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Why conserve species?

House sparrow perching on twig

House sparrows are familiar to everyone but numbers have dropped dramatically.

Image: Andy Holt

Conserving biodiversity is about genetic variety, species, habitats and ecosystems. All are important, but it is often most appropriate, practical and effective to focus on species.

Some species have obvious public appeal. People can identify and relate to a lapwing much more easily than to coastal floodplain grazing marsh.

Species often indicate the health of our environment and can be the easiest and most appropriate level of biodiversity to monitor. Interest in species, such as the bittern, can provide support and impetus for habitat conservation.

With modern conservation awareness, there is a welcome and popular commitment to maintaining the diversity of species in the UK. Nevertheless, over the last 50 years we have witnessed the severe decline of many once widespread and familiar species, such as the house sparrow.

Conservation is not just about avoiding extinctions but about restoring or recovering species populations to secure levels, and preventing other species from reaching such a perilous situation in the first place. 

Species, by their very nature, have specific ecological requirements. They may appear to share the same habitat with many others but each has a different, specific niche. It is what sets them apart, and makes them what they are.

'[species] may appear to share the same habitat with many others but each has a different, specific niche. It is what sets them apart, and makes them what they are'

Conserving and restoring habitats at a landscape scale is a vital part of nature conservation, especially to make biodiversity robust to environmental change. Habitats must, however, meet the needs of the species that depend on them. Restoring reedbeds alone would not have enabled bitterns to recover. The water levels in the reedbeds have to be right, with thriving fish populations, management informed by dedicated research.

Habitat loss has historically been a factor in species decline. However, the way existing habitats are managed is also important. Meadows that used to echo the rasping call of the corncrake remain throughout the UK. However, simple changes, such as cutting the grass earlier, have resulted in the corncrake’s disappearance from what otherwise appears to be suitable habitat. Generalised habitat management can be very damaging.

Restoring habitat and managing it correctly is not always enough to return species to areas from which they have been lost. Some may not readily re-colonise favourable habitat or will only do so by chance. In these circumstances, it may be appropriate to re-introduce a species to its former range. While this is not a measure to undertake lightly, re-introduction projects can be an important part of the conservation toolkit.