Read the writings of different generations of naturalists and you will soon discover that each generation has its own perspective on the wildlife and landscapes with which it has grown up. As each generation ages so it begins to look back at the landscapes of more youthful days, highlighting what has been lost and how formerly rich plant and animal communities have become diminished.
What is most interesting about this is how each generation sees things as being ‘better’ for the generation that came before. My generation witnessed the surge of agricultural intensification that came in the 1970s, my father saw the changes that followed the Second World War and his father grew up with an agricultural landscape that depended on horses rather than horse-power. Taking this back over more generations through literature and nature writing, you’ll find John Clare and many others writing about the terrible changes happening to their countryside, a countryside that we would view with envy for its biological richness.
The name given to these different viewpoints is shifting baseline syndrome. This syndrome has its basis in the relatively short duration of our lives and in our inability to appreciate changes happening over longer periods of time. If you are born into a landscape from which red-backed shrikes, wrynecks, beavers or even wolves have been lost then you have no sense that they were ever there and you accept their absence. You might notice and complain about the loss of spotted flycatchers or turtle doves but, once they are gone, the generation that comes after you will fail to register their absence.
Shifting baseline syndrome manifests another problem for conservationists, in that our attempts to re-establish lost species or habitats become blinkered. Habitats that we champion as ‘wild’ today (think of our uplands) are very different from how they would have been if we had not come along in the first place. Our activities, such as the removal of most of our mammalian ‘mega-fauna’ by our ancestors, have had profound impacts on the ecological processes that shape our landscape and its communities. If we are to ‘rewild’ and restore lost habitats then we first need to understand what was really here and why.