Stephen Colton's Take on Nature: Whatever we do to 'the web', we do to ourselves

The Lapwing, with its plaintive call, a common sight and sound on Belfast's loughshore
Stephen Colton

A RECENT report, The Living Planet Report 2018, written for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) makes uncomfortable reading, identifying human behaviour as the cause for a fall in wildlife populations globally of 60 per cent between 1974 and 2014.

The report claims that rising food production, human consumption and increased energy demands are the main factors in driving bird and animal numbers down so significantly.

Although some of the hardest-hit species are from the tropics, like the elephants of Tanzania, Dr Liam Lysaght, director of Ireland’s National Biodiversity Data Centre, says that, "Generally speaking the international trends that have been described, are reflected within Ireland as well", with species of fish and non-marine molluscs especially vulnerable.

In relation to birds, Oonagh Duggan of Birdwatch Ireland agrees that overall patterns here mirror those abroad, citing the once common breeding curlew, a bird whose numbers have dramatically reduced across Ireland.

Just before coming across this report I had enjoyed a visit to the RSPB-managed lagoon at Belfast Harbour Estate, part of the wider Belfast Lough Reserve. Hard to believe that within this industrialised site, birthplace of the Titanic, a home for wintering waders and wildfowl has been created and maintained by human endeavour.

Its origins go back to the 1970s when silt was dredged from the shipping channels to allow a more suitable depth for ships to operate. This was pumped ashore and enclosed where it settled, hardened and was filled with pools of water, ideal habitat for waders and ducks.

The lagoon known as Belfast’s WOW (Window on wildlife) has been carefully managed since 1998 to establish suitable conditions for all the species that visit. Artificial islands have been created to give common and arctic terns a safe place to breed. Managed reed beds encourage lots of insects providing a food source for species like the sedge warbler, a summer migrant from Africa.

Resident Konik ponies graze the reserve, creating ideal conditions for wintering wildfowl and ground-nesting birds like lapwings. During the autumn and winter bird numbers are swelled by flocks of black-tailed godwits, wigeon, teal and curlew, with redshanks and dunlin also present.

At the time of my visit bird numbers were significantly lower than usual due to the lack of water, a consequence of our exceptionally dry summer. Causing much discussion and angst among the regular birders present, the reduced numbers didn’t deter me from appreciating groups of colourful teal and mallard or the floppy wingbeats of flying lapwings and their plaintive call.

Busy redshanks and dunlin probed the mud as a 20-strong flock of curlew landed, standing tall and dignified. Close to the indoor hide, just beyond the glass window on the world, coots and moorhens also boasted their respective white and red bills.

Leaving this man-made bird haven, I felt more reassured that we can work constructively for wildlife, and I thought of words from Chief Seattle, ancestral chief of the Suquamish tribe, who in 1855 wrote to the US president, Franklin Pierce, saying:

"The president sends word he wishes to buy our land. The idea is strange to us. How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land or the sparkle of water?

"Every part of this Earth is sacred to my people. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth.

"Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

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