Reflecting on year in Ecology

21.12.2021 5 min read

Temple’s Divisional Director, Dr. Sarah Cox looks back over the past year in Ecology.

Reflecting on 2021 and what has been another challenging year, I feel so lucky to be working in the field of ecology. Ecology has always been part of who I am – both my parents are passionate advocates for wildlife and have worked tirelessly all their lives to denounce (often fiercely) those who seek to destroy rather than protect. For me as a professional consultant, our industry has never been more exciting, and the optimism encountered everywhere is palpable. Despite the clear frustration around an overabundance of rhetoric over action, we are surrounded by articles, conferences, and often hotly contested debates about Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), Environmental Net Gain (ENG), Natural Capital accounting, and Nature Based Solutions to name just a few. This is coupled with the wide range of ambitious and welcome, global and national scale, targets that the UK has committed to for the coming years, not least but not at all exclusively, through the Environment Act 2021.

However, as a former academic, I can’t help but smile ever so slightly ruefully at all of this. Essentially, this same excitement was there when I first learned about the principles of island biogeography at Bristol university 20+ years ago. It is the same excitement I felt when I carried out my first ecosystem services assessment back in the early 2000s and every single time I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in projects with those willing to think beyond their redline boundaries.

It is still exciting, of course, it is, but none of the plethoras of new terminology of recent years is actually bringing us something new. Our current approaches, without exception, build upon the original theories of MacArthur and Wilson (published originally back in 1967) and others around the same time. These publications set out the issues around population vulnerability, edge effects and promoted functional connectivity, alongside the SLOSS debate (single large versus several small), expanded upon a little more recently (but not that much) with the field of environmental economics/accounting.

The concept that biodiversity can provide tangible, measurable benefits for society has been discussed for decades, with a multitude of tools developed to make the best use of the information available to us. My own Ph.D. thesis published in 2003, (now lovingly used as a colouring book by my toddler thanks to a Covid-19 imposed lockdown), talked about exciting concepts in conservation planning such as those aimed at capturing resistance, resilience, and complementarity in selecting sites for conservation; how this was always going to be insufficient in the face of fragmentation and climatic range shifts; and how we had to frame protected sites (essentially areas acting as refugia) within the context of wider landscape management, cross-boundary/organisational collaboration and policy instruments to encourage or demand strategic/holistic approaches at the landscape, not the site scale.

We are still having these very same conversations today. I am impatient yes, you only have to ask anyone who knows me that, but what is far more frustrating than a tendency to focus on definitions as opposed to action is that, in 2021, I am constantly faced with like-for-like replacement at the site level; off the shelf enhancements with no consideration of feasibility; bold statements around net gains without substance; attempts to essentially jam everything possible into tiny fragments of isolated habitat where the likelihood of persistence even in the short term is minute, to say the least; and no consideration of adjacent land use or ownership. Amongst these is one lasting conversation around green infrastructure provision associated with a nationally significant project some years ago now. As part of a design team meeting, I was challenged to respond, without my customary level of sarcasm, to the suggestion that we simply paint all the gates green….

As a nation, we sign ourselves up time and time again to increasingly more ambitious targets whilst shuffling those we failed to deliver under the carpet and we debate for decades around terminology – Biodiversity Net Gain really just is enhancement once mitigation for identified effects has been addressed by the way, albeit with the expectation of using a standardised metric to demonstrate it. Some of us have been doing this since day one. Of concern lately, I am now seeing manipulation of metrics to suit targeted outcomes. What we forget is that whilst the metric is required, it is only part of the process. No point in proudly showing 200% gains when none of the measures proposed actually will deliver or are even feasible and the actual impacts of the scheme weren’t actually addressed either.

Yes, I am telling us off, collectively, as an industry. Because we need to stop it now. Seriously we do. We need to stop blaming a lack of data, politics, or technology for reverting to tried and tested approaches and empower the new graduates and those rising up the ranks to take our place to take action and think outside the box. We have everything we need at our disposal – amazing, ever-improving technology, incredible enthusiasm, dynamism, and willingness, more and more comprehensive data sets, astonishing knowledge, and a passion to achieve positive outcomes.

For what it’s worth, I think what we actually need is to step back from the inward dialogue and talk to each other – yes really – communicate, collaborate, and most shocking of all…listen and share. Let’s not waste time developing slightly different tools for those we already have to gain industry brownie points. For me, the points we achieve should be from best practice, innovation, and collective working.

So, I’m in – who else is up for the challenge?

Key Contacts

Dr Sarah Cox Divisional Director - Ecology