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.
BY JILL, DUCHESS OF HAMILTON
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
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.