This is a guest post by James Brown, PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast.
This comment has previously been published on QuBio blog of the School of Biological Sciences. It is the expression of the author’s thoughts and experiences and as such is acknowledged as a fruitful contribution to the discussion on biodiversity offsets. If you want to react or clarify your own position (underpin or disprove), please leave a reply below!
As someone who is currently studying the genetic variation in native Irish trees I require good material for sampling as such I plan to go to natural ancient woodland to collect my samples. As part of my background reading I recently came across a number of news articles about the process of biodiversity offsetting. In basic terms it involves the destruction of a woodland or other ecosystem for property development or other reasons with the creation of a new woodland elsewhere. The idea is that no diversity will be lost due to the creation of this new woodland and in some cases it may be justified by the promise of building a much larger woodland. There are currently six pilot schemes testing offsetting in England.
So what’s the problem then you might ask?Well the problem is that it doesn’t work like that. It is not a simple black and white process wherein you remove one woodland, create another and this doesn’t have any negative impact. Living trees and shrubs are supported by and they themselves support a wide range of other organisms including those in the soil such as fungi as well as organisms which feed on them, bacteria, yeast, nematodes and mites which are associated with both live and dead roots, those which inhabit dead areas of wood including fungi and invertebrates, epiphyte communities which exploit all surfaces of trees such as lichens and mosses, animals which feed on plant products for example nectar along with plants themselves as well as animals which feed on fungi and animals which live in the plants. It would be impossible to replicate the exact same ecosystem elsewhere. Not to mention the loss and inability to replicate the genetic diversity contained within ancient woodlands.
There is also the issue that woodlands themselves are part of a larger ecosystem so removing one from an area could have negative impacts on the surrounding area. Woodlands provide a whopping 17 different ecosystem services according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. These include provisioning services such as timber, regulating services such as air and water regulation and cultural services such as recreation and tourism. By removing a woodland these services may be lost from an area completely or only partially fulfilled by a newly created woodland. In some cases woodlands may help prevent flooding due to their structure and the greater uptake of water by trees. Thus their removal may put areas at risk.
In terms of the creation of new woodlands there doesn’t seem to be any clarity as to how this would be carried out. For one example where would they get the seeds from? Would they get seeds from the local area or would they import because it might be cheaper? There is the issue that they might inadvertently import infected material to create woodlands which would cause even more damage by spreading disease to other areas. There is also the question of enforcement, who will make sure that developers keep their promises? Also when exactly does the new woodland get created, is it after the destruction of the old one, is it after the development of whatever is replacing the old one? And finally what factors determine whether or not a woodland is eligible for destruction? Already in England there is controversy over plans to destroy an ancient woodland in order for a petrol station to be built.
Biodiversity is a key part of life and is very valuable but by placing monetary values on things such as woodlands it gives the false impression that they can be traded along with the idea that bigger is better which is not necessarily the case. The problem is with a growing global population more land is needed for development and so solutions need to be found in terms of finding areas for new properties. Biodiversity offsetting should not be that solution in the case of veteran or ancient woodlands. If biodiversity offsetting is to be used then clearly enforceable rules are required to ensure as little damage as possible is done to our already dwindling ecosystems.