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Dublin: 9 °C Monday 24 November, 2014

Column: Ecological restoration offers fresh pathways for citizens to engage with nature

Ecological restoration not only has the potential to reverse environmental damage locally and globally, but also to transform our relationship with the natural world, writes Paddy Woodworth.

Paddy Woodworth

ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION? When I first heard the phrase, 10 years ago, I had no idea what it meant. Restoration, I thought, was something you did to houses, or paintings, or cars.

The very idea that you can ‘restore’ an ecosystem, after it has been degraded by human activity, seems to fly in the face of everything that most of us understand about nature conservation.

But, once grasped, the idea also seems remarkably empowering. If we really can begin to fix what we have broken in the natural world, starting at a local level, the helplessness that many of us feel when confronted by issues like climate change might begin to morph into active engagement.

Traditional conservation has operated through a kind of ecological apartheid, where fenced-off sanctuaries of plants and wildlife are increasingly isolated from the bustling human world of development – urban, industrial and agricultural.

Restoration, in contrast, encourages us to get involved with the natural world whereever we find ourselves. A city street is as much an ecosystem as a wilderness park. And small restorations can ultimately have big impacts.

Nature is more resilient than we often think

Restoring patches of urban waste ground to wildflowers boosts insect, bird and mammal populations. Restoring the margins of roadside hedgerows and agricultural fields also offers corridors along which animals can move back and forth to larger sites. This mobility in turn begins to restore the genetic diversity of each species, which is impoverished in isolated reserves.

Nature is more resilient than we often think. Many plants that appear to be locally extinct remain dormant for decades in subterranean seedbanks. They will spring back to life given half a chance, but they may require assistance.

For example, it may be necessary to clear alien invasive plants – like Japanese knotweed, rhododendron and sea buckthorn in Irish contexts – which have come to monopolise the ground native flowers once occupied.

Such projects offer stimulating and easily accessible opportunities for citizen and schools involvement at local level, even for citizen science. The abstract concept of biodiversity becomes much more vivid if it is expressed in the increasing number of plants you can identify at the end of your street each spring.

But restoration also operates at much bigger and more ambitious scales, involving bold scientific experiments. Failures are inevitable, but there have also been remarkable successes.

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Like a cornrow hairstyle on the landscape: Agricultural terraces, some still in use (or restored), others overwhelmed by macchia and woodland vegetation, on the ridges above the village of Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy. (Photograph courtesy of Daniele Virgilio.)

An Australian example

In SW Australia, Alcoa Aluminum mines bauxite in a large eucalyptus forest to a depth of four metres. This process creates bleak, devastated moonscapes. But the company rapidly replaces carefully preserved topsoil on each mined sector, a strategy which brings back most of the forest remarkably quickly.

A number of its key plants, however, have failed to recover spontaneously from the seedbank. So Alcoa has built a laboratory and nursery dedicated to germinating them prior to individual replanting.

After just two decades, independent research shows that up to 98 per cent of species have returned on mined sites in the forest. Obviously, such operations do not come cheap. The laboratory alone left no change out of €2 million.

But these costs are a tiny fraction of Alcoa’s profits from the mine. And the restoration has multiple benefits, beyond the obvious one of saving the forest’s rare plant and animal species.

The forest’s continued existence prevents massive erosion, and protects a clean water supply for the nearby city of Perth. It also maintains a cherished recreation area.

Some benefits are felt much further afield, even globally. The restored forest will continue to be a major carbon ‘sink’ into the future, with positive implications for climate change.

Irish restoration projects

Here at home, restoration has had a low public profile, but there are many more projects currently underway than you might imagine.

Wexford Co Council is testing the restoration of wildflowers on country road margins in its pilot ‘Life Lives on the Edge’ scheme.

On Dublin’s Bull Island UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the City Council staff have been especially innovative. They have encouraged citizen volunteers to collect the small orange fruit of sea buckthorn, by promoting recipes for berry sauces, salsas and ice cream at a local restaurant, Moloughney’s.

Sea buckthorn is an alien invasive shrub that crowds out the carpets of orchids for which the island’s dunes are famous. Collecting its berries prevents it from re-seeding itself during subsequent clearances. Next, the dunes will be re-planted with native marram grass to complete the restoration.

On a much larger scale, companies like Coillte and Bord na Móna have been working to restore large tracts of native woods and bog for nearly two decades. And a small but dynamic NGO, Woodlands of Ireland, has assisted in the restoration of significant areas through, for example, the Native Woodland Scheme and the People’s Millennium Forests.

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Bringing back our bogland: Bord na Móna is attempting to restore this bog in Owenniny, Co Mayo, after decades of industrial exploitation, despite problems with exotic trees escaping from plantations, which dry out the land. (Photograph by Paddy Woodworth)

Bringing back our bogland: Bord na Móna is attempting to restore this bog in Owenniny, Co Mayo, after decades of industrial exploitation, despite problems with exotic trees escaping from plantations, which dry out the land. (Photograph by Paddy Woodworth)

Bogs: potential and limitations

Bogs offer a striking example of both the potential and the limits of restoration as a conservation strategy. For many decades, Bord na Móna has exploited our peatlands on an industrial scale. Private turf-cutters have harvested them modestly over a much longer period. The vast conifer plantations by Coillte and its predecessors have also radically altered bogland ecology.

The resultant degraded landscapes present a major challenge to restoration. All bogs develop very slowly, through the long accummulation of dead mosses and other plants. And raised bogs, typical of the midlands, evolve highly complex hydrological (water-flow) systems over centuries, on which their unique plant communities totally depend.

It is only very recently that we have begun to appreciate the value of bogs, both as carbon sinks to combat climate change, and as sites of great biodiversity.

Very late in the day, but with remarkable energy and skill, Bord na Móna and Coillte have set about attempting to restore some of these heavily exploited areas. They have made remarkable progress on upland and western blanket bogs, though it is much to early to describe these projects as fully successful.

Engaging with nature

But it has become very clear that once the complex hydrology of the raised bogs has been disrupted beyond a certain point, there is no way this ecosystem can be restored, at least on a human timescale. Like the ad says, once these bogs are gone, they’re gone. Restoration is not a silver bullet for all our environmental problems.

Hence the urgency of the calls to halt turf-cutting on these bogs, though (mis)communication with local communities has been an unmitigated disaster. An imaginative solution would have been, and possibly still is, to incentivise turf-cutters to restore their own bogs before tipping points were reached.

But communication and imagination have rarely been features of our conservation policy. That needs to change.

Ecological restoration offers fresh pathways to engage citizens with nature, often transforming the relationships of individuals and whole communities with their environment. The importance of seizing the opportunities this new strategy offers can hardly be exagerated.

The world, and your local parish, can still be restored. But this window will not remain open for much longer.

Paddy Woodworth is an author, journalist, lecturer and specialist tour guide. He was on staff at The Irish Times from 1988-2002, and has also written for the International Herald Tribune, Vanity Fair, The Scientist, The Sunday Times, Ecological Restoration, The World Policy Journal and BBC Wildlife. He broadcasts for RTE, the BBC and US networks. He is especially known for his two books on the Basque Country.

Most recently, he has researched ecological restoration projects worldwide, for his new book. Our Once and Future Planet by Paddy Woodworth is published by the University of Chicago Press and is available online through Amazon and Book Depositary and in all good book shops. See also the Society for Ecological Restoration, www.ser.org

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