David Attenborough gives humankind one last chance

A Life on Our Planet is a terrifying catalogue of our self-sabotaging transgressions

Goat willow in flower. Illustration: Michael Viney

Goat willow in flower. Illustration: Michael Viney


Rocking in my rocking chair – which is what they’re for – I looked out through the branches of the big willow tree and there, framed in a distant triangle of twigs, our neighbour’s children were out-rocking me on their garden swings.

On the television in the corner, Andrew Marr was quizzing David Attenborough about his latest, perhaps his last, and undoubtedly his most passionate film, A Life on Our Planet. It frames his view of humankind’s “last chance” at living on Earth.

“Our lot,” said Attenborough (93), “are finished anyway. “It’s up to the young to do things better.”

“Some people,” Marr offered, “think that Covid-19 could be the reckoning the human world deserves.”

Attenborough backed off from anything so biblical. He countered merely that a densely living, overpopulated species was much more susceptible to plagues.

His film, soon for Netflix, is apparently a properly terrifying catalogue of what we’ve been doing to the natural world. For all the years of brilliant films exploring and celebrating nature, he or his producers were slow to invite much public outrage about the darker destructions.

Attenborough’s recent Blue Planet II, with its nightmare of plastic in the ocean, was the one that really touched some anger. What, Marr asked, was the one bit of change that ordinary people could effect. “Waste!” was Attenborough’s explosive reply.

Veteran willow

A breeze stirred the willow twigs and their first fringe of green. As the old tree drops her catkins, flushing fully into life, I’ll lose the playing children, along with the view of the mountain and the rising of the moon.

It’s quite a veteran as willows go, couched in the stream’s ravine, its elbows propped on the banks. Nowhere else on the hillside could it possibly exist, so safe from people, from sheep and the worst of storms.

But willows are everywhere on this soggy island – at least 18 kinds that botanists can divine, often with some difficulty. A tree that reached here naturally in perhaps six or seven forms has been added to by garden introductions and multiple hybridisations.

If we had to choose one as the national tree (as I think it richly deserves), it should probably be the common “goat” or “pussy’ willow, Salix caprea. Like the one in my painting, it is ablaze with yellow catkins in early spring. The “goat” stems from an early role as fodder, and the flowers still offer nectar to bumblebee queens fresh out from hibernation.

In the sort of little cameo captured by many readers alert to events in their gardens, Paul Dunne, of Lettermore in Co Galway, sent a photograph of ants perched on willow catkins and wondered how unusual this was.

They had climbed the tree, he surmised, for pollen or nectar. But the ascent of ants on willows, in particular, is a well-known phenomenon. The ants’ attraction is more usually for aphids, or rather, the sweet liquid known as “honeydew” exuding from their fundaments.

This sugary waste is extruded from the aphids’ extraction of sap in the willow’s youngest, most tender, shoots. Googling “ants on willows” offers a graphic Flickr close-up of ants in close attendance.

No aphids appear on Dunne’s catkins, but bluetits I see foraging along flowering twigs of our own willow confirm that they abound. A score or more of different species suck at the shoots of sallies in these islands, and since the salicin in willows converts to salicylic acid, a natural aspirin, one may wonder if both aphids and ants are seeking to be spaced out.

Of far more urgent consequence in the appetite of aphids is that of the grain aphid, Sitobion avanae. It sucks at the sap of spring-sown barley seedlings, barely greening the field, and flies around to spread the dreaded “yellow dwarf virus”. It is also evolving resistance to pyrethroids, the chemical ingredients of most modern pesticides.

Teagasc, the farmers’ oracle, has long encouraged “integrated pest management”. Its advice at the national tillage conference in January was to sow early and spray once “if warranted”.

Several sparrows

For better news, my recent column on the reported decline of urban house sparrows brought many reassuring emails from readers with abundant chirping residents. This ties in well with the latest Big Garden Watch survey of the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

From returns by nearly half a million people in late January, the house sparrow was the most commonly seen (or, perhaps, readily recognised) garden bird. With new mild winters to help survival, the society hopes “that at least a partial recovery may be happening”.

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