The battle for nature and the harbingers of summer

By Dan Ryan for Ethos magazine: issue 10| May 2019

In mid-March, while planning a breeding bird survey for undergraduate students, I inspected my garden nest boxes for signs of life. Nothing.

I looked at the remains of a swallow’s nest from last year’s blistering summer. Balanced precariously on the front-door frame, where gently rotting wood meets rough stone, sits a tangled half-bowl of dried mud and straw — the inelegant construction of an inexperienced pair. Though amateurs at nest building, they were pros at rearing young and I remember smiling as their three fledglings gathered on a telegraph wire in September to leave for winter warmth. I glanced at my watch to check the date and wondered when, or if, they’d return.

A few days later the bird survey was a success. The students, mainly from inner cities, were new to this and their eyes blazed with curiosity to learn the behavioural and landscape clues of nesting birds. It struck me that however frayed our relationship with nature can be, there’s something immutable in our fondness for our feathered friends.

That quickly changed. Folk started sending me photos of trees, then hedges, and then even supermarket fronts covered in fine netting. I learned that developers, and others, were erecting them to stop birds nesting. The logic being — though it almost feels an affront to call it ‘logic’ — that as it’s illegal to disturb active nests, it’s simpler to stop them nesting in the first place. Some nets were even erected pre-planning as some kind of speculative prophylactic.

Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

The scenes kept coming, the debate raged, and maps were created of the scale of the problem. In a horrible imagining, it transpired that these land-based ghost nets shroud mile upon mile of countryside. Is protecting developers’ interests worth such grand-scale ugliness?

And then the final straw. Just as news that the hirundines, the swallows, and the martins were arriving on our shores — a scene of ecological nightmare emerged. A mile of coastal cliff at Bacton, Norfolk, had been cloaked in netting to stop sand martins accessing their nesting holes. Apparently, a gas works and nearby housing needed protection from coastal erosion and, according to a spokesperson, the scheme was “…subject to full environmental impact assessment, planning permission and marine licence applications.”

Some decisions that harm wildlife are the result of unconscious accidents or carelessness, but this felt different. These breeding cliffs are familial and ancient, representing a continuum of breeding birds journeying thousands of miles, over some of the most dangerous lands in the world (if one is a small migratory bird). This seemed an act of conscious malice, defendable only by development speak.

A video was posted on Twitter by @NorfolkBea of a pair of birds, exhausted by their migration, struggling in the netting. It was quickly shared thousands of times and people pleaded furiously with North Norfolk District Council — the unfortunate villains of this piece — to remove them. They obfuscated, but finally met with the RSPB and sections of the nets came down. Vindication came swiftly as the next day, a video showed the birds back in their holes!

As the volume rises on the public conversation around climate change and biodiversity loss, it seems essential to be more generous with the wildlife we share spaces and places with. These nets tell me we must be more imaginative in our solutions; that to have a bright future we must work with the grain of nature rather than fight against it. And, while I was thinking about all of this, joy! On April 19th and the morning of my daughter’s first birthday, I looked out the bedroom window and circling a blossoming cherry were a pair of swallows. The harbingers of summer were back!

Dan Ryan is an eco-optimist. He’s an educator at the Eden Project in Cornwall, where he teaches university students, facilitates workshops for businesses and is part of the team creating new Edens around the world.

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