Biodiversity and Ecology
So, what is it all about?
Biodiversity and Ecology are both ‘Buzzwords’ in today’s culture. They have been used for some years and reflect modern concerns for the species living on the planet, how the Earth has changed and how it might change again in the future.
So what all the fuss about? Why do we hear these words so often and why are there so many organisations and scientists concerned with both topics?
More importantly for anybody who lives on or regularly visits the Isle of Mull, how do biodiversity and ecology come into play and what can we do to sustain and improve upon what is already there?
Whilst thinking about this, I looked back over the years to try and list what differences were obvious between when I first began to notice and appreciate nature and the environment and the way things are today.
I am not a scientist and don’t have the knowledge to comment one-way or the other on global warming.
So, all I can do is consider what has changed in the years since I was born in 1949.
There are bad things and there are good things. The majority of changes to the ‘natural world’ as it was in 1949 are almost all rooted back to human behaviour past and present. The ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of what we as humans have done, both good and bad, are not something I can really discuss here as it is a huge subject in itself and one which will be debated for many years to come.
It is probably a gradual change which seems to have accelerated in the last ten or fifteen years.
My father came from a game keeping family and helped me appreciate the natural world from a very young age.
I certainly remember seeing wildlife almost everywhere.
Local streams were full of fish, native crayfish and a multitude of insects, tadpoles, newts and so on. The local canals had a wealth of wildlife living along their banks including a healthy population of water voles, rats, mice and so on.
Small ground predators were present and I clearly remember seeing both stoats and Weasels. They were subject of systematic culling by gamekeepers and farmers. Foxes were present mainly in the countryside and had not yet made the move into urban areas.
A multitude of insects were evident and car windscreens were frequently plastered with their bodies in the summer.
Wild flowers thrived with many glorious meadows.
Many families had vegetable gardens and allotments in post-war Britain.
Small birds did very well with an intricate national network of hedgerows and an agricultural countryside yet to spray fields and remove thousands of miles of hedges. Urban birds too commonly nested everywhere and a naked fledgling lying below a nest site was a common sight.
Raptors and corvids suffered badly and had done for many years. Buzzards were almost non-existent in the Midlands. It was only when I moved to Devon in the early 1970’s that I saw wild buzzards in the air. Even there they were frequently shot, trapped and poisoned.
The seasonal weather was fairly stable with cold winters and often deep snow, Spring brought a flush of new growth with fairly stable temperatures and Summer again saw fairly stable weather conditions leading onto Autumns that were generally ‘average’ in terms of weather.
Very cold winters were the norm and heavy snowfalls traditional. There were exceptions with extreme weather but these were fairly rare.
Humans lived in a world of smog, smoking factory and home chimneys, heavy consumption of coal and the associated mining industry. Power cuts were quite common and homes had rudimentary heating and insulation.
Diseases such as smallpox, TB, polio, measles and rickets were fairly common and still not under control.
The vehicles I remember were small in number, fairly basic, slow, uncomfortable, smoky and oily. Goods vehicles too were small and the extensive railway system moved much of the country’s fuel, provisions and people.
Many men went to work on bicycles or works buses and the majority of movement was achieved using buses.
Motorcycles were very common with families using motorcycle combinations to have holidays and days out.
The road I lived in had may be three or four cars parked on it at most with most homes being unable to afford a car. Town centres still ran tramways with traffic passing through the centre and being directed by a policeman in the middle of the road.
The world had no computers, Internet, World Wide Web or Google. Television was rudimentary; holidays were mostly at well-known resorts with holiday camps just becoming popular. The main pollution problem when on holiday was oil on the beach and broken glass in the sand.
No credit or debit cards, only hire purchase.
Corner shops everywhere, no supermarkets, cheap petrol and diesel, long-established stores (i.e. Woolworths), good bus and train services, travel by air was just becoming commonplace as were the aircraft and so on.
Glass milk, pop and beer bottles were all recycled.
Everybody had a galvanised refuse bin that was collected from the back of your house, emptied and returned on a weekly basis. Most of what the bins contained was biodegradable.
When anybody went shopping they took a shopping bag with them. Grocers generally weighed out the amount you wanted into a brown paper bag. Nobody had fridges and frozen food for home consumption hadn’t even been invented.
Plastic and polystyrene packaging hadn’t been invented.
Everybody, even doctors, smoked then, its dangers weren’t well known at that time.
They smoked everywhere – even in the surgery, cinemas, theatres and shops.
Mull’s road system was extremely basic with more movement by boat.
Many women were ‘Housewives’ with few having full time careers.
There weren’t many people in the UK. Many places I used to play are now housing estates or shopping areas.
Unemployment was not common and if you wanted to work, there would always be a job there somewhere.
The British Industry was thriving as the standard of living went up and more modern houses were built.
The population of the United Kingdom was beginning to recover after the losses of WWII with additional increases from commonwealth and former colonial countries.
There was no output of plastic goods and wrapping.
Roads had no potholes because there wasn’t enough traffic. The first motorway, the M1, wasn’t built until 1959.
What has actually changed only in sixty something years?
Below are just some of the things, both good and bad that would influence the biodiversity and ecology of the time.
• Large increases in the resident UK population with year on year increases.
• Vast increases in the number of houses in the UK but still not enough.
• Vast increases in road and air travel, nationally and internationally.
• A much bigger more complex road network often filled to capacity.
• A much reduced rail network with limited capacity and expensive fares.
• Major changes in industrial output, both in terms of production techniques and items made.
• The invention of the microchip, computers and robotics – a major factor in world change influencing everything we do.
• The invention of the Internet and social media – arguably the most significant change to human society.
• Major advances in medicine and health care.
• Reduction in diseases and recognition of the dangers of asbestos and smoking.
• Major cultural changes leading to leisure orientated society.
• Massive agricultural changes from new mechanisation and modern farming techniques.
• Most consumer goods increasingly made overseas.
• Many major institutions and companies bought by overseas investors.
• A society where goods that fail are discarded because that is the cheapest option and repair is often not an option.
I could go on but you get the picture.
How has all of this change influence our environment?
For the Bad:
• The continual increase in the number and size of vehicles using our roads has resulted in more and more adverse emissions, waste products (tyres, oil, car bodies).
• Emissions from aircraft are almost totally uncontrolled with more flights than ever before.
• Changes in agriculture have resulted in the loss of thousands of miles of hedges, innumerable ponds and lakes, wildlife friendly canals, riverbanks and meadows.
• There has been a marked decline in wildflower species, insects, birds and small mammals. Bees are a notable problem area here although the major causes of their decline are not yet certain. It is rare now to have a windscreen plastered with dead insects although this may be because they have many more windscreens to collide with.
• Many wildlife environments have been built upon with both housing and industrial/retail estates. It could be said that this is balanced to a certain extent by the parallel increase in residential garden and roadside wildlife havens.
• The disposal of our waste is a major problem with its transportation both nationally and internationally resulting in wasted energy and more emissions.
• Marine waste (plastic bags, fishing gear, bottles, rope and so on) has vastly increased with the changes in the world’s societies and increased commercial and leisure shipping.
• The climate is more unpredictable. The causes are hotly debated.
• The use of fossil fuels (coal and coke) has not been eradicated.
• The use of the combustion engine is greater than ever before.
For the Good:
• With the decline of the coal industry there has been a major reduction in the use of fossil fuel (coal and coke) to produce heat and electricity.
• The fact that many species have been suffering from the changes we have caused over the years is now fully recognised and efforts are being made to remedy this.
• Raptors are doing well with buzzards in particular having made a spectacular comeback. Birds of prey, in general, are no longer persecuted and egg thefts are not as common as they were. Eradicated and endangered species are being re-introduced and protected.
• Wildlife loss from shooting, poisoning and trapping is reduced with large estates respecting, in the main, the rights of predators to exist.
• Many farms are now including wildlife in their lists of priorities, planning for wildflowers and natural margins in their fields.
• Canal and rivers banks are being altered to make them wildlife friendly.
• There is a move to increase the number of wildflowers in the UK.
• There are many more wildlife reserves and national parks now than ever before although the strict planning regulations for national parks is pushing new building onto other green belt areas.
• Motorways and dual carriageways have provided a network of wildlife margins throughout the country.
• Species re-introduction continues
• The advent of social media and the huge advances made in the realm of photography and film have resulted in a much wider appreciation and knowledge of our natural world and its environment.
So, there you have it - how things in my own generation have progressed in sixty something years.
What does it all mean for us and the Flora, Fauna and landscape we live with?
There simply aren’t any easy answers.
Addressing modern ecological issues is difficult for several reasons.
Most things in these areas cost money.
Getting countries worldwide to co-operate seems to be an impossible task.
Without worldwide action the improvements made are very localised.
Biodiversity is extensive and with many undiscovered species may be even greater than we realise.
On the other hand, the rate of extinction of small and large species is ever increasing with little prospect of it being halted.
Many species can now only be seen in zoological parks. Many others have gone forever.
Many marine species are at risk as a result of discarded waste, rubbish, together with soil, air and water pollution.
What about Mull?
There are obvious changes:
• Perhaps the biggest change to the island’s environment was the establishment of the Forestry Commission, plantations and forestry roads.
• Vastly improved accessibility to the island by ferry.
• Vastly improved movement around the island with both the wider accessibility of the road system and everyday vehicle ownership.
• Horses no longer used for agriculture.
• Many more visitors who want to see the wildlife and scenery.
• A bigger demand on the infrastructure of the island.
• More housing has been built but there is a general lack of affordable housing.
• More houses are now just used for holiday homes that in turn increases the above issue.
• Much more traffic both in and out of the holiday season. Heavy lorries, camper vans, coaches, forestry equipment and so on.
• Less crofting.
• More risks to both the wildlife and existing ecology from forestry and tourism.
• The introduction of fish and mussel farming.
• A fluctuating population with work being more frequently found on the mainland.
• Accessibility and a changing society drawing people away from the island.
What does it all mean for Mull?
It isn’t quite so difficult to put a finger on what can be done to sustain and maintain the biodiversity and ecology on Mull.
This isn’t just because it is a very small place in the scale of things, but mainly because the island was blessed with a diverse number of habitats and species from the outset.
It is blessed now mainly because a lot of people care about the future of these things and even more people want to visit the island to see them.
Making the changes to achieve these things is again dependent on finance and co-operation.
What could be done to support the biodiversity and ecology of Mull?
• The biodiversity and ecosystem of Mull are valuable assets to both the Islanders to the Nation. Many people already recognise this and are working to protect them.
• Habitats need care and protection – Calgary Machair is a prime example of an environment in danger on Mull.
• Some species need special protection, not all of them are iconic birds and mammals.
• Invasive plant species such as Japanese Knotweed and Rhododendron need constant control. Bracken on Mull is also out of control and spreading everywhere. Although beneficial to some flower species it also swamps others.
Tourism and Biodiversity.
• Frequent media attention focussing on Mull’s natural resources has attracted many more visitors to the island. Tourism brings valuable income to the island. It also makes demands on both the social and natural resources of Mull.
• Tourism isn’t always recognised as being beneficial to the Mull. The impression is often given that the income from tourism is needed but the visitors that generate it are a ‘necessary evil’.
• Most visitors drive or are passengers in vehicles. They all need somewhere to stay and somewhere to eat. Many more are now arriving in motorised camper vans that bring their own problems. The existing infrastructure is certainly put under some strain by increased visitor numbers.
• Tourists all come to see the landscape, wildlife and flora of Mull. That alone is a good reason to protect the island’s biodiversity and ecology assuming you value the income visitors generate.
• The recording of the existing species on Mull has and will continue to be supported by visitor sightings. This is a plus. On the other hand, media publicity and social media will continue to attract more tourism.
• Many facilities, things that most people (even the residents of Mull) when on holiday take for granted are not the best the could be on Mull.
What are the adverse effects on Biodiversity from tourism?
• The road network including its passing places and surface is poorly maintained. This has been the case for many years and causes problems for anybody who drives on Mull, not just visitors.
• Nobody on Mull should be expected to have to drive thirty or more miles to find a convenience to use.
• It is difficult to understand why tourism on Mull is actively encouraged but little or no resources are utilised to improve the very minimal infrastructure for tourism.
• For the last twenty years or so, it has been “Yes, come to the Island to enjoy what is here, but whatever you do don’t actually stop anywhere to look at it.” Of course everybody knows that the tourists also wear the island’s roads out!
• Questions need to be asked as to why Argyll and Bute Council choose to allow the roads on Mull to remain poor, pot-holed and unimproved. A short ferry ride to Ardnamurchan shows how the Highlands and Islands Council values both tourism and its residents with superb roads, numerous well-maintained viewpoints (provided by the same Forestry Commission) and good parking places, together with a very adequate availability of public conveniences.
• Forestry is an industry that also needs to look at the way it works. The recent major harvesting of trees from Mull has resulted in vast areas of devastation that will remain like that for years. Very little thought was probably given to the large scars that would be left on the island’s landscape by the removal of plantation trees when they were first planted.
Where do we go from here?
Sixty years of major worldwide change has resulted in a very difficult question to be answered about the future of our planet, its Biodiversity and Ecology.
On a smaller but just as important scale, how does the Biodiversity and Ecology of Mull make its way into the future in safe hands and what needs to be done to make that journey smooth and certain?
Finding those answers and solutions is going to be much more difficult than actually knowing that something needs to be done.
I just hope it happens.
"The latest buzzword in international travel is ‘ecotourism’.
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