Speaker: Nick Acheson
Reporter: Alan Hughes
Before Nick started his talk, both he and Keith warned us that this was not going to be for the squeamish, and if we were not up for this, perhaps we should leave now – although only joking, we all knew that we were in for a tough listen! Born and bred in North Norfolk, Nick works tirelessly to support a number of local conservation organisations, particularly the NWT. In 1926, Cley Marshes was up for sale, and Sidney Long, a doctor from Norwich, assembled 11 of his friends at The George Hotel in Cley village and thereby formed the Norfolk Naturalists Trust, the very first of the Wildlife Trusts.
His sole purpose in this was to purchase the marshes to create a sanctuary for wildfowl to breed safely, and to be observed by interested people. Wildfowl shooting, however, continued there to provide an income for the newly formed reserve, and was not considered incompatible with conservation until the 1960’s.
In the century following this meeting in Cley, the landscapes and wild places of the World in general, and the UK in particular have been altered considerably by mankind, largely to the detriment of the natural world. As an illustration of this, the 2nd State of Nature Report of 2019, in which vast amounts of data from many conservation and naturalist groups in the country have been analysed, listed some extremely worrying statistics:-
13% decline in average species abundance
5% decline in average species distribution
41% of species have declined in abundance
53% of species show marked changes
15% of species are threatened with extinction
The primary drivers of these changes were listed as:-
• Habitat loss • Invasive species • Overexploitation • Pollution • Climate change
These are all influenced by:-
• Human population growth • Increased consumption • Reduced resource efficiency The human activities that have been particularly responsible for loss of biodiversity are:-
A) Intensive management of agricultural land. A tripling of agricultural productivity can be shown to coincide with a halving of the numbers of farmland birds. Since the post-war period, 75 thousand miles of hedgerows have been removed, 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost, 90% of farm ponds filled in, 83% of heathland lost, and Winter stubble is now rarely seen. Extensive use of nitrate fertilisers favours a few productive grass species, to the detriment of many wildflowers and arable weeds. Pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, are non-discriminating in the insects they kill and have other effects such as inducing anorexic undernourishment of wild bird populations.
B) Climate change. This is the most urgent and serious problem affecting life on our planet: Carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere are higher than anything recorded in the last 800,000 years, and since 1980, the average temperature in the UK has risen by 1C. This is not a coincidence despite concerted efforts by the fossil fuel industries and their supporters to spread disinformation to persuade people otherwise. The disastrous effects of global warming are numerous:-
• Already many catastrophic weather events are being seen around the World. • Many species are moving North • There is an increased potential for invasive and non-native species, including pathogenic microorganisms, to flourish • A loss of biodiversity • Warmer springs affect species’ life cycles differently, so that, for example, moth caterpillar populations may be abundant before bird species that rely on them are ready to breed • Some habitats are more sensitive to climate change. Nick suggested that there were “winners” and “losers” in the warming world: In the UK Egrets, Spoonbill, Clifden Nonpareil moths, Lesser and Vagrant Emperor Dragonflies, Mediterranean Gulls, Roesel’s Bush Cricket, Long-winged Coneheads and Ring-necked Parakeets are all seen more frequently. But the losers include Brent Geese (due to loss of Tundra breeding habitat and coastal grazing marshes), Snow Buntings (loss of suitable breeding habitats in the Cairngorms), East Anglian subspecies of the Swallowtail Butterfly (swamped by European subspecies), Fen Orchids (increased salinity of their habitats), Willow Tit, Willow Warbler, Meadow Pipit, Pink-footed Geese, May Lily, Wood Horsetail and Dotterel – these have all seen declines.
A recent international report stated that 1 million species were now threatened with extinction. Nick’s depressing conclusion was that “biodiversity and humanity are unutterably screwed” unless we are rapidly able to restore resilience and self-regulating processes to the natural world. To achieve this, he proposed a 6-point plan:-
1. Science. We must all inform ourselves and then bear witness to reputable science if only to challenge the deniers. Scientific research is able to make progress in protecting nature e.g. the use of fish barriers in Barton Broad which has allowed areas of water to clear of algal growth, allowing the growth of water plants, e.g. the DNA identification of the origins of Northern Pond Frogs on Thompson Common as being from Scandinavia, allowing the successful reintroduction of this species to local pingoes. 2. Challenge the vested interests. The vast majority of land in Norfolk is under intensive agriculture: We must apply relentless pressure to ensure that good conservation practice is ensured on our farms. In land developments (such as HS2, which threatens many areas of Ancient Woodland, “justified” by the planting of many saplings) genuine conservation must become a primary consideration.
3. Cooperation. Conservation and other interested groups must work together to ensure successful outcomes e.g. RSPB and local farmers have cooperated to achieve increased success of Stone Curlew breeding in the Brecks.
4. Rewilding/reversion/re-creation and increased connectivity between different wild areas by the creation of natural corridors through which wild species can migrate. Great examples locally include Lakenheath Fen, Roydon Common and Grimston Warren, Foxley Wood, Potter Heigham, and Hickling Broad.
5. Personal responsibility. We must research to inform ourselves. We are much too passive politically. We must consider conservation when gardening, building, buying food (e.g. only seasonally available and locally grown fruit and vegetables, reducing meat consumption), travelling, especially by air. We must stand up and be seen to support conservation NGO’s. Activism (e.g. through Extinction Rebellion) is important and should be viewed as a way to increase agency, and increase our….
6. Hope “Hope” is the thing with feathers By Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.
So ended an otherwise extremely harrowing talk, delivered with passion and commitment. I believe that we were all very impressed with Nick’s eloquence and grateful to him for ensuring that we were fully informed of the severity and the urgency of the problems facing all life on Earth, and at least giving us some tools to combat the worst of the ill effects that we are all responsible for.
Following the brilliant talk on Conservation by Nick Acheson at our January Indoor meeting, many of our friends are talking about the Wildlife Trusts’ opposition to the environmental impact of HS2. The link for further information is http://wrtru.st/Rethink-HS2 .