A Natural Disaster

Dr Martin J Hodson

The summer of 2020 was a long one of writing for Margot and me. We had just three weeks to work with Ruth Valerio and Tim Howles on the Grove booklet, COVID-19: Environment, Justice, and the Future. We made the deadline and the booklet appeared in July. The largest project was to produce a second edition of our 2015 book, A Christian Guide to Environmental Issues for Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF). This involved major updates of the science and the sections on church responses to the environmental crisis. Then finally we had “Green Reflections”, a collection of all our BRF Bible reflections, including a new set. Both of the BRF projects were completed on time and should appear about April 2021. After all that we needed a holiday! Finding a holiday in October 2020 wasn’t easy with the pandemic increasing again. We needed a place where virus levels were low and the probability of a lockdown was correspondingly low. Margot found us a cottage in the village of Dyffryn Ardudwy near the Welsh coast between Barmouth and Harlech and we booked for 15 nights. It was an inspired choice and we had a wonderful time walking the hills and the coast on the sunny days and holing up in our cottage on the wet ones.

Sanderling with a lone Dunlin

One morning we walked down to the beach through the sand dunes. In the distance, we could see an enormous flock of seagulls close to the shoreline on Benar Beach. We walked down the beach to see what was going on. Half of the seagulls in Wales must have been there! See VIDEO. Then a small flock of sanderling flew in and landed on the pebble beach. They were almost indistinguishable from the pebbles! Among to grey birds, there was one brown dunlin. On the pebble drift line we could see what was interesting the gulls. A large number of sprats had been washed up dead on the beach. How had this happened? Two days before the sea was calm and predatory fish, bass and mackerel, and sometimes dolphins, chased the sprat towards the beach. They were then trapped as the tide went out leaving hundreds of thousands of sprat stranded. Even two days after there was still plenty of food for the gulls. We later found some newspaper reports that suggested this was not an uncommon event, happening maybe once a year. So perhaps half a million sprat perished in a seemingly pointless episode. There was no evidence at all of human influence on this disaster, and we can only assume that it is an example of “nature red in tooth and claw” and a “natural evil”. It just seems to be the consequence of the behaviour of the sprats when pursued by

Sprat washed up on the beach

predators combined with the way the tides work. Margot pointed out that the gulls were beneficiaries in what must have seemed like a messianic banquet for them. I was, however, immediately taken back to my work on COVID-19 earlier in the summer. Although at least a couple of theologians put the pandemic down to “natural evil”, a detailed investigation of the topic led to the conclusion that human influence had a very major part in its origin. So the incident with the sprats and the origins of the pandemic should not be put in the same category.

Returning to our cottage we soon faced normality. The Welsh national lockdown had been announced, and we would have to cut our holiday down from 15 to 14 nights. And now we are home after an excellent holiday. Three topics will dominate the next few months: The US election; Brexit; and the pandemic. I think we will be busy, but at least we managed a holiday, and we are ready for what is coming.

Dr Martin Hodson

JRI Operations Director

(All photos by Martin Hodson) Thanks for Bird ID: David Beattie, Andy Lester and Graham Sims.