Today marks the centenary of the death of Martha, the last American Passenger Pigeon. My predecessor, Mark Avery, has written an excellent book (here) on the demise of this species and is popping back to the Lodge today to give a talk on the subject.
Parallels have been drawn between the extinction of this species and the plight of birds such as the turtle dove which has suffered a 74% decline across Europe since 1970 and whose UK population is halving every six years.
The plight of turtle dove was on my mind while I was on holiday in the Pyrenees. I was lucky enough to be staying on a farm in Catalonia where there was a small flock of turtle doves. I think my family and friends grew slightly tired of me getting excited every time another landed to feed in one of the feeds next to our house. But, knowing Martha’s story and the potential implications of what might happen to turtle doves in my life time, can take some of the joy out of the simple wonder of watching a flock of beautiful birds go about their day to day business.
Andy Hay’s wonderful image of two turtle doves: an image that I tried and failed to capture on holiday
Today is also the start of the new parliamentary year, the last before the general election in May. Politicians returning from their holidays to Westminster will want to focus on the new legislative agenda but will inevitably have half an eye on the forthcoming election campaign and the pitch that they will make to the electorate through their manifestos.
It is not hyperbolic to say that the fate of turtle dove as a breeding species relies on this generation of politicians.
We’re doing out bit. We launched Operation Turtle Dove in May 2012 to stop the turtle dove following the same path as the passenger pigeon. This is a partnership between the RSPB, Conservation Grade, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Natural England. Together, we are identifying the primary causes of the decline through research right across their long migration. We then develop urgent practical solutions – such as advising farmers how they can provide food for turtle doves on their land or campaigning to stop spring hunting in the Med.
But we also need politicians to do what only they can do. This is why we spend so much time trying to influence them to adapt policy and legislation to benefit nature. There is another example of this today as alongside Green Alliance and six other environmental NGOs, we’ve published Greener Britain (here), our challenge and our offer to all political parties to make the natural environment a part of their big ideas for that next election and part of their plan for realising them.
We’ve set out seven steps for delivering on the big ideas including a Nature and Well-being Act, setting out the long term plan for nature’s recovery and recognising its fundamental importance to our economy, sense of place and well-being. The group is also calling for a mega marine sanctuary, ranging from the tropics to the Southern Ocean, including Ascension Island—our vital home for biodiversity in the Overseas Territories. These ideas fit neatly with a set of proposals for decarbonisation, better resource use, and rewards for local environmental action, which together add up to a comprehensive manifesto for a greener Britain.
When it comes to saving nature, everyone has a role to play. That is why, on Wednesday this week with others, we have organised a conference to showcase the game changing interventions that businesses are making to address the state of nature. Business leaders will mingle with politicians and environmental NGOs with the hope that this will galvanise politicians to take the necessary steps to make it easier for others to do great things for nature.
Whether our efforts are sufficient will inevitably to be scrutinised by the next generation of environmentalists who are gathering for their “A Focus on Nature” conference on Friday. I’ll be there and am looking forward to hear how satisfied they are with the work we are doing to safeguard the heritage that they will inherit from us. I have a feeling I know what they will say.
So, it’s a big week and the start of an important year. But our test is to ensure that the fortunes of species like turtle dove improve and Martha’s fate does not become an allegory of our times.