"As part of the undergraduate fellowship with the BES I developed many employability skills and met countless young ecologists."

Becky Hollely Undergraduate Fellowship

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

General Election 2015: What do the manifestos promise for the environment?

In March the BES, in partnership with CIEEM and The Sibthorp Trust, hosted “People, Politics and the Planet: Any Questions?”, bringing together politicians from the UK’s six largest parties to debate their environmental policies ahead of the general election. With all the party manifestos now published, and less than two weeks to go until the election, we now have a more detailed view of their environmental commitments.

As an independent learned society and charity, the BES is completely politically neutral, and does not endorse any political party or candidate, or their policies. We have identified three key ambitions for environmental policy-making in the next Parliament: environmental policy informed by sound scientific evidence, recognising the vital role of ecological science in meeting societal challenges, and integrating the value of the environment to human wellbeing and prosperity across government.

Below, we have highlighted the main environmental policy pledges of the seven political parties (listed in alphabetical order) involved in the recent televised leaders’ debate. The summaries below are not an endorsement of any political party or their policies, and should not be assumed to be fully comprehensive.


The Conservatives state that they remain committed to “being the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state that that which we found it”. According to their manifesto, they would:

  • Extend the life of the Natural Capital Committee until at least the end of the next Parliament, and develop a twenty-five year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity;
  • Establish a “Blue Belt” for marine habitats around the UK’s fourteen Overseas Territories (UKOTs), and a “UK Blue Belt” by completing the network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs);
  • Ensure that public forests are kept “in trust” for the nation, and plant 11 million trees;
  • Protect the Green Belt and build new infrastructure in a way that minimises environmental impact, and launch a programme of “pocket parks” in towns and cities;
  • Meet our climate change commitments by cutting emissions as cheaply as possible;
  • Spend £3 billion from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on enhancing the countryside.

Green Party

The Green Party states that it “prioritises the protection of the land, the seas and their inhabitants” and that we need to “return protection of our natural landscape to a central part in our national life”. They would:

  • Introduce a Nature and Wellbeing Act, a new legal framework for the protection of landscape and wildlife, as well as a Forests Protection Bill;
  • Dramatically reduce pesticide use, including banning neonicotinoids, prioritise agri-environment schemes, promote organic farming methods, and support a moratorium on GMOs;
  • Ensure that everyone lives within five minutes’ walk of a green space, and introduce a Nature Improvement Area in every town, city and county;
  • Reform the CAP to promote landscape scale conservation so that all farm payments are directed towards environmental protection and improvement;
  • Expand the UK’s network of MCZs and play our part in creating a Southern Atlantic Reserve;
  • Ensure that conservation in UK Overseas Territories is funded to an appropriate level;
  • Increase the amount of land protected through the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, and defend against attempts to weaken them;
  • Tackle climate change by reducing emissions by 90% in the next 15-20 years, with the aim of zero carbon by 2050.


Labour’s main manifesto is supplemented by its “Green Plan”, which gives greater detail on the party’s environmental policies. They state that “tackling environmental challenges is a matter of fundamental social justice”. They would:

  • Support the work of the Natural Capital Committee in delivering a twenty-five year plan to reverse the decline of the natural environment, tackle climate change and increase access to nature;
  • Deliver a “step change” in nature conservation building on the Lawton Review;
  • Deliver a full marine protected area around Pitcairn, additional areas around other UK OTs, and establish an ecologically coherent network of UK MCZs;
  • Maintain forests in public ownership and create new woodland near people’s homes;
  • Promote access to green spaces in local planning, and maintain current Green Belt protections whilst introducing an enhanced “Brownfield first” policy.
  • Aim to play a leading international role in tackling climate change, including pushing for an ambitious agreement at the UNFCCC conference in Paris, and introduce an extensive climate change adaptation programme prioritising flood defence;
  • End the badger cull, and free up £150 million of CAP funding for better environmental protection

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats state that they they would “ensure that protecting the natural environment becomes a core commitment of every government department and agency”. They would:

  • Put the Natural Capital Committee on a statutory footing and pass a nature act with legally binding targets for biodiversity, clean air and water;
  • Designate an ecologically coherent network of UK marine protected areas by 2020, and create a one million square kilometre southern Atlantic Ocean reserve;
  • Follow the Independent Panel of Forestry recommendations to protect the national forest estate, and plant at least 750,000 trees a year;
  • Increase the amount of accessible green space including through the creation of new “National Nature Parks”;
  • Introduce a legally-binding target for Zero Carbon Britain by 2050, to be monitored and audited by the Climate Change Committee, and introduce a national resilience plan for adapting to climate change;
  • Implement a comprehensive strategy to tackle Bovine TB, with existing badger cull pilots only continuing if they are shown to be effective, humane and safe;
  • Ensure farming support is concentrated on sustainable food production, conservation and tackling climate change.

Plaid Cymru

As with the SNP, Plaid Cymru do not outline their environmental policies in detail as environment is a devolved issue. More detail about their policy positions can be found on their website. They do however identify a number of priorities in their Westminster manifesto. They would:

  • Seek to transfer full responsibility for Wales’ natural resources to the National Assembly for Wales, establishing a publicly owned energy company and prioritising renewable energy;
  • Introduce a Climate Change Act for Wales, adopting challenging carbon reduction targets;
  • Support a moratorium on the growth of GMOs;
  • Work to prevent the spread of invasive non-native species.

Scottish National Party

As the environment is a devolved issue, the SNP do not set out their environmental policies in detail in the Westminster manifesto. More information about their policies in Scotland can be found on their website. However they do highlight several environmental priorities that they would pursue at a UK level. They would:

  • Call on the UK government to adopt ambitious carbon reduction targets in line with Scotland and continue to support a moratorium on fracking;
  • Support investment in renewable energy including onshore and offshore wind, hydro power and community energy schemes;
  • Support global animal welfare issues including action on the illegal wildlife trade.

UK Independence Party

UKIP “believe strongly that our countryside must be preserved so it can be enjoyed by future generations”. UKIP want the UK to leave the EU, and would hold a referendum on the issue. Many of their policies are therefore predicated on the UK no longer being a member of the EU. UKIP would:

  • Repeal the Climate Change Act and invest in coal and fracking, ending subsidies for wind and solar power;
  • Repeal the National Planning Policy framework and replace it with a new framework prioritising brownfield sites and protecting the Green Belt;
  • Replace the CAP with a UK Single Farm Payment scheme, which would require adherence to 2013 Entry Level Stewardship requirements, and make match funded grants available for environmental improvements on farms;
  • Replace EU directives with local and national regulations;
  • Withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy, enforce no-take zones and protect coastal ecosystems by ending destructive industrial fishing practices.

Posted in Conservatives, Environment, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Parliament, Political Parties, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Communication and complexity: making sense of the conservation science/policy interface

Should we cull badgers in the English countryside to control the spread of Bovine TB? The ongoing, fractious debate provoked by this question has in recent years provided a perfect example of the conflicts that can arise at the point where science and policy-making meet. How did we reach the point where a rock star chooses to wear a badger badge to make a political statement at the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games?

Professor Rosie Woodroffe’s comprehensive dissection of the science and politics of the badger cull controversy provided the perfect start to last week’s symposium, jointly organised by the BES and the Zoological Society of London, on 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. As Nathalie Pettorelli, Secretary of the Conservation SIG, outlined in the lead up to the event, the relationship between science and policy is at the heart of the most topical environmental debates, from the current review of the European Birds and Habitats Directives, to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and  the future of GMOs.

Navigating complexity and uncertainty

The opening discussion of the badger cull highlighted many of the themes that cut across the day’s conversations. How do we ensure that complex, often uncertain science is communicated most effectively to policy-makers? How do science and values interact when taking decisions on contentious issues? Should scientists merely present the “facts” or become advocates for a particular course of action?

Helen Bayliss, Bangor University

Helen Bayliss, Bangor University

While the answers to these questions are relatively complicated, one message from the day was absolutely clear: it is crucial that scientists get involved in policy-making. As one of the speakers remarked, although “your evidence may not change the world, not getting involved won’t change anything”. There are a host of opportunities for scientists to get involved in policy: Helen Bayliss shared her experience of giving evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, whilst Sarah Durant showed how scientists, working in collaboration with NGOs and making intelligent use of the media, had a real impact on the recently passed Infrastructure Act. Organisations including the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the Natural Environment Research Council and the BES all highlighted their role as conduits for scientists wishing to engage with the policy-making process.

Bridging the science-policy divide, however, is not always an easy task. It is a fallacy to assume that scientific evidence simply flows in a linear fashion into decision-making, where policies are then selected and adjusted on the basis of the latest findings. A key message from the symposium was that policy-making, like science, is a complex, uncertain and contested activity. As Professor Melanie Austen’s “horrendogram” amply illustrated, the chaotic policy landscape – in this case for marine conservation – is indicative of the sheer number of stakeholders, issues, scales and initiatives involved.


Scientific evidence: necessary but not sufficient

In this context, it is vital to recognise the limitations of scientific evidence in the policy-making process. Put simply, science does not have all the answers; it is often necessary for sound-decision making, but not sufficient. In dealing with complex – often “wicked” policy problems – values, judgement, and public dialogue must all be taken into account. Social science also has a vital role to play, and greater interdisciplinary working is required to enable ecologists to draw on the rich body of research as to “how policy works”, whilst also placing scientific knowledge in its wider context.

As Peter Brotherton of Natural England explained, we must respect politicians’ right to operate within the space created by scientific evidence; we should think of good policy as evidence-informed not evidence-based. The badger cull is a perfect example of how the same evidence – accompanied by disagreement between scientists – can be interpreted very differently. In situations such as this, scientists must be clear about the role they are adopting; as an “issue advocate” seeking to advance a certain policy option or an “honest broker” elucidating and clarifying the policy options.

With any interactions at the science-policy interface, good communication, married with good timing, is essential. Both Jonny Wentworth of POST and Professor Bill Sutherland, BES President, emphasised the need for scientists to be clear about uncertainty when communicating with policy-makers, while Abigail Bunker of RSPB argued that effective communication isn’t just about presenting the facts, but framing them in a way that appeal to people’s – in this case policy-makers’ – existing values. Successful interventions in the policy process, such as the “Making Space for Nature” report, work when sound science is coupled with good communication, timed and framed in the right manner.

Get involved!

Delegates at the Symposium

Delegates at the Symposium

Working at the interface between science and policy can be complex and challenging. Yet, as the symposium demonstrated, there are a multitude of opportunities for scientists to engage with policy-making. Scientific evidence, well communicated, has a vitally important role to play in improving the quality of environmental conservation policy. One of the BES’s ambitions for the next Parliament is 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. If you want to help us achieve that goal, why not attend an event, try a placement, contribute to a consultation response, or apply to join our Public and Policy Committee?

Find out more about upcoming Conservation SIG events. Audio recordings and presentations from the symposium will be available online soon.

Posted in BES, Biodiversity, Conference, Conservation, Ecology, Event, Habitat Loss, Invasive Species, Science Communication, Science Policy, Select Committee | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Biodiversity offsetting: uncertainty and unanswered questions

Biodiversity offsetting is a market-based mechanism that aims to compensate for biodiversity loss as a result of development through conservation activities that deliver an equivalent amount of biodiversity elsewhere. As approaches to conservation informed by a natural capital approach enter the mainstream, offsetting is increasingly being explored as a policy option.

In 2013, the BES hosted a workshop examining the science behind biodiversity offsetting, the outputs of which informed our subsequent response to Defra’s consultation on the topic, which closed in November of that year. The workshop concluded that any offsetting policy implemented in England must be informed by scientific evidence and employ a transparent and consistent mechanism for calculation and evaluation rooted in sound ecological science. We also identified a need for further research into the design and implementation of biodiversity offsets in order to ensure the success and resilience of any policy adopted.

Since the consultation closed at the end of 2013, the Government has made little progress in finalising and implementing an offsetting policy, with the results of the consultation yet to be published.  With the general election just a few weeks away, the decision as to how – or if – biodiversity offsetting is put into practice in England will fall to the next Government.

Unanswered questions remain

Two recently published papers provide a timely reminder of the need to ensure that biodiversity offsetting is informed by robust scientific evidence. The first, an editorial by Evans et al in Animal Conservation, highlights five areas where “progress is needed to ensure biodiversity offsetting can be informed by robust scientific evidence”. These are:

  1. Improving our understanding of the implications of biodiversity offsetting across a greater range of habitats. Most studies to date have focused on wetlands and grasslands, but this needs to be extended to include habitats such as forests, marine habitats and uplands.
  2. Understanding the management actions and timescales required to restore sites to functioning ecosystems equivalent to the habitats lost to development.
  3. Development of a comprehensive framework for treating uncertainty in offsets, for example to inform multipliers and habitat banking.
  4. An accepted and universal design for biodiversity offsetting schemes that considers the wider context of development, the offset accounting system, and the approach to defining and calculating biodiversity losses and gains.
  5. A deeper debate on the moral and ethical dimensions of offsetting, examining the social assumptions, implications and values that underpin this approach, and setting it within national, regional and local contexts.

Perverse Incentives?

A second paper, published by Gordon et al in the Journal of Applied Ecology, argues that insufficient attention has been paid to the risk that biodiversity offsetting could introduce “perverse incentives” that undermine their intended outcomes. The authors identify four perverse incentives that could arise from poorly designed offset schemes:

  1. Biodiversity offsetting schemes could entrench or exacerbate existing baseline declines in biodiversity if the crediting baseline – the point at which an offset scheme is adjudged to have achieved “no net loss” – is poorly specified. If biodiversity is already in decline, then “locking-in” offset schemes to a declining baseline can perpetuate this decline.
  2. An extensive, “liquid” biodiversity offsetting market could crowd out other conservation actions, as designation of land, and action to improve the trajectory for threatened species – rather than simply avert loss – would reduce opportunities for generating offset credits.
  3. The involvement of volunteers in offset schemes – as the authors highlight has been the case in Australia – risks shifting volunteer effort away from additional schemes to those that are mandatory, whilst also undermining the voluntary ethos by providing labour that developers would otherwise have been required to pay for.
  4. The presentation of offsets as environmental gains, when they are by design neutral at best, risks generating false confidence in conservation outcomes.

Gordon et al argue that these potential perverse incentives are not reasons to abandon biodiversity offsetting, but must be properly considered if “grave environmental risks” are to be avoided.  Similarly, Evans et al conclude that “constructive, critical engagement is required between conservation scientists and decision makers” to allow “adequate scrutiny” of offset schemes and enable them to become “a useful tool that can reconcile nature conservation and resource development”.

One of the BES’s key ambitions for the next Parliament is 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. How the next Government chooses to take biodiversity offsetting forward will be a key test of this principle.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biodiversity Offsetting, Conservation, Development, Habitat Loss, Planning Policy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Conservation Science/Policy Interface: Challenges and Opportunities

Yesterday saw over 100 delegates gather at the Zoological Society of London for a joint BES/ZSL Symposium on the Conservation Science/Policy Interface. Catch up with all the highlights with our Storify below!

Posted in BES, Conference, Conservation, Ecology, Event, Science Communication, Science Policy, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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