How sustainable is “farmland wildlife”?
There was plenty of food for thought at the “Working for Waders” workshop in Edinburgh on Thursday. This project is building on the idea established by previous projects to develop progress from a blend of science and social consensus, and it’s interesting to see this approach delivered at first hand.
I’d like to write more about this in due course, but the Working For Waders workshop adopted a “question and answer” structure in which small groups were asked to report back to the whole after a period of conversation and interview. The first question we were asked to consider was:
“Should we attempt to reverse declines in wader populations?”
Of course, the whole room answered with a resounding (but not unanimous) YES, and in a series of sub-groups, we were asked to explain why. Common themes emerged, including the central idea that waders are part of our culture and heritage – they should be preserved because they belong to our landscape, and for many their personal significance is impossible to overstate.
Playing devil’s advocate, we were then asked to imagine counter arguments – ie. why we should not attempt to reverse declines in wader populations. The most interesting thread here was the idea that wader distribution is almost entirely a human construct. We created a landscape which suited waders and they simply populated it without any active assistance. We often hear of “shifting baselines”, by which each generation adopts a very subjective understanding of how things “should” be. The current generation of land managers grew up in a countryside full of lapwings and curlews, and the decline of these birds is being marked with great sorrow and regret – of course we want to right the wrongs which have taken place on our watch, but how much does this wander into subjectivity?
If traditional farming created a countryside which suited waders, modern farming does not. The same agricultural economy which once made lapwings super-abundant is now making them extremely scarce. I absolutely believe that we should conserve waders and integrate their conservation into modern farming, but human beings have enjoyed these birds at zero cost or effort for centuries – We are the first generation to plough significant amounts of money, research and labour into keeping waders on farmland, and this is a good moment to think about why we feel this is justified.
Much of what is now being written of curlews and lapwings reflects a general feeling that these birds are evocative of rural landscapes – that their loss would come at a shocking emotional, spiritual cost to the countryside. I can absolutely sympathise with this attitude, and I am partly motivated to conserve waders because they are a living, breathing part of the landscape to which I belong. But at the risk of labouring my love of corncrakes, it’s worth remembering that the corncrake’s call was once cited as a true sound of summer by country folk across Britain. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin wrote that the sound of corncrakes in his native Worcestershire was “one of the enduring symbols of rural England”, but less than a Century later, corncrakes are little more than a distant memory. Their loss was mourned by those humans who lived through it, but the birds are now just a bizarre, vaguely ridiculous footnote.
Our memories are short and time soon heals scars of loss. Most people in modern Britain have never heard of a corncrake. No sensible conservationist would seriously argue for the birds to be reinstated across their former range because they require a habitat which is incompatible with modern grassland and arable farming. But wait a minute – why should we bend over backwards to accommodate lapwings in a hostile modern world and yet ignore the idea of restoring corncrakes? Is it simply because we remember lapwings more vividly?
Science increasingly allows us to build birds back into our working landscapes, but why do we still choose waders to live on our farms? Is it just to satisfy some cultural memory? It’s possible to massage the design of an arable field so that it can provide some kind of habitat for almost any bird or mammal, so why should we choose lapwings, hares and curlews? – Traditional farming has changed, so can we really expect traditional farm wildlife to stay the same?
Decisions based on instinct, guts and whimsical ideas of culture are often why “re-wilders” look down their noses at mainstream conservation. They see it as a kind of pickling process which refuses to accept change and cherry-picks species for their cultural or emotional significance rather than their literal ecological value. The most ardent re-wilders would consider the collapse of curlews as a simple re-balancing of natural systems. I believe there are strong arguments to resist this approach and wader conservation is one of the most pressing conservation issues we now face, but this was an interesting exercise “tae see oorselves as ithers see us”