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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 217 - Spring 2011


An active Vice President of the RSPCA, ardent conservationist, prolific author, and expert on the Middle East, Jill Hamilton shares her passion with us for protecting native species of flora for the sake of the fauna.


Jesus Christ never saw a geranium flower, a eucalyptus tree, a lavender bush, an hibiscus or a bougainvillea. Nor did he ever taste a tomato, a potato, a runner bean, a banana or a pumpkin. Chocolate, refined sugar, tea and coffee were also unknown during his lifetime. Less than a quarter of the plants grown today in Israel, Palestine and Jordan were known to him.

While the Christian Holy Sites themselves have been preserved, the biblical landscape has been fragmented. Little has been done to preserve the plants which were part of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The Holy Land has become overwhelmed with imported flora. This has led to a sharp decline in the number of birds, insects and other animals. It is the same in the British Isles. Earlier this year, research, funded by the Government, found that almost 500 species have gone extinct in England in the last 2,000 years, while the majority have declined in numbers. A quarter of species are under threat. The intensification of agriculture and spread of suburbs have favoured species such as foxes and crows, but red squirrels and pine martens can be found only in a few isolated spots.

Preserving native plants also preserves the wildlife. Native plants are an essential part of the food chain – nourishing insects which in turn provide food for larger creatures. Having co-existed together over thousands of years indigenous plants are uniquely adapted to their local climate, soil and wildlife. They are hardy and disease resistant and are hospitable to local insects and other animals, especially butterflies. Unlike ants and bees which take great care of their young, butterflies do not rear their offspring. However, they take much trouble to find a suitable home for the future caterpillar.

Butterfly caterpillars are very fussy eaters. They eat only the leaves of their traditional host plant which provides them with certain chemicals. For their earlier life as a caterpillar, butterflies rely totally on the leaves and stems of nothing but their specific host plants. Once a butterfly is on the wing, though, it does not eat, it only sips nectar and it usually doesn’t matter from where the nectar comes, but the female always returns to lay its eggs on a similar host plant on which it was born. Just as each butterfly is distinct in appearance and colour, each needs the chemicals of different plants.

Protect species – protect habitats

Whereas man can adapt to varying types of diet and shelter, most butterflies cannot. As fertile butterflies lay eggs on a limited number of plant species, often only one, if a foodplant disappears in an area, so will the butterfly. The vital role of native plants in breeding and feeding cycles is often overlooked: no holly, no Holly Blue butterfly; no buckthorn, no Brimstone butterfly; no sorrel, no Small Copper butterfly.

There is no universal plant providing food for all animals. Many animals are dependent on specific local plants, having unique haunts and habitats and reproducing only when conditions are right. Often they cannot vary their diet. Asia’s panda eats mainly bamboo; Australia’s koala relies on eucalyptus leaves; China’s silkworm must have mulberry trees; owls require small rodents, lizards or other small animals; the caterpillar of the Admiral butterfly will eat only stinging nettles; that popular bird the Swallow relies on insects.

The only way to protect an insect is to protect its habitat – or recreate the habitat. This can be partly done in a garden. Yet most people are not aware of the interdependence between certain plants and animals – the plants which the threatened animals need for sustenance or breeding.

Insects are a vital food source for many animals, including frogs, dragonflies, hedgehogs and birds. If a foodplant disappears in an area, so will the species. The vital role of native plants in breeding and feeding cycles is often overlooked. Around 80 per cent of birds need insects – as well as worms and other invertebrates – to feed their young. Many birds such as swallows, swifts and house martins rely entirely on invertebrates.

Yet it is difficult to purchase local indigenous flora for gardens. Anyone who has bothered to find the right plants, though, has found that gardens of local native plants are a larder and a nursery for the young of butterflies and moths. Leaves or buds are host to some of the most beneficial insects.

Combining ornamental gardening with the conservation of the local native plant heritage – as well as looking decorative and helping animals such gardens have other positive advantages, such as needing less water once established and less maintenance. Most of all, they can help bring back the birds, butterflies and bees. Alas, though, many gardeners are part of the Pesticide Culture – and reach for a spray-can when they see or hear an insect.

But everything is not on the downside for butterflies. There are a few splendid examples where community efforts have helped save butterflies.

However, the 30th anniversary last year (2010) of Pope John Paul II proclaiming Saint Francis as the patron saint of ecology was not marked by any event. With despair I ask the question: what can be done to draw attention to St Francis’s role as the green-fingered saint? One response would be by planting church gardens in the British Isles to draw attention to how Saint Francis represents a watershed in the development of Christian animal welfare.

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