A frequent criticism made of those in favour of ‘rewilding’ is that they are unable to set conservation targets. If the system is driven by natural processes – if it’s natural, not human-controlled – how can ‘we’ know that the project is a ‘success’?
This seems to be a peculiarly British obsession, which has rubbed off to some extent on other countries through the CBD and its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan requirements. The target-led obsession is displayed most starkly in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan process. Starting in the 90s with the publications of the Biodiversity Challenge Group, UK conservation adopted the idea that each and every habitat, and each and every species that was big enough and cuddly enough to be noticeable, or was in trouble, should have a Habitat Action Plan or a Species Action Plan for it, within which shall be set explicit targets for its area, population, range etc.
The UK BAP process consumed the better part of many careers and thankfully seems to have lost momentum. People got pissed off with so many meetings at which loads of bored souls were set the task of defining precisely how many hectares of CG1 grassland shall be created over the next five years in Purbeck. Or how many Bittern Units were required to ‘deliver’ a fixed number of bitterns in x years. Having gone through such torture, the various action plan groups were then set the task of reviewing all the targets, again and again.
The target-led approach sort of reflects the tight management of habitats and species that characterise UK conservation: most UK wildlife survives on farmland, and usually on patches of ‘old farmland’ spared from agricultural improvement but now in need of very tightly prescribed conservation management to maintain it as it was when the long vanished farming systems sustained it.
By necessity, a Habitat Action Plan for chalk grassland in Purbeck will contain prescriptive targets for maintaining the area of particular chalk grassland sub-communities. We are aiming to ‘lock’ these habitats and their constituent species in place and so to sustain the biodiversity that is assembled within these habitat patches.
This is absolutely right because if we get the management wrong, we run the risk of losing wildlife communities in the only patches of decent habitat remaining. Most terrestrial wildlife in the British lowlands is associated with old pre-industrial-farming systems.
But we also want to expand habitat, and perhaps less fortunate has been the habit of assuming that newly created habitat should take the form of such surviving ‘old farming’ patches – i.e. that we need targets to expand, say, CG1 chalk grassland specifically (rather than just open grassland on calcareous soils). Or hedgerows – we have targets for, and spend a huge amount of cash on, extending the length of old-farming style hedgerows.
Perhaps the most extreme (or explicit) example of this target-led approach in the UK is the task set for Natural England (NE) to maintain or restore Sites of Special Scientific Interest at or to ‘Favourable Condition’. To check that NE is delivering on its service-level agreement to government, it instigated Common Standards Monitoring – a process whereby very precise ‘attributes’ were identified for each distinctive habitat type found across the suite of SSSIs in England. So, you have attributes like percentage of bare ground, percentage cover of a given plant species, population size of a given bird species. And, with targets for these attributes set, each and every SSSI unit is monitored now and then.
These kinds of precise target setting exercises sort of work where, as I say, the aim is to ‘lock’ surviving patches of particular old farming habitats in place, with particular plant and animal communities.
Do we need such precise targets when we’re in ‘expansive’ mode – when we’re aiming to expand biodiversity beyond – outside of – old farmland habitat patches?
I’ve just returned from Colombia, where I looked at the efforts of a local conservation charity to secure patches of montane forest habitat critical to the survival of endemic species in areas undergoing active deforestation. Having purchase patches of habitat and added these to their expanding nature reserve network, these conservation charities don’t then set targets for intensive management. These organisations are also acquiring cleared areas between habitat patches. Here, they engage in assisted natural habitat regeneration: basically, they exclude livestock, foster any ‘volunteer’ shrub and tree seedlings that appear, and sometimes harvest seedlings of the less dispersive species from other areas and plant these. Other than that, they allow these areas to develop in their own way, including under the influence of seed dispersers, predators and herbivores . They’re not overly concerned about precisely how the habitat developed, what the population size of a given frog or nematode might be at a given date, etc.
Are the Colombians getting it wrong? And, if it’s right for them for adopt such a relaxed approach to biodiversity recovery, why not us?
I’d argue that it’s right a proper to have pretty explicit targets for the condition of SSSIs and other bits of surviving old farmland of high biodiversity value. I think it would be wrong to abandon tightly prescribed management of these sites – reckless in fact – other than where there’s a good case for doing so.
But I suggest we don’t need to be consumed by endless targets and infinite monitoring in new conservation landscapes – rewilding areas. If we must have targets, maybe ‘area’, i.e. to ‘rewild 5,000ha’, or a ‘target’ population density of a few influential beasts, say ‘roughly x deer per square km capable of supporting roughly x breeding female lynx across xx,000ha’. One could set and monitor such targets without endless target-setting and review meetings, thus freeing up staff time for actually delivering stuff.