The frisson of autumn on the Norfolk Broads

A reminder is that we share a habitat and a common experience with other creatures.

A traditional reedcutter at work on the Norfolk Broads
A traditional reedcutter at work on the Norfolk Broads. Photograph: Getty Images

Mid-autumn, just before our boat goes into dry dock for the winter, has a special frisson on the Norfolk Broads. The reeds begin to bleach and reflect the sunsets, so that for a while the water appears to glow brighter as the dusk closes in. The last migrants leaving for Africa cross with the first arriving from the tundra, the swallow flying under the goose. This week the local kingfishers have reappeared, darting between moored-up cruisers and skin-diving between their hulls. We’ve seen otters close to for the first time, one rolling right in front of the boat with a huge bream in its paws.

But the rain and cold that have permeated 2012 are still casting shadows on all species that depend on the sun. Flying insects, the birds that eat them, the raptors that prey on the insectivorous birds have gone into guerrilla mode; hiding out in remote, sheltered redoubts, working unsociable hours, keeping= silent to conserve energy. It’s happening below the radar of most of us and just how much damage has been done won’t be known until the year’s records are analysed. It’s unlikely to be good news.

Does it matter either way? Short of outright extinction, is the fraying and fragmentation of species of any real consequence to us? The government seemed to think so when it set out its
 green agenda and acknowledged that biodiversity was essential to the earth’s survival and what it liked to call “quality of life” (ours, that is). Now, this commitment has gone the way of all its other green pledges. In the past few months the government has junked the advice of two of its own scientific advisory committees. The biologically absurd and culturally objectionable badger cull has been given the go-ahead (albeit delayed until next year). Incontestable evidence that neo-nicotinoid insecticides are one of the causes of the collapse of bee populations has not made a dent in Defra’s support for them.

Now Defra has asked the Law Commission to rationalise wildlife protection laws in the UK. Not a bad idea, perhaps, given the piecemeal way they’ve accumulated over the past hundred years. An updating would provide an opportunity to bring legislation into line with new ecological threats, and with our new understanding of the crucial importance of wild species to the earth as a whole. But this is not what the Law Commission has in mind at all. The first duty of wildlife law, it has put on record, is to “provide the framework within which wildlife can be controlled, so that it does not interfere with the conduct of human activity” – a principle that is equivalent to saying that the prime object of child protection laws is to ensure the wretched infants don’t get in the way of their parents’ career opportunities. The commission concedes that the law should protect individual animals from harm, but only if that harm is “above a permitted level”.

It’s not clear if these barbarous, commodifying guidelines were dumped on the commission by Defra. They certainly sit snugly with the government’s social and economic project. But they may equally show the UK legal establishment returning to its default position on wildlife. The status of a wild organism in common law is as potential property. While it is free and alive, it belongs to everybody, or, more correctly, to nobody. But by being “rendered into possession” – the legal euphemism for killing or capturing – it is turned into goods, the property of the owner of the land on which it’s taken. The notion of wildlife as part of the family silver – private inheritance more than common heritage – melds seamlessly into the idea of it as disposable nuisance, and many early protection laws carried an exception clause concerning “interference with legitimate human activity”. But this is the first occasion when the exception has been made the guiding principle.

As a principle for legislation it’s not only irrelevant but actively hostile to the conservation of our archipelago’s biodiversity, as well as offensive to anyone who regards living organisms as more than entries on a cost-benefit ledger. The problem is that we don’t have an agreed alternative scale for the “value of species”. That clunking, portmanteau term “biodiversity” doesn’t help. Like “natural capital” it’s an intruder from corporate-speak, defining species as commodities, whose numbers can be simply and demonstrably totted up. By this crude index a perilously rare species barricaded in a nature reserve counts equally with an ocean-wide phytoplankton fuelling an entire ecosystem. They’re both just ticks in a box, a place where the trader meets the twitcher.

Nor is our current attitude towards nature’s “usefulness” (the implicit opposite of the Law Commission’s “interference with the conduct of human activity”) remotely appropriate. By
useful, we mean useful to us – and visibly so. We may have grudgingly admitted pollinating insects into the realms of the utilitarian but not the predators that attack the parasites of the pollinators. We allow agricultural fungicides to leach into the groundwater and collaterally damage a “useless” (and probably unlovely) tree-root fungal symbiote and wonder why hedgerow oaks are withering . . .

The interdependence of species is far too complex for us to make crass and anthropomorphic judgements about what is and what isn’t “useful”.

In September a huge fin whale beached on the East Anglian coast at Shingle Street. It was thin and in distress and eventually died, despite Herculean efforts to get it back into the water. For a few days it became a kind of shrine, while the authorities worked out what to do with it. People flocked to the beach to see the sinuous carcass with its prodigious maw. They came out of a sense of wonder, or morbid curiosity, or simple melancholy. A great leviathan had lost its way and become embarrassingly dead meat. In the end utilitarianism triumphed.
The whale was carted off on a lowloader to a processing plant, where its blubber was rendered down for biofuel.

Were those of us who thought it would have been more fitting to bury the body on the shore guilty of sentimentality as well as serious impracticality? This is not a “conservation of biodiversity” issue: the loss of one fin whale is neither here nor there. But the fate of its remains nags us with another challenge: how we conserve the meaning of wildlife – which may underpin our so far feeble attempts to save it physically.

I’d like to argue that we should respect wild organisms for their own sake, because they’re here. But I’m aware that this is a philosophical conceit and that “their own sake” is really code for “my own sake” – or at least my aesthetic and moral satisfaction. The philosopher Edward L McCord’s book The Value of Species tries to find a compromise. He argues that “individual species are of such intellectual moment – so interesting in their own right – that they rise above other values and merit enduring human embrace.” This raises utilitarianism to an intellectual level but for me still fails to do justice to the sheer breadth of the experience of living in a world alongside other species.

Gliding west at last light on the Broads, the answer often seems self-evident. In October the pinkfeet geese return from Iceland. The great scrolls of birds unwind across the sky so high up that they make yet another plane of colour, their bellies lit pink by the sun long after it has sunk out of sight. But they’re not remote in any other sense. The ebb and flow of their chatter, the calligraphy, the waving scribbles of birds (“taking a line for a fly”, to misquote Paul Klee) speaks plainly about the company of one’s kind on great journeys.

The Broads are full of such moments. The spring duets of cranes, segued trumpetings that can carry half a mile and which are couched in a minor third, an interval found in every musical culture on earth. Swallowtail butterflies folding their wings to fly through raised sails. A strange aquatic plant called hornwort, which on very hot days, in a few unpolluted pools, fizzes with so much transpired oxygen that the stems “jiffle” against each other and sing like Aeolian harps.

The Broads – medieval open-cast peat mines that were inundated during a climate shift in the 13th century – have just had a “biodiversity audit” and the results are jaw-dropping for anyone who regards them as no more than a watery holiday camp: more than 11,000 species, including a quarter of the entire country’s tally of conservation priorities.

But the statistics say nothing about the kind of relationships that are possible with this cornucopia of life forms. A few hours before the geese fly in to roost we round the corner in Somerton Dyke, where the whirligigs begin. Everyone looks out for these engaging beetles, just a few millimetres long, as they drift about in flotillas close to the reeds. They shine in the sun, like beads of mercury, and every few seconds the entire gang bursts into a frenzy of high speed, near-miss swirling, a waterborne roller derby. It’s comic and touching and so far unexplained – except that, like the flights of geese, it feels intuitively comprehensible, a kind of dance about the companionships of crowds.

Whirligigs are ancient animals, whose family emerged more than 200 million years ago in the Triassic period. They have no known predators, because of an extraordinary skin coating, which is a highly scented, toxic and antibacterial wetting agent. Their hind legs work like paddle- steamer wheels and give whirligigs the highest acceleration of any aquatic animals. They do not “interfere” with any human activity, nor are in any way practically useful to us (though I suspect that pharmacologists and nano-engineers will be looking at their bactericidal moisturiser before too long). And though they have undoubted “intellectual moment” it’s not at all clear why they touch one so. You round a corner and there they are, at the usual address, and if they’re not you begin to worryand miss them.

This is nothing to do with anthropomorphism or manufactured empathy. It comes, for me, from something I can only describe as a sense of neighbourliness; the emotion the poet John Clare felt so powerfully for his fellow commoners, of all species. Neighbourliness is not friendship. It doesn’t demand reciprocity. It’s based on sharing a habitat, on the common experience of place and season and the hardships of weather. It might provide a bridge across that great conceptual divide between us and other species.

Richard Mabey’s most recent book is “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” (Profile, £9.99)