It’s a fact no-one can deny that human beings have had an effect on the planet and everything that lives upon it, but if you’re looking for real and more or less instant impact upon species then look no further than the weather. I can hear the cries of “global warming” ringing around the country already, but to be fair there have been extremes of weather in every generation and this one has been no different. Look back two or three hundred years and there are flood marks on walls still there for us to see, just as high as we are experiencing today. The Romans grew grapes here, and in between we have had a mini-Ice Age.
Yes, we can overfish the seas and have already exterminated some species from the face of the earth, but it all takes time, whereas the weather has the potential to bring some species to the brink in a fraction of that time.
Take the recent rains: it is doubtful whether a single grey partridge chick will have survived the deluge; a whole year’s species production gone in a few days. The partridges, of course, were not alone. As in cricket, timing is everything, and the recent spell could not have been better timed to catch a whole raft of species and kill off their offspring. The odd day’s rain is quite acceptable, but it is quite another matter to have the one-off once-in-a-lifetime job. Three, four, five or more inches of rain falling in a few days, or even a few hours, is more than most small birds can take. Even wading birds, which have some waterproofing built in, succumbed to the deluge.
A few large young curlew were found dead, along with many pheasants; perhaps the one in most need of a good year caught by the waves of water was the blackgrouse. Even the raptors have had a poor time of it, with reports of many broods of merlin being killed by the rain. As ground-nesters they are at some risk from flooding anyway, but in the first few weeks of life raptor chicks are similar to balls of cotton wool, white fluffy objects with no chance of turning much water. The parents need to feed them, hence they cannot brood them all the time, and when the time comes for mum to go hunting it does not take long for the young to freeze to death.
Every year some species or other is caught out by the weather and doesn’t breed well. Last year was the exception, of course, and with a brilliant summer every single bird in the uplands had a great breeding season. This year was the opposite, however. Whatever happened to the hordes of weather forecasters who told us we were in for a hotter and drier year this time round? They were wrong so far, anyway and it’s too late now for the birds. Thus nature, by a cruel twist, in the space of a few days or even of a single horrendous thunderstorm, can do to hundreds of thousands of birds what man might take a generation to do by other means.
Perhaps there is no better example of the destructive force of the weather trumping that of humans than in the case of the rabbit. Ever since our furry friend ceased to be prized for its fur and meat, and became an agricultural pest, humans have tried their best to remove it from the landscape. Look almost anywhere in the country and you will see we have failed. During the course of my lifetime, however, I have seen the rabbit vanish completely from thousands of acres, all as a result of snow and ice cover. Despite our best efforts over the same ground, on those occasions the weather did a far more efficient extermination job than we had ever managed. When that same weather comes back over larger areas, many species will be consigned to the history books, just as the dinosaurs before them.
I have only looked at the downside of our climate highs and lows, but what may be desperate conditions for some with wet and more wet, and cold and freezing weather may well prove the saviour of others. There are many species “hanging on” at the edges of their range in terms of climate the alpine plant community in Britain for one. If the climate warms up much more, there is one school of thought that believes those plants will vanish, but the reverse is also true: that which could well wipe out the rabbit, such as 2ft of snow and Arctic conditions, could also be the salvation of the alpines and there is nothing humans can do about it. We are powerless in the face of nature and the sooner we realise it, the better off we will be.
With a few exceptions the depths of the oceans, for example we have conquered most of the natural challenges of the world, but the one thing I feel human beings will never master is the climate. We may scatter a few crystals in the clouds and produce some rain, but the weather will always have the final say. For better or worse, it depends what and where you are in nature’s scheme of things.