According to a report by a coalition of British wildlife organisations, more than half of the animal species of our lands are in decline, and almost a third are strongly declining. Patrick Barkham writes engagingly inside the Guardian of the threat posed to hedgehogs – those redoubtable features of our landscapes – for whom the urbanisation of everything has given rise to homelessness and obsolescence. Our country is not alone in observing the downfall of its wildlife. Today’s Washington Post carries news that frogs, toads and salamanders have been vanishing from across America. It is an exciting time in many children’s lives when, delving through the undergrowth, they meet a frog. Fewer of the next generation, it seems, will have that privilege.
For someone who cares a lot about animal welfare, I am not a big animal lover. We do not, to be quite frank, have a great deal in common and while I wish them well I tend to leave them be. I do think the creatures of our wildlife are important, though, and should be valued. This is partly because they are often sentient beings, and it is cruel to obstruct their path to food and shelter. It is partly due to their effect on us, though.
When I lived in London, a nice feature of my urban life was watching the foxes scurry across the green outside my home. They are not my favourite creatures, and nor are they yours, and their shrieks were alarming for the few moments that I assumed a baby was dying outside, but their presence was oddly soothing. It was not a happy period in my life, yet something about these busy, preoccupied animals helped to give me perspective. Beyond the passing concerns and moods of the day, the world was driving forwards, in all of its blithe boldness and grand animation. If our imperialism drives other creatures out of our societies we risk losing our proportion; that sense of being in a long time and a big place. And, relatedly, we risk starving our imaginations. I am by no means a staunch foe of civilisation: one can track its achievements for our health and comfort and culture in charts and on graphs. Yet we are losing a great deal, and some of it can’t be quantified. We are losing our poetry.