Editor’s Choice – A biodiversity conundrum – are we heading for regional diminutions of nature at the expense of national ambition?

October 2012 (Issue 49:5)

Dolman, P.M, Panter, C.J. & Mossman, H.L. (2012) The biodiversity audit approach challenges regional priorities and identifies a mismatch in conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology 49:5, 986–997

Biodiversity, or plain nature as many of us like to think of it, poses all sorts of challenges for applied ecologists. At the simplest level, we want to record species in our local patch – note and count them, add data to local or regional databases, and through analyses find out about their conservation status (e.g. Ratcliffe 1977; BRIG 2007). We may even be able to influence conservation through our research, management, policy, advocacy or planning work, and I am sure many of us would like to think we can make a difference to biodiversity through these endeavours. At the regional level, much of this work takes place through biodiversity audits – massive datasets pulled together to provide an overview of the wealth of species, their status, and hopefully to provide at least a baseline for further work (e.g. BRIG 2007; Lawton et al. 2010).

A lot of this activity is guided by national policies arising from international or national legislation (e.g. EC 1992; JNCC 2011). Arising from this, many countries have ‘national’ habitat and species action plans which are taken forward at regional or even local scales (BRIG 2007). So, a local reserve, or larger protected area, may be managed with the support of a funding stream simply because that place has a habitat or species listed on a national action plan. So, what’s the conundrum? Well, the reality is that much of what we should value in the nature around us will be unique to a particular area, under-recorded and under-valued. Put another way, if some species, arguably hundreds of species, do not feature on a national plan, no effort will go into assessing them, evaluating their importance and status, and taking action to care for them. And as conservation is about enjoying, nurturing and restoring nature to a far better state, we may fail to conserve a massively important part of what is so important. It follows, that in failing to have a grassroots understanding of nature we are effectively overlooking critically important elements.

Paul Dolman and colleagues (2012) have ingeniously shown the limitations of having both an incomplete knowledge of the wealth of nature in a particular area, and the limitations of an audit approach founded at the national level. We have picked this paper as this Issue’s Editor’s Choice because this paper could well cause cracks in the foundations of conservation policy and practice.

Working in two southern regions in England – Breckland and The Broads – Dolman et al. (2012) collated an extraordinary 0.83 and 1.5 million records, respectively, for 12,845 and 11,067 species, of which 2,097 and 1,519, respectively, were ‘priority’ species. They found that the overall totals were massively greater than reported in the literature, including conservation plans. Indeed, regional specialists, of which there were many hundreds, were barely recognised in such plans. The upshot is a serious risk of undervaluing regionally important nature at the expense of obsessing over nationally important species. This matters because when Dolman et al. went on to look at the effectiveness of agri-environment schemes, which normally focus on nationally important species and/or habitats, they found that a worryingly low percentage of regional species benefitted. They give an example from the Breckland where, for grass heaths, the current agri-environment schemes influence only 15% of the priority species and 21% of the regional specialist species which could benefit from management.

Perhaps most tellingly, Dolman et al. (2012) argue persuasively that where we have substantial information on plants and animals at the regional level we should be able to brigade this into management ‘guilds’ across taxa to target much more effectively agri-environment measures to support a far greater range of biodiversity.

This is the first study of its type in Europe, and has signally significant implications for how we might manage nature much more effectively. In the detail of the paper we see that in the two study areas the biodiversity was actually far richer than recognised in previously published lists. Numbers of Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species, for example, were underestimated by magnitudes of between two- and seven-fold. Compounding the problem, Dolman et al. found that only around a quarter of the regionally restricted species were BAP designated, with the other three quarters therefore receiving scant policy and management support. They conclude with the rather sobering observation that: “We acknowledge that the broad prescriptions resulting from management guilds may require refinement to conserve individual species populations, but the discrepancy between evidence-based recommendations and current conservation action is sobering.”

This is a game-changer of a paper. We have to hope that further regional studies will be undertaken to see if there are other far more effective ways of caring for nature. If we cannot find ways of looking after the regionally distinctive wealth of nature we have around us we will see a plodding shift towards the homogenization of wildlife – with only those species featuring in ‘national’ lists ultimately faring well – or less badly. With the development of ecosystem approaches for conserving nature (e.g. Lindenmayer et al. 2007, MEA 2005, NEA 2011) we have significant opportunities to develop fresh and innovative ways of not only auditing nature, but caring for it far more effectively.

Des B. A Thompson


You can also listen to an interview with Paul Dolman in the
September 2012 Podcast


BRIG. (2007) Report on the Species and Habitat Review: Report to the UK Standing Committee June 2007. Biodiversity Reporting and Information Group, Peterborough.
Dolman, P. M, Panter, C. J. & Mossman, H. L. (2012) The biodiversity audit approach challenges regional priorities and identifies a mismatch in conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology 49:5, 986–997
EC. (1992) Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora. European Commission, Brussels.
JNCC (2011) Conservation Designations for UK Taxa. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough. http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-3408.
Lawton, J.H., Brotherton, P.N.M., Brown, V.K., Elphick, C., Fitter, A. H., Forshaw, J., Haddow, R.W., Hilborne, S., Leafe, R.N., Mace, G. M., Southgate, M.P., Sutherland, W.J., Tew, T.E., Varley, J. & Wynne, G.R. (2010). Making Space for Nature: a Review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network. Report to Defra.
Lindenmayer, D., Hobbs, R.J., Montague-Drake, R., Alexandra, J., Bennett, A., Burgman, M., Cale, P., Calhoun, A., Cramer, V., Cullen, P., Driscoll, D., Fahrig, L., Fischer, J., Franklin, J., Haila, Y., Hunter, M., Gibbons, P., Lake, S., Luck, G., MacGregor, C., McIntyre, S., MacNally, R., Manning, A., Miller, J., Mooney, H., Noss, R., Possingham, H., Saunders, D., Schmiegelow, F., Scott, M., Simberloff, D., Sisk, T., Tabor, G., Walker, B., Wiens, J., Woinarski, J. & Zavaleta, E. (2007) A checklist for ecological management of landscapes for conservation. Ecology Letters, 10, 1–14.
MEA. (2005) Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis. Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, World Resources Institute, Washington, DC.
NEA. (2011) The UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Synthesis of the Key Findings. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.
Ratcliffe, D.A. (ed.). (1977) A Nature Conservation Review. Volumes 1 and 2. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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