BLOG: The importance of biodiversity and how we can play our part

   Mon, 27th May, 2024

BLOG: In our latest blog written by Compliance Support Officer, Miguel Martino to celebrate National Biodiversity Week, he takes an in-depth look at the importance of biodiversity, the impact we are having on it and how we can support it.

As we enter summer, a diversity of life that has been laying dormant in soil, nest, and burrow, or basking in faraway sunny shores, begins to spring forward and occupy our skies, waterways, gardens, meadows and minds. Biodiversity, which simply means the diversity of life, is all around us at all times and we are constantly interacting with it, whether consciously or not. At this time of year, it’s just a bit harder to ignore. Now is a great time to reflect on biodiversity and what it means to us as individuals, as a society, and as an economy.

Why is biodiversity important?

As the word biodiversity is increasingly tossed around, a lot of us have a vague idea that its important for some reason, but why? Many of us may think of it as something that simply looks pretty from time to time. Others may think of it as something we can harvest and use. To others, biodiversity is mainly just a nuisance. None of these perspectives are entirely wrong, but when we stop to really think about how biodiversity relates to our society, we see that biodiversity underpins practically all of our needs, wants and values.

In a nutshell, life interacts with other life, and the surrounding environment, creating what are called ecosystems. These ecosystems, and the species of living organisms that form them, provide us with several services, free of charge. So, what are these services, how do ecosystems and species provide them, and how do we benefit from them?

Lets look at just a few examples:

When you eat a strawberry, apple, tomato, or any piece of fruit, you are depending on the pollination services of insects, which have an estimated value of over 900 million euro in Ireland alone.

When you take a drink of fresh, clean water, you are benefitting from ecosystems of organisms in our waterways and soils filtering pollutants from surface and ground water.

As you breathe in clean, oxygenated air while reading this, you are depending on trees, plants, and ocean life to filter toxins from the air and supply a steady stream of oxygen.

When you sit down to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee on your break, accompanied by a square of chocolate, a biscuit, or any other snack, you are relying on busy ecosystems of soil organisms bringing vital oxygen, water, nitrogen and carbon to crops.

When you build your home on solid, stable ground, you are depending on the huge networks of roots that knit the ground around you together, preventing the soil from being washed or blown away.

When you put on a warm cotton or wool jumper in the winter you are benefitting from ecosystem services.

If any of your house or furniture is made of timber, you are benefitting from ecosystem services.

When you eat a tasty, nutritious meal tonight, you are benefitting from ecosystem services.

When you take a walk in a forest after a long, stressful day, and your serotonin levels gently rise leaving you feeling calmer and more peaceful, you are benefitting from ecosystem services.

And, as humans continue to produce climate changing amounts of greenhouse gases, we depend ever more on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Ecosystems such as peatlands, forests, meadows and estuaries draw enormous amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere to be stored underground. Ecosystems along coasts and river basins defend against flooding by absorbing excess water and preventing soil erosion. Biodiverse, resilient grassland ecosystems keep land for grazing and agriculture from turning into desert as climate change causes droughts to increase in length and intensity. Urban ecosystems prevent cities from becoming unbearably hot by providing shade and circulating water vapour.

These are just a few examples from a practically endless list. You could probably link just about anything on earth that we value or depend on to biodiversity and ecosystem services. But if humans gain so many benefits from biodiversity, how do we repay these services?

What impact are we having on biodiversity?

While biodiversity supports us in countless ways, the other side of the relationship is not so positive. Species are going extinct at a rate that our planet has not experienced in about 65 million years, when dinosaurs, and approximately 75% of species on earth, went extinct. Of the species on earth that we know about 44,000 are threatened with extinction. Considering that many experts believe we have only identified about 1/8th of the species on earth, the actual number is likely a lot higher. Whole species could be disappearing before we even notice they are there.

So how are humans having this impact? The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 5 main causes of biodiversity loss: Land use change (how humans physically change the land or sea e.g. for construction, agriculture or mining), pollution, climate change, overexploitation (e.g. overfishing, overharvesting of trees), and invasive species. Directly or indirectly, the likelihood is that everyone of us contributes to each of these drivers on a daily basis. The good news is that we can begin having a positive impact today, and it’s not too hard!

How can we support biodiversity?

As we become aware of just how much we depend on biodiversity, the speed with which it is disappearing can seem overwhelming. However, we can all implement small measures which, combined together, can have a big impact. Just by taking a moment to learn more about biodiversity, you are having a positive impact. Here are just a few of the ways:

Responsible consumption: This essentially means being mindful of the items and services we buy and use. Most things we consume depend in some way on biodiversity, but they also impact biodiversity in some way too. For example, habitats have to be removed to make space for agriculture and infrastructure, pollutants have to be emitted to spread fertiliser or burn fuel for energy, greenhouse gases are released when materials are transported, fish are removed from ocean ecosystems to provide food, invasive species are transported along with other items between countries. What can you do? This can be a complex and contentious area, but a basic principle is to stop and think about where the things you consume come from, and how they got to you. Choosing products and services that are more local can reduce their impact as well as supporting your local or national economy. Applying the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle can keep materials in use for a lot longer and help us assess whether we want or need things.

Letting biodiversity into your garden: Many of us in Ireland are fortunate enough to have a patch of garden to call our own. You may think your garden won’t make a big difference, but a few simple measures can turn it into an island of food and refuge for native species. A lot of the time, the best thing you can do is do nothing: nature will do the rest! Let areas of your garden grow wild. Have patches where you reduce your mowing to once every few weeks, or even once a year. If you want to plant flowers, consider choosing native and pollinator friendly. If you want to go all out, why not plant some native trees or install a pond. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan has fantastic, science-based guidance on managing your garden for biodiversity. Our fresh mown lawns and ornamental, manicured shrubs can look satisfying, but they are a desert to biodiversity.

Reduce or eliminate herbicide and pesticide use: Pesticides not only kill off the food and habitats of wildlife, but they also have a nasty habit of infiltrating and harming non-target species. Herbicides can work their way into the pollen and nectar of flowers, and thus into the pollinators feeding on them. The pesticide in a mouse or rat’s digestive system, could accumulate in the stomach of an endangered barn owl. The small amount of insecticide in a tiny insect may not do much harm to a bat, swallow, or swift, but when they are eating several thousand insects a day well, you can do the maths. Pesticides, especially when overused, can also work their way into the soil, groundwater and surrounding water bodies causing them to have a much wider impact. Try to find alternatives to pesticides where possible, only use them when strictly necessary, and try to reconsider how you see some “pests”. A lot of the plants we call weeds have beautiful flowers that will brighten up your garden if allowed to flourish.

Get to know the nature around you: Learning what species are around our local area can be hugely rewarding and will make your walks in nature all the more interesting. There are fantastic resources to help you identify and understand the wildlife around us. Biodiversity Ireland has several online resources for identifying and learning about different groups of species. Most of us are walking around with little super computers in our pockets, so there is no better time to start learning. Apps like Merlin can identify birds quite accurately by their song or call, and apps like Seek can identify flowers, plants and insects from your phone’s camera. The heritage councils here in the midlands support some fantastic resources including a brilliant YouTube series, Wildflowers of Offaly by local ecologist, John Feehan and the In Your Nature podcast hosted by Offaly Biodiversity Officer, Ricky Whelan and Niall Hatch of BirdWatch Ireland. Even if you have no particular interest in nature, I really think you will find these extremely engaging.

Spend some time among biodiversity: This one might sound a bit wishy washy but there is actually quite a bit of science demonstrating how being in nature can have significant benefits for our mental health. Nature is disappearing around us, and sadly, some species may be gone from our local areas before we have even got to appreciate them. Take some time on a nice day over the next few days, whether it’s ten seconds, a minute or an hour, to be mindful of nature. This could be pausing for a moment to listen to the diverse calls of a song thrush in your garden. It could be stopping to watch an orb weaver spider build her geometrically perfect web on some reeds. It could be closing your eyes and listening to the breeze brushing through some willows. It could be bending down to look closely at the structure of a flower or leaf. It could be stopping in a wooded area to pay attention to the different aromas. The opportunities are endless but if you don’t feel at least just slightly better afterwards, I’ll concrete over my garden!

Finally, spread the word. Most of us don’t have farms, businesses, or political power, and many of us don’t even have gardens, but we may know some people who do. Encourage them to get informed and encourage your local communities to start taking action. You may have prospective politicians calling to your door with the elections coming up. Why not take a moment to let them know that their constituents want to see action for biodiversity.

Thanks for taking the time to listen!