Conservation is a strange thing.
We look and see what we believe is not natural, but the balance in which our observations are weighed pins today against yesterday and not the days before yesterday against tomorrow.
This morning I read what could possibly be the most convincing text on conservation I have yet to cross. In her book, Wilding – Returning Nature to Our Farm, Isabella Tree claims that true conservation is missing the mark.
In a conversation with another “wilding” farmer, Tree writes that “closed-canopy woodlands [have] become synonymous with nature.”
But, the problem, she argues, is that “we have forgotten about the megafauna.” In a sense, “we’ve become trapped by our own observations.”
“We forget, in a world completely transformed by man, that what we’re looking at is not necessarily the environment wildlife prefer, but the depleted remnant that life is having to cope with: what it has is not necessarily what it wants.” There are fundamental processes that modernity is yet to account for, namely the great impact grazing herbivores inflicted in both wooded and grassland ecosystems for thousands of years.
For example, in Europe, it is now believed that aurochs, tarpans, elk, the wild horse, and beavers colonized Central and Western European about 2,000 years after the last ice age—or, 12,000 years ago.
But here is the kicker…
According to known pollen records, trees such as oaks, maples, ash, elms, beech, and hornbeams—tree species today that classify primordial and closed canopy forested ecosystems—emerged about 3,000 years after the large herbivores arrived.
Does this mean that large herbivores generated forested ecosystems? This has been the prevailing belief in conservation science for many years. Tree argues instead that, perhaps, we are again observing the question incorrectly.
With large—and tasty—grazing herbivores came man and with man, were hunted to extinction.
In his book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, Tyson Yunkaporta argued that “civilizations are cultures that create cities, communities that consume everything around them,” and then, ultimately, they consume “themselves.”
The resulting ethics of this extinction is a topic for another day (you can read our book all about it here), but the point is this: decreasing numbers of large herbivores directly led to the emergence of closed-canopy woodlands.
The last auroch was killed in 1627; the tarpans survived only in zoos until 1887; and the wild horse went extinct about 9,300 years ago.
Tree claims, “there was simply not the number or diversity of wild herbivores left to demonstrate how they might interact with and disrupt natural vegetation succession.”
Conservation today seeks to re-create the “abundance” of climax-oak forests. This may be a fine task if your goal is to create a woodland of oaks, but is it natural? Tree and 12,000 years of archeological data suggests it is not.
The conclusive point is this—herbivores led vegetation succession and not the other way around. If our goal is to diversify and thus stabilize natural ecosystems, we must increase our partnership with grazing animals, not vilify them.
If we are to create natural farming systems based on the natural ecosystems of our planetary past, we need more herbivores. The fires of California beg us to consider these humble truths.
We must remember, as Tree writes, that “nature has been around a lot longer than us.”