What is an ecosystem and why does it matter?


An ecosystem  is a collective term used to describe a community of living organisms (such as plants, animals and bacteria) and the non-living components of their environment (such as rocks, soil and water) interacting with each other.  Ecosystems are all around us, from coral reefs  to grasslands and lakes to tropical rainforests, and we are an active component of ecosystems.  Unseen interactions go on every second of every day.   If something happens to upset the balance of an ecosystem, unpredictable and sometimes catastrophic results can occur.

What is an Ecosystem Approach?

An ecosystem approach works towards the “integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use” (1).   Although an ecosystem approach sounds ideal in principle, how do you apply it in the real world?  How do you even define where an ecosystem starts and finishes?  Ecosystems interact with each other, with components leaving and re-entering a specific ecosystem all the time.

In practise it can be hard to see how we can manage resources on multiple levels to satisfy all stake holders, and that’s without even considering the stake holders who do not have a voice: the organisms themselves who call a specific area home:

  • How do you get multiple landowners with different aims and ideas to agree to manage their land in a similar way?
  • How can you reduce grazing to protect important heathland habitats and still see farming be profitable?
  • Is planting trees the right course of action or should we let natural regeneration run its course? – Are degraded ecosystems even capable of regenerating?

The questions are never ending… which is one reason why some bodies have attempted to reduce this complexity by looking for key measurables.  As a result, many have turned their focus onto ecosystem services.

Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem services are services which an ecosystem may provide.  There is a natural tendency to focus on those services which are deemed valuable in some way by humans.  Examples include:

  • Timber
  • Food
  • Water
  • Grazing
  • Flood prevention
  • Carbon storage
  • Eco-tourism
  • Recreation
  • Pleasure from seeing/knowing an animal/plant/habitat is simply there

Some argue that this is a dangerous route to head down and risks providing justification for over-exploitation of our natural resources.  Whilst in some circumstances, it may be helpful to be able to quantify certain services an ecosystem provides, it does not negate the importance of other, un-quantifiable benefits a healthy ecosystem may provide (both to humans and other organisms).  It also, does not look at how resilient an ecosystem is, i.e. how much pressure it can be put under and still perform all its functions?  Upcoming articles will explore what an ecosystem approach means for Snowdonia, in the context of the work of our volunteers.



Comments are closed.