Conserving wildlife habitats

CONSERVATION of habitats or individual plant or animal species has never been about PRESERVATION.  This is often misunderstood.  One CANNOT 'preserve' a plant or animal, like a stuffed specimen in a natural history museum.  Similarly, if one wishes to ATTEMPT to conserve and protect a RARE species (which may or may not be 'Endangered'), the habitat (or habitats) it lives or grows in MUST be conserved FIRST!

Since pretty much ALL habitats are man-made, to a lesser or greater extent or at the very least have been influenced by the activities of man, simply building a fence to stop entry or assigning a given area as a 'reserve' of some kind, will NOT 'conserve' either the habitats themselves or the species, plant or animal found there!  There is far too much ignorance about conservation, with many people involved who do not have a basic understanding of ecology or scientific principles - without which it is not possible to manage or conserve habitats, let alone individual species.

Too many organisations involved in conservation do not realise that an ESSENTIAL starting point is to be able to RELIABLY and CORRECTLY identify the plants and animals present in any given country, region or 'reserve'.  This requires SKILLED field botanists and zoologists.  Too often surveys are of insufficient extent and undertaken by those without the necessary identification skills.  Given that the UK has been the BEST country for botany in the world, is relatively small, with a modest flora numerically and has long had more botanists amateur and professional, with many of the amateurs being of professional standard, we are no longer setting the example we once did.  Back in the early 1980s, when I was a recent graduate, with a degree in botany and a passion for identifying plants, it was ASSUMED that almost ANY graduate in the biological or environmental sciences was capable of RELIABLY identifying plants in the UK (other than those of CRITICAL groups).  That was NOT the case.  I recognised this but those with their doctorates and those who devised the projects and surveys did not realise this.  Somehow, without being TAUGHT how to identify plants, one was expected to 'imbibe' the necessary skills.  It has even been suggested by some that plant identification is NOT a suitable subject for study in an undergraduate degree....  I strongly disagree and of course nowadays, plants barely get a look in within 'A' level Biology courses and there are no longer 'Botany' degrees available at British Universities....

PULSATILLA  VERNALIS on a Swiss Alp (photo: 'Phillip' Harris)

What do we mean by the 'Alps'?

Most people when using this word think of the mountain range but my first thought, as a lover of flowers, is of the often beautiful individual 'alps'.  The German word 'Alp' means "seasonal mountain pasture".  ALPINE TRANSHUMANCE is transhumance practiced in the Alps, that is a seasonal droving of grazing livestock between the valleys in winter and the high mountains pastures in summer. Much the same has been long been practised in Kashmir (and other parts of the Himalaya).

 On a Swiss Alp (photo: 'Phillip' Harris)


Transhumance is a traditional practice that has shaped much of the landscape in the Alps, as without it, most areas below 2,000m (6,600') would be forests!

Seasonal migration to high pastures is still practised in Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia, Italy and Switzerland, except in their most frequented tourist centres.  In some places, cattle are taken care of by local farmer families who move to higher places.  In others, this job is for herdsmen who are employees of the cooperative owning the pastures.

CAMPANULA  BARBATA on a Swiss Alp (photo: 'Phillip' Harris)

Some people spent the winters isolated in high pastures.  In Johanna Spyri's novel 'Heidi', her "high-pasture grandfather" was such a person, whilst the boy she befriends, takes goats up to the pasture.

GENTIANA PURPUREA on a Swiss Alp (photo: 'Phillip' Harris)


Well, without the grazing (or over-grazing) there would be no 'alps' full of colourful flowers in the summer months, which attract visitors - rapidly, rank grasses and then shrubs would out-compete the more delicate, pretty blooms, and up to a certain elevation, the land would indeed end up as forest!

A Swiss Alp (photo: 'Phillip' Harris)


VERY MUCH 'ARTIFICAL' and 'MAN-MADE'........

Even in the British mountains, without grazing, there would be forests on many of our mountains!  I worked for a summer in the 1980s for the Wales Field Unit of the old Nature Conservancy Council.  I was shown around Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve by the warden - he showed me cages which fenced off small sections of vegetation and low-and-behold, shrubs and TREES were growing inside.

I have visited New Zealand and recollect being shown showy white gentians in short grassland in the south of the South Island - where once there has been forest (until the Maori chopped it down....)

Practical Conservation Work in UK

Aged 15 (the youngest age permitted) I joined the Barclay School Conservation Corps (run primarily by Rural Studies teacher Alan White) which undertook practical conservation tasks in Watery Grove - an oak-hornbeam woodland run by the Hertfordshire Naturalists Trust.  This involved COPPICING sections of the hornbeam under-storey (cutting down to near ground level) on a ten-year cycle.  This had a near miraculous impact on the ground flora, as the light enabled species to germinate and flourish which could not under the dark mature canopy.  This created habitat and opportunities for associated wildlife, from insects (butterflies were particularly noticeable) to mammals.  We also cleared out silted-up ponds.  They physical effort involved in removing the tree stumps presented a suitable challenge.  I learnt how to use an axe safely and make a bonfire (to burn up wood which could not be used) - valuable skills which have served me well for decades.  No doubt in these days of 'Health & Safety' Regulations such practical work wold not be permitted!

This experience encouraged me to join a National Trust Acorn Camp at a property in Somerset, aged 16 (one now has to be 18 and far fewer are on offer), where we undertook a wide variety of tasks including clearing and burning RHODODENDRON PONTICUM which has become an invasive and troublesome weed.

There followed camps at Hardwick Hall (constructing a sheep-dip); Needles, Isle-of-Wight (scrub-bashing on Tennyson Down), Stratford-upon-Avon (canal restoration), Cornwall (Coastal path restoration) and others - so I have done my bit in this respect.

The basic point I am making is that one needs to MANAGE habitats/sites with PRACTICAL intervention.......


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