Babies and Bathwater


Non-intervention management ((C) Miles King)

I boldly suggested the other day that conservation iconoclast  Mark Fisher now agreed with me that stopping human intervention on high value nature sites (such as SSSIs) was not the best way of achieving his ideal natural state of wilderness. What hubris!

Mark has corrected me. He originally stated this:

“If SSSI cover 6% of the UK, whats wrong with a proportion of that being wilder? Say 0.5% out of the 6%? That still leaves 5.5% or 10 times the area. To be honest, I’d rather not go for areas of SSSI for a number of reasons, and so ecological restoration doesn’t have to be a threat to any of the managed diversity”

Yesterday he went on to clarify:

I don’t see that you can construe from that anything about babies, bath water and the relative merits of semi-natural versus wild areas! Firstly, I don’t use the word “rewilding” nowadays. Secondly, the main reason why I would rather not go for for areas of SSSI is because of the compositional approach to nature conservation that the SSSI system embodies, and which holds land in stasis, as evaluated by reference to the ridiculous criteria in Common Standards Monitoring. Thus ecological restoration is inimical to the SSSI system, as its very intent is to inhibit natural processes. Its a nonsense that natural processes and wild nature are thus “illegal” in Britain, because they are effectively in breach of the requirement to maintain stasis. It is very worrying to me that the small number of protected areas in England where there is a locally originated policy of non-intervention have no status in nature conservation in Britain, and that the gains in wild nature in these areas could be lost if the local policy is over turned. Since the SSSI system is unlikely to be reformed any time soon, then it makes sense not to jeopardize any approach to ecological restoration – or reinstatement of trophic diversity as George may put it – by being constrained by SSSI designation.

As always with Mark’s comments there are many threads to tease apart. Instead I am going to focus on just a couple.

Converting 0.5% of the 6% of land covered by SSSIs into a wilder state.

the UK covers 24 million hectares, so 0.5% of that would be 1.2 Million hectares. What would happen to biodiversity if all management stopped on 1.2Mha of SSSI?

Well, firstly it depends on which SSSIs are affected. The large area of intertidal mudflat designated SSSI would not really be affected, unless bait-digging and other similar activities was banned. Similarly rivers and lakes would not be hugely affected as SSSI status already prevents most of the more active interventions – though of course it doesn’t stop indirect human impacts such as eutrophication.

But ceasing management on a 2ha SSSI hay meadow would fairly rapidly cause it to lose most of the biodiversity that it supported, without any concomitant increase in other species. Who would decide which 1.2Mha of SSSI was going to be left to go wild, or abandoned, depending on your viewpoint. Would it be a random decimation or targeted onto undeserving habitats. Or would a few large SSSIs (some upland heath ones for example) be targeted?

And what would the outcome be? For lowland SSSIs that were not already woodland, succession would take place over years or decades. Open habitats would cease to be open, go through a scrub phase before becoming secondary woodland. Species of open habitats would decline and eventually disappear, and the woodlands created would be relatively poor in biodiversity, both compared with ancient examples, and with the habitats they replaced. Put simply this is because succession does not equal ecological restoration.

In the uplands the situation would be different: succession would happen much more slowly, especially on deep peat soils. In the absence of predators populations of wild (deer) and feral (sheep) herbivores would increase, possibly to levels which maintained the open landscape, but to the detriment of the biodiversity.


I am surprised Mark suggests there is no official recognition of the value of non-intervention as a management tool in British conservation. This is simply not true. Non-intervention has been employed officially in nature conservation for well over 30 years and is a widely adopted approach. Originally non-intervention on nature reserves was usually an excuse for not carrying out management due to a lack of resources. But certainly by the 1980s there were strong advocates for a positive approach to non-intervention – such as Mike Alexander at CCW and Tony Whitbread at the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

I carried out some brief research on the value of deadwood in ancient woodlands in 1989, at a time when many woodlands (and more importantly limbs that had fallen off ancient pollards in wood pastures) were still being manically tidied up and burnt. Times have changed to such an extent that deadwood is now left in places where it has very limited ecological value ( eg tied down with wire on sunny railway cuttings).

There are countless nature reserves and other land around the country now where there is a deliberate policy of no intervention – including on SSSIs. So I find that comment very strange.

Ecological Restoration occupies a continuum. At one end, stopping adding artificial fertiliser to a grassland is a basic type of ecological restoration, much like tree planting. At the other end is the introduction of elephants to a 250,000ha new nature landscape. Why make one the enemy of the other?

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in anti conservation rhetoric, anti-environmental rhetoric, biodiversity, environmental policy, forest elephant, George Monbiot, Mark Fisher, rewilding, Saum, scrub, self-willed land, SSSis, straight tusked elephant, uplands and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Babies and Bathwater

  1. David Dunlop says:

    It seems to me that, in this debate, dynamic terrestrial ecosystems, operating as mosaics of habitat ‘naturally’ varying over time at a landscape scale, are being conflated and even set in “territorial” opposition to surviving fragmentary components of those now almost wholly defunct landscape scale dynamic ecosystems (even in inshore territorial waters) that remain, as modified by the dominant species and now only readily maintained by continuing sustainable interactions by that dominant species that are no longer economically viable so don’t happen much except through state intervention.

    Were that dominant species’ current impacts on its natural environment to be reduced, by its own collective will, from very large parts of the terrestrial United Kingdom (and cross-border?) then I would anticipate that might well allow equivalent biodiversity to be maintained within the dynamic systems.

    However, as that’s impractical without substantial “clearances” and reductions of the UK’s human population – which isn’t likely to win many votes and raises major human rights issues – we need to put forward something intermediate that might actually be deliverable and, at least partly, overcomes the static, site-based, reactive approach to nature conservation that has, peforce, developed since the Wildlife & Countryside (Great Britain) Act 1981 and the Nature Conservation & Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985; and then to deliver its passage through the UK and devolved parliaments.

    What would such legislation look like?

    ‘Cos, whatever would deliver for us, it ain’t going to happen by us just willing it to! 😉

  2. Mark Fisher says:

    I was at a wilderness workshop in Tilburg, The Netherlands, on Monday and Tuesday, hosted by the Faculty of Law of Tilburg University. We were discussing the chapters of a forthcoming book entitled “Wilderness Protection in Europe: The Role of International, European and National Law” and, as you know, my contribution to the book is a chapter on Ecological Values of Europe’s Wilderness. In presenting an outline of my chapter, I identified that I tended to use the terms trophic level/assembly/diversity rather than biodiversity. When asked to explain why, I said it was because the term biodiversity had become associated in the UK with a compositional approach to nature conservation based on a list of species chosen by the conservation industry, rather than have the three core attributes of composition, structure, and function, a compelling approach recognized by Franklin in forest ecosystems and expanded upon by Noss. This disappointed Ole Kristian Fauchald from Norway, who felt that biodiversity had served them well in his country. However, Peter Schütz said the same thing had happened in the Netherlands. It is no surprise to me that the UK and the Netherlands are the two countries in Europe whose protected area legislation doesn’t have a clue about strict protection through non-intervention.

    Miles – you do realise how banal it is of you to repeat the orthodox dogma about secondary woodland? In response to your thoughtful comments about my chapter, I said that I would always hope to give recognition to all functions in ecosystems, especially after I read the bits about decomposers in Speight & Hamblers’s BW article on the need for science to replace tradition in “biodiversity” conservation in Britain:
    “There is more damp material for decomposers, more substrate for microbes, more prey for predators, and there are more hosts for parasites. There is simply more niche-space in late-successional habitats. In general, the damper and more structurally complex the habitat, the more biodiversity it can support!”

    I also ventured to you that wild nature sometimes does some astonishing things in terms of reinstatement of species – that in the WRi, we constantly puzzle over some areas in the Yorkshire Dales where the returns have no obvious local source, even if vectored. One such is Scar Close, and which gives the lie to your assertion about secondary woodland. Our students get to marvel at it each year on the field trip when we give them the comparison of exclusion of grazing since 1974 on Scar Close with the continuous, HLS-funded grazing of the nearby Southerscales. The obvious difference is in vitality. The regenerating woodland of ash is just past the shrub stage and into low canopy. These trees may never grow fully due to the thinness of the returning soil and exposure to the wind of the upland climate, but the shadier areas beneath their canopies have a lushness of ground layer vegetation, and one can only speculate on what invertebrate life exists in the accumulating decomposition. Butterflies revel in this reforming woodland and there is the sound of birds, missing from the grazed areas.
    Amongst the major differences on the pavement of Scar Close is that the wildflowers are growing on it’s surface rather than in the clints and grykes, the deep joints in the limestone. Scar Close has three times the floristic diversity of the nearby grazed pavement of Southerscales. This has happened because of the build up of humus and soil-making resulting initially from ash leaf fall, but which then proceeds on the herbaceous cycle of plants combined with the leaf fall. The mix of plants at present cuts across many of the common plant strategies, and so it is neither all shade species (or obligate shade) or all open ground species. It is a botanical garden that could act now as the source of species for the ecological restoration of all the surrounding pavements, but only if grazing is also removed from those pavements as well.

    The tree cover on Scar Close is above the range in Common Standards Monitoring for an open pavement – “Scrubby and woody cover should amount to between 5% and 25% of the pavement feature”

    Grazing was also removed from South House Moor on the other side of Ingleborough NNR, resulting in the return of a trophic cascade involving rodents and owls. The absence of grazing has resulted in the loss of single payment, and the Moor is on its way to defaulting on the criteria in CSM. What CSM cannot do for SHM is reflect the differences in hydrology that have resulted from cessation from grazing, and which one of our students has documented through comparison between the sedimentation arising in the limestone cave systems fed from SHM and the nearby, and continuously grazed Borrins Moor.

    These examples are the hard issues of trophic diversity versus biodiversity, and which don’t sit comfortably in our SSSI system. At a policy level, you only have to look at the failure of the realisation of a recommendation in 2000 for a provisional minimum intervention woodland reserve series for England with proposals for baseline recording and long-term monitoring therein (ENRR385).

    I can have no confidence in a system of nature conservation that appears to make it up as it goes along when designating SSSI, such as at Lodgehill in Kent where little recognition was given to the factor that was likely to have led to the presence of nightingale – the natural and unaided regeneration of woody species, and which is anathema to the nature conservation embodied in the SSSI designation. Not for nothing were the Executive Board of Natural England concerned that the presence of the nightingale at this site was being tied to the burgeoning presence of scrub. On seeking clarification, the minutes of the meeting at which the decision was made had this:
    “With regards to the transient nature of the scrub and whether it is likely to be a more common interest feature in the future, AD confirmed that many SSSI habitats are transitional and that does not mean we should not consider them for notification. With a few exceptions, such as some ancient woodlands (where ‘non-intervention’ approaches have been adopted) and coastal habitats, the majority of SSSI habitats rely on management”
    Making it up as they go along also involves them in facing both ways, but which doesn’t formalize an acceptance for non-intervention.

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