Homogenization means to make something ‘uniform or similar’, it is a concept with connotations of blandness and repetitiveness. It could easily be applied to Britain’s high-streets, which are increasingly becoming rows of identical big-name franchises – every town in the country is now guaranteed to contain a Costa. It is one of my greatest fears for the future that this very thing will happen to the natural world as well.
But what exactly would the homogenizing of nature entail? Well, currently over 70,000 different species of organism live in the UK from Mallards to Tardigrades. There is a great diversity of both species and habitats, which is perhaps most obviously demonstrable in birds. Get up at dawn in spring and unless you are in the middle of a city, you will hear a varied chorus from Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Song Thrushes, Titmice, Starlings etc. You can go from seeing Nuthatches and woodpeckers in a forest to gazing out over an estuary covered in feeding Curlew, Redshank, Dunlin, gulls and Snipe in just a day. However, a lot of these birds (over 60 now) are of high conservation concern as their populations plummet across the UK.
There are many species, including quite a few birds, that are niche specialists; which means they have adapted to live within a relatively specific set of habitat parameters. Specialists such as the Large Blue butterfly (which needs grassland of a certain sward-length and the presence of a particular ant species) or the Dotterel (a plover that breeds only on mountain tops) do very well if their needs are met and usually suffer very little from competition. However, the very nature of their requirements means that they are vulnerable to even small changes in their environment.
The Giant Panda is a very well known specialist, I don’t think I need to tell you that it feeds exclusively on bamboo, which is all well and good if there is plenty of bamboo, but if it is all cut down then the Panda is screwed. To us humans we can sometimes feel like these highly specialist species are a bit stupid – that they have backed themselves into a corner and if they go extinct, well it was their own fault for being so needy. The thing is, it is these very species which make life on Earth so diverse and interesting, and we would sorely miss them if they were to go extinct.
When major changes are occurring in the environment, such as a warming climate, or habitat loss/fragmentation, or pollution, or huge quantities of agricultural chemicals are sprayed over the landscape year on year, then it is these specialists that are lost first. Species like the Corn Bunting or Turtle Dove or Stone Curlew cannot adapt to these rapid changes, they cannot weather them like a generalist species can. Crows, pigeons, Blackbirds, Mallards and Blue tits are examples of ‘generalist’ species, they don’t have such specific requirements as others and can be much more adaptable to changes.
It is my fear that as the climate changes further and the effects of chemicals and pollutants become more noticeable in our landscapes, all of the diverse and ‘needy’ species of bird or mammal or reptile or bumblebee will become incredibly rare or restricted, or vanish altogether. Then only the adaptable species that aren’t too picky about breeding sites or climate or food will remain and our woodlands will only contain Great tits and Woodpigeons, our estuaries will only contain Mallards and Black-headed gulls, our mountains will be silent and our farms will cease to ring with the song of the Yellowhammer so that only passing Jackdaws will fill the sky.
Let me make clear that there is nothing wrong with these generalist species, I love Robins and Collared doves for their own charms, but they should be a part of a biodiverse and thriving ecosystem, not the sole occupants of it. Every year it seems that another species of insect or plant or bird is declared to be declining by some large percentage. It is predicted that we will gain species from the continent as the climate shifts, which is sort of good, but the number of species we will lose to the same shifts are far greater, ultimately there is a loss. Walking across farmland in Sussex the other day I heard tens of Chiffchaff and Blackcap singing from the scrubby hedges, but no buntings, no partridges, no skylarks, no meadow pipits, none of what used to be typical farmland birds, just those two opportunistic warblers.
When I am 50 years old I don’t want to walk through a British countryside that holds just the same ten common species as my garden across all the remaining habitats. I don’t want the ‘coo-coo’ call of the Woodpigeon to be the only sound I hear on a walk across a heathland. I don’t want nature to become homogenized, to be the same wherever I go, I want it to remain diverse and interesting and special, and to do that we need to protect and conserve those oh-so-very needy species that are currently free-falling into the abyss of extinction.