the challenge of maintaining Saum
I just read an excellent review of Feral on the blog of Green Alliance Director Matthew Spencer. It arrived, in timely fashion on the same day as George published his challenge to British Conservation in the Guardian.
I wrote this response to Matthew Spencer’s blog, and thought I would share it with you too.
Thanks for this excellent review Matthew.
I was a bit tougher on George than you are when I reviewed Feral (which you can find here http://wp.me/p3vKib-5e) but then again I have been arguing with him about it for the past two years. I have to say that, as someone who has worked in nature conservation for the past 25 years (and I now am much less sure about it than I was to begin with!), my views have changed as a result of this ongoing debate, but I am also pleased that George’s have too. He does now recognise the value of semi-natural habitats like the chalk downland you cherish, as does his re-wilding guru Mark Fisher. Mark up until very recently argued for re-wilding to best be pursued on semi-natural sites, because they might act as innoculation points for species to spread into currently sterile landscapes. Mark also recognises now that this is “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.
George picked you up yesterday on your comment about sterile scrub, though he mistakenly claimed that scrub was more biodiverse than the downland. You’re both wrong! “Southern Mixed Scrub” is a very rich, though transient habitat. Conservation managers often attempt to maintain a mosaic of chalk downland of differing types, and southern mixed scrub at various stages of development. This is an extraordinarily rich habitat for wildlife and it is the dynamic boundary between the grassland and the scrub which makes it so rich. Many of the rarest species of this habitat occur on this boundary. It is so important ecologists have a special name for it – “Saum”. It is also extremely difficult to manage, because it’s effectively balancing on an ecological tightrope – the system is always tending towards one state (grassland) or the other (scrub to woodland). I think that in prehistory (especially in previous interglacials) this was a significant habitat in its own right, created as a result of wild herbivore grazing, fire, drought and storm. It’s the British equivalent of mediterranean garrigue or phrygana. Elephants would undoubtedly have helped maintain it.
And it’s for this reason that I don’t agree with George about re-wilding the uplands. First there is the knotty problem of Carbon – much of the uplands is now covered in carbon-rich soils (peat) – reforestation, if even possible on deep peat soils, would cause a large amount of C to be released. Secondly as you say the entrenched elite will not be pleased to lose their playgrounds.
But re-wilding would be so much more exciting and effective if it occurred in the lowlands, especially if it included a large coastal area. I don’t have a problem with the Clarksons of this worled paying handsomely to off road through it, or even shoot the odd bear. The key thing is scale. Mark Fisher estimates that an area of at least 250,000ha is needed to support 9 wolf packs. Back of the envelope sums suggested that would cost around £5bn. Which actually isn’t an unachievable figure.
Ultimately this isn’t about either conservation of semi-natural habitats OR re-wilding. I think we need both approaches, one for one set of reasons
– these cultural habitats are the lifeboats (most of them are badly leaking though) in which our existing biodiversity currently sits; these are also the places that hold so much of our history, culture and sense of place.
The other for the future
– re-wilded areas will be new sanctuaries for nature, and probably new nature (or a return of nature from previous interglacials) that will thrive under much warmer conditions.
I’m having a debate with George on re-wilding at the Linnean Society on 13th November. The event is already full but I am hoping that LinnSoc will film it and put it on the web.