In ecological terms shifting baseline syndrome, is the occurrence of non-representative historical data being used for comparison to current figures, failing to represent long term population changes in an ecosystem. The term was brought into scientific discussion by prestigious marine biologist Daniel Pauly who noticed that fishery scientists had been considering ‘baseline’ fish populations to be where they were during the start of their career, rather than selecting levels from before significant human interference had taken place. This misrepresentation or ‘syndrome’ creates a snow-ball effect as each consecutive generation takes on a flawed interpretation of the population size norms.
I was first introduced to this concept reading Isabella Tree’s book, Wilding which does a fantastic job of outlining some of the detrimental changes to the British countryside since the Second World War. The experience that sprang to mind for myself was childhood memories of scavenging snails from my Grandfather's garden and dropping them into the stream that ran through the bottom of it. After a few moments, glimmering black eels would slither through the water to feast on the collection of gastropods. This enjoyable activity had sadly diminished by the time I had reached my teens and these days the absence of eels in British waterways is seen as ‘normal’. In 2017 the Environmental Agency stated that in the last 40 years eel populations have decreased by up to 95%, almost disappearing from UK estuaries, rivers, streams, and wetlands. But this statistic is itself guilty of shifting baseline syndrome, who is to say that population levels 40 years back give fair representation to a healthy level? Humans have been interfering with water habitats for hundreds, possibly thousands of years through dam building, irrigation, and fishing. Shifting baseline has gone so far that it is extremely difficult for once prolific species to be reintroduced to our countryside. Anxiety and fear of the potential or even imagined repercussions of the presence of animals that were once essential to our ecosystems such as beavers, wolves, wild boars, etc. means that such reintroductions can take years to be agreed upon or even blocked altogether.
Shifting baseline syndrome can also be projected onto the ecosystem crisis’ not directly linked to population changes. Perhaps the largest shift has been the changing image of what a traditional British countryside represents. Although large fields, monoculture crops, and masses of dairy cows have no reason to turn heads in the present day, how far gone is this description from what farming represented before large scale agricultural commercialization? Farmers of the past would be gobsmacked at the lack of wildlife. How deep must one dig to find a wildflower meadow, natural wetland or wild pond? In Wilding Isabelle powerfully describes the pressure on British farmers during and post WW2 to maximize agricultural output in order to supply food for the nation. For Isabella's husband's family, On their farm in Sussex, this emulated in the conversion of previously considered non-arable land into cultivable croplands. This forced the eradication of shrublands and meadows that hosted vast arrays of biodiversity. Nationwide similar ecosystem problems were due to the removal of hedgerows (a vital ecosystem for flora and fauna, especially birds and small mammals and invertebrates) occurring at a rate of 10,000 miles per year during the start of the 1970s. Our countryside has become increasingly mundane, cereals lathered with fertilizers and pesticides, perfectly manicured pasture land and a distinct lack of wildlife, In spite of all this, there is a reason to be hopeful….
So, how can we improve the baseline for future generations?
Eating local - Support small scale and environmentally-conscious farmers.
Exposure to the natural world - Noticing what wildlife is around now, provides the ability to realize when changes are occurring.
Food Forest Project - supporting projects like this one means bringing back a more sustainable way to source food with minimal intervention and supporting biodiversity.
Home projects - ponds, hedgehog corridors, bug hotels, and bird feeders can all help to support wildlife in your area.
“All good things are wild and free” - Henry David Thoreau
By Barnaby Spooner