Great Outdoors: The world is a noisy place

Stuart Bullen sound EMN-141012-134829001
Stuart Bullen sound EMN-141012-134829001

The past few weeks or so have seemed to be noisy ones. Bourne has been in the process of being bombarded with the screeching, roaring, booming noise of military aircraft performing aerial manoeuvres overhead. My windows shook, quite literally at one point. The damp, earthy, woody scent of the final moments of autumn in the woods replaced by the acrid smell of kerosene based aviation fuel.

Admittedly this noisy intrusion is a relatively rare occurrence, but it got me thinking about the quietness and sounds in our environment in general. After all one of the reasons we moved to Bourne was to escape the 24 hour 7 days a week constant din of London.

The world is a noisy place, even if we would judge places as otherwise. Go for a walk on Morton Fen and you will hear the wind blowing from the east in the grasses, rooks, sparrows and the first fieldfares will be chirping in the not too distant fields, and creaking branches in the hedges. Or go to Thurlby nature reserve and listen to the sound of water flowing at full spate in the river with the sound of a peeoing buzzard silhouetted overhead in the grey misty sky. The natural world is loud but because it’s only at a certain level that isn’t perceived by us to be intrusive, we view it as quiet and tranquil.

But when we think of intrusive noise, there is only really one culprit: us humans. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the early part of the nineteenth century, manmade sounds (or to give its scientific name anthropogenic sound) have gradually turned the volume up to a point where they are having a detrimental impact on wildlife and also on us. Animals and insects use sound - known as bioacoustics - to communicate, find a mate and also to hear for predators. For example wildlife living in urban areas has been found to be communicating with each other at louder volumes because of traffic noise. On the face of it this might not sound - excuse the pun – like something to be concerned about. But to certain groups of animals this can mean warning calls can’t be heard and are put in extra danger. High noise levels are known to cause stress, hypertension and sleep deprivation in humans, and as animal hearing is usually far more sensitive than ours, so loud constant noise could have a greater impact on their stress levels and health than we know about. Scientists have noted that birds, insects and mammals all call, sing at different noise pitches and at different times of the day so that they can be singled out and heard by their fellow species, sort of broadcasts at their own frequency. For example to humans a dawn chorus is just that a chorus of bird song. But to a bird it’s listening out for a particular contact call and can separate the other birds’ calls out to achieve that. Introduce a background noise that masks that “pitch” and it causes all sorts of problems, which we are now just starting to notice.

To start with here in the UK, we have a species of bat called the Bechstein’s bat. It has been noted to avoid crossing roads, due probably to traffic noise interfering with their supersensitive hearing and maybe with their echolocation detection. This could be true of our other bats; unfortunately not much research has been done on it. The dawn chorus is now starting earlier in the morning as birds want to avoid urban noise. Scientists have found that our robins in urban areas are switching to night time singing instead of during the day as it’s generally quieter. Recently speakers were placed in an area of countryside where there was no road. Car and traffic sounds were then played through these speakers for a period of time, then switched off and then repeated. It was observed that there was a reduction in migratory bird species when the tapes were played; showing movements of birds are affected by noise levels. Insects and animals have been observed leaving traditional habitats as they are drowned out by noise pollution; sometimes with nowhere else to go so putting their very survival at jeopardy.

It’s not just nature that suffers, we do too. Where ever we go in our modern world we are surrounded by noise. Supermarkets and shopping malls have music in the background, people on buses or in cars are entertained by games and films on mobile devices, and at home and in places of work with the unheard hum of electronic appliances. It’s all having an effect whether we notice it or not. High blood pressure and low level stress are aggravated by noise. In 2011 the UN’s World Health Organisation listed noise pollution as the second largest health risk to Western Europe. And it’s not just our health it could affect. It could affect our wallets too. £7 -10 billion is the cost of road noise annually according to a recent government analysis report, placing it higher incidentally than the amount spent on climate change. The workplace suffers with lost workdays and reduced productivity with sleep disturbed urban workers. Is it any wonder big companies have their research and development centres in quiet countryside that’s conducive to thoughtful design and new ideas?

However we look at it we can’t escape noise pollution. Even though we have realised how drastically it’s affecting our lives and wellbeing and are starting to design a quieter world, e.g. through quieter cars and noise reducing build materials, we have still a long way to go.

That’s why living in Bourne has an advantage. Silence is said to be golden, and while there is very little true silence in the natural world, there are still plenty of places to go and visit to enjoy the peace and quiet in the countryside around here.

Next time you are out and about in our woods, fields, vales or fens, please remember to stop, look and listen.