What does biodiversity do for us?

What is biodiversity, and why is its maintenance so important?
03 April 2023

Interview with 

Iain Webb, The Wildlife Trusts


A river in the fog


We’ve spoken about the mental health benefits of outdoor spaces such as national parks, but this is only the tip of the iceberg with regards to what green spaces can bring to the table. The big one is biodiversity. Earth's wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69% in just under 50 years, so any protected area that can maintain species of plants and animals is vital to the biodiversity crisis. But what exactly is biodiversity, and why is it seen as such an important thing to conserve? Will Tingle met up with The Wildlife Trusts' Iain Webb to answer these questions. Well, if they could stop birdwatching for long enough, that is…

Will - I cannot promise that this interview won't be interrupted by an impromptu birdwatch.

Iain - Okay, fair enough.

Will - That's just the nature of the beast, unfortunately.

Iain - Yeah, that's okay. That's why we're here.

Will - Well, when we talk about biodiversity, we hear it. It's a buzzword. We hear it a lot in the news. 'Low levels of biodiversity. This needs to improve our biodiversity.' Is that just the number of animals that are in a place or is there more to it than that?

Iain - Well, obviously the number of animals or plants in this place is important. But it's also whether those species are expected to be there, whether there could be more species there in that sort of natural system. And it's also the populations of those species as well. You could have lots of different species, but only two or three breeding pairs or whatever. And that's not really a healthy ecosystem. You really need it as natural as possible where the natural systems are allowed to occur, where populations interact, go up and down and aren't needing to have support by people in maintaining them.

Will - Does the biodiversity of national parks have a kind of bleed out effect so that the organisms living there tend to move outwards and perhaps improve the levels of biodiversity in nearby regions?

Iain - Yes, they do. They can act as a biodiversity source. So if the habitats are healthy within those national parks and species increase in number, in good numbers, then they will spill out. The one example quite obvious is not necessarily national parks as such, but marine protected areas where there's been long-term protection or certainly severe limitations on the extraction of fish, et cetera. Resources from these areas and those fish populations, those crustacean populations are crabs and lobsters. Those populations increase individuals that increase in size and then that protection encourages the migration of those species out of the protected area. And then it's therefore available to those people who collect those resources to then be used by people living nearby. So that's an obvious indication of where we can utilize for our own consumption, the value of national parks and the surrounding areas. But obviously there is value in enhancing habitats and species and ecosystems for the other natural capital, if you want to call it that. So like cleaning the air. If you think about on the larger scale, you know, the tipping point of losing 20% of the Amazon. The Amazon produces its own rainfall. And when you lose a certain portion of it we get less rainfall in the area and it'll become savannah and that sort of a tipping point away from tropical rainforests. National parks if managed well and are able to support good numbers of species, then those species will spread up.

Will - And there's the obvious one, that they are a massive contributor towards the fight against climate change.

Iain - Oh yeah. Good quality, diverse habitats will help sequester and store carbon for decades, centuries, millennia, even in certain habitats. So the more diverse, the more rich habitats there are, the greater sink, those habitats act to absorb carbon dioxide. More biodiversity there is around, there's more carbon locked up, whether it be in soils, in plant matter itself, in animal matter. So yeah, it is really key to not just reduce our fossil fuel use, but to make sure there are natural habitats to absorb that carbon. They can do far, much more than just absorbing carbon. They provide a nice opportunity to walk in the afternoon sunshine as they're doing now, but also food production, medicine, flood alleviation, timber products, all these sort of things. All the things that we've actually, we have evolved from biodiverse habitats and have exploited them for millennia. So it is key not to forget that we do need that, even though we feel that we are technologically removed from nature, we still need it completely and utterly in its healthiest, most diverse form.

Will - Do you think access to nature increases people's willingness or wantingness to get involved in, you know, maintaining biodiversity projects such as that?

Iain - Definitely. You're not going to want to protect something you don't understand or you don't love. And I think the lockdowns made people go outside more and really appreciate what's surrounding them. You can watch various wildlife documentaries on the telly, but it's always stuff overseas and it's only the stuff really that's right on your doorstep that is really key, really important that you can connect with every day or see it change throughout the seasons that is fundamentally vital for your mental health.

Will - Glad we held it together for the whole of that interview. Did you hear the woodpecker going over there?

Iain - I didn't. Was it?

Will - Ah, it was good. Yeah.

Iain - I was too focused on the saying the right thing <laugh>

Will - I found a green woodpecker nest...


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