One for our Wild Readers!

article written by Caitlin Coombs, Berkshire Biodiversity Officer

‘The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature's salvation’ (Fred Pearce)

Why do we, as humans, have an innate dislike of non-native species? Where does this stem from? Is it rational? Is it necessary? Should we be demonising foreign species, or welcoming them?

I was given this book as a ‘leaving present’ after my year-long placement with Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust (along with two bottles of wine, a waterproof bag cover and ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree- which I also highly recommend!).

Working on different nature reserves in urban and rural settings on a daily basis, I was surrounded by a huge variety of wildlife, some of which was accepted as ‘native’, and some of which was deemed ‘foreign’, ‘invasive’ and ‘bad’. Conservation tasks often including felling non-native trees, clearing Rhododendron scrub, and countless days during the summer of Himalayan Balsam bashing.

This led me to ask myself some basic questions. What is ‘native’? How long does a species have to be present to be accepted as resident? How far must a species travel to be labelled as ‘foreign’? Are non-native species always bad? Are they really ‘evil interlopers’ spoiling pristine ‘natural’ ecosystems? What is ‘natural’?

In his book ‘The New Wild’, veteran environmental journalist Fred Pearce explores these questions and so much more. He gives examples of where invasive species have caused havoc (the Cane Toad being my personal favourite), but also examples of where they have colonised without too many issues (for example, the Little Owl), or even in some remarkable cases- have created healthy ecosystems and enhanced biodiversity (I’m not giving any examples here- you’ll have to read it to find out)!

He discusses the history and logic of invasive species biology, who pioneered it, and the role played by revolutionary scientists such as E.O Wilson and Daniel Simberloff in influencing today’s approaches. Traditional ecological theories such as ‘climax ecosystems’, ‘succession’ and ‘co-evolution’ may have more connection with current invasive species ideologies than one would have originally assumed. On the flip-side, Pearce then presents modern research and new theories on species interactions, such as ‘chance encounters’ and ‘ecological fitting’ which argue for more random, fluid, adaptive ecosystems. These new ecologists believe we should celebrate, and not resist, the dynamism of alien species and the novel ecosystems they create.

He examines this scientific backlash and challenges misplaced notions about alien species, in what he defines as ‘green xenophobia’. He suggests where this stems from and deliberates why the orthodoxy seems to be to treat foreign species as intrinsically dangerous.

In this journey, Pearce questions what conservation should really be about. He challenges whether tireless, expensive, and often unsuccessful eradication schemes of invasive species are necessary, and suggests an original, modern, alternative approach for this ongoing conundrum which, for decades, has divided opinion amongst ecologists, conservationists, re-wilders and invasive species biologists.

Truly a fascinating read and a real eye-opener. Pearce offers a new perspective on the invasive species debate, and challenges views which we have blindly accepted for decades. Maybe we should be welcoming alien species as nature’s revival and salvation. In an era of climate change and widespread ecological damage, maybe we need to forget the past, accept that nature is ever-changing, and embrace the New Wild.

Posted: April 20, 2020