The Senedd’s declaration of a nature emergency is welcome but time is running out
When I first moved to Cardiff in the 1980s the sound of a late June evening would be provided by the screaming of swifts as their scimitar-shaped wings cut through the air.
Sadly this year I’ve only seen a couple of individual birds and that on just a few evenings, even though some do nest a couple of streets away. The special swift tower, laudably erected by the RSPB on the Cardiff Bay Barrage to tempt in nesting birds by playing recordings of swifts was bereft of these so-called ‘Devil birds’ when I cycled past earlier.
So when Delyth Jewell MS asked that a “nature emergency” be declared I know what’s at stake. Empty skies. A bird-less and nature-lite future for our kids.
And these aren’t just our birds. The swifts that visit Wales in summer spend the winter scything over the great rivers of Cameroon and Central Africa and are therefore our international responsibility.
The fact that the Senedd passed the motion to declare such an emergency is therefore hugely welcome, especially as it requires the Welsh Government to ‘introduce a legally binding requirement to reverse biodiversity loss through statutory targets.’
The rate of loss of biodiversity is speeding up. Let’s take swifts, for example. The RSPB estimates that there was a 69% decline in its population since 1995, or some twenty five years ago. Fifty years ago,when I was a teenager I replaced trainspotting with bird-watching and kept a detailed, daily diary of things I saw and found. I counted individual nests, worked out the different territories of each nesting species. Now,a half century later things, have come to a parlous state.
Were I to see one of the species that were common back then in the 1970s it would now be a red-letter day. Nowadays simply seeing a song thrush is an event, whereas I remember half a dozen pairs nesting along just one stretch of disused tramline near my childhood home. In my lifetime farmland has emptied of curlews, lapwing, cuckoos and yellowhammers. The list can go on and on and threaten to become a litany of loss. And this isn’t just a diminishing or contraction of biodiversity.
This loss has a cultural effect, too. Imagine poetry without the curlew’s cry, or the cuckoo’s call. The great poet Waldo Williams captures the dipping flight of the lapwing in spring in the line ‘Callwib y cornicyllod.’ Without the birds themselves such lines of poetry might as well be flat-lining, a register of what we once had but one which also says that the life-support system no longer works. The natural world is emptying. Climate heating speeds up that process.
One need only look at the current heatwave in North America to see that in play. The melting snows of montane Canada and the North-West of the United States show how the human misery in the cities is matched by large scale and possible catastrophic change in the habitats which surround places such as Seattle and Vancouver. Human fate and that of the natural world are inextricably linked. That bears repetition. Inextricably.
The fate of the swift is true for so many other forms of wildlife. Plants, butterflies, bees and trees: so many of them under threat. Habitats, too, of course. Drained, Despoiled, Disappearing. This is recognised by the Welsh Government which declares in ‘Our Strategy for Nature’ its intention to ‘reverse the decline in biodiversity, for its intrinsic value and to ensure lasting benefits to society.’
The Nature Recovery Action Plan for Wales 2020-21’ properly identified the year 2019 as a ‘turning point in recognising the escalating nature emergency and stepping up action for biodiversity’ even as it declared a ‘climate emergency.’ The two things, climate warming and biodiversity decline are part of the same human activity-driven problem and so declaring a “nature emergency” makes pellucid sense and is, after all, only telling it as it is.
There’s a new word that has recently entered the dictionary, one used by the writer Jay Griffiths in her recent collection of essays ‘Why Rebel.’ It’s “endling” being the last individual of a species, when it’s there on the very last edge of extinction. Endling, end game, last chance saloon – that’s where we’re at. So we might as well sound the klaxon horn good and hard and forget about trying to fix things in a decade’s time, or by 2040 or 2050 or whatever.
We don’t have that luxury, that much time. The sound of the nature emergency is actually, and terrifyingly, the sound of silence. The sound of a world emptying.