Hello, and welcome to November’s Wild Wild Life, the monthly newsletter that celebrates the biodiversity of our planet’s animals plants and other organisms. To receive this free, monthly newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
I’ve been breaking in a new pair of walking boots on woodland walks, spotting as many fungi as I can. I can’t pretend to be anywhere near an expert – the UK is home to more than 15,000 species of fungi. That number isn’t quite as daunting as it sounds, though, because many of these species are microscopic and not mushroom-forming. I’ve had some successes in identifying the most common species, but I still marvel at anyone who is confident enough to eat those that they identify as edible.
This month, in the aftermath of COP26, I’m looking at actions we can meaningfully take to help wildlife and lessen the biodiversity crisis. Plus, why it pays to have really red feathers if you’re a waxbill, and a newly recognised species of octopus.
What you can do to help nature
The COP26 summit in Glasgow, UK, this month was the biggest opportunity to tackle climate change since the Paris Agreement, back in 2015. Amid all the breaking news, big pledges and grand announcements, something kept niggling at me. I couldn’t turn on the TV without an advert telling me I could “do my bit” by recycling a plastic bag or eating a veggie burger. My problem with such messages is that they are nowhere near enough to be “my bit” – anything that’s promoting easy swaps or simple lifestyle changes sounds great but is unlikely to have any impact on the problem.
Greenwashing has become a familiar concept now, and I’ve written before about more meaningful action that people can take both to tackle climate change and cope with eco-anxiety. But what about the other great planetary crisis besides climate change: the biodiversity crisis? Humans and our domesticated animals now make up more than 90 per cent of the mammalian mass living on our planet. The things we do are threatening around 1 in 8 species with extinction, and just 3 per cent of Earth’s land is classed as ecologically intact.
While it’s clearly a good idea to cut down on single-use plastics and recycle more, here are four things you can do that will make much more of a difference to preserving what’s left of the world’s ecosystems.
Change how you eat
Okay, so maybe veggie burgers are at least a part of the solution. A 2018 study found that meat and dairy account for 83 per cent of the world’s farmland, but only 18 per cent of the calories and 37 per cent of the protein that we eat. Habitat loss is a major driver of the biodiversity crisis, and much of this is driven by our appetites. If we don’t eat less meat and dairy, there won’t be space for wild animals and plants on our planet.
But it’s not just about minimising the amount of land that’s used for agriculture. Farmland makes up such a significant proportion of the planet that, in my opinion, it needs to be as wildlife-friendly as possible. There’s an argument to be made that organic farming isn’t a good thing because it has lower yields so requires more land and energy. But others argue that when you take into account the full impact of land degradation and pesticide use of intensive farming methods, the dial may swing in organic farming’s favour. Organically managed land is thought to support 30 per cent higher biodiversity than conventionally farmed fields.
Whatever you choose to eat, you can know for a fact that wasting food is bad. Agriculture has such a detrimental effect on nature worldwide, it’s unconscionable that a third of food goes to waste.
There’s a lot of opportunity to make a difference here and, importantly, it’s not all or nothing. It’s better to halve your meat consumption forever, for example, than it is to attempt to go “full vegan” for a few weeks and then completely give up.
Get serious on climate change
The biodiversity and climate crises are closely linked, and climate change is driving habitat loss and extinction. To lessen your personal contribution, you can have the biggest impact by flying and driving less, better insulating your home, switching to a green energy provider and moving your pension out of fossil fuel investments. And cutting back on meat and dairy – this one counts twice!
Support a charity or lobby group
I don’t want to minimise personal action – to rescue nature and limit climate change, we all need to make significant lifestyle changes. But let’s be clear: to succeed, the heavy lifting must be done by governments and big corporations. You’ll often see advice to write to your politicians or get involved in campaigns, which can seem a bit daunting if you’re short on time or haven’t done anything like this before. So, if that applies to you, I’d recommend you first start supporting some environmental charities or non-governmental organisations who’ll do the hard work for you. Pick an organisation that lobbies the government about wildlife issues that you care about and send them some of your money.
This one is about staying positive. It’s a global problem, but you’ll be heartened by how much of a difference you can make at home. Garden with wildlife in mind, don’t plant invasive species and keep your bird-and-frog-killing cat indoors. Small wins, like getting your local council to let grassy verges grow long in summer, make a big difference to both your local insect population, and your morale.
Of course, all this will help, but it’s large-scale projects that will make the biggest difference when it comes to saving wildlife. My colleague Graham Lawton pulled together a vision of how countries can rescue nature earlier this year. And if the tips I’ve outlined above seem disproportionately skewed towards wealthier, home-owning, holiday-taking people, that’s not a mistake – the lifestyle choices of people earning more than £28,000 a year are disproportionately important.
This month I learned…
… it doesn’t matter how big or clever you are, if you want to be the boss of common waxbills (Estrilda astrild), you need really red feathers. A study found that a waxbill’s social rank or dominance was linked to how richly red a bird’s chest feathers were, but not the bird’s size, intelligence, stress tolerance or how aggressive they were. The finding suggests that the redness of their chest feathers could be an honest signal – an indication of how healthy the birds are, because they have the ability to make such gorgeous colours. But I’ve always been quite sceptical of honest signals – perhaps it’s just a quirk of waxbill’s tastes, and they simply prefer individuals with redder feathers.
Newly described species of the month
Say hello to Octopus djinda, a newly recognised species of octopus found in the waters of south-west Australia. A study of the animal’s genes and the number of suckers it has along its arms has revealed that it is distinct from Octopus tetricus, a species from around east Australia and New Zealand that it was previously lumped with.
Lumping octopuses together is pretty common, especially in fishing statistics, Michael Amor at the Western Australian Museum told me. “Species are often lumped together, making potentially meaningful information accessible,” he says. “This is a major problem when trying to interpret catch trends, especially with increasing fishing pressure and climate change.”
Although O. djinda has only now been identified as a species, it has been exploited for years by Australia’s largest and fastest-growing octopus fishery. The hope is that formal recognition will inform efforts to sustainably manage fishing of the species.
Other wildlife news
The long read
Your long read this month is this delightful piece about an elephant dictionary – a directory of behaviours and vocalisations that can help you speak elephant. Elsewhere, I enjoyed listening to this “How green is your garden?” episode of the Royal Horticultural Society’s podcast, and I’ve been dipping into Phaidon’s Bird, an absorbing coffee table book that juxtaposes images of birds from science, art and design in thought-provoking combinations.
More on these topics: