“He is much more happy that at ease contemplates the universe as his own, and in it the sun and stars, the pleasing meadows, shades, groves, green banks, stately trees, flowing springs and the wanton windings of a river, than he that with fire and sword disturbs the world, and measures his possessions by the waste that lies around him.”
These words, written by John Aubrey in the 1600s, were never more relevant than today. First celebrated in 1970, April 22nd 2020 is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, an annual, global event designed to support environmental protection.
While reports of swans and dolphins returning to Venice’s canals during lockdown are reputedly false, the reduction in air pollution over Italy has certainly been dramatic. The effective shut-down of the global economy due to Coronavirus has, for a short time at least, given our planet a chance to breathe.
Here in Monte Rosa, the lack of human activity has certainly meant that we have had a few extra encounters with nature, some more welcome than others.
Since mid-March, lockdown in Italy has dictated that we may not leave the house, except for one of us to go alone to shop for food or seek medical attention. The Fab Four can accompany us into the garden for necessities, but that is the limit of our range. However, we have found that one of the up sides of being stuck is that you notice your surroundings so much more.
On a sunny afternoon in early April, Mother Nature sent us a real treat. We sat on a rock for half an hour in the sun, watching a huge bird of prey patrolling the forested flanks of Telcio, the mountain across the river from our apartment. Of course, I didn’t have my camera with me – we were just in the garden after all, but I observed it carefully. It seemed much larger than a Golden Eagle or even a White-Tailed Sea Eagle and had a distinctive white head and wedge-shaped tail. When we identified it later, it was unmistakably il Gipeto – the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus); Europe’s rarest vulture.
With a wingspan of over nine feet (2.7m), il Gipeto is also Europe’s largest bird of prey. It certainly dwarfs the Golden Eagle, (wingspan is just under 8 feet/2.3m) and the UK’s largest raptor, the White-Tailed Eagle (8 feet/2.5m), both of which we have been lucky enough to see in Scotland.
Il Gipeto’s other name, the Lammergier, or Lamb Vulture, gives away the reason why it was persecuted to extinction and had to be re-introduced in the Alps. Like the White-Tailed Eagle, there was a misplaced belief that these large birds preyed on lambs and children. While there is some evidence for White Tailed Eagles taking lambs (not children!), certainly, in the case of the Lammergier, this could not be further from the truth.
The Bearded Vulture does not hunt live prey. All vultures are scavengers. Il Gipeto is not even keen on meat; its diet is primarily bones taken from carcasses. Small bones it swallows whole, but to get at the nutritious marrow, it breaks open larger bones by dropping them on to rocks. We had kept our little Lani close while watching the vulture. In hindsight, it was a relief to find out that our little girl was not at risk of being carried off in its talons!
Our Bearded Vulture was one of only twenty pairs in the whole of the Alps. This is our fourth full ski season in Monte Rosa. In total, we have spent over twelve months in the Gressoney valley and this is our first vulture sighting. How lucky are we?!
Naturally, my camera has been glued to my side ever since, but il Gipeto has not made a reappearance.
A rather less welcome observation were the adders! The warm sunshine seems to have encouraged the vipers to emerge from their dens. As we walked up the bank at the back of our apartment block, Mark nearly stood on one adder, motionless and basking peacefully in the sun. The following day, as he went to pick up a piece of litter next to a wall, another venomous viper slithered off into a crevice. Visible only when it moved, it was inches from his outstretched fingers.
Both encounters illustrate the good thing about adders; they are shy and prefer to avoid confrontation – they attack only when they feel threatened. Adders are rare and very beautiful creatures. They are protected, so never harm an adder. However, we remain concerned for the dogs and have taken to conducting Adder Patrol on warmer days.
I am reminded of a trip to the vet after a close encounter in Dorset, where Lani and Rosie were fascinated by an adder that they caught by surprise in the middle of a grassy path. It reared up and seemed to hypnotise them. Although I saw it strike, I was reasonably sure that they had both jumped backwards quickly enough to avoid being bitten, but I was taking no chances!
Thankfully, adder bites are not fatal in most dogs with prompt veterinary attention, but in isolation and an hour away from the nearest vet, we need to avoid as many risks as possible. We emailed our Italian vet, who gave us a prescription for an injection that could be administered in case of emergency, so we’re now a little more prepared, but avoidance is definitely the best advice. Click here for advice on what to do if your dog is bitten by an adder.
As they come out of hibernation, the snakes are dozy and being cold blooded, may not be able to move away quickly. This leaves them with no option but to strike to protect themselves. In the early spring, the venom, particularly in a large male may be stronger, so the best advice is to steer clear!
The Rock Avalanche
Mark and I have been running a book on the decline of the snow bridge, which crosses the River Lys from our garden. It is the remains of a huge, snow avalanche which, at its height, was used by the massive piste machines to cross from one side of the ski resort to the other.
As the mountains awaken, there are clearly a few hazards to be avoided. After two weeks of sunshine, the spring melt is well under way and all traces of our three-day blizzard at the end of March are gone. On the far side of the River Lys, Footpath No.7 towards Monte Rosa is still blocked by a couple of considerable snow avalanches. However, a huge crack and puff of smoke that we observed the other evening was a rock avalanche. A cascade of huge boulders came thumping and bouncing down the sides of Telcio, leaving a wake of rock dust and splintered tree trunks.
We are hopeful that the Coronavirus restrictions may be relaxed on May 3rd and that we will then be able to walk into the mountains, something that is not permitted at the moment. When we do, it is clear that we will need to have our wits about us!
So, isolation and a lack of human activity has granted Mark and I a few interesting encounters with nature. Without the reduced human activity and certainly without some environmentally conscious conservationist, we would never have seen il Gipeto. But what are the wider lessons that the lockdown recovery can teach us about the environment?
The Lockdown Lesson for the Environment
I started this piece by talking about pollution and a huge irony in Italy is that studies link air pollution and coronavirus mortality. In China, estimates suggest that two months of reduced pollution caused by the lockdown may have saved the lives of 4,000 under-fives and 73,000 adults over seventy. This is just a tiny snapshot of one aspect of the impact that human activity has on the planet and its population. So, will these lessons from Coronavirus bring about lasting change? I hope so.
Climate change is a hugely more complex issue than containing the spread of a novel virus. Nevertheless, one thing that the pandemic has proven is that there can be a reaction to a crisis on a global scale.
The pandemic has also initiated an unprecedented worldwide experiment in altering people’s travel and work habits. Perhaps in future, remote or home working and video conferencing will be a more acceptable alternative to commutes and flights.
Also, having been forced to cope with less due to shortages caused by stockpiling, maybe we will change our perspective of what consumer goods we need to survive – and be more mindful about how much we waste.
But is my optimism misplaced? It is an uphill struggle to institute change in ingrained behaviours, but once restrictions are lifted and our economies roar back to life, it is not inevitable that we will all return to our former bad habits. Studies have shown that adapting to a new circumstance can result in enduring behavioural change. For example, a 2018 study from Zurich University shows that, when given back their cars after having them substituted for free e-bike access, people drove less. Coronavirus has forced change upon us; maybe some of it will stick, particularly now that we have been given a taste of what global disaster feels like.
There are certainly lessons to be learned from the Coronavirus pandemic and in my view, the first one is to accept that if we look after our earth, it will look after us.
Human activity in the form of global connectedness is responsible for the rapid spread of the virus, but why did Coronavirus happen in the first place? Research suggests that viruses transferring from animal to human hosts may be a direct consequence of humanity’s destruction of biodiversity. Viruses and other pathogens adapt; so, when you ravage their natural hosts or habitats, they need to look elsewhere and as for that new host – well, it could be you-hoo!
Perhaps if we can learn anything, we can see that a few manageable changes that we can make as individuals can result in considerable environmental benefits. The majority of the emissions responsible for climate change come from industry, but even if we don’t want to become active in pressuring our governments into adopting greener alternatives, we can each have an impact by reducing our personal consumption of goods and fossil fuels by re-thinking the ways that we live, work and travel.
I hope that we can effect change, because the disruption to our lives caused by Coronavirus is as nothing to what we will experience if we create the climate catastrophe that many predict could happen within our lifetimes. With Coronavirus, or any future pandemics that we cause, we at least have some control. We can isolate to prevent the spread and ultimately develop vaccines and treatments. There is an end in sight.
However, once we reach the tipping point with the climate, it might make no difference what we do. There will be nowhere to hide. The likelihood is that we will trigger irreversible changes and once that happens, we will have run out of options.
This quote, attributed to a speech by Chief Seattle in 1854, foresaw the consequences of our disdain for nature and the potentially devastating impact of human activity on our world. Now, more than ever, we need to sit up and listen.
“What is a man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected. This we know. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
To get involved in Earth Day or join Earth Day Live, click here to go to the Earth Day Website.