Should we attempt to ‘manage’ nature or is it best to let the natural world take care of itself, and to avoid human intervention as far as possible? It’s an interesting question, and one I think it is worth poking around in a bit.
Firstly, for this to make sense, we have to assume that nature is separate from humanity and that anything humans do must be at odds with nature, rather than part of it. Moorland and meadows in the UK exist as a consequence of humans farming animals over thousands of years. We’ve been doing this long enough that many landscapes in Europe are shaped by our presence, and many species have evolved a little bit to utilise what we do. There are woodland flowers that just never grow if no one coppices the woods to let in the light.
Secondly, nature is slow to adapt, and very happy to adapt by letting things die out. We have unbalanced many natural systems, often by taking out top level predators. I recall a tale of a place that, on returning its wolves found the mountainsides became glorious with flowers because they were no longer being cropped. Often we don’t know the knock on effects of our unbalancing are, and in re-balancing, we learn valuable lessons.
Thirdly, in leaving nature to sort itself out, we may let ourselves off the hook. It is worth remembering that the desire to manage otter populations (born of a desire to hunt them) alerted us to the dire state of our water systems and the need for a human clean-up program. When we’re trying to manage nature, we are, I suggest, more likely to be aware of and taking responsibility for our own impact.
Fourthly, managing nature often means trying to change spaces – sometimes that means attempting to undo what humans have done to them, sometimes it means creating habitat from scratch to serve a need. Planting trees, clearing silted ponds, re-establishing wetland, removing invasive species like rhododendron and Japanese knotweed, putting up nesting boxes, creating otter holts – these are all attempts at managing nature. They replace habitat we have destroyed, and they give vulnerable species a fighting chance.
Humans interact with the rest of the world in all things. Mostly we are careless about the needs of other life forms, and we cause widespread habitat destruction and loss of species. In many places, we have been a presence for so long that we are part of the landscape and there is not letting it revert to some imagined ‘natural’ state without losing diversity that way. A stand of trees may look natural, but if what you had before was a grassland maintained by grazing, and full of rare orchids, then the ‘natural’ reverting to a stand of trees means losing the orchids, and the insects who lived in the grass.
We have created a relationship with the rest of nature. If we view ourselves as custodians, duty bound to take care of the land, I think we’ll do a better job of not being destructive. The risk in imagining nature will take care of itself if we leave it alone, is that we fail to recognise the scale on which we are not leaving it alone in the first place. There are fairly pristine landscapes out there, it would be fantastic if we could leave them alone, but our pollution gets everywhere, so not interfering even in places we never see is going to require some effort.