World’s Most Productive Natural Forests Recently Discovered in West Africa

Whilst most studies on the ecosystem functioning of tropical forests have focussed extensively on Latin America or Asia, researchers in Oxford say comparing findings with studies in Ghana has produced interesting and differing results showing that more studies need to be made in Africa.

Tropical forests cover large areas of equatorial Africa and play a significant role in the global carbon cycle. Scientists from the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, in the Environmental Change Institute (ECI), in close partnership with collaborators at the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG), have been looking at the carbon budget in both the Amazon and West Africa by undertaking detailed field assessments of the carbon budget of multiple forest sites.

The researchers monitored 14 one-hectare plots along an aridity gradient in Ghana. When compared with an equivalent aridity gradient in Amazonia they had previously studied using the same measurement protocol, the studied West African forests generally had higher productivity and more rapid carbon cycling.

Their findings have been published in Nature Communications: Contrasting carbon cycle along tropical forest aridity gradients in West Africa and Amazonia.

Lead author Huanyuan Zhang-Zheng, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre, said: “Tropical forests are so diverse that we are constantly surprised when opening new study sites. I became fascinated with West African forests because of this study, but I am sure there are more fascinating tropical forests yet to discover. When we’re talking about carbon budgets, you can’t just study a stand of forests and imagine that applies to even nearby forests. Carbon budgets vary greatly from wet to dry regions in the tropics.”

Having studied the carbon budget in the Amazon it was interesting to see that West African forests are more productive, have more photosynthesis and absorb more energy. And we don’t quite understand why this is the case. This is an important region and shouldn’t be ignored. Our new findings were able to tell us a different story than our previous studies in the Amazonia, and has stimulated new questions and new research.

The work carried out is part of the Global Ecosystem Monitoring network (GEM), an international effort to measure and understand forest ecosystem functions and traits, and how these will respond to climate change. GEM was created by the ECI in 2005 under the leadership of Prof Yadvinder Malhi. The GEM network describes the productivity, metabolism and carbon cycle of mainly tropical forests and savannas.

Professor Malhi said: “Ecology is a global science, and equal long-term partnerships are essential to produce both better science and fairer science. This work is the product of decades of long-term partnership between Oxford and institutions in both Africa and South America, work that seen many local students trained and graduating and contributed to building local capacity in environmental science”.

The study is also a fruit of successful collaboration with the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana – CSIR, many scientists from which made fundamental contributions to the study and are coauthors of the publication. One of the lead Ghanaian collaborators, Said Akwasi Duah-Gyamfi, Senior Research Scientist, CSIR-Forestry Research Institute of Ghana, said: “It was a wonderful experience to be part of the research team, and most importantly to explore and generate knowledge on topical issues about forests in Africa.”

Read the paper in full: Contrasting carbon cycle along tropical forest aridity gradients in W Africa and Amazonia

Read more about GEM: The Global Ecosystems Monitoring network: Monitoring ecosystem productivity and carbon cycling across the tropics

Research to policy impact: strategies for translating findings into policy messages

Blog by Kay Jenkinson, Knowledge Exchange Specialist, Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, University of Oxford; and Dr Sarah Higginson, Knowledge Exchange Specialist, Innovation and Engagement, Research Services, University of Oxford

For academics seeking to bridge the gap between their research and policy-making, the journey to impact can be both challenging and rewarding. The impact process is often nuanced, and marked by slow progress with occasional unexpected bursts of action and achievement. Rather annoyingly, it can be the casual interactions at events or a small action arising from a meeting that can lead to the greatest impact.

However, some fairly simple planning can help to ensure that you know the people you need to contact, have the right materials to engage them and are well-placed to contribute your evidence to (policy) discussions and development.

Discover some useful hints and tips for your ‘journey to impact’ here in their blog

 

Experimenting with non-traditional communication for interdisciplinary environmental research

Can theatre games help catalyse interdisciplinarity for nature recovery?

Authors: E.A. Welden and Jasper Montana

We know that working together across different scientific fields is necessary to tackle today’s environmental challenges. But, that is easier said than done. A wide range of barriers to interdisciplinarity, from research funding mechanisms to organisational structures in academia, consistently prevent different disciplines from connecting with one another(1). The disconnect also comes down to a communication challenge across different research cultures. To overcome these, we have identified a need to break outside of traditional, text-based, academic communication and explore other ways of connecting and communicating across disciplines in environmental research.

We are part of the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery (LCNR) team that have been developing and testing methods that actively ‘practice interdisciplinarity’(2) through our project Innovative methods to connect and communicate between disciplines.

As part of our project, we ran the first of a series of catalytic theatre-based workshops with academics and research administrators at the Old Fire Station Theatre, Oxford, in December 2023. In the workshop, participants drawn from different disciplines within the LCNR were asked to work together to test out a set of pre-designed theatre-based activities intended to catalyse interdisciplinarity. Check out our first two Interdisciplinary Catalyst Activities: Fieldwork tennis and Object of significance.

Why this approach?

While using theatre games to catalyse interdisciplinarity may initially appear strange, this is precisely the point. Putting aside scientific articles and textbooks, we wanted to experiment with ways to use voices and bodies to enhance the communication repertoire for interdisciplinary working. Inspired by Feminist scholars such as Judith Butler(3) and Donna Haraway(4), we wanted to bring into practice theoretical ideas of ‘embodiment’—the political act of being in one’s body—as a subversive way of going against normal modes of academic interaction.

The use of theatre-based approaches in facilitating cross-cultural dialogue, collaboratively exploring the future, and challenging established power dynamics is nothing new in sustainability research(5,6). Much previous work in this area takes inspiration from forum theatre, which is a theory and method that encourages participation amongst actors and audiences (‘spect-actors’) to communicate oppression of peoples and advocate for social and political justice in an embodied way — i.e. in a way that is felt and experienced through enactment(7). This kind of practice is considered to have the potential to transform both participants’ attitudes and everyday practice(8).

What next?

Building on this tradition, our plan is to develop a series of activities that can be used to draw attention to, offer experiences of, and facilitate conversations about some of the barriers and opportunities of interdisciplinary environmental research. Following the success of our workshop in December 2023, we plan to run another series of workshops later in 2024 to test and refine further activities with takeaways for interdisciplinary working. We hope the activities will be transferable to similar interdisciplinary environmental initiatives or training programmes elsewhere.

Developing the activities

The seeds of the catalytic theatre-based workshop began in early 2023 when we first met Lizzy McBain and Emma Webb from Oxford People’s Theatre. Both are theatre professionals with experience of engaging diverse communities through theatre workshops and collaborative projects. Bringing together their depth of experience in theatre games with our knowledge and questions around interdisciplinarity in environmental research, we began collaboratively developing activities that we could test in the LCNR workshop. The games Lizzy and Emma first recommended (and we subsequently built upon) not only drew on a long tradition of warm-ups for theatre, but also the tradition of theatre as politics, allowing us to think about power through embodied play. The wealth of knowledge of Lizzy and Emma has been crucial, as well as resources such as Games for Actors and Non-Actors by Augusto Boal.

Two women stand next to one another in a corridor. One has a pink scarf and long dark hair the other a blue scarf and short hair - she wears glasses.
Lizzy and Emma from the Oxford People’s Theatre

In developing the activities, we wanted to get to the crux of interdisciplinary communication challenges. Activities needed to be thought provoking and memorable. We worked together to critically reflect: Did the activity spark questions in us that we want discussed? Did they get us thinking and moving in interesting ways? Through this iterative development process, where we tried one version of an activity, then another, then circled back to a previous one, we selected and refined the activities to run in the initial workshop.

What were the activities like?

The first workshop ran for three hours and included three activities. To provide a brief taster, one of the activities we ran we called Object of Significance. With this activity (follow link for more detailed instructions), we put participants into three groups, with each group receiving an ‘object of significance’. In our case this object was three almost-identical pinecones. Each group was then also given an identity and an objective: one group represented members of a local community and were tasked with coming up with why the pinecone was important to their community; another group were members of a conservation organisation and tasked with coming up with how to protect the pinecone; and the last a group were scientists tasked with coming up with how to study the pinecone. After discussing this amongst their groups, everyone then regrouped, sharing the ‘rituals’ they came up with regarding the object. Then, they were tasked with coming up with a way forward for using, protecting, and studying the pinecone, which speaks to all the held values by each group. Through this activity and discussion, the participants thought through how ‘meanings and values matter,’ with different groups holding different meanings and values for the same object, like in interdisciplinary research spaces.

Want to give them a try?

This is just one of up to ten Interdisciplinary Catalyst Activities that we aim to produce by the end of 2024. The first two – Fieldwork tennis and Object of significance – are available on the project website and can be replicated by others interested in interdisciplinary environmental research. We invite you to give them a try.

Annie E.A. Welden, School of Geography and the Environment and Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, University of Oxford.

Jasper Montana, School of Geography and the Environment; Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, University of Oxford; Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University.

 

1.      Hakkarainen, V., Mäkinen‐Rostedt, K., Horcea‐Milcu, A., D’Amato, D., Jämsä, J., & Soini, K. (2022). Transdisciplinary research in natural resources management: Towards an integrative and transformative use of co‐concepts. Sustainable Development (Bradford, West Yorkshire, England), 30(2), 309–325. https://doi.org/10.1002/sd.2276
2.      LÉLÉ, S., & NORGAARD, R. B. (2005). Practicing Interdisciplinarity. Bioscience, 55(11), 967–975. https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2005)055[0967:PI]2.0.CO;2
3.      Butler, J. (2011). Bodies that matter : on the discursive limits of “sex.” Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203828274
4.      Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066
5.      Heras, M., & T bara, J. D. (2014). Let’s play transformations! Performative methods for sustainability. Sustainability Science, 9(3), 379–398. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-014-0245-9
6.      Heras López, M., & Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals. (2015). Towards new forms of learning : exploring the potential of participatory theatre in sustainability science. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
7.      Boal, A. (1974). Theatre of the oppressed. Pluto Press.
8.      Ibid.
What is Biodiversity Net Gain?

Nat Duffus and Sophus zu Ermgassen explain.

On February 12th, England’s ambitious new environmental policy, Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) went live. Underpinned by the Environment Act, this policy lays out the mandatory requirement for new developments to provide a 10% net gain in biodiversity, maintained for at least 30 years. For now, this applies to almost all developments, and will become mandatory for small sites from April 2024, and for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) from November 2025.

The ambition is that instead of driving biodiversity loss, development will now contribute to biodiversity recovery, from housing developments to large solar farms, and to road and rail construction. But what does providing a ‘biodiversity net gain’ mean?

How is Biodiversity Net Gain achieved?

The policy is designed so that the improvement to biodiversity is measurable, using the statutory biodiversity metric. This is a calculation tool, which assigns numerical values called ‘units’ to habitats based on their size, type, and ecological condition. Before development occurs, developers will need to take stock of the units provided by their habitats on-site. Post-development, there will need to be 10% more units than there was to begin with. This is achieved by following a mitigation hierarchy, whereby harms to the habitats are avoided and minimised as much as possible, and harms that do occur will need to be compensated for. This can be done by improving the quality of the habitats remaining and creating new habitats.

It is preferred in the policy that the creation of new habitats occurs in the same place as the impact to biodiversity. This means that it is hoped that under BNG there will be higher levels of greenspace within developments, provided by grassland, ponds, hedgerows, and other natural habitats for wildlife. When on-site habitats are not enough to meet the 10% requirement then off-site gains (offsets) can be purchased.

It is hoped that the developers’ demand for offsets will drive investment into landowners and habitat banks to do large nature recovery projects. This could allow, for example, the creation of wildflower meadows to offset the environmental harms caused by a new housing development.

Researchers have learned a lot about the outcomes of BNG from studying councils which adopted the commitment early. Based on this experience, academics and ecologists are still concerned about several key gaps in the policy which limit the ability of BNG to fulfil its ambitions.

Is BNG delivering for wildlife?

A key concern from academics is that the metric used to score biodiversity may not work in the best interest of wildlife – particularly, for insects, an important but declining component of biodiversity. Grasslands which have nettles, ragwort, thistles, and diverse mosaics of scrub and bare earth support a wealth of rich insect biodiversity. Under BNG, these habitats are penalised in favour of tidy grasslands which may have plenty of flowers but lack the other diverse habitat components necessary to sustain flourishing insect populations.

Not only will habitats potentially be of reduced quality to wildlife, but they will also be smaller, as recent research found that BNG was associated with a large reduction in the area of open greenspace. It was also found that the metric is so flexible that most large developments can meet their entire 10% BNG commitment within the development footprint. This reduces the demand for offsets, and the private investment that could be going into large nature recovery projects, supporting goals such as the 30 by 30 target.

How will BNG be enforced?

Another big risk that has been flagged by researchers is the fact that BNG allows for the trading of existing habitats for promised future habitats. For this trading to work, there needs to be high levels of monitoring and governance, to incentivise compliance with the policy.

Habitats promised on-site within the built environment are at particular risk, owing to the inability of existing planning enforcement mechanisms to tackle BNG non-compliance. Due to this gap, it was previously estimated that a quarter of habitat units delivered under BNG could be unmonitored and effectively unenforceable.

In response to these governance challenges, there has been an increase in the funding afforded to Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) in the run up to BNG and new requirements mean that ‘significant’ gains within the built environment will require a planning agreement. However, there remains significant concern as to whether LPAs are adequately resourced to monitor habitats over 30 years and act against noncompliance.

There are also challenges with securing some habitats within the built environment such as residential gardens and public use grasslands which count toward the BNG requirement. Both will be subject to high levels of use by people and pets, reducing their wildlife value. For gardens, it is not yet clear how their wildlife value will be maintained and not lost to artificial grass, decking, or concrete slabs.

Today is an exciting moment as one of the world’s most ambitious ecological compensation policies is launched. But it is important that we get the nuts and bolts of this policy right to ensure that we are delivering real benefits for biodiversity, and that gains are not just made on paper.

Watch an interview Nat took part in with Trisha Goddard on TalkTV here. Interview starts at 1.46

Originally published in ‘The Conversationhere

Pioneering Nature-Positive Pathways: Organisational Approaches for delivering Nature Recovery

The Global Biodiversity Framework calls upon the private sector to contribute to nature recovery. But so much about the concept of Nature Positive is ill defined, making it challenging for businesses (and society as a whole) to understand the major shifts required to achieve it.

More research is crucial to help guide and prioritize business actions.

A recent pre-print led jointly by Thomas White (The Biodiversity Consultancy/ University of Oxford) and Talitha Bromwich (Wild Business Ltd /University of Oxford) highlights four  key areas for research.

💡   Strategic options – Setting strategic priorities and actions at the organizational and sectoral levels.
⚙️   Implementation by companies – Designing and implementing business plans and actions to address impacts, protect and restore biodiversity.
💷   Driving processes – Acting to influence the systemic drivers of business action (e.g. policy, finance) that determine the ‘rules of the game’.
📊   Outcomes – Monitoring and reporting outcomes to ensure that action is effective, and scales to deliver outcomes in line with global biodiversity goals.

Tom explains “Businesses have a key role to play in helping bend the curve of biodiversity decline, but there are currently large uncertainties about the suitable strategies and approaches they should take.”

Hollie Booth, a contributing author, adds: “Given the scale of the biodiversity crisis, prioritized research is needed to inform rapid and proportionate action that can deliver the transformative change urgently needed. We hope the research questions we identified can foster collaborative impactful research, enabling meaningful and well-evidenced private sector action which contributes to a nature positive future.”

The paper was produced collaboratively between us and the University of Oxford’s Nature Positive Hub – a research partnership formed to bridge the gap between business practice and conservation science, and deliver practical, prioritized research that delivers for both business and biodiversity.

Learn more about the work programme associated with this paper here

Fixing the gaps in England’s ‘biodiversity net-gain’ policy
Author: Dr Sophus ze Ermgassen

England will soon introduce one of the world’s most ambitious biodiversity policies in “Biodiversity Net Gain”.

This policy effectively mandates that any new development leaves biodiversity in a better state than before it was constructed. It was initially meant to go into effect in November, but the government has pushed back its implementation until 2024.

In order to understand the potential impacts of the Biodiversity Net Gain, our team has been tracking development projects approved over the last three years in six councils across England that were early adopters of the policy.

Our latest paper, published this month, reveals several fundamental challenges that threaten the integrity of the policy’s environmental and economic outcomes.

We find that the oversight, monitoring and enforcement of biodiversity improvements supposedly delivered under the policy need urgent attention.

For example, there is a clear “governance gap”, where the system for monitoring biodiversity gains delivered on the site of new developments is weaker than for gains purchased from elsewhere. The process is overseen by local planning departments, which are typically lacking in capacity and ecological expertise.

Biodiversity Net Gain is an essential pillar of the country’s plans for attracting private finance into nature conservation to achieve its overarching environmental objectives.

Ultimately, the challenges we identify threaten the integrity of one of England’s most important environmental markets – and with it, the environmental outcomes of the government’s nature markets strategy.

Biodiversity Net Gain

Under the Biodiversity Net Gain policy, developers have three ways to offset their “biodiversity liability” – the damage their project does to nature. Biodiversity Net Gain applies to most developments, such as housing and smaller infrastructure projects. The policy will apply to major infrastructure projects from 2025 onwards.

First, they can enhance biodiversity somewhere within the development – so-called “on-site” gains. These on-site gains can take the form of, for example, sowing wildflowers along road verges or managing some of the grassland within a housing development to promote wildlife, rather than for traditional landscaping.

If developers can’t meet their liabilities on-site, their second option is to use biodiversity “units” from ecological improvements elsewhere. Under the policy, these units are supposed to mirror the habitat that is impacted by the development, so that when developers damage habitats, they must replace them with habitats that are at least as valuable, from a conservation perspective, as those lost.

Some of these units might come from the new “net-gain market”. Land managers create these units by implementing conservation actions on their land, such as converting low-productivity pasture into a field managed for wildflowers. Then, they sell these units to developers.

Alternatively, some developers are developing their own habitat banks, creating biodiversity units in one place to offset the impacts of their developments elsewhere.

Last, if no units are available through either of these pathways, developers can buy “statutory biodiversity credits” directly from the national government.

These credits loosely resemble the units sold via the market. The government holds a stock of these units as a last resort for developers who cannot offset their damage in other ways. For example, they may offset damage to particularly rare types of habitat for which there may not be suitable credits available on the standard market.

Importantly, the price levels for these statutory units have been set deliberately high, in an attempt to disincentivise developers from relying on these credits.

The ‘governance gap’

Our dataset spans around 1,600 hectares of development footprint that have been submitted or approved for development over the last three years in these six early-adopter councils: West and South Oxfordshire, Vale of White Horse, Cornwall, Leeds City and Tunbridge Wells.

Our team has been collating and analysing the biodiversity assessments submitted to these authorities for each project.

We’ve analysed the trades occurring under the policy and the rules that govern them. Additionally, we have quantified any errors embedded in the developers’ biodiversity assessments. Our research has identified several shortfalls that need addressing for this nature market to be able to deliver on its goals.

Our first key finding is that around one-quarter of all the biodiversity units delivered under the policy so far fall within a “governance gap” – meaning that they are likely to go unmonitored, and may even be legally unenforceable.

As a result, there is a very high probability that regulators will not be able to take any action if these promised gains are not delivered.

This will likely translate into a large chunk of these units not materialising in reality, as there is little incentive for developers to deliver these units in full if there is no credible enforcement mechanism.

The problem is that the standards and regulations of the three offset pathways vary considerably.

There is reasonably stringent governance to ensure that biodiversity units purchased on the offsetting market are delivered in reality. Sellers will have to submit their offsets to a national database, monitor biodiversity changes and report on the ecological development of the site at regular intervals.

Contrary to these standards, the system for monitoring, reporting and enforcing units delivered “on-site” is much weaker. The government has suggested that the existing planning enforcement system can be used to oversee on-site units.

The planning enforcement system was never designed for such a task, and in its current form, is unsuitable for fulfilling this role.

Under the current system, local authorities are explicitly advised to only take enforcement action, such as warnings or fines, if a developer’s violation of a planning condition results in “serious harm to a local public amenity”. Although it is unclear how this will apply to the Biodiversity Net Gain policy, the failure to deliver a habitat that a developer promised in a planning application a few years prior is extremely unlikely to trigger this threshold.

Developers also do not have to log their on-site gains on the national Biodiversity Net Gain register, which means that many of these projects are likely to go unmonitored. Even if they underperform relative to the original promise in the planning application, there is no credible system in place to hold developers to account for such non-delivery.

Risk of non-delivery

In our research, we have found that around one-quarter of all the units delivered under the policy are at a high risk of non-delivery because of this governance gap.

While the regulation of a specific kind of biodiversity unit within a single policy might sound unimportant, this actually has serious implications for how England’s nature markets function.

The core pillar of England’s ambitions for drawing private finance into nature conservation is the Biodiversity Net Gain market. Any biodiversity units that are delivered on-site by developers are units they will not need to purchase from the off-site market. So the less stringent the standards in the on-site system, the more this will drain demand for units from the off-site market, which is relatively more ecologically robust.

Although we recognise our data is preliminary, we estimate that if these under-regulated biodiversity units were to be delivered via the off-site market instead, the demand for biodiversity units could rise by a factor of four.

This could significantly increase the amount of conservation implemented on private land and, therefore, the amount of private finance flowing into conservation projects on private land.

There is precedent for this. The English scheme was partially informed by the US wetland mitigation markets. In 2008, those markets underwent reform to address a similar governance gap.

In the US case, the standards applied to developer-led and third-party projects diverged enormously, meaning a range of low-quality mitigation projects were being implemented by developers. The 2008 compensation rule in the US wetland mitigation system addressed this disparity by ensuring that the same standards were applied across all forms of compensation.

Lacking capacity

Our research also reveals other interesting, consequential patterns. Perhaps the most important to the integrity of this emerging market is the current lack of capacity in local authorities to be able to deliver on the Biodiversity Net Gain policy.

Local authorities do the best they can with the resources they have, but they have undergone stringent funding cuts since 2008.

At the last count, around 60% of local planning authorities have no in-house ecological expertise – which is essential for delivering biodiversity gains effectively.

In our study, we evaluated how many of the applications contained a basic error in their calculations: we checked to see if the area of the site before and after development added up to the same amount.

We found that the areas did not add up in around one-fifth of all projects. Of these, around half had already been accepted by the local planning authorities. One explanation for this oversight could be that planners were so rushed they did not have time to examine the calculations included with the application.

This suggests we have not yet addressed the serious capacity shortages in the councils – who are ultimately going to be the public bodies overseeing the delivery of Biodiversity Net Gain at local scales. This is clear evidence that further investment in local planning capacity is required.

Environmental markets have the potential to be powerful mechanisms for improving nature, but one of the fundamental features of biodiversity compensation markets is that they deliver biodiversity gains that make up for an equal and opposite loss elsewhere.

This means that every biodiversity unit that is promised by developers in order to secure planning permission, but then not delivered in reality, has legitimised the loss of biodiversity elsewhere.

Making sure that these policies lead to direct, robust gains in the quality of nature is therefore absolutely essential to ensure that the markets-focused approach to drawing private finance into nature recovery in England leaves the environment better, rather than worse, off.

 

Catch Wytham Woods on Countryfile on 5 November

Earlier in October, the BBC Countryfile team returned once more to Wytham Woods to film for an upcoming episode, part of the 12-month Wild Britain initiative that’s aimed at galvanising support for saving the UK’s endangered wildlife.

Ellie Harrison and Hamza Yassin visited the Woods, with the latter climbing into their canopy to learn more about the complex woodland ecosystem and the impact that ash dieback is having. The team also visited other sites in the area including Boundary Brook Nature Reserve in East Oxford.

The episode will air at 5.15pm on Sunday 5 November, and you can watch it on iPlayer  at any time after that

Wytham Woods form an iconic location that has been the subject of continuous ecological research programmes, many dating back to the 1940s. The estate has been owned and maintained by the University of Oxford since 1942. The Woods are often quoted as being one of the most researched pieces of woodland in the world, and their 1000 acres are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The wooded parts of the Wytham Estate comprise ancient semi-natural woodland (dating to the last Ice Age), secondary woodland (dating to the seventeenth century), and modern plantations (1950s and 60s). The fourth key habitat is the limestone grassland found at the top of the hill. Other smaller habitats include a valley-side mire and a series of ponds.

The site is exceptionally rich in flora and fauna, with over 500 species of plants, a wealth of woodland habitats, and 800 species of butterflies and moths.

There are 23 miles of beautiful woodland footpaths and loads of interesting events to connect you to nature check out the website here

DLUHC Science Seminar Series Sheds Light on how to build Trust and Inclusion for Thriving Communities

In an enlightening seminar titled “How to build standards of trust, accountability, and inclusion for sustainable places,” Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery and Agile Initiative researchers Dr. Caitlin Hafferty and Dr. Mark Hirons shared their insights with the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Community (DLUHC). The seminar, part of the DLUHC 2023 Science Seminar Series, aimed to bridge the gap between academic research and real-world application in the realm of urban planning and regeneration, housing, sustainable communities, and the Levelling Up agenda.

The DLUHC Science Seminar Series, led by the Chief Scientific Advisor’s Office, seeks to incorporate scientific evidence into DLUHC’s areas of research interest and priorities. Caitlin and Mark’s presentation, which took place on the 21st July 2023, showcased the best available social science evidence on how participatory processes can lead to better quality decisions, contributing to more sustainable and equitable outcomes in planning and development.

Key takeaways from the seminar included:

  1. The importance of engagement: Caitlin and Mark emphasized the significance of engagement in building trust, inclusion, and integrity in decision-making processes. They presented evidence that shed light on the necessity of involving stakeholders and the general public in shaping decisions about places and communities.
  2. Digital tools for engagement: The researchers discussed the use of digital tools in the engagement process, offering insights into both technical and ethical considerations related to their application. Digital tools can enhance the accessibility and effectiveness of public involvement in planning and decision-making, but there are also ethical risks (like lack of digital literacy and infrastructure) which need mitigating.
  3. Embedding a culture of engagement: The presentation touched on the importance of creating a culture of engagement within DLUHC. Building capacity and capability to deliver best practice in engagement processes is key to ensuring that decisions align with sustainability and community needs.

This research is particularly crucial given the rapidly evolving state of digital transformation in the UK and internationally. With a plethora of digital tools and platforms at our fingertips, the way we approach planning and environmental decision-making is shifting dramatically. On a global scale, influential organizations like the OECD and the European Union are promoting digital tools as catalysts for fostering more interactive, human-centred approaches. Closer to home, the United Kingdom is making bold strides in digital transformation, positioning digital technologies as the front and centre of public service provision and engagement. These digital transformation strategies often promote technology as a ‘win-win’ for people and the planet; hailed for their capacity to streamline processes and broaden accessibility, however also bring forth a set of distinctive challenges and intricacies which must be addressed in an increasingly digital world.

The seminar not only provided valuable information to DLUHC staff but was recorded and made accessible to those working within the UK public sector. The presentation slides can also be downloaded here.

The Agile Initiative researchers are committed to further developing their research on participation in planning and environmental decision-making processes in the UK and internationally. Their work is part of the Agile Initiative Sprint on ‘Scaling Up Nature-based Solutions in the UK’ and the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery.

In a world where building sustainable places and communities is more critical than ever, this seminar underscored the importance of engagement for driving standards of trust, inclusion and accountability in decision-making and public institutions.

Highlands Rewilding Unveils Roadmap for Inclusive Nature-Based Solutions

Author: Dr. Caitlin Hafferty

Highlands Rewilding, a pioneering initiative seeking to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis through accelerating nature-based solutions, has released a comprehensive “Engagement Roadmap”. This roadmap, developed in collaboration with researchers from the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery and Agile Initiative, alongside Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), presents a strategy for effective public and stakeholder engagement in rewilding and nature-based solutions projects.

The Engagement Roadmap utilises social science evidence to chart the course for collaborative, inclusive, and large-scale nature-based solutions. It draws on research conducted as part of Agile’s Scaling-up Nature-based Solutions project and the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, in collaboration with researchers Dr. Caitlin Hafferty, Dr. Mark Hirons, and Dr. Constance McDermott. The Roadmap encompasses six key steps to guide projects like rewilding, ensuring they resonate with local communities, governments, and the broader public:

1.       Identifying engagement objectives: The Engagement Roadmap underscores the significance of defining the purpose of engagement, for example, whether it involves collaboration on a management plan or the communication of findings.

2.       Involving interested and affected parties: To ensure a broad spectrum of perspectives, the Roadmap advocates for the inclusion of local communities, government bodies, and other key stakeholders.

3.       Selecting appropriate engagement methods: It provides a range of methods spanning communication, consultation, collaboration, and empowerment, highlighting the importance of choosing the right approach for each context.

4.       Co-identifying desired benefits: The Roadmap encourages projects to align their goals with the aspirations of local communities, including creating job opportunities, facilitating access to nature, and promoting locally-produced food.

5.       Continuous evaluation: By advocating for ongoing feedback and monitoring, the Roadmap aims to foster adaptive and responsive engagement processes. It also promotes engagement as a method to enhance integrated socio-economic and ecological monitoring frameworks.

6.       Embedding engagement: One of the central messages is that engagement should be woven into the very fabric of rewilding projects, not relegated to a mere communication tool. It should permeate the decision-making process, from baselining and planning to implementation and evaluation, and beyond. This may require building the necessary capacity and capability to engage well, and initiating a supportive engagement culture.

Highlands Rewilding, which places a strong emphasis on benefiting both the local and global community, seeks to combat climate change and protect biodiversity while simultaneously generating environmental, social, and economic advantages. Recognising that meaningful engagement is a cornerstone of their mission, they emphasise the role of engagement in delivering integrated benefits for people, nature, and the climate.

A notable distinction of the roadmap is its view that community and stakeholder engagement should not be the final step, merely aimed at garnering support for projects. Instead, engagement should be considered an intrinsic output, with a crucial role to play throughout all stages of the decision-making process. This can help improving environmental outcomes and ensure that local voices are heard and integrated into the heart of nature-based solutions initiatives.

Highlands Rewilding welcomes feedback on this work-in-progress engagement guidance and is committed to its continuous refinement. They plan to work closely with local communities and other relevant groups to ensure the roadmap remains responsive to the evolving needs and aspirations of all stakeholders. This commitment to inclusivity and adaptability underscores Highlands Rewilding’s dedication to creating a more sustainable and harmonious relationship between people, nature, and the environment.

For further details and to download the Engagement Roadmap, please visit Highlands Rewilding’s blog.

Starting from the bottom: Exploring nature recovery in the cocoa-forest landscape of Ghana

Nestled in Southern Ghana, the Kakum landscape has long captivated the imagination of scientists, conservationists, and nature lovers alike. The exploratory studies are to understand the perceptions, practices and interactions behind this complex landscape of old-growth forests, cocoa agroforests and food crop farms, as well as how to monitor better the contributions and impacts of climate investments and related land use institutional reforms in the area.

So far, their journey has been marked by awe-inspiring encounters with the region’s diverse flora and fauna. Moreover, they have been interacting with local communities to understand their viewpoints on how to better study linkages between forest health, cocoa productivity, and social welfare and empowerment, and navigating institutions for effective land use governance and nature recovery.

The insights from such discussions have been invaluable, with farmers bringing to bear multiple viewpoints to enrich the research and improve the usefulness of future findings.

A cocoa farmer during one focus group discussions cautioned:

“Unlike the past, where cocoa harvests were predominantly limited to September to November, hybrid cocoa varieties now enable year-round harvesting. Focusing solely on the main harvest season will yield flawed productivity figures.”

 

Another cocoa farmer and village chief observed in a separate focus group:

“Your team needs to establish a clear link between your research and concrete benefits for our community. For example, our emissions reduction payments within the Ghana Cocoa Forest REDD+ Programme (GCFRP) are currently delayed by the government. Your research should thoroughly investigate this matter, as it significantly impacts our well-being.”

 

The GCFRP is led by Ghana’s National REDD+ Secretariat and financed by the World Bank. It seeks to reward farmers, chiefs and local communities for their contributions to avoided deforestation and has led to the creation of multi-level institutions for land use management in key landscapes, including Kakum since its inception in 2019.

These grassroots insights underscore the paramount significance of bottom-up research framing and the potential interdisciplinary collaborations. This synergy is readily apparent, as Dr Eric Kumeh, our lead social scientist, facilitates discussions in consultation with our ecologists from the LCNR and collaborators, including Dr Kwadwo Kusi and others from FORIG.

The team remains committed to further engagement, including participatory observations of ongoing data collection efforts by local institutions. These endeavours aim to yield deeper insights into how climate investments can be effectively monitored to catalyse nature recovery and community well-being in the Kakum Landscape and beyond.