Hello everyone. Here we are in the meteorological autumn of this rather surreal and, possibly, life changing year for many people. The language has certainly changed! Even the record-breaking summer temperatures, strong winds and short monsoon-like showers have not precluded every other sentence from containing the words, lockdown, virtual or bubble.
As I sit here tapping away on my keyboard, listening to the trees being shaken by vociferous gusts of Storm Frances, I am thinking what a significant day this is in our species’ calendar. For today, 22nd August 2020, is Earth Overshoot Day (EOD), the date when Humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what the planet can regenerate in that year. The concept was conceived by Andrew Simms, Research Associate at the University of Sussex, and Fellow of the New Economics Foundation, in 1987 and the date is calculated by the Global Footprint Network.
The first EOD was 23rd October and it has been getting earlier with each progressive year until today which is three weeks later than 2019. The reason for this blip in the trend is our ongoing C-19 pandemic and lockdown (there, I said it!) resulting in a minor improvement in the carbon footprint and slight decrease in the world timber demand. Clearly, given the scale of the operation, calculating the very date when we go into debt cannot be an exact science and the concept has its detractors. However, a drift of such magnitude in one direction is indicative and the idea that we are literally living beyond our means should definitely be one of the many alarm bells calling people around the world to action.
Another alarm bell situation is the huge decline in biodiversity and the suggestion that we are heading towards the sixth mass extinction event in the history of the planet. This is something we are witness to in a noticeably short space of time, perhaps even during our own lifetime.
With this in mind, the summer has seen a series of highs and lows for our native fauna and flora. The first official Red List for British Mammals was produced in July and it made disturbing reading. It showed that 11 of the 47 mammals native to Britain are now classified as being at imminent risk of extinction. These include our fastest disappearing mammal, the Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius), our iconic Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), the nocturnal Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), the Wildcat (Felis silvestris), now confined to the Scottish Highlands, and Grey Long Eared Bat (Plecotus austriacus), found in just a few areas in southern England.
There have been a few exceptional cases where we can allow ourselves to be cautiously optimistic. The reintroduction of the Eurasian Beaver (Castor fiber) in areas of Scotland, Devon and Cornwall has been deemed a success despite some very upsetting reports of a few beavers being shot.
The benefits of having Beavers back in the country after an absence of 300 years or so are immense. As they say in Wales:-
A landscape with wild beavers re-established is wonderful to experience. Small, insignificant streams are transformed into cascading mosaics of dams, pools and wetlands, all providing new homes for all sorts of native wildlife, from dragonflies, fish and frogs to water voles, otters and water birds. Beavers would bring our streams, rivers and wetland habitats back to life, managing them perfectly for wildlife and people.
Adrian Lloyd Jones, Welsh Beaver Project / Prosiect Afancod Cymru
Birds of prey have also been in the news. The Red Kite (Milvus milvus) has been of concern ever since the first Kite Society was formed in 1903 and nest protection schemes initiated. However, things only got worse for the bird throughout the 20th century and by the 1980s the Red Kite was one of three globally threatened species in the UK. It was decided that breeding pairs were so few that reintroduction was the only solution to give them a chance in this country and in 1989 an ongoing programme using Kites from Sweden, Spain and Germany was started. Nowadays the lovely Milvus can be seen in many areas of the UK, the heaths and moorlands of Scotland and Wales, swooping over the energetic rowers at Henley and Reading and in our corner of the world where they have been spotted over the local marshes!
That leads me nicely to another extraordinary sighting over our little village, where a few lucky ‘Crowhursters’ had a glimpse of Britain’s largest bird of prey in July. A White-Tailed Eagle, or Sea Eagle to use another common moniker, (Haliaeetus albicilla) soared over our rooftops as it perused the Sussex countryside. It was one of six eaglets reintroduced to the Isle of Wight last year, four of which survived and are now exploring the territory with trips covering hundreds of miles. Another six young birds were added this year and you can read how the programme is progressing, and about our visiting Eagle, named G274, on the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation website. I, for one, am thrilled at the prospect of these giants of the air gliding around our skies with their 8ft wingspans for the first time in over 240 years.
Those of you who took part in our brilliant Crowhurst Book Swap might have come across one or two from master of sci-fi John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. Who? I hear you ask. Well, knock off the last four of his names and you may recognise the author of The Day of the Triffids, among many others.
I mention this only because the local marsh walks are lined with our very own Triffids, many of which are bursting into flower at the moment. Not the 7ft tall, stinging killers that perambulated on their three legs throughout the pages of John Wyndham’s novel, but a much smaller plant which, fortunately, cannot follow you on a stroll.
Commonly mistaken for Gypsywort (Lycopus europaeus) in its early stages, the Trifid Bur-marigold (Bidens tripartita) has a number of subspecies and varieties and it takes an acute botanical eye to identify them to that level. Those of you with a keen eye will have noticed the older spelling of the name Trifid, taken from the Latin trifidus, meaning to be split in three. In the case of this interesting flower the name refers to the leaves often having three lobes, though Ma Nature in her more playful moments will often furnish them with five or more, just to keep us guessing.
Another plant very much in evidence along the stream banks of our marshes is a foreign invader which, in conservation circles, is as welcome as one of Wyndham’s killer plants. Not as obviously dangerous as a man-eating Triffid, but the pink and white flowers of the Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) are spoken about generally with a fair amount of vitriol and a great deal of energy is spent trying to remove it.
It was first brought into the country from the mountain range it was named after in 1839. We have to accept that those intrepid Victorians could not have foreseen how many of their imports would affect the landscape and the native species of this country; it was the Golden Age of Discovery and knowledge of the big, wide world was paramount. Possibly no other generation collected as much information on the natural world, history, and cultures from around the globe, much of it coming at a price that we are still paying to this day.
In the case of Himalayan Balsam, they introduced a plant that soon escaped from the gardens and hothouses into the wild and established itself with admirable vigour and tenacity along Britain’s watercourses. It grows to between 6 and 10ft tall, successfully shading out smaller native plants before dying back annually, leaving large patches of bare soil that are prone to erosion. The carefully sculpted flowers are shaped for the maximum amount of bee contact as they brush in and out, and the copious amounts of nectar they produce, more than most other native European species, ensures the attention of pollinating insects to the detriment of other plants. Individual plants produce up to 800 seeds which explode out of their pods in all directions up to a distance of 27ft, often to be carried downstream to colonise pastures new. Pretty it may be, and many bee keepers love it, but in terms of biodiversity, it is a candy-coloured menace. No wonder it is on the country’s least wanted list!
And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past.
quote from The Day of the Triffids (1951)
Image credits: Img 1: Water Vole by Peter Trimming, used under Creative Commons License 2.0; img 2: Hazel Dormouse by Frank Cassen CC2.0; img 3: Eurasian beaver by NTNU Faculty of Natural Science CC2.0; img 4: Red Kite by Michael Brace CC2.0; img 5: White Tailed Eagle circling by James West CC2.0; img 6-12: original TQW: Lorna Neville; img 13: Himalayan Balsam by Mark Robinson CC2.0