Category Archives: Nene Valley NIA

The Biodiversity Impact of Waterside Campus: an interim report on the bird surveys

bird-gains-and-losses

In previous posts I’ve discussed the work that we are doing monitoring the effects of building a large, new campus for the University of Northampton (see: Monitoring the biodiversity impact of the new Waterside Campus and a video I did of a talk about this project).  We have finally got round to writing an an interim report on the bird surveys we have been conducting (2014-2016), repeating the initial baseline surveys that were carried out in 2012-13.  The executive summary is below and you can download a PDF of the full report here.

As you will see it’s a mixed picture, with some losses and some gains of species, but we are broadly optimistic that the planned landscaping and habitat creation will have a positive effect come the 2018 opening date of Waterside Campus.  It’s important to note that studies such as this which follow up initial ecological surveys and assess the subsequent impact over time are extremely rare as there is no statutory obligation to do so.

Winter surveys will begin shortly and I will report back late next year, time willing.  Any questions or comments, please let me know.

 

Executive summary

  • Surveys of winter and spring bird diversity are being carried out to assess the effects of construction activities and habitat creation on local biodiversity at the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus.

 

  • These results are compared to pre-construction baseline surveys in winter 2012-13 and spring 2013, undertaken as part of the ecological impact assessment of the site.

 

  • Results after two repeat sets of surveys (winter 2014-15 and 2015-16; spring 2015 and 2016) are presented, with birds grouped into RSPB Green, Amber and Red categories.

 

  • Winter bird diversity has dropped from 41 species to 31 species; more Red and Amber listed birds have been lost than Green listed species.

 

  • Spring bird diversity has dropped from 40 to 36 species; more Green and Amber listed birds were lost, but the number of Red listed species increased slightly.

 

  • As well as losing species the site has gained birds that were not recorded in the baseline surveys, including Green-listed Coot and Treecreeper, the Amber-listed Stock dove, and the Red-listed House sparrow.

 

  • In addition, most of the “missing” birds are known to occur at sites 500m to 1000m from Waterside and could return following the end of construction and appropriate habitat creation.

 

  • Surveys will continue until after Waterside Campus opens in 2018, and analyses will be undertaken to tease out how these changes in bird numbers are related to changes to both the local and regional environments.

 

  • Outputs from this project so far include two conference presentations and two final year dissertations (one completed and one planned). At least one peer-reviewed research paper is anticipated.
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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

What does Brexit mean for British biodiversity?

Friday 24th June 2016.  What a surreal day.  I spent it trying to understand why a small majority of the voting public had committed us to leaving the European Union, an organisation that has had a demonstrably positive impact upon our lives, our society, our economy, and our environment.  That dream-like state was not helped by the fact that I’d stayed up most of the night with my youngest son James, watching the results roll in.

Saturday 25th June 2016.  Twenty four hours later, after a good night’s sleep, I feel less dislocated but no less confused and disappointed.  It is what it is, let’s get on with it.

It’s much too early to properly answer the question of what this all means for British biodiversity, of course.  But as I pointed out in my post about the environmental arguments for remaining in the EU, there’s a whole raft of policies, legislation, agreements and initiatives that the government and NGOs need to consider.  Just to give a couple of examples, what will happen to the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, or the Special Protected Area status of places such as the Upper Nene Valley?

What I really hope is that we can continue as before, building on the current situation rather than tearing up the whole thing.  To some extent I’m optimistic that we can for the near future, because the government will have (as it sees it) bigger things to worry about.  But I do worry that eventually we will get left behind as EU environmental legislation evolves.  That’s something we have to be mindful of in the coming years.

The ecological internet is already starting to discuss these issues; here are links to a few pieces that I’ve seen:

Adventuresinbeeland has discussed what leaving the EU means for British bees and beekeepers, pointing out that EU funding has enabled bee inspectors to carry out apiary inspections and work with beekeepers on issues such as bee pests and diseases.

The Wildlife Trusts are trying to look positively at the future, with Brian Eversham, Chief Executive for the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, summing it up very well:  “Many of those who disagreed over the Referendum agree strongly that wildlife, our countryside and the natural environment matter, now and for the future. We need their voices loud and clear in the coming months. As we are now responsible for our own, independent future, it is up to all of us to make sure that we keep the environment firmly on the national agenda.”

Mark Avery has also summed up the current situation very succinctly on his blog – one cartoon says an awful lot.

Finally, here’s Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth, writing on how can we make Brexit work for the environment?

No doubt there will be more coming soon and I’ll try to provide updates on the blog.

In terms of my day job as an academic at the University of Northampton, things will also change across the whole British Higher Education sector, of course.  On one level that’s a different set of issues to what I’ve been discussing, but there are also links: a great deal of ecological research activity is being funded by the European Union and involves cross-border collaborations.  Scientists across Europe have to continue to make that work.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton

Nature Improvement Area final report published today by Defra

As regular readers of the blog will be aware, over the past three years my research group has been involved as a lead partner in the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area (NIA) project, one of 12 NIA schemes across England.  I’ve posted regular updates on the the Nene Valley NIA, for example see my posts entitled Angry Birds! (and startled bees), To Dream a River, and Biodiversity conservation pays its way.

Although our group still has work to do on writing up the results for our ecosystem services assessment of the Nene Valley, the NIA scheme has formally ended, and today Defra has issued a final NIA Monitoring and Evaluation Report, plus an accompanying press release.  Defra (and the government) judges the NIA scheme to be a resounding success and I have to agree with them.  To quote from the press release and from the final report:

  • Nearly 20,000 hectares of natural habitat – the equivalent of almost 23,000 football pitches – has been created, restored or preserved across England.
  • The Nature Improvement Areas have also helped people reconnect with nature, with volunteers contributing over 47,000 days, school children earning their green fingers by planting trees, and communities getting involved in decision making.
  • The NIA partnerships mobilised resources with an equivalent value of £26.2 million (including the financial value of volunteer time and services in-kind) in addition to the initial government grant funding. Of this total, £15.3 million was from non-public sources (e.g. private sector and nongovernmental organisations).
  • Learnings from the Nature Improvement Areas will now help to inform Defra’s 25 year plan for action on the environment which will be published later in the year as part of a comprehensive, long-term vision to protect the country’s natural heritage.

This last point is a critical one; much was achieved with the government’s initial investment of £7.5 million over three years.  Continuation of this type of funding, for the original 12 NIAs and additional projects, would achieve so much more, especially if it was tied in with upland and river restoration projects that focused on natural flood defences (which we know will work).  The potential savings from such investment could run into 100s of millions of pounds.  Let’s hope Defra has the strategic vision to make this happen.

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Filed under Climate change, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton

SCAPE conference 2015 – day 1 – welcome to the sanatorium

The first day of the 29th SCAPE conference drew to a close and as I started to draft this post I could hear around me some intense discussions of Amy Parachnowitsch’s “crazy idea” (her words!) that flowers may be able to “eavesdrop” on one another via their floral scents. It was a very thought provoking way to end a stimulating day. And I look forward to reading the discussion paper on which the talk was based, in Trends in Plant Sciences.

What else did I learn on the first day? Here’s a few things I noted, with a link to the programme, but certainly not an exhaustive list:

Paul CaraDonna told us about the way that interactions between plants and pollinators have a faster turnover early in the season than later in the season. We discussed this afterwards and it could be because of newly emerged, naïve individual pollinators encountering and exploring flowers they’ve not previously seen.

Jane Stout described the history and future of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, and how it was driven from bottom-up by two scientists (Jane herself and Una Fitzpatrick) – a salutary tale of what can happen when passionate scientists become advocates for change.

Markus Sydenham discussed his work on power line corridors in Norway and the fact that these linear landscape elements, though artificial, can be good for solitary bees in appropriately managed by cutting and removal of woody vegetation.

A project encouraging organic Danish farmers to assess the quality of their own land for pollinating bees was described by Vibeke Langer. Interesting example of “citizen science” that goes directly to those who might benefit most from larger and more stable pollinator populations.

In Hawaii, Robert Junker and colleagues have found evidence that the flowers of the endemic plant Metrosideros polymorpha have evolved in less than 150 years to be more effectively pollinated by introduced honey bees rather than its native bird pollinators, which have declined substantially. Some individuals of this species seem to be pre-adapted for bee pollination; is this evidence that a larger bee species once existed on Hawaii but is now extinct?

The “complex, messy” ecology behind the co-existence of different Medicago species (facilitated by the interaction of plant genotypic kinship and allelopathic chemicals produced by Thymus species, was the focus of Bodil Ehlers work.

Judith Trunschke showed how ecotype morphology in hawkmoth-pollinated orchid Platanthera bifolia seems to be driven by different pollinators in grassland and woodland habitats. Are we seeing the early stages of the evolution of two new species here?

I had the honour of being the first speaker yesterday morning, talking about the macroecology of wind versus animal pollination, and the University of Northampton was further represented by Kat Harrold, who is working on her PhD as part of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area project. Kat presented a short over view of her work during the poster session.

There was much more, of course, and all of it stimulating and interesting, but that’s at least a taster.   The conference is taking place in a fascinating conference facility that was a former TB sanatorium. It’s a step up from the ex-leper colony that SCAPE used in Finland a few years ago….

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Filed under Biodiversity, Nene Valley NIA, Pollination, University of Northampton

Monitoring the biodiversity impact of the new Waterside Campus

Waterside winter 2014-15 - 2

All human activities can potentially have an impact on the biodiversity of the local environment in which they occur.  That impact can be positive or negative, depending upon how the activity is managed, how impact is mitigated, and the metrics that we use to measure the effects that are occurring.  This is particularly true of large infrastructure developments such as big buildings,  housing developments, roads, and, a category close to home for me at the moment, new university campuses.

I’ve written before about the University of Northampton’s plans to build the new Waterside Campus on brownfield land close to the River Nene, here and here.  It’s a huge project, likely to cost in excess of £330 million on a site covering about 20 hectares.

As you might imagine, such an ambitious scheme has not been without its controversies and there is much debate within the university about changes to how we work and interact with colleagues and students, provision of teaching and research spaces, etc.  There’s also been much discussion within the town, though the general feeling amongst the public (as far as I perceive it) is that bringing the university closer to the centre of Northampton will provide a much-needed economic boost and add significantly to the town’s life.

But what effect will such a development have on the wildlife in and around this peri-urban site, given that it’s in the middle of the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area and very close to internationally important bird sites?

Over the past few months, together with my colleague Dr Janet Jackson, I’ve been taking part in meetings with the Waterside project’s landscape architects (LUC), other partners from the NIA project board, and the local Wildlife Trust. We’ve been discussing the current plans for the green infrastructure of the campus and thinking about how these can be enhanced.  It’s been a fascinating process as initial disagreements have been negotiated towards compromises and additions that everyone is happy with, balancing budgetary, function and space restrictions with habitat creation and landscape enhancement.

There’s too much been discussed to give a full account at this stage, and it’s possible that some details will change over time, but  the current Ecology Strategy document produced by LUC shows that there will be more than 10 hectares of habitat creation on the site, including species-rich grassland, woodland patches, brown and green roofs, swales and damp areas, and recreated brownfield habitat.  The latter is particularly exciting and something of an experiment, as much of the (albeit limited) current wildlife interest on the site relates to the brownfield element, including the “urban tundra“.

P1100110

To put the 10 hectares into perspective, the adjacent Wildlife Trust Local Nature Reserve of Barnes Meadow is only 20 hectares in area, so it’s potentially increasing that site by 50%.  It’s rare for academic ecologists such as Janet and myself to be able to influence large building developments, so this has been an exciting opportunity for us to make a contribution that (if all goes to plan) will have a positive effect on biodiversity conservation in the Nene Valley.

But how will we know if the Great Waterside Experiment has been a success and that the biodiversity of the new campus is at least as rich, and preferably richer, in species than it was before building took place?

Monitoring of the wildlife is key to this.  Fortunately we have some base-line surveys of birds, plants and invertebrates (including bees and butterflies) from before building started that we can compare with later surveys during and after the campus build.  That process has already started, and with my colleague Dr Duncan McCollin and with two keen second-year students, Jo and Charlie, we have already completed three winter bird surveys to get a sense of how the current site clearance and ground works is affecting the presence of birds in and around the development, including those using the River Nene.  The plan is to continue these surveys up to and after the campus opens in 2018, to give us a data series showing the influence of the campus on bird diversity and numbers.

The initial results are currently being analysed and it appears that the current phase of building has reduced overall bird diversity by about 30%, and that red and amber status birds (of most conservation concern) have been affected more than green status birds, as this figure demonstrates (click on it for a closer view):

Waterside bird surveys

These rough figures hide a lot of detail, however.  For example, there has been some addition of species in 2014-15 that were not recorded in 2012-13, including Coot, Treecreeper and the amber-status Stock dove.  More importantly, some of the amber status birds that we didn’t record on site in 2014-15, we know from additional surveys are still present in habitats within 500 metres of the development, for example Dunnock, Green woodpecker, and Bullfinch.  Similarly, red status birds such as resident Starling, and winter migrant Fieldfare and Redwing occur within at least one kilometre of the site.  Hopefully as the building work progresses towards completion these (and other) species will return, so at the moment we’re not too concerned by their disappearance from the site.

Later in the spring we will conduct a couple of breeding bird surveys, and continue surveying for the next few years until the campus opens in 2018.  Only then will we see exactly how successful our influence has been.  In the mean time I’ll report back as and when we have more data to share.

Waterside winter 2014-15

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Biodiversity conservation pays its way – Nature Improvement Areas are boosting wildlife, communities and economy

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This is the text from a national press release that’s been sent out today by the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area:

Wildlife, communities and local economies are reaping the benefits of England’s new Nature Improvement Areas, according to a report published last week (14th November).  The Nene Valley is one of these twelve Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) set up by the government in 2012, which have helped farmers to access EU grants, made valuable contributions towards university research and boosted the £210 billion rural economy.

They’ve also attracted outside investment – more than £730,000 from business partners and £7.8 million from NGOs and not-for-profit organisations.  Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss said:

“A healthy environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand. These Nature Improvement Areas show how protecting our precious wildlife and outstanding landscapes can help grow our £30 billion rural tourism industry and create more jobs for hardworking people as part of our long term economic plan.”

Almost 19,000 hectares of threatened habitat – equivalent to 23,000 football pitches- have been created or restored since the NIAs were set up with £7.5 million of government funding.  Volunteers have spent 24,300 days – or 66 years in total – surveying wildlife and improving habitats, and more than 11,000 people have taken part in educational visits.

These wild habitats are now bigger, better connected, and more widespread, enabling wildlife such as butterflies and water voles to thrive.

The Nene Valley NIA covers an area of 41,000 hectares running through the heart of Northamptonshire and skirting Huntingdonshire to the eastern fringes of Peterborough. It includes the River Nene and its tributaries, gravel pits, reservoirs and much of the floodplain. Heather Procter, Nene Valley Project Manager said:

“In the Nene Valley we must find a careful balance between the pressures for development, tourism and recreation and the valuable wildlife that the valley is increasingly known for.  Through the NIA we have so far ensured that 1,500ha of farmland is managed in a more environmentally-friendly way, created over 100ha of wildflower meadow, and engaged communities in the future of their local environment. As we work towards the end of this round of Government support for NIAs in March 2015, we urge the Minister to build on the good work already achieved through NIAs, and provide leadership and support for existing and new NIA projects into the future.”

NIAs were first announced in the Natural Environment White Paper, the first government White Paper on the environment for 20 years, with the aim of creating 12 initial areas to reconnect nature on a significant scale through local partnerships.

The NIA partnerships have improved access to the countryside, creating new public footpaths and connecting a network of paths which will span 540km by 2015.

The NIA partnerships are on track to restore, create, enhance and maintain a further 5,500 hectares by 2015, joining up people and communities with their landscapes.

But the vision doesn’t end there. In the Nene Valley there are plans to continue to protect and enhance the landscape for the benefit of wildlife, people and the economy for years to come. Local people can help us to form our plans for 2015-20 by adding their thoughts to the interactive map on the Nene Valley NIA website http://www.nenevalleynia.org/my-nene-valley.

ENDS

Notes for Editors

The report is: Monitoring and Evaluation of Nature Improvement Areas Year 2 (2013-14) Progress Report (Defra Research Project WC1061) and can be downloaded from WC1061.

The 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) are:

Birmingham and Black Country
Dearne Valley
Humberhead Levels
Marlborough Downs
Meres and Mosses of the Marches
Morecambe Bay Limestone and Wetlands
Nene Valley
Northern Devon
South Downs Way Ahead
The Dark Peak

The Greater Thames Marshes
Wild Purbeck

  1. The Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) Programme, with funding of £7.5 million, was established, as announced by Defra in the Natural Environment White Paper (2011). This project has been supported by Defra, DCLG, Environment Agency, Forestry Commission and Natural England.
  1. Defra launched a competition to fund an initial 12 NIAs in July 2011, judged by a panel led by Professor Sir John Lawton. Seventy-six applications were received. The Nene Valley is one of the 12 successful partnerships that started work in April 2012.
  1. NIAs are large, discrete areas that will deliver a step change in nature conservation, where a local partnership has a shared vision for their natural environment. The partnership will plan and deliver significant improvements for wildlife and people through the sustainable use of natural resources, restoring and creating wildlife habitats, connecting local sites and joining up local action. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk
  1. It is not the intention for NIAs to stifle sustainable development. It is a matter for local authorities to decide what weight they wish to give to NIAs in their local plans.
  1. The Nene Valley NIA is a partnership project of more than 20 organisations in Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough and covers over 41,000 hectares including countryside, urban fringe and town centres:  www.nenevalleynia.org

Media Contact

For more information, interview requests and photographs of the Nene Valley and its wildlife please contact Heather Procter, Nene Valley Project Manager, heather.procter@wildlifebcn.org or 01604 774032.

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

The National Pollinator Strategy – some reflections

Moth in hand 2014-08-25 19.47.20

After many months of consultation and workshops, the National Pollinator Strategy for England has finally been released by Defra, and can be downloaded from this website.  It reflects an important, wider change in societal attitudes to nature, and specifically the ecosystem services it provides, though the strategy itself is by no means perfect.  I rather wish that it had been a UK-wide strategy, as biodiversity does not respect political boundaries, but such is a the nature of our partly-devolved political system. Wales already has an Action Plan for Pollinators and I hope that the rest of the UK follows, though a strategy for Northern Ireland would surely have to include the Republic of Ireland?

In the following sections I’ve quoted liberally from the summary section of the National Pollinator Strategy, and added a few comments and reflections of my own in italics.  As always, your views and comments would be very welcome.

The 10 year National Pollinator Strategy aims to deliver across five key areas:

1. Supporting pollinators on farmland

  • Working with farmers to support pollinators through the Common Agricultural Policy and with voluntary initiatives to provide food, shelter and nesting sites.
  • Minimising the risks for pollinators associated with the use of pesticides through best practice, including Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Comment: at the moment many farmers are already pro-actively encouraging pollinators and other wildlife, but most are not.  Will “voluntary initiatives“, including encouraging Integrated Pest Management, be sufficient?  About 70% of the country is farmed and any wildlife conservation strategy has got to include agricultural stakeholders.  But the influence of large agro-chemical businesses should not be under-estimated.  I’ve seen figures suggesting that fields of oil seed rape in this country receive applications of up to 20 different chemicals (biocides and fertilisers) each year.  That represents a significant profit for these companies, who will not want to change the status quo.  Data showing a slow down in the rate of decline of  plants and pollinators in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium may be evidence that CAP agri-environmental schemes have had a positive impact, but I’d like to see more data addressing that question (and not just for pollinators – farmland birds are doing worse than any other category of birds in the UK).

2. Supporting pollinators across towns, cities and the countryside

  • Working with large-scale landowners, and their advisers, contractors and facility managers, to promote simple changes to land management to provide food, shelter and nest sites.
  • Ensuring good practice to help pollinators through initiatives with a wide range of organisations and professional networks including managers of public and amenity spaces, utility and transport companies, brownfield site managers, local authorities, developers and planners
  • Encouraging the public to take action in their gardens, allotments, window boxes and balconies to make them pollinator-friendly or through other opportunities such as community gardening and volunteering on nature reserves.

Comment:  “simple changes to land management” can do a lot for supporting local biodiversity, even in the most unlikely, urban settings, which is the underlying philosophy behind our award-winning Biodiversity Index tool.  Quite a number of local authorities are getting the message that it’s A Good Thing to reduce the frequency of cutting amenity grasslands, both for pollinators and for budgets.  But local authorities are also taking foolish decisions with regard to developing sites that should be protected, and brownfield areas are being specifically targeted for building urban housing, despite the fact that we have long known that they are some of our best sites for pollinators.  How do we reconcile these different priorities?  Brownfield sites by their nature are transitory, early successional habitats, so perhaps local authorities should be encouraged (made?) to have a rolling stock of a minimum proportion of undeveloped brownfield sites as part of their portfolio of land holdings?  Or how about a requirement that all developed areas of brownfield land are replaced by an equivalent area of brown roofs?

3. Enhancing the response to pest and disease risks

  • Working to address pest and disease risks to honey bees whilst further improving beekeepers’ husbandry and management practices to strengthen the resilience of bee colonies.
  • Keeping under active review any evidence of pest and disease risks associated with commercially produced pollinators used for high-value crop production.

Comment:  interestingly there’s no mention of disease risks to non-managed pollinators, yet we know that honey bee diseases can be passed to bumblebees, for instance.

 Actions to support these priority areas:

4. Raising awareness of what pollinators need to survive and thrive

  • Developing and disseminating further advice to a wide range of land owners, managers and gardeners as part of Bees’ Needs.
  • Improving the sharing of knowledge and evidence between scientists, conservation practitioners and non-government organisations (NGOs) to ensure that actions taken to support pollinators are based on up-to-date evidence.

Comment: yes, dissemination of sound, evidence-based knowledge has got to be a priority.

5. Improving evidence on the status of pollinators and the service they provide

  • Developing a sustainable long-term monitoring programme so we better understand their status, the causes of any declines and where our actions will have most effect.
  • Improving our understanding of the value and benefits pollinators provide, and how resilient natural and agricultural systems are to changes in their populations.

Comment: monitoring of pollinators is a real sticking point in the strategy, as there’s still no consensus on what should be monitored, how, where, and how frequently.  This was the subject of a workshop at the Natural History Museum in London that I attended about a year ago, and there’s still much that is undecided.  I know that a partnership led by CEH Wallingford is working on this at the moment, and hopefully a scheme will be in place by next year.  Let’s see what they come up with.

In taking action across these five areas, the National Pollinator Strategy wants to achieve the following outcomes:

  • More, bigger, better, joined-up, diverse and high-quality flower-rich habitats (including nesting places and shelter) supporting our pollinators across the country.
  • Healthy bees and other pollinators which are more resilient to climate change and severe weather events.
  • No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species.
  • Enhanced awareness across a wide range of businesses, other organisations and the public of the essential needs of pollinators.
  • Evidence of actions taken to support pollinators.

Comment:  “More, bigger, better, joined up…” has been the buzz phrase in British conservation since at least the Lawton Report.  One of the outcomes of that report was the setting up of twelve flagship Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs), one of which is the Nene Valley NIA, a project on which my research group has been working.  The Strategy mentions the NIAs several times and states that “extending the monitoring and evaluation framework for Nature Improvement Areas to include pollinators” is one of its interim aims.  But as I recently mentioned, funding for the NIAs finishes at the end of March 2015 and Defra has indicated that there will be no additional government money.  How will this aim be met?  I’d be very interested to know as the Nene Valley NIA is one of the few which specifically focused on pollinators as part of our remit.  It would be a terrible shame to lose the expertise and momentum that we’ve built up when funding stops next year.  As regards “No further extinctions of known threatened pollinator species“, the talk I gave at SCAPE 2014 was on that very topic and a paper outlining our results is currently in press.  I hope to be able to share those findings with the broad readership of this blog very shortly.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity Index, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Hedgerows, Honey bees, Hoverflies, Nene Valley NIA, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

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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Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Hedgerows, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton

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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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Birds, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

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

2012-05-31 13.57.26

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