Conservation, what is it all about?
It is often misunderstood by those who don’t see beyond what they perceive as wanton vandalism and senseless tree felling.
In brief, a lot of conservation can be summed up as putting right the mistakes of the past. Managing habitats to benefit an entire system of species from the soil up. Controlling invasive species. Returning once intensely farmed or developed land into more sustainable manageable ecosystems that will benefit the land users, be they human or other species.
Many staff and volunteers working with wildlife trusts, the RSPB, WWT and National Trust, can often come in for some fairly unpleasant verbal or indeed physical abuse from visitors to their properties. They see scrub clearing as nothing more than destructive cutting down of trees. These organisations are getting wise to this and have of late started using good interpretation to get their messages across. Despite this some people still get a bee in their bonnets about this needless clearing of valuable and beautiful trees or other plants. So here I’m going to use actual examples from work I’ve done around the UK for some of these organisations.
Recently I was working with a team of volunteers on the Sefton dunes site of special scientific interest, on the West coast near Southport. Our task was to enhance the dunes for the benefit of our rare sand lizards
valuable dune flora, which in turn supported communities of rare
invertebrates. Over the last fifteen years Sea Buckthorn Hippophae
rhamnoides had started to spread across the dunes. Shading out
areas important for female sand lizards to lay their eggs as well as
for the lizards to bask on. Shallow ponds where the natterjack toads
spawn in spring were drying up due to the wide spreading roots of
the buckthorn and some larger willow trees. So the very animals the
dune system had been granted its SSSI status for, were being choked into ever decreasing areas. The smaller willow species and dune grasses and flowers were also losing out to the more dominant scrub. We met a gentleman who had surveyed the dunes for over forty years who had photos of the area showing how it had been open and sunny with pools in several places. He had nothing but praise for what we were doing. Yet once the chainsaws started up and the fires were lit to burn all of the cut scrub other locals came over and let loose with tirades of abuse. Yet they would not stay to hear why the work was being done.
As a landscape gardener I come across a wide variety of invasive plants in gardens and also out in the wild. I make it my duty to inform landowners and householders of the problems these plants can cause.
I’m sure you’ll all be aware of the problems Rhododendron ponticum causes. Shading out smaller native shrubs, perennials and grasses. Some conservation charities now host Rhodie bashing days where they get families involved in their work. This helps people understand what is being done and why. It is amazing what a good notice and a friendly face to talk to can achieve.
If you take a wander in the countryside and come across an area that has been recently cleared of birch and alder you may want to think about why. What was this area before it scrubbed over? Was it lowland heath, neutral or acid grassland, a pond or wetland. All these habitats and ecosystems are rare and important from a biodiversity point of view. They do have to be managed in order that the communities of rare species they support can continue to exist.
What do all ponds want to turn into? Over time, and I’m talking in the hundreds of years here, they will become oak woodland, through a slow process of succession. Marginal vegetation growing into the pond causes silting up with decomposing vegetation, which in turn creates shallow water that allows pioneer trees like birch and alder to grow. These will be taken over later by oak as the pond dries up. I know what you are thinking. Why not allow this to happen if it is a natural process? Would nature not balance itself out? Perhaps it would in some places but many species would suffer and lose out. Valuable communities of rare plants and animals would be lost forever.
I’m not blaming gardeners for all of the problems conservationists now
face. But seriously those plant collectors, what were they thinking?
Farming practices inspired by ridiculous government policies, the pet
trade and the irresponsible actions of some animal activists
(the release of mink from farms into our countryside) are all equally to
blame. Individuals disposing of unwanted pets or plants have been
responsible for the demise of local native animal and plant colonies.
Something as simple as dumping a terrapin in a pond can result in the invertebrate and amphibian population of the pond plummeting.
Also many of the species now enjoying our hospitality have made their own way here and have decided to stay because the weather is so good. (I can’t believe I’ve written that). But thanks to a recent rise in temperatures more species are thriving here. Southern species are moving North. Many, once rare, visitors to the North are now regarded as common such as Comma and Speckled wood butterflies.
I get called upon to give talks to different groups and often the topic is
related to problem plants. As a landscape gardener I look to educate as
much as possible in the hope that at least some people go home and try
to get rid of something they might have that is causing concern.
Local community, garden and natural history groups as well as schools
would do well to consider some outdoor events in their areas tackling
some invasive species. Get landowner permission or get involved with
your local conservation charity. They would love the help of some willing volunteers in their constant struggle against these problematic plants and animals.
www.nonnativespecies.org have a species list with good identification pages to help you spot undesirables in your area. It can actually be a great day out, getting stuck into some worthwhile task.