I jump in a taxi to the tuning-up-phase of the dawn chorus (around 4:30am) and I find myself unusually chatty for this time in the morning. Chris (the taxi driver) and I discuss various topics from train ticket prices, football, and night shifts to, eventually, my day job.
I explain that I work in wildlife management (the word 'ecologist' means next to nothing in most people's brains) and we both enter into a lively discussion about bird declines. Bird declines is a topic that Chris is very concerned about. We talk about some of the recent garden bird reductions (the 58% decline in house sparrow populations since 1979 is a truly shocking statistic to me: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/26/rspbs-big-garden-bird-watch-confirms-many-species-still-declining). Chris knows what is causing this drastic crash in the sparrow population: Sparrow Hawks, Buzzards, Red Kites and possibly Black-Headed Gulls. Black-Headed Gulls will eat anything given half a chance, after all.
Chris's suspicions on the cause of House Sparrow decline manage to distance humans from the root cause of this problem. I would suspect that changes in agricultural practices, a decline in interconnected habitats (we used to call them 'gardens') and predation by pet cats are probably high on the list of causes.
The BTO are currently researching House Sparrow declines and they favour the following:
• Reduction in the availability of favoured food, either for adults or chicks or both.
• Increased levels of pollution.
• Loss of suitable nesting sites.
• Increased prevalence of disease.
• Increased levels of predation (maybe Chris is right after all).
My chat with Chris makes me wonder whether we as nature conservationists and ecologists are communicating the right information to the public. Are we focusing too much on the decline without providing enough information about the cause? This picques the Media's interest, but what message does it leave people with? How can they help house sparrows? A similar issue recently arose regarding hedgehog population decline with Michaela Strachan announcing that hedgehogs are on a spiky version of the Doomsday clock, with only 10 years before they go extinct in the UK. What can we do about that? How can we stop it from happening? A statement like that just fills me with despair, and I know enough about hedgehog ecology to know that a) extinction in 10 years is unlikely and b) the plight of hedgehogs can be improved (have I mentioned how great gardens are?).
We need to be more accurate and meaningful in how we communicate such information and provide some solutions: we cannot keep announcing the end of all wildlife and expect that this will somehow lead to positive action. In this day and age the opposite seems more apparent.
The 21st May is European Natura 2000 day. This date celebrates the anniversary of the European Union government's adoption of the Habitats Directive: a powerful legislative instrument responsible for protecting seriously threatened habitats and species across the whole of Europe (along with the Birds Directive of 1979). This legislation protects many of the nature reserves we visit in the UK and ensures that habitats are not developed or damaged. It also supports key areas of work for Ecologists in the UK including the level of protection given to great crested newts and various bat species (including restrictions on disturbance via licensing). All this stems from the Habitats Directive.
At the heart of both the Habitats and Birds Directives is the creation of a network of protected sites which operate as a refuge for Europe's most vulnerable habitats and species. The Birds Directive requires the establishment of 'Special Protection Areas' (SPAs) for birds while the Habitats Directive requires 'Special Areas of Conservation' (SACs) to be designated. Together, SPAs and SACs make up a Europe-wide protected area network supported by all EU Member States. This protected area network is called the Natura 2000 network.
NatureBureau's history is entwined with the development of the Habitats Directive and it is the focus of much of our work. We have helped develop the Natura 2000 protected area network in many Eastern European countries including Romania and Croatia and we have also trained and supported government conservation advisors to develop protected area management plans and monitoring schemes for threatened species and habitats following the processes of the Habitats Directive. Our graphic design team also contribute to communicating the important work undertaken within the Natura 2000 network in European Commission newsletters, posters, leaflets and NATURA 2000, Protecting Europe's Biodiversity. The biodiversity of the European Union would be in a much worse state without the Natura 2000 network and the Habitats Directives valuable work protecting wildlife.
The Natura 2000 network is currently being appraised as part of the EU Nature Directives Fitness Check (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/legislation/fitness_check/index_en.htm) and a campaign of support for the nature directives fronted by Europe's leading conservation organisations has amassed over 100,000 EU citizens to declare their support for the directives in the past week alone. People care about our wildlife and they want to see it protected.
Today let's show our support for the wildlife of Europe and the laws that protect it. Maybe you should go and visit your local SAC or SPA. They are probably closer than you think.
Imperial College London recently hosted an evening lecture with Professor Gerald Kooyman from the University of California. Prof. Kooyman has made countless expeditions to Antarctica to carry out research on the diving abilities of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) and marine mammals. The advances in technology by his team have led to a greater understanding of the underwater life of emperor penguins, which had remained unseen and unknown. His research has revealed that the emperor penguin is able to dive for up to an astonishing 27 minutes in one breath, allowing them to dive as deep as 560m below the surface of the cold, Antarctic waters. They are able to do this by an incredible ability to lower their heart rate to just 3 beats a minute!
Whilst the life history of the emperor penguin has been well researched and captivated millions of us through various documentaries and films such as 'March of the Penguins', there is still much to learn about them. For example, where they go after their moult period is not properly understood, as accessing these moulting areas is a real challenge and only the toughest ice-breaker ships can risk moving in the pack ice.
Though this continent is as remote from human interference as possible, Antarctica is the most affected by climate change. The ice shelf is breaking away at an unprecedented rate, leaving less land available for penguins. Simultaneously, more snow is falling at the high altitudes. Antarctica is essentially building up in the middle and breaking away at the edges. More frequent and harsher storms put marine mammals and penguins at risk of injury from ice boulders being thrown around by the stormy sea. It appears that no part of this planet will escape the effects of climate change.
Working in remote areas of Antarctica is not easy, and much of Antarctica is inaccessible for months at a time. But with the commitment of a few select scientists, we are learning more about this fascinating animal. The emperor penguin is not only largest of all penguins, they can dive the deepest and longest of any diving bird on the planet. The male emperor is also the only land animal that can withstand the brutal Antarctic winters, but the question remains: are they hardy enough to withstand a changing climate?