I had a short birdwatching excursion yesterday morning of rare good fortune. At Greenham Common I enjoyed a brief but excellent view of a stunning male whinchat, a species I usually struggle to find. Despite regular good finds by other birders I usually struggle to find anything at all at Greenham, so this was a good omen. The morning continued with nine species of warbler and four waders: not bad for Berkshire. From the hide at Lower Farm gravel pit I saw my first swifts of the year, twisting in the distance over Newbury Racecourse, whilst a pair of common terns mated on one of the rafts. Further spring cheer came in the form of a gorgeous female orange tip stationary on garlic mustard, sprays of May wildflowers on the hedge banks and a dingy skipper basking on short turf back near the Greenham car park.
At the Crookham end of the Common at least three nightingales were in earshot. However, when I turned my binoculars back towards Greenham and looked across the expanse of open ground my mood finally began to sink. It was a bank holiday, and dog-walking families dotted the Common. People out enjoying fresh air, exercising, spending time with their families – surely that’s a good thing? Well, yes. But it occurred to me that any number of the rare species inhabiting the rich mix of habitats comprising what BBOWT call the West Berkshire Living Landscape could disappear and the vast majority of visitors to these sites wouldn’t notice. Indeed, their purpose for visiting would be completely unaffected. Many wouldn’t recognise any of the nine warbler species, know what a dingy skipper was, or be particularly affected if they heard or saw any of them. They’re mostly little brown jobs anyway – even the butterfly!
There is experimental evidence that sites richer in species offer a heftier dose of whatever psychological benefits we get from nature. Rarity has a genuine allure, as demonstrated by this rather playful experiment at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Yet I still can’t imagine a family’s dog-walk being dampened by a lack of rare birds. Indeed, the gentleman in black striding purposefully across a closed area* with his dog running off the lead had already decided that the presence of sensitive species meant nothing to him, nor did he care if his potential disturbance of them spoiled other people’s enjoyment of the site.
Nature conservation, then, is clearly a niche pursuit. Does this matter? Are we mistaken in thinking it is for everyone? Perhaps a bit of common scruffy nature is quite adequate for the vast majority of people who don’t suffer from the peculiar condition of being a naturalist. I’m not sure. But when we talk about ecosystem services – and as a rule I don’t – it’s worth questioning exactly what these services are and who or what they are being delivered for. Miles King wrote about ‘ecosystem services for dogs’ a couple of years ago, and when I looked around the Common yesterday morning I certainly saw a lot of dogs having a rather excellent time.
*One might think he could have been excused by poor signposting, but no. The system for protecting ground-nesting birds at Greenham and Crookham Commons is admirably simple, clear and usually policed. An attempt, at least, to accommodate multiple user groups. The gentleman in question was so obviously off the path that I can only think he had deliberately chosen a route to thumb his nose at the Wildlife Trust authorities who dare to tell him and his dog where they can and cannot go.