Conservation – A Brief History of Time

Originally published May 2014

Hello everyone! Spring has well and truly sprung and the natural world is glorying in a whirl of fertile exuberance. We have celebrated Ma Nature’s fecundity with our own festivals of Oestre and Beltane and now look forward to a glorious summer, we hope! I suspect that this time of year, more than any other, inspires people to think about the old girl’s domain and our part in the scheme of things. So in the second part of my brief ramblings on the conservation movement (see Lemon Curd and Honey Bees – April 2014) let us take a look at a potted version of our interaction with the world around us and where we stand today.

We only have to look out of our windows to get a flavour of our planet’s biodiversity, a walk in the woods will provide us with hundreds more species and the simple act of turning on a television or computer opens our eyes to the breadth of life within the five taxonomic kingdoms into which we have slotted all of life on Earth. The latest estimate, and that is all it can ever be, puts the number of species on the planet at 8.7 million, most of which have not been classified yet.

TQW global footprintOver 80% of the planet’s land surface bears the footprint of a single species. A species that, despite having only superficial differences in appearance throughout the global population, has adapted to living in very diverse environments. Yes, from the tropical rainforests to the grassy Steppes and from the desert zones to the Home Counties species Homo sapiens has settled and thrived. Where the living was relatively easy populations grew and great civilisations formed and expanded; our species became less a part of the natural world around them and more anthropocentric in the way they lived. The basic survival-of-the-species instinct present in every living thing was replaced with thoughts of prestige, wealth and legacy. Curiosity, intellect and greed enabled us to utilise and then exploit the resources both around us and further afield. All of this happening in an astoundingly short period of time, a mere 200,000 years. A tiny dot at the end of life on Earth’s timeline of 3.8 billion years, but long enough for this particular Primate to become the dominant species on the planet.

TQW Cuthbert & duckYet, throughout that expanding global community memories of another time remained, a time when human beings were just another animal in a wondrous landscape. A time when we respected the wilderness around us and tried to give back as much as we took from the environment that supported us. Within those early settlements folk lore and religions evolved, many of which were based on conservation ethics. A sense of moral responsibility developed with the belief that life was sacred and it is not surprising that the first ever laws protecting birdlife were passed by St Cuthbert in 676 AD. He went a step further and set up a sanctuary on the Farne Islands to protect sea birds, in particular the local Eider Duck (Somateria mollissima) population.

The spiritual and moral reasoning for the protection of species had always been tempered with a huge dose of pragmatism by those who appreciated the finite nature of Earth’s resources and for many years it was resource management that drove the conservation movement. Communal resource conflicts were commonplace amongst the early tribes and boundaries, rules and restrictions featured among many of the primitive communities. Later, the 17th century Royalist and diarist, John Evelyn, became one of the first environmentally-minded authors. His  book on pollution,  The Inconvenience of the Air and Smoke of London Dissipated (1661) was followed by Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (1664). This learned tome contained a scientific approach to forestry as well as delightful descriptions of the folk lore and social issues synonymous with Britain’s woodlands at that time.

By the middle of the 19th century the British Empire controlled a vast range of natural resources around the globe. Timber in particular was much in demand for shipping and it was clear that forests needed to be managed on a sustainable basis in order that Britannia could continue to rule the waves. To this end a number of academics, most notably the Scottish surgeons Sir James Martin and Alexander Gibson and the German forester Sir Dietrich Brandis, promoted the use of scientific methods of forestry in the Teak (Tectona grandis) forests of India and Burma. In 1903 a group of British naturalists and American statesmen founded the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire (SPWFE). Concerned about the alarming drop in numbers of large mammals in southern Africa they worked with landowners and politicians towards controlling hunting throughout both East and South Africa. Habitat loss was a key issue for the SPWFE and they were instrumental in setting up the Kruger and Serengeti National Parks. The Society still exists under its latest guise of Fauna and Flora International, and is often quoted as the world’s first conservation society. This early work in Africa led to the growth of eco-tourism and the Society went on to become a key element in the current global conservation movement. For anyone interested in the subject the original document explaining the rationale behind the formation of the Society is an illuminating read, and, of course, can be found online.

TQW WaldenAs I mentioned last month, the 18th and 19th centuries saw a number of influential people starting to question our relationship with the environment and look at the inherent value of nature rather than our use of it. Possibly influenced by books such as Henry Thoreau’s, literary transcendental journey into the wilderness Walden (1854), a number of American statesmen began to subscribe to this school of thought. President in the making, Theodore Roosevelt, campaigned for the preservation of American wildlife and habitat and went on to create the world’s first National Park at Yellowstone in 1872.

Over the last hundred years the global conservation movement has evolved and developed despite, or perhaps because of, the obvious difficulties of incredibly destructive world wars, a rapidly increasing population and the expansion of development and industry. Over a hundred countries now have National Parks and numerous designated areas of environmental interest cover the Ordnance Survey maps. Legislation at both national and international levels seeks to define our relationship with the environment and the number of ecologically-minded Organisation, Societies, Clubs, Trusts and Pressure Groups in this country alone runs into the thousands.

But what about the future? The idea that we can sustain conservation zones where little or no development can occur is becoming increasingly difficult to realise. Humankind is running rampant around the planet and the amount of land available for setting aside as reserves or trying to restore back to a more natural state is all but gone. In his book Win-Win Ecology, ecologist Michael Rosenzweig describes an alternative strategy which he labels Reconciliation Ecology, the basis of which is to encourage species biodiversity in ecosystems dominated by human beings. He suggests that our concept of wilderness has to change and both nature and people will have to form new ecosystems in which they live together. To a certain extent this is already happening, for example farmers are allowing areas of land to be colonised by wild plants and animals. However there will always be a place for reserves, we cannot contemplate having tigers or bears roaming the streets the way our adaptable urban foxes do. In those parts of the world where this does happen there are inevitable consequences. Rosenzweig emphasises this fact and states we must continue to protect what we have saved.

So there it is a very brief summary of the conservation movement up to now. There are thousands of books written on the subject and no doubt I will mention it again before too long! Just think about the role our little reserve plays. A space, protected from development, where our native species flourish and thrive. A space where we can walk and enjoy the calming effect that the inherent value of Ma Nature’s bounty has on our soul. This is ‘our watch’ and amidst an ever-changing landscape we can justifiably say that, in this small instance, we got it right.

Any thoughts?

Paul Johnson


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