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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Biting down the wrong tree…

When non-human things get in the way.

By Zarah Pattison

I was outraged by a BBC news presenter who quite candidly announced on National television, “Can we really live alongside these animals?”


Beaver on the River Otter in Devon © Dave Land

The presenter was referring to the Devonshire beavers who have taken up residence along the River Otter. These beavers had arrived unannounced and seemingly flourished in their new home. It is not certain how long they have been occupying the area, between 3-5 years has been estimated. What if it was longer? The fate of humans has not been doomed during that time. I have not seen any evidence of the struggle between human and beaver played out, such as that of a threat to our societal rights. Continue reading

A bat in the hand is worth two in the bush: using capture data to assess how our commonest bat species are using urban areas

At the last count there were 1,240 known bat species around the world, 18 British species, and even nine Scottish bat species so the odds that I would get to study a wide diversity of bats during my five year PhD were high. However what I naively failed to account for was the extreme pressures that the built environment places upon wildlife.

In 2011 we spent an enjoyable summer surveying urban woodlands throughout Central Scotland in an attempt to determine how the vegetation characteristics (e.g. tree species richness), woodland size and shape, and the surrounding landscape influence the distribution of Scottish bat species. On our first night of surveying, equipped with a detailed guide outlining the key features required to distinguish between species, I nervously approached on of our mist nets bearing the distinctive outline of a bat. Extracting it from the net, the size and its small dog-like face with its flat broad head, made it easily identifiable as one of the pipistrelle species. Although a rather stark invasion of its privacy, its orange penis identified it as a male (!) and a soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus). The following nine bats that we caught that night (7 soprano pipistrelles and 2 common pipistrelles) hinted that a pattern was emerging.

IMGP0056 (2)

It wasn’t until the end of August, after 27 long and tiring nights of surveying which included chasing after youths who had stolen our equipment, arriving at woodland only to find it had been deforested and frequent visits from the police that we finally caught a non-pipistrelle bat. Again, my identification skills weren’t required given that its ears were nearly as long as its body; it was a brown long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus). We gleefully sent photos of us holding the bat to Rebekah Mayhew, my long suffering field assistant who had been there every morning emptying the invertebrate traps, every wet afternoon identifying tree species, and every night bat surveying with the exception of this one night… By our last survey of the season in early September (fittingly having caught a further 16 bats that night – all pipistrelles), it soon became apparent that whilst we were lacking species diversity we had a really interesting large dataset which we could use to investigate the behaviour of our commonest species.

As we were trapping bats (alongside using a bat detector to record their echolocation calls) it was possible to identify the sex, age (adult or juvenile), and reproductive state of the females. This gave us the opportunity to examine how the different demographics of a population respond to urbanisation. As we inspected the data what was most striking was that we were only catching females in particular woodlands whereas males appeared to be widespread. After the normal head scratching, numerous cups of tea, and despair that is run of the mill when dealing with complex statistics we were able to confirm our suspicions. We found that females favour high quality woodland which is well connected to other woodland patches. Males, on the other hand, seem to be less particular and are just as likely to be found in poorer-quality woodland patches surrounded by built-up areas.

P9010026 Soprano pipistrelle

The findings, published in the Royal Society journal Open Science ( suggest that the demands of pregnancy and raising offspring are driving females to select woodlands which provide good feeding opportunities and a safe route to fly between feeding grounds and roosting sites. As breeding females are of key importance in ensuring the survival of future generations of bat populations within the city environment, it is therefore important that we manage our urban green space for their benefit. The adaptability of many bat species to urban areas is frequently assessed by recording their echolocation calls which gives you a good indication of which habitats bats are frequently using or avoiding, however it fails to provide any information on sex differences in habitat use. By using bat call data it may therefore be relatively easy to mistake species presence across the city as adaptability (and therefore assume that a species requires less conservation effort) without first considering if there are differences in where males or females are foraging.

As I near the end of my PhD, although I haven’t studied an array of species or devised any solutions to save those species which are critically endangered, by focusing on our commoner species I have gained a greater understanding of how the pressures of urban living are shaping their behaviour and distributions. Whilst pipistrelles are relatively common throughout Britain, these are the species that people will encounter whilst on bat walks or watch flying around their back gardens and therefore have a fundamental role to play in engaging the public with science and conservation. Monitoring and conserving our commonest species will therefore not only give an indication of how our rarer (and so harder to survey) species may be responding to the urban landscape but also ensure that future generations are able to appreciate the wonder of watching bats forage at dusk from their own doorstep.

Wildlife watching in Central Park, New York. Copyright ©Robert DeCandido

There’s no place like your field site home…

By Zarah Pattison

My PhD fieldwork days have come to an end and on reflection I can now appreciate how much was achieved, both good and challenging, in such a short time frame. So much happens during a field season but only the successes make it into scientific literature. For me, the gritty details and mistakes that get left behind make field work experience so much more memorable and allow you to improve for the future. I often read stories of perfect, idyllic fieldwork settings and experiments, which is fantastic, but conversely I would also encourage people to share not only the reality of setting up a field experiment, but also their fieldwork ‘bloopers’.  Although urban rivers may not seem exotic, I can definitely say that I never expected them to be so entertaining. These are just a few of my PhD fieldwork blips.

Wading through the River Gryfe with a Himalayan balsam plant in tow.

Wading through the River Gryfe with a Himalayan balsam plant in tow.

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