Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 5

The third of the main drivers behind the forthcoming White Paper is the “Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network”, chaired by Professor Sir John Lawton. This was published last week and, after getting a sneak preview of earlier drafts it is interesting to see how this has turned out.

You can look at the whole document, or the summary on the defra website (under "making space for nature") at:

I would thoroughly recommend that you at least look through the summary. You can then draw your own conclusions on the scale of the changes that might be needed to address its conclusions.

In my mind this review should be absolutely fundamental. I’ve talked about ecosystem services and so far much of the discussion is at an international scale (with The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) or national scale (with the National Ecosystem Assessment). These are good but it will all only start to mean something when we get down to how areas/places that we know are actually doing as functioning ecosystems – “do England’s wildlife sites comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network”.

Basically the review asks whether our current approach is going to deliver an environment that conserves healthy, functioning ecosystems that maintain biodiversity and provide us with all the ecosystem services that we need. If we look out of the window, will what we see deliver what we need. Unsurprisingly the answer is “no”.

The review gives the aim of an ecological network as one where:
“compared to 2000, biodiversity is enhanced and the diversity, functioning and resilience of ecosystems re-established in a network of spaces for nature that can sustain these levels into the future, even given continuing environmental change and human pressure.”

Underpinning this are three objectives:

  • To restore species and habitats to levels better than in 2000 and that are sustainable in a changing climate.

  • To restore the ecological and physical processes that underpin ecosystems, thereby enhancing the capacity to provide ecosystem services.

  • To provide accessible, wildlife rich, natural environments for people to enjoy and experience

The review then looked at the current situation to see whether our existing approach works. To do this it tested against 5 attributes:

  1. Does the network support the full range of biodiversity?

  2. Is the network of adequate size?

  3. Do the network sites receive long-term protection and appropriate management?

  4. Are there sufficient ecological connections to enable species movement?

  5. Are sites valued by and accessible to people?

The review essentially concluded that our current scatter of wildlife sites does not comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network. Indeed of the 5 tests above it is only the first that is substantially met. I know any one of us could have told government this but it is highly significant that a government commission, drawing on a wide range of evidence and expert opinion came to this inevitable conclusion.

From my brief overview, I would say that this is a good review. It says a lot that we have been saying as part of our Living Landscape approach. It also seems to come to similar conclusions about what is needed to reverse the situation and deliver a coherent ecological network. More of that in future blog posts.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 4

In my last blog I tried to summarise current descriptions of “ecosystem services” – descriptions mostly pinched from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. This time I’d like to go a little further and talk about how wildlife, or biodiversity, fits in this overall approach.

It might help to see ecosystem services almost in a hierarchical sense:

  1. First you have the services that underpin all other services. These are often the “support” and some “regulating” services such as nutrient cycling, plant growth, soil formation and the major ecological processes like evolution and interaction between species. These are the “primary ecological functions” on which all other services sit.

  2. At the next level are the “final ecosystem services” – the services we actually see or experience such as crops, livestock, trees, waste breakdown, the local climate, meaningful places and a diverse wildlife.

  3. Finally are the “goods” we receive such as food, drinking water, energy, flood control and recreation. Some of these goods have a recognised financial value to us, some have a financial value but it is not recognised and some have non-monetary values.

As in my last blog, you can find a far better description at the UKNEA web site:

This is summarised in the table below:

This hierarchy is important. We often only see the goods we get, many are poorly valued, we often take them for granted and often consider them in complete isolation from each other or the environment on which they depend. Yet these goods are the products of ecosystem services which are in turn reliant on the primary ecological functions.

So where does wildlife fit in? In practice it is fundamental at every level:

Ecosystems are made of wildlife. So biodiversity underpins the primary ecological functions that all subsequent ecosystem services and the goods we receive rely on. All the big-picture ecological functions, like nutrient cycling, plant growth, climate control and pollination, all rely on healthy, functional ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems are composed of a rich biodiversity and, conversely, a healthy ecosystem is also indicated by the health of its biodiversity.

At the next level biodiversity fits in in a very practical way. It provides the species that make up our crops and livestock, provides wood, fibre and pharmaceutical products. So wildlife is central to our provisional services.

Wildlife is also valued by people so is central to cultural services. It is important for spiritual enrichment, in recreation and in education. The wildlife of an area also helps to define that area and give a sense of place. All of this has repercussions in terms of physical and mental health, and in terms of how desirable a place may be to live and work in.

This outline for the value of biodiversity to ecosystem services is summarised in the table below:

To conclude, therefore, a superficial understanding of ecosystem services could miss the central importance of wildlife. Indeed if some ecosystem services are over-emphasised then we could end up with a business as usual situation with wildlife being further compromised away. But when it is thought through a little it should be clear that biodiversity is of fundamental importance to the effective provision of the ecosystem services on which we all depend.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 3

I’ve mentioned the idea of “ecosystem services” in previous blogs. It is now a concept that should be very important in the design and implementation of a white paper. Perhaps it might be worth saying a little about what this actually means.

What are ecosystem services?

It is not a new concept, but at present it is perhaps best articulated by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, which I’ll be talking about in future blogs, so for a good description I suggest you go to:

However, in brief, an ecosystem is a natural unit of living things (animals, including humans, plants and micro-organisms), and their physical environment; ecosystem services are the benefits provided by ecosystems that make human life both possible and worth while. So, it may sound like jargon, but it does what is says on the tin – it’s all the essential stuff that nature gives us.

This is a very high level definition, however, so in order to be useful ecosystem services are broken down into 4 main types:

Provisioning services; the products we obtain from ecosystems such as food, wood, drinking water, energy and pharmaceutical products.

Regulating services; the benefits we get from the regulation of ecosystem process such as flood control, influence of the global and local climate and disease control.

Cultural services; the non-material benefits from ecosystems such as spiritual and religious enrichment, cultural heritage, recreation, tourism and a sense of place.

Supporting services; these are the ecosystem functions that support all other ecosystem services, things like soil formation, nutrient cycling, plant growth and ecological interactions.

The problem is that very few of these essential ecosystem services are financially valued so we tend to emphasise some and forget about the others. This point may link in with comments made by Mark Fisher after my last blog. We have so over-emphasised provisional services (ie food) that we have skewed our ecology, left it degraded with much loss of biodiversity, and our ecosystems are now delivering other services less well.

There are dangers in focusing too much on ecosystem services (or rather from allowing its description to be perverted), especially when attempts are made to put a financial value on them. Ecosystem services may have a value but that does not mean you can trade in them – you can’t always buy or sell ecosystem services. Also, financial valuing sometimes implies choice (you can have it if you can pay for it) – a difficult leap as these are essential services. I also worry when people talk about trade-offs between ecosystem services – again are they looking for an excuse to over-emphasis some whilst forgetting about others (business as usual)?

These dangers are real but the concept is valuable in that it is making large numbers of policy-makers take notice of the environment when they didn’t before.

I will take this idea of ecosystem services a little further in my next blog.