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“Valuing our Life Support Systems” report launch: the challenges and opportunities of natural capital

Barry Gardiner opens the "Valuing our Life Support Systems" summit report launch

Barry Gardiner opens the “Valuing our Life Support Systems” summit report launch

Researchers, business leaders and policymakers gathered at Portcullis House last night for the launch of the Natural Capital Initiative’s “Valuing our Life Support Systems” summit report. Chaired by Barry Gardiner MP, speakers Mike Acreman (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology), Rosie Hails (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Natural Capital Committee), Will Evison (PwC), Bill Sutherland (University of Cambridge, British Ecological Society), and Ruth Waters (Natural England) offered their reflections on the key messages from the report, and how they might guide future thinking on natural capital.

The ethics of natural capital

The report provoked a lively debate, raising a number of key considerations for the future development of the natural capital approach. Frequently raised during last night’s event was the reminder that we must not elide the ethical and political dimensions of natural capital. Placing a value on nature, regardless of whether it is expressed in monetary terms, is not a neutral act, but is in itself a value-laden, political decision that can be contested. As several speakers expressed, it is neither possible nor desirable to express the full value of nature within an economic frame. It is important that we recognise the both the opportunities and limitations of natural capital thinking, and address the ethical tensions presented by monetary valuations of nature through open, inclusive debate.

Restricting the development of the natural capital approach to the realm of scientists, economists, businesses and policymakers risks a narrowly technocratic discussion. As Ruth Waters pointed out, a wider range of voices must be represented, including social scientists, but also crucially, the public. Public involvement cannot be reduced to merely convincing people of the merits of a natural capital approach, but should be a genuine dialogue that can influence decision-making. One example is the recent Public Dialogue on the UK National Ecosystem Assessment conducted by the University of Exeter, which found that while people saw the tactical utility of valuation techniques for influencing decision-making, they also expressed “general unease with making an association between monetary value and nature”.

“The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed”

Now is the right time for these debates to happen. A common thread running through last night’s discussion – reflected in the summit “scorecard” – was that while we have made good progress in conceptualising natural capital, we remain some way from translating this into mainstream practical implementation. Engaging with the ethical questions provoked by the natural capital approach must be part of this process. In conservation practice, as Bill Sutherland highlighted, significant gaps remain in understanding how to translate long-term monitoring data into natural capital measurements and in assessing which “nature-based solutions” really deliver. In business, while a number of leading companies have made real progress in incorporating natural capital into their accounting and decision-making, only four of the FTSE 100 included even a mention of the term in their most recent reports.

A key finding of the summit report was the view amongst participants that engaging the business community was an essential component of turning natural capital thought into action. One of the biggest challenges, as Will Evison acknowledged, is in finding valuation methods – informed by sound science – that distil the complexity of the natural world into a form that makes sense to business, yet avoid reductionism or “dumbing down” and remain honest about their limitations. Second, there is a need for a move away from a monolithic view of business, towards a more nuanced approach that recognises the diversity of needs and values of different commercial sectors. Strong collaboration between business, researchers, and policymakers is vital for meeting these challenges.

The next steps

The natural capital approach is quickly gaining traction amongst businesses, policymakers and conservationists. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Conservative government’s manifesto commitment to extend the life of the Natural Capital Committee, and work with it to develop a 25 year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity. Yet it is vital that the development of this approach is informed by genuine dialogue between researchers, policymakers, businesses, conservationists and the public, and is underpinned by sound science and considered ethical debate.

The “Valuing our Life Support Systems” summit report offers an ideal starting point for this dialogue. Over the coming months the Natural Capital Initiative will be exploring specific issues in greater detail through a number of dialogue sessions – find out how you can get involved.

The Natural Capital Initiative is a partnership between the Society of Biology, British Ecological Society, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the James Hutton Institute.

The “Valuing our Life Support Systems” summit report launch was supported by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Read the report, watch the video, visit the website.

Posted in Economics, Ecosystem Services, Event, Natural Capital Initiative, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review – Conflicts in Conservation: Navigating Towards Solutions

Conservation conflicts are rarely out of the news. In the UK we have recently seen arguments rage over whether or not badgers should be culled in order to mitigate the spread of Bovine TB, with farmers, scientists, conservationists, policy-makers and animal rights campaigners all involved in fractious debates. Similarly, just this month Natural England reported that the fifth hen harrier of the year had disappeared from northern England, likely due to illegal persecution. Thus continues the bitter dispute between grouse moor managers, who see predation by hen harriers as a threat to their grouse stocks and consequent income, and conservationists who wish to see the return of a protected species that has been hunted practically to extinction in England.

The latest volume in the BES’s Ecological Reviews series therefore arrives at a timely juncture. Conflicts in Conservation: Navigating Towards Solutions, edited by Stephen M. Redpath, Ralph J. Gutiérrez, Kevin A. Wood and Juliette C. Young, offers a new, interdisciplinary perspective on both understanding and resolving conservation conflicts. Defining conservation conflict as what occurs “when parties clash over differences about conservation objectives and when one party asserts, or at least is perceived to assert, its interests at the expense of another”, the book incorporates insights from disciplines ranging from anthropology to ecology, biology to law, all brought to life with a series of illuminating case studies.

At the core of the book is the view that the natural sciences alone do not give us the necessary tools to achieve progress towards our conservation goals. On the surface conservation conflicts may appear to be about conflicts between people and wildlife that can be resolved through better scientific understanding of the problem at hand. In reality however, they are predominantly conflicts between different groups of people; and as the editors write, they encapsulate “a complex layering of diverse issues related to different world views, issues of trust, power imbalances or latent historical issues”. Conservation conflicts present problems that cannot be resolved through science alone: they are messy, complex, and unavoidably involve human politics and values.

As such, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding conflicts that brings together ecological and social scientific knowledge, as well as the tacit knowledge of stakeholders, professionals and communities, is essential. The strength of this approach is well illustrated by the diversity of insights offered in the different chapters of Conflicts in Conservation. For example, taking an approach grounded in political ecology, William M. Adams argues that eliding the political dimension inherent within all conservation decisions, and presenting them as merely technical, is a poor strategy for resolving conflicts: “conservation is always and everywhere political because choices have to be made”. Similarly Robert A. Lambert highlights the importance of environmental history for contextualising conservation conflicts, whilst Herbert H. Blumberg places psychology centre stage. The importance of sound scientific evidence is not forgotten, with Stephen M. Redpath and William J. Sutherland asserting the value of high quality ecological information.

The depth and breadth of insights offered by the different chapter authors certainly give us a better understanding of conservation conflicts, but do they enable us to more effectively resolve them? A strength of this volume is that it doesn’t stop at understanding conflicts, but suggests steps towards their positive management. For the editors, this starts with a process of mapping the conflict: identifying the problem, including relevant stakeholders, their values and positions; identifying the scale of the conflict and understanding what different disciplines and forms of knowledge are required to understand the issue. From here, a process of “collaborative conflict management” is proposed, based on five principles: communication, transparency, inclusiveness, influence and trust, working within a process that involves all stakeholders, and works towards a potential solution agreeable to all sides.

Could this approach be applied to some of the seemingly intractable conservation conflicts we face in the UK? Clearly, there is no silver bullet. Yet by opening up the debate to recognise the complexity of these conflicts and the importance of both ecological and social dimensions, this book offers a strong starting point.

Conflicts in Conservation: Navigating Towards Solutions can be ordered from the CUP website.

BES members receive a 25% discount on the cover price of all volumes in the series, visit My BES Offers (must be logged in) to access the discount code.

Posted in Conservation, Ecological Reviews, Science, Wildlife Management | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top Five Tips for PhD Students

On the 4-5th June 2015, the BES delivered a ‘Policy and Careers’ Training event for PhD students. The workshop was a pilot and was delivered to students from the Universities of  Liverpool, Sheffield and York and the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, enrolled on the ‘Adapting to the Challenges of Changing Environment (ACCE) Doctoral Partnership.

Catch up with all the key messages and highlights with our Storify below!

Posted in Conservation, Ecology, Education, Environment, Government, Parliament, Science, Science and Technology Committee, Science Communication, Science Policy, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Debating the Nature Directives at EU Green Week

Hosted annually by the European Commission, EU Green Week is the largest annual conference on European environmental policy, attracting over 3,000 participants from governments, NGOs, businesses and academia to Brussels over the course of three days. In line with our strategic aim of improving interaction with decision-makers at a European level, last week the BES External Affairs team attended Green Week for the first time. With this year’s theme – “Nature: our health, our wealth” – focusing on the relationship between Europe’s natural environment, and our social and economic wellbeing, the current uncertainty surrounding the future of the Birds and Habitats Directives was the hot topic of discussion.

2015 is an important year for nature conservation in Europe. We are halfway towards the deadline imposed by the EU Biodiversity Strategy of halting the loss of biodiversity in the continent by 2020. Yet, as Ronan Uhel of the European Environment Agency outlined at Green Week, the recent State of Nature in the EU report shows that we are not on track to meet this target. Furthermore, the Birds and Habitats Directives, the cornerstones of European conservation legislation, are this year subject to a “Fitness Check” review as part of the European Commission’s REFIT programme for “better” regulation. Seeking to assess whether the Directives remain “fit for purpose”, the fitness check could lead to changes in the legislation.

Fit for purpose?

Given that biodiversity loss is continuing apace in the European Union, is it time to change the legislation we have at our disposal? At Green Week, Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission indicated that the idea should be entertained. While vowing that any changes would not lower environmental standards, he suggested that the legislation needed updating, to find “more modern ways to reach those standards”. This echoed the mandate issued by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella last year to assess the potential for merging the Directives “into a more modern piece of legislation”.

Yet for many of the speakers at Green Week, the response to the question of whether the Directives should be changed was a resounding “no”. Patricia Zurita, Chief Executive of Birdlife International, and Mike Clarke of the RSPB both argued that the Directives are “a success to be proud of” that underpin the world’s most comprehensive network of protected areas (Natura 2000) whilst also allowing for sustainable economic development. Their stance is that the Directives must be upheld in their current form, and that improved implementation of existing legislation is where change is needed. This view has already garnered huge public backing, with over 200,000 people already responding to the public consultation on the Directives through the Nature Alert campaign, backed by NGOs across Europe.

This support for maintaining the Directives in their current form was echoed by Elsa Nickel, Director General of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, who argued that from the German Government’s perspective, the Directives were absolutely “fit for purpose”. She explained that while implementation was not always easy, and far from complete, the Natura 2000 network was now established and starting to have a noticeable positive impact, whilst providing certainty for businesses. Any changes to the legislation would undermine this stability and risk changing a successful framework just as it is starting to take real effect. This view was reinforced by Ronan Uhel’s summary of the results of the State of Nature in the EU report, which found that when implemented well, the Natura 2000 network is delivering clear benefits for people and nature. However, as the report highlights, only 50% of protected sites have comprehensive management plans.

The view that it is implementation, not the Directives themselves, that is holding back European efforts to halt biodiversity loss was further endorsed by Carole Dieschbourg, Luxembourg’s Environment Minister, and from the private sector by Dimitrious Dimopolous of Piraeus Bank. This view was not, however, universal. Pekka Pesonen, General Secretary of COPA-COPEGA (representing farmers in the EU) welcomed the fitness check and argued that environmental protection needed to better support rural economic development. He suggested that the rigidity of the Directives meant that farmers “fear” rare species appearing on their land, and that the Directives also need to be better adapted to changing conditions, such as population dynamics and climate change.

What does the evidence say?

The majority of evidence supports the conclusion that when implemented well, the Birds and Habitats Directives are effective in delivering benefits for both biodiversity and people, and the BES supported this conclusion as part of the UK’s “Joint Links” evidence submission to the Fitness Check. For example, Donald et al (2007) found that species afforded the strictest protection under the Birds Directive saw a reversal of previous population declines, with studies by Pellisier et al (2013) and Brodier et al (2013) also demonstrating positive impacts of the Natura 2000 network on bird species. Furthermore, work by Gantolier et al (2014) found that the socio-economic benefits of the network are substantially larger than the costs.

The Fitness Check is ongoing, and we encourage BES members to complete the public consultation, or get in touch if you would like to contribute to our organisational response. You can find the questionnaire online here.

Posted in Biodiversity, Birds, Conference, Conservation, Environment, EU, Event, International | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Natural Capital: placing nature at the core of the economy

The Conservative government has acknowledged the important advisory role that the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) has played and intends to extend the life of the NCC until at least 2020, the end of this parliament (2020). Further to this, in their manifesto, the Conservative Party outlined that ‘they will work with the NCC to develop a 25 year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity and ensure that both public and private investment in the environment is directed where it’s needed most’. In his last few months as Chair of NCC, Professor Dieter Helm outlines the importance of valuing nature and presents his practical solutions for incorporating natural capital into the heart of our economy. This blog post is an account of his recent talk and also discusses the role of ecologists in natural capital research.

Professor Helm addressed an audience at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on the 21st May 2015.  The seminar at the IPPR marked the publication of Professor Helm’s book, entitled: ‘Natural Capital: valuing the planet’. The event was chaired by Diana Fox Carney (Director of Strategy and Engagement, IPPR), with a response from Martin Harper (Head of Conservation, RSPB).

Can we protect and restore natural capital for future generations?

Natural capital was defined as the ‘elements of nature that produce value to people ‘and ‘the core building block to our economies’. In order to protect and maintain our natural capital for future generations, we need to face up to the two greatest societal challenges (1) climate change and (2) the loss of natural environment and biodiversity.

Professor Helm stated that ‘it is perfectly possible to tackle these challenges and achieve sustainable economic growth. Although the loss of biodiversity and much of our natural environment may be biological and physical processes, the solutions lie in the allocation of scarce resources, in other words, economics’.

Why do we need to value the planet?

Professor Helm then put forward his case for natural capital as the solution, stating that ‘focusing on natural capital is a way of ensuring that the value of nature is embedded in our economy. By making a choice, a price is being put on nature’. Professor Helm outlined the benefits of valuing nature, in terms of conservation and management.  ‘The issue is not what something is ultimately worth but rather how much should be spent to preserve and enhance it’. Valuation will therefore help to determine where conservationists should concentrate their effort and which projects offer the greatest extra benefits.

Professor Helm also acknowledged that valuing nature is a contentious topic and has a range of complexities. Specifically that ‘philosophers have argued that a price cannot be value on nature’ and also that ‘valuing the benefits from nature has implications and is fraught with complications’.  However, that these complexities should not prevent us placing a value on nature, as ‘refusing to price or place an economic value on nature risks an environmental meltdown’. Professor Helm presented the collapse of the cod stocks as an example of what happens when there is no price placed on nature.

What are the solutions?

Professor Helm proposed a number of solutions that would help to maintain and enhance our natural capital. Adapted from his book, he proposed an economic framework that would incorporate natural capital into the heart of our economy, with natural assets at the core.  This framework would include the use of compensation, green taxes and the reduction of perverse subsidies, to ensure that compensation is provided if the environment is damaged.

Alongside this, he recommended the more widespread use of ‘Corporate Natural Capital accounting’ (CNCA). CNCA is a framework, developed by the Natural Capital Committee, eftec, RSPB and PwC, for organisations to take better account of the natural capital they own, depend on or for which they are responsible. The CNCA framework involves the use of a ‘Balance Sheet’, which outlines the value of natural capital assets, how it’s value has changed year on year and the ongoing costs of maintaining the natural asset’s value (capital maintenance). This framework will enable organisations to gather natural capital information in a coherent and comparable format to aid decision making about the management of natural assets, to the benefit of both the organisation and society. All in all, Professor Helm concluded that these proposed solutions would achieve the aim of incorporating natural capital into the core of the economy and would create an economic flow of revenue that would deliver the White Paper policy, stopping the decline of our natural assets and starting the process towards restoration.

These points were then responded to by Martin Harper, Head of Conservation at the RSPB. Martin firstly commented on the huge urgency to halt the loss of biodiversity, ‘there is one generation left to prevent 50% of species heading to extinction’. Martin acknowledged the importance of economics and natural capital in protecting biodiversity. He also commented on the need for Professor Helm’s solutions (e.g. use of compensation measures) to have clear regulatory frameworks, in order for them to be effective. Alongside this, Martin acknowledged the limits of natural capital and economics, stating that society also ‘needs to think about how to deal with the challenges that cannot be solved by economics’.

How can ecologists help?

Ecologists play a vital role in natural capital research as reflected by the recent report by the NCC. The CNCA framework requires a natural capital asset register, an inventory that holds details of all the natural capital asset stocks that are relevant to the accounts, including their condition, as measured by their extent, quality and other relevant factors.  The natural capital asset register utilises biophysical metrics to measure and track the state of natural capital assets, including biodiversity, over time.  However, developing metrics that inform on the complex nature of biodiversity poses a significant challenge.

Ecological expertise are required to develop metrics that help to provide a clear picture on the state of biodiversity. Further research is required to develop biodiversity metrics which consider the following: (1) conservation significance, (2) availability, quality and spatial scale and (3) the likely responses of biodiversity components to human intervention. This ecological input will be fundamental to the development and future application of the natural capital asset register and the CNCA framework.


Posted in BES, Biodiversity, Conservation, Ecology, Economics, Economy, England, Environment, Science, Uncategorized, Valuation, White Paper | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The State of Nature in the EU: worrying figures and an uncertain future?

The results of the latest round of reporting under the European Birds and Habitats Directives, published last week as the State of Nature in the EU report, offer a sobering assessment of the condition of the natural world across the continent. Based on over 17,000 datasets and encompassing information on 1650 species and 231 habitat types, the report concludes that if current trends continue, we will fail to meet the target of “halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020”.

Many of the headline figures make for worrying reading. Of protected species listed under the Habitats Directive, only 23% were found to be in favourable conservation status. The situation for habitats is even worse, with just 16% of habitat assessments deemed favourable. Since the previous reporting round in 2006, there has been no significant improvement to these figures in terms of habitats, and only a slight increase of around 2% in favourable assessments for species. The results from the Birds Directive are slightly more encouraging, with the populations of 52% of all bird species deemed secure, although 32% are still classed as threatened, near threatened, declining or depleted.

There are however, significant glimmers of hope amongst this doom and gloom. Where targeted conservation measures have been applied, species and habitats have clearly benefitted, and the report identified a number of success stories, predominantly at the local or national level. From the recovery of the great bustard across Europe due to agri-environmental and land management programmes, to the improvement in status of habitats such as calcareous grassland in Poland or wetlands in Belgium, the positive  impact of effective implementation of appropriate conservation efforts are clear.

The Natura 2000 network of protected sites designated under the Birds and Habitats Directives, described as the “centrepiece of EU nature and biodiversity policy”, now covers over 18% of the EU’s land area, and the report concludes that there are clear indications that this network is “playing a major role in stabilising habitats and species with an unfavourable status, especially where the necessary conservation measures have been implemented on an adequate scale”. In general terms, the report finds that the better a species or habitat is covered by Natura 2000, the better its conservation status. Yet full implementation of the conservation measures that Natura 2000 demands remains an elusive goal. As the report finds, “insufficient progress has been made in introducing conservation objectives and measures that fully respond to the needs of the protected habitats and species”; just 50% of sites have comprehensive management plans in place.

In short, the report demonstrates that while European nature legislation provides an effective framework for protecting species and habitats, these tools are not yet being applied at the level required to halt the loss of biodiversity across the continent. Scaling up our conservation efforts is essential if we are to meet our 2020 goals.

The future of the Birds and Habitats directives

This finding chimes with the recent evidence submitted to the European Commission by 100 NGOs – including the BES – as part of the current “fitness check” of the Birds and Habitats Directives being undertaken by the European Commission. Part of the Commission’s REFIT programme, the fitness check seeks to assess whether the Directives are “fit for purpose”, and while stated to be “evidence-based”, sits against a political backdrop of increasing deregulatory pressure. The submission by the UK’s “Joint Links” (Wildlife and Countryside Link, Scottish Environment Link, Wales Environment Link and Northern Ireland Environment Link), which included contributions from the BES, found that the Directives are scientifically proven to be effective where properly implemented, delivering environmental, social and economic benefits that far outweigh the costs of implementation.

However, as the Joint Links position statement makes apparent, to subject the Birds and Habitats Directives to review at a time when implementation remains far from complete, with the accompanying uncertainty about their future, could be bad for nature, bad for people, and bad for business, potentially jeopardising the currently stable regulatory framework as well as vital protection for species and habitats, and the accompanying benefits to people. The message is clear: whilst the Directives may not be perfect, if we are to stand the best chance of halting biodiversity loss in Europe by 2020, the focus should be on implementing them to the full, rather than opening them up to revision, uncertainty, and possible weakening.

Have your say

The second part of the REFIT fitness check is now underway, with the European Commission opening a public consultation on the Directives. In response, a number of conservation NGOS from across Europe and the UK have launched a campaign to “Defend Nature”, with an online tool allowing people to respond quickly to the consultation.

We encourage members to respond directly to the consultation here, or get in touch if you would like to contribute to the BES’s organisational response.

Posted in Biodiversity, Birds, EU, Wildlife and Countryside Link | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What does the general election result mean for ecological issues?

As the dust settles and MPs return to the House of Commons following the general election, what does the outcome mean for ecological issues?

Much to the surprise of many, least of all the vast majority of pollsters, the UK General Election delivered a Conservative majority Government for the first time since 1992, with David Cameron returning to Downing Street with a small but decisive majority of 12 MPs. As such, rather than the expected coalition horse-trading or minority administration uncertainty, the day-to-day business of Government and Parliament is quickly resuming operation.

Where ecological issues are concerned, there is a degree of stability in the key personnel making the decisions on environmental policy, but some changes. Liz Truss has retained her position as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whilst George Eustice has been promoted from Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Farming, Food and Marine Environment to Minister of State. Dan Rogerson, who lost his seat as well as his Government post as part of the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, has been replaced in the Defra team by Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, and previously Chair of the Defence Select Committee. Lord de Mauley, previously Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Natural Environment and Science, has lost his position, and at present, hasn’t been replaced, although Lord Gardiner, former Deputy Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, has been appointed Defra Spokesperson in the House of Lords.

Beyond Defra, there are a number of changes to Government Ministers relevant to ecological issues. Jo Johnson, brother of Boris and previously Head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, has been appointed Minister of State for Universities and Science, but will not attend Cabinet, much to the concern of the science lobby. His predecessor, Greg Clark, takes over from Eric Pickles at the Department of Communities and Local Government, whilst Amber Rudd’s appointment as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has received a positive response from environmental groups. Over the coming weeks the composition of the key parliamentary Select Committees – such as the Science and Technology, and Environmental Audit Committee – will become clear.

Conservative Policy Priorities

A review of the Conservative Manifesto suggests that in many areas of environmental policy the move from a Coalition government to Conservative majority administration is unlikely to signal a dramatic change in direction. However, there will be a number of changes, and much more detail will emerge in the coming months.

The manifesto reiterated the promise in the Natural Environment White Paper to be “the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than that in which we found it”. The Conservatives intend to extend the life of the Natural Capital Committee, established by the Coalition, until at least 2020, and build on previous marine conservation measures by completing the UK’s network of Marine Conservation Zones and creating a “Blue Belt” around the UK’s fourteen Overseas Territories. Tackling the illegal wildlife trade remains a priority, and despite a lack of progress in implementing the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry, the Conservatives have pledged to keep the UK’s forests “in trust” for the nation and plant 11 million new trees. The controversial culling of badgers to combat Bovine TB will be pursued and rolled out more widely.

Significantly, these policies will be delivered against the backdrop of significant funding cuts to Defra and other Government Departments, with the promise of £13 billion of departmental savings over the next two years. More details of the Government’s spending plans will be announced by the Chancellor on 9th July. Furthermore, the impending referendum on the UK’s EU membership could have a huge impact on environmental policy, with many of our most important environmental protections, such as the Birds and Habitats Directives,  stemming from the EU.

BES Priorities for the new Government

The BES has identified three priorities for policy-making in this Parliament, and we will be working to try and ensure that the new Government adheres to these principles over the next five years. They are:

  1. That environmental policy is informed by sound scientific evidence, and that policy-makers have access to the best available ecological science to inform decision-making.
  2. That ecological science is valued for the vital role it has to play in meeting some of the most important challenges of the 21st century.
  3. That the value of the environment to human wellbeing and prosperity – our natural capital – is recognised across government.

One of the priorities in the BES’s new strategic plan is to raise our profile and influence with policy and decision makers, and to make sure that the voice of ecology, and ecologists, is heard at the highest level. We are currently reviewing our policy priority issues and the mechanisms we use to interact with policy-makers, and in the coming months will be firming up our plans to ensure that we can be as effective as possible in making the case for policy informed by the best ecological science.

We are keen to hear from our members about what you feel should be our policy priorities for the next five years, so please get in touch with your ideas and suggestions.

Posted in BIS, Conservatives, Defra, Ecology, Environment, Government, Parliament, Political Parties, Science Policy, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Managing conservation conflict with a Pie and a Pint

By Chris Pollard, University of Stirling

This blog was originally posted on the Stirling Conservation Science Blog

Attendees at Pie and a Pint: Conservation Conflicts

Attendees at Pie and a Pint: Conservation Conflicts

I’m sitting down to write this shortly after the UK General Election result, which has surprised many. Your surprise may be positive or negative but if you’re Nick Clegg you may well be pondering if your five years of cooperation with David Cameron’s Conservatives turned out so well after all. I don’t think the electorate thought so.

Modern conservation of biodiversity relies on elected policymakers and professional civil servants cooperating with each other and with a plethora of stakeholder groups and experts from various fields. Personal ideological differences as well as those in background, employment, life experience, language etc. can often be overcome or even embraced to get conservation work done. However, where there is strong disagreement about conservation objectives coupled with a perception of some groups acting to assert interests at the expense of others, there is conservation conflict. Conservation conflict is on the rise and offers a significant threat to conservation efforts throughout the world.

The importance of the issue meant the British Ecological Society Scottish Policy Group became interested in conservation conflict as a discussion topic for their informal meeting series ‘Pie and a Pint.’ The perfect antidote to dry lectures and formal meetings, Pie and a Pint brings ecologists, politicians, civil servants and other specialists together twice a year to discuss a different single theme relevant to both ecology and policy. With a pie. And a pint.

I organised the Pie and a Pint event at last Wednesday’s (6th May 2015) meeting in Edinburgh’s Summerhall with supervisors Nils Bunnefeld and Aidan Keane (Steve Redpath remotely) in tow. The aim was to initiate a discussion on conservation conflict in Scotland and how we can try to understand and manage it for the betterment of both stakeholders and biodiversity. How did we do this? Well we got everyone in a circle, told them to imagine being land owners and asked them if they would like to either farm sheep or enter a fictitious rewilding project. At one point I threw a die.

In my research I am just starting to use game theory to study conservation conflict. Tools from game theory, the study of strategic decision making, can help investigate how people will act and react in a competitive environment. As such they have been touted for use in conservation conflict situations. This could be to select a solution most acceptable to conflicting parties or to predict the reaction of various stakeholder groups to potential management strategies. Experiments can take the form of playing fairly simple controlled games to see how subjects make decisions and react to the decisions of others.

The game we played got our mixed crowd of ecologists, civil servants, economists and mathematicians into teams to play at being land owning families. The family had a set number of land units which they could use to either farm sheep or enter into a rewilding project. They received points based on their choices: sheep farming produced a lower but guaranteed payoff; the rewilding project could provide higher rewards but relied on the action of all the groups together, not just an individual team. If collectively, the teams didn’t reach a threshold of land allocated to sheep farming, then a penalty would be incurred.

We played a total of eight rounds of the game, with the ‘family’ teams deciding how much of their land to put into either the sheep farming or rewilding before each round. These decisions were not shared between the teams. Points were calculated and passed back to teams confidentially, with the mean score from all teams written up on a flip chart. Everyone could then see how they were doing versus the average.

Once we were out of time, we tallied up all the points and discussed why the teams had chosen their particular strategy.

One of the main features to appear during the discussion was that of resentment. Luckily it had quickly dissipated following the end of the game and everyone was positively interested in why and how they had all played the way they did. Some teams felt that they were alone in scoring below average, even though this was not the case. Others felt torn between playing the game to achieve the most points and choosing an option which represented them in the narrative of the game – sheep farming or rewilding – but which didn’t offer such a high payoff. The former felt resentment towards the other teams whom they (incorrectly) thought were performing ahead of them. The latter resented others who could accrue more points without seemingly have to choose between their points tally and a narrative role.

We managed to produce resentment (albeit a smiley version!) between a very nice bunch of fairly like-minded people in about an hour and half. Imagine the deep level of such feeling if it was your livelihood being threatened, consistently and over a number of years.

The Pie and a Pint evening game was a fun way to discuss conservation conflict with a varied audience rather than being a game designed to extract hard data. The next step in our research is to design a game to be played with people actually involved in conservation conflict situations. Using games we will encourage stakeholders to reveal, through play and discussion, information about decision making processes. We (both researchers and stakeholders) can then use such insights to determine the best ways of increasing cooperation between conflicting groups.

David Cameron no longer has to rely on cooperation with a competing party in order to govern the country. In biodiversity conservation however, we must find new tools (or new ways of using existing tools) to help those with very different viewpoints move forward and to meet conservation objectives.

Chris Pollard is a member of the Stirling Conservation Science group at the University of Stirling, studying for a PhD. The project uses concepts from game theory to investigate the conservation conflicts surrounding two Scotland based social‐ecological systems: hen harrier predation of red grouse chicks raised for the shooting industry and wild geese grazing on fields meant for livestock.

Originally a chemistry graduate, Chris moved into conservation science via an MSc from Imperial College in 2012. He has worked in Kenya with Ewaso Lions on conflict mitigation & management and in the UK for ClientEarth on the sourcing of sustainable seafood.

The views expressed in posts on this blog are personal to the author and are not necessarily shared by any sponsors or owners of this blog or any other person or entity involved in creating, producing or delivering it and no such party shall be held liable for any statements made or content posted.

Posted in BES, Conservation, Event, Scotland, Uncategorized, Wildlife Management, Workshop | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If Not You, Who?


By Jonathan Wentworth, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Last month, the Zoological Society of London together with the British Ecological Society organised a one day symposium, entitled “ The Conservation Science Policy/Interface: Challenges and Opportunities”. Acting as the launch event for the BES’s revitalised Conservation Special Interest Group, the symposium brought together over 150 scientists, conservationists and policy-makers to explore how the links between science and policy can be strengthened. Among the speakers was Jonathan Wentworth, who is a UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology adviser, as well as a member of the BES’s Public and Policy Committee. This blog post is an account of the talk he gave at this event.

POSTnote Launch 20th January 2015

POSTnote Launch 20th January 2015

The UK Parliament draws upon a range of information to scrutinise Government legislation and policy, including research evidence submitted by learned societies, universities and individual academics. An evaluation by the Policy Institute at King’s College London of the 2014 REF found that the most frequent forms of policy impact cited were parliamentary scrutiny and informing government policy. A total of 265 case studies specifically mentioned select committees and in 32 instances select committee reports cited the research in the case study (King’s College London and Digital Science, 2015). All Select Committees need evidence to be submitted, but some use evidence from environmental sciences more than others, including the House of Lords EU Subcommittee D on Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy, House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, House of Commons Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. The select committees all have webpages on the parliamentary websites on which calls for evidence are published and you can subscribe to e-mail alerts here.

However, the role of scientists as policy advisers on complex environmental issues is not always clearly defined and it may vary depending on the type of problem and other factors, such as the type of knowledge the expert has, their values, the organisation they work for or the broad societal context (Spruijt et al., 2014). In addition, while the political system requires the involvement of scientists, those seeking to promote evidence need to be aware of the limitations of evidence and expert judgement within political debates (Pielke Jr, 2008). As Professor Dan Sarewitz has noted, the willingness of groups within civil society to accept evidence and scientific evidence can depend on the extent to which their interests and values are taken account of by policymakers (Sarewitz, 2011), and Professor Dan Kahan has highlighted the role of motivated reasoning where scientific evidence has become contested as part of such debates (Kahan, 2014). In response to contestation of evidence, government departments increasingly require that evidence should be relevant to the policy issue, scientifically tenable and robust under societal scrutiny (van der Sluijs et al., 2008).

Parliamentary technology assessment institutions, such as the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), provide a ‘safe space’ for managing different values in the science community, presenting the plurality of evidence and the limits of knowledge to politicians (PACITA, 2015). This is to clarify different perspectives and provide analysis of the issues at stake (including ethical, legal and societal dimensions), as simplifying ill-structured problems can lead to elements relevant to some actors being overlooked or denied (Hisschemoller & Hoppe, 1996). Although your research evidence may be contested in such ‘messy’ policymaking arenas and processes, if you don’t promote it, who will?

POST’s publications and details of events are available here and you can sign up to our mailing list via post@parliament.uk.


Hisschemoller & Hoppe (1996) Coping with Intractable Controversies: The case for problem structuring in policy design and analysis. Knowledge and Policy vol. 8, Winter 1995-96, pp. 40-60.

Kahan (2014) Making Climate-Science Communication Evidence-based – All the Way Down, Culture, Politics and Climate Change, eds. M. Boykoff & D. Crow, Routledge Press.

King’s College London and Digital Science (2015) The nature, scale and beneficiaries of research impact: An initial analysis of Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 impact case studies, Research Report 2015/01.

PACITA (2015) TA as an Institutionalised Practice: Recent National Developments and Challenges

Pielke Jr (2008) The honest broker: making sense of science in policy and politics. Cambridge University Press.

Sarewitz (2011) Does Climate Change Knowledge Really Matter? Wiley Interactive Reviews (WIREs) Climate Change, 2(4).

Spruijt et al. (2014) Roles of scientists as policy advisers on complex issues: A literature review. Environmental Science and Policy 40, 16-25.

van der Sluijs et al. (2008) Exploring the quality of evidence for complex and contested policy decisions. Environ. Res. Lett. 3 024008 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/3/2/024008

Posted in Conference, Government, Parliament, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Science, Science Communication, Science Policy, Select Committee, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Culling badgers to control cattle tuberculosis – a black and white issue?


By Rosie Woodroffe, Institute of Zoology

Last month, the Zoological Society of London together with the British Ecological Society organised a one day symposium, entitled “ The Conservation Science Policy/Interface: Challenges and Opportunities”. Acting as the launch event for the BES’s revitalised Conservation Special Interest Group, the symposium brought together over 150 scientists, conservationists and policy-makers to explore how the links between science and policy can be strengthened. Among the speakers was Prof Rosie Woodroffe, who provided an overview of her experience of the science and politics of the badger cull controversy. This blog post is an account of the talk she gave at this event.

Rosie Woodroffe

Rosie Woodroffe

Bovine tuberculosis (TB) is a terrible problem for UK farmers, and the government’s response to it had the potential to become a model for evidence-based policymaking. In 1998, faced with rising cattle TB levels, strong evidence that wild badgers were involved in maintaining the infection, but little confidence that 25 years of badger culling had helped to protect cattle, the government took decisive action to improve its evidence base: it established a randomised controlled trial to explore how two forms of badger culling influenced cattle TB. The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) was implemented by government staff and overseen by a small committee of independent scientists (the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, or ISG, of which I was a member). Seventeen years later the RBCT is long since completed, and its clear and consistent results are published in top-quality scientific journals. Yet “badger” has become a byword for entrenched controversy, and a thoroughly evidence-based policy to control cattle TB continues to elude government.

To understand why the RBCT provoked controversy rather than resolving it, one must understand not only what it showed, but also how this information emerged. So, rather than outline the scientific evidence in a convincing logical sequence, I’ll relay the narrative as it unfolded, messily, over time.

Like most good experiments, the RBCT was blinded. In the early stages of experiments when sample sizes are small, trends may be apparent which are far from significant and which disappear when further data are collected. We feared that misinterpretation of such trends might lead to actions which confounded the experimental treatments, such as landowners withdrawing from the trial or culling badgers illegally. Of course it was not possible to hide from farmers whether or not culling was occurring on their land, but the key outcome data – the rates of cattle TB in the trial areas – were accessed only by the government analyst who collated them, two statisticians on the ISG, and an independent auditor. We established a protocol in which interim analyses would be conducted every six months, but the results would be communicated to other ISG members, Ministers, and Defra officials only when a statistically significant result emerged.

It took five years for the first result to emerge. After the long wait, the result was a huge shock to Defra staff: localised badger culling was associated with increases in cattle TB rather than reductions. Trial areas where badgers had been culled locally on and around TB-affected farms (the “reactive treatment”) experienced cattle TB rates significantly higher than those in the areas with no culling (the “survey-only treatment”).

Many Defra officials found it extremely difficult to believe that a form of culling very similar to that used as policy for decades could actually make cattle TB worse rather than better, especially because, at that point, there was little firm evidence to show why reactive culling appeared harmful. They suggested alternative explanations: maybe farmers had been illegally killing badgers in the survey-only areas, controlling TB more effectively than the “official” culls? Maybe our randomisation had accidentally allocated the most TB-affected areas to the reactive treatment?

Despite the uncertainty, Ministers had to act quickly: within days of the ISG discovering the apparently harmful effects of reactive culling, Ministers instructed that this treatment be immediately halted. Traps placed on farms were removed without ever catching a badger. Many Defra officials were uncomfortable with this decision; as one senior advisor complained to me “It depends whether you want to base your policy on a sound veterinary opinion, or just on statistics”.

Over subsequent years, the evidence strengthened. The idea that illegal killing had reduced cattle TB in the survey-only areas was disproved when surveys confirmed that badger activity had declined in the culled areas but not in the unculled areas. The suggestion that the reactive culling areas had higher TB rates by chance was undermined when the treatment was stopped and the harmful effects disappeared. Better still, ecological studies revealed a mechanism whereby badger culling could increase cattle TB. Culling disrupted badgers’ territorial behaviour, giving them opportunities to interact more with other badgers, and with more cattle herds. After culling there were fewer badgers, but each badger was more infectious to cattle because it was more likely to be infected and ranged across more farms.

Despite this growing evidence base, many Defra staff remained deeply suspicious of the RBCT. The reactive treatment had been halted, but the other treatment – large-scale “proactive” culling – continued. The outcomes of proactive culling remained blind for a further three years, while mistrust simmered. A view emerged within Defra that the RBCT would never yield useful results, and that TB control policy would have to advance without it.

As it turned out, there were more surprises to come. Just weeks before the very last scheduled cull, the RBCT threw up new findings. The proactive treatment had reduced cattle TB inside the culled areas. But, completely unexpectedly, TB rates had increased on adjoining unculled land. Once again, these adverse effects appeared to be caused by changes in badgers’ behaviour.

The RBCT was designed to give policymakers a clear way forward; instead it gave them a headache. We had shown conclusively that badgers gave TB to cattle, and that killing large numbers of them could gradually reduce cattle TB inside the culled areas. But while a disease eradication strategy would normally seek to contain infection within a shrinking area, badger culling spread disease to neighbouring land. Worse still, any net benefits depended upon killing a very high proportion of the badger population, very rapidly, across very large areas, repeatedly over several years. Culling which was inefficient, slow, small-scale or unsustained – whether by accident or design – risked worsening the problem it was intended to solve. Given these risks, together with the challenges of delivering affordable culling and the modest benefits even inside the culled areas, we concluded thatbadger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”.

Faced with this uncompromising conclusion, the Minister sought a second opinion. He asked the government’s chief science adviser to evaluate our findings. The chief scientist agreed that badger culling could yield benefits but – having been briefed by Defra staff still smarting from the reactive findings – dismissed our finding of simultaneous harmful effects as “unsound”. His report, which was prepared after a rather cursory reading of our reports and was riddled with errors, was described by Nature as “an example to governments of how not to deal with [scientific] advice”. Nevertheless, Defra now faced a new challenge to evidence-based policymaking: disagreement between scientists.

Since the ISG was disbanded in 2007, other advisory groups have come and gone. Over time the contribution of independent scientists has declined, with greater inputs from vets and farming representatives. Two further culls went ahead in 2013, but when an independent panel deemed them ineffective and possibly inhumane, it was not reappointed. The 2014 culls had no independent oversight, and subsequent claims of success are based on extremely shaky data. Outside government, views have become entrenched and cherry picking evidence has become a cottage industry for both sides of the debate.

If I have learned one thing from living through this science-policy soap opera, it’s this: policymakers and scientists are all just people. People don’t like secrets, and if you’re unaccustomed to experimental design, blinding looks a lot like secrecy. People take time to adjust their views, and new evidence can be hard to accept if it challenges long-held assumptions. Most people prefer to understand before they act: halting the reactive treatment required the Minister to take a leap of faith in science, which was later affirmed by further evidence but hard for his advisors to accept at the time.

How could these problems have been avoided? Perhaps a senior official should have had access to the interim results, to prepare Defra for any emerging findings? But if they had, how could the results have then remained blind to the Minister, to the rest of the ISG, or the public? Would the RBCT have run its course had its interim results been known? More broadly, how could the ISG have helped more Defra staff to feel ownership of the RBCT, while also retaining its own independence? These are difficult problems, hard to resolve even in hindsight. But the truth is, we never seriously expected culling to be so harmful, and so we never expected that our findings would be so hard for Defra to accept.

That the RBCT happened at all is a real credit to Defra. Over the years the RBCT findings have gradually been accepted, and have had a major influence on current policy. The ISG’s caution about the challenges of delivering effective culls has been borne out by recent experience, and over time its conclusions may prevail. In the meantime, similar future endeavours (and I hope there will be many) may benefit from planning for the unexpected. Ecological systems are complex; this was not the first experiment to yield surprising results, and it won’t be the last. Time invested in building mutual understanding and trust between independent scientists and government will not be wasted; and if the findings are surprising next time, perhaps they will be easier to accept.

Rosie Woodroffe is a field ecologist at ZSL, equally fond of badgers and cattle

Rosie Woodroffe (Photo: Seth Jackson)

Rosie Woodroffe (Photo: Seth Jackson)

The views expressed in posts on this blog are personal to the author and are not necessarily shared by any sponsors or owners of this blog or any other person or entity involved in creating, producing or delivering it and no such party shall be held liable for any statements made or content posted.

This post from Rosie Woodroffe is also available on the The Applied Ecologist’s blog and the ZSL Wild Science blog.

For media enquiries about this blog post, please contact the BES Press Officer

Posted in Agriculture, Badgers and bTB, Conference, Conservation, Defra, England, Event, Science, Uncategorized, Wildlife Disease | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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