Sunday, February 20, 2011

Volunteering in the chalk grasslands

I had some fun today volunteering with the East Sussex Wildlife Trust doing what they call "practical conservation." At 10.00am today I headed out with a group of nine other people to work on restoring a small patch of English chalk grasslands. Apparently about 97% of the English chalk grasslands have disappeared over the years. Sheep used to help keep the grasslands from being taken over by tress and bushes but people here are apparently razing a lot less sheep then they used to. I was fascinated by this and I was eager to learn more about it all.

We got to our work site about 10.30am and started getting ready to work. I got my first surprise when I discovered that the area we were going to be working on was a very steep hillside covered with loose chalk rocks and soil. Towards the top where I ended up spending most of my time it was practically a cliff face. My next surprise was that it turned out that our task was to remove all the trees that were growing on this hillside! What sort of conservation was this I thought!?

I decided to ask some careful questions about why were getting ready to take down all the trees and bushes on this hillside/cliff. I was confused since in the States we have problems with erosion once a hillside has been deforested.

So my first question was a general one about the chalk grasslands and why the trees were causing problems. Apparently, chalk grasslands are by their nature very poor in nutrients. The trees change this by adding their leaves to the soil each fall. Overtime this builds up a layer of topsoil that I was told has resulted in other places with a huge problem of invasive species moving in and taking over the grasslands.

Okay, so that makes some logical sense. Invasive species are an on going problem all over the world and it makes sense that changing the chemistry of the soil would cause a change in the type of plant life it supported. My next question was why are chalk grasslands good. The reason I was asking this question is that chalk grasslands are a human artifact not a naturally accruing landscape. Long ago the whole English countryside was covered by forests. It was only through deforestation that the current chalk grasslands even came to be.

The answer to my question was that the chalk grasslands have a much higher biodiversity of plant life then the land covered with trees and bushes. Apparently that was why the chalk grasslands were considered worth restoration. I was confused as to why they were not trying to restore the forests but I decided not to push that issue.

My final question before getting to work was about erosion. I just simple asked if erosion was ever something that they were worried about and the answer surprised me. Apparently my question was also a surprise for the other volunteers. It seems from what they told me that no one at the Wildlife Trust has ever considered erosion to be an issue. I was told (by someone who studied this for her PHD) that the nature of the chalk soils was such that the water just soaked right through instead of causing mudslides or more minor problems like we get in our soils on the west coast.

In the end I don't think I know enough about this unique landscape (its only found in England and a handful of other places in Europe) to judge their restoration decisions. But I can't shake the feeling that its being partly done to preserve an image of England that people today are used to. I think the idea of a forested England is very foreign to the people here and they would rather support the chalk grasslands instead of trying to restore the old forests.

Overall, the day was very interesting and I'm looking forward to working with them more. I may have questions about their conservation/restoration practices but one reason Michaela and I are over here is to learn what other people and cultures choose to do. Its not my place to challenge their decisions but I am very curious as to why they decided this was the best path and I'm also very interested in learning as much as I can about British conservation efforts. Learning about theirs should help me in the States too. I have found comparing and contrasting two different countries and the way each deal with a similar situation to be very insightful.

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