By Douglas Drake
The environmental importance of reducing meat consumption is filtering through in the mainstream media. Knepp Castle provides a beacon of how farming could change if people are willing to embrace the transition
Walking along a rough track dug out by off-road vehicles, dense shrub either side, game eyes weighing me up from a safe distance, I could have been in the savannahs of Africa. Could have, but wasn’t. I was in the wilds of West Sussex.
Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex has been transformed, rewilded to be precise, from a standard – and environmentally nightmarish – intensive farm to a unique sanctuary for fauna and flora. Deer, flowers, pig, trees, cattle, pony, rabbit, hare, owl, bat, birds of prey and much more are flourishing. Each individual species benefits the wider ecosystem. Whilst freely strolling around the 3,500 acres you are transported back to a time when animals were abundant in our countryside and able to coexist with humans and agriculture. Sadly, it is a unique experience in England and I thoroughly recommend a visit.
The rewilding recipe is simple; remove fences, reintroduce a variety of herbivores, allow natural grazing (as far as possible at least), provide a little bit of cultivation, a dash of herbicides, pinch of wild flow seeds and let nature take over. The recipe provides a platform for nature to reinvigorate itself naturally and the result is an abundance of wildlife that simply could not be created by humans.
From a business perspective things seem to stack up. Produce is sold at a premium due to the quality and origin. There is a fantastic campsite (where I pitched up) in a wildflower meadow and some luxurious glamping accommodation, both with access to the onsite shop which sells local produce including meat from the Estate. A separate safari business provides guided tours around the Estate with specialist photography versions available. It is also an ideal research base for those looking to study the behaviour of ecosystems left to their own devices.
The bulk of conservation in the UK is a fallacy; the question of what is actually being conserved needs to be asked. More often than not a state of land – overgrazed, barren and lifeless – which has already been blighted by humans is the gold standard. In a very good talk George Monboit addressed the National Parks Conference on this issue. For my money rewilding is the way forward, not the glorified preservation of an already sad state of affairs. It is like restoring a 16th century church in stunning art deco style; it doesn’t matter how nice the G Plan altar is.
The recipe is close, so very close, to perfect. It is agonizingly only one ingredient away. The trouble is what happens to all the herbivores? They are in this green wonderland of food, so they eat and eat. They then reproduce and consume even more. The wonderland then becomes overgrazed, turns less green and less flourishing, like most of the UK’s National Parks. Not only the herbivores but the wider ecosystem suffers.
Paul Lister has a dream to re-introduce apex predators – previously native bears, wolves and lynx – at his Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Scotland. That is the missing ingredient. Food webs not only work from the bottom up, as my recollection of school biology dictates, the presence of predators can also create trophic cascades down. Carnivores reduce numbers of certain species in the trophic (level) below which has knock on effects. The re-introduction of wolves has had a transformative impact in Yellowstone National Park. One simple illustration; once reintroduced wolves hunt elk, the weaker elk are killed and the population reduced, the knock on reduction in elk reduces overgrazing, and the increased vegetation then allows other animals like otters and birds to prosper. American wolf hunter Aldo Leopold first acknowledged such relationships in his brilliant 1954 essay ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’.
In the absence of predators, grazing is bound to be a key issue at Knepp Castle. There is never going to be a natural balance of herbivores, meaning human intervention is needed to estimate the correct levels. This also creates an interesting contrast, at Knepp Castle animals are raised and culled in order to create and protect the ecosystem, in stark comparison with the bulk of traditional farming in which animals are raised and culled in spite of the damage caused to the ecosystem. The implications of this difference are huge.
The re-introduction of predators ignites a primitive excitement and would be brilliant to see but as it
stands currently Knepp Castle is a fantastic project. The environmental importance of reducing meat
consumption is filtering through in the mainstream media and I deem the arguments incredibly
strong. Knepp Castle provides a beacon of how farming can change if people are willing to embrace
the transition. Settled down for dinner in my tent, after a long cycle down to West Sussex and a walk
around the Estate, the venison steak from the farm was mouth watering. My first piece of meat in
two years; I find the case compelling.
By Sam Hubble
'Keystone species’. This simple, two-word term evokes images of Jaguars skulking through Amazonian jungle, Sea Urchins grazing their way over coral reefs and Beavers towing freshly gnawed branches across a dammed stream. As a concept that is taught to A Level biology students (in the UK) and regularly features in natural history television productions, most people with even a passing interest in conservation are familiar with the basic premise.
Indeed, the concept has been popularly used within conservation circles since it was introduced by Robert Paine in 1969. Whilst some argue over whether focusing on individual species is appropriate, and others use multiple definitions of the term, most uses refer to a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. Put simply, specific organisms are attributed elevated importance within an ecosystem. For example, apex predators such as the Jaguar help to keep prey species populations in check, and ecosystem engineers such as the Beaver alter the physical environment which influences the ecological niches within which species have to adapt and survive. Conservation efforts can then be targeted to attempt to simultaneously protect or even re-establish populations of the identified Keystone Species and the ecosystem within which it exists.
The purpose of this blog is not to critique or discuss the merits of the traditional use of the Keystone Species concept, but to introduce an alternative way of framing approaches that highlight the importance of individual species and the role that they perform.
Psychology and – perhaps more importantly – sociology are often not given enough consideration within conservation. This contrasts with other topics within the broad ‘environment’ sector, such as energy use, travel habits and sustainable living. Traditionally, research and policy-making relating to conservation has been grounded in the natural sciences and focused on the interactions of ecosystems to environmental changes or stresses, particularly those caused by human actions. However, there has been a growing acceptance that whilst understanding the ecological and biological context is crucial, it is also important to understand the role that individuals and wider society have in both the degradation and protection of the environment. Furthermore, it is important to consider the cultural context(s) within which people live their lives, to better understand and anticipate the challenges and opportunities for conserving nature.
One such approach was introduced by ethnobotanists Ann Garibaldi and Nancy Turner in 2004, who researched the cultural importance of plant species to indigenous peoples in British Columbia. They devised a concept that they termed ‘Cultural Keystone Species’.
Cultural Keystone Species can be understood as organisms that shape the cultural identity of people. For example they may play important roles in people’s diets, medicine, rituals or spiritual practices. In short, they are species that are culturally significant to people’s lives and sense of identity. This concept thereby assumes that if such species are lost or damaged – or for other reasons access to them is restricted – it can influence the way that people think about themselves and can have negative impacts on individuals, families and communities.
Indeed, the idea resonates with attempts to identify cultural components within ‘Ecosystem Services’ approaches to assessing the ‘value’ of the natural environment. The concept opens up potential avenues and ‘hooks’ for policy-makers to gain a broader sense of the role that specific species perform, in an ecological, social and cultural sense.
Grounded in ethnographic research, ways of identifying culturally significant species necessitate engaging with local people. Asking them about specific plants or animals and observing the role that these have in their lifestyles, whether this involves daily practices or occasional rituals, inevitably helps to increase interest and public participation in conservation, which is arguably one of the most important – and often most difficult to achieve – goals.
Whilst the concept was originally devised through local-level ethnographic observations undertaken with indigenous peoples in British Columbia, it could conceivably be widened out to regional or national scales. For example, species such as Badgers, Bluebells, and Oak trees could be considered as culturally important in a UK context, or indeed species such as Robins or Holly that are intrinsically and nostalgically linked to Christmas could perhaps be emphasised or targeted in conservation strategies.
The idea certainly provides an interesting and different angle to considering which species should be attributed more importance. This approach seemingly fits in well with recent moves towards Citizen Science projects and public engagement in conservation. Projects such as The ObservaTree programme highlight the cultural role and heritage associated with ancient woodland as a way of moving beyond their purely ecological value, which is then used to raise interest of specific, species that are being studied.
However, there are also important aspects that arguably make this approach inappropriate for informing conservation practice. Basing strategies on cultural understandings of key species may inappropriately prioritise species, and also misses the point that cultures and the role that nature plays in them evolves over time. For example, cowboys, ranching and other equine practices are engrained in Latin American culture, yet horses were absent from this area before the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century.
There is also the issue of promoting or prioritising species that over-dominate and destroy ecosystems – such as the deforestation of tropical forests for bananas or coconut plantations. Immigration – both historic and contemporary – inevitably results in the introduction of cultural keystone species, as people transplant their favourite species for the production of food and materials. Also, people may grow attached to species that have been present for longer than living memory, but are actually in ecological terms invasive. For example many Californians are passionate defenders of Eucalyptus trees that often locally dominate the environment and form dense groves, despite the fact that Eucalyptus trees reduce biodiversity compared to ‘natural’ forests. Furthermore, they promote and tolerate wild-fires as part of their natural cycle, which causes havoc for some Californian species that have not evolved this tolerance, along with the more obvious economic and social impacts of fires destroying landscapes and everything else in their path. Indeed, such is the level of attachment that attempts to remove and manage these ecologically-devastating species are often delayed and hampered by campaigners opposed to their removal.
Responding in 2005 to Garibaldi and Turner’s ‘Cultural Keystone Species’ concept, Martin Nuñez and Daniel Simberloff highlighted the coevolution of culture and ecology, and warned that trying to base the management of ecological systems on ever-evolving interactions between cultural and ecological systems is a difficult and perhaps futile endeavour. Furthermore, they suggested that whilst attempting to encourage increased engagement from individuals and communities should be encouraged, it is not necessarily a given that the protection of a species deemed to be culturally important will necessarily be ecologically important (or indeed even appropriate) or protect the natural ecosystem that it is situated within.
This response helps to highlight the limitations of the Cultural Keystone Species concept and raises legitimate questions for its application towards researching cultural-ecological interactions. However, the debate can also be interpreted to suggest that in specific circumstances when a species is deemed to be both ecologically and culturally important, this approach can help to strengthen the case for protection as well as increasing public awareness and support, and therefore is a useful addition to conservationists’ tool kits.
An example is the Pacific Herring. This species is commercially important and plays a key role in the marine ecology off the coasts of British Columbia. For this reason achieving the sustainable management of the fishery is a key priority.
Furthermore, ethnographic accounts of the preparation of culturally important dishes such as K’aaw (which involves harvesting and frying kelp covered in Herring roe) and other academic studies have helped to raise awareness of the need for Herring populations to be sustained.
Whilst there is arguably less of a direct link between UK cultural customs and local flora and fauna species than those found in Canadian indigenous peoples, it is still interesting and potentially useful to consider the Cultural Keystone Species approach.
Perhaps future conservation efforts should aim to adopt more nuanced understandings of the cultural importance of nature in the UK.
By Gisela Sepulveda
With the release of Finding Dory, questions have been raised over the detrimental effect this could have on the population of creatures seen in the film, in particular the Blue Tangs, and the consequences for reef habitats. Instead of understanding the films conservation message to enjoy nature’s beautiful marine world, but keep the likes of Nemo and Dory in the ocean where they belong, a growing number of people have been coveting these striking fish species. It is estimated that over 20 million marine creatures are taken from the wild to be sold on for use in public and private aquariums.
What Are Blue Tangs?
Blue Tangs otherwise known as Regal Tangs or Palette Surgeonfish are Paracanthurus hepatus which is a species of Indo-Pacific surgeonfish. These can be found in reefs along Japan, East Africa and the Great Barrier Reef amongst others.
Unfortunately Dory and her friends seem to be too popular and too beautiful for their own good. Australian conservationists are warning that this surge in popularity may result in the Blue Tangs following the same fate as the Clownfish following on from the previous film; being abducted from their natural habitat and put into an aquarium. In 2012 over 400,000 Clownfish were taken from the wild from places such as the Philippines and imported to America. Regrettably America has one of the highest demands for these marine fish. Thus experts and conservationists are cautioning viewers not to take the ‘wrong message’ from the film.
Blue Tangs unlike Clownfish cannot be bred in captivity, commonly those that are sold in shops have been taken from the wild. Due to the difficulty in replicating breeding habits such forming harems and as they cast their eggs into the water column, it has been highly complicated for scientists to breed these in captivity. In fact around 90% of marine fish found in aquariums and pet shops are imported from the wild. The fish collection process is often harmful to the fish populations but also damaging to coral reef habitats. Marine fish harvesting techniques can be very cruel, destructive and have high mortality rates. Unfortunately, cyanide poisoning techniques are often used to collect the fish. This technique is a form of stunning or anaesthetising the fish to knock them out to and allow quicker and easier collection. The cyanide has many negative knock-on effects not only on the Blue Tang but on the surrounding coral and other marine creatures nearby, disrupting the delicate ecosystem balance of the coral reef and fish.
Once subdued the fish are then dragged in to cleaner water and revived. However, this fish harvesting technique usually has high mortality rates with observed statistics indicating up to 90% of fish may die before even being sold to an aquarium keeper. Marine fish populations are already struggling due to the effects of global warming with ocean acidification and increasing sea temperatures, not to mention pollution and over-fishing. This objectification for aesthetics and ornamental use is the cherry on top; the wildlife and reefs walk a fine line which could easily be tipped over the edge by such abuses.
How Can We Help?
Fortunately conservation work such as the Saving Nemo Conservation Fund has been set up by the University of Queensland and Flinders University since the release of the first film, helping to promote awareness, protect marine aquarium species and lead scientific research in conservation in this area. The best thing to do is not buy ‘wild-caught animals’, educate yourselves on where these fish are being sourced from and join the conservation efforts of charities such as the Saving Nemo Conservation Fund.