by Anne Drummond
We are living in strange and uncertain times; forest fires, floods, and other manifestations of climate change along with the social, economic, and ecological problems associated with an ever-increasing human population. Then the current COVID-19 pandemic which has touched most humans on the planet, and probably left animals wondering what is going on with us.
As our knowledge of the science of this pandemic grows, so too do the questions. Every country, every community, and every family are asking what now, what will change, and more importantly what needs to change? The more specific questions will reach into every facet of human life and have the potential to bring positive change to our societies and by extension to the planet. Because, although we are focused on our own safety and well-being we should also remember that our fortunes are intertwined with those of all living organisms on earth.
For biologists and naturalists the world over, a bright light shining through the gloom has been the anecdotes and photographic evidence of nature taking to the streets and other spaces vacated by humans—no more living in the shadows, animals are claiming space. In addition, at home and with time to spare, more and more people are noticing the urban wildlife around them. Can we as the UWSS, individuals, households, urban and rural communities take this increasing awareness of wildlife along with the urgency to address climate change and turn it into more effective stewardship of our beautiful planet?
Stewardship is a word we hear frequently but what exactly do we mean? In essence, stewardship refers to the responsible use and protection of natural environments and incorporates conservation and sustainable practices. However, that said, stewardship has many faces and not all of them are pretty.
While there is no discounting that commitment, passion, and work by many people has resulted in the preservation and conservation of land, wildlife, and ecosystems, stewardship has for a greater part had an economic basis and has been human-centred. The environment provides resources which have monetary value and we want to exploit these, so we take care of the resource we wish to exploit but have little care for the remainder of the system or for the consequences of our exploitation. This has led to the rise of industrial-scale farming, destructive mining practices, deforestation, exploitation of the rivers and oceans.
Aldo Leopold, regarded by many as the father of wildlife ecology and the USA wilderness system, wrote the Sand Country Almanac in response to the economic and libertarian-based land ethics, where only aspects of the environment useful to humans were preserved. In this book of essays, he proposed a land ethic (a framework guiding how people regard the land) that called for a more caring and morally responsible relationship between people and nature. His ecologically-based land ethic stems from the principle that the land, air, and water as well as all living organisms have intrinsic value, not just value to people.
In Leopold’s land ethic he maintains that “when we see land (nature) as a community to which we belong – we may begin to use it with love and respect”. His vision thus changes the human role from one of dominance to being but one of the many citizens of the community of nature.
While this may seem like a vague and perhaps even whimsical philosophy to some, delving deeper into how we view nature—the language we use, the actions and behaviours we engage in, the fears and expectations that we have—it is not difficult to see that we often neglect to consider the needs of the wild creatures and the land itself. There is little doubt that a more caring relationship between people and nature would bring great benefits to both parties. While as individuals we may not be able to bring about change on a large scale, we can, through our actions, all foster a more caring relationship with the urban wildlife around us.
Perhaps the most crucial thing we can do for wildlife is to preserve or create habitat wherever we can, thus making it possible for wild creatures to coexist with us.
This can take many forms including:
- Creating brush piles and encourage wild areas for shelter in your garden,
- Don’t rake up leaves, leave them in the beds as winter mulch and the insects and invertebrates the leaves attract provide protein-rich food for birds in the spring,
- Plant bird and insect-friendly plants
- Don’t remove trees unless they are a safety hazard as every mature tree, particularly evergreens, are home to many birds, invertebrates and small mammals,
- Let your lawn become wild, or plant wildflower lawns or dig it up and plant trees, shrubs, and flowering plants
- Only prune hedges, trees, and shrubs well before or well after birds have nested
- Avoid pesticides, herbicides or poisons
- Maintain hummingbird feeders and even seed feeders during the winter
- Provide clean water for birds and animals
And of course, keeping cats indoors and teaching dogs and children not to harass wildlife creates a safer environment for them.
Key to the development of a more respectful and caring relationship with nature is understanding the needs of wild creatures. which in turn has its root in observation. So this is an invitation to set up the deck chair on the lawn or take up a comfy spot on the lakeshore, bring your tea and simply observe, follow ants as they wend their way through the grass, watch the ducks protecting their young while still trying to feed, notice the sentry bird on the edge of bird feeding parties, learn the alarm call of a Towhee, notice all the different pollinators in action on flowering plants. Ask questions, find answers, and seek to understand and then protect.