about rewilding today – calling it the “new Pandora’s box in conservation.”

Hardly a title to inspire confidence…

One problem the authors see with rewilding is that the term is fluid and quite ill-defined as yet. It would be better to firm up exactly what rewilding is and is not, and define what it aims to achieve.

I agree, as a scientist, that it would be better to know exactly what we are talking about.

But I think there is room for maneuvering yet.

Rewilding is a new term that has yet to come into its own. It has yet to capture the public consciousness.

And in order to let that happen, I think the term should be as broad as possible for as long as possible.

In fact, perhaps we can have two meanings – just like the word “theory” has two meanings – one in common parlance, and the other in scientific terms. It won’t be that problematic if we have a broad meaning for the wider public discussion and then a more precise, concise or even split terms for use in ecology – for example, the Palaeolithic rewilding, or passive rewilding as mentioned in the article.

I say this because what we don’t want to have happen is that the general public decide that rewilding is some scientific activity which only trained ecologists can pursue, or have a hand in, or a stake in.

Because we will need lots of rewilding, of all types, if we are to get through this century with functioning ecosystems. There are some, such as passive rewilding, which the general public can have a great, and direct, impact on. There are things they can do themselves at home, in addition to supporting more extensive projects and translocations by voting, signing petitions and going to visit places which have had formerly extinct species reintroduced.

An article in the Guardian today, about not mowing the lawn so often so that dandelions can flower and feed the multitude of insect species that rely on them highlights this.

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As we live in a world steeped in pesticides, we will need the gardens of our suburbs and cities to give a refuge to the species which would otherwise die out. While research suggests that farmers should plant wildflowers themselves to aid keep pests down in their crops, it’s plain that insects like bees are suffering as we continue to spray.

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Luckily, the terrain of the farms I visit near Pamplona makes wildflower verges almost unavoidable, though even here the number of butterflies seems to have plummeted in recent years.

To a certain extent, rewilding is just allowing that little slice of wildness to exist alongside our lives and our lawns, instead of keeping wilderness far from us as we push into that very wilderness.

The man on the street with a garden can help this rewilding, just as the building companies who can’t get financing to build on the lots they bought during the boom can let the weeds grow in the meantime. It might not provide habitat for wolves, or bison, but it can keep bees alive, let butterflies and lizards and small mammals survive.

Instead of even planting grass for lawns, home owners, and councils and building management companies, can plant wildflower meadows instead. I showed an example of one in Pamplona last summer. I look forward to it blooming again this spring.

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Wildflower meadow planted in Pamplona park about to bloom in 2015

 

One type of rewilding that the article didn’t mention, but George Monbiot among others does, is rewilding ourselves – getting back in touch with the nature we have too long either ignored or tried to tie up, impound, mow short and neat. I’ve seen the kids approach this wildflower meadow in a much different way to how they’d approach a lawn. I’m sure you can imagine which they’re more excited by.

We might be disinclined to let our kids dig in the muck these days when everyone’s so obsessed with cleanliness, but allowing them romp through a few flowers will set us smiling more than any pretty new frock or well-maintained playground.

 

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What child can resist making petal angels?   And collecting conkers can be done in a clean frock.

 

And just as we might one day be delighted to have dandelions, we will be grateful for the general public’s work in keeping our lives just a little bit wild.

 

 

 

Park Planting in Pamplona…

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This is a new park in Pamplona. I cycle past it everyday. They took down the temporary fence a couple of weeks ago.
When I noticed the poppies growing in the grass, I smiled.
I was glad the company responsible for maintenance was a bit slow to get the lawnmower onto the newly seeded grass.
A few days later, I was glad that the recent rain must be keeping them off the soft sod.
But then I saw other flowers. Beautiful wildflowers I’d never seen before.
And I stopped my bike on the way up this very steep hill.
I stared.
But you know how when your worldview doesn’t include something, it takes a while to see it.
I’d never seen this shit before.
But it was true.
And I took a photo to prove it.
There was no grass…
They’d sown wildflower seeds.
In a new park.
On purpose.
Not lawn. Wildflowers.
My mind is blown.
Rewilding is possible. It’s simple. It’s easier and lower maintenance than keeping wildlife cut back.
And it will be beautiful.

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