– about a chilly winter walk with the red kite, getting lost (or not, really) and your power as a consumer.
As I walked out on to the downs near Dunstable, on this third walk of the Icknield Way Path, I was greeted by the red kite. Soaring high up above, gliding gracefully over the hilly landscape that is the Dunstable Downs and Chiltern Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Twisting his tail this way and that, to adjust his flight, to find the best winds. I could watch him forever, envying his aerial view over the brown, beige and golden landscape, the colours depicting the downs at this time of year.
The word “down” comes from the old English word of dūn, which means hill, and it is used for the rounded, grass-covered hills, typically composed by chalk, that can be found in southern England. Over the downs, and perhaps equally envying the red kite in his flight, two paragliders were setting off, and down in the valley at the gliding club, a glider was being prepared, soon to be pulled up and released, the human attempt to mimic the bird in the sky.
The red kite
When I first moved to England, more than 18 years ago, I remember seeing the red kite only very occasionally, as it glided effortlessly over the market town and countryside where we live. This elegant bird, who mainly lives off carrion and worms, has an interesting history to tell. During the Middle Ages, it was a valued scavenger that helped to keep the streets clean. The red kite was even protected by a royal decree, and killing it was associated with financial punishment. The status of the red kite changed when it was perceived as a threat to livestock, and by the 16th century a bounty was placed on its head. The red kite suffered from intensive human persecution for many hundreds of years until in 1871 when the red kite became extinct in England. Only a handful of red kite pairs were left in the remote parts of central Wales.
Now, the status of red kite is near threatened. As a result of a reintroduction programme, when 93 kite chicks from Spain where released into the Chilterns at the end of the 80’s and early 90’s, there are now over 200 breeding pairs in these parts. Protecting and restoring life on land is important for a sustainable terrestrial ecosystem. Sustainable Development Goal 15, life on land, deal with exactly this issue, focusing on the importance of sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, and halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss.
Not getting lost
I continued my walk, across muddy paths and paved paths. At times the signage for the Icknield Way is not clear; signs can fall off from their posts, or pointing perhaps a little obscurely so it is difficult to tell whether it is the path to the left or the one that goes straight on. Luckily, I have the OS map (Ordnance Survey map) on my phone and so I can relatively easily track where I am and where to go next. I noticed my unease at feeling a little lost, how I quickly grabbed for the phone to reassure myself that I was heading in the right direction.
When we have a goal to work towards, like I had set out a route to walk, I think it is quite natural wanting to know how we are getting on. We want to make sure that we are doing the right things, to take us closer to our goal, and if there is a deviation, we like to know of it early, so that the mistake of correcting it is not that big. That is at least how I work and why I find goals, like the Sustainable Development Goals, helpful. To know what or where to aim, and to understand if progress is being made. This is also why there are 169 targets associated with the 17 SDGs, and even more indicators, to show progress on a global scale.
Wildlife in decline
When I walk, I sometimes look up, to admire the view, to spot the red kite, to see where I am in the bigger picture. I also look down, to see where I put my feet, noticing every step and feeling the ground under the soles of my walking boots. I notice the details. Like the sign for the hedgehog crossing. Just a few days later, I saw on tv that hedgehog numbers are in decline, especially in rural areas, as hedgerows and field margins are lost to intensive farming. Another example of where we humans are responsible for loss of biodiversity.
Scientists have warned of the sixth mass extinction being underway, and according to WWF, Earth has lost half its wildlife in the last 40 years. Wildlife is dying out because of habitat destruction, toxic pollution and climate change – and the ultimate reason behind this, is human overpopulation, continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich. We buy too much stuff. Stuff that we do not really need. Our civilization utterly depends on the plants, animals, and microorganisms of Earth. It supplies essential ecosystem services, ranging from crop pollination and protection to supplying food and maintaining a livable climate.
The wind blew cold on my exposed walk on the Downs, and despite the pale sunshine on this January day, I needed to keep moving to keep the chill at bay.
Cold day – hot topic
Juxtaposing the chilly day with a hot topic in the environmental debate; the use of palm oil. Why do I bring this up? Because it is also very much related to SDG 15. Palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil in the world, with 66 million tons annually, going into our everyday foods, cosmetics, cleaning products and fuel. 27 million hectares of our Earth’s surface is oil palm plantations. Why is the use of palm oil so bad? Because large areas of rain forest are being bulldozed or torched to make way for more plantations. This release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In addition, when rainforests are being cleared, the natural habitat of many endangered animals are being pushed closer to extinction, and smallholders and indigenous people who have inhabited and protected the forest for generations, are often being brutally driven from their land.
Make it personal
So, what can you and I do to make a contribution and to ensure progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 15, life on land?
A lot for sure, and as my motto goes, no one can do everything and we can all do something. We can help hedgehogs by putting out wet cat and dog food, leaving wild areas for them to nest and making holes in the fence to enable them to move from garden to garden. We can support WWF and other NGOs working for wildlife protection. We can use consumer power and make purchases with our heads; buy less stuff that we don’t need and check the labels of the food we buy and make choices that do not contain palm oil.
Time for a warm cup of tea, here is to all life on land!