If there is one good thing about human beings it’s our ability to get a lot done in a short time. Unfortunately this also applies to altering and changing the natural environment (mostly for the worst). The scale of human based impacts on ecosystems is huge particularly when it comes to damaging and changing the habitats present to suit our own needs. To make it worse the funds to try to fix (or at least limit) the damage are often frustratingly limited.
Thankfully for us nature can be flexible. Species can adapt to take advantage of altered land and the new niches and opportunities it presents. Whether this is Pied Wagtails roosting near vents on rooftops, Blue Tits using a nest box or Carabid beetles colonizing conifer plantations; life does its best to succeed. These examples are all of species that have exploited a new niches or opportunity in the short term. But given long enough whole communities can adapt to exploit a new habitat that has been created by man. I have mentioned Farmland birds before and I will talk a bit more about them now as they are a fascinating example of such a ‘cultural community’.
These birds have shown remarkably adaptability to human alteration of the landscape. All of the species we today associate with farmland (Yellowhammers, Linnets, Tree Sparrows etc) are primarily seed eaters. So naturally they would occur in open grassland habitats.
Brief history lesson: the farmland in the U.K didn’t just spring up by itself; it came about as a result of mass deforestation beginning sometime between 5000 – 4500 BC. This was for some species a death knell; but not these little pioneers. Populations moved and grew to exploit these new niches that had been created and it was a boom time for them. Fast forward 7000 years and these species are in serious decline: Yellowhammers by 54%, Linnets by 60% and Tree Sparrow by 90%. As a result huge efforts are being put into helping these species, with 65% of U.K farmland now under some sort of stewardship scheme. And rightly so it’s important to protect the species we have; they are all we have got left.
As good as nature is at adapting and species amazing ability to colonise new habitats is; it’s a simple fact that the ecosystems that form around man-made habitats are often drastically different and sometimes a lot less diverse than there natural counterpart. So it could be argued that working to conserve and improve the population of species present is not enough to fully repair an ecosystem.
Step-up rewilding. This relativity new idea is gaining favour amongst conservationists. Advocated by people such as George Monbiot, rewilding aims to conserve on a large scale, protecting whole ecosystems and natural processes by returning them to their natural state (i.e pre-human impacts). Such projects often involve conversion of habitats to their natural state, such as re-forestation, and many include re-introductions of species and top predators to help bring ecosystems back into balance, by linking up habitat fragments and improving the overall ecosystem quality species populations tend to increase and become more stable. Re-introducing the right species can have huge benefits for the ecosystem as a whole, such as Beavers. Additionally, restoring ecosystem functions bring benefits such as minimising flood risk (reforestation) and water cleaning (reed beds).
So whose land is it anyway? Which option is better, conserving the species we have or undertaking large and expensive rewilding projects to restore the species and habitats that should occur in an area? The truth is there is no clean cut answer. For some areas and habitats it makes sense to rewild; for example the reforesting of Scottish uplands to expand Caledonian Forest. However often some areas can’t be rewilded; maybe they are two small or the land use is too important to be changed. In these cases it makes sense to do our best to conserve the species already present.
So I guess it boils down to this. Humans have changed ecosystem and habitats so much that much of the land doesn’t really ‘belong’ to any species now. So the question of ‘Whose land is it anyway?’ becomes irrelevant. We need to do our best to conserve as much biodiversity as possible. The best way to do this is to be pragmatic….
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