As a child I was fascinated by people, landscapes and wildlife. This was a fascination that led me, rather circuitously into plant conservation.
Plants and ferns have always been a big part of my life. I was always surrounded by plants at home and when I went to university, my plants came with me. They usually survived and some thrived on an annual pilgrimage to university. If you combine plants and the study of geography you end up with biogeography – why do plants grow where they grow and how has human activity shaped where they grow? From a PhD exploring how the landscapes of the Peak District in England were used in prehistory, via the archaeologically rich, yet palaeoecologically poor landscapes of Kilmartin Glen, I arrived at Plantlife, keen to do more to conserve plants where they should grow, as part of a living landscape, maintained by human activity and not denigrated by it.
And this is where I realised we‘ve lost the connection, in many cases with how landscapes can be managed to support plant diversity. We’ve got used to seeing wide landscapes of near monocultures. Think of the grouse moors of north east Scotland, the sitka plantations across Scotland, and the arable and pastural fields of the east coast. Yet, plants need the bits inbetween – the mosaic of habitats that we used to create through hedgerows, drove roads, woodlands, river banks and mountain sides. And in these inbetween bits, we always used to find plants that we used as medicines, food, fodder and fuel. How many people nowadays would know where to find a natural source of aspirin? How many people would appreciate the calorific value of a pignut, or where to find one?
Yet in Nepal, a country economically much poorer than Scotland, these connections are still made and in the case of medicinal plants, provide a local health service that sustains large parts of the population. Without these links to medicinal plants, many of Nepal’s communities would have no access to health care. This knowledge and these connections bring a different view of the world: what really is valuable and how can local communities maintain their access to those valuable resources? Although threatened by habitat loss and in some cases over collection, getting the whole community involved in conserving these plants is proving a good way to ensure plants are effectively conserved on the ground. However, getting the community involved isn’t just the answer. The best approach would be to combine the approach we have in the UK – usually government led, with support from other organisations including NGOs with the approach in Nepal, NGO and community led. Combining the two approaches, may well be the best tool we have to conserve plants, health care, food and fuel security. Governments and NGOS can provide a national vision of what is possible and what can be done. Local communities provide the wherewithal, the energy and commitment to get conservation actually working on the ground.
While this may be the best approach, is it an impossible dream? That’s what I want to find out.