How many conservation charities does the UK need? This is a question that has been mulled over repeatedly over the years, most recently last year in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, British Wildlife, Mark Avery’s blog and our own. I was reminded of this debate when reading an email from a former Plantlife species project manager who has set up a new charity The Species Recovery Trust. This new charity aims to focus on preventing the extinction of the top 50 most threatened species in the UK by 2050.
Personally, having worked for two “new” charities, Plantlife and The Grasslands Trust, and having helped set up another one (Flora Locale), I have no problem with new conservation charities being created. Just like any other business, charities live or die according to whether people believe they are doing some good, and therefore they can get enough funding to survive and prosper.
At the Grasslands Trust we don’t carry out single species conservation projects – that decision was made from the outset. Plenty of other organisations do single species conservation work on threatened grassland species – RSPB, Butterfly Conservation, The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust , Buglife, Bat Conservation Trust, ARC, PTES – I could go on. But far fewer organisations were taking an overview, looking at grassland habitats and the policies that affect all grassland wildlife, archaeology, history, ecosystem services and community values. That’s why we have focussed on these issues, not because species conservation isn’t important – it is incredibly important. We identified a niche that was empty, and evolved to fill it.
In nature each species has its own niche, which is formed by the interaction between physical processes (geology, rainfall, temperature etc) and biological ones (simply the sum of activity of all the other species living in the vicinity, including ourselves). Naturally the combination of a very variable climate and geology, and the myriad interactions between tens of thousands of different species, from bacteria to whales, has meant that the UK has a surprisingly diverse range of wildlife (although very few endemics), despite having been wiped relatively clean by the last ice age 10,000 years ago.
But in recent years the diverse habitats and different landscapes have become increasingly homogenised by ever more intensive approaches to land use and management, and the scale of variation that previously existed is gradually disappearing. Variation (or technically heterogeneity) is key to the conservation of wildlife, especially the threatened species. As Bob Gibbons eloquently described in his recent guest blog, it’s the variation at the edge of what we think of as separate habitats, whether they be grasslands, woodlands , wetlands, rivers or heathlands, that is disappearing along with the habitats themselves.
I remember attending a training course probably 20 years ago, run by Ted Green the veteran tree champion. He was describing how a Beech tree, a tree we normally associate with a smooth bark, develops a deeply fissured bark as it ages beyond 300 years I believe it was. In these fissures new niches are created and rare beetles, flies, lichens and fungi inhabit them, but cannot live on the smooth barked Beeches that are one or two hundred years old.See here for more info.
The same goes for grasslands – far more wildlife lives in an old unimproved grassland with all its different plants and associated insects, than an improved one with one or two varieties of agricultural plant. Similarly, even more wildlife, and in particular the threatened and rare species, are associated with grasslands that have other features associated with them, such as scrub, veteran trees, wetlands, woodland edge, and physical structures such as natural lumps and bumps or historic ramparts and ditches, pits or mounds.
If we want to save those most threatened species with their unusual niches, when we create new grasslands (or any other habitat) we need to think about creating them with the variation – the lumps and bumps, wet areas, scrub and gradual edges. We also need to do this in the right places, near enough to surviving populations of these most threatened grassland species. But we still know relatively little about the ecology of individual threatened species, especially invertebrates, and that’s why our first priority must always be to conserve the habitats that support existing populations of those species.