‘Non intervention’ management guidelines in operation

Białowieża Forest, Poland: the carbon cycle at work (Photo credit: Ralf Lotys)Białowieża Forest, Poland: the carbon cycle at work (Photo credit: Ralf Lotys)

Guidelines for the management of wilderness and wild areas in the Natura 2000 network, published by the European Commission in August 2013, are now being implemented.

They will help ensure that natural habitat and processes in such areas are left undisturbed by more traditional forms of intervention – including cutting of vegetation, development of infrastructure or other impactive activity.

These EC Guidelines embody an approach to conservation management which involves a central role for natural processes, focusing on the integrity of a functioning ecosystem rather than the requirements of individual species or habitats. They use a definition of wilderness developed by Wild Europe.

Ips typographus, the bark beetle. Natural process to a conservationist, prospective commercial nightmare to a forester. The solution – cooperative planning! (Photo credit: Daniel Adam)Ips typographus, the bark beetle. Natural process to a conservationist, prospective commercial nightmare to a forester. The solution – cooperative planning! (Photo credit: Daniel Adam)

Where the EC Guidelines are applied to wild areas, rather than core wilderness, there is a greater degree of accommodation with intervention management - whether for more traditional conservation practice or where there is mixed land use with some timber extraction, grazing or other type of human impact. Although by definition applying to EU member states, the Guidelines will also help influence management of wilderness and wild areas in non-EU states.

Next steps

There are three aspects to active implementation of the EC Guidelines:

  1. Their dissemination to all relevant parties, particularly conservation NGOs involved with field level management, together with explanation of their value and use
  2. Identification of funding sources for implementing the Guidelines, with advice where needed on accessing these
  3. Highlighting key examples for application of the Guidelines, which can serve to instruct or catalyse wider usage

The need for consensus

In adopting the EC Guidelines, it is important to ensure prior consultation and engagement with relevant parties.

This should include a sensitive approach to the interests of ‘traditional’ conservation: recognizing for example that non-intervention may not be appropriate in areas harbouring species that are globally threatened.

Equally, issues of importance to landholders, such as management of possible bark beetle outbreaks and ensuring compensation for loss of productive use, should be discussed and planned in advance.

The EC Guidelines can be adopted in their entirety for core wilderness zones, but with varying degrees in other areas - depending on circumstances.

Background to the guidelines

An EC contract for providing input to development of Guidelines was awarded to a consortium of Alterra, Eurosite and PANParks Foundation in 2011.

The EC Guidelines have been examined by the Expert Committee on Nature 2000 Management, and progressed through the EC inter-service consultation process.

Securing them has been a key objective of Wild Europe, which was involved in scripting and coordination of the Resolution for improved protection of European wilderness in 2008 signed by over 140 organizations, which led to development of the Guidelines.

Non-intervention is the lowest impact, most natural element in a range of practices that also includes naturalistic and intervention management.

What is non-intervention management?

So what are the different approaches to management?

‘Non-intervention’ management, as explained above, involves in effect a zero engagement approach, allowing natural processes to determine the form and distribution of habitat and species, with minimized or no artificial interruption in the natural succession of vegetation.

Natural processes at work – will this lake eventually silt up? Perkuć Reserve in Augustów Primeval Forest, PolandNatural processes at work – will this lake eventually silt up? Perkuć Reserve in Augustów Primeval Forest, Poland

Climax vegetation? Old growth beech forest allows little competition in Biogradska Gora National Park, Montenegro (Photo credit: Snežana Trifunović)Climax vegetation? Old growth beech forest allows little competition in Biogradska Gora National Park, Montenegro (Photo credit: Snežana Trifunović)

A larger scale future for coastal wilderness? Non-intervention as a buffer against rising sea level – defensive walls were breached to create salt marsh on former cropland. Abbotts Hall Farm, UK (Essex Wildlife Trust)A larger scale future for coastal wilderness? Non-intervention as a buffer against rising sea level – defensive walls were breached to create salt marsh on former cropland. Abbotts Hall Farm, UK (Essex Wildlife Trust)

Natural processes include: carnivore/herbivore action, the nutrient cycle (dead wood being a key element), wind, fire, disease, pests (including bark beetle), hydrological action, siltation - and genetic evolution itself.

Introduction of the EC Guidelines will in particular help address the current situation whereby conservation management that is traditionally more focused on particular species can involve intervention activities which conflict with wilderness principles that emphasise undisturbed landscape and process.

An original motive behind development of the EC Guidelines was a misconception in conservation practice to assume Natura 2000 areas should be kept in their condition at the time of designation. This has been an issue for example in Sweden as well as several Central European countries following their accession to the EU and establishment of the N2000 network.

The principles underlying non-intervention involve acceptance that there may as a result be localised diminution in some species, but that integrity and naturalness of ecosystems is an important conservation objective in itself, from which other species will gain.

Addressing climate change

Other benefits from non-intervention, which can be combined with large-scale restoration, include alleviating climate change through absorption of carbon emissions, with ‘wilderness’ forest having a considerably higher storage capacity than its managed equivalent. Equally, whether applied to natural forests and peatlands on upland watersheds or forests in lowland sinks, non intervention can mitigate flooding and alleviate water pollution.

Similarly, non-intervention can provide more cost-effective defences against rising sea levels than manmade infrastructure.

Non intervention does not of course mean no management: ongoing input is still required for protection, research, education and visitor guidance. However it does represent a cost-effective approach that can free resources for higher priority conservation actions elsewhere.

Naturalistic management

The naturalistic management approach involves using extensive grazing to maintain a mosaic of different habitats, rather than leaving natural progression to occur unhindered towards climax vegetation – often of forest.

The overall aim of its exponents is to ensure maximum wildness of landscape and process along with richness of biodiversity for which mixed habitat with ecotones is important.

This approach should so far as possible involve naturally occurring species including bison, deer, boar, beaver.

Substitute species are also proposed, such as auroch-type breeds, Konik horses and Heck cattle. There is general consensus that these latter species should not be used in areas of wilderness.

Natural browsers help maintain mixed habitat – European bison in Vermuelen, Netherlands (Photo credit: Twan Teunissen, FREE Foundation)Natural browsers help maintain mixed habitat – European bison in Vermuelen, Netherlands (Photo credit: Twan Teunissen, FREE Foundation)
Mixed land use in this montane habitat – the mire with cotton sedge may be natural, non-intervention, but what of the grasslands around it? Chamois or cattle....? Glarus Alps, SwitzerlandMixed land use in this montane habitat – the mire with cotton sedge may be natural, non-intervention, but what of the grasslands around it? Chamois or cattle....? Glarus Alps, Switzerland
Large herbivores such as this ‘auroch’ can help retain biodiversity-rich mixed habitat.  A returned native ... or engineered surrogate? (Photo credit: Pierre Devilliers CMS)Large herbivores such as this ‘auroch’ can help retain biodiversity-rich mixed habitat. A returned native ... or engineered surrogate? (Photo credit: Pierre Devilliers CMS)

A key element of such naturalistic management involves the need to calculate the intended habitat impact of grazing and browsing, adjusting the mix and number of animals involved.

Issues for consideration include welfare (management of disease, age, starvation), health (leaving of carcasses - important for scavenger species), addressing conflict with other land uses (eg interaction between wild species and livestock), public safety, management and control.

Cost effectiveness

Both non-intervention and naturalistic approaches are key elements in restoration schemes for wild areas (as opposed to wilderness) – particularly where large scale re-establishment of natural habitat is occurring on land formerly used for agriculture.

They can be highly cost-effective as an alternative to traditional interventionist management, especially over large areas, allowing resources to be diverted to alternative conservation objectives. However there would still be a requirement for activities involving protection, monitoring, research and visitor management.

Close cooperation is required with local landholders and communities. This can be enhanced when benefits from ecotourism and other sources of income and employment become apparent.

Intervention management

Non-intervention and naturalistic management contrasts with more man-centred approaches often adopted - particularly in traditional conservation.

These usually focus on a particular habitat or species and involve a cycle of highly interventionist actions – such as coppicing of woodland, maintenance through felling of trees and shrubs on heathland, topping and mowing of grasslands, mechanical dredging or reed cutting in wetlands.

Such practices are regarded as inimical to the principles and philosophy of wilderness. However, where a degree of man-centred intervention management has to occur in support of a key species or habitat type, it should be undertaken with great sensitivity to natural (aesthetic) landscape and process.

Intervention management is not acceptable in core areas of wilderness.