By Stephanie Rowe
Wetlands are an often-forgotten component of the mosaic of habitats that make up our planet’s complex ecosystem.
In the way that forests are widely attributed to being the lungs of the planet, wetlands play an equally vital role in quenching the world’s thirst. It is estimated that 40% of all species rely on freshwater wetlands.
Defined by their presence of water, wetlands form transitional areas between terrestrial and aquatic systems. From modest ponds in our back gardens, to vast floodplains and marshy landscapes, wetlands are home for a diverse array of species. Swamps, bogs, marshes and peat-lands are all regarded as wetland communities, and it appears these ecosystems are employed by mother nature to carry out a multitude of assignments to keep the planet ticking over:
Softening the blow:
Wetlands act as a natural buffer from the sea, providing a natural flood and storm defense. They are effective at soaking up rainfall and excess run-off. As climate change inevitably brings about increased flooding events coupled with increased flooding intensity, protecting our flood guardians is a must.
The climate activist:
Peat wetlands are masters at storing carbon, taking up one third of the world’s carbon. Incredibly, wetlands are perhaps more efficient in carbon storage than forests.
The water filter:
Wetlands can trap up to 90% of sediment from run off and remove large proportions of metals, and nitrogen from water. In fact, we all have wetlands to thank for providing us with the clean water that we rely on.
The money maker:
Undoubtedly, wetlands are a powerful force in charging industries. Thousands of litres of water are used to in manufacturing commercial products. According to Natural Geographic, more than 75% of fish and shellfish commercially harvested, have a connection to wetlands. Some of these resources help to feed over half the world’s population at present. In addition, they make for popular ecotourism and recreation destinations for people to enjoy and connect with nature.
Despite their grand role in nature, our wetlands are being parched. According to the 2018 Ramsar report, between 1970 and 2015 around 35% of wetlands were lost globally. Mass drainage to make way for housing, agriculture and industry means wetland habitats are being engulfed at an unsustainable rate. Unfortunately, their often low-lying nature allows them to be easily accessed and marked for development. And in an attack from all sides, wetlands are being bogged down (literally) with untreated wastewater. Pollution in the form of factory waste, pesticides and fertilisers all encroach on global wetland environments.
However, it’s not just waste products toxifying our wetlands. Invasive species such as the “killer shrimp,” are able to grow, breed and feed at an insatiable rate as they decimate native wetlands. While native shrimp improve water quality, killer shrimps present a quite different effect as they consume and out-compete native species.
Of course, no list of threats to our environment would be complete without mentioning climate change. Especially when we consider how such invasive species might favour new climatic conditions and thrive further.
Wetlands are substantially shaped by water patterns and so changes to weather systems can have complex impacts on wetland environments. Predictions involve large amounts of uncertainty regarding wetlands, but these delicate ecosystems will no doubt be thrown out of sync. For species that rely on water sources, climate impacts could see them in a race to seek out new habitats that cater to their needs. The question is, can they make this shift quickly enough? We already know that habitat fragmentation spells trouble for survival.
But its not all bad news. Common cranes, reintroduced back into the UK after a long period of absence due to hunting and wetland drainage, are establishing an increasing population. Conservationists sight habitat restoration and improvement as key factor in this success.
Perhaps even more encouragingly, there are a number of things YOU can do to protect our wetlands. Here are just a few:
Reduce water use (turn off the tap when not needed, fix those leeky household appliances, collect rainwater in your garden).
Consider switching to eco-friendly detergents or make your own natural cleaners. Many of our household detergents contain harsh chemicals which ultimately end up in wetlands and have devastating effects on wildlife.
Cut out disposable plastics. Around 7.7 billion plastic bottles go unrecycled in the UK each year- consider that plastic makes up one third of the ocean’s plastic pollution!
There is a lot of work to do in protecting these natural gems. The decline of our wetlands has an undoubtable knock-on effect on our oceans, who are equally struggling in their own fight against this biodiversity crisis. It appears our wetlands are the life support system the planet needs, now more than ever before.
If you’re keen to learn more about the conservation of British species, why not grab some tickets for our conference taking place in October >>