I didn’t know it yet, but we were about to witness a row of my favourite trees being destroyed – hacked violently to the ground before our eyes.
As we rounded a bend, we came upon the devastating scene. Fellers were ripping the trees from the earth: decades-old oaks and beeches – once home to a rich cast of birds, bugs and other local critters.
“They were in my way,” said the local farmer whose land they were on when I confronted him. And so he had ordered them to be removed. When I warned one of the fellers that I would be reporting this to the local authorities, he was indifferent: “Call who you like, by the time they get here the trees will be down.”
I watched in disbelief as more branches twisted from their bodies and fell to the ground.
The trees were the bedrock of an important local ecosystem – one of many disappearing from our countryside every day. Now, all that is left is a scar in the earth. The trees removed so an intensive farmer can farm more intensively.
Reflecting on what had happened, I discovered that this was far from an isolated incident: in the UK alone, 481,000 hectares of tree cover has been lost between 2001 to 2020, according to Global Forest Watch. That’s equivalent to a 13 per cent decrease in tree cover since the turn of the millennium.
This loss of precious nature at a local and national level is not unlike what is happening across the world.
We rightly castigate destruction of rainforests in countries far away, yet deforestation closer to home often goes unnoticed.
Trees, of course, aren’t the only victims. Whether it’s overfishing, pollution of our lakes, rivers, and streams, or clearing huge swathes of forestry and thereby wildlife every day, our planet is being treated as if it were disposable, of use to us only for the short term.
Meanwhile the planet is growing hotter, our weather patterns are changing – often dramatically – and people around the world are already suffering the devastating consequences.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows that more than three billion people across the world are now vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Many effects of global warming are already irreversible, according to the report, and urgent changes are needed if we are to stop things from getting worse.
People often ask me, what can we do to help turn the tide on our environmental crisis?
I’ve been working with animals and nature for most of my life and while I don’t have all the answers, I do know this: nature is our lifeblood, our life-support system; without it, we simply could not survive.
Therefore, we should treat Mother Earth as the life source she is. Like anything that we want to grow, flourish and protect, we must show our environment love and respect.
Governments and big business around the world have a huge role to play in protecting our planet, but as individuals and communities, we are far from powerless.
Investing back into Earth
Every year, Earth Day is marked in April by more than a billion people as a day of action to change human behaviour and protect the environment.
The theme this year is for investment in our planet to preserve and protect our health, our families, our livelihoods. And, of course, to safeguard the future for all living creatures.
There are countless ways to do this.
As consumers, we can push for change by buying less and buying better. We can avoid single-use plastics, or products with environmentally harmful packaging and harsh chemicals that pollute our soils and waterways.
We can make significant changes in our home lives, whether it’s cutting down on meat, fish and dairy (the production of which is often intensive, cruel to animals and harmful to the environment), or buying local, seasonal produce. We can also recycle, compost and create miniature ecosystems in our own gardens with insect-loving plants.
As travellers we can be mindful of how we move through the world; whether it’s cutting down on our air miles or walking and cycling instead of driving whenever we can.
There can also be a social aspect to it all – volunteering in our local communities with tree-planting, conservation or clean-up efforts.
We can also add our voices to campaigns that call on the government to change laws or improve the policies that effect our environment; at my organisation, Compassion in World Farming, we offer multiple opportunities to get involved.
Returning the favour
The importance of nature to our lives is something that was highlighted to many of us by the Covid pandemic. I lost count of the number of people during lockdown sharing how green spaces had become their solace when life felt enormously challenging.
We also saw what happened when the world stopped and nature had a chance to flourish – even if only for a short time. Smog cleared from city skies and pockets of wildlife came back to life.
When the memory of the pandemic is finally far behind us, I hope we remember the friendship we felt from nature; that we remind ourselves of how a thriving countryside helps people flourish too. And more than anything, I hope we use those memories to fuel our investment in bringing nature bursting back to life.
Philip Lymbery is global CEO of Compassion in World Farming, a United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf