Familiarity breeds contempt

We hear a lot on the news, and read a lot in magazines and newspapers, about rare and endangered species.  We may even be tempted to give money to save a rare tiger in Asia, elephants on the plains of Africa, or protect a vanishing butterfly in the UK.  We are worried about these rare and endangered species, but very often, attempts to conserve and protect them come too late:  the damage to their habitat has become irreversible, or the needs of local people conflict too much with their needs, or their genetic diversity has dwindled below the point of survival.

But why did these species become endangered in the first place?  In the vast majority of cases, these species weren’t even noticed until they did become endangered.  Many species are undoubtedly becoming extinct every year without ever being catalogued and noticed by science – a few local people briefly musing on where they have gone is their only memorial. 

The problem is that we are indifferent.  Birdwatchers are not interested in common birds, but flock in their thousands to see a rare visitor lost on these shores.  Habitats are only designated for protection if they are rare, or support rare or endangered species.  A little bit of scrub or woodland that supports relatively common species is not seen as valuable, and is not protected, and the species therein are greeted with indifference, or worse, in some cases, contempt.  Little by little, these habitats, and the species they contain, are whittled away until somebody notices a decline, and action is taken.  The problem is, we simply don’t value the common, until it becomes uncommon, endangered, critically endangered or extinct.

People spend less and less time with nature:  I don’t mean that they spend less time in the countryside, because the evidence is that people visit the countryside or urban parks quite a lot.  But these areas are increasingly becoming “experiences” which are packaged, with guided tours, interpretation boards, indoor exhibitions and multimedia shows, walks round manicured grounds and well-kept paths.  People do not spend time in the wild, nor are they willing to spend time watching and learning about creatures great and small, common and rare.  If you spend little time with nature, you see less, and are aware of less.  You do not appreciate the wonders of the common creatures all around you.

And slowly, those common creatures become less common until they are gone.  This isn’t just something that has happened in other countries – the passenger pigeon, the dodo – but something that is happening right in front of our eyes.  House sparrows and starlings have declined enormously in this country.  We are losing our bees and butterflies – several species of the latter have become extinct in this country in my lifetime.  They are declining through indifference, and a failure to appreciate that all wildlife and all wild habitats have value, not just those housing a species that has made it to our list of endangered species that we need to protect.  We take everything for granted until it is too late.

Our woods are not home to any special rarities.  All the trees are common.  Most of the birds are very common, some even increasing in numbers, such as blue tits (although we host four red listed species:  the cuckoo, lesser-spotted woodpecker, willow tit and yellowhammer).  Most of the wildflowers are common, all the dragonflies are common, the bats are common, the mammals are common.  But this does not make them less than precious.  If we don’t learn to notice, appreciate and value the common, we run the risk of losing them all.  All wild habitats need to be seen as precious, and important, not just those which are rare, or decreasing, or which host endangered species.  Familiarity breeds contempt – and we must learn to watch, look at, appreciate and love the familiar before we lose it.

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