Applied Ecology/Habitat Creation
Habitat creation as a distinct ecological movement can be traced to the choice of the topic of 'Ecology and the Industrial Society' by the British Ecological Society for its fifth symposium, held at the University College of Wales, Swansea, on 13 - 16th April, 1964 (Goodman, Edwards and Lambert, 1965). It was a time in the 1960s when ecologists became aware of the contribution they could make to solve the special environmental problems created by urban and industrial living. Academics were stepping tentatively out of their ivory towers into the real world. Ecologists emerged into a decade when it had became clear on many fronts that the United Kingdom had passed through the 'industrial revolution phase' of economic development. Unwanted side effects of the use of land and water for mass production had become obvious, such as the disposal of industrial and urban wastes, and had clearly brought about land dereliction on a scale and severity that was previously unknown. These impacts serious created large-scale problems of pollution, erosion, flooding, loss of wildlife, and unsightliness.
The organisers of the Swansea conference felt that ecologists had something important to offer in the recognition, analysis and solution of these problems. In applying ecological thinking that was traditionally derived from investigating more "natural" communities, it is clear that ecologists can often forecast the likely outcome of a particular urban or industrial development on the local biological processes. This, in turn, may lead to ways of modifying further developments, and cleaning up past outcomes, so as to avoid any economically or aesthetically undesirable long-term side effects in the environment. It was recognised that although restoration of derelict land and polluted water was an important part of modern planning, applied ecology could produce new industrial operations aimed at solving the problems and at the same time create stable diverse habitats.
In his opening address, the botanist, A. R. Clapham, outlined the main theme of the conference as the solution of problems involved in shaping new ecosystems or restoring old ones. In other words it would involve the deliberate determination of a recipe for the correct floristic composition and structure as a starting point for producing a viable ecosystem. This prescription had to meet a new objective for purposes other than agricultural. In Clapham's view, these 'contrived ecosystems' would be needed more and more, as the principles of multi-purpose land-use become more widely understood and accepted, especially for recreation and amenity.
The conference recognised that there would often be great difficulty in achieving a permanently satisfactory result, other than by prolonged trial-and-error, unless applied ecologists played a part in planning the operation and continued to give advice. Otherwise there would be danger of a situation in which technological expertise might outstrip ecological understanding, or in which the technologist went ahead without prior consultation with the ecologist. What was needed for the future was a synthesis of an ecological technology, for which there would need to be some strategic preparation, and long-term conservation management systems.
Among the chief factors causing the formation of industrial wasteland are the production and disposal of industrial and domestic refuse and the creation of post-industrial barren land, such as unsightly heaps and pits by mining, and quarrying activities, and the sites of former factories and industrial infrastructure.
Even in the 1960s, in many countries throughout the world, attempts were being made to prevent this misuse of land and, where it has happened, to reclaim it. Ecological studies had indicated that the absence of vegetation on this type of land was mainly due to either fresh disturbance by machines, or the detrimental effects of persistent site factors. These factors were toxic ingredients, the unstable nature of the waste material, erosion, or air pollution. Reclamation schemes were being undertaken in all European countries, from Hungary to the United Kingdom and also across the Atlantic Ocean, and in South Africa and Malaysia. There was extensive forestation on American strip-mines; the Danish 'Desert Arboretum' was founded on lignite spoil banks, topsoil management was underway in Czechoslovakia, and there were rehabilitation schemes in UK county of Lancashire. Some of the biggest projects involved forestation of colliery waste in the Ruhr basin, and the combination of mining, agriculture, and forestry to build up new land in the Rhineland. From these very beginnings, ecological principles and experimental evidence have been further developed to return wasteland to economic or recreational use. The over riding objective was been the production of an ecosystem that restores a productive and visual amenity
Since the 1960s ecology applied to habitat creation has been exended to intensive agricultural systems where it has encompassed meadows, ponds and wetlands. The term ‘wilding’ has recently been given to large-scale projects to created contrived ecosystems on land previously used for agriculture or forestry. These schemes are taking place on a suck-it-and see approach with minimum interference except for controlling visitors. Wildings cannot replace primeval systems that have been lost through economic development, but they have the potential to act as more stable refuges for wildlife and offer the right scale for offering people spiritual and aesthetic contacts with ‘big nature’. Most landscape architects regard ecological science as an important source of principles. Planting native trees and shrubs on a housing or industrial estate is of more value than filling in with a collection of Japanese Cherries and ornamental-leafed Maples. Applied ecology is also becoming a force in garden design, where urban gardeners are starting to care about what kind of an impact they have on the environment. For example, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection website advises gardeners to:
"Use Native Plants: A built green landscape uses native vegetation that competes well with weeds and other pests. These plants are native to your region and climate. Emphasize plant diversity with a palette of plants that naturally grow together, are reseeding, and spread without much maintenance. This strengthens the ecology of your yard requiring less fertilizer and pest control. Native plants also attract more birds, butterflies and other wildlife."
Since urban dwellers are now in the majority, the parks and gardens in towns and cities have major potential for increasing biodiversity, and what the town gardener decides to plant in a container or garden, is a very important factor in determining local biodiversity.
The choice of Swansea for the Ecological Society's meeting in 1964 was significant in that a large area to the north, in the lower valley of the River Tawe, was one of the most extensive areas of industrial wasteland in Britain. Of about 300 ha of derelict land, around half was covered by almost bare waste-tips between 3-30 metres high. These were composed of slags derived from ores after extraction for heavy metals. A pioneer cross-disciplineary research project in the University, involving ecologists, microbiologists and conservators, had been investigating the area with a view to total rehabilitation. These pioneer ecological studies have long since been applied to create a new, clean, and ecologically productive environment in the Tawe valley and have been duplicated in similar areas of industrial dereliction elsewhere. By and large knowledge and experience has been directed towards the following four approaches:
- Accepting the site conditions as they are after the wasteland has been left by industry, and planting the area with pioneer plants of low requirements.
- Changing infertile or polluted sites by re-shaping the contours and by adding soil amendments before or after planting.
- Planning the future land use before displacing the waste, and following this by restoring fertility to the site to a state that may easily become productive once more.
- Allowing former farmland and plantation forest develop as large contrived ‘wildings’, gathering information on the processes involved through surveillance with minimum habitat management.
The first three approaches are bound up with the flows of industrial and domestic waste through the human food chain. All wastes are now a significant part of the planetary system. Ecological knowledge is required for application at all levels of their disposal, from finding sites, coping with mining wastes, hazardous wastes, air pollution, water pollution, pesticides, waste heat, radioactive wastes, and coping with the greenhouse effect and breaks in the ozone layer. Sound scientific knowledge is required not only to minimise undesirable effects but also to get an accurate and balanced picture of threats and future risks.