Island Junkie

A few weeks ago I received the fantastic news that the Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers (SNCV’s), had accepted me onto their ‘Biodiversity Graduate Training Programme’. Unlike everybody else who dismissed the opportunity as‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’, I was quite happy to be accepted onto a voluntary placement which would take up 3 days of my week, require 2 hours of commute everyday and also leave me financially struggled. This is the reality facing a lot of graduates who are looking for a career in wildlife conservation and I am no exception to this fate. However the competition out there is fierce and the way I see it is that I am young, hard-working and have few enough responsibilities to be able to accept an opportunity like this, and by the end of it I will be in a good position to qualify for the paid positions I so frequently receive rejection letters from. Just a few hours ago this evening I received a call back from an interview I had just yesterday with the London Wildlife Trust, which was to regretfully inform me that I hadn’t been successful. Despite my professional manner, they explained, the other applicants just had more experience than I had. Although disheartening, it was kind of a relief that I wouldn’t have to make a choice between the two positions, as although this one was paid, it didn’t provide the diversity of training that the SNCV’s were offering. The outcome of the interview just reinforced what I knew already-not even a first class honours degree will get you anywhere in conservation without decent experience to back it up.

But there was something extra special about this role that had attracted me towards it – Biodiversity Gardens. Biodiversity Gardens is a 2-year HLF project that aims to increase biodiversity in people’s gardens through extensive surveys and gardening advice. Immediately my head was filled with the words: habitat loss and fragmentation, evolution, extinction, scale, landscape, species, diversity. These are all concepts within the field of ‘biogeography’, an exciting branch of ecology that looks into the patterns of species distribution. This project had stimulated the island junkie in me. So what has Biodiversity Gardens got to do with islands? Or what has your back garden got do with the exotic islands of Barbados or Borneo?

As most of us are aware, species are becoming extinct at a much faster rate than is the norm. This is largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation. The cause, human civilization.  I stress civilization, as Homo sapiens in their ancestral hunter-gatherer form lived a relatively sustainable life. It’s ever since the dawn of agriculture thousands of years ago, that humans have moved to a more civilized, but less sustainable life. In a similar way to other ‘accelerative’ ideas such as tool making and language, agriculture opened up opportunities for people; it allowed our population to grow exponentially as we learned how to manipulate the environment around us to support our needs. Nowadays the iconic British landscape as we know it consists of vast expanses of farmland with only remnants or ‘islands’ left of once widely abundant habitats, such as woodland, meadow or scrubland.

It is here which lays the connection between Biodiversity Gardens and islands. In our patchy landscape, remnant patches of habitat are synonymous to islands, in that an inhospitable matrix surrounds them. They are often compared with continental islands, like Barbados and Borneo, which were formerly connected to the mainland via a land bridge.  This is because, like continental islands, they were once a part of the mainland, therefore are likely to contain a small sample of species present on the mainland, rather than colonizers. Such species are called relicts. It is known through the study of islands, that island size and isolation has a great influence on its rate of species extinction. The smaller and more isolated the island, the greater its rate of extinction, and this concept can be applied to our thinking of habitat loss and fragmentation.  If we can find ways of increasing the size and decreasing the isolation of habitat then we can reduce the rate of species extinction. As gardens make up a large part of the green space left in our landscape that is free from intensive agriculture, increasing biodiversity in gardens is a great way to reconnect the landscape, providing links and even whole habitats between remnant patches. Increasing size and decreasing isolation of habitats, thus decreasing extinction.

The island analogy is a neat and simple comparison, which is responsible for introducing the concept of time and space to our thinking on habitat loss and fragmentation. However, modern day biogeographers aren’t happy with this simplicity anymore. There is now much more focus on how remnants are unlike islands than vice versa. It’s a shame as I think there is only clarity in such simple concepts, but as ever ecologists are determined to understand the complexities of nature that are so unattainable. Maybe it was the transition from the island concept to the island theory by MacArthur and Wilson that raised ears amongst the critics. In fact we shouldn’t compare woodland remnants to continental islands, as they are islands in their own right. It is our stereotype of islands being small patches of land surrounded by water that deems this comparison untrue. All islands have a matrix, be it water, grassland, road, and they all have varying levels of hospitability for different species, so when considering islands, it is vital to consider which species you are relating it too. A rock that sits in a stream may be an island for some species of fungi or moss but this rock may merely be a resting place for an otter passing through the stream.

Nevertheless, I immediately recognised this project as something that would be extremely worthwhile. The only way to help our threatened species survive in our patchy landscape is to reconnect it. Nature reserves do their best to help this but our gardens also play a part, especially in suburban areas where they may make up the majority of green space available. Biodiversity Gardens therefore has a lot of potential and I am excited to know that I will be a part of it. If the SNCV’s are able to find enough landowners to cooperate, not only will their gardens become miniature wildlife havens, but also more people will be educated and inspired by the wildlife in their gardens and the connection between wildlife and people will be made again, as it was before the dawn of agriculture.

So there is a lot to look forward to in 2013, a whole new year with exciting prospects! Although I may not be island hopping on the Malay Archipelago like Alfred Wallace did on his journey to discovering evolution, I can still find a way to feed my addiction for islands….or at least until I find the money to fund such a journey?

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