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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Britain's disappearing wildlife, chronicled by a Southampton scientist

Published: 19 May 2010
Silent summer

Britain’s wildlife remains under threat, despite decades of conservation, according to Norman Maclean, Professor Emeritus at the School of Biological Sciences. He has edited a book, Silent Summer, with contributions from a 40-strong team of experts.

Emeritus Professor Norman Maclean

They warn farmland birds, brown hares, water voles, butterflies and other insects continue to decline because of intensive agriculture and loss of habitat. “It is difficult to chart exactly what is happening, because we do not have reliable data from the last 50 years,” he says. “But many species are under threat; seven species of bumblebee became extinct over the last ten years alone.”

Sir David Attenborough says in the book's foreword: “This book... gives us a benchmark. It is invaluable now and in the future it will be irreplaceable.”

Norman, a keen fisherman who specialises in molecular genetics, first became interested in ecology in the early 1960s when astronauts photographed Earth from space: “This made a huge impact on me. Earth looked so beautiful, so green and blue and very fragile.” In 1962, Rachel Carson published her influential book Silent Spring which warned of the effects of pesticides such as DDT on wildlife, especially birds, and was named as one of the most important non-fiction books of the twentieth century.

He is particularly worried about the dramatic decline in insect numbers: “Think of long car journeys, especially in summer. You used to have to stop and wipe dead insects from your windscreen every now and again. It isn’t much of a problem now. That reflects the widespread disappearance of many insects, which play a vital role in the food chain.”

Silent Summer records how the skylark and other farmland birds have declined by more than half in recent decades. Robert Robinson of the British Trust for Ornithology writes in the book that half the 220 bird species in Britain and Ireland “are of conservation concern”.

Turning to mammals, the brown hare has suffered from an increase in the number of predators – mainly foxes – and loss of cover, according to the book. There are an estimated 800,000 hares in the UK and, although not rare or endangered, it is one of the Government's priority species for conservation.

Silent Summer credits field sports with helping to conserve several species, saying activities like hunting and shooting are beneficial for both the hunted and many other creatures living in the same habitats.

Although concerned at the decline, Norman remains optimistic: “There is growing interest in conservation in Britain and our activists are influential around the world. But people must take notice of this and take action to preserve our wildlife.”

More about the book

Publication date 19 May 2010 by Cambridge University Press

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