Lately I have been struggling with a few notions in my head relating to the purpose and aims of wildlife conservation. These are not exactly my original thoughts, I have merely been pondering ideas and criticisms brought up in books and other literature I have read recently, so I am not completely alone in this. The issues are complex and I am not pretending for a second that I have decided absolutely my stance on anything, I am always open to new evidence and opinion – which is partly why I have written this post – hoping a few of my readers can contribute their knowledge and views.

So conservation is about preserving and enhancing species and habitats for the benefit of the present and the future – but is often heavily influenced by the past. When we take a poor quality habitat such as arable land and manage it to create a healthy area for wildlife such as meadows or woodland we usually have in mind what we want it to end up like before we start. Or we take an already thriving natural habitat and continue to manage it in a way that preserves it as it is, so that the future can benefit from it. In both instances there often crops up the criticism that conservation is trying to keep things as they are or return them to how they used to be – when in actual fact nature is constantly changing and plastic.

Nature is always flowing, shifting, transforming and adapting depending on the needs of the now – the current climate, the current habitats, the current predators/prey etc. The landscape itself is always eroding and depositing, naturally creating new habitats or destroying old ones. Habitats are always in a process of succession from a pioneer stage to a climax stage (in Britain’s case this is deciduous woodland dominated by Oak) so all habitats in-between the two ends of the scale are ephemeral. When we try to preserve nature we often manage it so that it stays as it is – as we want it to be, based on what we think is best for nature.

But what are we basing this on? A conservationist born in the sixties is likely to have a different idea of what constitutes a healthy habitat than a conservationist born in the nineties – simply because they have a different baseline of what they see as ‘healthy’. Some people think that it is best to try to return as much of Britain back to a ‘wild’ state as possible; but what is this wild state? Do they mean the Britain of a few hundred years ago? Or are they thinking of Britain just after the end of the last ice age when it was covered in wild forest and populated by Aurochs and wolves and bison and beavers. That would be nice I suppose, but it was around 10,000 years ago – nature has moved on since then, so has the climate and the species populating this isle.

And then people go on about the importance of native species, I can see perfectly well why native species are important and make for the most diverse and healthy habitats – but what is a native species? The Sweet Chestnut has been in Britain for many centuries but is not classed as ‘native’, but the Oak Quercus robur has been in this country since it colonised after the last big ice age – so when is the cut off point? How many centuries does a species have to live in a country before it is considered native? There was a point when there were no oaks in Britain, it colonised naturally yes – so is it that something is only native if it came here naturally? But how do any of us know for certain that no apparently native species were brought here purposefully or accidentally by humans when they first colonised this isle all those millennia ago?

Which sort of brings me on to the problem of species, regarding what exactly is one? We often strive and sweat and pump thousands of pounds into conserving a single species – but from natures point of view species are a very fluid concept. Organisms adapt to fill available niches in the ecosystem, these niches are prone to change over time (though not all do) due to altering abiotic or sometimes biotic factors. Organisms either change with the niches, adapt to new ones or they die out. So a species is pretty hard to pin down, they only really exist as long as their adapted niche does; they often adapt into entirely new species or fizzle out entirely – only for something new and better adapted to take its place.

Which causes problems for conservation; especially these days when the climate is rapidly changing. We hate change and try to keep things as they are or as we remember them; wildlife as it is now is different to how it will be in 100 or 1000 years time – we sometimes have to let it change for the greater good. There was a time when the Panda did not exist, it had not yet adapted into its bamboo-munching niche, and no doubt there will eventually be a time when the panda no longer exists, such is the way of species – they come and go over eons. So should we really be spending such a vast amount of time and effort and money protecting one species when we could be protecting whole landscapes with the same resources?

Some species though really are important to the overall health and longevity of an ecosystem; such keystone species might need special treatment and conservation efforts in order to benefit everything else. But there is sometimes some overlap with niches and species; some organisms perform very similar functions to others and if one were to go extinct the ecosystem would probably be alright (e.g. magpies, rooks, carrion and hooded crows overlap somewhat in their niches).

This led me to think about how we manage nature today, how perhaps we should focus less on individual species (which are ill-defined and fluid) and more on the overall habitats and ecosystems. If a habitat such as a wood has both a high diversity and high abundance of species (regardless what those exactly are) then that is surely a good healthy habitat that should be managed to keep it in high abundance and diversity for the future, though some species may be lost or gained, as long as those two things are maintained then all is good right?

Maybe in some cases but not so in others, as I said there are situations where focusing on one or two species is crucial to protecting a whole habitat because of how they are connected to other species and drive processes. Also the changes currently being experienced in the climate are happening so much faster than would naturally, so species might very well struggle to adapt in time as their niches change or disappear. So with the climate shifting as it is what are the priorities for nature conservation? Should we try to keep things as they are now as best we can for fear of permanently losing certain species? Should we focus on preserving particularly important keystone species at the expense of others that can’t adapt fast enough and we don’t have the resources to help? Should we shift away from species and focus on landscapes, on whole ecosystems, to make them robust and healthy and adaptable so they can handle the changes? Or shall we move with nature – see where it goes, how it adapts to these changes and work with it to conserve what is coping with the change?

Of course, for the people on the ground implementing conservation with spades and loppers they simply do the best they can with what they’ve got.They see what is working with their eyes and keep doing that until something changes and then they try something else. They know what good on their site looks like and what bad looks like and they manage accordingly (all to a careful plan of course, my point is that all these questions I ask myself about conservation don’t really matter to someone coppicing hazel in Bedfordshire). Well done for reading this far, if you didn’t then it’s pretty pointless me saying anything because you aren’t reading this – if you are reading this though then feel free to share your thoughts below.