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2 June 2021

The butterfly effect

Two new books show how human agency is eroding the basic fabric of European wildlife. 

By Mark Cocker

During lockdown in spring last year I found and photographed a lapwing’s nest and thereby scratched a delicious itch that has been semi-dormant within me for 50 years. As a child I wilfully, illegally collected about a dozen wild birds’ eggs and stored these treasures in a shoebox in my bedroom. Most naturalists of my vintage will freely admit that this is how their lifelong passions for wildlife began.

By 12 years old I had abandoned the illicit ways of my youth, but even today I find wild bird nests and their contents completely entrancing. Gazing down at this lapwing clutch I could easily understand, if not forgive, the motivations of the criminal egg collector. Unique, fragile and exquisite, eggs are nature’s greatest works of art.

Yet the transformation in our attitudes means that images of collections, as seen in Colin Prior’s glorious volume of photographs, are now freighted with mixed emotions. There is wonder at the perfection of eggs, both as aesthetic objects and as products of 250 million years of evolution (if one factors in the dinosaur period too). There is also a sense that they belong in a province to which we should bar our own entry.

Prior has found a way to navigate some of this moral dilemma by showing us only the eggs stored in the old collections of the National Museums Scotland. These exhibits are now sanctified by science and while they might lack some of the true magic of a wild nest in situ, they let us appreciate afresh the astonishing beauty of eggs.

Prior, however, has done something very clever. He has linked each image of an individual egg to a portrait of a landscape. The Scottish places that he has explored and recorded as part of his primary photographic practice are matched to a bird species that dwells there. These landscape shots are monumental, painterly, reflective of their author’s deeply patient method and filled with love for his Scottish homeland.

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By finding some chromatic rhyme between the egg and the place, he nudges us towards two further reflections: that each egg is not just a landscape, it is the very first landscape in which every bird on Earth emerges to sentient life. He also reminds us that an egg is made of the place where it arises. The mother bird may supply the calcium, blood and bile to create each egg’s unique signature of ground colour and pattern, but those, in turn, derive from chemical constituents extracted by the parent from its surroundings. The egg and its habitat are truly one and participate in a single process.

That is Prior’s indivisible and uplifting message, which is reinforced by separate essays from the museum’s curator, Bob McGowan, and by one of Scotland’s great environmental champions, Des Thompson, whose father was an infamous egg collector and a brilliant naturalist.


The author Josef Reichholf is a German academic specialising in entomology. In a sense he sees the world through the other end of the telescope to Colin Prior. While Prior gives us the sweep and panorama of landscape, Reichholf deals in the inner biochemical processes of invertebrates. Yet both authors converge in their concern to illuminate the underlying wholeness of life.

The Disappearance of Butterflies is in many ways the fulfilment of Reichholf’s entire 50-year career. He has been obsessively collecting population data on butterflies and moths found in his Bavarian home region since the 1950s. It is the depth of this research that gives his conclusions weight.

But first, Reichholf seeks to explain that insect numbers vary over time for a whole host of reasons, which he divides into density-dependent and density-independent factors. To simplify some of Reichholf’s necessarily precise terminology, density-dependent regulation includes such matters as competition for food and the impact of predators. In short, the greater the abundance of a particular species the more the individuals will compete with one another for the same resources. Density- independent factors, such as weather, operate regardless of whether or not a particular insect is abundant.

His long preamble on these matters is technical and the English translation from the German feels rather wooden. Yet it also gives the author a chance to rehearse some of the main findings from his wider research, and demonstrates his profound understanding of the variables in insect population dynamics. It also emphasises that here is an authority able to separate the noise generated by naturally occurring variation from the indisputable trend triggered by human causes. The headline figure that emerges after his long list of caveats is an 80 per cent decline in German moth and butterfly numbers since the 1970s.

[see also: It is an ecological evil that hares are slaughtered by landowners seeking to protect their profits]

The soul of the book is its devastating exposure of how these losses are caused by industrialised chemical farming. There is very little in it that is new, but Reichholf offers powerful proof that the British picture of declining butterfly populations is closely paralleled in Germany. The assumption must be that the same findings will recur wherever the same agricultural regime operates. It implicates the European Union’s common agricultural policy as a key agent intensifying a continent-wide loss of wildlife. And there should be no gloating by either side in the Brexit debate: wildlife losses in the UK are above the European average and, prior to secession, the British farming lobby and its government were among the most reluctant to adopt mitigation measures.

Reichholf is keen to highlight the disparity between urban and farmed landscapes. The latter have been stripped bare, while suburban gardens and city parks can be some of the most complex and biodiverse habitats left in Germany. Yet, ironically, many wildlife NGOs as well as government planners are fixated on saving the German equivalent of the green belt countryside and channelling new development within urban boundaries. Reichholf suggests that this is ecological illiteracy and it has major implications in the UK, where the same blinkered mindset is at work.

Another important part of Reichholf’s analysis concerns the policies of tidiness that prevail almost everywhere that landscape management operates. The countryside has been so simplified by agro- industrial methods – those basic rectilinear patterns of single-crop, single-colour blocks across the fields – that we now assume this neatness is part of best practice.

As a result, most modern Europeans have an obsessive concern for mechanised order in almost all semi-natural landscapes, but especially on road verges and even on the sides of tracks running through forestry. This living-room-carpet cleanliness is a scourge upon nature and Reichholf urges a recognition that complexity, untidiness and wildlife abundance are closely connected.


The story here is hardly new. Nor does the author have many suggestions as to how the losses he so vividly depicts should be reversed. Yet he does remind us of what exactly is at stake with the decline of moths and butterflies. One sidetrack that Reichholf loves to wander is along the migration routes taken by some of these remarkable insects. Perhaps the most extraordinary of these routes is the 15,000km covered over several generations by many millions of painted lady butterflies as they travel out of Africa’s Sahel region, as far north as the Arctic Circle, then back towards the Middle East.

Even for a bird such an odyssey would be impressive, but for a creature of less than a single gram it is truly wondrous. It is this heritage that we stand to lose with our present food production regime.

With enormous rigour the author has assembled an indisputable body of evidence that proves human agency is eroding the very fabric of European wildlife. Reichholf shows us how natural ecosystems might be complex, highly adapted and beautiful. But, like a clutch of lapwing eggs in the grass, they can be crushed with one false step.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late?” (Vintage)

Fragile: Birds, Eggs and Habitats
Colin Prior
Merrell, £40

The Disappearance of Butterflies
Josef H Reichholf, trs by Gwen Clayton 
Polity Press, £25

[see also: Roy Dennis’s Restoring the Wild chronicles 60 years of rewilding Britain]

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This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West