David Attenborough: 'Wild Isles nature is as dramatic and spectacular as anywhere'
From golden eagles in the Highlands to the puffins of Skomer, nature in Britain can be as dramatic as anything I’ve seen, says Sir David Attenborough of his landmark new series.
This piece was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
In my long life, I’ve been lucky enough to visit almost every part of the globe and gaze upon its most beautiful and dramatic sights. But I can assure you that nature in these islands, if you know where to look, can be just as dramatic and spectacular as anything I’ve seen elsewhere.
One reason our natural world is so rich is its geology. The rocks here are among the most varied to be found anywhere on the planet. From the chalk cliffs and downs of southern England to the limestone pavements of Yorkshire, from the rugged whinstone cliffs of Durham to the volcanic basalt of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, each kind of rock creates its own landscape with its own community of animals and plants.
Another reason our nature is so diverse is our varied climate. A thousand metres up in Scotland’s Cairngorm mountains, winter can be truly Arctic, with temperatures dropping to -27°C. These Highland peaks are patrolled by one of our most spectacular birds of prey: the golden eagle. They were once widespread across Britain and Ireland, but today almost all of our 500 or so pairs nest in Scotland.
Within the golden eagles’ territory, there is clear evidence of how precious our few remaining wild places are. There are now only remnants of the vast ancient forest that once covered most of the Highlands. Only 13 per cent of Britain is covered by trees – that’s one of the lowest proportions in the whole of Europe.
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Woodlands are complex communities containing great numbers of species of plants, mammals, birds and insects. But over the decades, they have been greatly diminished. In just the last 20 years, 60 per cent of our flying insects have vanished. Insects play a crucial role in pollinating both wildflowers and crops.
Britain and Ireland’s position on the globe gives us a special importance for wildlife internationally. We are in just the right place to welcome migrants from the south in summer and from the north in winter.
Our coastline is over 22,000 miles long, and our seas are among the richest in Europe. Because of this, our seabird colonies are among the biggest and most spectacular on the planet. Off the coast of Pembrokeshire, puffin numbers have been steadily increasing – today, nearly 40,000 return to the island of Skomer every summer – but it’s an exception. Most of our puffin colonies are in decline. Overfishing and climate change mean the sand eels they depend on are harder to find. It’s a clear example of just how fragile and fragmented our nature is.
Though rich in places, Britain as a whole is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Never has there been a more important time to invest in our own wildlife, to try and set an example for the rest of the world and restore our once wild isles for future generations.