A Beginner's Guide To Nature Conservation

by Jo Thomas

This article is intended as a whistle stop tour of what "nature conservation" is and how it works. For sake of ease (I'm British and my experience is UK-centric), this is going to be based on the British countryside but some of these principles may scale up or out.

What Is Nature Conservation?

The first and most obvious question. There are, however, a couple of things to remember.

"Conservation", as a word, is about preserving the state of something. It's generally about maintaining a particular status quo. With respect to "Nature Conservation", we're typically talking about maintaining the habitats contained in the countryside - against competing demands or uses of the same land.

As a rule, Nature doesn't like the status quo. Anyone who has done any weeding in a garden can tell you this. Nature doesn't like being confined to human defined spaces and has a long term goal to achieve. This is called successional ecology - with pioneer species (often "weeds") breaking open the new territory to eventually become whatever the stable, self sustaining habitat (or climax community) is for that region. This can take many years, even centuries, depending on what the climax community is.

"Nature Conservation", then, can be considered the struggle of an inconstant gardener who tries to make sure that certain patches of land remain countryside as they recognise it, which may not be the stable habitat that Nature intends. In the UK, things tend to a woodland mix defined by the underlying geology and geography. In most parts, that mix should be dominated by beech and ash. Theoretically.

However, there are issues of scale and different organisations of the nature conservation movement often show this. As land is divided into parcels, there is the work that focuses on conserving the characteristics of individual land parcels - which is behind nature reserves and the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). On the other hand, there is the work that considers the whole landscape - which is behind the National Parks and numerous more local ones. The former could be accused of not seeing the wood for the trees and the latter of preserving the overall wood at the cost of individuals that might belong to rare species.

What Are We Actual Conserving?

So, why aren't we letting Nature do its thing, at least on these reserves and SSSIs I mentioned?

There are a number of issues involved with why particular habitats are favoured and conserved over allowing the successional process to continue but it mainly comes down to one thing. There is a limited amount of land available and different habitat mixes in that finite set are preferred.

For instance, I used to volunteer on a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve called Potteric Carr. "Carr" is a word that indicates a wet woodland, which would be boggy underfoot and dominated by birch and willow (and Potteric Carr is quite well known for its willow carr). However, the reserve also has some reedbed and open water. The problem is that the reedbeds are invasive of shallow open water and want to take that over to clog it up. The willow/birch mix is invasive of the reedbed as they silt up and provide suitable ground for the trees. Trees, like oak, that prefer drier ground start to invade the long standing carr if too much leaf mulch builds up and the ground becomes too solid.

None of this would be a problem if new open water habitats were created or there was nearby similar habitat for the birds that like it. And so on for the reedbeds, and the willow carr, and the drier woodland. But each of these habitats supports a slightly different set of wildlife and conserving Nature is about ensuring that mix continues.

Bearing in mind that these patches of habitat are contained by land even more impacted by human use. However, it's debatable if there's such a thing as a truly natural part of the UK.

A result of historical grand landscaping is having plenty of bare hillsides with stunning views - typical of most of our National Parks. They are that way because we cleared for grazing, maybe several thousand years ago. Would it be better to let them return totally to the woodland that sometimes to sneak out from underneath, or should we turn it over to modern living, or should we try to maintain the landscape that's been there for the last few thousand years. All of which maintain it as countryside.

There were minor tweaks, too. Oak is so common in the English woodland mix because of various policies and management strategies that have encouraged it through our history. It was a major part of ship and house building. When other materials replaced it, planting and care almost stopped although individual trees remain well loved.

Another tweak that remains despite the industry falling by the wayside is the abundance of copses. The last major use of this wood source was about seventy years ago, which means there are lots of trees that are now effectively fifty years too old for their original intended use, competing for limited space, light and oxygen with all the health problems this includes. Not that it's bad, per se, but a strong storm can have a major effect on such a stand of trees, taking the whole lot down in one go, and the lack of light to the undergrowth will be changing the ecological community and mix of species.

Why Are We Conserving It?

Is it a bad thing that things change? Life has this amazing way of surviving, regardless of what changes around it. However, as mentioned before, new territories are not being opened up as the old habitat is replaced by the next in succession. There is a limited amount of land that is effectively "not in use" and doesn't have other demands such as building or industry - including modern agriculture and forestry.

In an imaginary, pristine forest, trees fall, creating clearings that are grazed by deer and rabbits, grow again, and so on, making for a patchwork of continually shifting habitats. There might be catastrophic events, such as floods and fires, but these can be absorbed by the greater patchwork. Although it would be traumatic for individuals and certain areas, the overall mix would remain or could recover.

In reality, the UK has small patches of healthy habitats in the overall blanket of the countryside that is constrained by human settlements and isn't of particularly high biodiversity. That is, it can't support a high number of different species. Damage or major change to any one patch could mean that there are significant losses overall.

It's also likely that climate change - both on a global (or macro) level and on a local (or micro) level - will have an impact on what sort of habitats are possible and what mix of species they contain. In the most basic example, a long term drought means that wetlands might dry out and somewhere like Potteric Carr could end up being woodland rather than wet woodland. A change of a few degrees for average summer or winter temperatures may mean that particular species don't survive that part of the year and several disrupted years means that species might never come back.

How Are We Conserving It?

The focus for nature reserves and SSSI is generally on places that are either climactic, and therefore stable, with high biodiversity or places that have been shown to have a rare habitat type - like Potteric Carr - or a rare species, such as a flower or a butterfly or a bird. The first kind are managed to protect them from encroaching too much on what's around them while the second type are managed to maintain that particular habitat or maintain a habitat that is suitable for the rare species.

The best way to understand or get involved with this sort of conservation is to find what reserves are nearest to you and volunteer to help with the labour. Most wildlife trusts and similar organisations, such as the RSPB, along with the local government bodies rely on volunteers for the labour and don't otherwise have enough employees to undertake the necessary work.

We have also laws covering rare and protected species and nesting birds. These affect what industrial work, such as construction, can happen where and when. The effectiveness of these laws depends on two things: how good the existing records are and the use of environmental consultants to identify extent populations.

The existing records are typically held in local biological records centres - but might also be held by organisations specifically formed to look at individual species or species groups (like the Herpetological Conservation Trust, which I shall let you look up for yourself). The records’ being there depends on people knowing that the record centre exists and knowing how to identify the species. A local centre should be able to let you know what local surveys are going on and coach your identification skills.

Once you have some identification skills, you are of use to environmental consultancies, many of whom started out as wholly owned subsidiaries of wildlife trusts. These consultancies run preliminary survey work for companies in the planning stages of construction or other major works and often continue to work alongside them with relocation and/or restoration projects during the works.

However, the conservation and local government organisations don't just use the records on just a local level any more. There has been a move to start joining up the parcels of preserved land (i.e. the nature reserves and SSSIs) and creating a more bio diverse landscape. This is in part due to the lack of money in the conservation sector, causing the organisations to focus their employees on the things they can influence most: encouraging their neighbours to also have an interest in preserving the rare species and so on.

This brings them more in line with the focus of National Parks (and some local parks), which is on preserving or encouraging a landscape that looks much the same as it has for anything from a hundred to several thousand years. This has historically been achieved through planning and land-use related legislation.

In the last twenty years or so, these tools have been joined by Biodiversity Action Plans (thanks to international agreements) which have been written at national and local government levels. They describe what habitats and what species are considered important and at what level.

Interestingly enough, ragwort has become a species that falls foul of the older laws and yet is considered important. It's legally a noxious weed because it contains alkaloids that have a bad effect on grazing animals livers. They avoid it when it's in situ but ragwort that is gathered and dried with loses its bitter flavour and could be eaten. Ragwort in a meadow makes the hay effectively worthless. As a result, the land-use related grants insist on its eradication before payment. However, ragwort is also a food source for a number of rare species, most listed in local biodiversity plans if not national ones, and is thus encouraged.

Welcome to the paradox that is nature conservation!

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