Although I began my birding with an interest in listing, and although I still keep lists of what I have seen (and not only birds), the advent of “GreenBirding”, the need to keep our carbon emissions down, a need to know things with greater depth than width and my training as a biologist have turned my focus in recent years and I am more and more interested in the creatures and plants that we live amongst than I am in chasing rarities. In fact, I am frankly more interested in observing and knowing the common species than the occasional rarity, however bright its plumage. Hence I was delighted to read these words in a book that I tracked down during a recent visit to England … in Topper’s Bookshop in the shadow of Ely Cathedral to be precise.
The book is titled Claxton and is by Mark Cocker (Jonathan Cap, London, 2014). It is a jolly good read. The author writes:
“To do things routinely, to take the same walk time after time, is not to see the same view over and over. it is to notice the incremental rate of natural change and to appreciate that nothing is ever repeated. I am often struck by the way, when one has had some deeply memorable encounter with an otter, say, or perhaps a sighting of a rare bird or butterfly, that the next day you see almost nothing at all. They are never in the same spot. Nature has a way of balancing its books but it also has a way of avoiding duplicates. Every time is unique.”
Elsewhere in his very fine book, Cocker also writes:
“In the sphere of conservation I sense that our inherent orientation towards the rare has often distorted the way in which we look at the environment. How often one finds conservation policies built around a few charismatic species … Singling out the flagship animal is often a way of simplifying a project for public consumption, making complex ecologies easier to understand for the lay person. Yet the downside is it continues to reinforce the idea of the charismatic few. When what truly makes an ecosystem flourish is the very opposite of its flagship representative: the sheer bio-luxuriance of its commonest constituents – usually the plants and myriad invertebrates.
If … we had set out to preserve what is most distinctive but commonplace in each location, then we would have secured a more viable version of the landscape. If we had set aside in every parish a tithe for nature – a viable portion of the land where what was common was maintained in a state of bio-luxuriance – then we might well have avoided the present state of affairs, where the house sparrow, starling, lapwing and grey partridge are among our most threatened birds. It is not too late to restate the importance of the commonplace in environmental protection. There is still time to implement a bottoms upwards version of the countryside. But it requires us to select a very different kind of flagship species … I suggest for starters the oak tree, the gorse bush, the bumblebee, the common frog and the blackbird.”
Wise words indeed.