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The richness of transitions

By Tony Whitbread - 06 October 2023

As we move from summer into autumn, we start to notice how our seasons transition into each other. Our summer visiting birds have mostly migrated back to Africa and it won’t be long before our winter visitors arrive. Insect populations are also changing so, for example, we see more migrant hawker dragonflies but damselflies like the beautiful demoiselle have largely disappeared from our ponds. And we see the obvious changes in our plants: trees will soon be developing their autumn colours, our summer flowers are over, but autumn’s bounty of berries and fruits is just emerging.

Transitions in time between the seasons are familiar. Less obvious perhaps are the transitions in space between habitats. We see that rewilding encourages wide transitions between one habitat and another: trees merge into scrub and scrub merges into grassland. We see similar transitions in traditionally managed farmland, where grassland merges into hedgerows and hedgerows into woodland. It is where these transitions are widest that we often see the richest wildlife. Wildlife loves edges – more edges, more complex mixtures of plants, with more sunlight reaching more layers of vegetation supporting more insects and therefore more birds, more small mammals and so on. In conservation we sometimes focus too much on managing individual habitats – we manage a wood as a wood and a meadow as a meadow. But we should remember that it is the wide zone where one habitat merges into another that can be the richest. Focusing more on transition zones means that we must think more about the natural processes or management that create these fuzzy edges.

Transition might also be a concept applied to our own thinking when it comes to managing nature. As humans we might like the comfort of binary thinking – one thing is “right” and another is “wrong”. Rewilding is “right” but management is “wrong” (or is it the other way around?). But this is about as ridiculous as saying summer is “right”, but autumn is “wrong”. In nature there is a vibrancy as the seasons change. In the landscape we see the parts where one habitat transitions into another are often the richest. And, I would suggest, some of the most interesting discussion about ecology is where concepts overlap. For instance where the principles of rewilding through the restoration of natural processes overlaps with management of nature through direct intervention. As long as we don’t revert to our binary thinking!

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