Basin Notes - March 2006

What the eye doesn't see ...

I imagine that most people realise that the balance of Nature has been upset by the activities of human kind. Wildlife organisations across the world are striving to minimise or reverse the worst of these effects.

However, we can't play favourites in the natural world and just conserve the nice fluffy and feathered species that grace the best TV nature programmes. The term Biodiversity is used to emphasise the fact that the health of the natural world depends on conserving the vast range of different organisms that constitute the complex web of interactions needed to maintain the natural balance.

The most famous indicator of environmental problems is probably the "hole” in the ozone layer of the upper atmosphere. The problem is that you can't just look up into the sky and see the "hole". Equally, you can't see the carbon dioxide pouring from the exhaust pipes of cars, buses, trains and lorries that is causing the ozone problem. Just imagine if you could see both of these – would we be so unthinking about using our cars? What the eye can't see, the heart can't grieve over!

The same problem exists in understanding the biological food web that maintains the health of the earth and all its plants and animals - a lot of the important processes happen on a microscopic scale. Look into your garden. At this time of year, snowdrops are carpeting the beds with crocuses and daffodils putting in an appearance - a tribute to the care and attention lavished on the routine garden tasks over the past years. But where is this productive soil coming from? The answer is that it is the action of the micro-organisms in the soil that produces the essential nutrients for plants to grow.

The action of bacteria, moulds, and fungi transform dying plant and animal material into essential elements and compounds to support plant growth. However, none of these organisms are easy to see, or easy to study and few excite the interest of the general public in the same way that birds, butterflies and squirrels do. While many people go birdwatching, how many people go ant-watching? Or beetle-watching? Or fungi-watching?

Montrose Basin is a case in point. The myriad birds that come to the Reserve are a delight for the birdwatcher (but maybe not the farmers) to see, but they are here because of the vast food source hidden in the mud. It is the millions of small creatures that make the mud their home that is important in conservation terms. Without them, the Basin would not be the wildlife haven it is at the moment.

So everyone should look more carefully in their gardens and other green spaces for those essential small creatures that keep the environment going. How about looking for ladybirds - I haven't seen one in my garden for many years, yet there are plenty of aphids for them to feed on! There are opportunities for everyone to take an interest in one of these neglected species and help the global effort in education and conservation.