This article was written by Jeroen Minderman, and was originally published in The Conversation on the 7th November 2018.  To access the original article please see here

Wind turbines are, it appears, everywhere. Even if you can’t see some on the horizon on your way into work every day, it is hard to miss the continual news coverage of new developments. Clearly, efforts to move away from fossil fuels are – at least in part – working, and from the perspective of combating climate change, this must surely be a good thing.

However, much of the news coverage of turbines highlights negatives such as a perceived degradation of the landscape, or their impacts on wildlife. There is good cause for concern in this regard, particularly with respect to wildlife.

Reams of published scientific papers show that birds and bats can be killed (sometimes in relatively large numbers) by colliding with the spinning blades. Clearly, where turbines are poorly placed or where rare or vulnerable species are affected, this is a problem.  Images of dead birds of prey or rare vagrant birds under wind turbines are easily turned into emotive and sensational news stories, and are terrible PR for the wind industry.

At first glance, a new study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution appears to add to the evidence of widespread lethal effects. The authors, a team based at the Indian Institute of Science and led by Maria Thaker, make the attention-grabbing observation that the effects of wind turbines are “akin to adding an apex predator to natural communities”. Apex predators are animals right at the top of their food chains, like killer whales or tigers. Adding an “apex predator” surely means that these man-made metal mincing-machines kill off birds and bats in large numbers, right?

Creatures great and small

While it certainly is true that collision with turbines can cause direct mortality, what the new research actually shows is far more interesting and complex than this. The result of many years of data collection, the work shows that through the (direct or indirect) effects on birds of prey, wind turbines can have broader and more subtle effects on the wider ecosystem – including on some unexpected species.

Specifically, they looked at a lizard that lives only in the Western Ghats mountains of India, the superb fan-throated lizard (Sarada superba). They found that the number of lizards was considerably higher in areas with turbines installed compared to otherwise similar areas without turbines.

Superb fan-throated lizard

The Superb large fan-throated lizard has only been classed as a separate species since 2016. Photo credit: Krishna Khan, CC BY-CA

In areas with turbines, they also found fewer birds of prey such as buzzards and kites (the lizards’ main predators), and a lower frequency of attacks on lizards. Putting the two together, the authors propose that the presence of turbines is associated with lower predator activity, and thus higher prey numbers.

In some ways, it may indeed seem as if wind turbines act similarly to the introduction of an “apex predator” into the food chain: by reducing the number and activity of intermediate predators such as birds of prey, predation pressure on smaller animals may be reduced. However, it is of course important to stress that almost all biological predators are, in the end, limited by the availability of prey. By contrast, turbines are not limited in this way and will continue to be present regardless of whether their “prey” goes locally extinct.

Perhaps more important is the non-lethal effects on the wider ecosystem that is highlighted by Thaker and colleagues. By reducing predation or reducing the activity of predators, the physiology, behaviour and population density of prey populations can be changed in unpredictable and subtle ways.

Western ghatts

The Western Ghats run parallel to the west coast of India for 1,600 km. Photo credit: Vihang Ghalsasi / Shutterstock

Looking beyond the collision casualties

What this work really highlights is that wind farms can have effects that are indirect or not immediately visible. This poses a huge challenge for impact assessments and survey work. Perhaps understandably, many assessments of wind turbines focus on vulnerable species, which tend to be the birds and bats most at risk of direct collision. Similarly, where carried out, post-construction monitoring often focuses on collision casualties. These are things that can be directly measured or counted, over clearly defined periods.

By contrast, assessing the longer-term effects on indirectly impacted species such as lizards takes a lot more time and money. Unfortunately, this luxury is typically not available for commercial impact assessment studies. What is more, it is likely to be significantly harder to convince regulators that impact assessments should be broadened to consider wider ecosystems, particularly where these cannot be immediately seen or counted as dead animals.

At least in the UK, there is some evidence that consideration of such “synergistic” effects of developments is now increasingly expected in impact assessments. While this is encouraging, more work along the lines of study by Thaker and colleagues is needed to build up a better understanding of the extent and importance of similar effects in different areas. From a pragmatic perspective, it may well be that in the future impact assessments will move away from focusing on direct collision mortality and towards more targeted and in-depth assessments of “downstream” ecological impacts.

Wicked Conflicts

Conservation conflict in which people disagree about how to manage biodiversity and parties are perceived to assert their point of view to the detriment of others is an example of a Wicked Problem. Actually, to be honest there are loads of issues in conservation science that can be dropped into the complex, bubbling bucket of wicked problems. Are you dealing with lots of uncertainty? Finding the boundaries of the problem difficult to define? Lacking clear solutions that don’t cause problems elsewhere? Experiencing multiple feedback loops which interact with non-linear dynamics? Yep, you’ve got yourself a wicked problem there, pal.

In 2014, Game et al., described conservation challenges as operating under wicked problem conditions, providing a starter list as to where the common, conventional, “tame” approaches to conservation science were falling short (see also DeFries & Nagendra, 2017). Game et al., also helpfully, provided some wicked alternatives,  pointing researchers towards the complexity-type thinking required.


Conventional and wicked problem inspired management approaches, adapted from Game et al. 2014

So far, so abstract. But in 2016, the first Interdisciplinary Conservation Network workshop was hosted by ICCS at the University of Oxford, in conjunction with STICS and CBCS at the University of Queensland. This workshop for early career researchers (the second incarnation of ICN is happening later in 2018) included wicked problem thinking for conservation conflict as one of three topics discussed at the event. Eight researchers, each with knowledge of a specific conservation conflict, were joined by mentors to discuss how the conventional and wicked processes were being implemented in the real world. And if they weren’t currently being used, are wicked thinking approaches even appropriate or feasible for these conservation conflicts?

Our output from the workshop has now been published in Conservation Letters.

We found that for each conflict case study, wicked problem thinking was not applied even though over three-quarters were deemed both appropriate and feasible. For half of the case studies not one wicked approach had been tried.


The appropriateness, feasibility and implementation of wicked approaches, for each of eight conflict case-studies

Having used our case studies to assess the current state of play as regards wicked problem thinking for conservation conflict management, we moved onto thinking how could we fill out those wicked approaches a little more. We came up with five emerging themes worthy of further study.

1. Distributed decision-making

Wicked problem thinking aims to achieve a greater devolution of decision-making to suit the uniqueness and dynamism of different conflicts. This may not always be straight-forward if governance structures or existing policy will not allow transfer of powers.


In Scotland, a national goose management review group sets the overall agreed national strategy, but local goose management groups have the freedom to find local solutions. This has allowed sport hunting to be used as a population reduction tool on Orkney, but government-led culling used on Islay. Image: Gordon Langsbury

2. Diverse opinions

Embracing diverse voices can form an important route to foster creativity. Research into the links between knowledge co-production, creativity and conflict are required to fully understand the potential value of diverse voices.


In western Cameroon managers combined data on key fishing zones identified by fishers with ecological data from manatee activity surveys. By uniting these diverse knowledge types, strategies were put in place to restrict damaging fishing techniques in important areas for manatees but not from the most profitable fishing zones. Image: Creative commons

3. Pattern-based predictions

Recognising patterns in ecological dynamics, human behaviour and links between the two can reveal processes acting as conflict triggers, such as the alienation of certain groups. Pattern-recognition analyses can make use of widely available sources of data.

Hibernating in cave

A typical pattern of events resulting in bat roost damage in the UK might be for a homeowner to ignore a request for a bat survey, the local planning authority to inadequately screen their planning application, the homeowner to destroy any roost prior to the visit of the planning authority, and an application to be subsequently approved. Pattern analysis could reveal how and when these events are most likely to happen, allowing institutional interventions. Image: (c) Hugh Clark/

4. Trade-off based objectives

Objectives guided by trade-offs between the interests of different stakeholders are likely to produce fairer outcomes than those based on a single group’s interests.


The example of ecological restoration in Queensland, Australia, focussed on flexibility in how objectives are achieved and variation in stakeholder objectives. The emphasis on fundamental objectives such as maximising persistence of threatened species, allows a range of management options to be considered during each iteration of adaptive management. Image: City of Gold Coast

5. Reporting of failures

No case-studies shared failures transparently even though failures are inevitable, due to the complexities of socio-ecological systems. Communicating these openly can optimise management. It may be possible to encourage open communication by requiring different parties to formally commit to sharing risk and viewing failures as transient features of a wicked problem. While it is tough to develop ‘safe-fail’ cultures in conservation, honest discussions between managers and stakeholders about failures – and the potential to learn from them – provide an important step forward.


A thread which runs through all five themes is one of admission of complexity. Conservation scientists cannot solve these problems with conventional methods and to tame them we must share power with and get help from others whilst admitting that we don’t always have the solutions and will sometimes fall short. Wicked problems are a nightmare to manage, but by thinking and working holistically, we can be optimistic about their taming.

Author’s note: This is a reposting from my blog malloc(evol_ecol); the post introduces the GMSE R package as part of the ConFooBio project.

As part of the ConFooBio project at the University of Stirling, my colleagues and I have released the new R package GMSE, with v0.2.2.7 currently available on CRAN and GitHub. The GMSE package generalises management strategy evaluation (MSE), an adaptive management framework that incorporates social-ecological system dynamics, the process of observing and monitoring the social-ecological system, and the assessment and decision-making processes of managers (Bunnefeld, Hoshino, and Milner-Gulland 2011). Our generalisation includes a game-theoretic component in which both managers and stakeholders dynamically update their decision-making to maximise their own utilities. The GMSE package thereby simulates all aspects of MSE and uses genetic algorithms (Hamblin 2013) to find adaptive solutions for manager and stakeholder decision-making.

In keeping with the MSE approach (Bunnefeld, Hoshino, and Milner-Gulland 2011), GMSE does not attempt to find optimal strategies or solutions for management. Instead, genetic algorithms within the GMSE package find manager policies and stakeholder actions that are adaptive, meaning that policies and actions that are found reflect heuristic strategies of managers and stakeholders that are adopted within a set of constraints and potentially changing circumstances. A wide range of parameter values can be specified by the software user to simulate management (for a full list, see the available arguments to the gmse() function in the reference manual, or run help(gmse) after loading the GMSE package). The gmse() function simulates all aspects of management, including the natural resources (population) model, the process by which resources are sampled or observed, the process by which managers make decisions about policy, and the process by which stakeholders decide how to act in response to policy (see Figure 1 below). The latter two processes (upper left and right boxes in Figure 1, respectively) each call the genetic algorithm to find adaptive solutions in each time step.

Figure 1: General overview of GMSE

All sub-models (boxes in Figure 1) are individual-based (i.e., agent-based). The natural resources model simulates a single time step of resources (e.g., a managed population) that can undergo movement, reproduction, and death. The observation model simulates the monitoring of the resources (e.g., through capture-mark-recapture techniques). The manager model uses data from the observation model to set policy for stakeholders (e.g., how costly culling, scaring, or feeding resources should be), and the user model uses manager policy to determine actions to maximise their own utilities.

Installing the GMSE package

The GMSE package can be installed from CRAN or GitHub. The easiest way to install is through CRAN using the install.packages() function in R (Note, R version 3.3.3 or higher is required for GMSE).


To install this package from GitHub, the devtools library first needs to be installed.


Use install_github() to install using devtools.


A simple example illustrates the use of GMSE below.

A hunted population under management

Consider a population of managed resources that is hunted by four stakeholders (GMSE allows for any number of stakeholders; the default number is four to keep things simple). Assume that the population has a carrying capacity of res_death_K = 600 adults, and the manager wants to keep the population at manage_target = 400 individuals. The manager will use a capture-mark-recapture method of monitoring the population in each time step (observe_type = 1). Further assume that all other parameter values are set to default values (see the reference manual). We can run this scenario using the code below.

sim <- gmse(observe_type = 1, manage_target = 400, res_death_K = 600, plotting = FALSE);
## [1] 'Initialising simulations ... '
## [1] 'Generation 33 of 100'
## [1] 'Generation 62 of 100'
## [1] 'Generation 95 of 100'

To avoid automatic plotting, I have set plotting = FALSE. The output to sim is a very large data structure that includes output from each sub-model (natural resource, observation, manager, and user) in each of 100 (default) time steps. The results can be plotted using the plot_gmse_results function.

plot_gmse_results(res = sim$resource, obs = sim$observation, land = sim$land, agents = sim$agents, paras = sim$paras, ACTION = sim$action, COST = sim$cost);

Figure 2: Example of plotted GMSE simulation results.

Figure 2 above shows the simulation dynamics over time for the starting parameter values set in sim. The upper left panel of the plot shows the positions of resources on the simulated landscape in the last time step (had we set plotting = TRUE, the movement of resources over time would be observable). The upper right panel is entirely blue, representing public land that is not owned by stakeholders (to simulate stakeholders that own land and attempt to maximise land values — e.g., crop yield –, use the option land_ownership = TRUE. Land ownership will then be represented by different landscape colours).

The middle left plot shows how both actual and estimated resource abundance changes over time. The solid black line illustrates the actual abundance of resources (i.e., the number of individuals) alive in each time step; the solid blue line illustrates how many resources are estimated based on the observation model and the simulated mark-recapture technique of the manager (blue shading illustrates 95 percent confidence intervals, but these are for display only and are not used in manager decision-making). The black dotted line identifies the management target (manage_target = 400), and the red dotted line illustrates the population carrying capacity (res_death_K = 600); note
that carrying capacity is enacted on adult mortality (but see also res_birth_K), so abundance can increase over carrying capacity given a sufficient number of juvenile and adult resources (where juveniles are defined as individuals born in the same time step as the current time step). The orange line shows the mean percent yield (right axis) of landscape production, which may be decreased by resources if resources consume crops on the landscape (see res_consume). The middle right panel would show the percent yield of each individual stakeholder’s given land_ownership = TRUE, with solid line colours reflecting yield from identically coloured plots in the upper right panel.

The lower left and right plots show manager policy and stakeholder actions over time, respectively. Under default simulation parameter values, only culling is available as a management policy and a stakeholder action, but (as indicated by the legend) other policy options can be set, including any combination of the following: scaring (moving resources), culling (killing resources), castration (removing resource’s ability to reproduce), feeding (increasing a resource’s survival probability), helping (increasing a resource’s reproduction), tend crop (increasing the yield from landscape cells), and kill crop (destroying yield of a landscape cell). Managers create policy by setting the cost of stakeholders performing available actions on resources (i.e., all actions except tending and killing crops), as constrained by the manger’s budget (manager_budget) and a minimum cost of performing actions (minimum_cost). In the above plot, there are time steps in which the manager has set culling costs to be high or low, based on the degree to which the estimated abundance of the population (blue line in middle left panel) is above or below the manager’s target. In response, stakeholders (in this case hunters) cull a lot when the manager sets culling to be cheap, but very little when culling costs are set to be high (‘costs’ in this case might be interpreted as quotas, or as strongly enforced prohibitions if the cost of culling is higher than the stakeholders budget, user_budget).

The gmse() function thereby provides a method of simulating multiple aspects of population management. This simple example is only one of many possible scenarios that can be simulated.

Development of GMSE

The code underlying GMSE has been flexibly developed for future expansion and new features. If there is something that would be useful to add that does not appear to be available by setting parameter values in gmse(), then chances are it can already be done by a few tweaks to the source code, or would require only a bit of additional coding. For example, the code already allows for future expansions to any number of resource types, allowing for multiple populations and structured populations — this is also true for agents.

A wiki can be found in the GMSE GitHub repository, and there is a place to post issues, including suggestions for new features.


Bunnefeld, Nils, Eriko Hoshino, and Eleanor J Milner-Gulland. 2011. “Management strategy evaluation: A powerful tool for conservation?” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 26 (9): 441–47. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2011.05.003.

Hamblin, Steven. 2013. “On the practical usage of genetic algorithms in ecology and evolution.” Methods in Ecology and Evolution 4 (2): 184–94. doi:10.1111/2041-210X.12000.

April’s Conservation Conversation was inspired by the Future of Conservation Project. This joint project hosted by UN WCMC and including researchers from universities Cambridge, Leeds & Edinburgh looks to explore the views of conservationists across a range of issues. The rearchers wonder if current conservation science paradigms are actually monopolised by a few loud voices and the project aims to find out how the values of conservation scientists en masse, align with those voices or otherwise.

The researchers’ previous work (Holmes, Sandbrook & Fisher, 2016) grouped conservation scientists around subjective positions. This then informed the building of a web-based questionnaire which scores respondents on two parameters: Conservation & Capitalism and People & Nature. The website then helpfully plots these two scores (along with those of a bunch of other recent respondents) and places the user in one of four positions: New Conservationist, Traditional Conservationist, Market Biocentrist and, Critical Social Scientist. Full methods & detailed descriptions of each of these positions are available on the project website.


Figure 1 – Screen grab of Future of Conservation output plot. We’ve added in the four positions in each corner of the plot

Here at StiCS we asked our Conservation Conversationists to complete the questionnaire then come along with their lunch and discuss the aims, positions used and potential opportunities the resulting data could provide. We also had Tunnock’s Tea Cakes.

Here’s where our group ended up:


Figure 2 – beautiful MS paint version plotting the approx position of the Conservation Conversationists (we are professionally available for figure production)

Rather than concentrating on where we fell individually and collectively on the plot, our discussion turned in two other directions: How we felt we answered the questions; and the relationship between values and interventions.

How we answered the questions

We discussed how it was often difficult to decide whether to answer more aspirationally (this is how it should be) or more realistically (this is how it should be, given the circumstances). The questions seemed designed to be context neutral, but many of us found it hard to decouple our general views from real world examples. Bold ethical questions were not apparent in the questionnaire: would we prefer to keep a person alive for 1 year or save a thousand hectares of rainforest? This may well be an unrealistic choice but such a question could encourage deeper thinking about how we value nature and people on such a linear scale.

Values & interventions

Can certain interventions be mapped onto the four positions of conservationist? A carbon trading scheme such as EU ETS may clearly fall onto the top half of the plot, using capitalist tools to achieve a conservation objective. However, rewilding which may at first glance seem like a Traditional Conservationist movement, could equally attract those from other positions (Table 1).

Table 1 – How rewilding could fit in each of the conservationist position
New Conservationist

A rewilding enterprise financing facility, promoting the business case for investing in natural capital (European Commission, 2017)

Market Biocentrist

Rewilding paid for by a business as part of a biodiversity offset scheme managed to maximise returns for biodiversity (Maron et al., 2016)

Critical Social Scientist

An area for rewilding selected to maximise the ecosystem services it can provide (Cerqueira, et al, 2015)

Traditional Conservationist

An area for rewilding is selected to maximise returns for biodiversity

(Rewilding Europe)

Devisive / Inclusive

One can imagine that categorising individuals into defined positions could have both divisive and inclusive outcomes. Divisive, from building potentially opposing camps into which people feel they should choose one position over another. Inclusive, from a clarification of values which can be used to gain a meaningful appreciation of alternate viewpoints.

The Future of Conservation survey was a fascinating spark for our group to explore why we do conservation and subsequently, what we do for conservation. Those behind the project have thus achieved the goal of stimulating discussion! We at StiCS look forward to seeing the results which come out of the project, particularly how demographic characteristics (age, gender, geography, education) impact conservationist values.

We suspect this won’t be the last time that the Future of Conservation Project is discussed at the Conservation Conversation!


We weren’t the first group to blog about this project! Check out how the Conservation Science group at RMIT in Melbourne got on in their discussion, here.

Perspectives from Stirling Biological & Environmental Sciences on how Brexit may affect our research, and what we can do about it…


EU flag. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Biological and Environmental Sciences (BES) here at Stirling is full of international researchers and collaborations. Since the Brexit vote, there has been uncertainty over how we, as UK- and non-UK, EU- and non-EU nationals, will continue to work on EU-funded projects, begin new international collaborations, and remain as residents in the UK. Read More

Kirsty Park, University of Stirling

The grand finale of the BBC’s Planet Earth II showcased the ingenious strategies that some animals use to thrive in urban environments. Though impressive, these species are in the minority. As the number of people living in cities around the world continues to rise, we should really be turning our attention to those animals that find city living too hard to handle. Read More

Mosquito nets are often used for fishing. A smart response is needed

Emma Bush, University of Stirling and Rebecca Short, Zoological Society of London

mnf_man2The human race is extremely resourceful, particularly when resources are limited. Inevitably, when poor rural communities are given access to a new asset they will find a number of uses for them. Anti-malarial bednets – the fine-mesh nets used to protect people from mosquito bites while they sleep – are a good case in point.

Read More

By Penelope Whitehorn

“I arrived confused about this topic and I will leave as confused as ever.” This was the parting comment from the only MP in the room and not the outcome we were hoping for! The event was a scientific briefing about neonicotinoid pesticides and pollinators, organised by the Soil Association in a classy venue in Westminster. Unfortunately, such confusion seems typical of the political response to an issue that has generated passionate controversy in many other sections of society. Read More


Resolving conflicts between food security and biodiversity conservation under uncertainty (ConFooBio)

Funded by an ERC Starting Grant to Nils Bunnefeld for 5 years from 1st September 2016

Find out more about the project and how to apply for the postdocs here


Applications now being received for the 2016 Interdisciplinary Conservation Network (ICN) workshop!

ICN 2016 flyer_updated

Date of workshop: 26-28 June 2016
Application deadline: 31 March 2016

The Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS), Stirling Conservation Science (STI-CS) and the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science (CBCS) are pleased to invite PhD students and early-career researchers in the field of conservation science to apply to participate in a three-day workshop to be held at the University of Oxford, UK.

The aim of this workshop is to provide early-career researchers with an opportunity to collaborate with other researchers from around the world, including leading figures in their field, and to learn key skills for the development of their careers.

More information about the workshop and how to apply is available here.