How conservation works

When one hears the term 'conservation', one often thinks of saving tigers in India, the decline of elephants through poaching for ivory or even the decline in farmland birds here in Britain.

Conservation is all about the protection of biological diversity (biodiversity), the millions of species (see the essay about the species problem) and trillions of individuals that inhabit this planet with us.

Big, colourful, cuddly (although many may not think of this in regard to tigers if they are a bit close!) animals often dominate the headlines and this relates in many ways to the fact that we humans are in the top 1 percent or so in terms of large body size, we are furry(ish!), warm blooded and perceive the world through colour vision.

As you should be aware if you read around this website and others, the majority of life on this planet is often very different to the way we are. Of the three Kingdoms that we are primarily concerned with (Animalia, Planta, Fungi), huge numbers of creatures, plants or fungi are not noticed, poorly recorded (we don't know where they occur) or we don't know enough about them.

Consequently, when we as conservationists undertake the management of a site for nature conservation, we try to collect as much information as possible by means of paper records (what has been documented there in the past) and through surveying for plants, animals and fungi (this can involve specialists in obscure or difficult groups).

From the information we have as regards species variety, distribution around the site and perhaps within the region (is it rare, endangered and so on), we take often difficult decisions to suggest that a certain habitat or species is worthy of special attention. Generally, we try to understand the specific habitat requirements of a species, so that by providing the correct sort of habitat, the 'driver' species in question can undergo a natural population growth. For instance, bearded reedlings (a member of the tit family) in Europe are very habitat specific. They need areas of mature common reed that are around 5 to 8 years old (i.e. isn't cut regularly, as other areas of reed bed are for other plants and animals) with a large amount of litter (not our rubbish but dead bits of reed that have fallen to the water / wet soil). We will then use the reedling as a 'driver' species to direct how we manage the reedbeds on the site. This is often beneficial to other creatures, for instance the flame wainscot moth is also under threat and requires a similar age reed. Two birds, one stone. Well, one bird, and one moth but you get the picture!

One of the largest problems in conservation is that habitats are fragmented. This means that areas of a specific habitat are often small and the species that rely on and make up that habitat are far away from other similar habitats that they wish to get to due to change in their own habitat (climate change is a big problem here) or that they wish to find a mate / breed (maybe in their natal pond) or find food. Therefore, we often try to 'join up', say, reedbeds so that natural migration within a habitat can occur, as well as increasing the number of individuals within that habitat. The smaller a habitat, the smaller a population that relies on that habitat, the more likely to become extinct that population is.

After creating / managing a habitat, we impose site / habitat monitoring. This involves repeating the initial survey(s) by the same methodology (to restrict error margins, thereby we get accurate results) to see how the management is affecting said habitat or species. In this way, we can alter our management approach if it is not successful.

One final thing: conservation is ALWAYS under-funded (particularly from government here in the UK), it can be achieved by everybody (feeding the birds in your garden, volunteering with a wildlife charity, using ecological friendly washing up liquid, etc.) and is perhaps the most important thing anyone can do. After all, we can't live on this planet alone.

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