Remembrance Day for Lost Species

g1jUYAq[1]When we burst into flight we so filled the sky
That the sun was darkened and day became dusk.
Humblers of the sun we were!
The world inconceivable without us.

Paul Fleischman

The passenger pigeon became extinct one hundred years ago. It was once the most abundant bird in North America. One flock in 1866 was recorded as being a mile wide and 300 miles long. It took fourteen hours to pass the observer and is estimated to have held over three and a half billion birds. A few decades later, numbers plummeted; in part because of changes in land use and deforestation, but primarily because of over-hunting. The passenger pigeon was a cheap and easy source of meat. On September 1st 1914, Martha, the last one, died in a Cincinatti zoo.

I grew up on the outskirts of Glasgow, in one of the new housing estates that bulged at the edge of the city; neat terraces and semi-detached homes for the aspirant working class. At the end of our street was a burn running through a gully with some scrub woodland and beyond that farmland and then some woods and then the moors that ran north towards Loch Lomond. As a kid the burn was my playground, and as I grew up my range gradually extended all the way out to the moor. I was into birds, in that geeky pre-pubescent way: a member of the Young Ornothologists Club and almost a twitcher (though the term hadn’t been invented in the early 70s).

What I remember from those years is the incredible variety of bird species, which I’d record when I set out after school and at weekends with my binoculars and guidebook. They were mostly the small, sparrow-sized kind (around then DDT was having a big impact on raptors) but dazzling nonetheless: yellowhammers, corn buntings, green and gold finches, linnets, stonechats, chiffchaffs, pied flycatchers – the list would go on. Writing it down now feels like relearning a forgotten poem, and I can still recognise most of those birds when I see them. Except that now I rarely do.

With evolution, species come and go. Scientists have a term for this natural rise and fall through geological time: the background extinction rate. This refers to species loss in the period before the impact of human civilisation, when for example, on average, every 400 years a single species of bird might become extinct. Conservative estimates put current extinction levels for all species at over a hundred times higher than the background rate. Other estimates say that the level is thousands of times higher. All agree that human activity is causing what has come to be known as the Sixth Mass Extinction.

A couple of examples:-

The Pyrenean ibex, a species of wild goat with spectacular horns, once graced the craggy slopes of the Cantabrian mountains and the Northern Pyrenees. In January 2000, because of habitat decline and over-hunting, it joined its neighbour, the Portugese ibex, in becoming extinct.

Whilst not yet extinct, the northern white rhinoceros, which used to hang out in the grasslands and savannah woodland south of the Sahara desert, is no longer to be found in the wild. In the 1970s there were still hundreds roaming free. There are now seven left, in captivity and heavily guarded against the poachers who would kill them for their horns.

Of course, there has been a reaction to such extinctions, and in some cases concentrated effort on the part of governments and NGOs: declines have been halted and species reintroduced. In Scotland we can be proud of schemes that have reintroduced sea eagles and red kites, and ospreys – there’s not much to beat the sight of an osprey in the spring, swooping feet first into a loch and then struggling back into the air with its prize, a flailing trout. You can watch them do that at various sites within a few miles of any city in Scotland. And more recently, a beaver population has been re-established in Argyll to complement the ‘unofficial’ beavers who, for the past decade or so, have been quietly recolonising the River Tay.

So it’s not all bad news. And yet, despite such local successes, the global story is one of increasing alarm. In his book, The Great Animal Orchestra, musician and naturalist Bernie Krause gives an account of the forty years he has spent recording the sounds of the natural world. His archive is a record of decline:

‘A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening. Little by little the vast orchestra of life, the chorus of the natural world, is in the process of being quietened. There has been a massive decrease in the density and diversity of key vocal creatures, both large and small. The sense of desolation extends beyond mere silence.’

How do we process this reality? How do we cope with the desolation that “extends beyond mere silence”? Helping those who work to redress the balance is one way. In Scotland, for example, there’s Trees for Life, a charity devoted to restoring the Caledonian forest, who can be supported with donations and with practical help as a volunteer. Political pressure can also be applied. Under the EU Habitat Directive, all member states are legally bound to consider the reintroduction of once native species. Our politicians need to be reminded of this at all levels, whether at Holyrood or Westminster.

Underpinning both responses is the call to educate ourselves as to what’s really going on. The Sixth Mass Extinction is not just happening to faraway species like the rhinoceros or the ibex, it’s happening on our doorsteps, in some cases literally: the last thirty years has seen a 70% drop in the UK house sparrow population.

For those that have already gone, all we can do is grieve. The eco-theologian Thomas Berry suggests that “our primary need for the various life forms of the planet is a psychic, rather than a physical need.” He believed that “to wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.” It’s important to find a way to mourn such losses and, since 2011, a growing coalition of artists, writers and educators have begun to create a forum for expressing that grief. Remembrance Day for Lost Species is an annual and international event, held on the last day of November. The organisers invite anyone who wishes to participate to create their own act of remembrance or to take part in an event happening in their area. Check out their web page for more information: https://www.facebook.com/internationalremembrancedayforlostspecies

I live in rural Dumfriesshire, but my mum still lives in the same house I grew up in and the burn in the gully is still there, though the area beyond has changed dramatically. The farmland has gone, replaced by streets of ever larger and more expensive homes. A large concrete water reservoir has been constructed in the woods and sections of the moor have been drained for more housing. It’s a familiar story of ‘progress’. The edgeland birds that so enchanted me as a boy may not yet be extinct, but their decrease in numbers has been so comprehensive that my daughters, the age now that I was then, will never see such a richness. As the organisers of Remembrance Day for Lost Species say, “how can we begin to act effectively, if we do not begin by engaging with grief.”

Dougie Strang

Paul Fleischman ‘The Passenger Pigeon’ in I Am Pheonix (1985)
Bernie Krause The Great Animal Orchestra (2012)
Thomas Berry
A Dream of the Earth (1988)



Categories: Climate Change, Environmental Justice

10 replies

  1. In the drive for development, the place of nature is often forgotten.

  2. Let’s hope Land Reform goes some way to addressing this issue. It doesn’t automatically it’s down to the detail.

  3. Many, many thanks for this Dougie. As a biologist, I obviously already have great empathy with the growing ‘silence’ of the ‘divine voices’. However, your memories stirred up many early memories for me (probably in the same scheme from the description) and your words and those of whom you quote have had yet a further profound effect. I am so pleased that there is such a Remembrance Day, which I had not already been aware of. My engagement with grief had already started, but there is plenty to do to begin to act effectively and help to restore the richness of diversity in our land. This should be part of our journey towards independence and is touched on in Lesley Riddoch’s excellent book ‘Blossom’. I am very grateful to you for your thoughts and for people such as you who share the planet with me.

    • Thanks Frank. Glad this struck a chord. It’s clear that the land and what we do with it remains a key issue in Scotland, and there’s been numerous good articles written here on Bella on the subject. There’s a long way to go, but perhaps the latest land reform proposals mark a positive next step.

  4. Reblogged this on V's Blog and commented:
    I didn’t know about this Remembrance Day until I read this blog. That day is today in the Southern Hemisphere where so many other species have been lost. I needed to reblog this article.

  5. So sad that our SNP government is in bed with the blood sport lobby whilst shooting hundreds of thousands of geese for profit.Disgraceful SNH hang your heads in shame

    • I detest blood sport but the whole issue outlined in the article as regards species protection is surely one of societal acceptance.
      Why try and suggest any political party is liable or supportive? Are you suggesting the Tories or Labour would be stricter.

      “We” determine the values and politicians are driven by our votes. Do you think a political party could bring back bull fighting or legalise dog fights?.

      I find it cheap and nasty to attempt political point scoring over such an important issue.

  6. http://savetheeaglesinternational.org aren’t so SNP friendly either, disturbing to know their plans near where reintroduced red kites fly alongside the recently returned ospreys and where eagles soar, but there’s profit to be made, at their cost.

  7. Good to see the environment addressed here. Apart from renewables it features hardly at all in the debate over Scotland’s future and the SNP seem to have little real interest. The most immediate target should be the criminals who run the grouse moors. The Scottish Government has the powers to tackle the systematic illegal killing of protected species on grouse moors. They also have the power through land reform to end the unsustainable land management practices on grouse moors, which degrade water quality and increase flood risk at some cost to the public.

  8. Good to see Thomas Berry brought in here, Dougie. I’ve just been writing something about the shamanic function of art in environmental awareness raising and a good example of that is Dougie’s own work – see an array of his images at http://dougiestrang.wordpress.com/

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