A common frog at Askham Bog. Photo: Exposure Photo Agency
For most people, York’s historical past conjures up images of lofty cathedral spires, the cobblestones of the Shambles and ghosts lurking in the corners of low-ceilinged pubs.
Yet speak to local naturalists, and they’ll tell you the city’s most impressive ancient history in fact lies sandwiched between the A64 to Leeds and the lurid green plains of Pike Hills golf club.
It’s here, on the 110-acre Askham Bog, that 15,000 years of history lies suspended in peat, a life source that has made the reserve astonishingly rich in biodiversity: more than five per cent of all Britain’s species types – animal, plant and fungi – can be found living in the area.
Reserves like this exist across all four nations of the UK, but their numbers are small, and their ecological diversity the exception, not the rule. Britain has lost half of its biodiversity since the industrial revolution, making Askham Bog an oasis in a desert.
On an overcast March morning, with hues of brown, grey and murky yellow dominating the landscape, the reserve’s ecological treasures are hard for an untrained eye to spot. But seasoned naturalist Alastair Fitter, 50-year member of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT), does not have an untrained eye.
Fitter, an ecologist with a special interest in moths and plants, arrives on his bike and opens with an apology. “I’m really sorry,” he says. “I forgot to bring my moths.”
Despite the missing moths, Fitter is not short of things to talk about on the reserve.
Traversing boardwalks and wading through mud, he brings the bog to life with stories of sweet-smelling bog myrtle used to flavour beer and super-absorbent, “immortal” sphagnum moss once repurposed to patch up soldiers’ wounds. It’s evident that the decades Fitter has spent here have done nothing to dull his wonder at the abundance on the reserve, but when talk turns to the land outside of it, his tone shifts.
“It’s all very well having a nature reserve, but places like this represent a tiny fraction of land across the UK. They alone can’t fix the crisis we’re facing,” he says.
Ecologists like Fitter have long known that biodiversity is in crisis, yet the response elsewhere has been overwhelmingly muted.
Unlike climate change, the slow-burning nature crisis has been largely invisible to swathes of the population living increasingly enclosed lives. In 2016, a study found that three-quarters of British children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. In 2010, the majority of respondents to a survey thought “biodiversity” was a type of washing powder.
The fight to reverse biodiversity decline is wrought with all kinds of challenges, from ageing experts to data gaps and shortfalls in funding. Perhaps most challenging of all, however, is getting the public to notice that it’s happening at all.
The stakes are frighteningly high: if our ecosystem dies, our water supply, clean air and food stocks could die with it. And if we aren’t aware of what’s being lost, we’ll only realise what’s happened when it’s far too late.
It might surprise those who associate Britain with Countryfile and rolling hills that the UK today is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
Examine any species type and the figures are damning. More than a quarter of birds are at risk of extinction, two-thirds of native insects are in decline and only a third of key fish species are being sustainably fished. In 2020, the UK failed to meet 17 out of 20 UN biodiversity targets set at a summit in 2010.
If people aren’t interested, they won’t go out and record it. We just have these huge holes in the data
Much of this damage has taken place in recent years, driven by poor agricultural practices, climate pressures and pollution. A study of bug ‘splats’ on windshields, for instance, found a 50 per cent decline between 2004 and 2019 on cars in Kent. Even to experts, the speed of decline has been shocking.
“[The study] was surprising because we thought most of the damage was probably done in the Seventies when we had mass use of some really nasty pesticides,” says Paul Hetherington, director at invertebrate charity Buglife.
“But decline has evidently continued at alarming rates,” he adds.
We know all this in part because of official studies and surveys, but in the UK the bulk of our understanding is in fact owed to an army of some 70,000 volunteer naturalists who, of their own volition, record various forms of wildlife and feed the information back to local and national record centres.
The data collected by these volunteers is invaluable, used to inform conservation decisions and even planning applications. In 2020, campaigners successfully fended off a 500-home development proposed next to Askham Bog on the basis of such data.
In spite of this, naturalism has never quite shaken its reputation as a genteel hobby once beloved by the Victorian middle classes. It means the importance of biodiversity data and recording is often undervalued, says Jason Reeves of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM).
“The UK has this history of the Victorian naturalist going out and recording on their own. [Recording] has traditionally been seen as a hobby, and culturally we don’t see it as a profession,” he explains.
As a result, volunteer data has been heavily relied upon at the same time as government investment in biodiversity activities has dwindled. According to the RSPB, public funding for biodiversity has been slashed by 42 per cent in real terms since 2008/9, leaving the UK with “an alarming lack of knowledge about the current status of our finest [natural sites] and most vulnerable species”.
This fall in funding is even more concerning in the context of the government’s recent policy and target-setting spree. Recent pledges to halt biodiversity decline, protect more land for nature and mandate biodiversity “net gain” on development will require not only volunteers, but more resources for them to be managed, says Fitter.
And, though it is immensely important, volunteer data also has the disadvantage of being weighted in favour of the most charismatic species. Recorders usually specialise in taxonomies, and while butterfly, bee and moth fans are in plentiful supply, earwig, millipede and grass enthusiasts are much harder to come by.
“We have really good data for things like birds or butterflies, because people are interested in those, they’re pretty,” Reeves explains. “But there’s so many other species where, if people aren’t interested, they won’t go out and record it. We just have these huge holes in the data.”
Expertise also plays a role in this data shortfall, with some species simply harder to identify than others.
“Butterflies are large and easy to recognise and most people like them. When you get into the world of invertebrates you’re talking about upwards of 40,000 species in the UK alone – and some are impossible to tell apart,” Hetherington says.
Figures from records collated by the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) reveal just how large these gaps can be, with 500 times as many records of birds as there are of spiders, and more than 1,000 times as many butterfly records as there are for centipedes.
Conservationists do what they can with the data they get, says Fitter, but these gaps mean our understanding of how fast, and by how much biodiversity is actually declining is limited.
“Sometimes all we know is that something used to be there, and now it isn’t.”
For its own part, Askham Bog’s data trove is unusually comprehensive. Well over 100 years ago, boys from the natural history society at York’s Quaker-run Bootham School made regular trips by bike to make detailed records of the species found on-site.
“Thanks to them, we know that there were around 100 species here which haven’t been recorded since 1879,” Fitter says.
Recording is not something anyone does with a particular goal in mind, says Fitter, whose late father, Richard Fitter, was also a distinguished naturalist. In 2002, the pair published a landmark study on the impact of climate change on spring flowering times based upon 50 years of personal records collected by Richard.
“Somebody [on the radio] asked my father why he made all these records and he just said ‘Well when I was a lad, someone told me it was important to’,” Fitter says.
“I think we all have a bit of an urge to know and catalogue what’s out there. There are people who do this for trains, and for handbags. A century ago [naturalists] went out with butterfly nets – now we make records instead,” he adds.
Bootham School’s natural history society – the oldest in the country – still operates today. Yet within the confines of the modern curriculum, it’s hard to imagine regular bike rides for recording sessions are still so common. Children, as a stray tipi abandoned on the reserve suggests, are not a rare sight at Askham Bog. Yet sustained engagement can be limited, Fitter admits, with schools often visiting only sporadically.
“Usually [school trips to the reserve] are one-offs. It can be hard to get schools to come because the curriculum makes it difficult, plus getting buses to places is just really expensive,” Fitter says.
However cliche it’s become to bemoan the “youth of today” for spending too much time camped in front of screens, the slow retreat indoors has been unmistakable over several generations.
There is a concern that our volunteer recorders are ageing without a pool of people to replace them
Today, children in the UK spend an average of just four hours outside a week – half that of their parents. In 2019, the Landscapes Review found that just six to seven per cent of children in England had been on a school trip to the countryside, while 18 per cent of children in the most deprived areas never visit the natural world at all.
Despite a popular view that lockdowns improved outdoor access, 60 per cent of children are now spending less time outside than they did before the pandemic. Humanity’s relationship with nature, a recent select committee report into biodiversity concluded, has “evolved with an increasing detachment from it”. For some children today, the relationship is simply non-existent.
“We’ve had kids [come to events] from inner-city areas who don’t know what an acorn is, or that carrots grow in the ground,” Hetherington says.
Aside from the health and wellbeing consequences of this disengagement, some in the conservation sector fear it could fail to generate an appetite for nature recording, leaving the UK without a fresh supply of volunteers in the future.
“There is a concern that our volunteer recorders are ageing without a pool of people to replace them,” Lisa Chilton, chief executive of the NBN, says. “This is of most concern when it comes to verifiers – the experts who are able to verify the records that get sent in to make sure the data is high quality.”
Naturalist Mary Colwell, who spearheaded a now-successful campaign to introduce a nationwide natural history GCSE, agrees.
“We’ve lost two generations of people, really, who are no longer connected to nature.
“We live in this jumbled mash-up of living stuff which many people can’t differentiate. We’re no longer nature literate.”
Colwell’s focus on a GCSE qualification was deliberate. Researchers have noted an observable decline in nature connectedness which kicks in towards the end of childhood, reaching an overall low in the mid-teen age range.
In a recent review into the economics of biodiversity – the Dasgupta Review – author Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta noted a “cruel irony” in surrounding young children with “pictures and toys of animals and plants” only to marginalise environmental education in later life. It’s a transition Hetherington is familiar with.
“When you’re young insects are down at your level, they’re cool and strange and different – but then kids take on phobias that their parents have, or help their parents spray the aphids,” he says. “It’s part of the movement into adulthood, being told to be afraid of [insects] and see them as pests which must be destroyed.”
Already, our understanding of the natural world is limited by data inconsistencies and gaps.
We fundamentally depend on the natural world
Without raising a generation to care about biodiversity, we could lose sight altogether, Colwell fears, with “shifting baseline syndrome” meaning people simply accept their experience of nature as normal, no matter how degraded it may be.
“You will only conserve and record what you love, and you’ll only love what you’ve been taught to love,” Colwell says. “If you don’t know what a dandelion is, for instance, it just seems like a yellow plant among other yellow plants. Why would you care if it disappeared?”
Appreciating nature is a bit like appreciating art, Fitter insists, when I sheepishly admit my own ignorance around identification of plants and animals.
“I go to art galleries, but I don’t have an informed opinion about the Old Masters’ brushstrokes. You can appreciate something without knowing the fine detail,” he says.
When pushed, however, Fitter concedes that the concept of biodiversity is poorly understood by the public at large, with little awareness of how intimately human life depends on a diverse, healthy ecosystem. A large part of the problem comes down to the simple fact that biodiversity is a complex topic, playing second fiddle to climate change, in spite of the two crises being inextricably linked.
Even the experts “sometimes can’t say exactly what would happen if a certain species was removed from the ecosystem”, Fitter says.
It’s a conundrum which all conservation charities and environmentalists face in trying to draw attention to biodiversity decline with the urgency now required. One need only contrast the attention given to COP26 against that given to COP15 – the recent biodiversity equivalent – to see just how hard this can be.
It’s here that opinions diverge on how best to re-engage the public with biodiversity loss and restoration. While some say putting monetary value on “natural capital” – the goods nature provides us – is effective, others insist that this devalues and oversimplifies the natural world.
Beauty, intrinsic value and the simple right for other species to exist are other avenues tried by many. For Hetherington, a lack of biodiversity “role models” is a key issue. Yet in the end, believes Fitter, it’s the utilitarian argument that’s most likely to win.
“We fundamentally depend on the natural world. That’s always going to be the most powerful argument,” he says.
Championing the cause hasn’t been easy, but there are grounds for hope, says Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB.
“People are realising that the ecosystem is like a game of Jenga – it’s hard to know what happens when you pull one brick, but you know it could all come tumbling down.”
Enthusiasm from young environmentalists is driving change, says Speight, while apps for recording nature, an uptick in forest schools and widespread public support for Colwell’s natural history GCSE could all, too, shift the dial.
However the transformation takes place, all those in the conservation and nature sector converge on the simple fact that reversing biodiversity loss cannot happen until humans re-engage with the natural world.
Even if economic models, policy decisions and business operations are realigned with nature, the Dasgupta Review concluded that this would not be enough to reverse biodiversity loss. Realigning our relationship with nature is the key puzzle piece.
There’s a risk it’s slipping away from us
We are now at a critical juncture. Amid the devastation caused by the pandemic, a renewed enthusiasm for green space and nature was a slim silver lining. As we emerge from the other end, now is the moment to rethink the place of nature in our lives, Fitter says, as we meander back towards the entrance of the reserve.
As we stand listening to the chirps of bluetits and robins on low-hanging branches, the drone of the A64 traffic encircling us, we get one last treat before we leave: frogs the size of 50p pieces leaping over our shoes. Had we not stopped to pause, we probably would have missed them.
“The key thing now is that we don’t just let this moment pass,” says Fitter, sighing. “There’s a risk it’s slipping away from us. That we’ve come out the other end and feel it’s time to just go back to how we were living before.”