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South West England Section Conference 2015

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Promoting a landscape-scale approach to wetland biodiversity

15 December 2015, University of Exeter

Eighty five delegates from a wide range of organisations and interests gathered in Exeter to listen to a range of speakers on this locally high profile topic, triggered by the unprecedented flooding events in Somerset in 2014. Having held field trips to WWT Steart Marshes and RSPB Ham Wall reserves and heard a fascinating talk on the impact of flooding on wildlife at the 2014 AGM, hosting a conference on this pressing local issue seemed a good way to pull together the associated topics and give delegates a holistic view of the issues and approaches being taken.

The first session was kicked off by Ann Skinner (Environment Agency) who described the Agency’s changing approach to managing watersheds and flood risk - Natural Flood Management (NFM) - which reflects the broader government policy shift towards ‘managing risk’ and working with natural processes, natural capital and ecosystem services. However, gaining credibility to incorporate NFM alongside conventional hard engineering approaches to provide a more sustainable solution depends on establishing a strong evidence base involving good science.

This was followed by Prof David Gowing (The Open University) who gave an overview of the ecohydrology of wet grasslands and how sensitive the plant communities are to seasonal and longer term soil water regimes.  His research has shown that it is the stresses due to soil water variations (intensity and duration of both inundation and drought) that are the main drivers, not average water levels. However, the communities remain dynamic from year to year, so management decisions need to consider the longer term conditions and not just react to a single event.  

The second session focussed on species, their role at a landscape scale and the importance of working with partners, specifically land-owners:

Jen Nightingale (Bristol Zoological Society) described their work on crayfish conservation, involving conservation by establishing a number of ‘Ark’ sites in the south west as refugia combined with captive breeding, together with control of invasive alien species.

Derek Gow (Derek Gow Consultancy) described what has been achieved in South West England through restoring and developing water vole populations at a landscape scale. Derek also touched on beavers as a potential keystone species in the landscape, and their proven ability to be better water engineers than humans!



After lunch, the session focussed on our Sponsor, South West Water’s (SWW) “Upstream Thinking Project”, which is their flagship environmental programme of catchment management.  Lewis Jones (SWW) gave an overview of the project and their delivery partners. He emphasised how the project has clearly demonstrated value-for-money, with a small, wisely targeted upstream spend saving a lot of downstream costs in water treatment and flow augmentation, in addition to many other benefits and ‘services’ such as biodiversity gains, C-sequestration and flood mitigation. Further, with the economic concerns of OFWAT and Board members addressed, other water companies are now beginning to consider similar approaches. 

Following this introduction to Upstream Thinking, the delegates were given detailed insights into three of SWW’s delivery partners’ projects:

Peter Burgess (Devon Wildlife Trust) described their landscape scale work on the Culm Grasslands in north Devon, collaborating with over 600 landowners and the wider community to deliver significant benefits through incremental changes to land management, rather than large scale changes.  

Dr David Smith (SWW) described the Exmoor Mires project, reversing the changes brought about by drainage under previous agricultural subsidy regimes and entailing an extensive monitoring programme (in conjunction with University of Exeter) of water quality, hydrology, biodiversity, C-storage, GHG fluxes and the effects on agricultural productivity and recreational uses.

Laurence Couldrick (Westcountry Rivers Trust) described their work with people and landowners to reduce diffuse water pollution in river catchments. This includes identifying, understanding and addressing the sources and pathways of pollution of a river system through a less regulatory approach, and an individually tailored balance of provider-saves and provider-paid for ecosystem services measures for each landowner involved.

The final session of the day brought an international perspective on wetland management. 

Dr Rob McInnes (RM Wetlands & Environment) was keen to emphasise that despite some notable successes, our traditional approach to wetland (and other) conservation hasn’t stemmed the continued decline of biodiversity. He proposed a ‘systems approach’, considering environmental, social and political landscapes in seeking solutions at a local scale, promoting biodiversity improvements as matters of human well-being.

Nick Davidson (former Deputy Secretary General / senior advisor, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands) noted the massive decline in wetlands worldwide, with the rate of loss now faster than ever, particularly in Europe, despite this habitat being the most valuable in terms of ecosystem services. With the long term nature of the decline, knowledge about the full function of wetlands originally provided has been lost, which makes it likely that they are often only partly replaced through restoration projects – paleo-ecology could play an important role in identifying restoration targets by determining the nature of previous wetland ecosytems, which might not be immediately obvious.

The day was certainly a mix of highs and lows, with the stark picture of decline in wetlands and biodiversity set against some vivid successes for wetland habitats and species conservation and enhancement. There was also hope that the examples of softer, local measures to wetland management rolled out through a landscape approach are starting to provide scientific evidence of the benefits they can derive and the value-for-money they represent for humans and biodiversity alike. With evolving approaches to natural capital, ecosystem services, and natural flood management starting to filter through to our regulated industries and government agencies, could the tide start to turn on the decline of our natural processes and ecosystems? 

We trust the day invigorated delegates, providing much food for thought to apply in their current and future work. Finally, we extend our thanks to South West Water for supporting and sponsoring this Conference, and for leading the way in the water industry.

You can speaker information and presentations from the day on our Previous Conferences page.







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