Many of conservation’s headline figures, which underline pronounced population declines for various plants and animals, come from monitoring datasets that extend back over just a few short decades. Declines in our farmland bird populations, for example, which are evident from a dataset that extends back to the 1960s, pick up the impacts of agricultural intensification that began in the late 1970s. Such declines are alarming, illustrating how the changes we make to the landscape can quickly impact on other species.
There is, of course, a wider context to these changes and it is important to realise that the headline figures do not always tell the whole story. Still using farmland birds as an example, it is apparent that our countryside is no longer suitable for a range of species, their populations now at much lower levels than they were before the Second World War. Go back a century beyond this, however, and things would have been different again, though not necessarily in the ways that you might expect. Some of our ‘farmland’ birds are species that benefited from the development of arable systems, their numbers increasing as new opportunities emerged. Now those opportunities have gone, their numbers have fallen back. The barn owl provides an example of a species whose population increased as farming systems developed – it used to be more common than the tawny owl – but which then declined from the late 1800s to the numbers we see today.
This does not mean that we shouldn’t be worried about the declines we have seen over recent decades. If anything, we should be more concerned because of the speed of change that is taking place. All of the changes that humans have made to the landscape – extending right back to when we first arrived in Britain – have had some impact on other species but it is the scale of the current impacts that is particularly alarming.
The increasing tendency to focus the conservation debate within economic arguments, giving wildlife and the ‘services’ it provides a measurable economic value, is a particular concern. It removes the moral responsibilities we have to consider how our activities impact on the other species with which we share this land. Taking more for us leaves less for them, no matter what the timescale.