Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Natural Connections: understanding a living landscape

What don’t we see when we look at a landscape? 

Looking at a landscape for the first time is a bit like seeing a stranger – you see their appearance, their body, but until you get to know them you don’t see their personality – or know anything about what makes them tick.  Generally when we look at landscapes we see a view, or, if it’s somewhere we know well, we see places. Places which may have special meanings to us:  a personal history that colours our view.  As with people there are places we fall in love with, places we seek out when we feel sad and need cheering and places where we walk which give us perspective and literally can shape our views. Nature and wild places can be healing for both mind and body and if also for spirit too.

To understand a living landscape we need to see beneath the surface; to look just a bit deeper, and certainly working in nature conservation to try and heal a living landscape we need to really love that landscape, study it before we act and come to know process as well as place. To illustrate this concept another way, imagine if you had to go hospital for an operation, would you want your surgeon just to know about your anatomy? Or would you like a doctor with some understanding of your physiology, the processes, like blood flow and breathing, that keep you alive?

Well it’s just the same with living landscapes. As well as the anatomy of place they also have their physiology. We don’t easily see the flows of energy and materials that connect place to place, and landscape to landscape, but it is these flows that deliver the ecosystem services we rely on.  And it is through understanding these flows, these natural connections, that we can like the doctor, assess the health of a landscape. It is these flows that make a Living Landscape.

When we look at landscapes in this way it’s a revelation – the rain that falls on our nature reserves, or indeed your garden, may  perhaps only days before have been water from the Atlantic ocean, evaporated by sunshine half a world away, brought here to this Norfolk landscape in clouds carried on winds the swirl across ocean and continent. The rain falling here today, may, depending on the local soils and geology, seep down into the slow time of deep underground aquifers, remaining underground for decades or centuries, or be carried by stream and river to the distant sea in a matter of days or weeks. The hidden flows of nitrate, phosphate and carbon through a landscape determine the health of its ecology and ultimately the health of our planet. Flows of carbon and oxygen move between living creatures and the atmosphere and the balance of these flows determines our climate.  Human impact on a landscape always changes the ways energy and materials flow. For example the way rainfall flows off a ploughed field is totally different to the way it moves through a grassland, let alone a natural wetland. The impact of flows of nutrients from fertilizers used on fields many miles away will affect the ecology of habitats lower down a river catchment. The sulphur dioxide from power stations and industry in continental Europe bring subtle but significant changes to our landscapes here in Norfolk. 

Habitats and landscapes that appear isolated and fragmented in terms of their anatomy are still intimately part of an amazing and awe-inspiring network of natural connections.  The warblers and nightjars that sing on our heathlands, or the swallows that swoop over broad and fen, link our Norfolk landscapes to very different ones in sub-Saharan Africa.  The geese that fly in skeins across our winter skies connect Norfolk to their Russian and Icelandic breeding grounds. Events and actions in one place have surprising and sometimes unpredictable consequences elsewhere. As John Muir so eloquently put it, whenever you examine any one thing in nature you find it hitched to the rest of the universe! The challenge in understanding landscapes, measuring ecosystem services, or evaluating natural capital in landscapes, is one of understanding the physiology of landscape. When as conservationists we want to create A Living Landscape then our challenge is to understand the importance of what we don’t see in landscapes, rather than be beguiled by their seductive anatomies and see only the beauty of place. We need to become landscape physiologists, to reconnect the natural flows of energy and materials through our landscapes. Fully functioning ecosystems, or to put it another way, healthy living landscapes, are ones in which both energy and material flow across, through and between habitats and landscapes to deliver the ecosystem services that ultimately we depend upon. Nature conservation on a landscape scale is ultimately about restoring and delivering our own life-support systems as well as protecting the amazing wildlife these Norfolk landscapes support.

David North, Head of People and Wildlife.

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