Ecosystems

‘Ecosystems services’ is a concept in which both conservationists and economists have found some common ground, and politicians are beginning to take notice. Is it just another piece of jargon or does it apply to the real world? Here’s a simple guide to the idea, and what it might mean for wildlife and people in our two counties.

Everyone relies on the natural world for survival and general wellbeing*.

However for most of us in the UK, everyday life is often quite removed from nature. We forget that we need the natural world to survive. It provides the air we breathe and the water we drink. We rely on insects to pollinate crops, wetlands and floodplains to store water and plants to provide many medicines. Nature also inspires us and can profoundly affect our spiritual wellbeing. One way to help everyone realise the natural world’s importance is to consider what it provides us with and to relate this to human wellbeing; perhaps even give nature an economic value sometimes. Enter the relatively new concept of ‘ecosystem services’.

What are ecosystem services?

‘Ecosystem services’ describe essential life support systems that the natural world provides us with. These services can be split into a number of categories.

• Services that give provisions are those that sustain human life. These include food, fibre, fuel, natural medicines and pharmaceuticals.

• Services that regulate natural processes include local and global climate regulation, water regulation, erosion control (to address soil conservation) and storm protection.

• Cultural services are especially important in promoting wellbeing. These are often nonmaterial benefits, such as cultural diversity, spiritual and religious values, inspiration and aesthetic values, education, cultural heritage and a sense of place. These non-material benefits can support economic activities such as recreation and ecotourism.

• Finally, supporting services include the production of atmospheric oxygen, soil formation and nutrient cycling – all of which play a key role in supporting other ecosystem services. Their importance may not be so obvious over short timescales, but the long-term implications of their degradation are immense.

A good example is soil fertility and erosion around the world: if soil is not formed and nutrients are not recycled, food production will ultimately suffer.

Bees by Darin Smith

Why is this concept important?

The concept of ecosystems services allows us to link the planet’s resources with human wellbeing and development needs. By understanding what services an ecosystem offers and how such services influence human wellbeing, we can make better decisions to manage different ecosystems and use the planet’s resources wisely.

Most importantly, the concept provides information that our decision-makers can weigh alongside other social and economic information.

*Human wellbeing is defined by the United Nations as the opposite end of a continuum from poverty. Wellbeing includes having the basic materials for a good life: freedom and choice, health, good social relations and security. The concept of wellbeing is complex as it also depends on social and personal circumstances such as age, gender and culture.

What’s happening in the UK…and where does the Trust fit in?

Although the concept is still in its infancy, the Government realises it is a valuable tool to help maintain a healthy, functioning environment. It is starting to develop approaches that consider ecosystems as a whole. Critically, current and future decisions will recognise the huge contribution of ecosystem services to the country’s social, economic and environmental welfare.

The Trust’s work contributes to the wider effort of embracing ecosystems services. For example, our work with farmers on the Island is bringing large areas of the countryside into environmentally friendly farming with decreased diffuse pollution, increased water quality and increases in wildlife important for a wider society such as pollinating insects.

Our nature reserves provide a haven for rare wildlife such as red squirrels, butterflies and wild flowers which in turn provide a better experience for people looking for quiet relaxation and enjoyment. Whilst we often may not think about our work in terms of ecosystems services, we do in fact make a significant contribution to an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future.

Perhaps ecosystem services will become less a piece of jargon, more the raison d’etre for the Trust.

What is an ecosystem?

An ecosystem is the web of interactions between animals, plants, micro-organisms and the non-living environment that supports them.

Ecosystems can exist on many scales – the Pacific Ocean, the cork-oak forests of the Mediterranean, the Solent or a single woodland. Humans evolved as integral parts of ecosystems, but as societies developed many have moved away from being part of nature to trying to control aspects of it.

Harbour seals by Chas Spradberry

Seal Tagging Update

By Jolyon Chesworth, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust

As part of the Seal Tagging Project, designed to improve our understanding of this nationally declining mammal, we managed to attach tracking devices to a number of the harbour seals that live in our area. These devices provide accurate location information, showing where the seals are resting, and also data on their feeding behaviour, such as how deep they have been diving to catch food and for how long.

These tags have now all dropped off, as they are designed to do when the animals moult, and the data they have been able to provide has been a real window on their world. We knew virtually nothing before the tags went on but now we know where the seals’ main resting sites are and have been able to identify about ten sites around the Solent that the seals frequently visit to feed.

These important foraging grounds include areas off Selsey Bill in Sussex, Bembridge and Ryde on the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth Langstone and Chichester Harbours and even up the busy Southampton Water and River Hamble. One seal even went over to Worthing on an extended foraging trip, sleeping at sea and diving down to depths of 60m. Some seals have been holding their breath for over 14 minutes when looking for food.

The aim of the project is to identify the areas that are most important for the success of the seals. After that we can seek to have these sites recognised in relevant management and conservation plans to ensure they are still capable of supporting a healthy population of seals.