Life

Tony Bailie's Take on Nature: We are destroying a vital part of the Earth's ecosystem

Bumblebee numbers have fallen by 3.7 per cent annually over the past six years

THE beach and oak are among the last to shed last year's crumbling brown leaves as new foliage pushes forward, while the knotted black knuckles on the ash are opening up to release moist newborn fronds.

The hedgerows and woodlands come alive at this time of year, not just as trees and bushes sprout and flower but as the birds build their nests in them and insects feed.

In among the grasses and wildflowers you can hear a buzz and hum with occasional high-pitched chirps. At times, particularly on warm days, it becomes almost orchestral – a symphony of insect sounds.

Not that these critters are particularly friendly and over the years I have had my fair share of biters, blood suckers and stingers land on my skin and cause me considerable discomfort.

But these tiny creatures which we will unthinkingly swat away, crush with a newspaper or poison to death with an aerosol spray are a vital part of our ecosystem on which the future of human survival is dependent.

Yet according to the UN global assessment report released this week one in 10 insect species are under threat of extinction.

These stinging, biting, blood-sucking pests are responsible for pollination, including those plants that we eat and grow to feed the animals that we eat. In economic terms pollination loss is putting an estimated £440 billion worth of crops at risk.

In February the Irish National Biodiversity Data Centre released a report flagging up the decline of insect species in this part of the world and revealed that the decline in Ireland is even more pronounced than the global average.

According to coordinator Tomás Murray, senior ecologist at the data centre, the Irish butterfly population has declined at an average rate of 2.6 per cent over the past 10 years – above the global average of 1.8 per cent. Meanwhile Irish bumblebee numbers have fallen by 3.7 per cent annually over the past six years, well above the global average of one per cent.

Dr Murray said that what was particularly disturbing was that these species are not rare or sensitive but among out most common.

“What's really frightening is that these trends largely reflect changes in our commoner species of insect as these form the bulk of insects detected by researchers and citizen scientists,” he said.

“Therefore, these declines are not just measuring losses in rare specialists but actually in our widespread generalist species.”

As well as being pollinators, insects are also a food source for fish and mammals and their decline impacts all the way up the food chain. More than one million species across the planet are at risk of extinction and this is being blamed on human activity and how we are monopolising the land surface and threatening biodiversity.

Species extinction is accelerating at a frightening pace and the global biomass of wild animals (as opposed to domesticated ones bred for human consumption) has declined by around 82 per cent since humans started altering the landscape.

An estimated 75 per cent of the Earth's surface has been altered by human activity.

According to Robert Watson, chairman of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, this will ultimately have an adverse impact on humanity.

“The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” he said.

“We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. We have lost time. We must act now.”

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