Spot the difference: shifting baseline syndrome in our own backyard

by ZSL on

PHD student Lizzie Jones looks at the phenomenon of shifting baseline syndrome.

The majestic red kite is seen as one of our great success stories for native wildlife conservation in the UK. In the early 1900s, only a few breeding pairs were thought to inhabit a small part of central Wales, earning them the status of ‘globally threatened species’. Today, after successful re-introduction projects there are thought to be around 1,800 breeding pairs in Britain, half of which are in Wales.

I often see red kites fly over the Royal Holloway Campus in Egham, Surrey, on my walk to the office and forget that a few years ago they would not have been there. I recently asked a few students if they knew about the local population and one exclaimed, “I always see them! I can’t imagine a huge bird like that would ever be threatened, there’s plenty of mice to eat round here”. And yet, I’m sure if I asked their parents they wouldn’t agree.

Red kite with chicks
Red kite with chicks

This is a prime example of shifting baseline syndrome; a social phenomenon that capitalises upon our human tendency to perceive current conditions against a small set of recent reference points (or baseline), so we often do not recognise long-term environmental change. Historical information is therefore lost as each generation formulates their own new baseline based on only their own biographical experience.

The red kite is a rare example of a positive shifted baseline, in which we have not noticed positive change. However, negatively shifting baselines continue to pose a significant threat to the successful conservation of declining species.

As Daniel Pauly postulated in 1995, when rare species go extinct, it is unsurprising, but we don’t tend to account for the fact that they may have once been abundant, the change is gradual, we sleepwalk through.

Hence, the danger lies in the fact that we just don’t notice until it may be too late. Examples abound once we widen the lens; climate change, plastic pollution and even the loss of species in our own back garden. Hedgehogs have declined drastically in Britain in the past 60 years, while national declines in pollinator diversity pose serious issues for agriculture.

As a PhD student at Royal Holloway and ZSL, I’m interested in the impacts of shifting baseline syndrome. Shifting baseline syndrome could affect our own connection to nature, which in turn may significantly influence our happiness, health and wellbeing. Working in collaboration with the BTO and Helsinki Lab of Ornithology, I am using garden birds in the UK and Finland to investigate which factors influence our perceptions of environmental change, aiming to combat shifting baseline syndrome and aid conservation success.

I am currently running an online survey which can be taken by anyone over the age of 18. The survey is about local birds, but you don’t need to have any knowledge of birds to participate.  

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