Applied Ecology

Rating: ★★★★★

Anne E Goodenough and Adam G Hart. 2017. Applied Ecology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978 0 19 872328 8
One of the big issues in education, especially in these days, is to find a pedagogical “hook” with which to draw in learner interest. This is a useful (some would argue, necessary) but not sufficient condition. You also need subject matter focussed in such a way as to draw the reader in. Ecology is an obvious topic because the concept of “nature” seems to be inherently appealing. However, this should not be taken for granted; there is still the need to bring students into the key concepts of the subject. Theory is obviously important: ecology derives much of its power from the processes it puts forward. At it’s heart (and certainly at its foundation) ecology was, and still is, a practical subject. Educationally, the best way to engender enthusiasm in ecology is to look at its practical and applied elements. Taken further, there’s also a need to produce new generations of disciplined field ecologists which is where this text is largely focussed. The authors focus on the area of applied ecology, a notoriously difficult aspect to define with precision but taken here to mean three overarching ideas: monitoring, managing and conserving – finding patterns, looking after processes and shaping processes in extreme cases.

The authors start with a brief but useful discussion of the focus of the text and their reasons for doing so – it sets the scene and gives a very short guide to subsequent chapters. Next, the reader is given a lightning fast tour through the key concepts of ecology. It focusses on changes through time and space and the range of interactions between organisms. Trophic relationships, competition and life histories are all noted. It is clear from subsequent chapters that the reader is expected to know more than the basics but this is a clear and concise introduction – references help the reader expand understanding if needed. The text really develops from here. There are three main avenues for the authors, the first of which is monitoring. Given this book’s approach on the applied side, it is essential that data be gathered as a first step in understanding ecology (pattern comes before process!). To do this, you need robust sampling methods. What we get here is not a catalogue of techniques (there are numerous books dealing with this aspect) but an overview of types of techniques and their uses, starting with a rationale for surveying, a brief overview of data sources and then some methods for sampling habitats and species. It’s made very clear that in monitoring, the aim is to gather sufficient data to enable sound conclusions to be drawn. Often, it’s not possible to gather direct data and so one relies on proxies and indicators, whose parameters form the second part of the chapter.

Armed with a basic understanding of the key principles of ecology and some way of gathering and evaluating information, the move is now towards the use of this knowledge in a practical context. The practical aspects refer to studying ecology for its use in conservation and management. Here we see the departure of this text from others also looking at applied ecology. Rather than take a broad sweep through all avenues, the authors prefer to focus on those aspects that help conserve the environment. Thus part 3, entitled ‘managing’, looks at ways in which ecological knowledge can be used to serve human interests – keeping nature for humans. The aim is to ensure productive use of land (in distinction to part 4 which explores conservation – keeping nature for nature). We start with a comprehensive overview of Environmental Impact Statements. This is a key framework if we are going to¬† consider land management. The cases that follow: remediation, landscape management, non-native species management and pests are all key issues. They share the common theme of having severely disrupted natural (biotic and abiotic) systems and the aim is to create some form of more “natural” system, with recent research showing the benefits of biodiversity. Interestingly, and also in keeping with current changes in environmental thinking, there’s a focus not on complete reversal of impact but on accommodation.

Part four looks at conservation. It starts with a useful overview of conservation and its justification. Not too sure I agree with their distinction between preservation and conservation but the ideas are put forward and it should create discussion. Apart from that minor issue, the chapter covers all the basic ecological and management ideas you’d want a fledgling ecologist to be aware of. Subsequent chapters explore the two types of conservation – in-situ and ex-situ, which focusses on those activities taking place in the wild or in zoos etc. respectively. A final chapter discusses the more controversial topic of rewilding – the widespread introduction of a previously present species.

In all, a very useful text from the point of view of general ecology. There are no major areas not covered. By keeping a tight focus on their concept of applied the authors manage to discuss key topics in sufficient depth and breadth without straying into other areas and losing their central message. However, the real value of the text is not its content but its learning context. This is one of the best organised books of its sort that has been published for some time. Take any chapter at random and there’s a lot to help the reader engage with the text. It’s not just the colour illustrations and the initial opening, setting the context of the chapter, but the way they’ve thought carefully not just about the reader but their learning situation. There are numerous spider diagrams showing links between ideas. A series of “hot topics” give the authors a chance to explore one illustrative area in detail. There are many interviews with ecologists practising in the chapter’s area of study. Larger case studies bring the reader the opportunity of examining carefully chosen examples to show how concepts are applied. Finally, at the end of each chapter is a flow diagram linking each chapter’s key ideas to previous and successive chapters. It acts as a sort of road map for linked concepts and as such would make the beginning ecologist far more able to grasp linkages to different subject areas. All of these elements are put together in such a way that its a joy to get to the next part. It makes engaging students in this field of study far easier.

Overall, a very useful text in a key area of ecological interest coupled with an excellent pedagogical approach. It deserves the widest readership.


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