The malady of conservation reliance


A few weeks ago, I was walking on the low tide coasts in Pembrokeshire that I can lose myself in, searching out patches of orange sponge in sea caves, and the bright pink of coraline seaweed in the tidal rock pools. It’s a chancy pursuit depending on the state of the tide, and whether it’s in a period of springs when the sea goes out further. I had to come back a second time for one cave, as the entrance only became passable as the tide cycle moved further into springs. What I found was a joy, a mass of common starfish (Asterias rubens) some in small pools, others left high and dry and tensely rigid on the sand between the rocks. Pop them into the pools and you can see them relax. Where I usually only see one starfish, if at all, this was an abundance, perhaps a colony and which had made its home in amongst all the other sea life in this cave. I wondered, could I construct here the sequence of events that led Robert Paine during the 1960s to develop evidence for the cascading effects of this carnivore that can consume mussels and barnacles? Paine had repeatedly stripped ochre starfish (Pisaster ochraceous) off an intertidal stretch of the rocky Olympic coast of Washington state, and watched what happened to the other species (1). Four months out in the absence of predator, barnacles had spread, crowding out other species from the rock. Nine months after that, mussels had pushed out the barnacles so that of the 15 species at the start, seven had gone, others much diminishing except for the mussels. I’ve seen ochre starfish on the low-tide rocky coast around Stanley Park at the edge of Vancouver – they are not ochre in colour! Well at least not all the time, as their other name is purple sea star, and this was the disturbingly garish colour of those that I saw. Why these starfish have such a colour polymorphism is a bit puzzling because it seems more than genetic diversity, and may also depend on what they eat (2).

While in Pembrokeshire, I also explored more of a coastal cliff woodland that is both scary because of the precariousness of its limited accessible areas being perched above the drop of the steeper slopes that they abut, but fascinating because the woodland drips with the presence of epiphytic lichens, a sign of a long-term ecological continuity (3). There is a lush understorey of ferns, woodrush and bramble, the mossy branches of the stunted oaks also peppered in ferns as well as clasped by ivy. I like to see the wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides) in this woodland, as it’s not in my northern woods. I came across tutsan (Hypericum androsaemum) this time, a large leaved variant of damp, shady places, and which is thus in my woods, but there was only one there. I puzzled as to why this was so, having to check those thoughts when it became a symptom of the malady of conservation – what could I do to increase the number of tutsan?

You don’t need to garden a wilderness

Miles King had an interesting take on this malady when he linked Large Gold Case-bearer (Coleophora vibicella) a rare micro-moth, to the presence of dyer’s greenweed (Genista tinctoria) in the “PIRA village” recreated for urban military training at an MOD site in Kent (4). Since the site was abandoned, dyer’s greenweed has grown in profusion in what were the back gardens of this faked village, and which haven’t been mown for many years. Miles noted that this moth is found “almost always on Dyer’s Greenweed, a low shrub now so threatened with extinction in England that it is listed on the Red Data List”. Miles has been campaigning to prevent residential development of the MOD site because of this and other species, such as nightingales (5) that have thrived in the abandonment. And yet Miles knows that if this land is purchased for bird conservation, which he says is one possibility, then it will be trapped back into the malady, and the neglect that has seen those species returns will instead be turned into directed management for species, especially if it is to maintain the dyer’s greenwood. While I don’t see it on the Red List (6) it is the case that its distribution is declining, the malady prescribing a typical dependence on management to assure its presence (7):
“Extensive grazing with cattle will create a varied sward structure, remove biomass, prevent the encroachment of scrub”

You might think the resurgence of dyer’s greenweed and the nightingales, in the absence of estate management at the abandoned MOD site, is at odds with the level of intervention that is normally prescribed by the malady. It is of course a question of degree – not too much and not too little would be the reply of the malady meddlers! Dyer’s greenwood can thrive in grassy heath – I have seen it in the coastal dune heath at Drigg, a SSSI on the Cumbrian coast (8). The most recent site monitoring evaluation grades the site as unfavourable, and prescribes increased grazing pressure and scrub control to tackle the “tall sward which lacks bare ground and supports negative indicators including creeping thistle and burnet rose”(9). Gorse is also a “negative indicator” because at 10% cover of the dune, it is “double the ideal maximum”. I wonder what is the natural habitat of dyers greenweed before we came along with our malady and tried to maintain the artificially increased distribution arising from our modifying of landscapes (10,11)? What if you like the gorgeous scent of burnet rose – which I do? What is the “ideal maximum”?

What this leads to is “conservation reliance” a term used in America when a species comes to rely on conservation efforts for its survival (12). There is an operational element to this term since it is normally applied to species listed under the Endangered Species Act (13). The risks a listed species faces are identified in a recovery plan along with the management tools required to conserve the species and the scales at which the tools would be implemented. The aim is for the species to respond by increasing in numbers and distribution, achieving the recovery goals. It would then be delisted as recovered. As with the objects of attention of the malady here, the threats that listed species face may not easily be eliminated from the more anthropogenically altered ecosystems, only managed so that they maintain an artificial distribution. Thus conservation management actions may be required for these species for the foreseeable future even when self-sustaining population recovery goals are achieved. Of course, America faces a very different suite of endangered species than we do, such as the grizzly bear, gray and Mexican wolf, mountain lion, jaguar, lynx, Californian condor and Northern spotted owl (14) and I get more excited about those than the mundanity of aspiration for wildness represented by the conservation reliant species here. Those endangered species in America exemplify creatures that do not owe their existence to humans when given sufficient wild space and natural systems – they do not need the wilderness to be gardened.

At the apex of the mundanity here is the self-justifying view that human transformed landscapes are so much better, that ecological restoration would throw away the gains from the simplification in agro-ecological systems. I got a heavy reminder of that when I saw the abstracts for the “Wild Thing??” conference held a month ago in Sheffield (15). I would rather have stuck pins in my eyes than have been there. The abstract of Tom Williamson, a professor of landscape history at UEA stands out amongst such a motley crew of Anthropocene fetishizers (16):
“the arrival of farming and the subsequent development of cultural landscapes served not to reduce but rather to raise levels of biodiversity in Britain, by massively increasing the range of different habitats – heaths, downs, coppiced woodland, meadows, arable and the like. These, and the particular wildlife they sustain, have a vital cultural importance: they are deeply embedded in our art, literature and much else, something which should not be lightly disregarded, given that our essential interactions with ‘the natural’ are structured by and mediated through our shared culture"

Williamson says that ecological restoration (he uses the term “rewilding”) “should not be allowed to absorb too much of our attention, however fashionable and new it might appear”. More deserving of our attention, he says, is better management of our farmed and settled land for wildlife, and a better understanding of the “social an economic developments which have, over thousands of years, shaped our complex and diverse environments”

What drives ecological restoration, and what holds it back?

With that pounding on my brain, I gave a talk on ecological restoration on the second day of a South and West Yorkshire team meeting of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT) to discuss YWT’s view of “rewilding” and what contribution it could make out of their reserve portfolio (17). Their away days were in an area of the Yorkshire Dales that has been a study of mine for some years, and which I use as example on the wilderness course with Geography students at Leeds. YWT’s site visits were in the mostly publicly owned Ingleborough National Nature Reserve: Scar Close is a limestone pavement ungrazed since 1974 that they compared with their own grazed pavement of Southerscales reserve nearby; and South House Moor, ungrazed since 1999, and with about 6% planted with trees (18).

I was pretty brutal about getting rid of sheep, the failings of SSSI designation, Common Standards Monitoring, their inflexibility and short-termism, and weening themselves off their dependency on agri-environment funding. Surprisingly, I did not need the protection of a stab vest, and in spite of the very predictable reactions and reasons given against ecological restoration by some, there was an enthusiasm amongst those of the staff who didn’t carry around the same baggage. Who knows whether trashing the whole basis of nature conservation in Britain is the most effective argument for ecological restoration? I did point to some recent policy documents that argue a need for a change from an inflexible, compositional approach, and with a greater (some?!) scope for natural processes (19,20,21). I would like to think that my explanations about the key role of ash tree recruitment in the restoration of the limestone pavement at Scar Close had some resonance (22). However, I suspect that the novelty of seeing the transformed landscape at South House Moor on the second day was more instrumental in swaying opinion than Scar Close the day before, since the latter was probably discounted because it could be regarded as an easy win for YWT to remove grazing from their nearby Southerscales reserve so that it followed the same trajectory.

An ungrazed moorland landscape, as at South House Moor, takes on a remarkable structure of grass hummocks infiltrated by a range of mosses, with larger areas of sphagnum developing, and with regeneration of shrubs – heather, bilberry etc. It is hard going for hominids, but drilled with runs and tunnels of small mammals, and with sightings of a couple of roe deer in the distance. One of the YWT managers was especially excited by this landscape, and others were finding caterpillars, spiders and other bugs (they are like children who have to pick everything up!). I was pleased to see great swathes of bog asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum) and how widespread it had become since I was last there, as well coming across sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) both of which grow in the wetter areas on my nearby ungrazed moorland. Colin Newland, the NNR manager, is especially pleased with this transformation, offering it as a stark contrast with the flatness of Park Fell, the grazed moorland outside the wall. My emphasis while walking there with YWT was in recognising that grazing in natural systems occurs at many herbivore sizes, the trophic cascade now existing between the grass, slugs, common shrew, field vole and short-eared owl being a reinstatement of a natural process (owl pellets on the moor reveal all!). It seems that in YWT’s world, only domestic livestock graze!

The removal of grazing from South House Moor brought forth the most hackneyed objections to ecological restoration, such as the nonsense of greater risk of moorland fires (where is the natural ignition?!) and the pragmatism of wildlife trusts in taking agri-environment funding. I was questioned on my prescription of removing sheep when I had expressed dismay at the level of deer culling to facilitate highland birch renewal. Strangely, some didn’t regard deer as wild animals, not seeing the distinction. Since in the naysayers world, no land should go ungrazed (by livestock) Colin was pressed on when he would reinstate grazing on South House Moor. In response, he feared the loss of trees – about 6% has been planted up based on changing conditions across the moor – but even worse would be the loss of the gains in structure that have been made in the transformation of the species already there. Colin is often pressed on grazing, by the black grouse people who only know one way of reintroducing them, and by land management advisers since he lost a considerable sum when single farm payment on the land was stopped, but he is steadfast in protecting the gains that have been made in the last 15 years. Someone sought to undermine the transition by saying it was on a successional trajectory towards blanket bog, as if this would alter the distribution of extant species and preclude the expansion of tree distribution out from the carefully chosen planted areas. There is already substantial areas of modified blanket bog/wet acidified grassland that is expected to eventually recruit a cover of scattered birch now there is a seed source in the future of the moor. The evidence of a natural distribution of scattered trees on moorland and wetland from Scandinavia and Russia was downplayed by some, and then it fell into the default argument of tree loss from a period of climate change. This plays into the climate change overwhelm syndrome - that the potential change puts so much at risk that the greater importance is to protect the status quo. It is allied to the double hypocrisy of the fetishizing of sloppy peat when its origin is as anthropogenic as that of climate change. This syndrome is why I never touch climate change. The syndrome’s assumption precludes the option that wild nature will develop its own novel assemblages out of its own native species, and which is what I replied.

Sites of ecological restoration are additional to managed reserves

I was asked what I thought about coppicing by the person who takes responsibility for meadows and coppice. I talked about the pure, ancient, Atlantic hazel woods around Oban that have never been coppiced, and which would lose their astonishing lichen and bryophyte assemblages if they were (3). Did that mean I was against coppice for wood products as well? This is indicative of the unholy alliance between extractive activities and nature conservation. Thus I answered that coppice could exist for product, that it may also exist for some examples of managed systems, but that it had no place where natural processes were the driver. As Miles is always inclined to remind me, one of his distinctive meadows is more important than an area in ecological transition. Thus those meadows could also exist as some examples of managed systems.

I asked them to back off on the effort they put into such things as mini-beasts (with children) and start an indoctrination with adults they come in contact with. They had their own issues about how fluid the meaning of “rewilding” had become, and once they had decided on how to portray it, they would think about using their contact with visitors at their reserves. Since there was no one there from their Board, I encouraged them to write a paper seeking support for the staff further developing their ideas on ecological restoration and possible contribution. In relation to discussions about the scale at which ecological restoration could take place, they did not see they could achieve anything at large scale, only just about accepting my critique that their “living landscapes”, and their involvement in Nature Improvement Areas, is just pecking away at small, unconnected bits within a larger area. I asked for their support in “Rewilding” Britain achieving its three large core areas of ecological restoration (23) whether it was by contribution if one of them enveloped any of their land, or in approval and peer pressure if it was elsewhere.

I think the key message I gave is that the fear, uncertainty and doubt arises from the presumption that ecological restoration challenges the existence of all their reserves. Many seemed relieved when I confronted the usual calculatedly unhelpful presumption of a few that it was all or nothing in restoration. It was this recognition that helped, that the presumption was wrong, that sites of ecological restoration were additional to the managed reserves, but very much needed because there was so little representation of it on the spectrum or continuum of wild land.

They took a vote on day one: nine for “rewilding”, 11 against, and nine undecided. The revote after my talk was 20 for, four against, and six undecided.

Mark Fisher, 14 October 2015

(1) Paine, R. T. (1966) Food Web Complexity and Species Diversity. The American Naturalist 100: 65–75

(2) Harley, C. D. G., Pankey, M. S., Wares, J. P., Grosberg, R. K., & Wonham, M. J. (2006). Color polymorphism and genetic structure in the sea star Pisaster ochraceus. The Biological Bulletin, 211: 248-262.

(3) Coastal temperate rainforest - in Britain?! Self-willed land June 2015

(4) Turning point for Lodge Hill? Land Securities walks away, bird conservationist leads Medway Council, a new nature blog 11 September 2015

(5) Wild trees and natural woods, Self-willed land April 2013

(6) Cheffings, C.M. & Farrell, L. (Eds), Dines, T.D., Jones, R.A., Leach, S.J., McKean, D.R., Pearman, D.A., Preston, C.D., Rumsey, F.J., Taylor, I. 2005. The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain. Species Status 7: 1-116. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.

(7) Genista tinctoria. Species account, Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland

(8) Drigg Coast SSSI Citation, Natural England

(9) Drigg Dunes North (021), Unit detail, Drigg Coast SSSI, Natural England

(10) Harting Down - obsession with conserving man-made landscapes, Self-willed land November 2007

(11) What is rewilding? Self-willed land September 2013

(12) Goble, D. D., Wiens, J. A., Scott, J. M., Male, T. D., & Hall, J. A. (2012). Conservation-reliant species. BioScience, 62(10), 869-873.

(13) Endangered Species Act Overview, US Fish & Wildlife Service

(14) U.S. Species, Endangered Species, US Fish & Wildlife Service

(15) Draft Program. Wild Thing?? Managing Landscape Change and Future Ecologies

(16) Williamson, T. (2015) Problems with ‘Re-wilding’. Conference Abstracts, Wild Thing??: Managing Landscape Change and Future Ecologies. 9th to 11th September 2015

(17) Fisher, M. (2015) What drives ecological restoration, and what holds it back. WRi October 2015

(18) Walking the wild places, Self-willed land September 2010

(19) Protected Areas for Nature Review, Panel's Report to SNH 2014

(20) Written evidence submitted by The Wildland Research Institute, University of Leeds. An environmental scorecard, Fifth Report of Session 2014-15, House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, September 2014

(21) Protected Areas now and into the future – their role in biodiversity conservation. A Workshop hosted by JNCC October 2014. To be published

(22) Saying goodbye to ash, Self-willed land December 2012

(23) A challenge to Rewilding Britain, Self-willed land August 2015