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Stability or Disturbance?

Updated: Dec 28, 2019

A rare clubmoss has been revitalised after a five tonne tractor was driven around its habitat in Dorset.

This is more evidence that what we need in many of our remnant habitats is a bit of dynamism, not passive management to maintain the status quo.

Our woodlands, once rich and varied habitats with a multitude of species, are now dark and dreary canopy woodlands with a decreasing biodiversity.


Simply because the dynamic processes that once occurred in our woodlands and other habitats are now largely missing.

It's no accident that more invertebrate life is visible where roads have been cut through woodlands, exposing the ground to the sun, than in the dark interior.

Millennia ago, large herbivores would have done this as they pushed through the undergrowth, making their paths as they went.

Sunny glades and rides would have been common in our woodlands, due to the activities of wild cattle, wild ponies, wild boar and deer.

Now our woodlands are dark and have lost many species of invertebrate that the birds and other animals would feed on.

Worse, the species that depend on 'edge' habitat now have nowhere to go, where once they could have retreated to the woodland clearings, rides and edges.

We've almost lost the nightingales, save in areas such as Knepp Estate where they're expanding into the scrubby areas as hedges and woodlands expand into the fields.

Many other species are now hard to find in woodland, where they would once have been common.

There has always been a reluctance to introduce a dynamic aspect to habitat management, with the worry that we'd 'damage' the habitat.

Now we need to start rethinking how we manage our dwindling habitats and start to recreate natural systems and processes, so long missing from the UK countryside.

We need to start using large herbivores in our woodlands to recreate some of the habitats we once had and that the wildlife so desperately needs.

We need to stop thinking that 'we know best', when few of us have actually seen a proper working dynamic system complete with all the associated animals and plants.

I consider myself very fortunate that I've seen for myself some of the dynamic systems that we once had in Britain and I've come to realise that it's not enough to read about it in books, though that's a good place to start.

Rather than keep doing the habitat management that we've been doing for the past 40+ years, with scrub bashing a regular feature, we should be learning how natural ecosystems work and trying to replicate them.

We can only do this if we see for ourselves what a biodiverse countryside looks like and you won't find that in the UK.

We need to go somewhere that has the same species we still have, plus the species we've lost, and then work out what those species need and recreate it for them.

For some, it's relatively simple: corncrakes need hay meadows and wet meadows; red-backed shrikes need meadows full of insects and reptiles; so we need to recreate these habitats if we want them back.

For other species, we need to stop assuming we know what their preferred habitat is: red squirrels do not 'prefer' conifer forest, they've just retreated there in the face of the grey squirrels; nightingales do not 'prefer' woodlands, they like woodland edge and scrubby habitats but have retreated to woodlands as their preferred habitats have disappeared; purple emperor butterflies need wet meadows and woodland edge, not canopy woodland.

If you'd like to see purple emperors, red-backed shrikes, corncrakes and other species in their preferred habitats, come with me to south-east Poland in May or June and relearn what you thought you knew about habitat preferences and biodiversity.

Seasoned ecologists and conservationists are amazed at the numbers of species and individuals of those species that can be seen within just a couple of miles of where we stay and you'll be able to see and hear the difference as soon as you arrive.

One of the major problems we have is that those people who are responsible for conserving our species and managing valuable habitats don't actually know what they need to know to do that, and I counted myself among them up until a few years ago.

I, as well as many others, have spent most of my life as a conservationist not knowing what I needed to know to conserve the wildlife of Britain that I love, which is part of the reason we have bugger all left!

If conserving species and recreating habitats is important to you, you should definitely come with me in May or June to see what you need to see, so that you'll know what you need to know.

It's too late to talk about 'conserving biodiversity' because in most of Britain we simply don't have any left. If you think what we have left is biodiverse, you definitely need to come with me in May or June, as you're a victim of 'shifting baseline syndrome', like most of the population.

It's now my mission to take as many people as I can to see real biodiversity, especially those whose jobs are supposed to be conserving and recreating biodiversity - they simply can't do their jobs if they don't know what biodiversity looks like!

To this end, I'm taking some people from my local Wildlife Trust with me in May or June and it would be great if you'd join us.

There are only a few places available in each of the two weeks when I'll be there, so book soon or miss out. You can come for either or both weeks and I promise you'll be amazed at the diversity of species and how common those that are rare or extinct in the UK are.

To give you some idea of how much there is to see, there's a walk we do down the valley to the next village, which you could walk in about 30 minutes. In June it often takes us 4+ hours, there's so much to see!

Last summer, we broke even that record, walking a distance of just a mile in four hours!

And while we were doing so, we were surrounded by beech and hornbeam forest, where wolves, lynx, wildcat, pine marten, wild boar, roe and red deer roam. There are also beavers on the rivers and you can watch and photograph them at dawn and dusk just below where we stay.

I look forward to showing you this amazing and eye-opening place.

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