War is hell – for the natural world too

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In a paper in the current issue of the journal British Birds, under a title so anodyne it might seem of interest only to the most narrowly focused of specialists – “Changes in the number of Common Guillemots on Skomer since the 1930s” – Tim Birkhead, a professor at Sheffield University, makes the revolutionary suggestion that the battle of the Atlantic actually had a devastating effect on marine life. He does so by looking at the breeding population of guillemots, penguin-like seabirds which are actually auks, on Skomer island off the coast of west Wales, before and after the second world war.

A specialist in animal behaviour, Birkhead has carried out much research on Skomer’s guillemots over recent decades, and he is the British expert on the species. His originality is to reconstruct the prewar population on the island – never counted – by detailed analysis of old photographs which have recently come to light of the cliff ledges on which the birds breed. He concludes that there were “at least 100,000 individuals in 1934”. But in 1963, when the first proper count was done, the numbers had dropped by a staggering 95%, to 4,856 birds. (They have slowly climbed back up to the present level of 23,746). He adduces other evidence to show that the steepest decline was between 1940 and 1946, and that oil pollution from the ships sunk off the western coasts of Britain during the war was the principal cause.

He remarks: “The magnitude of the effect of second world war activities on guillemots (and presumably other marine wildlife) has not previously been appreciated.” It does not weigh in the balance for us, does it, with the 60 million people? It cannot do. And yet it happened, and it carries a lesson for us: that the natural world cannot take the punishment it receives at the hands of human society without consequences, and that even the ocean, which we have long presumed is able to absorb anything we throw in it, is far less resilient than in our arrogance we might care to think.

read more: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/01/war-hell-for-natural-world-battle-atlantic-guillemot-population-95-per-cent
article: 
photo: Dimitris Legakis

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