A reprieve for Akamas, but what of the wider countryside and common species?

By Martin Hellicar

The latest in a long series of ‘save Akamas’ campaigns staves off the worst for this precious area. This is something to celebrate, for sure, but all-the-while creeping development and agricultural intensification eat away at our countryside, bit by bit. Can we move beyond ‘firefighting’ action in conservation? Can we progress to protecting nature everywhere and species both common and rare?

I will start on a personal note, and with a memory from a dull and drizzly February afternoon some 40 years ago, and I hope you will see why as you read on. It was in a muddy field somewhere near Dali and my brother and I were transfixed. Using my first ever, and newly acquired, binoculars, we had managed to spot a male stonechat Saxicola torquatus. It stood on a wet stone in a field, a striking black-and-white bird, with a splash of orange-red on the breast.

The stonechat is a common winter visitor to Cyprus. ‘Nothing special,’ one might say. Arriving from breeding grounds in the far north in October, it stays until early spring. It prefers open landscapes in the lowlands, and farmland especially. Though common, this sparrow-sized bird will always be special for me, as the first species I ever managed to identify, with the aid of bird book, bins and brotherly encouragement. That stonechat was the start of something for me, not just bird watching but of a more focused interest in nature and its protection. (It took my brother and me quite some time, by the way, pouring over the descriptive text and illustration in JME Took’s ‘Common Birds of Cyprus’, before we were satisfied it was indeed a stonechat we had found, even if this is one of the most easy-to-recognise species of the Cyprus winter!).

I always look forward to the arrival of the first stonechats in autumn. They appear in pairs and take up a winter territory, defending it from rival stonechats, thus ensuring they might hold a big enough habitat patch to provide sufficient insect food to last them until spring departure. Their simple call, a short ‘chack-chack’, is what usually gives them away. They are easy birds to spot, preferring to perch out in the open, on the ground or on a bush, ever on the lookout for passing insects. The return of the stonechats, much like the arrival of swallows and swifts in spring, somehow serves to reassure that the system is still ‘working’. That the amazing phenomenon of bird migration, and by extension nature in general, is still ticking over and hanging in there, despite all we throw at it.

The stonechat is not a threatened species. However, like many common birds, it is not as common as it used to be, with a decreasing population trend in Europe. Arguably, we should be just as worried about the decline of common species as we are about rare species disappearing. After all, it is common species that play the bigger part in ecosystem function by performing ‘routine’ tasks such as – in the case of the stonechat – keeping insect population in balance. Reduced abundance of common species undermines basic eco-function.

stonechat a. stoecker

A stonechat (A Stoecker)

This is not me arguing we should let rare species like Griffon vultures and Bonelli’s eagles tumble down the path to extinction and focus only on swallows and stonechats. What I am saying though, is that we must not forget the stonechats of this world. We need a balanced approach to conservation.

In a similar vein, on the broader scale of sites and habitats, we tend to focus on special places, on threatened sites and on big threats. Again, I would argue that this focus – necessary as it is – should not be at the cost of forgetting the landscape as a whole, including those less picturesque and less ‘special’ places.  We need a conservation strategy for the whole countryside.

The muddy field I spotted my first stonechat in is no longer there. It is buried deep under the Nicosia-Larnaca highway. It was only a cereal field, one of thousands across the land. It never had outstanding biodiversity value and the area it was in never made it onto any list of protected sites. The fate of this small slice of farmland habitat – home to wintering stonechats and other common species – might have been different had it been within a recognised area of high nature value, somewhere like the Akamas, say.

BirdLife Cyprus and other environmental NGOs are just emerging from the latest long campaign to protect Akamas from development. “We are battered and bruised but smiling,” as a colleague aptly put it. We have beaten back a planning proposal (the Akamas Local Plan) drawn up in environmental hell; we can once more hope for better and wiser plans to come for this special peninsula and its communities. We do not for a moment regret all the long days invested in the fight to save Akamas.

The logic of focusing on the most unique and biodiversity-rich sites is clear. Such sites are precious and can act as ‘nature banks’, from which species can be drawn, or spring forth, to restock the wider countryside in the future, as the conservation agenda and conservation action gain traction. Another key aspect is that well-known sites – much like flagship species – can capture the wider imagination, helping promote the conservation cause.

The ugly reality, however, is that the retreat of nature and the undermining of ecosystems is a case of ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Most of these cuts go unnoticed and unchallenged, like the loss of that Dali field under a new highway. Environmental NGOs invest their limited resources in trying to save sites like Akamas and species like Griffon vultures, focusing on the biggest and most immediate threats, be these bad development plans or illegal poison baits. It has to be done, but while these big battles rage, we are losing ground everywhere.

Roads and concrete continue a steady march across the land (Cyprus has a land sealing rate that is twice the EU average and growing). Key natural elements in our farmed landscapes are lost, in the name of ‘tidiness’ and increased agricultural production. For example, thorny Zyzyphus (Jujube or ‘Palloura’) and Crataegus (Medlar or ‘Mosfilia’) bushes were once commonplace across our lowland farmland. In theory, remnants of natural vegetation – including Jujube and Medlar bushes, are protected and farmers removing them risk losing their subsidies. In reality, these and other natural elements are rarely, if ever, recorded on payment agency maps. They are routinely grubbed up, and no recourse remains. If something was ‘never there’, no penalty can be paid for removing it.

The hope of course is that by winning battles like the one for Akamas, the ‘save nature’ message becomes more and more embedded in society, and with decision-makers. There are some encouraging signs of this beginning to happen, but as we continue to force nature into retreat across the landscape, declines in wildlife point to a need for transformative change. Turning this tide requires vision and a determination to stand up to the ‘business as usual’ model of more tarmac, more concrete and bigger, ‘tidier’ fields.

 

Martin Hellicar is director of local nature conservation NGO BirdLife Cyprus