By Jamie Steer 18/12/2018

We still very often retain this belief that we can put the bits of our fallen humpty dumpty back together again; that we can restore what we’ve lost. Nature, in this respect, is still often presented as this relatively static puzzle that is waiting for us to make it whole again.

Unfortunately what the science of the last 30 or 40 years has shown is that on most levels ecosystems can’t really be restored – they are unrepeatable.

More often than not we don’t even know how our ecosystems work exactly today anyway, let alone how they worked in the past. We do know that 95% of our species richness in New Zealand consists of invertebrates, but probably at least half of those species we’re yet to even classify, much less figure out how they contribute to their ecosystems.

Restoring to what?

We generally don’t know what our proposed baselines look like either. Most of the time our baselines are grounded in extrapolations from isolated fossil and sub-fossil deposits, along with some pretty rudimentary documentation of what species might have existed in any particular area from historical records, if the aim is for a more recent baseline.

Our baselines, to further complicate matters, are generally very poorly defined. When people talk about restoration at any particular site it is often very vague what the baseline actually is. In my experience if you ask 10 different people about what the baseline is for any particular restoration project they will give you 10 different answers – from pre-human, to pre-European, to restoration of function (whatever that means), or resilience (even more meaninglessly), to just having more native birds or something more straightforward like that.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having different baselines, but the fact that we often aren’t clear on what they are, how we can determine what they were, and even how to consistently communicate what we’re trying to do, is a real problem I think.

Nobody cares about our baselines

Our dreams of restoration are also up against mass introductions, numerous extinctions (notably of many former keystone species), constant further arrivals of species both self-arriving and slipping through our biosecurity system, and the overarching behemoth of climate change.

We’re irritated that introduced species don’t care about our baselines. But we’re also increasingly irritated that natives don’t care about them either. Some people might remember that we used to have weka up here at Zealandia. They turned out to be a real pain in the arse, constantly eating their native bedfellows.

Anyone who’s tried to do wetland restoration will know that native pukeko are a similar nuisance, ripping up our attempts to plant native wetland plants. And anyone who has tried to save New Zealand dotterel will be aware of the constant threat of native harriers eating their chicks and eggs.

To the horror of many conservationists, natives have also taken to mating with many other species both native and introduced. Many of you will be aware that the Department of Conservation has an issue with native pied stilts mating with native black stilts in Twizel and thus supposedly sullying their respective pure genetic heritages. We have an officer stationed down there with a shotgun waiting to police any wayward matings.

Similarly, introduced mallard ducks have taken to mating with native grey ducks. We used to think it was those despicable, debauched mallards behind it all but then came to realise that many of the matings were actually between grey duck drakes and mallard hens.

At times we’ve been forced to admit that hybridizations have often been the result of a mutual appreciation for the exotic. So when we try to stop them is it because we think we know better than the species themselves? As ecologist Chris Thomas recently asked ‘where is the loss from the perspective of the birds themselves?’

Questioning the goals

Another thing we know about restoration is that it’s hugely expensive and time-consuming. Zealandia, here in Wellington again, is another useful example of the costs involved. The sanctuary sits within the wealthiest per capita population in New Zealand and also has huge local public buy-in. And yet even Zealandia has struggled financially. It really speaks to the difficulties in making these things work long-term and also to the scale and scope of any initiative if it genuinely wishes to be sustainable.

Lastly, we hold out hope for the silver bullet, the perfect new technology that we are reminded is just around the corner and that will assuredly wipe out all our pests once and for all very soon. It’s an important part of the Government’s Predator Free 2050 initiative and something that has been promised for decades.

Maybe we’ll get there this time, who knows? But what usually happens with silver bullets is they turn out to be either unconscionably risky, unethical, expensive, or all of the above.

None of this amounts to a suggestion that we shouldn’t attempt to restore ecosystems in some circumstances and in some areas, but at the least I wonder if we need to start pegging back our desires for restoration, better defining what our goals are, and defining circumstances where it might be more appropriate to not restore.

Read the next instalment here. Or begin at the start of this series.

Featured image: Kia kaha © Laurie Steer. Used with permission.

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