The alien in your backyard

I wake early to a glorious day and hastily pack my rucksack for a spot of birding at my old haunt, The Moat. I have not visited since a gender revel party, held in the heart of the heathland, burnt it to the sand.

I wanted to observe the damage, how much was left. More importantly, what remained of the bird population. The damage was stunning: Whole plantations had been decimated, previously healthy heathland now no more than scorched earth. Pickings were slim, but then observing woodland birds is always a sparse undertaking here in the UK.

The British are not alone in holding the trophy for decimating their mammal, raptor and woodland bird populations in a single generation. The same pattern is observed wherever urbanisation, large scale farming and industrialisation describes a society’s evolution. In other words, most of the world.

What is intriguing is the lack of public debate on the matter. Whilst nature writing is a very popular genre, it tends to hold on to a romantic view of the world rather than write about what is. This is a problem for which there is an uncomfortable solution. It takes the form of speaking the truth and being comfortable causing a “fuss”.

During my ramble I am treated by a beautiful lesser spotted woodpecker, two gold finches displaying gloriously in the morning sun and a pair of long-tailed tits foraging.

Later my path crosses an amateur ranger who was disturbed by my respectful observation of the skylark’s breeding patch. What remains is a one by five meter crop of brush no higher than my calf – I am a short man.

Our ranger introduces herself with “you are a long way from South Africa”. One of those. There are plenty of xenophobic people here on the Isles; mostly white and grey. They tend to hide in the countryside. I attempt to placate her inner xenophobe with “I left twenty years ago”. She responds with “Stay away from Shrike hill”. “I am not new to this” I reply.

I take a few steps away to continue studying a large tree that held my interest before her intrusion. She persists with “do not step off the path, help us preserve our wildlife”. I chuckle at this, surveying the grim results of the efforts to date.

Having missed the opportunity to stave off the disaster that befell her “back yard” she is now chief ranger of her patch, governing with the blind fervour found amongst the ignorant. From her distant perch, amongst scorched rubble, she would not have known that the nesting skylarks did not notice my passing.

Later I found her seated under a tree some five meters off the path eating out of a plastic bag. That she had been following this routine for a long time is evidenced by the path cut trough the underbrush that survived the fire.

Past tea-time and caffeine starved, I find a gaggle of twitchers observing a rare prize. Doing a quick health & safety check I conclude that observing a pair of rustic buntings is not worth the risk of contracting Covid, or the distress to those birds caused by the gathering crowd.

The problem with causing a fuss is that you need to actually understand the deprivations nature faces at a deep and objective level. Failure to do your homework risks alienating potential supporters, unless of course, you are more concerned with the alien in your back yard.