Biodiversity: what is it and why is it important?
In recent months we have become accustomed to powerful speeches from Greta Thunberg and deep concern voiced by national treasure, David Attenborough. Just the words ‘Climate Change’ cause a shuddering effect across the generations, illustrated by devastation caused by recent fire in Australia, African drought, shrinking ice caps and Asian floods. Whilst there are some arguments that suggest we are experiencing a period of global warming as part of a natural cycle, there is no escaping the active encouragement to change our ways and consider the planet.
Whilst we are entranced and entrapped by the lockdown effects from COVID-19 around the world, astonishing images from The Guardian have emerged suggesting that the sudden drop in industrial and commercial activity here; with warehouses and factories closing their doors, far less vehicles on the roads and planes grounded, has had an invaluable and eye-opening temporary effect on the pollution levels here in the UK (and around the world one imagines). A reassuring revelation that cows aren’t too blame above all else for polluting the planet as many vegan activists claim…
What lies beneath is the most complex phenomenon on the planet, biodiversity. Oxford University Professor David MacDonald states, “Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity”. Air, water, food and drink are all entirely dependent upon biodiversity supported by our fragile ecosystems.
Biodiversity is essentially biological diversification, a concept well known to farmers and growers. In the West, we are in the fortunate position of not only being educated about the need to protect and improve these balanced habitats, we are physically able to make lifestyle choices in order to support change and to rectify recent intensive farming practices. Rachel Carrie, friend of In The Country took part in a conversation with a frankly rude and uneducated vegan activist Joey Armstrong to discuss the vegan way of life and has some very interesting points on biodiversity which inspired me to commission this article. You can watch the interview here.
Cowdray Estate in West Sussex is a fine example of rich diversity across 16,500 acres. Habitats managed by the Estate vary from woodland to heathland and farmland to riparian landscapes. The three pillars considered during ecological management are productivity, biodiversity and society, the Estate’s successful partnership with the South Downs National Park Authority is a clear example of positive management.
Together they have worked to deliver the principles identified in the Lawson Report, creating space for nature, connecting wildlife corridors and stepping-stones for flying species, a combination which connects organically.
Woodland is the dominant habitat at Cowdray, about 40% of the Estate is wooded, three times the national average. Head Forester, Nina Williams, is a firm believer that nature doesn’t form perfect lines for a good reason. Woodland paths and rides are managed with gentle curves and imperfections to recognise and enhance landscape features, which benefit from light without becoming wind tunnels.
Transitional open spaces allow thicker grasses and brambles to grow up and the introduction of hazel, cherry and rowan at the edge of a timber plantation ensures a broad palate, key to supporting biodiversity and the creation of micro habitats. In areas of coppiced wood, staggering regeneration is apparent at ground level. Seed banks can survive for up to sixty years before bursting into life when reached by warmth and light.
Foxgloves, bluebells and anemones will carpet a coppiced area the following spring, providing a mecca for butterflies. The pearl-bordered fritillary (pictured at the top of the article) is a species of pride for the forestry team, the local population has significantly improved in recent years and dormouse populations thrive. Williams claims to have heard the latter snoring during periods of hibernation in hazel woods!
Heathland on the Estate, referred to as the Common, was traditionally grazed by local farmers. The sandy soil with areas of marsh is one of only a few areas in the UK inhabited by all six native reptilian species; smooth snake, grass snake, European adder, common lizard, sand lizard and slow worm and consequently an area of SSI.
Since the demise of commoner grazing, coniferous trees have grown up, bracken inhabits and inhibits heathered areas and management is required to replicate the action of grazing and ensure favourable conditions are prevalent. Vegetation is scraped back to allow heather to regenerate, bracken rolled and young conifers removed from heathland. The result is a thriving habitat of reptile life, small mammals, extensive range of bird species and the recent arrival of Red Kites. An exciting bi-product of this ecosystem is delicious heather honey from the Estate bees.
Through careful management and planning, tree species planted across the Cowdray Estate today will be suitable for forecasted temperatures in 2100, the anticipated year of harvest, efforts are being made to choose disease resistant strains and nature is proven to provide reasonable resilience and adaptation across plant and animal species.
Whilst the fragility of every eco-system is increasingly apparent to us, it is important to remember the necessity for animals and plants to coexist to maintain the cycle of natural fertiliser and healthy soil. The diverse knowledge of humans is also essential for biodiversity, where combined understanding from farmers, game keepers, fishermen and foresters will ensure that each habitat is not only preserved but enhanced.
The threat of climate change does have the advantage of raising awareness and appreciation of nature with both physical and mental benefits for humans, who are reverting to some natural remedies and improving lifestyle choices. During normality, Cowdray Estate actively encourage visitors to enjoy their surroundings. Wildlife tours are available and visitors can walk to the Estate’s Queen Elizabeth Oak (between 850- 1000 years old) from April 2020 the Estate’s forager will offer guided walks, when life gets back to normal.
Words by Charlotte Verdon, PR Manager at Cowdray Estate.