When people talk about destruction of habitat, I immediately think of burning trees in the Amazon, or the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. And those things certainly count. But it is a mistake to think of habitat destruction simply on the large scale. In March last year I revisited a site I’ve been to many times, to watch grass snakes emerge. Now I know snakes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, even if they are the harmless Grass Snake, but like all wildlife, they need places to live and bred, and like much wildlife, a place to hide away from the cold of Winter. Snakes use “hibernacula”, communal places, often under piles of stones or logs, where dozens of snakes may lie together. Some may travel several kilometers to join one. So teh loss of a hibernaculum may be a fata blow not just for a single snake, but for dozens of them.
The site I was visiting was a Grass Snake hibernaculum, part of the wall of a n old “ha ha” – a wall which has ground level with the top on one side, and level with the bottom on the other. They are a brilliantly clever idea, used to farm animals off the manicured lawns of posh houses without spoiling the owner’s views with ugly walls or fences. Like most posh houses, this one has fallen onto hard times and its ha-ha wall, several feet high, has plenty of nooks and crannies – ideal for snakes to hibernate in.
Unfortunately, the owners, unaware of the snakes’ presence, had decided that he wall was becoming unsafe and needed pointing, and that the colder months was the right time to do it. When I arrived to watch the annual show, the grass snakes were nowhere to be seen. I hope that the removal of rocks for re-playing had scared them out before the mortar went in, but even then a snake at large in the winter is unlikely to survive unless it can find shelter very quickly.
The owners of the wall did nothing wrong. The wall was unsafe and a danger to people I doubt that they even knew the snakes were there. But even so, the destroyed habitat probably resulted in the death of many snakes. If you don’t like them, replace “Snakes” with “Badgers” or “Elephants”and see how you feel. Micro-habitats like the Ha-ha wall exist all over the place – there is evidence now that back gardens, with their plentiful bird feeders, are affecting bird migration routes and contribution to the preservation of some threatened species. So when someone tells you to strip Ivy from a tree or knock down that old shed, give a thought to the wildlife that may be in it or which might need it. And never underestimate how small changes that you can make can add up to a big impact in favour of wildlife.
Sadly, I came across another example of this problem this year. I was watching some Kestrel when I realised that they must be nesting in a nearby copse. When I went to look more closely, I found that just two treed down from the Kestrel nest, was a Barn Owl nest
As well as the Barn Owl nest, there was a Red Fox earth nearby, and evidence of either a Weasel or a Stoat. What’s the relevance? Simply that in two year’s time, this copse will be underneath a road, and all of the unique habitat that allowed so many species to live so close together will be under a housing estate. The houses are for people who badly need homes. The habitat loss, taken in isolation, can’t outweigh that. But nobody (as far as I’m aware) is seeing if the sum of a myriad of small local losses of habitat is adding up to something far more devastating on the national scale
**Barn Owls are strongly protected by law. Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act makes it a criminal offence to disturb them at or near the nest. But these Barn Owls chose to nest right next to a footpath that is used daily by large numbers of people and dog-walkers. They are used to humans moving around nearby, and my images of them were taken with a very long 600mm lens from behind camouflage. They are also used to shutter noise, so much so that this one fell asleep while I was photographing it