Round the world in eight peatlands

In December 2020, Charlotte Wheeler and I ran a session at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, all about peatlands. Here is my round-up of that Zoom-show. This piece was first published in Peatlands International 1.2021 and is being republished here with kind permission from the International Peatland Society.

On 18th December 2020, a group of peat experts gathered in a Zoom-room to share their tales of peatlands from across the world. They were all invited to take part in the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, in a Thematic Session focusing on the climatic, ecological and societal importance of peatlands. Each of the eight speakers had significant knowledge and experience to share on a particular geography of peatlands and/or thematic area of research, from investigating burning in the peat swamp forests of Borneo to exploring research gaps in the Sphagnum-dominated bogs of Wales. Here we summarize some of the key points raised by each of our esteemed speakers.

The session was opened by Susan Page with an excellent summary of the key roles that peatlands play in societies across the world, and of the key challenges they face. Despite the multiple services they provide (as illustrated by Fig. 1), peatlands are being subjected to many different drivers of change (Loisel et al., 2020), which are degrading the peat carbon store at a rate that is incompatible with recovery over human timescales (Goldstein et al., 2020). Sue reminded us of the importance of addressing the world’s drained peatlands, a huge and increasing source of carbon emissions that will continue to emit until the peat is depleted. Within decades, the use of this finite resource for extractive and agricultural purposes will no longer be possible.

Fig. 1 The multiple ways that peatlands support livelihoods, presented by Sue Page.

Agriculture is one of the dominant ways in which people interact with peatlands across the world. In the peatlands of Southeast Asia, and notably Indonesia, smallholder farms and industrial plantations growing oil palm on peat are common. This has led to the generation of emissions from peatlands across Southeast Asia over the last 25 years, approx. 2500 Mt C, equivalent to half of the complete stock of carbon held in the UK’s peatlands, approx. 5500 Mt C. These UK-based stocks are also rapidly dwindling, as many organic soils are exploited for commercial agriculture and horticulture. In the year 2000, it is thought that peatlands worldwide changed from a net sink to a net source of carbon. In addition to emissions, peat subsidence is a significant issue, and one that will prevent use of peatlands in the future, especially with sea-level rise in coastal areas.

How then can peatlands continue to support the many livelihoods that depend on this wetland ecosystem and its resources? Balancing livelihood and climate security is a key challenge. One of the solutions is to think more strategically about where to produce food. Carlson et al. (2016) demonstrated that those peatland areas that produce some of the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from drainage-based agriculture, also produce some of the lowest returns when it comes to nutritional calories.

Sue reminded the audience that there is no such thing as truly sustainable management of drained peat soils; ‘responsible’ use is the only option. The essential first step in responsible use and in addressing the livelihood and climate challenge is raising water tables, leading to reduced emissions and increasing the lifetime of peat. Further research is needed and trials performed to explore viable ways of producing food using wet agriculture, or paludiculture (as named in the areas with the highest water table). There will be constraints to what can be produced and where, and inevitable trade-offs, but dryland agriculture is not a sustainable option for peatlands. Some of the key challenges that still need to be overcome include knowledge gaps, selecting appropriate types of crops, and balancing the needs of food security and livelihoods. Sue concluded by emphasising that there are significant compromises, constraints and inadequacies in education that need addressing to promote responsible peatland management. But as peat-based emissions continue to use up our national carbon budgets under the Paris Agreement, coupled with the continuing loss of agricultural land, the global community needs to act NOW.

Mark Harrison continued the discussion on emissions, but with reference to fire. The now frequent burning of peatlands in Southeast Asia is causing huge carbon, health and economic losses. What we know less about is the impact that fires are having on biodiversity. When forests burn, the canopy cover is greatly reduced, causing significant reductions in habitat and creating exposed ground that further dries. Studies have shown that, for example, there are lower abundances of butterflies in peatland areas impacted by burning. Aside from understanding more about the consequences of the fires for wildlife, another important, and often complex knowledge gap is around why the fires occur. Proximate causes include peat drainage, land use change and the use of fire in peatlands by people, whether purposefully or accidentally, creating ignition sources that are inadequately controlled. Once the reasons for peatland fires have been identified, solutions for managing and restoring them can be trialled (Harrison et al., 2020a). Mark emphasised that before any restoration work is even conceived, it is vital to ask what goal of that intervention is; restoration for what, and for whom? The Kalimantan Lestari project (translating to Sustainable Kalimantan), encompassing a multi-institutional interdisciplinary research team, will aim to ask these questions, along with many others. Coordinated by the University of Exeter, it will address the challenge of fire in the peatlands of Indonesian Borneo, with a focus on: (i) drivers of fire; (ii) impacts of fire; and (iii) ways of reducing the risk of and to increase resilience to fire, with the central goal of working holistically with and supporting local communities. As a final note, Mark brought our attention to the some of the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to tropical peatlands (Harrison et al., 2020b).

From Southeast Asia’s largely degraded, fire-prone peatlands, the focus switched to the intact peat-forming forests of the Cuvette Central in Central Africa. A huge area of peatland was mapped by Greta Dargie in 2017 (Dargie et al., 2017), lying within the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. Although the geospatial boundaries of the peatland are now known, there remain huge uncertainties in the carbon stocks held within the peat complex; a stock of great international interest. Greta reminded us to think beyond carbon though, to appreciate that these areas also hold spiritual value to local communities, along with many of the ecosystem services mentioned by our host of speakers. In acknowledgement of this important resource, the two Congolese Governments signed the Brazzaville Declaration in March 2018, which aims to improve cooperation and conservation activities between these two peat-rich nations. There are already some protective structures in place on the ground, e.g. Ramsar Sites, National Protected Areas, but with the pressures of developing economies and increasing interest in hydrocarbon extraction from the region, there is a need to enhance protection and the accountability of the Government. The international community must provide financial and other forms of support to help avoid dangerous land use change, and to ensure the peatlands are in the most favourable condition to withstand the unknown consequences of ongoing climate change in the region. New maps suggest that large areas of the Cuvette Central are made up of hydrologically isolated domed peatlands (Davenport et al., 2020), which are more vulnerable to the predicted warmer and drier conditions to come. There is currently a huge research effort underway, CongoPeat, to explore the past and present dynamics of these important tropical peatlands, and to better predict how they might respond to future climate change. The project aims to provide the two Congolese Governments with best information possible, to enable them to make wise decisions for the climate, livelihoods and biodiversity.

The Congo is not the only region with largely intact but relatively threatened tropical peatlands. The peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon contain huge volumes of carbon, stored under a large diversity of wetland forest types and open areas. Despite the peatlands being relatively intact, due to no or limited drainage activities within the flooding basin of the Amazon river, they are various notable uses of these ecosystems. Euridice Honorio described the harvesting of aguaje fruit from Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps, often found growing on peat. This harvesting is important for local livelihoods, providing them with a natural resource to sell at local markets. It is also predominantly sustainable a practice, and as such, an example of the importance of incorporating local knowledge and practices into landscape conservation and management plans. There is concern, however, that the degradation of these peatlands is an imminent possibility, as rice cultivation, mining, oil palm plantations and associated new infrastructure creep geographically closer (Fig. 2). Euridice emphasised the need for more protected areas, strengthened territorial management strategies and the use of scientific knowledge in policy making. But the first step is for greater recognition of the peatlands themselves. Euridice is currently working with Peru’s Ministry of Environment to create a definition for the nation’s peatlands, followed by a strategy for protecting them.

Fig. 2 Euridice Honorio discussing the current threats to the conservation of Peru’s lowland peatlands.

From the tropical latitudes, the discussion moved to the temperate zone, and in particular, Ireland. With the third greatest area of peat in Europe, Ireland is a nation with an extensive history of peat extraction for fuel. This practice has resulted in 82% of its peatlands undergoing drainage-based use, with the closest to a natural state being those under restoration. Catherine Pschenyckyj illustrated this point with the fact that 90% of Ireland’s soils are now carbon sources, rather the sinks they would previously have been as intact peatlands. In addition to carbon emissions, peat slides are an emergent property of these degraded landscapes, with impacts on the quality of water supplies, on communities of aquatic biota and on local people. However, Catherine provided encouraging news on the changes that are on the horizon: peat-fuelled power stations are closing; peatland rehabilitation projects are underway, with Bord na Mona, one of the largest energy generation companies in Ireland, investing money in restoring the sites from which they have harvested peat for many years; and projects monitoring restoration success being resourced in parallel. However, peat extraction has not halted yet, with still significant plans in place, driven in part by the horticulture industry. Catherine ended by emphasising the need to find solutions that benefit the environment and businesses.

Crossing back over the Irish Sea, Jon Walker spoke about Welsh peatlands, and namely a project he is working on to identify key gaps in the evidence base that is available for developing policy around peatland management in Wales. Through a literature review, he identified a dearth of research on forestry practices in Welsh peatlands, and a bias towards certain areas or topics, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Results from this important study, highlighting themes that require greater research focus, will feed into the Welsh Peatland Research Network, and in turn, direct the generation of robust science to fill evidence gaps for the National Peatland Action Programme of the country.

Moving to the north of the UK, Rebekka Artz described the work she has been involved in to map Scotland’s peatlands. There has been an increasing interest in, and need to map peatlands all over the world, but in particular in those places where there is money to invest in restoration. In Scotland, £250 million has been devoted to peatland restoration; the nation where the greatest area of peatlands is being restored across the world. The Scottish Government now has to decide where they can make the most effective and efficient investment of those funds. The first step is to locate the peatlands in an unfavourable condition, using models that predict how intact a peatland is from a range of remotely sensed cues, such as surface moisture. High resolution satellite data, i.e. from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 and 2, along with training data, primarily obtained through ground surveys, are key to making the modelling more accurate in depicting the situation on the ground (e.g. Williamson et al., 2020). Once the condition of the peatlands has been assessed, priority areas identified and restoration work commenced, the progress of interventions needs to be monitored. Variables such as change in vegetation and water table dynamics can be measured remotely, to give an indication of the resilience of peatlands to drought conditions. With this information, Rebekka and colleagues are working to develop an online decision support tool to assist stakeholders in choosing the most appropriate management options for a particular peatland in a given condition. Restoration tools developed in Scotland may prove useful in other regions, such as Canada, where vast areas of peatlands are ripe for restoration after the damaging exploitative activities of past decades.

Finally, Sarah Proctor, of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, provided food for thought to close the session: “we need business unusual”. The recognition by UK society of the great importance of peatlands has been slow, but does appear to have now occurred and at a critical time. This is exemplified by the publication of the UK Peatland Strategy (Fig.2) in 2018. This document details solutions for managing peatlands across the UK and its overseas territories, with a vision and targets for a healthier peatland nation by 2040. The specific goals of the strategy include: (i) Conservation, of blanket bogs (globally rare), raised bogs, fens; (ii) Restoration of heavily degraded peatland to functioning ecosystems, e.g. of Blackhill in the Peak District; (iii) Adaptive Management, moving away from our established culture of drainage-based dryland agriculture, which is a huge source of GHG emissions; (iv) Sustainable Management, considering the truly sustainable options for peatland use; (v) Coordination, via instruments such as the UK Peatland Code and the Eyes on the Bog Initiative; and, vitally (vi) Communication, producing a wide variety of resources for different stakeholders. Sarah ended by emphasising that healthy peatlands are central to so many of the other goals we are striving for at a national and international level  and which will be discussed next year in Glasgow at the 26th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26).

Fig. 3 The UK’s first collaborative Peatland Strategy was developed by the IUCN UK Peatland Programme Partnership back in 2018 to capture and embed, for the long term, a shared vision for our peatlands, helping to maintain a focus across a broad partnership and allowing progress to be monitored.

The talks provided an overview of some the unique and many shared challenges that peatlands and their associated communities face across the world. Awareness of the importance of these ecosystems is rising, but there is still a lack of integrated thinking and sustainable actions at national to international levels. Research into peatland functioning and management has perhaps never been as pressing as it is now. And until we have the answers, panelists reminded the audience of the central rule of peatland management: to keep these wetlands wet. 

The highs of boggy flows in 2020

To kick off what has already been an incredible year on many fronts (!), I was tasked with writing a post for the International Peatland Society’s blog, in my role as the Coordinator of the Peatlands and Biodiversity Expert Group within the organisation. Mark Harrison joined me in extracting some positive news about peatlands from 2020, to inspire us to keep speaking up for swamps in the year ahead. (The piece below is being reposted from the IPS blog, accessed here.) Onwards, and bog-wards.

As we say goodbye to 2020, to what has been an incredibly and unpredictably challenging year in many ways for many people, it is important to sift through the muddy (swamp) waters for positive news. For peatlands, the last 12 months have provided many sources of hope. Various happenings have brought the societal relevance of peatlands further into the public eye, and shone light on some of the great work of peatland scientists and practitioners across the world. Here are a few highlights (hopefully you also know of many more!).

There is a passionate campaign underway to make The Flow Country into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced in July that it will support the bid to UNESCO to consider this vast area of blanket bog as a significant jewel in humanity’s crown. If The Flow Country peatlands, which cover 2,000 km2 within the region of Caithness and Sutherland in northern Scotland, are given World Heritage Site status, they will enjoy increased resources for their protection and restoration (supporting further excellent work such as this), and helping the UK to achieve its net zero climate targets. The campaign team are busy working on the nomination materials, which will be reviewed by the UNESCO Committee in 2023. In the meantime whilst we await their decision, the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows reserve continues to provide access to this wonderful site (in the absence of Covid-restrictions!).

This year has seen noteworthy articles published that raise awareness of the importance of peatlands as an irrecoverable carbon stock (Goldstein et al., 2020), highlight the importance of better understanding peatland carbon dynamics and incorporating them into global climate models (Loisel et al., 2020), evaluate the relative impacts of incentive vs. deterrent interventions on peat fire outcomes (Carmenta et al., 2020), and assess the value of understanding people’s engagement with peatlands and the reasons behind “caring for Cinderella” (Byg et al., 2020). In addition to these, and of central relevance to this year’s main news story, Harrison et al. (2020) published an article describing the role that tropical peatlands play in the context of global disease pandemics.

Covid-19 has touched us all, including the communities living in the World’s peatlands. Working with an international team of co-authors (including us both), Harrison et al. (2020), make apposite connections between the current Covid-19 pandemic and tropical peatlands drawing attention to the consequences of neglecting this globally important ecosystem in these challenging times. We describe how tropical peatlands could prove a potential source of zoonotic emerging infectious diseases in the future, with wildlife harvesting and habitat degradation bringing people into contact with potential animal vectors. Of more immediate effect, we describe the likely/ensuing impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic is already having on communities living in and around tropical peatlands. Food security, health provisioning and livelihoods have been compromised by the interruptions to transport resulting from the pandemic within the peatlands of Borneo and the Peruvian Amazon. Peatland research, restoration and conservation have also all been disrupted, increasing the susceptibility of already degraded peatland areas to fire and illegal activities. On a positive note, the article concludes by providing specific recommendations on how tropical peatlands can be managed to mitigate the risks of this pandemic and potential future ones. Hopefully these recommendations will be heeded.

Buenos Aires, Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon
Urarina indigenous groups

Many tropical peatland areas are vulnerable to the impacts, whether directly or indirectly, of Covid-19 (Harrison et al., 2020). A remote tropical peatland community in Buenos Aires (upper image), within the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon, which is accessible only by boat. People living here and in neighbouring communities rely heavily on resources extracted from the surrounding peat-forming Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps. Urarina indigenous groups living in peat-rich areas, harvest palm leaves from which to make textiles (lower image); important both practically and culturally for these isolated communities. The palms also offer plentiful food for wild fauna and thus the palm swamps in which they grow are important hunting spaces for people, providing bushmeat in locations far from the nearest market. Photo credits: Lydia Cole.

Finally, the UK Government has been put under further pressure recently to ban peat compost for amateur gardeners. The UK aimed to phase out peat compost for home use in England this year, but the target was only voluntary, meaning political will is limited and enforcement non-existent. Campaigns drawing attention to this Government failing are helping to ensure it does not go unnoticed.

Despite these ‘wins’ for peatlands in 2020, there remain many challenges to protecting these invaluable ecosystems sufficiently from degrading human activities (for example in the Congo basin and Indonesian Borneo). Continuing to bring peatlands into public view and onto national and international policy agendas is vital, and one that the International Peatland Society is committed to as we dive into 2021.  

Dr. Lydia Cole, Coordinator IPS Biodiversity Expert Group
University of St. Andrews

Dr. Mark E. Harrison
University Of Exeter, Cornwall

Showcasing my research, on the bog

On 26th November 2020, I had some fun getting stuck into the Scottish Research Showcase. It involved creating a short video that represented an aspect of my work. So I created the (rather naff!) introduction to peatlands that’s embedded in the tweet below. There were some fantastically creative videos made by other Scotland-based researchers, so I’d recommend browsing #Exploration20 #GlobalScienceShow tweets from the day (e.g. one researcher tells their story via an animation in the form of crochet!). I have much to learn about, and from, the boundless and fun world of science communication!

The other two tweets in my offering were:

#WorldPeatlandsDay, the First

Re-posting here a quick plug I made for World Peatlands Day on the Tropical Wetlands Consortium blog.  Any excuse to post about peat.

Tuesday 2nd June, 2020, marked the first ever World Peatlands Day – a celebration of all things boggy, swampy, sucky, blanket-y, fen-y, etc.  The International Peatland Society launched the event in August 2019, to draw attention to peatlands as being a unique ecosystem type, with a unique set of values and challenges associated with their sustainable management, and thus deserving of a separate international day of recognition.  The longer-established World Wetlands Day happens on 2nd February every year, bringing the vast range of wetlands into the public eye; ecosystems that we all interact with and rely on in some way.  Peatlands are one major part of that story.

In celebration of the day, re-peat put on Peat-Fest, a very impressive 24 hours of online peat-related fun.  The British Ecological Society’s Peatlands Research and Conservation Ecology Groups co-hosted a peat- and conservation-themed quiz (part-organised and attended by members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium).  Here are a few popular tweets illustrating yesterday’s celebration….

But if World Peatlands Day passed you by, don’t fear; there are plenty more days to celebrate peatlands to come*.  International BogDay is on Sunday 26th July, the World Bogsnorkelling Championships (now cancelled) are usually in mid-Wales (UK) on the August Bank Holiday weekend, and in July of 2021, the Swamp Soccer World Championships is to be held in Finland.  Do let us know if you spot more opportunities to celebrate these important ecosystems, in the Global North, South or swamps.

Spot the difference!

On 7th March B.C., during those heady days of frollocking in the sun/rain-shine, wholesome hugs and re-usable coffee cups, the University of St Andrews held a Science Discovery Day.  I was unable to attend unfortunately, but put together a poster for my research group – the Tropical Wetlands Consortium  – to pop up as part of their peat paraphernalia.  Below are two copies of the poster: (a) the poster before our seven year old consultant checked it for readability by the society members he was representing; (b) the revised version, edited in response to his valuable feedback.  There are four major differences.  Can you spot them (click on images to enlarge)?  And understand why the items in (a) weren’t accessible to our next generation of budding scientists?  The feedback was eye-opening for me, and I shall now be using this consultant regularly to accessibility-check my primary school-level outreach work.

(a) Pre-accessibility assessment

(b) Post-check by our seven year old consultant

Fare forward, women.

I’ve just been included in this article, written to celebrate International Women’s Day: Ten BES women you should know about. Probably a networking-related turn of events that meant I was on the author’s mind, but I thank her very much for including me. “They” always says this…but it really is an honour to be on this list with those other babes. I will endeavour to keep putting my energy into things that I believe are important – engaging people in ecology and conservation, building the confidence and vision of individuals and nurturing kind communities.

And here’s a poem for these times that a hugely inspiring female friend sent me:

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A story of flaming bogs in Borneo

I’ve made a pact with myself that I will write a plain language summary for each paper I publish as the first author, to make my work more accessible for people beyond the ivory tower.  Some journals, e.g. People and Nature, now encourage this for each of their publications.  Whether you believe or not that scientists have a role in advocacy, I believe that sharing the treasure of knowledge with the people that funded our adventure is our responsibility.  And perhaps it’s better to tell the story with scientific facts, than ‘facts’ derived through alternative means?  Here is my first attempt at an accessible summary for my last publication. (Though it’s still too sciency, a good friend pointed out – I’ll try for properly plain next time!  All comments welcome!)

Over the past year, it’s been rare to pass a day without hearing of forests burning, whether in Australia, Brazil or Siberia.  The frequency and intensity of forest fires seem to be increasing, with devastating impacts on people and nature.  But fires in forests are not a new phenomenon and can be vital to the resilience of these ecosystems.  Historical and palaeoecological work can provide context from which to compare these contemporary fires and provide evidence to demonstrate the impact of management and policy.

One type of forest that has gained a global reputation in recent decades for its spectacular fires is degraded tropical peat swamp forest.  In an intact state, these waterlogged ecosystems accumulate carbon under their prevailing anaerobic conditions, making them hugely important for mitigating the effects of rising GHG emissions.  But are fires unique to degraded tropical peatlands or do intact peatlands burn too?

Our recent paper* answered this question for three peatland sites along the coast of northern Borneo, within the Malaysian state of Sarawak.  We collected a set of peat cores from each site and spent many hours in front of the microscope gathering data on elements of the landscape over the last 7,000 years.  Fossil pollen grains were identified to provide knowledge on the floral components of the landscape over time and distinguish major ecosystem types.  Fossil charcoal particles were counted to reconstruct past fire regimes in these swamps, including incidences of forest burning that were above the background levels.  We also looked at a wide range of historical and contemporary literature to explore the interactions that people have had with these peatlands over the last 500 years: the approximate time of people’s arrival in the flooded coastal forests, the changes in land titling and the political pressures on land management in recent millennia.

Our results demonstrate that intact tropical peatlands do burn.  They probably burnt more in years when the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – a climatic phenomenon that brings drier, warmer weather to this region in irregular, sub-decadal intervals – was stronger, but the peat swamp forest seemed to recover even from these more intense fires.  However, cue people’s entry into the story, c. 1850s, and the narrative changes.  Fossil charcoal levels reach unprecedented levels, in parallel with indicators of deforestation.  And the peat swamp forest shows signs of losing its long-standing stability – the ecosystem’s resilience appears to be compromised by the simultaneous forces of fire and deforestation.

Many of the forests standing in the Anthropocene have been degraded.  Their resilience has been compromised by unusually low precipitation (resulting from regional climatic drying) or by management interventions that disrupt natural disturbance regimes, or by both, pushing them beyond the limits of their ecological memory.  Our work suggests that tropical peatlands have recovered from episodes of burning throughout the Holocene.  But the presence of people, agriculture and fire in peatlands seems to be a recipe for disaster.  There is no shortage of contemporary literature and news reports supporting the notion that a drained peatland burns.  Our work contributes to the common narrative that for climate change mitigation and for the universal long-term benefit of people and nature, drainage and deforestation are not compatible with sustainable management of tropical peatlands.

 

*Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A., and Willis, K.J. (2019) Fire in the Swamp Forest: Palaeoecological Insights Into Natural and Human-Induced Burning in Intact Tropical Peatlands. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2019.00048

 

 

Friend and FAO

Earlier this year, as a result of making friends at a conference years ago, I had the privilege of working with a bunch of the world’s most knowledgeable peat-ple on this article for the FAO, published to coincide with COP25: Peatlands: the challenge of mapping the world’s invisible stores of carbon and water. (Page 46-57 in the linked document).

Our main message, watered-down, is that mapping peatlands is no easy task and there is still much work to do on the ground, and across the globe….but we are fast working on these knowledge gaps and know enough about the important role that peatlands play in mitigating climatic change that we would be fools to let them squander.

Un-CAP the Brexit can….and unleash the worms?

Back in February, the British Ecological Society’s Special Interest Group in Conservation Ecology (which I’m enjoying Chairing) ran a thoroughly interesting event in London on what Brexit might mean to/for early career ecologists.  It was a sell-out, despite concerns of Brexit-fatigue.  And I was so impressed by the level of engagement of those that attended.  It was expertly organised by Dr Andy Suggitt, whom wrote a great piece on the event here.  Kate Howlett has also written this and this piece on the day, which provide another interesting perspective on the event and learnings from it.

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Some wisdom from Dame Georgina Mace, whom herself confessed being pretty baffled by what the future might hold. 

One of the key learnings I took away from the event was concerning the one (ONE) positive outcome that could (COULD) result from Brexit: the ability for the UK to manage their agricultural landscapes independently from the top-down regulation currently dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy.  Leaving the EU would mean we could reform the policies which dictate how we manage the countryside, mostly those rules and structures which presently determine to what degree we degrade our rural environments in the different corners of our green and pleasant island.  “Common” is perhaps a warning sign for any environmental policy, which requires the particularities of the “local” to be central in decision-making if a policy is to stand any chance of being “sustainable”.  But that was never the central aim of the CAP.  Perhaps, if someone does finally make a decision on which direction the UK will go in (before it self-implodes) we can create a nature-focused LAP: a Local Agricultural Policy, which considers the lay of the land, the local livelihoods, and the living biodiversity, above- and below-ground (e.g. our down-trodden worms).

But we only could leave the EU.  And we only could have the bravery and sense in Leadership to listen to the evidence for how to responsibly, perhaps even sustainably manage our countryside and the resources within it.  And if we don’t leave the EU, we could try to reform things from within; building on the important research (e.g.) that is already being done in the UK and Europe on what sustainable agriculture might look like.  We need to hook those scientists up with the policy makers and shapers.  And wouldn’t that be great – to have a leading influence across Europe.  The worms would be proud.

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What does the future hold for our green and pleasant, and depauperate land?

Action for all sorts, plus Conservation

Back in September, I spent five magical days with a bunch of 14 young people, on the beautiful National Trust Stackpole Estate in Pembrokeshire.  I was volunteering for Action for Conservation (AFC): a UK-based charity that started some three years ago, when one masters student (the inspirational Hendrikus) noticed a gaping hole in the secondary school syllabus when it came to environmental education.  It’s an ongoing privilege to be involved with the charity, and from the days of its inception; I watch, with pride, as it grows so unfalteringly, testament to its perceived, and real importance in society today.  I’ve written more about AFC in this blogpost.  If the next generation don’t feel any connection to the (semi)natural world, they will not work to protect it.  And if it’s not protected, wars and famines will likely be commonplace in the future, with the inequality we see today becoming even more extreme.  The recently published Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC gives some insights (from actual experts) into what our future already holds.

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Contemplating conservation….

Vitally however, we need to spend more time and effort imagining positive futures (as a talk by Frank Cottrell-Boyce at the Liverpool Literary Festival reminded me last weekend) in order for them to become a reality.  And that’s what AFC encourages young people to do.  My week with AFC on the welsh riviera back in August, was a real privilege.  We spent five days exploring the different environments around the coastline; experiencing “sit-spots” in enchanted forests (slightly confusing the beach-goers when they spotted 20 silent elves lying in the leaves) and on wind-swept beaches under the stars; learning about the different constellations whilst reclining (accidentally) on cow-pats; searching for anemones in a rocky harbour; getting grass-stains playing stuck-in-the-mud, and imagining future landscapes that could accommodate wildlife and people.  The young campers came up with all sorts of incredible ideas, full of innovation, interdisciplinary thinking and understanding of how some kind of ‘harmony’ could be achieved.

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The lily ponds at beautiful Stackpole.

In essence, the goal of the AFC camps is to take young people outside (some of whom have never seen the sea before).  By exposing people to the wind and rain, sunshine and sea, mud and sand, they feel a connection with their environment that they increasingly don’t or can’t get in their everyday lives.  The campers are led through all sorts of exercises that teach them how to reflect on their internal situation and their external surroundings, to learn about and be aware of the perspectives and situations of other campers and to think about how they can improve things in their local environment.

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Tom’s sea-horse in the leaves.

At the end of the trip, I felt the children had taught me just as much as I’d tried to teach them.  Here are some of my main learnings, with all credit going to the inspiring young people whom AFC is proud to now call Ambassadors:

  • Child safeguarding – what this involves, and just how important it is today;
  • How much young people are already defining the future through their knowledge and actions;
  • How much we can learn from them (not just on how to attach rabbit ears to your Insta-face-gram), with every individual (inevitably) being a reflection of the adults they’re exposed to as they prepare to fledge their nest; and,
  • Most importantly, how essential it is that each individual is given the space to learn, to love and to develop their values, and all in an environment where they feel nurtured.

Without space to grow and learn how to be a responsible and compassionate person in this challenging world, young people, or in fact any people, are unlikely to give a **i* about the natural environment on which we all depend.  Fact.

~

Another privilege of joining the AFC camp, was waking up on the Pembrokeshire coast, with the sound of sheep munching in the next field, putting on my trainers and skipping down to the sea for a sunrise swim.  A magical place, and space.

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Skinny-dipping at sunrise.