Struggling to see the wood for the trees

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This is the first of a series of posts to work out how I will know if I am having a greater impact for the nature that I love. By the way, no snails were harmed in the production of this post.

I have recently spent several hours “tree-popping”, removing small trees (mainly birch and sycamore) from areas of lowland sandy heath, in order to expand the habitat preferred by the rare insects and reptiles found there. James Borrell (Borrell, 2015) suggests that one of the biggest ways we, or the charities that we support, can have an impact is by planting trees, so was I actually having a negative-impact? Or were Fun Boy Three and Bananarama right – “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, the place that you do it and the time that you do it?” (It ain’t what you do)

A lot of work is currently going into putting a value on nature. One area where the economic value of nature is starting to play a role in planning decisions is the conservations of trees, where a range of metrics about a tree or trees can be used to calculate the amenity value of the tree and the value of the services that it provides. For example, individual London Plane trees have been valued in excess of £50,000 because they remove pollutants from the air, provide shade, shelter from wind, deaden sound, look attractive, etc (Usborne, 2018).

The nature reserves where I was tree-popping are primarily sandy heath. However, both reserves have areas of woodland, and one has an area of relatively young oak trees. The owners of the nature reserve have received conflicting advice from different departments in the relevant statutory body: one has said that the oaks should be cut down so that the area can be restored to sandy heath (which is how the area is designated); and the other says that the oaks should be left but thinned to encourage the development of mature oak woodland (reflecting the nature and amenity value of oak woods).

Personally, I think the oak wood enhances the enjoyment of the reserve for visitors (including horse-riders and dog-walkers), it will screen it from a nearby housing development, and it provides a home for a different set of species to those found on the heath. Conservation scientists are also beginning to recognise that the boundaries between habitats are important in themselves – the oak wood provides a range of services to the denizens of the heath, such as shelter from extremes of weather for some of the species that spend most of their time on the heath, and cover for predators that play their own role in maintaining the health of the heath.

In an earlier post (The nature that I love), I suggested that increasing the population of certain species is one way of measuring impact. As I have researched and written this post, I have learnt that another way of measuring impact is to calculate the economic value of nature. My initial scepticism about this approach is beginning to change. Approaches to valuing nature are starting to address some of their initial flaws, and provide us with an effective proxy for comparing interventions to help a particular species of habitat. These techniques are beginning to recognise that the value of a species or habitat depends on where it is, who benefits from it (directly and indirectly), and how mature that species or habitat is. However, they currently work better for some species and habitat types than others, and they are not able to make complex decisions about managing relationships between habitats (and species).

Another way of measuring impact is to look at the total amount of biodiversity that your intervention has created (or destroyed!). Tony Juniper writes: “… The natural diversity of animals, plants and other organisations that is all around us enables the different systems that sustain life to function. More and more research confirms how life supports the conditions for life, through cycles that maintain soil fertility, climatic stability or via population checks and balances among other things. It is an integrated system and we are in it and dependent upon it as much as the birds and flowers.” (Juniper, 2013)

It seems to me that to maximise my impact I need to have a way of estimating the diversity of species and/or habitats helped by my actions. One of the questions this raises is should I focus my actions on areas with, or with the potential to have, more biological diversity? However, it does suggest that I should not be using my time to save individual species (Borrell, 2016). One of the organisations that I am currently supporting is the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, who, on first impressions, appear to be running campaigns related to individual species. Perhaps a topic for a future post is to explore whether that is actually the case.

References

Borrell, J., 2015. How To Choose Which Conservation Charity To Support (with your hard earned cash). [Online]
Available at: http://www.jamesborrell.com/which-conservation-charity-to-support/
[Accessed 30th May 2018].

Borrell, J., 2016. Why Volunteering With Animals Does Nothing For Conservation. [Online]
Available at: http://www.jamesborrell.com/why-volunteering-with-animals-does-nothing-for-conservation/
[Accessed 15 April 2018].

Juniper, T., 2013. What has nature ever done for us? How money really does grow on trees.. London: Profile Books.

Usborne, S., 2018. Treeconomics. New Scientist, 12 May, pp. 33-36.

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