Enhancing biodiversity through livestock keeping

Touted as a ‘make or break’ conference, the United Nations’ COP15 Biodiversity Conference next month aims to agree on ways to halt and reverse catastrophic nature loss. Following the failure to meet the Aichi targets, the conference will adopt a new Global Biodiversity Framework to stop the decline of species and ecosystems.

What the decision-makers agree on, though, will have serious implications on livestock keepers and pastoralists across the world who live in close interaction with animals and the environment. Considered by some as the single biggest cause of the 6th mass extinction, livestock has come under fire in the past years for its deleterious impact on climate and life on earth. High land-use for intensively produced livestock is considered particularly harmful.

Yet, it must be recognised that pastoralism – the extensive, mobile use of rangelands by livestock – can be good for the environment. Pastoralism offers a time-tested, low-impact alternative to livestock production that works with nature. Managing highly variable rangelands that cover more than half of the earth’s landed surface, pastoralists often produce food where no crops can grow, and in turn enhance the environment. Carefully managed low intensity grazing especially in mobile systems offers several benefits such as improved biodiversity, enhanced soil fertility, and higher carbon sequestration.

Pastoralists have a long-held, intimate knowledge of the ecosystems where they live, and can be vital allies in efforts for biodiversity conservation. There are important lessons to be learned from pastoralists around the world in developing the agenda for action to be agreed at COP15.

A set of new briefings produced by the Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience (PASTRES) project offer a number of lessons:

First, low intensity grazing can enhance biodiversity. Transhumance can assist with seed dispersal and connecting biodiverse areas across regions, and manure deposits can increase nutrients and create biodiverse-rich patches. Removing livestock and people, as advocated by some exclusionary conservation approaches, can result in the invasion of particular species, reducing biodiversity, as well as undermining the conservation of rare species.

Second, opting for mass tree planting in rangeland areas is a bad idea. Livestock have long been central to ‘open ecosystems’ – savannas, parklands, moorlands, tundra, steppes. Such ecosystems do not exist in a single stable state; there is no ‘pristine’, original natural forest to ‘restore’. This is why rewilding and conservation efforts in such areas need to involve livestock and people.

Third, extensive livestock grazing can help reduce catastrophic wildfires, which damage ecosystems and people’s livelihoods, as well as releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Declines in pastoral production have been associated with increasing wildfires, and incentives to encourage the return of pastoralists to rangelands are needed to support both livelihoods and the environment.

Fourth, people, livestock and wildlife can co-exist through collaborative conservation efforts. But in some places we see a return to exclusionary, privatised and militarised conservation. Such approaches to fortress conservation always fail. Instead, by involving livestock keepers, pastoralists can act as protectors of nature, helping to enhance the value of wild landscapes.

Without a deeper understanding of open rangelands and extensive grazing systems, inappropriate approaches to biodiversity may be advocated that are damaging to both people and the planet.

As we approach the COP15, conscious efforts must be made to consider and safeguard human-nature relations and include pastoralists and other land users as central to the solutions for biodiversity conservation.

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Read the set of 6 briefings that discuss different aspects of human-animal-environment relations ahead of COP15. Follow our coverage of livestock and biodiversity related issues on our social media:

Twitter – @PASTRES_erc

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/ERCPASTRES

Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/pastres_erc/

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