Species recovery. What's that all about then?

, 11 February 2024
Species recovery. What's that all about then?
Young Pine Marten © Mark Hamblin 2020VISION

Matt Phelps

Species Recovery Officer

Species Recovery is quite a broad term which, rather like the word rewilding, can mean different things to different people. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a species is fully recovered if it is present in all parts of its range (even those that are no longer occupied but were occupied prior to major human impacts/disruption) and is performing all its ecological functions across that range.

In simple terms, it essentially involves identifying which species have been lost or are on the brink of being lost from a given region and putting in place the appropriate management to restore populations to healthy and sustainable levels, be it sensitive habitat improvement work or total reintroduction through captive breeding or translocation if necessary.

What does this mean in a Sussex context where there are potentially hundreds of species which fit into the category of lost or in steep decline? How does one decide which are the most in need of saving or recovery? Ornithologists will of course be keen to focus on birds, lepidopterists will fly the flag for butterflies and moths, and so on.

A better way to approach this rather challenging dilemma, perhaps, is to look at how we might help to drive the restoration of natural processes on a landscape scale rather than singling out individual species in need help. Are there overlaps between species X and species Y, in terms of what they are lacking in terms of habitat and/or food sources? Could it be that the return of a species Z may unlock the conditions required for both species X and Y to flourish? A good example for a ‘species Z’ would be Eurasian Beaver. Beavers are what is known as a keystone species, meaning they positively impact and reinvigorate landscapes simply through their natural behaviour; the landscapes in question being wetlands when it comes to Beavers. In turn, these restored wetland habitats then become much richer for a host of other native plants and animals, including fish, birds and insects. Put simply, restoring Beavers to depleted wetland environments can produce knock-on benefits to a host of other species which otherwise may have required specific management techniques to recover their own populations.

Beaver © Nick Upton
Beaver © Nick Upton/Cornwall Wildlife Trust

There are species interactions which we understand, like the larvae of various blue butterfly species being offered protection in ant nests owing to the butterfly larva’s sweet secretions. This relationship, from the butterfly’s point of view, is known as ‘myrmecophily’ or ant love. Then there are trophic relationships we have only more recently begun to appreciate, such as the rootling effects of pigs inadvertently producing feeding opportunities for Turtle Doves via the propagation of arable weeds. There are likely many, many more such species interactions, driven by complex natural processes which we still need to realise and research, which will further inform how we restore fully functioning ecosystems on a broader scale.

Adonis Blue © Graeme Lyons
Adonis Blue © Graeme Lyons

The end goal is more wildlife flourishing in healthier and more joined-up landscapes, with a host of reinvigorated natural processes driving the recovery of lost or declining native species. A key part of my role at Sussex Wildlife Trust is to determine which natural processes, whereabouts and which species could be the drivers for change.

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