re-wilding or pickling: are semi-natural habitats just museum pieces

This morning, without even realising it I have broken my twitterspat duck. Lost already?

No, it’s some newly discovered species of waterfowl, a twitterspat , as I now know, is an argument via Twitter. And this morning (actually it started last night) I had one with George Monbiot. I have a huge amount of respect for GM, but I noticed in an article by him for the Guardian about Wild Boar, that he was writing a book about accusing UK conservationists “of grossly mistaken priorities”. Being a self-admitted contrarian, I couldn’t just let this pass, so I got in touch via twitter.You can read the twitter thread here though it is rather jumbled, as once we got into full flow we had to step outside the twitter limit of 140 characters and were sending and replying to four tweets at a time – which got extremely confusing, at least for me anyway. Now looking back I think for a lot of the time we were arguing at cross purposes as a result of this “word limit pain”.

George’s view (paraphrased obviously) is that it’s a mistake for conservation to focus on semi-natural habitats, that these are museum pieces (or in gardens), and we only need to have a few of them, to remind ourselves of how “we messed up land in previous centuries”. He sees typical conservation activities as actually constraining nature, in particular the management of arrested successions – preventing scrub from developing on grassland, preventing scrub from developing into woodland, and so on.

arresting succession or pickling nature?

According to George, instead of focussing on the semi-natural, and open habitats, and managing to prevent succession, we should be looking to our past, to the wildwood that existed between 10,000 and 6000 years ago, and seeking to create new wild land (mostly woodland). I am guessing his view is that the arrival of the neolithic was an ecological disaster for Britain. To me, that’s sounds a bit like castigating the builders of stonehenge for destroying some lovely chalk downland, or those all those horrible roman roads, and the swathes of countryside they carved up.

In a comment on his own Guardian piece George states:

What the sheep – a Mesopotamian species with no ecological correlates in the native British fauna – is doing as a conservation tool in the UK, God only knows. It reflects our national obsession with open habitats and our national allergy to successional processes. Some of the plants this kind of management is preserving are in fact archaeophytes – species brought over accidentally by early farmers and traders. Some are way beyond their natural ecological range and need special help to be maintained here, though are very common on the Continent. As clear an instance of gardening as could be found.

Similarly, many of the butterflies we obsess about are right on the northern edge of their range and have inherently unstable populations here. Stabilising them requires massive intervention, of the kind conservation groups deploy on their reserves.

It’s the closed canopy, undisturbed forest species – fungi, dead-wood beetles etc – that are the native taxa which appear to be in most need of help here.

George did not see any point in re-wilding lowland Britain, saying it was “too important, mostly, for food production”. He also extolled the value of re-wilding the uplands to restore broad ecological function and structural heterogeneity (or patchiness if you like), trophic cascades (where the introduction of a top predator  reduces the population of their prey, leading to their prey population increasing, and so on), predator-prey interactions, natural tree lines and so on.

Another of his bugbears was why anyone should bother to conserve archaeophytes (species introduced long ago) when they are common on the continent, and as you can see from his remarks above, why we conserve species on the edge of their range.

My arguments were that we only have semi-natural habitats left in the UK, and they are in themselves of great value – some have taken thousands of years to develop, and they support what biodiversity we have left in this country. They are about more than just biodiversity – they are the result of an interaction of nature and culture; they hold important lessons for us from history and sociology. I argued that re-wilding that resulted in a loss of these semi-natural habitats will lead to a massive loss of the native biodiversity of Britain. George didnt accept that, but I think we were at cross purposes by then, as he was talking about upland re-wilding, whereas I was thinking about the lowlands. George accepted my point that a re-wilding programme would need intervention (and therefore not be truly wild) to deal with eg introduced species.

I asked how big an area George thought was needed for a self-sustaining re-wilding project – he suggested enough for 3 wolf packs, which could be as much as 2500 square miles  – that’s a third the area of wales.

To finish off with some facts:

according to Natural England’s own research, the habitats with the largest number of priority species are grasslands and wood-pasture/parkland (Managing Species for Nature – NERR 024).

  • Grasslands (all types) have 206 priority species associated with them
  • Heathlands 133 priority species
  • Woodland (all types) 169 species
  • Wood-pasture/parkland 105 species.

I know these are only the priority species, but they, for various reasons, are the ones that are highest conservation priority at the moment.

What habitats does the UK have that are internationally or even globally important? aside from our marine habitats, which are internationally important, the things that do make us really special are our wood pastures and parklands, especially those where the veteran trees live within a matrix of unimproved grassland and heathland, as in the New Forest – also the western habitats – yes Atlantic oakwoods, rich in bryophytes, fungi and lichens, but also our western wet grasslands like Rhos pasture and Fen meadow. But we also have responsibility to conserve habitats like lowland meadow, chalk downland and lowland heathland, all of which are disappearing rapidly from western Europe.

A few points to finish off with:

I am all for seeing more re-wilding projects happening in the uplands, and the reintroduction of extinct mammals, such as boar, wolf, moose and beaver. They will undoubtedly enrich our landscapes and fulfil vital ecological functions.To what extent the uplands will become covered in woodland is debatable, as upland soils are very poor compared to what would have been there before the neolithic. It seems more likely that upland scrub will develop, at least in places where it’s not too boggy.  More juniper would certainly be welcome.

Succession is undoubtedly a vitally important component of any ecosystem and should be encouraged. But when succession leads to the replacement of one habitat type (say dense scrub leading to secondary woodland) that is of lower conservation priority than another one (say lowland calcareous grassland), then should the succession be left to continue without intervention? On a large enough site, or a large enough suite of interconnected sites, it is possible to provide the structural heterogeneity that comprises both successional scrub development, and maintaining the arrested succession, or in english, patches of lightly grazed land where scrub is developing, patches of more heavily grazed land preventing scrub, and patches where scrub has been cleared (by people).

I think it would be a tragedy if semi-natural habitats were only museum pieces or species were kept in gardens; I do not think we should give up on our semi-natural habitats, or give the lowlands entirely over to food production. Actually there needs to be a rebalancing of priorities in the lowlands, as food production has dominated all other interests for the past 40 years at least.

I love old growth forest, with fallen trees, fungi and luxuriant moss growth. But is it actually recreatable? According to the Woodland Trust (and even the Government) ancient woodland is irreplaceable – and indeed by definition it must be, since it is defined as woodland that has been on a site for at least 400 year. So what would we be creating in a new wildwood?

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About grasslandstrust

The Grasslands Trust is the only national UK charity that focuses entirely on saving grasslands that are valuable because they are rich in wildlife, history, or for other reasons.
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2 Responses to re-wilding or pickling: are semi-natural habitats just museum pieces

  1. Mark Fisher says:

    So what you are saying is that it is OK for you have the wildlife that you like!

  2. milesking says:

    Thanks for your comment Mark – welcome.

    No, this isn’t about what I think or want. Conservation priorities are set according to objective criteria like rate of decline, international/global importance etc. These criteria are agreed nationally and internationally through instruments like the Convention on Biological Diversity, the EU Biodiversity Strategy, and the England Biodiversity Strategy.

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