Bringing the tropics to Stirling: BES-TEG 2015

The British Ecological Society has a special interest Tropical Ecology Group (BES-TEG), there for all us “tropicologists” to get together, whether it’s via social media or through the annual BES-TEG meeting for early career researchers. This annual meeting is generally organised by PhD students and hosted at their university. A fellow PhD student – Rebekah Mayhew – and I organised this year’s BES-TEG meeting at the University of Stirling, 3-4th September 2015. Continue reading

The Conservation Conversation: nature documentaries and science

Remember Attenborough’s soothing voice on a Sunday night? For many watching nature on TV at an early age kick-started a passion for wildlife and future careers in the fields of conservation and biology. In June’s Conservation Conversation we discussed nature documentaries and science: what we think is good about them now in terms of science communication, and where we think they could go in the future to contribute more. Nature documentaries and their presenters have a huge following; tapping into that following would be invaluable for communicating science to a broad spectrum of people. Continue reading

Fancy a swig? Water quality in shallow wells in Kisumu, western Kenya

We all know that access to sufficient clean water is vital for sustaining life. For us humans, the ideal scenario is that everyone can go to a tap in their house, turn it on, and an endless supply of clean water pours out. But currently more than 700 million people worldwide do not have ready access to an improved water source, and instead rely on other water sources including lakes, streams, and unprotected hand dug wells. While access to piped water is on the highest rung of the “water ladder”, these other sources are of more variable quality. I’ve recently been working on a project which looks at the role that shallow hand dug wells play in water supply in urban settlements in western Kenya.

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The Conservation Conversation: Science, policy and making your mum proud.

Whether you’re delighted or horrified by the UK general election result, the new government represents the collective will of everyone who put a cross on a piece of paper on May 7th. Apart from voting at elections and sending the odd campaign letter to my local MP I do little to involve myself with how government makes decisions. In fact I didn’t know there was much more I could do. Turns out, the government wants to know what we think, they even take time to ask us through policy consultations. Continue reading

Managing conservation conflict with a Pie and a Pint

Polling station. Credit: Paul Albertella

Polling station. Credit: Paul Albertella

I’m sitting down to write this shortly after the UK General Election result, which has surprised many. Your surprise may be positive or negative but if you’re Nick Clegg you may well be pondering if your five years of cooperation with David Cameron’s Conservatives turned out so well after all. I don’t think the electorate thought so.

Modern conservation of biodiversity relies on elected policymakers and professional civil servants cooperating with each other and with a plethora of stakeholder groups and experts from various fields. Personal ideological differences as well as those in background, employment, life experience, language etc. etc. can often be overcome or even embraced to get conservation work done. However, where there is strong disagreement about conservation objectives coupled with a perception of some groups acting to assert interests at the expense of others, there is conservation conflict. Conservation conflict is on the rise and offers a significant threat to conservation efforts throughout the world.

The importance of the issue meant the British Ecological Society Scottish Policy Group became interested in conservation conflict as a discussion topic for their informal meeting series ‘Pie and a Pint.’ The perfect antidote to dry lectures and formal meetings, Pie and a Pint brings ecologists, politicians, civil servants and other specialists together twice a year to discuss a different single theme relevant to both ecology and policy. With a pie. And a pint.

Pint of beer. Credit: Chris Waits

Pint of beer. Credit: Chris Waits

I organised the Pie and a Pint event at last Wednesday’s (5th May 2015) meeting in Edinburgh’s Summerhall with supervisors Nils Bunnefeld and Aidan Keane (Steve Redpath remotely) in tow. The aim was to initiate a discussion on conservation conflict in Scotland and how we can try to understand and manage it for the betterment of both stakeholders and biodiversity. How did we do this? Well we got everyone in a circle, told them to imagine being land owners and asked them if they would like to either farm sheep or enter a fictitious rewilding project. At one point I threw a die.

In my research I am just starting to use game theory to study conservation conflict. Tools from game theory, the study of strategic decision making, can help investigate how people will act and react in a competitive environment. As such they have been touted for use in conservation conflict situations. This could be to select a solution most acceptable to conflicting parties or to predict the reaction of various stakeholder groups to potential management strategies. Experiments can take the form of playing fairly simple controlled games to see how subjects make decisions and react to the decisions of others.

The game we played got our mixed crowd of ecologists, civil servants, economists and mathematicians into teams to play at being land owning families. The family had a set number of land units which they could use to either farm sheep or enter into a rewilding project. They received points based on their choices: sheep farming produced a lower but guaranteed payoff; the rewilding project could provide higher rewards but relied on the action of all the groups together, not just an individual team. If collectively, the teams didn’t reach a threshold of land allocated to sheep farming, then a penalty would be incurred.

Scottish upland. Credit: Eduardo Unda

Scottish upland. Credit: Eduardo Unda

We played a total of eight rounds of the game, with the ‘family’ teams deciding how much of their land to put into either the sheep farming or rewilding before each round. These decisions were not shared between the teams. Points were calculated and passed back to teams confidentially, with the mean score from all teams written up on a flip chart. Everyone could then see how they were doing versus the average.

Once we were out of time, we tallied up all the points and discussed why the teams had chosen their particular strategy.

One of the main features to appear during the discussion was that of resentment. Luckily it had quickly dissipated following the end of the game and everyone was positively interested in why and how they had all played the way they did. Some teams felt that they were alone in scoring below average, even though this was not the case. Others felt torn between playing the game to achieve the most points and choosing an option which represented them in the narrative of the game – sheep farming or rewilding – but which didn’t offer such a high payoff. The former feeling resentment towards the other teams whom they (incorrectly) thought were performing ahead of them. The latter resenting others who could accrue more points without seemingly have to choose between their points tally and a narrative role.

We managed to produce resentment (albeit a smiley version!) between a very nice bunch of fairly like-minded people in about an hour and half. Imagine the deep level of such feeling if it was your livelihood being threatened, consistently and over a number of years.

The Pie and a Pint evening game was a fun way to discuss conservation conflict with a varied audience rather than being a game designed to extract hard data. The next step in our research is to design a game to be played with people actually involved in conservation conflict situations. Using games we will encourage stakeholders to reveal, through play and discussion, information about decision making processes. We (both researchers and stakeholders) can then use such insights to determine the best ways of increasing cooperation between conflicting groups.

David Cameron no longer has to rely on cooperation with a group so apparently different in ideology in order to govern the country. In biodiversity conservation however, we must find new tools (or new ways of using existing tools) to help those with very different viewpoints move forward and to meet conservation objectives.

Dice. Credit: Woodleywonderworks

Dice. Credit: Woodleywonderworks

Call for public action!

The experience of a press release.

I am interested in understanding the role that parasites play in biological invasions using the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) as a model invasive species in the UK. While sampling in London last Autumn, I discovered dramatic increase in the number of harlequin ladybirds that had the sexually (and sometimes socially) transmitted parasitic fungus Hesperomyces virescens (unfortunately no common name…). This led me to wonder how far has this fungus spread in the UK and what species can you find it on. To try and find this out we developed a public survey, encouraging the recording of large overwintering groups of ladybirds, especially those in the South East of England where I found the fungus in the field. For more information about the fungus, click here.

Hesperomyces virescens (photo: Katie Murray)

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