Sunday 23 August 2009

Under Threat From Nature

It seems it isn't just me - the butterfly mania has spread to Radio 4. The programme Nature reported last week on the wonderful success of the reintroduced Large Blue - warning: this link contains an image of Brett Westwood, a man whose face was truly made for radio. Then, very early this morning, as I lay reluctantly awake, I was delighted to hear an edition of The Living World devoted to the very rare but recovering Heath Fritillary - don't worry, this link contains only a butterfly image. What struck me in both reports was that each species was endangered not by man's intervention but by man's ceasing to intervene to maintain the particular manmade environment essential to the species' wellbeing. It was when grazing was cut back that nature reasserted itself and threatened to drive the butterflies out (in the case of the Large Blue, it succeeded). Yet another exposure - if any were needed - of the romantic myth (pure 'spilt religion') that nature exists in a paradisal stasis until evil man comes along and ruins everything. What we take to be unspoilt natural landscape is, in a country like ours, entirely manmade - and in most other parts of the world this is nearly the case. We owe the survival of so many of our most precious butterflies - so dependent on very precisely constituted micro-environments - to human intervention, in particular in the form of woodland management and grazing. When man withdraws, these species come under threat - from nature. As Blake put it, 'Without Man, Nature is barren.'


  1. The subject of mans effect upon nature is indeed a complex one Nige, especially the effect of a rapidly changed habitat upon the inhabitants (man included).
    Over the past five weeks we have had some pretty major logging operations being carried out around us, the felling of forty year old trees, including belts of Scots Pine, the ideal habitat for red squirrel. We noticed almost immediately the increase in activity around our squirrel boxes, we await events. This is the time of year for wood wasps, so far we have seen none. What the long term effect will be is anyone's guess.
    A fascinating book covering the subject is Mary Mycio's Wormwood Forest, covering the Chernobyl Aftermath. The area within the so called thirty kilometer zone has become Europe's fastest growing nature reserve, species thought near extinct have appeared in some numbers.
    The effect of radiation upon nature has not been as predicted by the experts, their knowledge limited to that gained as a result of the atomic bombs dropped upon Japan.
    Mycio's book suggests that as man moves back so nature fills the vacuum, this of course may only apply to more robust species although were that the case then how were some near extinction.
    Complicated! and beyond the huggers and warmers myopia.

  2. 'Without Man, Nature is barren.'

    What about the Galapagos islands? The rainforests too seemed to be getting along quite lushly before man came along.
    Many scientists also believe the biggest extinction since the dinosaurs is man made:

    "About 6 waves of massive extinction are known in the history of the Earth. The last one wiped out the dinosaur world 65 million years ago and was probably due to a meteorite collision.

    But the recent one has no natural causes. It is man made and rampant, eliminating three animal or plant species every hour."

  3. Nature is never in stasis. If man hadn't come along, the climate would have continued to change, natural events would still occur, species would rise and fall. So I think it is sometimes a case of different, not better or worse. My impression is that Britain's manmade landscape is poorer in mammals but until recently was richer in birds and insects than it would have be if left pristine. "Until recently" is the arrival of pesticides and fertilizers and especially of monoculture. The last is, I suspect, the real villain and it is a problem everywhere - whether land cleared for grass for beef or forests for palm oil plantations. I'm not sure Blake would have reached quite the same views when confronted by Monsanto or, for that matter, Macdonald's.

  4. Nige, do you know the work of Swiss photographer Thomas Marent? I've just discovered his book "Butterfly" -- hundreds of exquisitely close-up photos of species from around the world. I've spent hours looking at it. Here's a link to Marent's web site:

  5. malty/ nige - I posted about the very same thing not that long ago:

    a more prosaic observation is how motorway embankments and railway cuttings become untouched nature havens. one has only to see the explosion of the Red Kite population along the M40 to be amazed at the wildlife that lives symbiotically with a concrete no mans land. What destroys our world also nourishes our world, weirdly.

    Nige - I suppose the further question is - what did the Large Blues (who must have been around for far far longer than us) do before man came along and changed the landscape to their advantage?

  6. Thanks to all for those comments, which I've only just caught up with. Of course I was being deliberately simplistic, if not provocative (that's what blogs are for - well, one of the things). The whole subject is immensely complex, as is Nature of course, and I think the strongest message is never to underestimate nature or any part of it. The question of what these human-dependent species did before man is a fascinating one and I'd love to know if there are any plausible answers - the habitat needs of these butterflies seem to be so minutely calibrated... Oh and yes I have that book Patrick, and very beautiful it is.

  7. Nige, I recommend Michael Pollan's "Botany of Desire." The book emerged from Pollan's garden musings of whether plants might use humans as much as human use plants. He follows the evolutionary paths taken by apples, potatoes, marijuana and tulips ... maybe it works for butterflies, too?

  8. Thanks for the lead Jeff - I'll look into that...