How can evidence be generated from conservation practice? In their latest review, Nancy Ockendon and colleagues seek to raise awareness of opportunities to embed experiments in conservation and restoration management, in order to generate new evidence and ultimately improve practice.

Why do we need more experiments?

It’s widely understood that it is important to consider the available evidence when making decisions about how to conserve or restore species and habitats. However, for many actions, even those that are commonly undertaken, the evidence base is scarce or non-existent.

A lack of information describing the effectiveness of different actions may result in less efficient use of thinly stretched resources and poorer outcomes for nature conservation. Therefore, there is a clear need for more evidence to describe the outcomes of a wide range of actions to conserve and restore biodiversity.

The best way to generate new evidence is by carrying out experiments or management trials to test the effectiveness of interventions. By implementing an action and monitoring the effects on the target species or habitats, and comparing the results with sites or individuals where either no action or alternative actions take place, we learn more about what does and doesn’t work for nature conservation.

Two divers checking the cover on Cystoseira transplants to test their effectiveness at preventing grazing © Zafer Kizilkaya

Experiments as part of practice

Although experiments may traditionally have been considered the domain of academics and researchers, it is often possible to generate new knowledge as part of ongoing conservation practice. Our experience, as editors of conservation-practice-focused journals and staff in conservation organisations, is that opportunities to include experimental components in practice often do exist, but they are not always identified and capitalised on.

Practitioners spend their working lives planning, implementing and recording the effects of conservation management actions. Therefore, they are ideally placed to identify the questions that really need answering, look for opportunities to carry out experiments to address them, and apply their findings in future management.

In our review we present a series of questions to outline the process of identifying a question of interest and planning a suitable experiment to answer it. In this way, experiments can be an important component in adaptive management.

How can experiments be routinely embedded in practice?

Another significant obstacle to the widespread inclusion of experimental trials in conservation practice is the issue of resources: there is never enough time or money to do all the conservation work we would like and doing experiments is often not seen as a priority for conservation organisations.

However, a recent survey found that, on average, conservation funders thought that 1-3% of a project budget was an appropriate amount to devote to experiments, suggesting that including experimental components may be viewed as a positive by funders. Some funders have even begun to require an element of experimental testing and knowledge generation in projects that they fund, with the aim of improving effectiveness of both the projects themselves and the wider conservation community.

Testing interventions in the Endangered Landscapes Programme.

One such funder is The Endangered Landscapes Programme, which asks each of the landscape-scale restoration projects that it funds to include a test of an intervention. These tests are designed during the project planning phase and then implemented and monitored as part of each project’s restoration workplan. Results are shared with the wider conservation community to ensure they can be added to the existing evidence base.

An example of questions being addressed by projects in the programme comes from Cairngorms Connect, a landscape partnership in the Highlands of Scotland, where native woodland is being restored. One area of focus are the specialised invertebrate communities that are associated with deadwood, a habitat that has been lost from many managed plantations and forests.

Deadwood, here created by ring barking, can provide an important habitat for specialised invertebrates © Cairngorms Connect

The project’s scientists are comparing the effects of three different approaches to killing trees (ring-barking, winching, and cutting), using a replicated, controlled experimental design (see photo). The impacts on the abundance and types of invertebrate on found trees subject to each type of treatment will be monitored, to see which results in the most diverse and abundant deadwood beetle community.

This demonstrates that creating new knowledge doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated, but instead can be effectively integrated into ongoing restoration work.

Maximising benefits

Once the hard work of designing and implementing an experiment and monitoring its effects is complete, it’s crucial to ensure that results are made accessible to others. Practitioners can apply their findings directly in the management of their sites, but publicly sharing their findings can greatly increase their impact.

Results can be published in reports, data repositories, websites and scientific journals. Publishing in scientific journals is becoming increasingly accessible, with journals like Ecological Solutions and Evidence, the Conservation Evidence Journal and Conservation Science and Practice all encouraging practitioners to submit articles focusing on practical conservation and applied results. Other platforms, such as Applied Ecology Resources, are available to share grey literature reports and datasets.

In this way, evidence collected across different species, habitat and geographies can accumulate, to give an accurate picture of the outcomes of actions.

A cultural shift

We hope that the value of the learning that can be created from experiments is becoming increasingly recognised by conservation organisations and funders. Our vision is that an assessment of whether it is appropriate to include a trial component becomes a routine part of conservation planning. Where worthwhile opportunities to include experiments are identified, sufficient resources to monitor the outcome and write up the results are made available.

Such a cultural shift could lead to a step change in the breadth and depth of evidence available to everyone working in conservation.

Read the original full length post on the Endangered Landscapes Programme website.

Adapted version originally posted on The Applied Ecologist.

Full paper: Effectively integrating experiments into conservation practice in Issue 2:2 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

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