THURSDAY, 18 AUGUST 2022
Science is an applied endeavour. It sits within the rest of human society, alongside its geopolitics, social contexts, and cultural idiosyncrasies, and within its economic systems. The idea of science as conducted by objective researchers is true only to those branches that deal with pure theory but not to science in its applied capacity. Although experimental design and data analysis must always be objective, which questions are asked—and even how and which data are collected—is inescapably subjective. This is an unavoidable artefact of scientists being humans who sit within wider society.
There is no better illustration of this than conservation science, the branch of biology concerned with protecting the natural world, including its species, habitats and ecosystems. While its experiments are designed to be as objective as possible, decisions of what to conserve where, and how to achieve this, are irrevocably tied to the identities of the scientists, funders, and policymakers involved.
To rewild or not to rewild?
Rewilding has gained significant traction over recent years and has migrated into the public domain. True rewilding is really an ideology—leaving an area of land to regenerate naturally without any human intervention. In practice, rewilding often starts with human interventions such as tree planting or the reintroduction of keystone species, like beavers, that help natural processes re-establish themselves.
Understanding the mechanics of rewilding, such as which species establish themselves first and how they interact with each other to contribute to ecosystem processes, is underpinned by objective data gathering and analysis. The adoption of rewilding at any given site, on the other hand, depends on the goal and, ultimately, on who is holding the pot of money. If the aim is to remove human impacts from a system, then rewilding is the best, and only, approach. If, however, the goal is to minimise species loss, maximise biodiversity and restore full ecosystem functioning, then the best strategy might depend on the ecosystem.
The Scottish Highlands have become a prominent example of high-profile organisations working to achieve rewilding at scale. Here, it is often hard to make agriculture profitable, and the extant landscape is homogeneous, supporting relatively few species. Allowing woodland to regenerate has the potential to spawn increased tourism, contribute to carbon sequestration, and support other ecosystem services, such as downstream flood prevention. It also produces large, joined-up habitats capable of supporting top predators like wolves, lynx, and white-tailed eagles. This is especially true if the trees that establish are a mixture of native deciduous and coniferous species, since these are likely to be the best candidates for boosting the populations of otherwise struggling native species, helping to mitigate biodiversity losses.
Contrast the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands with the heavily managed nature reserves of the southeast of England. Here, nature is fragmented and hemmed in, unable to expand into neighbouring urban or agricultural environments. These spaces are smaller than the vast uplands of Scotland, so their chances of supporting the large, charismatic species that best satisfy humans’ yearning for wildness is minimal. However, the nature reserves of southern England support greater numbers of species than rewilded areas of Scotland. There is a higher diversity of plants, invertebrates, songbirds, and wetland birds, and a greater variety of habitats within a given area. Just one nature reserve can contain saltmarshes, sandbanks, rivers, wildflower meadows, scrubland, grassland, and woodland, each supporting its own community of species. Leaving these areas to regenerate naturally and ceasing the human management required to maintain this heterogeneous, mosaic landscape would result in a habitat closer to that in the rewilded uplands, and a more ‘natural’ landscape, but the total number of species supported is likely to be lower as a result.
Neither strategy is scientifically better or worse, or supported by more or better-quality evidence. The decision of which approach to take in which location depends on the ultimate aim of conservation and on who decides this. Is the goal to return a system to its natural, historical state? If so, to which historical state? Humans have been managing the land to some extent across what we now call Britain for millennia. Is the goal to remove all human influence from the landscape and allow the land to regenerate as it chooses? An ideological philosophy, perhaps, but still valid. Or is the goal a more practical one: to minimise species losses, to maximise ecosystem functioning, or to prioritise the ecosystem services that local people need the most? A set of goals which may or may not be compatible at any given site.
Here be Konik ponies
Species introductions are wrought with similar debates. Given the potential for unpredictable negative effects on native species, is introducing a non-native species always a bad idea? Is the fact that it was never part of the system’s historical state enough to rule it out? Or can introducing a new species that is functionally equivalent to one long since extinct contribute to restoring ecosystem health? A good example of this is the Konik ponies introduced to Wicken Fen, just northeast of Cambridge. These are a Polish breed of horse, neither native to the Cambridgeshire Fens, nor fully wild, but they now graze this fen, preventing its succession to woodland and recreating the role that species long extinct from the area, such as bison, would once have played.
Again, whether or not the introduction of such species is the best conservation strategy depends in part on the scientific evidence and ecological profile of the landscape, and in part on the cultural and historical contexts. Should the management of Wicken Fen, for example, always prioritise native species in an attempt to prevent their population declines or restore lost ecosystems of the past, or should there be flexibility in this approach? Furthermore, the desires and needs of those living within or close by a site can be very different from those of communities living further afield. What a landscape looks like, for example, is of utmost importance to someone who’s bedroom window looks out onto it, but for someone who lives downstream, the same landscape’s contribution to flood prevention is likely to be more important than aesthetics.
Conservation science as philosophy
There are many more conservation strategies, each one with differing mechanics and methods of application, which we understand through objective science. However, this information sits alongside the long-term goals of conservation, for which the identity of the conservation scientists, the funders, and the people who live, work, or otherwise depend on an area all matter.
Science is not just a pure pursuit of objective knowledge. On the contrary, applied science is firmly rooted within its social contexts. Appreciation of how science sits within the society that created it better equips us with an ability to apply the scientific method where it is most needed—to gather evidence on the best way to achieve an aim. Science is really a branch of philosophy, and there is no arm of science that illustrates this better than conservation science.
Kate Howlett is a final-year PhD student in zoology at Newnham College. Artwork by Anna Germon.