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Biodiversity Ecosystem Environment Natural world, natural history

Environment, Ecosystems & Biodiversity

What is the environment?

All living species of animal and plant, together with their surroundings, form the environment.  This includes the soil, rivers and air as well as our daily weather and climate. As humans we rely on our environment for food and water and the very air we breathe. Human actions can improve our environment but they can also damage it if we act unwisely. 

What is woodland?

Woodland is an area which is covered by trees and is home to many species of animals and plants. For hundreds of years woodland has been managed – a process which cuts down trees as part of the cycle of energy and new growth – to help preserve these spaces and keep them healthy. Since the 1600s humans have planted woodland. Wooded land that is older than this occurred naturally, and is called ancient woodland. Ancient woodland can be thousands of years old, although it has been managed over the years and trees cut down, with newer ones growing.

We are lucky to have lots of nearby green spaces local to the Eton NHM.

Eton has protected linear woodlands, parkland trees and farmland, and is characterised by a wooded river corridor with pollarded willows. Much of Eton is a conservation area Eton Conservation Area Appraisal (rbwm.gov.uk). In Windsor Great Park and in the surrounding towns there is a variety of woodland.

Image: Brocas Clump and Windsor Castle

Why are woodlands unique environments? 

Ash woodland, Aston Rowant Nature Reserve, Oxfordshire

Woodland provides the ideal habitat for lots of animals and plants. Ancient woodland in particular is home to a number of rare and threatened species, more than any other habitat on UK land. 

The combination of conditions provided by woodland mean that animals and plants with different needs can all live together in one place. Every woodland is unique, with different conditions created over many years.

What is an ecosystem?

An ecosystem is an area where living creatures interact with other living things and also with non-living things such as air, soil, water and temperature. There are many different ecosystems in the natural environment, such as oceans, deserts, jungles, meadows and – the focus of this exhibition – woodland.  

The key point is that it is a system – a set of interconnected things that work together to make a whole. To make a healthy whole means each component part is important and has a role to play.

Find out more about how nutrients and energy pass through the feeding levels of an ecosystem in FOOD CHAINS

Each part is in balance with each other part and the environment around them. Problems occur when this balance is disturbed, either by natural means such as fires or flooding, the changing climate, or human activities such as pollution, urbanisation (building), or introducing a new species that disturbs the balance. 

Invasive species

When the balance of an ecosystem is disturbed, new species can threaten the plants and animals in that ecosystem. You may have seen this striking green bird around Berkshire. It is in fact an invasive species – a living thing that spreads through an ecosystem where it did not exist before.

Some non-native, invasive species have been around for a lot longer, like the Grey Squirrel, which arrived in the UK from North America in the 19th century. These familiar creatures impact the ecosystem by stripping the bark of trees such as the Oak which support many other creatures. The large volume of Grey Squirrels has resulted in a number of schemes to manage population growth. Recently, the UK government backed birth control for grey squirrels in a bid to reduce this invasive species.

The Parakeet

Scientific name: Psittacula krameri

Diet: Fruit, berries, grain, and seeds.

Habitat: Parks, gardens, orchards, edges of woodland

Article on the naturalisation of the Ring-Necked (or Rose-Ringed) Parakeet.

Parakeet facts

  • The ring-necked, or rose-ringed, parakeet, is seed-eating parrot of small size, slender build, and long, tapering tails.
  • They feed on a wide variety of fruit, berries, nuts, seeds, grain and household scraps.
  • Its native range is a broad area of arid tropical countryside stretching from west Africa across lowland India south of the Himalayas, where it is a common bird.
  • It is said that the parakeet became established in the UK after captive birds escaped or were released.
  • It is a well-known resident of the greater London area and South-East England, and for this reason the birds are sometimes known as “Kingston parakeets” or “Twickenham parakeets”, after the London suburbs of Kingston upon Thames and Twickenham.
  • The parakeets, which breed rapidly, have since spread beyond these areas, and flocks have been sighted in other parts of Britain, such as in Wales and Scotland.
  • Despite their tropical origin, parakeets are able to cope with the cold British winters, especially in suburban parks, large gardens, and orchards, where food supply is more reliable.
  • Despite the fact it is an introduced species, the ring-necked parakeet is protected in the wild under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is the full variety of life on earth. In any habitat there are a great range of living things; the greater the range the more biodiverse an area is. Higher levels of biodiversity mean a healthier ecosystem. A range of lifeforms are important in any ecosystem for many reasons.  

Globally there is a huge drop in biodiversity as more and more rich and diverse habitats are being destroyed by human activity and rising pollution. This drop in species affects many things, including food chains, which can in turn impact on our lives. 

Ash

NHM-HH:24.20-2010

Scientific name: Fraxinus excelsior

One reason that biodiversity is important is that variety provides protection from risk. For example, in the UK the Ash is a tree that is inflicted by fungus, and many are dying. Without other trees in the Ash’s ecosystem, there would be nothing to replace the tree’s role in that ecosystem.

Ash Dieback | Eton Natural History Museum (etonnhm.com)

Ash dieback is a concern for the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, who explain the issue and are asking for help to tackle it.

Why are woodlands important? 

Well-managed and protected woodland provides a biodiverse and healthy ecosystem. The variety of conditions in woodland suit the needs of many different species. These ecosystems are essential for human life: food and farming, clean air, protection from flooding, storing carbon, and enriching our physical and mental health.  

Woodland is amazing! From this one ecosystem, we can discover the interaction of all life on earth. It helps us understand how humans connect to plants and animals, to climate and the environment.

How do woodlands impact climate change?

Climate change is the continuing shift in our planet’s weather and temperature. This change impacts species, habitats and people and is a threat to all life on Earth.

Our planet is a natural ‘greenhouse’, light comes in from the sun, giving energy to all living things and fuelling human activity. Industrial processes increase certain gases which build up in the atmosphere and form a layer around the Earth. Where heat from radiation normally escapes this layer traps some and this heats up the planet, a process called ‘the greenhouse effect’.

The effect of this ‘global warming’ is that the natural environment changes, causing climate extremes such as drought, floods, heatwaves. This impacts plant growth, farming, nutrition and risk of pests and diseases in the ecosystems.

“Trees are the ultimate carbon capture and storage machines. Like great carbon sinks, woods and forests absorb atmospheric carbon and lock it up for centuries. They do this through photosynthesis.”

How Trees Fight Climate Change – Woodland Trust
Bracken under Beech trees, Burnham Beeches, Buckinghamshire

Human activities are changing this natural greenhouse, including the clearing of land for farming and building. Many organisations are now in place trying to protect existing woodland and to plant more trees as they are a great resource for tackling climate change.

Woodland ecosystems help absorb and store carbon (rather than carbon contributing to greenhouse gases). They also help prevent flooding, reduce the temperature of the built environments in our towns and cities, reduce pollution and play an important role in providing nutrients into the earth. Crucially, they provide a vast number of living things with all they need to live.


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