People think of an uprooted forest when they think of habitat loss: orang utans starving in a palm oil plantation, the rabbits running from the machinery at the beginning of Watership Down, or the man-made desert of a dust-bowl. But habitat loss is, in the majority of cases, a lot less dramatic and much more ordinary than that, and often a great deal closer to home.
A species’ habitat is a complex interaction of countless factors; shelter, food and water; room to make choices about prey or predators; breeding sites and a safe exit for surplus population. Remove just one element and the whole thing can be lost.
Pave your front garden in order to park your car off-road and reduce your insurance costs, and the blackbirds nesting in your back garden lose a place to forage. This could be the difference, next spring, between their staying to rear chicks in your hedge or leaving for a place with flowerbeds and a good supply of invertebrates. The sparrowhawk that snatched a blackbird fledgling from your lawn last year, may never visit you again. That is habitat loss.
Poison the ants’ nest that sends workers to steal sugar in your kitchen and the habitat of the invertebrates (beetles, spiders and snails) that feed on the ants will be depleted and their populations will fall. The things that eat beetles, spiders and snails, like the blackbird that moved in after your neighbours paved their front garden, will also suffer habitat depletion. Some species will leave, others will die out; you may not notice either. That is habitat loss.
Too often these chains of depletion begin with everyday human activity that we think nothing of. Urban house sparrow populations have fallen by 60% since 1970, largely because we have filled up the cracks and holes in the walls and roofs of our houses, where they nest. The house sparrow, once the commonest of birds, is now red-listed as a species of high conservation concern because of habitat loss.
Conservation, like charity and recycling, begins at home. We need to be aware of the things that live around us and aware of how they live. For millennia, humankind has solved problems by destroying the habitats of other species and it really is time to think of some other way.
So, when the media starts talking about habitat loss, don’t immediately think of international corporations slashing their way through a rainforest. Think about your habitat and the things you share it with; leave your car on the road and plant your front garden with nectar rich flowers; dispose of the poison and put your sugar in a jar with an ant-proof lid; send away the man trying to sell you plastic soffits and tell him you prefer your house sparrows.