Over the years I think the word ‘adaptability’ has featured in every job advert I have ever written. Something I feel is vital in a young person learning to be a landscaper or gardener. We have to anticipate, changing direction or task and often having to use or rely on what is available, local or native.
We are though really just tinkering with a blend of practicality and aesthetics relating to a luxury, a nice to have. Unlike the animals and plants whose environment we are encroaching on. Adaptability to many of them is no luxury – it’s the way to survive.
In a country that was, up to relatively recently (5000 years or so ago) 80% wooded, animals and plants were perfectly adapted to life in the woods. Take foxes, for instance. Originally animals of deciduous forest, over the last 1000 years (200 fox generations), woodland has declined by 90% – yet foxes not only survived – they have thrived. As the landscape became more diverse, fields, hedges, roads and town developed and with them a huge variety of different food sources appeared; rabbits, rates and human rubbish and waste. The fox or ‘King of Adaptation’ has shown he can change his and his family’s diet and lifestyle in just a generation (3-5 years).
So how are other wildlife adapting? Yesterday I was lucky enough to see a Goshawk. A very rare, large bird of prey sitting on a small tree by the side of the road. A young male, probably 18 months old. After the initial thrill of seeing such a magnificent creature I began to feel concerned. A Goshawk is a superb and very efficient killer of small to medium birds and animals and from where he was sitting he had a choice of rabbits and pigeons (fine) and also pheasants (not so good).
Like the fox, the Goshawk is adaptable. Rabbits and woodpigeons are fairly wily and quick, but brightly-coloured, noisy, well-fed pheasants released into the countryside in their thousands, are neither fast, nor clever.
All predators make an instinctive calculation; is this prey worth the effort? What’s the energy expenditure versus the potential or likely reward? A pheasant will always the armchair ride, the drive through.
What the Goshawk doesn’t factor in and the fox can’t possibly understand is the human element; we’ve created and provided this bountiful food source for our own entertainment and so we don’t like it when it’s taken away.
Foxes are now very common, Goshawks are still very rare. Thirty years ago Red Kites were also very rare and now are common again in certain areas of the country. I wonder if the capacity to survive and even to thrive may depend on a further adaptation; learning to avoid the easy targets offered. Will the Goshawk ultimately understand the high risk thrown up as temptation by man and take the lower value, more difficult pigeon instead?
What I would like to think is that we, as a responsible society, would make our own measured calculation. We should accept that the ‘eat as much as you can’ pheasant buffet that we have created as part of the wider environment we all share, is up for grabs. Because, like it or not, if you ever see a Goshawk face to face, or his smaller more common cousin the Sparrowhawk, you need to look into his eyes. Only then will you realise that he will never fear the risk.