Sandy’s Garden ... Should I care about species at risk?

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If the purpose of a headline is to attract the reader’s attention, then the writer of the following front-page headline in my preferred Sunday newspaper deserves full marks.

“Only 100 adult cod in N Sea,” it proclaimed over a story from which I learned that an analysis of catches at North Sea ports across Europe in 2011 found not a single cod over the age of 13 … and no, I don’t know how one determines the age of a dead cod. I also learned that cod can live for up to 25 years, can grow up to 6 feet in length and become more fertile as they grow older. So the absence of truly adult cod means that there are fewer eggs and larvae to ensure the continuation of the species, which is being dramatically over-fished. Now I do care about this, for I like fish and chips and, while I prefer haddock with my chips, I am aware that the dish described as ‘English-style’ fish and chips means cod and chips. I like to eat fish, so I am concerned when I read that any species of fish is threatened with extinction.

But what about the brightly-coloured Willow Blister fungus which grows only on trees in Pembrokeshire and which is listed as being critically at risk of extinction due to “limited availability of habitat” according to a new study. Frankly, I wouldn’t recognise a Willow Blister fungus if one, to use a colourful colloquialism, “bit me on the b**.” And should I care that species ranging from the Araripe manakin … Antilophia bokermanni … which is found only in Brazil, the Sumatran rhinoceros … Dicerorhinus sumatrensis … found only in Malaysia and Indonesia, the three-toed sloth … Bradypus pygmaeus …

which is unique to Panama and the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey … Rhinopithecus avunculus … from Vietnam are among the world’s 100 most endangered vertebrates?

The position with invertebrates is even more serious, with one in five of the world’s invertebrate species threatened with extinction, according to the latest report from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Ben Collen, a biodiversity scientist at ZSL, who coordinated the invertebrate study and co-edited the report, concluded that the greatest threat is to freshwater invertebrates, including crabs and snails, followed by terrestrial and marine invertebrates. And Professor Jonathan Baillie, ZSL’s director of conservation, said: “The donor community and conservation movement are leaning increasingly towards a ‘what can nature do for us’ approach, where species and wild habitats are valued and prioritised according to the services they provide for people. This has made it increasingly difficult for conservationists to protect the most threatened species on the plant. While the utilitarian value of nature is important, conservation goes beyond this. Do these species have a right to survive or do we have a right to drive them to extinction?”

The obvious answer is, of course, that we should all be concerned about threats to the diversity of creatures, plants and organisms that are found on our precious planet, regardless of whether mankind is able to exploit any of them as food, or for medical use, to provide shelter or clothing or for any other utilitarian purpose. But what about the vine weevil, or West Highland midges, or slugs? Do I care if any of these species of what I would describe as pests are threatened? Slugs are terrestrial invertebrates which I would happily exclude from my garden, denying them their preferred habitat; and it wouldn’t break my heart to learn that I could visit some of the wonderful gardens of the West Highlands of Scotland without being eaten alive by midges. So, while we might superficially agree with ZSL’s Ellen Butcher, who argues that society … that’s all of us … must support the moral and ethical position that all species have an inherent right to exist, we might care to consider our true position.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society