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Natural Capital: Single-species obsession thwarts real environmental objectives

I’ve always been fascinated by how organisms relate to one another and to their physical surroundings – this impacts daily on many aspects of the land, and on the woodland management work in which we are involved. 

Often we lose sight of the importance of those interactions and instead focus solely on individual organisms, particularly those that have reached iconic status, whether globally, nationally or locally. I say this not a scientist but as someone with science-based training, who works closely with many ecologists.  

Numerous papers have been written over the last two decades on the subject and on species prioritisation. Favouring one species, particularly when it’s either in steep decline or in the early stages of reintroduction, is common across the globe – but this should be challenged by those interested in true conservation, by those who look beyond single species towards ecosystem management and conservation. 

A single species may well be important in the methodologies which deliver this whole ecosystem approach. Keystone species, for example, recognises that certain organisms play a more important role in the dynamics of an ecosystem – our humble oak in native oakwood for example, often supporting many other species. Umbrella species are similar but with a focus on the maximum number of other organisms that may be protected by the Umbrella. Indicator species are at the other end of the ecosystem – their presence is dependent on the good condition of a habitat so can be used to monitor the health of that habitat.

Structured Decision Making (SDM) frameworks are used to look at the Northern Great Plains of North America and to help ensure representation of a range of species and habitats by making an assessment of their relative values within the overall ecosystem.

Active interventions

So often when designing a woodland creation scheme, it seems that single species, be that a curlew, golden eagle or even a wood sandpiper, becomes the only thing that matters in deciding whether it may progress. This is not because of the species’ role as keystone or indicator in an ecosystem, but because it is covered by a statutory designation which requires a government body to ensure no impact upon it.

As a result, you have a calculation that takes into account only a single species, where all other factors count for nothing – such as the carbon benefit of the woodland, the managed forest habitat created in one of the most deforested countries in Europe, the associated biodiversity gains, the timber supplied to develop the circular economy, and the green jobs and economic growth it sustains. 

This approach to conservation becomes even less credible when species interact in ways that require management. One major cause of decline in ground-nesting birds is the protection afforded to their predators such as badger, pine marten and goshawk. While all these iconic species deserve a place in our countryside, for better or worse, humans are the most keystone species of all, have been for millennia and will be for the foreseeable future. The future presence of species will depend on the active interventions that we choose to make – or not. 

Biodiversity crisis

Models are developed to help in decision making, but they are a starting point and never take account of all the relevant interactions that may impact on results. The species-based approach seems to be blinding us to the wider issues of the huge biodiversity crisis we face. Biodiversity net gain and species reintroduction are high on the agenda, but their applications are very narrowly focused at present and there are no hints of a more balanced approach to species management.

With recognition of a Natural Capital approach to land management and assessment of land management impacts, surely we have a great opportunity to look to measuring the impacts more holistically – especially when we do not know exactly why a decline has been occurring. Focus is important, but so is the bigger picture.

Natural Capital: Galbraith’s expert advisers guide our clients in realising value in all land uses – by assessing and measuring natural assets, furthering opportunities in biodiversity net gain, and ensuring stakeholders are rewarded fully for their investment in and contribution to delivering ecosystem services and net-zero outcomes.