What makes us Ecologists? – by Nick Coppin

Thirty-five years ago, back in 1985, the UN designated the first Monday of October of every year as World Habitat Day. This year, it falls on 5th October. The purpose of World Habitat Day is to reflect on the state of our towns and cities, and to shape their future. Whilst this is a narrow meaning of the term Habitat, reflecting the habitat of a single species, humans, as ecologists we recognise the value of urban habitats and the importance of nature in cities, as an essential part of our habitat. But we can also use this day to think about the wider value of Habitats as essential to our life support systems at local, national and planetary levels.

As I write this, WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 has just been published, highlighting again the rapid and continuing decline in species; David Attenborough’s latest programme Extinction: The Facts has aired on the TV and his Witness Statement A Life on Our Planet gives his vision of the future. These are just the latest in a long line of stark warnings, based on the best science, presenting clear evidence that we are in the midst of climate and biodiversity crises.

This message, however stark and based on good science, is frustratingly slow in getting through and bringing about meaningful change. But on the bright side, the voice of public opinion and civil society is getting louder and the efforts of CIEEM and other professional organisations to influence policy and attitudes are slowly getting more attention in the right places.

The UN has declared 2021 to 2030 as the decade on Ecosystem Restoration (preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of ecosystems worldwide). CIEEM is doing its bit through robust responses to policy consultations and with our own Action 2030 initiative and the Ecological Restoration and Habitat Creation Special Interest Group.

As change does come, it is difficult to see how ecologists, environmental scientists and managers cannot be at the centre of our efforts to respond, in practical ways. The world needs applied ecologists like never before.

CIEEM’s national conference in December – Time to change: Putting the Environment at the Heart of Social and Economic Wellbeing – is an opportunity to explore “how we take a greener path by putting action to tackle the climate emergency and biodiversity loss at the core of political and financial instruments to aid economic recovery”. The pre-amble to the conference poses the question: “Are we ready to deliver on the challenges affecting the expectations of our profession, to enhance our skills and develop our practice to be fit for the future?” So, this is an important time for us to reflect on what we do, and how we are perceived as a profession.

As ecologists and environmental managers, we deal with habitats all the time – it’s our bread and butter. Ecology, as we all learnt in our basic training, concerns the interactions among organisms and their biophysical environment, which includes both biotic and abiotic components. Similarly, a Habitat is “a place where plants or animals normally live, characterized primarily by its physical features (topography, plant or animal physiognomy, soil characteristics, climate, water quality, etc) and secondarily by the species of plants and animals that live there”.

In reality, is much of what we are asked to do not ecology, but actually natural history, and do we use the term Habitat very loosely to mean a plant community, or just biodiversity? To be fair, the plant community usually reflects the abiotic and physical features, along with land management, so are perhaps implicit. But I suggest that we are mainly concerned with natural history – visible and/or protected species and NVC, and thus the ‘nature conservation’ value, and we often pay insufficient attention to the abiotic factors and interactions – the real and dynamic ecology of the habitat. We also tend to use words like habitat, ecosystem, community and biodiversity interchangeably, to mean much the same thing, even though they aren’t.

Ecological survey of habitats and protected species, usually as a basis for impact assessment and associated mitigation, is an important aspect of what we do (and long may it continue to be so). Habitat creation and ecological restoration are equally important, though this aspect of our work receives less attention and limited market demand for ecologists’ skills.

Offsetting and Biodiversity Net Gain are gaining traction, along with an understanding of the importance of Green and Blue Infrastructure in our urban environments. Wilding and landscape scale transformations in land use in the rural (farming) environment are hopefully getting closer. Sir John Lawton’s appeal for More, Bigger, Better and Joined-up has become a catchphrase, widely acknowledged as reflecting what we, as civil society, need to do to address the worsening biodiversity crisis.

Ecologists must therefore be at the centre of this movement, not just protecting habitats from the incremental destruction of biodiversity by development and land use change (which has clearly not been sufficient, despite nature protection legislation), but reversing the trends, making more space for nature and all the social benefits and ecosystem services that it brings. There is awareness that this needs to happen, and soon, yet so far it is not entirely clear where the commercial and regulatory drivers for the wider demand for ecological skills and services will be manifested.

As a profession, we need to be well prepared for the opportunities that will come. We need to reassert our role as Ecologists with a broad understanding and deployment of the abiotic and physical (and chemical) aspects of habitats and the dynamic interactions with the biotic components. In other words, true ecology.

For example, soils and the below ground components of a habitat generally, are often poorly understood (or assessed) but are critical to successful habitat creation and restoration, including offsetting and other mitigation approaches. This doesn’t mean we have to become soil scientists, but we should have a greater understanding of soil as part of the habitat. ‘Landscaping’ and topsoil are not good starting points for habitat creation or green infrastructure!

Along with this we should develop our skills as designers and ecosystem engineers. Design is not just about aesthetics and the style and architecture of structures – it is the process of how the aim in the designer’s head is converted into a tangible outcome, and how this is conveyed to the client and those that will implement it. This applies as much to designing dynamic systems such as an ecosystem, as to a bridge or a road.

To be an ecologist means we are passionate about the natural world and how it works and functions. As Diana Pound says in her Feature Article in September 2020’s In Practice (Seize this moment – new approaches for fresh momentum), we could perhaps make more progress by changing our approach from focussing on problems and telling people how to fix them, to focussing on positives and how to amplify them.

I recently read a definition of an Ecologist as “someone who solves problems you didn’t know you had in a way you don’t understand” (Anon.). This definition may be tongue-in-cheek, but behind it is a serious point about how we are sometimes perceived. Let’s work harder to change this perception, so we become “someone who understands the natural world and how it functions, and will make our project/locality/world better in ways that make social and economic sense”.


Nick Coppin MCIEEM is an ecologist and landscape and environmental scientist with 40 years broadly-based international experience. He has worked extensively on ecological restoration, reclamation, impact assessment and environmental management in the mining, waste, civil engineering and industrial sectors. He is currently Convenor of the CIEEM Ecological Restoration and Habitat Creation Special Interest Group.


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