Tuesday, 6 January 2009

A changing landscape

The landscape around here is changing; each time I visit this far-flung corner of Surrey I find that new vistas have been created by the removal of the mature pines that had come to dominate the poor sandy soils. The clearance of these trees is part of a concerted attempt to re-establish the great blocks of heathland which have been shaded out over the years by the maturing conifers. It is a grand project, made possible by the efforts of the National Trust, but carried out in a way that recognizes the importance of gradual recovery rather than an abrupt overnight change. I have seen similar schemes elsewhere, some of which have left behind them scarred and battered landscapes that will be slow to heal.

That the change should be gradual – a small section here, another there – is important because there are species that will have benefited from the presence of mature conifers and which will now need to readjust their populations to a new equilibrium. Species like Coal Tit and Crossbill among the birds, and many different beetles and other invertebrates among the lower orders. Other species will welcome the change and their populations are likely to expand accordingly. Most of these will be heathland species that will take advantage of the new opportunities on offer. With luck, the Woodlarks and Nightjars will return in increased numbers, bringing their songs back to this part of the county. For mobile species, such as these, there is a good chance of recovery, but other species may need assistance. Some, such as the Heath Tiger-beetle, have declined to such an extent that they may not find the newly restored habitat without some input from us.

This sort of landscape-scale habitat restoration appears to be becoming increasingly common. It is certainly to be welcomed, especially by those of us who feel that nature should be conserved within the landscape rather than within token nature reserves whose diminutive size often isolates the populations of plants and animals from others of their kind. Of course, a landscape-level approach to the conservation of wildlife depends upon the pressures being placed on the land. If there is a pressing demand for land for agriculture or housing then it becomes more difficult to put it aside for wildlife. Actually owning the land makes it more likely that it can be managed in a way that is sympathetic to wildlife and this is why many of our county wildlife trusts, Norfolk Wildlife Trust included, are now buying up land in specific areas to re-establish lost or diminished habitats. Such schemes also increase our opportunities to interact with nature, something which is becoming increasingly important in our busy lives.

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