Nature Improvement Area Annual Forum 2014 – influencing the future of conservation in England

NIA Forum - Sept 2014

The Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Annual Forum took place in London yesterday and the Nene Valley NIA was well represented, with five of us from the University of Northampton attending, plus representatives from our partners in the Wildlife Trust, the River Nene Regional Park, the RSPB, and the River Restoration Centre.  It was an opportunity to see and hear what the twelve NIAs have achieved in the two and a half years since their inception, to compare notes, and (importantly) to think about the future of the NIAs.

The NIAs, as I’ve mentioned before, were meant to be pilot, flagship schemes to show how the future of conservation in England could become bigger, better and more connected across large swathes of landscape.  Their origin lies in the Lawton Report and Professor Sir John Lawton kicked off the day with a general introduction that, from the very beginning, brought up the one thing on everybody’s mind that day: the financial sustainability of the NIAs. The money runs out in March 2015, so where do we go from there?  All of the NIAs (ourselves included) have been applying for funding to continue the good work being done, but, as John Lawton, pointed out, if the Government is serous about the NIAs and wishes them to continue, there needs to be an investment of public money.  I deliberately use the term “investment” because we know that the natural environment of our islands plays a significant role in public health and the national economy more broadly.

John Lawton’s introduction was followed by a short speech by Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment and science (who, incidentally, gave a nod in his speech to the National Pollinator Strategy). The Minister said a lot of the right things, how impressed he was with the NIA programme, that the government was committed to it in practice (but not necessarily financially), etc., etc.  There followed another speech by Andrew Sells, Chair of Natural England, who listed some of the achievements of the NIAs (see below), including the fact that for every £1 of Government funding, £3.50 was leveraged from other sources to support the activities of NIAs across the country.

There was an opportunity to ask questions of the first two speakers, plus representatives from the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission, the first of which came from our own Oliver Burke who asked about the government’s vision of the future of the NIAs.  All of the panel agree that there was a future, they just were not sure what it was, though there was commitment from Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) that their staff would continue to advise and support NIA activities as part of their core activities.  That’s promising though perhaps not surprising given the nature of most of the partnerships, involving organisations that the NE and the EA would normally work with anyway.

The question I wanted to ask, had I found the right form of words, would have been about the current Government’s poor record on the environment.  But by the time I worked out a way of saying it that didn’t make it sound like a simple attack on the coalition, the opportunity was over.  A whistle-stop tour by the Minister and his coterie of the displays set out by the NIAs followed, which John Lawton later said had visibly impressed Lord de Mauley.  Amongst the achievements of the twelve NIAs, after only two years of activity, are:

  • Tens of thousand of hectares of priority and other habitats created, restored and/or improved in condition
  • Hundreds of kilometres of boundary and linear habitat (e.g. hedgerows) restored/created/improved
  • Tens of thousands of days of volunteer time devoted to the NIAs
  • Thousands of  people participating in educational visits.
  • Thousands of hectares of habitat managed specifically for ecosystem services such as improving water quality.

After lunch there were further talks including one from Simon Smith about the Cotswolds Ecological Networks project which had been one of the 70 applicants for NIA funding, was unsuccessful, and (impressively) went ahead with the project anyway as an “unofficial” NIA.  The Nene Valley NIA’s interactive website and photography competition was also highlighted in a talk by Helen Ashley from Dialogue by Design, and Dr Andy Stott from Defra discussed the monitoring and evaluation report for year 2 of the NIA programme.

Later in the afternoon we had a workshop at which, in small groups, we brainstormed some pressing questions, including (not surprisingly) innovative funding streams, and using the evidence base to demonstrate the effectiveness of the NIAs.  With regard to the latter it would seem sensible to use independent, long-term monitoring data such as the repeated species counts done by Butterfly Conservation (e.g. Big Butterfly Count) and the British Trust for Ornithology (e.g. Breeding Bird Survey) to verify whether or not the NIAs are being effective, though this of course requires that surveys have historically taken place within the NIAs (something that is certainly true for the Nene Valley NIA).  This would require quite a bit of coordination with the NGOs concerned, but should be doable.  I’d happily develop such a project if there’s someone out there with funding!

And then, with some final, supportive words from John Lawton, the day was over and we started to disperse out into an unseasonably warm mid-September London.  Several of us from the Nene Valley and the RSPB decamped to a great local pub (The Lord John Russell) to discuss the day.  One of the topics that everyone was talking about was, of course, the Scottish Referendum.  As I write this the country is absorbing the news that Scotland is to remain part of the UK.  As far as I’m concerned that’s a very good thing because (amongst other reasons) I think that a vote for independence would have negatively affected conservation in the British Isles.  Political focus of all government departments would move from environmental issues and on to trying to manage the split, which would take up a huge amount of time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.  And NGOs such as the RSPB would have to devote time and resources to considering how they manage and fund their organisations, given their cross-border roles. That could have been to the detriment of Scottish conservation given that most of the funding is flowing south to north (which is purely a function of population size – there are many times more members in England and Wales than in Scotland).

Thank you Scotland, you’ve done the right thing.  And thank you to all 12 NIAs, you’ve shown the Government how successful large-scale nature conservation can be: let us hope they take notice.

 

 

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Is the current UK government the “greenest” ever?

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No.

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Is Booterstown Marsh the best small urban nature reserve in Europe?

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On a recent visit to Dublin, where I’m External Examiner for some courses at UCD, my host Dr Jan-Robert Baars took me on a short early evening excursion south of the city to Booterstown Marsh.  What a great little nature reserve it is!  It’s tiny (only 4.3 ha) and is boxed in by urban development on all four sides.  To the north there are buildings; to the east runs a busy main road and housing; on the southern side is a car park and the entrance to Booterstown train station, with the railway line completing the rectangle of infrastructure to the east.  Beyond that is a beach and the open water of Dublin Bay.

The reserve is largely saltmarsh, fringed with trees, with a freshwater stream coming in from the north (visible in the bottom right corner below.

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As the tide turns, seawater rapidly ebbs and flows from the reserve, bringing with it food particles and nutrients for the plants and invertebrates of the marsh.  The next photograph was taken only a few minutes after the previous one.

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If you click on these photographs above to maximise their size you can see something of what makes this reserve so special – the bird life that is supported by those plants and invertebrates.  The very abundant dark birds are Black-tailed godwits, the white ones are Black-headed gulls.  During our visit, which lasted less than an hour, we saw a total of 12 species including other wading birds such as Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Little egret, Grey heron, and Redshank.  These are birds that one often sees from a distance, foraging on lake margins or mudflats.  But here they are just a few metres from a busy railway line which funnels commuters to and from the city every day.

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Whether by accident or design the open-ended station bridge makes a great viewing platform; here you can see Grey heron and Little egret.

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At its eastern side the bridge looks over Dublin Bay and provides further birding opportunities.

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If you have the opportunity to visit Booterstown Marsh (and I strongly recommend it) there’s a useful guide produced by the Irish Wildlife Trust.  This urban nature reserve is one of the most interesting I’ve ever visited, because it affords the opportunity to get very close to a diverse assemblage of birds that are not normally so confiding.  Clearly these birds feel secure despite the rumbling traffic and the dashing trains.  I almost envy the local commuters!

If you think you know of a more interesting small urban nature reserve I’d be interested to hear about it – feel free to comment below.

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My thanks to Jan (pictured below on the bridge) for introducing me to this wonderful site.  The final list of birds that we saw on the reserve was:  Black-tailed godwit, Dunlin, Grey heron, Little egret, an unidentified duck, Black-headed gull, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Woodpigeon, Moorhen, Mute swan, Jackdaw.  On the Dublin Bay side we also spotted Pied wagtail and (from a distance) a Curlew.

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Bad news for British biodiversity and a comment on ecosystem services

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Two related things have caught my eye this morning that I think deserve a quick blog entry.  The first is that Julia Leventon has posted an interesting piece on her frustrations with the ecosystem services concept over on the Ideas for Sustainability blog.  Go and read it – Julia raises some important points about the mismatch between our ever-more sophisticated concepts of ecosystem services and what it means to actually manage/support them within our society.  One of the things she said really struck me as it chimes with what I feel is a weakness of the current ecosystem services research agenda.  Julia says that:

I feel somewhat as though we are distracting ourselves by creating ever more complex physical constructs that require even more detailed physical understandings, and ever more complex chains of structures, processes, services and benefits.”

This I completely agree with. The underlying science (ecology/biodiversity/natural history/call it what you will) of ecosystem services is hugely complex, even for a reasonably well defined service such as crop pollination. As someone who has studied pollination ecology for 25 years I know how little we truly understand – yet this is supposed to be one of the more “straightforward” ecosystem services!

But to implement the ecosystem services concept within society we don’t need to know the finer details and dynamics of the species/communities/ecosystems involved (as interesting as they are). What we require is as much natural and semi-natural habitat within a landscape as is possible, appropriately managed (or left alone), and with as few anthropogenic stressors on it as possible (e.g. pesticides and other pollutants).  And we’ve known that for many years, long before ecosystem services was coined as a term in the 1980s.

Yet governments and agri-business consistently fail to deliver this basic requirement and our natural environment is becoming ever-less diverse and hospitable to the biodiversity that sustains ecosystem services.  See for example the latest bit of bad news regarding species-rich meadows in the UK, which are still declining long after it was pointed out that over 90% had disappeared: legislation designed to protect these grasslands seems to have had the opposite effect.  These are exactly the same kinds of habitats that are considered most important for the pollinators that agriculture relies upon!

The concept of ecosystem services, in my opinion, is a valuable one for focusing attention on the importance of the natural world, though there are others who disagree.  But the concept does not have to become mired down in the “ever more complex physical constructs” that Julia describes in her post. Let’s keep it simple and focus on what’s important rather than disappearing into a conceptual black hole that excludes practitioners, government, business and the public*.

 

*The photograph above was taken a couple of weeks ago at Northampton’s Umbrella Fair, where I presented an over view of the importance of pollinators, and the idea of ecosystem services, to a small, [ahem] “mixed” audience, which included restless kids and incomprehensible drunks, in a marquee which was too light for the laptop projector to work.  But if even one of those who attended “got” the idea of ecosystem services I consider my job well done!

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Gatekeeper in the garden

Gatekeeper 1 - summer 2014

Since moving into our house in January 2012 I’ve been keeping a list of butterflies and day-flying moths seen in the garden (as well as birds and bees, of course). That list currently contains 14 species*, one of the most interesting of which is the Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus).

Gatekeeper 3 - summer 2014

According to the account of this species on the UK Butterflies web site, the Gatekeeper:

“can be found wherever shrubs grow close to rough grassland. ……some of the largest colonies can be found at field edges and along hedgerows and we can expect to find this butterfly in scrubby grassland, woodland rides, country lanes, hedgerows and the like anywhere within its range”.

So what is it doing in an urban garden?  The BTO’s summary of the species mentions that:

“It is rare for Gatekeepers to appear in city-centre gardens. However, in recent years this species has been recorded at some urban sites across north-east London and Hampstead Heath and, more recently, on Wimbledon and Mitcham Commons. Such range expansion into urban areas may be due in part to changes in the management of urban parks and cemeteries”.

Clearly, in order to exist in an urban setting the Gatekeeper must have its basic requirements met by the habitat in which it finds itself.  As I’ve mentioned before, the lawn in our garden is quite diverse and contains a number of native species, including a range of grasses that could be used as food plants by the caterpillars, though we do keep it quite short.  It’s more likely that the caterpillars are feeding in some of our neighbouring gardens, which are rarely troubled by a mower (do neglected gardens host more biodiversity than highly managed gardens?  I suppose it depends on the type of management; would be an interesting question to research).

Gatekeeper 4 - summer 2014

As well as the larval food plants required by Gatekeepers, there’s a range of nectar sources available in a mixed native/introduced hedge along the northwest boundary, including the bramble I recently discussed, oval-leafed privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium), and the buddleia (Buddleja davidii var.) seen in these photographs.

It will be interesting to see if this colony persists over time (I also recorded the species in 2013 but not in 2012).  I get the impression that there’s only a small number of individuals, though it’s difficult to assess the population size of butterflies without catching and marking individuals, which I plan to do next year. It’s a lovely species and we’re fortunate that it likes our garden.  I’d be very interested to hear from any other urban gardeners who have seen it in their patch.

 

*Large White, Speckled Wood, Small White, Holly Blue, Red Admiral, Cinnabar, Large Skipper, Meadow Brown, Peacock, Gatekeeper, Comma, Brimstone, Orange Tip, Small Tortoiseshell.

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Blackberry Week

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As a kid growing up in the north-east of England in the 1970s, the half-term school holiday that occurred early in October was always referred to as “Blackberry Week”.  A quick on-line search suggests that the phrase goes back to at least the 1930s (can anyone trace it earlier than this?) and it refers to the time when blackberries (Rubus fruticosus agg.) were ready for picking.  The local kids would spend hours at our favourite blackberry patches, picking bags full of dark, luscious berries to take home for our mothers to cook into pies and crumbles, or stewed to eat with cream. As much fruit was scoffed as was collected (“one for the bag, one for me, one for the bag, one for me…”) and over-ripe ones were pelted at one another until we looked like road casualties.

All of this has been brought to mind recently, since we began to pick blackberries in our garden – at the end of July.  That’s at least two months earlier than I recall doing as a youngster.  Part of this difference can be attributed to latitude; I now live more than 200 miles further south than I did, with a concomitant advance in relative dates of flowering and fruiting, amongst other phenological indicators.  But that can’t be the only answer, the difference is too extreme, though I have not (and I doubt if anyone has) assessed it systematically.

The main reason for the difference, it seems to me, is that our seasons are shifting. We know that spring is generally earlier now in the UK than it was 20 years ago, and with that shift, autumn has likewise been brought forward and is lasting longer, as shown by changes in fungi fruiting patterns.  There’s a lot of research interest in these changes, for example the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s collaborative project.  Whilst phenology scientists usually express these changes quantitatively, as number of days difference between events, such as bird migration dates or plant flower times, across a period of years, any person with an interest in the natural world can see these changes for themselves, even in gardens.

Without realising it, as kids we were also making decisions about where to pick blackberries that go directly to the heart of biodiversity, which is essentially about variation and difference in the natural world.  As part of our own knowledge of the local (and very personal) biodiversity of the area in which we played and explored, we would know the best bushes from which to pick fruit, and the ones to avoid because the plants produced berries that were small, or had a poor flavour. Blackberries are hugely variable in all manner of ways, including leaf shape, number and size of prickles, flower size and colour and, most importantly for us, characteristics of fruit quality.

Much of this variation is genetic rather than environmental and reflects the complex biology of the species, or should I say group of species. Let’s go back to the scientific name of blackberries: Rubus fruticosus agg.  I’ve posted in the past about the formalities of writing scientific names of species, and the “agg.” element is an unusual addition not often seen.  It’s an abbreviation of “aggregate”, which in its taxonomic sense means a collection of species that are very similar to, and may even be synonymous with, that species.  The plant that we know and love as the blackberry is actually an aggregate of many hundreds of “microspecies”, at least according to some plant taxonomists.  This is because of the variable sexual behaviour of blackberries and their tendency to hybridise.

Blackberries are often taken for granted and dismissed as invasive woodland dominators that need to be kept in check.  But they are important for their cultural significance, have a fascinating biology, attract a wide range of insects to their flowers, and provide both fruit and habitat for birds and mammals.  Blackberries are worth making space for if your garden is large enough.

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Ecosystem services online lecture by Robert Costanza

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A few weeks ago I posted about ecosystem services and the differing opinions of writers such as George Monbiot and academics like Robert Costanza, together with a link to Monbiot’s lecture on the topic.  A new online lecture by Costanza has just been released, based on a webinar he presented last week.  It’s well worth watching, highly recommended as a state of the art over view of the concepts and progress in this area.

George Monbiot will not like it.

 

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How do YOU value the Nene Valley?

Plane in river at Irthlingborough

Following on from my recent post about how contrasting ways in which to value nature, today sees the launch of a new interactive web site that is asking people which areas of the Nene Valley they value, and why.  There is also a photography competition with a chance to win pairs of binoculars.  The website link is:

www.nenevalleynia.org

 

Here’s the text from today’s joint University of Northampton/Wildlife Trust press release:

The Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area (NIA) project has today launched a new interactive website, which aims to encourage people to share their views on the local natural environment.

Covering over 41,000 hectares across Northamptonshire, Huntingdon and Peterborough­, the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area features a variety of natural habitats, including wildflower meadows, wetlands, marshes, woodlands and wet grasslands. With fishing lakes, bird watching opportunities and children’s adventure playgrounds, the NIA is an attractive area for animals – such as otters, kingfishers and grass snakes – to call home.

Researchers from the University of Northampton have joined forces with conservation organisations and the national Sciencewise initiative to launch the new NIA website, which features a wealth of information, a virtual tour and a discussion forum.

The website provides an opportunity for local people to share their thoughts on the Nene Valley, and an online mapping survey has been developed to identify areas of the valley that are particularly valued and why these areas are important to visitors.  This will provide University researchers with valuable data that can be used to inform future plans for the valley.

A photo competition has also been launched to find some of the best images of the Nene Valley and to encourage people to explore the area over the summer.  Judges are looking for images of wildlife, landscapes, people, heritage, water, and the built environment taken in the Nene Valley.  There are separate categories for children so everyone can enter. Images should be submitted through the NIA website, and the winners will be selected through an online vote. The most popular photos will be displayed in the Autumn as part of the Nene Valley Festival, and the photographers of the top two images will each win a pair of Opticron binoculars. The competition closes for entries and voting at 5pm on 30 September.

Project co-ordinator Heather Ball from the Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust commented: “The new website is a great way to have your say about what goes on in the Nene Valley and share some fabulous images.”

University of Northampton researcher Dr Jim Rouquette added: “We need to gather information on the local places that people particularly value and the benefits that people gain from visiting.  By better understanding what is important to different people, we can start to target conservation efforts and ensure that local knowledge and values are incorporated into decision-making.”

​If you would like to contribute to this important project or take part in the photo competition please go to: www.nenevalleynia.org

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Fleet on foot

Fleet photo 7
A few weeks ago my sons Patrick and James and I spent a very enjoyable day walking the full length of the River Fleet at the invitation of my colleague Ian Livingstone, together with his wife Jane, her Australian colleague Matt Butler and his partner Kate.  “Walking the River Fleet” sounds like it should involve a gentle, rural amble along willow fringed banks, accompanied by clouds of damselflies and the occasional splash of a water vole sliding into the shallows. And that’s exactly what it was like –  two hundred years ago.  Nowadays “walking the River Fleet” is an urban hike through heavily built up areas in one of the largest cities in the world, for the Fleet is a “Lost River” of London, commemorated only by the names of streets and businesses:
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Our 7 mile walk started on Hampstead Heath where the Fleet rises and feeds a series of 18th Century ponds, originally reservoirs and now used for bathing and recreation.  As we walked I began to list the birds that we saw and, of course, these ponds added considerably to the list as diversity of habitats = diversity of species. In fact one of these water bodies is known as Bird Sanctuary Pond and in less than a minute yielded coot, mallard, black-headed gull, common gull, mute swan and tufted duck.  None of which you can see in the following photograph:
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From Hampstead we walked through winding streets that occasionally name-checked the river we were following (see the top photo on this post) down into Camden, where we stopped beside the canal to eat lunch and tick off another water-associated bird, Canada goose.  Then on to St Pancras where we paused at St Pancras Old Church and imagined the Fleet running past it in the early 19th century, before pollution and the need for more land on which to build had submerged it beneath the surrounding infrastructure:
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The churchyard is a green oasis in this part of London and we looked at the Thomas Hardy gravestones, which are being slowly absorbed by the bole of an impressive ash tree:
 Fleet photo 5
We continued through St Pancras, where the river runs under the attractively refurbished railway station (a huge contrast to the horrors of Birmingham New Street), and on to Holborn, past Fleet Street (of course)…..
Fleet photo 3
 ….to our final destination at Blackfriars.  All the while we were following subtle changes in the geography of the urban landscape, often obvious only to a physical geographer such as Ian, because the river is wholly covered and has been confined to pipes and sewers.  The Fleet emerges into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge where it is visible at low tide, part-hidden in the shadows of this image which could only be taken by hanging precariously over the river (where I also ticked herring gull):
Fleet photo 2
When ecologists think about the environmental changes associated with “urbanisation” we’re often considering processes that are modest in scale and impact, perhaps the building of a new housing development on what was once farmland.  Sometimes such urbanisation can have positive effects for biodiversity, for example gardens increasing local populations of birds and beneficial insects such as pollinators.  But in the case of metropolises like London, the effect of urban development has been to wholly remodel the physical geography of the landscape, covering or filling in features such as open rivers, ponds and valleys that would once have harboured wildlife, replacing them with stone and steel and concrete, and the occasional London Plane tree to provide shade on a hot day.  Restoring these culverted rivers has become an important focus for research and action.  While doing some reading for this post I came across Adam Broadhead’s blog about Sheffield’s rivers and the work he is doing on “daylighting” water courses that have been hidden.  It’s exciting stuff and has great potential for both urban biodiversity and the quality of life of city dwellers.On the way back to the tube station we passed through the surrounding gardens of St Paul’s Cathedral and encountered the Robert Hooke Biodiversity Bell:

Fleet photo 1
This is part of the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory project and marked a fitting end to our trip, a reminder of the populations of organisms that were displaced as the River Fleet was first polluted then enclosed.  Perhaps opening up the Fleet and regaining this biodiversity is too much of a task in a city with some of the highest real estate prices in the world, but as I’ve said before, we can always dream a river.The final total of birds for the day was a paltry 14* – how many might it have been if the Fleet was still a visible, viable water course?

*carrion crow, woodpigeon, robin, coot, mallard, feral pigeon, black-headed gull, mute swan, tufted duck, magpie, swift, Canada goose, herring gull.

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How do we value nature? Costanza, Monbiot and the clash of concepts

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Is nature something that we should simply value for its own sake?  Or should we take account of how nature supports our society and our economy in real financial terms?  Back in 1997 Australian academic Robert Costanza and colleagues published a now classic paper in the journal Nature called “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital” that proved to be hugely influential and has been cited more than 3,500 times by other researchers in ecology, conservation, and ecological economics.  Soon after publication I began to use the paper in some of my classes, asking students how they felt about putting a monetary ($) value on how nature supports ecosystem services such as soil formation, pollination, carbon storage, climate regulation, etc.  Opinions were mixed, reflecting the fact that economic valuation of nature is controversial in theory, difficult to do in practice, and results in vast estimations of the “worth” of nature that seem to be fantastical.  The Costanza et al. study, for example, suggested that ecosystem services were worth $33 trillion per year to the global economy, a figure almost twice as large as the Global GDP at the time!

More than a decade and a half later, Costanza has published a follow up paper that updates the figures in the 1997 paper and arrives at a global valuation of natural capital of between $125 and $145 trillion per year, depending on assumptions made about changes to the area of biomes such as temperate forest, grassland, coral reefs, etc.  This last point is critical as loss of biome area due to changes in land use from agriculture and urbanisation has resulted in an estimated loss of ecosystem services of between $4.3 and $20.2 trillion per year between 1997 and 2011.  That’s a big change and, if nothing else, gives an indication of how we are altering the face of the planet at an ever faster rate, something I will come back to later in this post.

In this new paper Costanza and colleagues have also responded to some of the criticisms of the earlier work, particularly by journalist and activist George Monbiot who, as I’ve previously discussed on this blog, has a genuine, but I feel misguided, aversion to the whole notion of ecosystem services and natural capital. Monbiot’s been repeating these criticisms in a lecture, a video and text of which is available on the Guardian website.  I won’t go into a detailed discussion of his position, some of which I agree with, but I do believe that his major criticisms fail on two points.

The first is that Monbiot mixes up some very different concepts, bundling ecosystem services (a reasonable way of thinking about nature in relation to society) with biodiversity offsetting (a load of bollocks), green infrastructure (the importance of green space to urban development), carbon trading (dubious in theory and practice), and payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes (which can work on a regional scale, as in the case of South West Water’s upland catchments project), as if they were all the same thing, which they are not.  In the Nene Valley NIA Project, for example, we are using an ecosystem services approach and are trying to develop a PES, but are wholly against biodiversity offsetting.

The second is that Monbiot sees all of this as some kind of neoliberal agenda to sell off the natural world to the highest bidder.  That’s really not the case and ecosystem services are being promoted as a concept by conservationists, NGOs and scientists whose motivation is saving the natural world, not selling it.  As Costanza et al. (2014) rightly state: “It is a misconception to assume that valuing ecosystem services in monetary units is the same as privatizing them or commodifying them for trade in private markets”

In his lecture Monbiot uses the classic rhetorician’s device of using partial quotes to support his point.  For example he quotes Dieter Helm as saying that:

“The environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed”.

Sounds bad, I agree.  But the full quote actually gives a very different and more profoundly “green” message:

“Over the coming decades, there will be a major programme to develop the UK’s infrastructure. The National Infrastructure Plan 2013 sets out ambitious plans – for new railways, roads, airport expansions, energy systems, water resources, sewerage investments, flood defences and a major increase in house building …….. In taking forward this major investment, it is important not to lose sight of natural infrastructure and the integral part that natural capital plays in delivering sustainable economic growth. …… the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.  Integrating the environment into the economy is hampered by the almost complete absence of proper accounting for natural assets. What is not measured is usually ignored.”

Monbiot does make some good points in relation to how power can trump any environmental monetary valuation, and how political influence works, but his solution of “mobilisation”, is most effective at a relatively small scale, for example the defeat of Derby Council over plans to develop a nature reserve.  Mobilisation by passionate environmentalists has failed to protect large swathes of Brazil’s natural environment, but arguments about the link between vegetation and rainfall, underscored by financial assessments of agricultural crop reductions, just might.

What is interesting about the lecture (which I encourage you to watch, Monbiot is a great speaker and it’s more entertaining than the transcript) is that not one of the audience questions afterwards actually dealt with the main topic of the lecture, namely the pricing of nature.  Is that because he won over the audience completely with his arguments?  Or is it because the ecosystem services approach to nature conservation is too recent a concept for its technicalities to have embedded themselves within public consciousness, and a general audience such as this might not feel confident enough to make challenging comments?  I suspect the latter because whenever I give public lectures to gardening and wildlife groups, for instance, I always ask who has heard of “ecosystem services”, and invariably it’s a minority of the audience.

If Monbiot was correct and it’s possible to sell off natural capital in the way he describes, then we would expect the coalition UK government, for one, as well as big business, to buy into the concept wholeheartedly and to invest much more than they currently do in order to make a quick buck out of biodiversity.  But they aren’t, and in fact this government has a track record that shows it has only the most cursory of interests in the UK’s natural ecosystems, and is willing to ignore scientific evidence to placate special interest groups who happen to be Conservative Party supporters (witness the recent badger cull debacle and the lack of action over illegal activity on grouse moors).

This is no doubt a debate that will continue but time is running out for the natural world and we don’t have many options: in Table 3 of Costanza et al. (2014) the authors present worrying data on how some biomes have greatly reduced in area since 1997 (e.g. coral reefs, wetlands) whilst croplands and urban settlement has increased.  That can’t go on: the natural world is too valuable, in all senses of that world, to lose, something I’m sure George Monbiot would agree with even if he doesn’t believe that monetary valuation is the way to do it.

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity