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What does nature do for us?

by Adam Dawson

Ecosystem services are the many and varied benefits to humans gifted by the natural environment. These are increased by maintaining balanced and healthy ecosystems. They are often hard to measure and therefore put a value to, which unfortunately means that their value is often overlooked in decision making. As Joni Mitchell observed in 1970,  "Don't it always seem to go, That you don't know what you've got til its gone. They paved paradise, And put up a parking lot."

Ecosystem Services From Soil. (Frontiers In Environmental Science)

The diagram above is a nice representation of some of the ecosystem services from soil. When you start to think about it the list of all of the potential services from even just one small ecosystem can be a long one. To organise this list it is useful to consider the benefits under the following categories: provision, regulate, cultural, support.

Let me use an example of a boundary hedge with trees to help clarify those categories:

Provision: Food, fuel, timber, craft materials, habitats.

Regulate: Climate (shade, wind, frost), water run off and erosion, pest species, carbon di-oxide.

Cultural: Marks ownership, aesthetic, recreation, educational, sense of place and time, well being, spiritual. 

Support: Primary production, water and nutrient cycling, beneficial species (wildflowers, pollinators, pest predators, fungi, mycorrhizae), soil formation & retention, habitat networks.

You may be able to think of more services that I have not mentioned, especially if you consider a particular hedge with trees. The extent of these different services will also vary, depending on things like its species, condition, age and location. for example a tree line along a main road may be more valuable for regulating localised wind, flooding, erosion, dust and the aesthetic of screening nearby houses from noise and headlights; than for food or recreation.

As you can imagine the full financial value of these services is almost impossible to quantify. As a result decision makers often focus on the costs of: maintaining trees in a condition where they wont drop branches, clearing leaves out of drains, shading to adjacent areas. The benefits of a beautiful unique landscape, softening the built environment, less frequent road resurfacing, or even the cultural benefits and memories associated with them, are often overlooked until the trees are removed. Property prices are estimated to be increased by 10-15% in areas with mature trees (GreenBlue), Recovery from illness is quicker and general wellbeing higher in areas with access to or even just views of trees (NHS)

I have only been able to scratch the surface here, and hope that you want to find out more by following some of the links below (listed in order of accessibility), or by doing your own research. You might also want to try picturing a favourite natural place near you, and come up with your own list of the benefits and services that it provides.

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