Monday, 6 July 2015

Ecosystem Services: Taking the Next Step

Matt Lobley from the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter, reflects on their recent symposium on the future direction for ecosystem services.  (Click on the links to see slides from the presentations.)

What’s the current evidence on ecosystem services and where do we go from here?  The Centre for Rural Policy Research’s symposium held in June was designed to explore innovation around ecosystem services and the ecosystems approach.  With around 50 academics and practitioners and a range of engaging speakers the discussion was lively.

Professor Michael Winter started the day off by questioning whether an Ecosystem Services approach necessarily implies sustainability. He did this by reviewing work on the Defra-funded Sustainable Intensification Research platform before going on to explore the relationship between sustainable intensification and ecosystem services. This was followed by Professor Duncan Russel’s presentation on the factors that facilitate and hamper the implementation of ecosystems services. The problem, it seems, is that whilst decision makers sometimes reach the rational high ground, much decision making actually occurs in the “swampy low ground”. In other words, the world of policy making and implementation is complex and often involves muddling through. Duncan’s research has revealed a range of societal, institutional and individual enablers and barriers and shows that possessing “more knowledge” or championing a new idea does not necessarily mean that it will be embedded into policy making and help implementation.

Next up was Professor Richard Brazier who described his work with Charles Cowap on understanding the value of the internationally important habitats, Culm grasslands, for ecosystem services. Once more widespread, like many habitats the area of Culm has been significantly eroded and fragmented and Devon is home of over 80% of the remaining Culm in England. Compared to intensively managed grassland Culm soils are characterised by higher soil moisture, organic matter and carbon content. It is estimated that the loss of water and carbon value from Culm grasslands, which have been converted to intensively managed grasslands since 1900 is £32.3 million, and that work undertaken to date by Devon Wildlife Trust to restore Culm grassland has a potential benefit of over £9 million. Richard concluded by saying that such figures need to be combined with data describing agricultural productivity in order to understand whether recreation of Culm grasslands is viable at the landscape scale.

Dr Rob Fish presented an overview of his experiment in public dialogue designed to understand what people make of the ecosystem services agenda. Working with publics in Birmingham, Glasgow and Exeter, this project drew on the work of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment to engage people in extensive discussion about ecosystem services and the ecosystem approach. Despite some initial scepticism the direction of dialogue was cautiously positive and the more participants applied and learned about it, the more positively they tended to view the framework.  

Laurence Couldrick talked about the future of payments for ecosystem services and the work of the Westcountry Rivers Trust, with over 2000 farmers and covering some 150,000 ha. He stressed the importance of partnership working, monitoring outcomes and the benefits that can flow from better information and understanding. This was followed by Nick Kirsop Taylor’s assessment of Biodiversity Offsetting. Nick argued that while rumours of the death of biodiversity offsetting may be exaggerated it may well “disappear” as part of the new Government’s agenda. He outlined various possible futures for biodiversity offsetting including that of becoming a zombie policy.  “The autopsy may have to wait a while, but maybe not too long…” he concluded.  Finally, Lisa Schneidau  from Devon Wildlife Trust rather bravely attempted to sum up the day and identify next steps, identifying topics for further discussion, including the importance of communication, and the need for an integrated approach.