My conservation conundrum

For a while I’ve had a persistent noodle in my brain about nature conservation and the question of what we’re trying to conserve “back to”. Reading Isabella Tree’s book Wilding has turned this noodle on its head somewhat and made me even more unsure.

The general scientific consensus for decades has been that post the last ice age, Europe was covered in what they call “closed-canopy forest”, which means the canopy of the trees forms a ceiling and sunlight doesn’t penetrate to the forest floor, and only the highest mountains were without tree cover.

When humans came along, we started clearing trees for settlements, grazing animals and cutting wood (e.g. coppicing) and therefore the theory has been that without any human intervention, nature would take land in Europe back to being forest. In the areas where humans intervened, at least initially, we actually increased the biodiversity because it allowed species that need more light to flourish, such as in meadows or heathland. Various conversation organisations, such as Surrey Wildlife Trust, have grazing herds of cattle in these areas to stop trees from encroaching (called vegetation succession in academic terms) and so maintain those ecosystems and the species that need this habitat. But if pre-humans this land was all forest, then stopping the trees from encroaching isn’t natural. Hence the question of what to conserve back to – if we aim for closed-canopy forests, then we would reduce the biodiversity compared to today in some habitats. But if we aim for healthy, biodiverse ecosystems that aren’t covered all with trees then it’s not “natural”.

However, there’s another view, pioneered by Frans Vera that Isabella Tree references and that the rewilding projects at the Knepp Wildland in West Sussex and Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands take as their philosophy. This view thinks of Europe having a landscape like Africa but colder and with different animals. So it would have had predators such as bears, wolves, lynx and herds of herbivores, species now extinct that are like horses, cows and deer. These herds of herbivores would have created an opposing force to the encroachment of trees, resulting in a landscape that is more like grassland than forest and which supports a much broader range of biodiversity.

This theory of closed forest overlooks another force of nature altogether, one that works in opposition to vegetation succession: animal disturbance

Frans Vera

There’s evidence in the fossil and pollen records that support this view – that herbivores were present in Europe longer ago than trees were and that oaks and hazel, which are light loving, have been present in Europe for thousands of years.

There are now 2 sides of this argument – some that are supportive of Vera’s view and others that are vehemently against it and see this as a way of legitimising ongoing grazing on what should be untouched land.

So now I’m less sure about where the we started from, what “natural” means for Europe and consequently what we should be trying to get “back to”. But maybe that doesn’t matter. The landscape has been forever altered by human intervention and we don’t have a time machine to go back and change that. The important thing for me is how we improve biodiversity at the same time as feeding the growing population and that’s the problem we need to solve.  

Photos by Sleep Music, Carmine De Fazio and Andreas Fickl on Unsplash

  1. Thank you, Meryl, for sharing these interesting thoughts! I never thought about the targets of biodiversity efforts and was not aware that there are schools of opinions on this topic.
    To add on your noodles, I have my own noodles too, slightly related to this topic. Right now, we aim to stop deforestation, especially in Africa, South Americas and South Asia, which I totally support. But we all cut (or burnt) the trees at some point in our history, so I sometimes wonder whether we have the right to ask others not to, and especially when they are directly related to extreme poverty alleviation.I know it is a prevalent argument in climate change, and I know this is not the popular question, but I keep thinking about it. I guess you are right, we need to focus on what we can do and should do for now and future.

    By the way, I am really impressed by your reading list! Thank you for sharing a book list!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I get your point about how can we tell others to not cut trees down given we have in the past, but maybe the conversation needs to be a different one – how do those people get out of extreme poverty without having the same environmental impact as others before them?


  3. Interesting post. It is a topic that has also entered my head – especially after reading about elephants being a tree clearing species and their impact on deforestation historically. And also from watching The Planets and the thinking about how life on Earth has been uprooted and destroyed over and over again in history. We aren’t the only one changing our world.

    I do agree aiming for biodiversity whilst feeding everyone is a key one to solve.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: