Species-rich and well-working ecosystems are the very things that keep stuff circulating – globally, on the landscape level, and in one’s garden. They provide us with pure water and air, fill the earth with nutrients, and guarantee the sustainability of food production. They give us something to identify with and a sense of well-being. They are critical to our health – both mental and physical.
Our children are healthier, better able to concentrate and study, while adults are more peaceful and happier when the living environment is green and biodiverse.
Nature’s aforementioned contributions that provide us a suitable environment in which to live are called ecosystem services. We use those services for free and constantly, thus tending to see their existence as a casual fact, not thinking much about their origin or current conditions. Still, all of those services do not come from some sort of endless cornucopia. They are related to the situation of ecosystems, which depend on our own activities.
Biodiversity and the natural environment are both in a deep crisis
Despite its importance, the state of biodiversity and the natural environment is not good. It’s true around the world, and in Europe and Estonia as well. The IPBES review published last week collected the best data that we have about the state of the nature surrounding us, and concluded that during the last 50 years we have destroyed nearly 50 percent of habitats and pushed one in every eight species to the brink of extinction, with every fourth one now deemed endangered.
Both biodiversity and the natural environment are in a deep crisis. The main cause is too intense and careless use of Earth, which has led to rapid loss in habitats.
Estonia is no exception
Humans are a powerful species – three-fourths of all dry land is under active use by humans, without much usable room left to other species. Estonia is no exception here. During the last century, we have lost 95 percent of meadow ecologies, the bastion of our biodiversity. Biodiverse wooded meadows, which as little as 70 years ago spanned over 850,000 hectares, have shrunk to a thousandth of that, amounting to 800 hectares.
To become better acquainted with this habitat and its biodiversity, go and see the wooded meadow of Laelatu, the world record holder in small-scale biodiversity of plants, as summer is here.
Natural forest constitutes just two percent of our entire woodland. Just a fourth of wetlands, extremely important when it comes to climate changes, have been preserved in natural environments. The results of the loss of habitats and changes in landscapes echo back in our biodiversity – each year the number of birds in Estonian forests and fields shrinks by 57,000–111,000 pairs.
Estonia also has dozens of species in danger of extinction or already extinct. Thus, we have no excuse to rest on our laurels and still see our home country as somehow untouchable and unerring in the preservation of our natural richness.
18.8 percent of Estonian dry land has some conservation status – there are nature conservation areas, landscape conservation areas, natural parks, parks or open woodlands, special habitats, single objects of protected nature, etc.
Many might be surprised that by this indicator we are quite a bit under the European average (21 percent), as well as the average of many European countries and successful economies (Germany has 37.8, France 25.8, and Great Britain 28.7 percent).
Habitats and biodiversity beyond natural conservation areas
But let’s turn this number around for a moment. Let’s think about the other 81.2 percent of Estonian dry land that would not be conservation areas but arable agricultural land, forest either recovering from cutting trees or nearing it, as well as cities and other areas densely dominated by human beings.
By now, considering the global experience, one can conclude that outside of the conservation areas, habitats and biodiversity have a tendency to vanish. The small number of species that suit the new life order will remain, but the numerous species that have their habitats shrunken or blown away will be lost – most varieties of meadows, species connected to old forests or wetlands, including many mushrooms, insects, and vertebrates.
Conservation areas are utterly important, but not enough to avoid massive loss of biodiversity and preserve ecodiversity services related to the functioning of the natural environment. So what could be done?
Everyone’s conservancy – the missing link in the landscape
Nature lives in the landscapes surrounding us. It includes habitat spots being preserved, but not exclusively. An unmowed spot in the home garden, a flowerbed corner full of weeds, a small bunch of bushes next to the garden, a compost heap, a tree trunk left behind on the ground – all of these create conditions for biodiversity.
We must bring back conditions suitable for biodiversity to every landscape, every city, every village. And each one of us can do it – every citizen, company, and local government. No need to wait for a decree or permit, for a plan or graphic. We mustn’t have to expect that our nature-friendly activities should always be paid, or that we should be lauded for it. We just need to care, notice, know, and decide.
Care about the preservation of nature. Notice that there is little nature in the lawn, even less on the field, and none on the pavement. Know which activities improve and which ones harm biodiversity. Then we have to decide if we need to plow this over or lay stones on over this spot, or remove that bush over there.
It’s recommended to look around with wide eyes, to take into consideration that every square inch we don’t exactly need for our everyday life could be a habitat of endless value to thousands of organisms. And to hundreds of organisms, it could be a vital jumping point for moving around and spreading in the fragmented landscape. Every small spot, even every tiny box on a balcony, could be a little natural conservation area of its own, where flowers could bloom and insects could stop by.
Voluntary and conscious activity to turn our landscapes biodiversity-friendly again through our small activities – this is conservancy by all.
Conservancy by all – practical tips
- Get to know the important habitats of species, so you can value them in the surroundings of your home.
- Mow less lawn. When summer comes, try hay-making in the less-used parts of your garden instead. Every square meter where our flowers can bloom is a little piece of nature.
- Grow plants that bloom often and for long, offering food to bees, bumblebees, and butterflies, in your flower-bed, balcony box, or garden corner.
- Pick seeds of our native plant species from nature and grow them in your garden. Then you are offering an additional habitat to plants that are not so well spread in other landscapes. NB: Don’t buy the seeds of native species produced abroad. Sowing those could endanger the gene pool of native communities.
- Put bird boxes and “bug hotels” into your garden.
- What you might see as uncultivated could be a wonderful home for many others. Biodiversity is well served by a corner in your garden left unmowed, a rotting fallen tree trunk, an old stone garden, a heap of leaves, a bunch of branches, a stone covered with moss.
- Don’t cultivate invasive foreign species which would endanger our own species when spread to nature (i.e. rosa rugosa, policeman’s helmet, Canada goldenrod).
- Value and protect small water sources – ponds, creeks, runnels, streams, each significant to lots and lots of species, both as habitat or a place to drink.
- Bushes and hedges offer places of breeding and shelter for birds.
- Don’t use synthetic plant protection products – not in your home garden, not in urban areas.
- Don’t fight the weeds where it doesn’t actually disturb you. Sean, dandelion, and thistle are often seen as troublesome, but they are really important to dusters and other critical insects.
The longer Estonian version of this article appeared first in the Estonian daily Postimees.
Aveliina Helm is an ecologist and conservation biologist with interests in development, persistence, and protection of biodiversity.