Arrested Development: halted ecosystems and their relevance in modern day conservation efforts

Does shifting baseline syndrome affect our conservation priorities, and, if so, does this really matter? Inspired by the writings of George Monbiot this piece explores whether we have set ourselves the correct priorities for contemporary conservation targets or whether we have missed the point.

Protection of habitats, particularly in upland heaths or lowland grassland, focuses on heavy management to conserve species endemic to pre-war, post-industrial revolution communities. In many instances these habitats are a reflection of an ecosystem where the damage had already been done.

Allogenic succession is encouraged, which discourages the formation of climax communities; surely the end game in conservation in many instances should be contrary to this. We are striving for a nationwide plagioclimax, something we campaign and give millions of pounds towards preventing in many developing countries.

Is the ecological dogma, that I apply day to day in my work, and preached to others about, flawed?

Is extirpation really a problem in all instances? We would swiftly lose sand lizard populations in some areas of the south Coast for example if secondary succession were allowed to proceed unchecked. I would not like to see this, but would the alternative of potentially greater diversity and more ‘naturalised’ habitat be preferable in the long run? This thought then brings us to what is a major catalyst in the continued glorifying of the plagioclimax; allowing succession in the SACs that these little critters inhabit would be a European offence. Many upland and lowland habitats that characterise the anthropogenically halted successional community are named in the Habitats Directive. We are therefore required to actively prevent under-management of these habitats leading to unfavourable conservation conditions for target species; translation: required to prevent recovery of these habitats leading to favourable conservation conditions for species that should actually be found in these locations under natural conditions.

Essentially, the above argues that we should be encouraging rewilding. I won’t go into the political and social consequences of this concept, these are complex issues that I do not have enough time or space to go into now; I do not however believe these issues to be insurmountable.

Does this dogma-shifting concept of rewilding actually fit with the majority modern day UK however? It seems to be the only option for upland areas that are crucial providers of nationally important ecosystem services, but most of us live in cities.

Where does that leave the trend of urban green infrastructure, and where do my thoughts and arguments above sit in the real-world urban scenarios that we are faced with as commercial ecologists? Intrinsically, the habitats we are recreating en masse in UK cities are, of course, far from ‘natural’, replicating brownfield land. I would argue that in such instances the ‘ecosystem value’ justifies the means.

Uplands and lowlands clearly have differing priorities, however this shouldn’t prevent them from being complimentary. Shifting baseline syndrome in our cities should not be viewed as deleterious to conservation efforts like it may do in the rural Uplands. A different kind of rewilding should take place. The habitat mosaics that we encourage should be viewed as a proxy for the provision of services provided by natural ecosystem functions in ‘wild’ habitats.

Rewilding should also be reflected in human engagement with wildlife. The socio-economic and health benefits of being around nature are numerous. The way we approach green space needs to change, we need to rewild ourselves. It shouldn’t be a chore or a planning requirement, it should be a desire, to create wild space and engage with nature. Here is where the shifting baseline is most dangerous; it’s not the skewed baseline of upland habitats where over management prevents normal succession that I believe to be most damaging, it’s the baseline that children growing up in Greater London see, where wildlife and green space is a novelty – something to be value engineered out. Forget the ethics, even when you cynically look at why we should encourage green space from a purely economic perceptive there are very few arguments against it. So what on Earth is wrong with you people?

We need changes in legislation, changes in policy and a change in attitude. Rewild the habitats of the uplands and the people of the cities, one green rooftop and change in attitude at a time.

Image credit: Daniel Vitalis