Tag Archives: ecosystems

Wildlife conservation: complacency and certainty

This blog originated as a presentation at the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Biodiversity conference one year ago in October 2017: Spotlight on Scotland’s Biodiversity. Originally, Professor Pat Monaghan and I examined complacency and uncertainty in wildlife conservation today. But as we wrote it, we realised the uncertainty was in fact a certainty….

Scotland’s image in the rest of the world is very much formulated on its wild landscape and abundant and ubiquitous wildlife. Yet this image sits uncomfortably with a number of assessments on the health of wildlife and ecosystems in Scotland: Scotland’s National Ecosystem Assessment (2014), Scotland’s position on the Biodiversity Intactness Index (Science 2016), or the State of Nature assessment (2016). In all these measures our native wildlife is neither abundant nor ubiquitous. Furthermore, Scotland has what is considered world leading legislation for wildlife.  Yet this legislative framework is not delivering nature conservation. And this is in the context of increasing uncertainty- the physical uncertainty of climate change and the political uncertainty of Brexit. What needs to change if we are to restore and maintain our wild landscapes, and their wildlife?

What’s happening today?

The State of Nature report (2016) illustrated that in Scotland

Over the long term, 54% of vascular plant species declined & 46% increased.  Same over the short term.
39% of butterfly species declined & 61% increased over the long term. Over the short term, 26% of species declined & 74% increased.
Over the long term, 44% of bird species declined & 56% increased. Over the short term, 54% declined & 46% increased.
Of nearly 6,000 species known to occur in Scotland that have been assessed using modern Red List criteria, 520 (9%) are at risk of extinction from GB.

46,000 species live in Scotland: only 2.3% of them (1,079 species) were assessed for this report. Of that 2.3% assessed against IUCN criteria, 9% are at risk of extinction. The real rate of extinction is unknown.
What is more, this risk isn’t evenly spread: some species groups are declining faster than others.

Let’s look at butterflies for example, for which we have an excellent data set in the UK: the 2000 Atlas of Butterflies in the UK was produced by 20,000 recorders who gathered 15,000,000 records. These data illustrated that over the previous 40 years 71% of butterflies had declined. More recently, in 2011, 72% of butterfly species had decreased in abundance over the previous 10 years and 76% decreased in distribution or abundance.

Elsewhere in the extinction debate, data are reflecting that 54% of birds have declined and 28% of plants have declined. There are 33% fewer butterflies than 10 years ago. However, of those species monitored, invertebrates are bearing the brunt of the extinction crisis.

Does this matter? Are all species equal and are all species valuable? When are species valueless? What about the invaluable? Does ‘value’ even matter?

One such example are the fungi. Fungi, the fifth kingdom, is a mix of poorly understood, little appreciated, often misinterpreted organisms with a very wide range of morphologically, anatomies, sexual and asexual activities and life-styles brought together by a unique but common use of food sources. They are indeed fundamental to the well-being of the planet especially in their ability to decay complex substances and take part in innumerable symbiotic interactions with other organisms both plant and animal, especially mycorrhizas which ensure the health and well-being of our forests, the lungs of earth. Their activities have been enhanced for the production of both essential and luxury foods and drinks and many pharmaceuticals and other medical applications. (Roy Watling, 2017 pers. Comm.)

Yet even just their role in woodlands, as mycelia providing access to nutrients for trees, should not be underestimated. Around 90% of land plants rely on a mycorrhizal relationship with fungi for survival. One mycorrhizal fungus is the chanterelle, often found in birch woods. This particular mushroom cannot be cultivated and birch trees use it to gather nutrients. Can we place a value on that? In 2017, a kilo of chanterelles cost roughly £35.00 per kilo; how much of the value of a piece of birch or beech does a chanterelle contribute? In 2013, one cubic metre of birch and beech was valued at £1120- £1341 (Scottish Wood Ltd): it’s impossible to tell what percentage of that value is owed to mycorrhizal fungi, except for the fact that without these fungi, trees cannot grow. And then, how much is the thrill of finding a chanterelle worth? It is invaluable.
If we try and value species, does that benefit nature conservation? It is one element underpinning the ecosystem approach to nature conservation. There is an argument that the ecosystem approach runs the risk of commodifing habitats and species. For example, Kleijn et al (2015) have calculated the value of wild bee pollination at $3,000 per hectare of insect-pollinated agricultural land. They also show that of 20,000 known bee species, c.2% pollinated 80 % of crops. Does this mean that the remaining 98% of bees are valueless? No.
Instead other research has shown that apparent duplication of function within ecosystems is essential to ecosystem health. This apparent duplication enables other species to take over ecosystem roles when more abundant species decline. This can safeguard ecosystem functions and ecosystem health.

What about edge of range species? How important are they? Should we allow edge of range species to go extinct? If we take the example of the red billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), this bird has been studied since 1981 by Scottish Chough Study group from Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities and SCRI. The red billed chough has a wide temperate distribution and is on the edge of its northern range in Scotland. It is also used as a key indicator of health of pastoral agricultural systems. Today, it is threatened by climate and land-use change in UK: of these threats, land use is probably more important. Land use changes on Islay for example, including the loss of cattle and an increase in barley growing have happened alongside the declines in chough populations. The issues the bird populations suffer from include blindness, resulting from inbreeding, parasites, food shortages from land use and climate change. This has resulted in emergency supplementary feeding programmes.
This provides good scientific basis available to form appropriate policy on land use. However, policy makers are slow to take action. While SNH have now funded population viability analysis at Aberdeen University, what is clearly needed are scientifically informed decisions and a comprehensive land use strategy.

Another example is climate change and tree diseases, which are knocking out entire species eg elm and now perhaps ash. These alkaline barked trees are home to some of our rarest and most diverse bryophyte populations. With Scotland being home to 60% of the European Bryophyte flora and 5% of the global flora, the impact of these habitat losses is significant. Should we perhaps accept therefore that sycamore, while it brings some ecological issues, represents nonetheless a habitat in which some of these bryophyte communities could survive?

So what are we doing?
Scotland has what could be considered world leading legislation for wildlife through our Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and our Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act (2011). There is yet further potential to lead in nature conservation through the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy (2004), its Challenge 2020 roadmap (2013) and the Scottish Land Use Strategy (2011) and the Pollinator Strategy (2017). Yet this legislative framework is not delivering nature conservation. And this is in the context of increasing uncertainty- the physical uncertainty of climate change and the political uncertainty in Brexit.

What needs to change and what lessons can we learn and implement from elsewhere in the world?
We need to value the invaluable. And we need to value species diversity in a global context. We perhaps need to value non-native species where they fill vacant ecological niches but we still need to identify future ecologically damaging non-native species. We need to halt ongoing extinctions and declines in order to conserve and restore ecologically robust ecosystems. And to do all this, we absolutely need to implement effective and robust policy.
Even the World Economic Forum has realised we need to do more and change our approach.

A key mechanism to start to achieve this is galvanising public and building the political will to act. We need to build up ambition and investment in our environment to protect Scotland’s habitats and wildlife for generations yet unborn. Scotland’s Environment Strategy may pave the way for some progress – but only if it is able to address the real issues facing nature conservation and only if it, alongside Scotland’s existing legislation, is implemented.


Forget about designer handbags – designer weeds are the future

How resilient are we? The world is changing dramatically – not just politically but socially and environmentally too.

Resilience to change is becoming increasingly important, especially in environmental terms. We need to build the resilience of our environment, and our ecosystems, so that we can cope with ongoing changes in climate.

The thing is that until we find a solution, communities across the world, both human and natural, are going to continue to suffer the impact of extreme events as they happen, often with unpredictable consequences. We’re losing the ability of our environment to absorb shocks and insulate us from flood events, drought events, soil erosion and oceanic warming.

This isn’t an abstract fear: forest fires in France, cleaving of the Larsen C ice shelf, bleaching of the Great Barrier reef corals, declines in seabird populations in Scotland: they are all linked directly to climate change.

An obvious solution is to ensure we have diverse ecosystems. A diverse system is a robust system. Simplified systems and monocultures are all too susceptible to outbreaks of disease and severe climatic fluctuations. Yet species and habitat loss continues across the world to the extent that global biodiversity is no longer within safe limits and continued loss will threaten the planet’s ability to support humans and wildlife (Science, July 2016). Even in the UK, The National Ecosystem Assessments across the UK and the State of Nature reports, reflect the loss of species diversity and habitat simplification. Just as we should be protecting our species and habitat diversity, the opposite is happening.

A timely piece of work then for the new Diversify project, where the crop diversity work at the James Hutton Institute, provided a welcome space last Friday to discuss these issues and how agriculture might help.

Research shows that diverse crop mixtures increase resilience to disease and increase productivity at the same time. In addition there may be a benefit in reducing inputs, such as pesticides and fertiliser, the research on this is less clear to date. But that seems to be reflecting a lack of data rather than anything else.

What’s more, recent greenhouse trials have shown that increasing crop diversity reduces number of weeds and niche space available to weeds. So if increasing diversity in crop mixtures increases crop productivity and reduces the number of common weeds, could we develop crop and native plant mixtures to suppress common weeds, increase crop productivity and conserve native plants all at the same time?

If diversity can promote diversity – could diversity increase resilience by protecting key ecological relationships? And if it could, what role and value is there for native biodiversity?

What, for example, is the role of rare arable plants? Arable plants make up one of the fastest disappearing plant communities across the UK. Weeds that were once common in fields, corn flowers and corn marigolds for example, are now something that catch the eye because we see them so rarely. Could these plants, by taking up some of the habitat niche, limit the space for more common, and arguably less welcome, weeds? It seems unlikely, although the research would be useful. What they can do, however, is provide a nectar and pollen source for beneficial insects – both pollinators and predators, that increase crop productivity. We could, therefore, design, or encourage, native plant communities that provide the benefits to invertebrates and ecological resilience while, at the same time, increasing crop productivity? It seems counter intuitive but the evidence is not pointing away from that.

Research is showing that weed diversity benefits crop biomass. It is heartening is that this is being actively explored and the solution of increasing diversity to build resilience is becoming clearer. With the link to increased productivity as well as more resilient ecosystems, we are building a natural capital argument for agricultural subsidies that support nature not only to ensure nature remains in it full glory for future generations but also because farmers get healthier and more productive crops, while building a more resilient environment.

Is that not a win win? More useful than a designer handbag?

Launching the State of Nature: building diversity & having fun

On Wednesday 14 September, the State of Nature partnership launched the second State of Nature report. At its launch in Edinburgh, I gave this speech. I was aiming to help people remember what fun nature can be and  inspire them to act with us to save nature. Let me know of your memories of nature and the memories you would like to foster for future generations. Here or on twitter @DeborahlLong #nature memory

(c) Plantllife; Bill Baillie
(c) Plantllife; Bill Baillie

Let me start with a massive and heartfelt thank you! THANK YOU to all the volunteers who have contributed the data on which this report is built. It would not exist without the estimated 60,000 hours of volunteer time (and that is just part of the data collecting volunteer team – there are another 66,000 getting out mending paths and fences, and leading walks) dedicated to Scotland’s nature.
They have witnessed and verified first hand the decline in species. What are they seeing? More to the point, what are they not seeing?

Have you seen a moth snowstorm this summer? A murmuration of starlings? A shiver of basking sharks? A coterie of orchids?

(c) Jim Jermyn
(c) Jim Jermyn

We are all witnesses to the decline in species diversity across Scotland to such a point that 9% of our species are now at risk of extinction.
Does it matter that we, and our children are much less likely nowadays to see a curlew, a mountain pansy or a common blue butterfly? Our children are much less likely to be finding newts in their pond, collecting ladybirds from the field or making whistles from elder trees. Does that matter?
Well yes I would say. That sort of experience is what enriches a childhood and fires the imagination. But even beyond that it also matters because our ecosystems across Scotland are becoming more simplified. They have fewer species, which results in less diversity, which in turns leads to less resilience to change. A simplified ecosystem is one much more likely to fall over in times of change – times of climate change even. We have measured this through the Biodiversity Intactness Index, which in Scotland falls below the 90% levels recognised as the level beyond which our ecosystems can reliably met society’s needs. And while that sounds dry and boring, these ecosystem services include those we know about like flood prevention and fertile soils, as well as those we don’t know about but still take from granted: future medicines and alternatives to plastic for instance.
Scotland trades on our image: Scotland is renowned across the world for its majestic landscapes and species diversity.  Where else can you see alpine gentians growing next to arctic cloudberry? Nowheere else of course. But we are not doing enough to conserve it and with it our own future.
So what can we do other than drown our sorrows with the help of a Botanist gin? What can we all resolve to do so that the next State of Nature report shows us a reverse in this decline?
We need to work together. This report show how, when we work together, we can achieve good things. Look at the examples in the report. Then, if you already volunteer – thank you and please carry on. If you don’t, how about it? There is a very exciting range of opportunities out there and again the organisations in this partnership can help you get involved or inspire you to get involved.

And finally use this report, and its sister report, Response to the State of Nature, launched last year, to implement change in your own area of work. Use the report, reflect on its messages and join us in doing something about it. Biodiversity loss is the biggest threat to the world but has been largely forgotten. This report shows why that is a dangerous oversight.
We need nature – much more than it needs us. In Scotland, we’re making good progress towards climate change and the government’s targets. But we’re only tackling half the story. There are only two ways to combat climate change: one through reducing emissions and one through maintaining species diversity so our ecosystems are able to sequester carbon. Scotland has positioned itself as a world leader in setting and attaining targets on emissions reductions and it could equally become a world leader in enhancing biodiversity and its attendant sequestration capability. Until we reverse the decline in biodiversity across Scotland, our future, and our children’s future is getting less diverse, and dare I say it, less fun , every day.
So help us make a difference, bake blaeberry tarts, make nettle string, watch an eagle soar. And with it, your resolve to help halt the loss of Scotland’s amazing nature.

What is a national ecological network anyway?

There is  a lot of talk about natural capital and ecosystem services at the moment. One of the ways of protecting our capital and services is establishing a national ecological network. So what is that?

A National Ecological Network (NEN) consists of robust and healthy ecosystems, capable of sustaining the full range of ecosystem services upon which Scotland depends and which are vital for Scotland’s sustainable development.
A well planned NEN built on sound ecological principles protects ecosystems and their services through the plants and fungi that are the basis of all ecosystems. This is the mechanism that can ensure that local development management takes place within a sustainable national context.

IPA Sunart eg
While a NEN can only be effective if delivered at a national scale, aiming to re-connect Scotland’s fragmented ecosystems across mainland Scotland and its islands, its delivery must be planned at a relevant scale locally. This provides a national green infrastructure, complementing the built infrastructure projects of national planning frameworks.
Designing an effective NEN, however,  requires robust understanding and modelling of the elements that support ecosystem services. These services include resistance to disease, pollination, water regulation and soil fertility for example. For these services to continue to be available to people, they require robust and diverse ecosystems, founded upon self sustaining and genetically diverse species populations. These populations and the habitats they comprise are an essential consideration in proposals for development throughout the country if we are to retain the ecosystem services we all rely on.
This approach is encapsulated by the Important Plant Areas (IPA) initiative, which meets targets 4 and 5 in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), to which the UK and Scottish governments are committed through the Convention on Biological Diversity, and provides an ecological coherent basis for a green infrastructure.
Delivery of IPAs in Scotland has to date focussed on their identification and management advice, which is now being effectively rolled out, across the West Coast IPA and North Coast IPA. A funding bid is in place to secure parallel advances in the Cairngorms IPAs. However, Scotland, as a whole, is at a stage where the detail of how built development can adversely affect ecosystem functionality needs to be addressed within a national context. This could be part of the recently updated Scottish Land Use Strategy and the Climate Change Adaptation Framework, both of which look to an integrated approach for development and management in a changing and uncertain climate.
This national ecological network approach achieves 3 objectives:
1. Improving the quality and resilience of Scotland’s natural environment,
2. enabling species and habitats to adapt to climate change by linking fragmented ecosystems together and providing means for species to move from site to site
3. maintaining and protecting ecosystem services in the future.
It also provides the context for the development of effective green infrastructure in the long term.

Scotland’s international reputation for a high quality environment, itself providing a market for skills development and job creation across Scotland, will only be maintained through creating this network. We need to start to implement it across the country using the established models already in place if we are to gain from it.

Read more here:

Scotland’s Important Plant Areas (2015) Plantlife. www.plantlife.org.uk/publications/scotlands_important_plant_areas

Nature needs us to get MAD

For the last 40 years. European legislation has set a benchmark for environmental legislation. This has provided a strategic framework for national legislation that is set for the long term, and makes ecological sense. Transposed into Scots law, as a result we have some of the best environmental legislation in the world.

This is now at risk. Without this EU framework, governments across the UK could start to draw back on the legislation we have. In Holyrood, Cardiff and Westminster, domestic environmental legislation, alongside legislation on social issues, could be redrawn, not to improve the UK’s natural environment and ensure it is resilient enough for future generations to enjoy, but to meet the short term interests of those who wish to make economic gain from de-valuing our environment.

Nature needs us to get MAD about this now. Why MAD?

worth more than a penny...
worth more than a penny…

Money: let’s face it, this is all about money. Nature costs us money – think of the expense incurred through the flooding over recent years. Nature earns us money – in Scotland, the economic outputs from activities that depend on the natural environment have been estimated at about £17.2 billion a year, 11% of Scotland’s total outputs. Now, we need to invest in nature: until 2 weeks ago, the biggest, arguably only, source of funding for management to conserve nature was through the EU funded Scottish Rural Development Programme. Direct funding for biodiversity conservation has been drying up of late with all eyes now pointing at SRDP. We need to invest to increase that national output beyond 11% and we need to invest so that the costs of nature loss from flooding, ill health and lack of opportunity are reduced.
Ambition: it isn’t enough to sit back and hope someone else deals with this. We need clear sighted, ecologically literate policy makers to devise and deliver policy instruments that conserve nature for future generations of people, plants, porpoises and peregrines (for example). That’s why, Plantlife, with other eNGO partners have written to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary, asking her to commit publicly to maintaining the current suite of EU legislation as enshrined in Scottish law, and committing to the a continuing trajectory to conserve nature. Arguably that is not enough – we need to be doing more but let’s not go backwards.
Determination: if we cannot defend nature and conserve it for future generations, we are compounding the negative trends we’ve created. Nature cannot not speak for itself – it relies on those who care to speak up and protect it. However, although it can’t speak, it does act. Once a tipping point is reached, natural processes have the potential to set in motion a chain of events that we are unlikely to be able to control. Climate change is one of those tipping points as is biodiversity loss. The combination of two, already in action, is going to be devastating for the planet – unless we get MAD.

Mind the gap


What’s the biggest threat to life on Earth today? It depends on the value you place on the quality of life. If we assume quality of life includes meeting the everyday requirements of clean water, clean air, productive soils, and access to food, building materials, it should also extend to having the freedom to experience a rich and varied life. These are all fundamentally based on the assets and services that nature provides us with. Yet so many of us are today are insulated against the forces that bring these assets to our doorsteps that we forget they are there.

Such is the threat today to nature. In the hustle of everyday life, we forget that nature plods along providing us with clean water and nutritionally valuable food every day, while we career on with today’s preoccupations. It is this dislocation between what is valuable and what is not that is starkly reflected in headlines. One day, the gap between what we take for granted and what we value is going to get so wide, we’re going to fall in.

So it is that while we continue to take nature for granted and what’s been termed the 6th extinction continues apace, we will, inevitably, reach a stage where nature no longer functions and can no longer provide us with everyday requirements we have. Studies have shown, for example that in a grassland habitat, 80% of plant species play some sort of role. What that role is and how important it is we don’t necessarily know. But what we do know is that the 80% of species all work together somehow to enable the grassland ecosystem to function. There is, as we also know, an ongoing simplification of our habitats, where we’re continuing to lose species richness and habitats are composed of fewer species. Once we get below this 80% in grasslands, the system will collapse. We may not notice for a while, but at some point, some service we took for granted will no longer be there. But by that point it will be too late.

This is why the ‘precautionary principle’ is so enlightened and brilliant. It takes account of the fact that we don’t understand how our ecosystems work and it puts in place an insurance policy to make sure we don’t squander the riches we have by accident. Despite the brilliance of the concept, the precautionary principle comes under attack on a regular basis for being incompatible with the need to continue to grow. Rather instead of being perceived as against sustainable development, it is rather the underpinning force of sustainable development. How ironic is that?