On Sept 9th 2020, the RSPB hosted a webinar entitled ‘UK Nature-based Solutions in Action’ in which we delved into the practical delivery of nature-based solutions (NbS) across UK landscapes. We had three speakers from RSPB reserves or partner projects, including: Jeremy Roberts (JR) presenting on the Cairngorms Connect project with a focus on woodland NbS; Kate Hanley (KH) presenting on peatland NbS at RSPB Dove Stone; and Leigh Lock (LL) presenting on coastal NbS, with examples including RSPB Wallasea and Medmerry nature reserves. Each speaker shared insights from their fantastic projects and highlighted what is needed from UK and devolved governments and us all to help realise the potential these nature-based solutions have to offer – for a green recovery, and in addressing the climate and biodiversity emergencies.

You can watch the webinar in full here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBsHjJWROzU


The presentations were followed by a Q&A session lead by our Global Conservation Director, Martin Harper. We received a great number of questions from attendees and our speakers and policy experts have provided responses to them below:

Q: Tell us more about the socio-economic indicators in the Cairngorms Connect project?

JR: We have three indicators, including public attitudes to restoration, public empowerment and influence, and an economic indicator. For the first, we measure (through interviews throughout the project) the proportion of respondents who indicate preferences for restoration activities and/or scenes of restored habitat. One of the goals of Cairngorms Connect is to build understanding in the community about the project, and to increase acceptance of the benefits of restoration. For public empowerment, we try to address the risk that stakeholder engagement can become a one-way process. To do this, we make sure we inform the public of the restrictions around the project, while asking for feedback and suggestions in areas where there is flexibility (for example, visitor management and access). We carry out surveys asking standard questions around empowerment, and our indicator is the mean score (using Likert scale or similar) and the proportion of members of the public who give positive responses. The economic indicator is used to measure the direct and additional economic impact of the Cairngorms connect project on the economy of the local area. Real market economic impact can be measured in jobs and value added to the local economy. It is important to demonstrate the benefits of conservation initiatives to local communities to gain support and understanding. 

Q: Where would you consider suitable for the next 'Cairngorms Connect scale' project?

JR: There are some great opportunities and initiatives already developing in Scotland, including East-West Wild, which is being developed by Trees for Life. The key attributes to look for, that I feel will make restoration projects successful are: scale, connectedness, commitment, duration and a strong partnership with a shared vision. Of course, it helps to have good initial habitats, altitudinal range and the other features we are fortunate to have with Cairngorms Connect, but if you have those first 5 characteristics, you can achieve a huge amount.

Q: Great to hear about habitat ambitions Jeremy. Amazing! Are there species goals too? Or are species the indicators to help measure impact?

JR: Whilst some of the individual partners (notably the RSPB) have species goals, the partnership as a whole doesn’t. The emphasis of the partnership is on large-scale change:  bigger forests with more natural characteristics, and expanding to their natural limit; intact, building peatlands; more naturally functioning rivers and floodplains, and so on.  The belief is that, generally, these changes will benefit the species for which the area is particularly important – capercaillie, twinflower, shining-guest ant, tooth fungi, Northern silver-stiletto fly...  That said, we do use some species as indicators: we use groups that are particularly responsive to the changes we are seeking, e.g. moth diversity for expansion of the woodland, and saproxylic (deadwood) beetles for the plantation restructuring work.

Q: Talking of community involvement, are the Cairngorms Connect partnership (or any of the NbS teams) already looking at involving more young people/apprenticeships to take advantage of the various government-backed schemes and to show the prospects for green job creation?

JR: The CC partners have designed an apprenticeship/traineeship programme for which we are currently looking for funds, and we have bids out with three different bodies at the moment. Our hope would be to offer a combination of an open programme of apprenticeships, combined with a local placement/bursary programme for youngsters from the two High Schools local to the CC area.  We are planning 3 types of placement: “Restoration ecology” apprentice, “Restoration in-practice” apprentice and “Communicating Restoration” apprentice. Depending on the interests and aptitudes of the candidates, it may be possible to develop a multi-disciplinary apprenticeship, with an opportunity to experience all three of these work areas. We are also in the process of scoping a Youth Panel for Cairngorms Connect.  The partnership is also inspired by the Welsh Government’s vision for ‘the wellbeing of future generations’.

Q: Given the relatively southerly location of Dove Stone, what is the long-term future of the peatlands in the face of climate change? Obviously provides resilience for longer, but how long? Or does keeping it wet mean the peatlands will be sustained indefinitely?

KH: Peat has been deposited in the uplands for thousands of years.  Throughout this time, peatlands have adapted to changes in climate – including periods of warmer/wetter and colder/drier climatic conditions.  Looking back through history (the peat itself holds a record of pollen going back through time – with the oldest peat at the bottom) we can see that different peatland plants have dominated during particular periods. Our land management with United Utilities at Dove Stone is all about creating resilience to whatever the future may bring. At the moment, the bogs do not function as they should so are not resilient to climate change and will continue to degrade without intervention. We want to restart those natural processes that underpin the functionality of these landscapes: on deep peat this is water table, and around the moorland edge this is patchy woodland and scrub in the landscape. We have been working for the last 10 years on restoring water table through gully blocking and planting sphagnum mosses. We’ve seen some encouraging early indications that our efforts are working, but there is a lot to do yet!

Q: There were a couple of examples of corporate or semi-state bodies and their finance kicking in. What kind of new opportunities can we imagine to do more? And what about community finance?

KH: A good example of this is United Utilities working with the RSPB to restore damaged landscapes. And European funding has been key in helping us to achieve our restoration works on such a large scale (across 4000Ha at Dove Stone). So we are keen to see the UK government guarantee funding for peatland restoration and woodland creation at a landscape scale and a level of complexity that will deliver multiple public goods (like flood risk reduction and carbon sequestration) from these landscapes through ELMS (the new Environmental Land Management Scheme in England where public money is paid for public goods including biodiversity and carbon sequestration). What is really needed in the long term is for our economy to recognise the value that ecosystem service delivering landscapes actually provide, and for restoration works to be seen as cost effective to deliver public goods at scale. I can recommend “Green and Prosperous Land” by Dieter Helm if you are interested in the economics of landscape recovery. And there are more and more community groups purchasing land and restoring it, which is a wonderful thing.

Q: What is the potential (priority?) for seagrass in terms of a wider British Isles NBS delivery?

LL: Seagrass beds are rare and of limited extent in the UK, having been impacted by a number of factors including diffuse pollution from our waterways and development around our coastline. Existing seagrass beds are recognised and protected through Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) designation. There is an Environment Agency led initiative called ReMeMaRe (REstore MEadows, MArshes and Reefs) which aims to restore seagrass beds (along with salt marsh, reefs etc.) around our coast. The area covered by seagrass is currently small (and potentially will remain small) but they are an integral part of the blue carbon potential on our coasts and provide a key habitat for aquatic species.

Q: Are there examples of strong NBS collaborative projects between RSPB and Wildlife Trusts? Are there existing examples I could learn from?

There are some great case studies linked to a project known as “Nature After Minerals” which show how partners including the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB came together to advocate and demonstrate tangible improvements to the Minerals Planning process. They also help show opportunities and case studies for biodiversity-led restoration schemes. We also have some jointly branded (amongst others) publications which have driven forward nature-based solutions to flood alleviation, recreation, post mineral restoration potential etc. You can see the publications here: 1) Bigger and Better 2) Newark to South Clifton Concept

Q: Is the Cairngorms Connect catchment a potential Lynx reintroduction area?

JR: Responses to questions about reintroductions often have two components to the answer.  First the ‘ecological’ component:  the Cairngorms Connect area is big, contiguous, has a diverse range of suitable habitats, has a deer population that would support lynx, is all within the Spey catchment, would be free from persecution, has few major roads – though is bounded by the A9 to the west – and is being managed in a way that would suit lynx.  The partnership area is also important for some key species such as capercaillie (in 2016, 50% of Scotland’s lekking capercaillie were in woods managed by Cairngorms Connect), so any proposed reintroduction would need to consider likely impacts on these other biodiversity interests.  The second consideration is ‘societal’:  what would it mean for neighbouring farming and other land management interests and communities?  What would it mean for local tourism and accommodation providers?  Would the number of visitors wishing to see the animals result in unacceptable disturbance? So, Cairngorms Connect certainly covers an area, and habitat types, that would be suited to lynx reintroduction. The partnership believes that, in ecological terms, there is potential to host lynx here. However, we know that such reintroductions can cause unease amongst some land managers, without whose support such reintroductions would face many difficulties. The partnership is interested in finding out more about the potential for lynx reintroduction to the Cairngorms Connect area, and the challenges that such a reintroduction would face. However, there is much to do before a reintroduction could happen. It is not a project on which we intend to take a lead.

Q: On uplands management - have RSPB undertaken any quantitative research on how increasing habitat complexity impacts on sustainable livestock stocking rates? Are they significantly reduced?

KH: We know that a functioning landscape (one that delivers on ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, reduced flood risk, increased biodiversity, increased food services like pollination, mental health and wellbeing) relies on the dynamic disturbance caused by herbivory by animals like cattle and pigs. At the right levels, disturbance allows seeds to germinate, and habitats to evolve rather than be static. We also know that very high levels of grazing, especially by sheep, lead to degradation of the land and increased flood risk, reduced carbon sequestration, reduced biodiversity, and so on. There is definitely a balance to be struck so that all of society benefits from these upland landscapes, and this is where schemes like ELMS can be useful, to help farmers limit the numbers of grazing animals so  that they do not reduce the public goods delivered by the landscapes they use. This is also where these public goods need to be incorporated and valued within the economy, so that farmers can not only farm livestock, but also farm carbon, clean water, or biodiversity and be rewarded for doing so.

Q: Funding for these schemes came out as a huge issue for the future. Where do you see the main opportunities in the future, possibly linked to carbon credits?

JR: A few people on the webinar mentioned carbon finance – through both woodland and peatland carbon, and the market for carbon offsets is growing rapidly.  It is important that criteria are developed in order to ensure robust outcomes from any offsetting schemes for biodiversity and genuine climate change mitigation, and to avoid incentivising perverse outcomes. It’s likely this will become increasingly available as a funding mechanism, though the process isn’t always intuitive!  There is also the concept of ‘charismatic carbon’, in which a company doesn’t simply buy the carbon credit, but also buys into another aspect of the project they are supporting, e.g. significant ambitions for biodiversity or for the benefits a community gains from their environment.  It may be that projects such as Cairngorms Connect could therefore secure a premium because companies wish to be associated with the scale, character and biodiversity of the project.

LL: In terms of coastal NbS, the main driver is flood and coastal erosion management so the key to progressing these projects is government decisions about how to manage coastal flood risk and then leading the funding to deliver them. Once a suitable project has been identified, a decision will be made from DEFRA/Environment Agency on what proportion of the costs will be met through the flood defence budget. The remainder will be sought from other sources, e.g. other local stakeholders, grants, investors.

Q: Will ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme) apply in all of the UK? I live in Northern Ireland. There is not a single National Park in Northern Ireland. Fantastic landscapes are deteriorating rapidly.

ELMS will only apply in England, and there is no certainty around what future schemes in Northern Ireland will look like. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with no national park and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is the highest level of landscape designation. The latest attempt to designate a Mourne National park in 2012 failed as the consultation process became highly contentious and generated considerable opposition amongst the landowning community. This was a missed opportunity to boost the socio-economic fortunes of the area and provide enhanced environmental protection for one of Northern Ireland’s most prized natural assets.

Q: Are there any best practice examples of nature-based solutions that are being done on active/productive farms? Seems important given the amount of UK land under some form of farming at roughly 70%.

Effective nature-based solutions as habitats tend to be fairly large scale, so a decent amount of land is required. Implementing NBS can mean that a farmer would need to take some land out of production, or decrease the intensity of the production, in order to restore and maintain good quality habitat (like healthy grasslands, peatlands, and woodlands). A good example of this is RSPB Haweswater, a working livestock farm which has reduced grazing to strategically restore peat and allow natural regeneration of vegetation – as well as an amazing project re-naturalising the stream and hay meadow. However, food production at Haweswater has dropped. We need to be strategic when it comes to land use. On more productive land there are plenty of actions that all farmers can take to increase biodiversity on their farms, some of which will sequester carbon. This would include increasing hedgerows, field margins, and buffer strips around watercourses. The RSPB commissioned a report, published this year, to evaluate the different actions that farmers can take for climate mitigation, ranked against their impacts of biodiversity and resource use.

Q: How do you ensure communities are engaged in much needed projects like these, particularly to ensure 'eco-colonialism' is not used against the projects? Particularly interested in Jeremy's mention of Scottish government encouraging local communities involved in land management - especially when working with such a large private landowner.

JR: This is certainly an issue – and primarily a communications issue.  It’s sometimes suggested that restoration and rewilding projects result in a ‘de-peopling’ of an area.  Currently the four Cairngorms Connect partners directly employ 52 Full Time Equivalents involved in managing the sites, welcoming visitors, providing accommodation in amazing landscapes, and all support services. In addition, there is significant work associated with forest management, floodplain restoration, peatland restoration, building and vehicle maintenance etc. The Guidance to which I referred is produced by The Scottish Land Commission.  You’ll find details of their excellent and carefully considered guidance about ‘Community Engagement in Decisions Relating to Land’ here.  For the partners, we are at various stages and standards of following this guidance, but a big area of our current work is to look at how we can incorporate and follow this guidance more effectively within the partnership.  RSPB Abernethy are also developing a 60-year people vision, to sit alongside the partners’ current 200-year restoration vision.  It’s a great concept and one we are keen to extend across the rest of the partnership.

Q: Kate - would you consider funding peatland restoration through the Peatland Code?

The RSPB is still considering our position with regards to emerging peatland codes.

Q: From a legislative perspective, what Policy change does the panel think should be prioritised and pushed for?  In relation to the Environment Bill and Trade Bill, are there any aspects of the legislation that the panel thinks need amending

On the Environment Bill, you can see our priorities in this blog and in a briefing that the RSPB worked on within the Greener UK group. On the Trade Bill, see this briefing from Greener UK.

Q: Could the speakers talk about what they consider the greatest blockers to restoration efforts in their respective areas and how they could be best removed?

LL: On coastal management, we need the government to take positive long term decisions about coastal management and provide funding to unlock the delivery

JR: To evaluate the greatest blockers, it can help to consider what the key positive attributes are, and consider the reverse.  The key attributes that I feel make restoration projects successful are, scale, connectedness, commitment, duration and a strong partnership with a shared vision.  So, incentives that encourage (or are scaled to favour) the following, are likely to remove blockers to restoration: reward work at a big scale; reward connected holdings, where land is immediately adjacent and management creates a seamless landscape for wildlife; reward long-term commitments (funding programmes for 3-5 years are much less than those that can secure commitments for 15-20-30 years); support for the considerable efforts to bring together and cement a partnership for a long time; establish a strong and inspiring vision that captures hearts and minds – across generations.  Importantly people need to hear about, and witness achievements on a regular basis, so they can see progress is being made.  They also need to hear about what it means for them!

KH – Funding is a clear and obvious issue, especially in terms of uncertainty over future EU funding and the shape of ELMS. Everyone should be lobbying their MP to get the most out of the future of ELMS. Anadditional blocker is the way we have all been educated in conservation. Many people don’t yet fully understand the potential of these landscapes for the delivery pf public goods, and many conservationists are hampered by the shifting baseline syndrome, where we base our ideas of what is natural (and so what we are aiming for with our conservation works) on our own childhood memories and those of our teachers. However, we know that our countryside has been in freefall for so much longer than this (centuries!) and what we end up thinking is the ultimate prize in conservation is an incredibly pale shadow of what we should be aiming at. I really recommend the books “Rebirding” by Benedict Macdonald and “Wilding” by Isabella Tree.

Q: You mentioned the importance of looking at other ecosystems - marine ecosystems are key but difficult where interactions may be less understood, and ownership/management issue are complex. Fisheries Innovation Scotland is interested to learn from experiences of NBS in inshore or offshore environments, and verification of effectiveness.

It’s true that experience of practical examples of NbS in a truly marine context is in its infancy relative to land or on coastlines, especially active interventions (e.g. re-establishing oyster reefs, seeding of seagrass meadows etc.) – there is indeed currently a lack of sufficient data around carbon sequestration of these habitats although some projects are being established to address this. We can however look to those nature conservation tools that are targeted at halting biodiversity loss and providing NbS to address mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The removal of pressures through marine spatial planning and protected areas to safeguard and recover marine habitats could for example enhance the capacity for seabed carbon storage and provide protection from coastal erosion. Equally, efforts to end overfishing are critical to the health of the ocean and its resilience to climate change. 

Q: Sustainable shores are in the long run unsustainable because of inexorably rising sea levels. Is the RSPB trumpeting that as regards global heating 'Mitigation trumps adaptation'?

Action to address the climate and nature crises must include both mitigation and adaptation components. Coastal environments and the use of managed realignment schemes have benefits for both through allowing ecosystems to migrate and providing increased coastal flood protection in response to rising sea levels, and increasing carbon sequestration potential through habitat restoration of coastal habitats, such as saltmarsh.

Q: Do you have data on the impact of salt marshes on carbon sequestration as a result of your restorative work?

We haven’t usually gone to the expense of directly measuring the quantity of carbon being sequestered at different sites. This would require estimating the quantity of carbon accreting in sediment, and quite complicated (and costly) measurement of the greenhouse gas flux of different areas of saltmarsh. Instead, we usually measure the rate of sediment accretion, and the development of saltmarsh vegetation. We do this primarily to document how the habitat is developing, but can also use this information to estimate the approximate quantity of carbon being sequestered, based on the results of other published studies. Basically, if there are higher rates of accretion, and more saltmarsh, then more carbon will be sequestered.

Q: Surely private sector funding will only become significant if there is a regulatory framework to drive it? Otherwise we are reliant on (very modest) goodwill and 'corporate social responsibility' which, while nice for the odd project, is not going to get close to the scale of our ambitions?

Thank you for raising this important point – we don’t have much to add! You'll get the occasional green infrastructure project as well, but it's fairly clear from history and current practice that without a good regulatory framework and wider support from the public sector (which may need to include R&D funding, demonstration projects, part-funding or other financial support), private sector investment is less likely to have a positive impact on nature.

Q: Does "solution" give the message to the public that these interventions are a silver bullet for the ecological/climate crisis?

There is the potential for this and certainly not everything done in the name of nature-based solutions delivers for biodiversity or the climate. This is why we have worked with Oxford University’s Nature-Based Solutions Initiative and others to come up with the NBS Guidelines to ensure that measures that are put forward are robust.