SUBMISSION: BIODIVERSITY AND ECOSYSTEMS CALL FOR EVIDENCE
Response prepared by:
Dr R.A. Robinson
with contributions from Dr J. Calladine, Dr E.M. Humphreys, Dr J.W. Pearce-Higgins & Dr G.M. Siriwardena
on behalf of the British Trust for Ornithology, 11 September 2020.
1.1 The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO, https://www.bto.org/) is an independent charitable research institute (Registered Number: 216652) combining professional and citizen science aimed at providing evidence of change in wildlife populations, particularly birds, to inform the public, opinion-formers and environmental policy- and decision-makers.
1.2 The BTO’s purpose and public benefit is to deliver objective information and advice, through undertaking impartial research and analysis about birds, other species and habitats to advance the understanding of nature. We inform policies and evidence-based decisions that impact on the environment so that future generations can benefit from a healthy and wildlife-rich environment []. We do this by:
- Sustaining long-term extensive programmes and smaller scale intensive research to study the population trends, movements, breeding, survival, ecology and behaviour of wild birds;
- Encouraging, enthusing, training and supporting volunteers to take part in scientific studies;
- Bringing together professional scientists and volunteers in surveys of wildlife - particularly, but not exclusively, birds;
- Analysing the data gathered through these studies, making information available to Government and other bodies, and publishing the results in the primary scientific literature and via the internet, and the media more generally.
1.3 Our long-term monitoring data on the status of UK birds sets the standard worldwide for understanding the effects of environmental change on wildlife. Our impartiality enables our data and information to be used by UK Government, devolved administrations, NGOs, land managers and others. By involving volunteers we both democratise science and connect people with their local environment, promoting awareness of environmental change and engaging them with potential solutions [].
2.1 The core of our response concerns the need for appropriate and effective biodiversity monitoring building on the existing successful partnership between Government, BTO and other NGOs. We provide a summary of those points, before answering some of the specific questions in more detail below.
2.2 Government (through JNCC and Country Nature Conservation Bodies) in partnership with a range of NGOs supports a world-leading biodiversity monitoring sector which provides the broad evidence base from which the impacts of human activities can be measured.
2.3 Although many drivers of biodiversity change continue to operate at UK and international scales, environmental matters are increasingly devolved. Coherent monitoring across the UK is necessary to ensure impacts are accurately assessed and causes of biodiversity change identified.
2.4 Citizen science represents good value for money, with current investment leveraging large contributions of “in-kind” time from volunteers and generating wider societal benefits in terms of well-being through participation in surveys. It is vital this investment is sustained, and further resources are required to realise the full potential of current biodiversity monitoring data and to develop complementary recording, e.g. through deployment of new technologies.
2.5 Citizen science recording is most useful when consistent data are required over large (i.e. national) spatial scales. Although there is scope to pilot more focussed local recording schemes, targeted monitoring of biodiversity at a site level will, in many cases, continue to require expert, professional, input.
2.6 Reductions in abundance and/or density of common species are at least as important, in terms of biodiversity loss, as loss of (already scarce) species at local or regional scales. Citizen science biodiversity monitoring is well-placed to quantify this loss (in many, but not all, species groups) allowing remedial action to be formulated.
2.7 There is increasing evidence of the benefits of engagement with nature (not least with recent lockdown events and ‘staycations’) and, to this end, reversing biodiversity loss needs to occur across the countryside, where people can experience (and benefit from) it on a daily basis (a land-sharing model), rather than just in designated areas (the land-sparing approach). Greening of new urban development facilitates this through the promotion of common species rather than replacing the need for mitigation of the impacts of development on semi-natural or open habitats.
2.8 ELM (and analogous schemes in the other countries of the UK) can function alongside the protection of priority or sensitive habitats to improve biodiversity but, while the scheme is new, the prescriptions will likely be built on measures incorporated in previous schemes. There is evidence that some of these have worked well (particularly in the “Higher Level” schemes), but continued declines in farmland biodiversity point to the need for more effective delivery mechanisms; accurate recording and monitoring of outcomes at a farm-scale will be key to this.
2.9 While there are broad commonalities in the biodiversity impacts of land-use management, responses are typically species-specific and a diversity of management approaches will be required to promote the widest range of biodiversity. Monitoring goals should reflect this need to understand such species-specific responses. For example, in the uplands, different afforestation policies can achieve particular biodiversity targets, but also constrain efforts to manage open-country species (of high conservation concern) if poorly located.
2.10 Importantly, monitoring should encompass not only on pattern (changes in abundance and/or distribution) but also process (the demographic mechanism of change) which facilitates the identification of key drivers of change (often from among a set of multiple plausible candidates) but which has received less support to date.
2.11 Ecosystem- and nature-based solutions to climate change that provide both mitigation and adaptation benefits as well as benefiting both biodiversity (and human health and well-being) exist, however, good monitoring of mitigation, adaptation and biodiversity responses to these managements is critical to understand the synergies and trade-offs between the different objectives.
3. The state of biodiversity
How effectively is the Government monitoring the impact of UK activities on biodiversity, at home and abroad?
3.1 The UK is fortunate to have a diverse and active community of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), supported by well over a million members and tens of thousands of volunteers, many of whom take part in biodiversity monitoring through citizen science []. Their activities are supported by a partnership with Government (through JNCC and the Country Nature Conservation Bodies) who contribute a portion of the costs involved; sustaining this support is vital in maintaining the broad evidence base from which the impacts of human activities can be measured [], and without which designing effective responses would be difficult. Many of these volunteers are highly skilled, collectively contributing over 7.5 million hours annually towards the survey and monitoring of our wildlife in an incredibly cost effective manner for society.
3.2 Environmental matters are generally devolved to the individual country administrations, but there is a need for continued consistent UK wide monitoring if the impacts of human activities on the common and widespread species are to be accurately assessed and large-scale responses to drivers, such as climate change, are to be tracked. Consistent monitoring across the UK is also necessary to identify spatial variation in trends, facilitating the identification of relevant drivers of change [].
3.3 Across taxa, this model provides a reasonable understanding of the main drivers of change of species in the UK [], although a recent assessment of stakeholder requirements identified a lack of suitable monitoring data to assess the impact of specific conservation and policy interventions upon biodiversity []. At present, monitoring is often focussed on patterns of change (in either numbers or distribution) but to effectively understand, and address, the nature of the impacts of human activities on biodiversity, it is necessary to understand the processes whereby those changes have occurred as there are normally multiple candidate mechanisms; this is much less routinely achieved. Thus, for birds, which have the potential to be good indicators of underlying environmental conditions [], population survey data from the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) could be combined with survival and productivity estimates from ringing and nest record schemes to enable the demographic drivers of population changes to be identified [], enabling direct attribution of causes of change and facilitating action to reverse them.
3.4 While citizen scientists provide high quality monitoring, they do so voluntarily, therefore, substantial effort is required to support and direct their participation for it to be effective, and activities must be aligned with their motivations and interests. Surveillance coverage, therefore, varies by taxonomic group and geographically, particularly in relation to population density, although recent initiatives such as the Upland Rovers [] approach to BBS has increased volunteer coverage in more remote areas. Border et al. [] provide a comprehensive assessment and an assessment of key gaps in the terrestrial environment and Cook et al. [], in a recent review for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, make recommendations to improve monitoring to deliver better assessment of Good Environmental Status in the marine environment.
3.5 Monitoring effort is best where there is sufficient public interest in the group concerned (notably birds, bats, butterflies and some plant groups), but this list is growing helped by novel analyses of increasing volumes of data and creatively designed, new surveys [], although many groups (non-flowering plants, the majority of invertebrate species and fungi) remain poorly monitored. It is important to recognise that while volunteer-based monitoring is cost-effective it still requires substantial resources for coordination, support and training, and analysis of data, if robust, effective evidence is to be generated, albeit that this investment leverages many times the investment in volunteer effort. Relying on ad hoc submission of records without direction or sustained promotion is rarely effective.
3.6 Despite their value in large-scale monitoring, where surveys need to be targeted at particular taxonomic groups, in specific areas (e.g. designated sites) and time periods, or require specialised methods and/or identification expertise, these often cannot be done effectively with volunteers and professional surveys are needed. The Environment & Rural Affairs Monitoring and Modelling Programme [] in Wales, and similar work undertaken by BTO and UKCEH for Natural England, provide examples of this, monitoring biodiversity responses to agri-environment schemes.
Where should the four nations prioritise resources to tackle biodiversity loss?
3.7 ‘Biodiversity loss’ is frequently considered purely in respect of (local) species extinctions, and while these are important, reductions in the abundance or density of common species, although in many cases less apparent (since the species may still be widespread), are arguably more important. This is especially true where the species anchor trophic interactions and wider foodwebs (e.g. insects []), or provide ecosystem services (e.g. pollinators []). Declines in abundance inevitably precede extinction (potentially allowing remedial action) and are more sensitive to environmental change (allowing earlier detection of impacts if measured appropriately). Data gathered by the structured volunteer-based monitoring schemes, organised by BTO and others, supported by JNCC and the CNCBs, provide vital information on abundances for many important biodiversity groups in the UK; continued support and development of these will be essential in the process of designing effective measures to stem biodiversity loss.
3.8 In this context, resource prioritisation is most appropriate where declines in abundance are in progress, as opposed to locations from which sensitive species have already disappeared. Given stabilisation of declining populations, subsequent management can aim to improve or to restore surrounding areas, in order to facilitate wider recovery. Spatio-temporal analyses of existing national datasets (such as the Breeding Bird Survey [] and Bird Atlas 2007-11 []) offer opportunities to inform such targeting.
4. Evaluating measures to conserve and enhance biodiversity
How should the Environmental Land Management scheme maintain and improve biodiversity?
4.1 The ELM (as with analogous schemes in the other nations) can function alongside the protection of priority or sensitive habitats to protect the totality of biodiversity in England. Specifically, most of the English countryside is ‘improved’ and farmed to some degree, but supports most of the country’s wildlife and an even higher proportion of the wildlife that is regularly experienced by people. While some studies suggest that ‘sparing’ land supports biodiversity more effectively at a national level [], they do not consider the benefits of biodiversity near to human populations, or several key species that are primarily associated with farmland and that are recognised as being of high conservation concern. There is growing evidence that exposure to nature has human wellbeing benefits [], supporting the need for biodiversity objectives to be incorporated into ELM and other schemes.
4.2 The decline of farmland biodiversity in recent decades has been widely documented and the ELM is the latest policy mechanism to attempt to reverse these changes. While it is a new initiative, its implementation will likely use a range of land management techniques that have been employed in previous agri-environment schemes. There is now good evidence that measures such as the effective provision of over-winter seed resources for farmland passerine birds have measurable positive effects on long-term, national population trends [] and that farm-scale populations benefit from more direct management actions, such as is employed under ‘Higher Level’ schemes []. Nevertheless, the overall decline in farmland biodiversity has not been reversed, so, given a policy aim of achieving such changes, ELM and its counterparts in other nations need to retain the identified benefits of previous schemes and to improve upon them by promoting their effective delivery.
4.3 In the case of birds, evidence suggests that this will require management that is targeted to address the resource gaps in farmland habitats that are critical for populations, such as late winter food to fill the ‘hungry gap’ []. In broad terms, this means a combination of sympathetic management of the non-productive areas within farms (such as hedgerows) and extensified farming of some production habitats (e.g. retaining unsprayed winter stubbles), with carefully designed management protocols to ensure maximum benefit. It is unlikely that the benefits will be achievable without clear protocols, but careful implementation of outcome-based approaches may be effective with appropriate assessment of outcomes directly or via evidence-based proxies. Nevertheless, it is absolutely critical that the precise management activities that are undertaken by farmers are recorded in order to allow monitoring of their effectiveness and feedback into the guidance that is provided.
What role might alternative land use play in delivering improvements to biodiversity under the ELM scheme?
4.4 We note that ELM operates solely in England and while priorities in the constituent countries differ, necessitating different approaches, implementation can be coordinated with best practices from each adopted elsewhere.
4.5 Most ‘alternative’ land uses arguably take the form of either: (a) land sparing to create new or more naturalistic habitats with biodiversity as a principal target; or (b) afforestation, that is the conversion of farmland or semi-natural open habitats (e.g. moorland or upland pasture) to woodland which can be developed principally for amenity/conservation/landscape purposes, or for commercial production of wood fibre products (encouraged by the forest expansion targets for each of four nations).
4.6 Land sparing is by nature localised (often where single landowners or clusters of owners have a specific interest), and most afforestation occurs in the uplands; both offer both opportunities and threats to biodiversity. For example, upland afforestation offers opportunities for improving biodiversity, although realising these will be contingent on understanding species-specific responses to the different management approaches and the natural resources they provide, so a diversity of management approaches is likely to be most beneficial []. However, afforestation can also act as a constraint on available habitat for breeding waders, some of which are of high conservation priority in both a UK and international context []. Land-sparing may deliver national-scale biodiversity targets, but risks marked polarization between regions of production and protection that will not deliver benefits such as resource protection or cultural services.
4.7 However land-use is developed to deliver improved biodiversity, robust monitoring of outcomes is key to ensuring effective delivery. Such monitoring may be challenging because of the localised nature of schemes, or if they are implemented principally in remote areas where extensive monitoring scheme coverage tends to be poor, thus monitoring needs should be incorporated at the outset, with appropriate resourcing to support the required activity. Effective monitoring may require either bespoke, often professional coverage, and/ or engagement with new cohorts of volunteers, for example partnering with hillwalkers to monitor change in the uplands [] or gamekeepers/estate managers to monitor breeding waders [].
How effective are the new measures to enhance biodiversity within the Environment Bill, particularly biodiversity net gain and Nature Recovery Networks? Do these measures complement existing regulatory frameworks and address issues surrounding how to value nature?
4.8 These measures have yet to be monitored adequately, and a long-term perspective is needed, especially for Nature Recovery Networks (NRN). Nominally, analyses of national monitoring data, such as those collected by BBS, will provide information about the performance of NRNs, but the potential of these data sources need to be reviewed in advance in order to identify where there are additional data requirements, and hence needs for further monitoring, such as in particular locations or at particular spatial scales.
4.9 Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) similarly needs careful evaluation, in particular in respect of quantitative responses of target taxa. Monitoring of responses to existing BNG interventions would be valuable, but explicit modelling of the likely effects of different options for types and locations of habitat creation would inform decisions in advance and promote more effective BNG solutions. Plans to develop modelling tools of this kind, based on data sources such as BBS, are in development at the BTO, subject to funding being secured.
How effective are other policies for conservation and enhancement of existing natural habitats, such as the Woodland Grant Schemes?
4.10 BTO research shows colonisation of new woods that were created using the Farm Woodland Scheme and Farm Woodland Premium Scheme within 30 years, by a range of conservation-priority woodland bird species (as well as more common species). The greatest benefits are where new woods fill gaps in the distribution of woodland in the landscape []. Further increases in ecological value, via the attraction of woodland specialists, are expected to accrue over time. This research provides information about placement and habitat context for new woodland, which is particularly pertinent in informing the policy response to the Lawton review [], which called for enhancements to habitat connectivity.
5. Co-ordination of UK environmental policy
How can policy be better integrated to address biodiversity, climate change and sustainable development?
5.1 Appropriate ecosystem management has the potential to improve biodiversity outcomes, climate change mitigation and adaptation. There is currently considerable interest in the development of ecosystem- or nature-based solutions to climate change, that provide both mitigation and adaptation benefits, as well as benefiting both biodiversity and human health and well-being. Evidence for the effectiveness, opportunities, and limitations of ecosystem-based adaptation in enabling people to cope with climate change is growing, however, establishing clear objectives combined with robust monitoring and evaluation of outcomes to inform ongoing decision-making is necessary for effective implementation [].
5.2 For example, there is good evidence that reforestation of formerly forested land can create a carbon sink over the first few decades, and after that, a significant carbon store []. Similarly, restoring degraded peatland ecosystems can reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from draining and burning []. However, there is growing evidence that tree planting on naturally open ecosystems can have negative impacts on biodiversity and even exacerbate climate change impacts [].
5.3 Further work, then, is needed to understand where and what are the best opportunities for biodiversity outcomes from afforestation, both in terms of identifying areas for forest (re-)creation where the environment is most suitable for beneficiary species, and the silvicultural processes involved in the establishment and continued management of newly afforested areas . In a UK context, extensive tree planting on peatland and upland habitats may destroy internationally important ecosystems [] and threaten species’ of global conservation concern such as Curlew  with uncertain impacts for climate change mitigation []. Conversely, rewetting of peatland ecosystems will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but benefit peatland biodiversity [] and deliver climate change adaptation [].
5.4 In combination, these examples suggest that good monitoring of mitigation, adaptation and biodiversity responses to management is critical to understand the synergies and trade-offs between different objectives. This is likely to be especially important in upland environments which are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts, yet hold significant potential for mitigation and adaptation if management is correct. The scientific evidence around these issues is growing, but requires further investment to ensure monitoring is sufficient to understand responses to particular drivers, such as climate change and land management, in order to inform future decision-making.
6. Economics and biodiversity
What are the possible approaches to balancing economic growth and conservation of nature and its contributions? Is there evidence these approaches work and can be implemented?
6.1 There is potential to contribute to this process by the effective ‘greening’ of new developments, in which the inclusion of different types of green or blue space is optimised to deliver biodiversity benefits. This would involve the promotion of common species and those that are tolerant of coexistence with humans, so would benefit cultural services and wellbeing, rather than replacing the need for mitigation of the impacts of development on semi-natural or open habitats, such as woodland or farmland. Statistical models to facilitate this process, via use by planners and landscape architects, are in the process of being developed by the BTO, with funding from JNCC [].
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