An emergency we can’t ignore

(c) Toby Pickard

Dense, swooping flights of starlings, dipping and turning overhead against a dusk winter sky were a common sight in Bristol 30 years ago. So common was the spectacle, that starlings – alongside many other wildlife sights and sounds – were often taken for granted. Part of the backdrop alongside iconic city buildings. But now on winter’s evenings, Bristol’s skyline is mostly empty of starlings. You may see a few flitting between trees where they can, their iridescent feathers catching the fading light. But there’s no longer a mass aerial spectacle to watch on the way home.

Dense, swooping flights of starlings, dipping and turning overhead against a dusk winter sky were a common sight in Bristol 30 years ago. So common was the spectacle, that starlings – alongside many other wildlife sights and sounds – were often taken for granted. Part of the backdrop alongside iconic city buildings. But now on winter’s evenings, Bristol’s skyline is mostly empty of starlings. You may see a few flitting between trees where they can, their iridescent feathers catching the fading light. But there’s no longer a mass aerial spectacle to watch on the way home.

Many wild animals, plants and the habitats they need have disappeared from our city, leaving a depleted and poor natural world. A steady stream of shocking statistics bear this out. Recent international reports tell us that the population of the world’s fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds has fallen by 60%. Here in the UK 41% of our wildlife species are declining and 15% now risk going extinct.  And back to those wonderful Bristol starlings, records show that both starling and swift numbers in the city have plummeted by 96% between 1994 and 2014.

This continuing loss has this week prompted a declaration of ‘ecological emergency’ in Bristol – made jointly by the city’s mayor, Marvin Rees, and Avon Wildlife Trust chief executive, Ian Barrett.  It’s the first time a city has made a declaration like this and it recognises the scale of the problem we now face through wildlife decline and the poor quality of our natural environments. Because this crisis is not simply something for lovers of wildlife to worry about. We all rely on so much that a thriving natural world gives us; clean air thanks to trees and plants absorbing CO2, clean water thanks to the filtering work done by aquatic plants and animals, healthy soils for food crops thanks to the soil-based insects and invertebrates which decompose and recycle matter.

What does this declaration mean, coming as it does hard on the heels on the declaration of climate emergency made by the city council just over a year ago? Well, though many cities and organisations have declared climate emergency, no other city has focused on ecological emergency. And the difficult truth is that if we only fix the climate crisis, our human way of live will still be precarious. So, this move puts the twin threats – climate breakdown and ecological emergency – firmly alongside each other for the first time.

Of course, any declaration is only as good as the action and effort that flows from it, and here we can all play a part, because this emergency can’t be fixed by institutions alone. It has to be a mix of individuals, businesses and organisations taking the action that they can.  From planting wildflowers in a window box, getting involved in your local park group to persuading your workplace to have staff volunteer days for nature, there is momentum we can all start to grow.  And alongside the citywide funding and strategies that this declaration will lead to, this network of action can change our city in a dramatic way over the next decade.

The hope seeded this week is for a restored and thriving natural world where our parks, gardens, road verges, and even parts of our buildings are places where wildlife can thrive – including the dancing, shape-shifting starlings above our skies again.

Avon Wildlife Trust offers ways for everyone to take action to tackle ecological emergency in Bristol including volunteering, joining as a member and taking action in your garden, park or workplace.  To find out more and for ideas on practical action everyone can take to help wildlife look at our actions for wildlife page

We've since developed our Ecological Emergency Strategy to help fight this crisis.