Friday, 10 November 2017

30 years after the 1987 storm, part 6 – Controllers versus Arcadians

Should we control nature or should we let it control us?  This is more than a question about practical conservation management. 

On the one hand is control.  This may relate to our sense of responsibility and making best use of assets in our care.  Control means we need to be clear about our objectives, make plans and then recognise when have achieved them.  This, however, breeds the presumption that everything must be under our control. 

On the other hand is nature out of our control.  The word “nature” is hard to define but it generally relates to that being outside the human.  It relates to the wild, Wold and Weald – the non-human, and also to “forest” which in one sense means “outside enclosure”.  If we bring nature under our control it stops being nature.  From this we may develop a view that we need to understand nature and work with it.  Help it, maybe, but not control it.  Sharply defined objectives are not relevant.  We need to recognise when good things are happening and allow nature to take its course.  It teaches us to appreciate surprise.

The first is about working logically towards a pre-determined outcome.  The second is about building a system and allowing properties to emerge.

In a practical sense the first approach may be (for example) to plant trees in order to create a planned wood.  The second would be to put in place the processes of regeneration and natural disturbance, let nature run and we then appreciate the habitat that emerges.

Neither is right or wrong, each may be preferable in different circumstances.  We may need to take a very controlling approach where we have a rare or sensitive habitat which might disappear if things go wrong.  However, we may take a far more hands-off approach in low risk, perhaps degraded areas where there is less to lose, and a lot to gain.

This could reflect two different attitudes for life in general, not just our relationship to nature.  On the one hand is the need for control – the Controllers.  On the other is the idea of putting good things in place and letting the future just happen – let’s call them Arcadians.  The two different attitudes can drive two different mind-sets, which find it difficult to understand each other.  “Untamed wilderness” to the Controllers is the worst form of insult, but to the Arcadians it is the very deification of nature.  Controllers want to know the objective and the plan.  Arcadians want to put good stuff in place and see what might happen.

Modern society is tuned more towards control.  This is probably essential – with our population levels and expectations we cannot just leave things alone and hope it will all be ok.  But the need for control may lead to a view that success is only achieved through complete control.  The 1987 storm reminded us that we are not the masters of the environment. It humbled us.   And, what is more, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Out of control does not mean “wrong”.  Nature out of control can be brilliant!

Like so many extremes, their value is when they are complementary rather than conflicting. 

Control implies responsibility, care and sustainable management.  Sustainable management means we need to understand nature, working within critical limits and so recognizing limits on our ability to control.  So, in a few steps, we move from controlling to realizing the limits of control.  Working in the other direction, appreciating nature for itself reflects a wish to understand nature, how nature can be restored and if not restored then managed.  So in a few short steps we move from appreciating nature to managing it

We need to allow nature to work for itself and then learn about natural processes in order to better understand how management (or control) can be done more effectively.  The two approaches are different sides of the same coin.

Friday, 3 November 2017

30 years after the 1987 storm, part 5 – copying storms

There are two main processes shaping nature: succession, the tendency to grow towards forest, going in one direction; and natural disturbance working in the opposite direction.  The interaction between the two, at all scales and time-scales, creates diversity in nature.

“Rewilding” could be seen as encouraging nature by re-asserting these natural processes – allowing succession to progress alongside re-establishing natural disturbance.  An extra layer to this is the restoration of the things that impact on natural disturbance.  Predators, such as large carnivores, impact on the numbers and behaviours of grazers, such as deer, and so in turn affect natural disturbance. 

Our landscape, however, is very far from natural.  Humans have had a huge impact for thousands of years, probably dating right back to the last ice age.  Restoring wild nature, if it possible at all, is certainly not possible everywhere. 

Maybe there is another set of lessons we can learn from the 1987 storm – if natural disturbance is a good, indeed driving force in nature, can disturbance from humans have a similar effect?

Think of the effects of the 1987 storm.  Areas of woodland were blown flat; light then got into the forest and there followed a burst of regeneration supporting a range of different wildlife which changed as we went through the stages of regrowth.  This created rich and diverse wildlife.  With traditional forest management; an area is cleared, light gets in and there follows a burst of regeneration.  Pretty similar.  There are differences but woodland management basically does the same ecological job as natural disturbance.

One big difference to a wild past is that our forests are but tiny fragments compared to the extensive natural habitat that would have clothed our landscape.  Natural disturbance, however, often needs to work on a large scale.  For instance, 100 acres blown down in a natural forest covering many thousands of acres is just one patch of disturbance.  But in a modern landscape a 100 acre woodland could all blow down at once.  Woodland management, however, effectively creates smaller patches of disturbance in our smaller manged woods.   A large scale disturbance cycle has been replaced by a small scale disturbance cycle - a big natural forest with big holes is replaced by a small managed forest with small holes. In so doing a measure of diversity is retained.

Sympathetic woodland management in a small wood is probably more natural than abandoning it. A small site does not have the scale for natural processes to function whereas management (which you could consider “imposed” disturbance) puts back a proxy for that natural disturbance.

This logic also extends to other forms of natural disturbance and management.  Large mammals would have grazed a wild forest creating openings, maintaining a range of open habitats like grassland and heathland.  Abandonment destroys those habitats but copying nature with domestic animals puts back the natural process of grazing.  Just adding grazers, however, creates over-grazing, potentially reducing diversity not improving it.  Predators would have made grazers move around to avoid being eaten.  Management of domestic grazers by moving them around, avoiding over-grazing and creating patches of different vegetation, can have a similar effect.

The analogies go on.  Beavers dig ditches and create wetlands – we dig ditches and create water meadows.  Wild boar plough the ground and disturb the soil – much of our management (such as extracting logs and ploughing fields) disturbs the soil.  Part of the fun of ecology is seeing how nature functions for itself and then seeing whether there is something in our management that does have, or could have a similar effect.