Boasting about backyard biodiversity

The easiest way for an aspiring naturalist to explore wildlife is by stepping out into their own backyard. Try it yourself. As I write this, I can look through my window at a Karoo Thrush hopping about my garden. But this post is not about the tiny garden surrounding my current apartment, but rather about my childhood home. I was tremendously fortunate to grow up on a 60 hectare farm, where  first discovered my love for nature.

Between wrapping up my PhD and starting my current lecturing position, I spent a few months of unemployment back in the house I grew up in. During that time, I discovered the thrill of recording unobtrusive nocturnal critters using a camera trap. Every afternoon, I set up the camera trap and eagerly explored the footage the following morning. It was so much fun.

After enough time, even I was amazed by the variety of species that lived on this relatively small farm. Perhaps, I should rephrase that last sentence. You see, calling it a farm is not accurate because it hasn’t been used for agricultural in more than ten years. The last cows were removed back in 2004 and since then the land was left dormant and only managed to minimise the risk of wild fire.

Still, I captured footage of 18 different mammal species, which is remarkably high for such a small area. Moreover, the camera trap is unlikely to capture any footage of bats and small rodents, so the total mammal diversity is probably even higher. I decided to write up these observations and the results have just been published online in the African Journal of Ecology.

Even I’ll admit that this is not a ground-breaking or career-defining piece of scientific research. But it holds as much personal value to me as any of my previous papers. I mean, how many other people can say that they published a scientific article on the biodiversity of their backyards?

Bragging aside, this research is important to me in another way. Within just 10 years, this mammal assemblage established itself and species have shown signs of successful reproduction. Even more importantly, this patch of farmland contains several species that have yet to be recorded in the nearest national park. This suggests that the agricultural landscape contributes to the total mammal richness of the region in ways that protected areas struggle to do on their own.

Fig 1

The number of species I observed (This study) compared to the number of species in the nearest protected area , the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

An opportunity for conservation

Over the past 15 years, the total area of pasture globally has declined by 62 million hectares. Like my childhood home, habitats that were previously grazed by livestock are being opened up for wild nature. As conservationist we should be aware of this remarkable opportunity.

We need to identify the best ways to handle abandoned farmland. This will certainly include outreach to farmers and it might require reintroduction and rehabilitation programs. All we can be certain of is that wild nature won’t turn up its nose at the chance to reclaim its old habitat; we just need to do is give it a fair chance to do so.