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?