What can conservation strategies learn from the ecosystem services approach?

New research, co-authored by the Environmental Change Institute’s Dr Pam Berry, considers the extent to which ecosystem services have been implemented in conservation strategies in two of Spain’s national parks.

Photo: Sierra Nevada. Photo by Berta Martín-López.

A new paper shows the extent to which the ecosystem services approach has been applied in the conservation strategies of two important protected areas in Spain, the Doñana wetlands and the Sierra Nevada mountains. A series of workshops, face-to-face surveys with local stakeholders and a review of management plans revealed that the two national parks provide multiple ecosystem services, and that some of the most important services are declining and need further attention to ensure their sustained delivery. However, although management plans take some account of provisioning services such as crop and livestock production and cultural services such as eco-tourism, the regulating services such as maintenance of climate, soil, air and water quality are rarely mentioned. The work also revealed that environmental managers and researchers have different perceptions and priorities regarding ecosystem services management compared with ecosystem service users. Recognising that different stakeholders have different perceptions of ecosystem services can be an important step towards their co-management.

The study suggests that these challenges can be tackled by understanding protected areas not as isolated ‘islands’ aimed only at conservation but as interconnected social-ecological systems, in which both nature and humans depend on each other. Dr Pam Berry, one of the authors, says the study shows that “we need much greater effort to assess the connection between protected areas and human well-being, as this can help to reduce environmental conflicts in protected areas, strengthen social support for their management and increase the well-being of local people.”

Read the full paper online.



Photo: Flamingos in Doñana Wetlands. Photo by Berta Martín-López.

This article first appeared on the Environmental Change Institute website.

When is river restoration rewilding?

What might rewilding ‘do’ for degraded freshwater ecosystems that widespread and established restoration projects aren’t doing already? Oxford University’s Dr Paul Jepson, author of the new policy brief on rewilding, responds to this question.


Rewilding the River Waal at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

Back in May, I presented a policy brief authored by Frans Schepers of Rewilding Europe and myself to a Rewilding Dorset meeting organised by Adrian Newton and Arjan Gosal of the University of Bournemouth. The county of Dorset is located on the South coast of Britain and a system of smallish chalk rivers flow into the natural harbour of Poole. The meeting brought together local conservation groups to ask: could we do rewilding and would we want to?

Our brief outlines seven emerging rewilding principles. One of these is the principle of “moving up a scale of wildness within the constraints of what is possible”. I like this principle because it is inclusive. From the perspective of ecological function, many of our landscapes are in poor shape and this principle invites everyone to engage with rewilding, not just for those living or working in wilder landscapes.

At the meeting, Fiona Bowles presented the ecological restoration work of the Poole Harbour Catchment Initiative (PHCI) and outlined some of the obstacles they face in the efforts to restore river dynamics: the noise of a weir being legally designated as ‘heritage’ was one of the most absurd! At the end of her presentation, she commented that based on what she’d heard the PHCI was already doing rewilding.

This suggestion troubled me. The work Fiona described was great but it hadn’t struck me as rewilding. On the one hand, it flagged the prospect of the ‘move up a wildness scale’ principle being adopted to rebrand business-as-usual. On the other hand, I am aware that restoration is writ large in the Water Framework Directive and that concepts of living rivers, ‘renaturation’ of small rivers, wetland restoration and practices of restoring fish migration, removing dikes etc. were influential in the rise of rewilding ideas. There are loads of such initiatives along the Rhine, Meuse, Danube, Oder, Elbe, Loire, Allier. Could it be that river managers have been rewilding for years but their work isn’t recognised as such?


Rewilding Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

I mentioned these ponderings to Freshwater Blog editor Rob St John who confirmed that river managers are always trying to improve degraded freshwater conditions but rarely, if ever, refer to this as rewilding. The question he put to me was: what does rewilding do (or imagine) that river restoration doesn’t?

In this blog, I will attempt an answer. I am conscious that my knowledge of aquatic biology, freshwater conservation, and river management is limited so this is a preliminary answer and offered up in the spirit of promoting discussion and reflection. My hope is that it might lead to a collective view on the extent to which restoration, as guided by the WFD, equates to rewilding.

Millingerwaard in the Netherlands sets a benchmark in my mind for what constitutes river rewilding. I visited the area a number of times with my students as part of rewilding study tours. For me, it was an eye-opener in terms of conservation ambition and vision and a river restoration project radically different from anything I had seen previously.

One difference was the link between river restoration and high-level policy, in this case, flood protection and climate adaptation. The River Waal was experiencing higher peaks flows and needed more space. The rewilding solution was to remove the summer dykes, peel off the unnatural clay layer to restore the old river morphology, reintroduce beavers and two big grazers (Konik ponies and Galloway cattle) and let the area go. However, this necessitates the removal of the huge volume of clay that had built up behind the summer dykes.


Construction work at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

The Millingerwaard solution was to do a deal with a brick company and allow the pace of restoration to be determined by the market and capacity of the factory. For me, this connection between ecology and wider policy – climate change, flood management, new nature-based economies and so forth – is part of what makes restoration rewilding. In the Netherlands, now every brick that is being produced and sold is contributing to river rewilding, as it became a common policy that clay extraction in river floodplains is only allowed if it contributes to both river restoration and flood protection.

Johan Bekhuis, of Ark Nature Foundation, hosted our visits and introduced us to river restoration rewilding style. One of his stories has stuck with me, perhaps because it epitomizes the ‘restore the dynamics and species will rebound’ ethos of rewilding. Johan told how the black poplar (Populus nigra) was super-rare in the Netherlands until they started excavating the old river meanders which led to an abundance of black poplar seedlings appearing.

They realized that by restoring the river braids they were also restoring warm lapping water conditions and these were the conditions poplar seeds – carried down from Germany – needed to germinate. The same principle applied for other plant and insect species that had become extinct in the Netherlands but were present in the upper catchment and suddenly found a habitat to settle and re-establish.


New habitats at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

This story illustrates another key distinction – restoration becomes rewilding when river engineering interventions are designed to restore dynamic process rather than pre-specified conditions and outcomes. From this perspective rewilding is easy to distinguish from restoration in retrospect because it will have generated unexpected outcomes that extend knowledge or unsettled images of what a river is. For instance, until I visited Millingerwaard, I thought European rivers had banks and that beaches and dunes were confined to the coast! This pleasant, unsettling realization  that river landscapes could be better than what we have  captures the hopeful ethos of rewilding.

It perhaps also expresses the rewilding challenge for river engineers: designing dynamic restoration projects that produced the unexpected and accepting that outcomes may not always be desirable. In practice, this probably means engineering designs that create the ‘rough’ starting conditions for the river and its dynamics to then shape the landscape, rather than being too technical and specific on designs that deliver certain habitats, species, and/or conditions.

Another difference from the river restoration projects I knew and had been involved in was the relaxed – and in many ways radical – attitude to recreation in the restoration area. Millingerwaard is located on a circular cycle route serving the city if Nijmegen and the project facilitated a community wilderness café, a beautiful tea garden, and other successful enterprises to encourage visitors.


Cyclists in the river meadows at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

Unlike many reserves in Europe, there are no signs specifying routes and rules of behavior. People are free to do what they want and this seems to be working out just fine. Perhaps because most people worry about getting lost, or wet feet trails quickly formed and were followed by the majority. In addition, because clay extraction and recreation commenced simultaneously the footpath routes are emerging in interaction with people and commerce. I was one of the ones who ‘went in’ and it was a wonderful primordial nature experience. I saw beavers, but got scratched and muddy, and felt the fear when I encountered a herd of wilded cattle occupying the high ground I needed to traverse.

George Monbiot termed such experiences “rewilding the self” and argued that as our societies become ever more regulated and efficient citizens need and seek out opportunities to reclaim our authenticity as human beings. The rise in popularity of wild swimming can be understood as a manifestation of this sense of entrapment. Such ideas capture two additional factors that for me characterize river rewilding – an effort to interact with trends in society and culture and to create (or recreate) opportunities for citizens to choose how they wish to engage with landscapes and nature. Within reason of course!

So when is river restoration rewilding? I suggest it is when restoration focuses on restoring abiotic dynamics, restores trophic flows (e.g. fish migration) and levels (e.g riverine herbivores), embraces uncertainty, re-connects the river with wider policy and societal trends and unsettles. Or maybe it’s just a feeling – when those involved with a restoration project feel they are pushing the boundaries and re-imaging the possible.

This post originally appeared on the Fresh Water Blog. 

Understanding and managing river ecosystems through optimisation

Increased awareness of the ecological value of rivers has created a number of challenges to the development of robust, adaptable and socially acceptable river management strategies. New Oxford-led research explores the use of optimisation methods to assist in the management of riverine ecosystems.

Widespread degradation of the world’s river systems due to over-extraction, infrastructure development and pollution has resulted in significant economic and social cost 1,2,3,4. However, balancing the trade-offs between the vital services water provides for communities and the maintenance of ecosystem integrity, continues to present a complex management challenge involving multiple stakeholders and often conflicting objectives.

New research, led by Emily Barbour of Oxford University and the Australian National University (ANU), explores the use of optimisation methods to assist in the management of riverine ecosystems, synthesising literature from ecology, optimisation and decision science. Optimisation is a method which is being increasingly used in different areas of water management to assist in identifying effective management strategies. Through efficient exploration of different management decisions, optimisation can provide a powerful means to better understand system behaviour as well as to identify future research needs. It also allows trade-offs between multiple objectives to be examined, enabling more transparent communication between decision makers and stakeholders. 5,6,

However, representing ecosystems in an optimisation framework poses a number of challenges given ecological objectives can be difficult to define and model, and the concept of optimality is highly subjective. Identifying ecological objectives not only requires an understanding of ecosystem structure and function, it also involves identifying social perceptions of what constitutes a ‘preferred’ environmental outcome in systems that are highly modified7.


Photo: Spokane Falls by Orin Blomberg. Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0


Whilst there have been substantial advances in understanding flow-ecology dynamics, significant uncertainties remain given ecosystems include multiple species which respond to external drivers and complex internal interactions over different spatial and temporal scales8. These complexities limit our capacity to represent riverine ecosystems in mathematical models for evaluating management alternatives 9, as well as to develop effective monitoring systems to evaluate outcomes.

A review of existing research has identified that previous applications of optimisation for the ecological management of river systems generally have limited consideration of the impact of problem definition on modelling results, and more importantly on actual management outcomes. This can result in unintended consequences where the resulting interventions are in reality ineffective or deleterious.

The research advocates for increased evaluation of optimisation outcomes in terms of the assumptions made to identify likely actual outcomes. In particular, greater consideration is needed in the definition of ecological objectives and management alternatives, and the conceptualisation of the system in a modelling framework. In doing so, the application of optimisation can provide greater insight into system behaviour, gaps in current knowledge and data, and facilitate communication between the science community, decision makers and stakeholders5. This can lead to more transparent and informed management of our critical water resources and ecosystems.


  1. Poff, N. L., Allan, J. D., Bain, M. B., Karr, J. R., Prestegaard, K. L., Richter, B. D., Sparks, R. E. & Stromberg, J. C. 1997. The natural flow regime. Bioscience, 47, 769-784.
  2. Bunn, S. & Arthington, A. 2002. Basic principles and ecological consequences of altered flow regimes for aquatic biodiversity. Environmental Management, 30, 492 – 507.
  3. Bernhardt, E. S., Palmer, M. A., Allan, J. D., Alexander, G., Barnas, K., Brooks, S., Carr, J., Clayton, S., Dahm, C., Follstad-Shah, J., Galat, D., Gloss, S., Goodwin, P., Hart, D., Hassett, B., Jenkinson, R., Katz, S., Kondolf, G. M., Lake, P. S., Lave, R., Meyer, J. L., O’donnell, T. K., Pagano, L., Powell, B. & Sudduth, E. 2005. Synthesizing U.S. River Restoration Efforts. Science, 308, 636-637.
  4. Poff, N. L. & Matthews, J. H. 2013. Environmental flows in the Anthropocence: past progress and future prospects. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 5, 667-675.
  5. Liebman, J. C. 1976. Some simple-minded observations on role of optimization in public systems decision-making. Interfaces, 6, 102-108.
  6. Brill Jr, E. D. 1979. The use of optimization models in public-sector planning. Management Science, 25, 413-422.
  7. Steedman, R. J. 1994. Ecosystem health as a management goal. Journal of the North American Benthological Society, 13, 605-610.
  8. Holling, C. S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4, 1-23.
  9. Metrick, A. & Weitzman, M. L. 1998. Conflicts and Choices in Biodiversity Preservation. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 12, 21-34.

Microplastics in rivers: a new mathematical model

Environmental plastics are a growing ecological concern. A new model, developed in collaboration with researchers at Oxford University, has advanced the understanding of how microplastics move through rivers.

In March, the UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee launched an inquiry into the environmental impact of microplastics; earlier in December, the US Government passed legislation outlawing the use of plastic microbeads in toiletries by July 2017. These developments reflect growing concerns of the environmental impact of microplastics, the result of an increasing body of evidence highlighting various detrimental ecological impacts.

Plastic production currently exceeds 300 million tons per year and is steadily increasing. Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic smaller than a few millimeters, such as microbeads used in exfoliators and injection moulding, or plastic debris resulting from the fragmentation of larger plastic objects. A fraction of these products is released directly into the sea, with the impact on the marine environment estimated to be around $13 billion per year.


Microplastics. Image: MPCA Photos. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

While the effect of microplastics on the marine ecosystems are well documented, little is known about the release and retention of microplastics in rivers. Households, industry, transport and poorly managed landfills generate a large volume of microplastic debris, which travel from these sources to river networks where they are partly transported to the sea and partly retained by the riverbed. A fraction of the microplastics released into the sewage network by households and industry is processed at wastewater treatment plants and retained within sewage sludge. This sludge is in turn used as agricultural fertiliser, releasing microplastics into the soil.

Researchers at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment, Dr. Gianbattista Bussi and Prof. Paul Whitehead, helped advance the first theoretical assessment of the transport and diffusion of microplastics through a river network, as part of a NIVA (Norwegian Institute for Water Research)-led research collaboration.

The framework is based on the assumption that microplastics can be treated conceptually like sediment i.e. the mathematical equations governing the movement of microplastic particles are conceptually similar to those used for the assessment of sediment transport by water. The study adapted equations from an existing hydrological and sediment model, the INCA (Integrated Catchment Model) model, developed by Prof. Paul Whitehead, to assess the transport and depositions of microplastics in the River Thames (UK). In the absence of quantitative information on microplastics transport from the Thames, the study was conceived to provide a purely theoretical, nevertheless rigorous, assessment of microplastics transport across the pedosphere and hydrosphere.

The findings, published in Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, show that soils have a great potential to accumulate microplastics released by sewage sludge application. Furthermore, sediments of river sections experiencing low stream power are possible hotspots for the accumulation of plastics. On the other hand, particles smaller than 0.2 mm are predicted to be poorly retained in the catchment, regardless of their density, and will eventually be conveyed to the marine environment.

While research on microplastics in river environments is still at the very early stages, this study represents a novel approach that can be used to assess the potential of river catchments to retain microplastics. Given that the only realistic mitigation measures to curb the release of microplastics to the sea are those focusing on managing emissions and transport processes on land, it is hoped that this study will drive the efforts of researchers and catchment managers towards an integrated assessment of the presence of microplastics in rivers.

Myanmar’s mega-dams

New Oxford research explores the dynamic between dam builders and campaigners in Myanmar.

Researchers at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment recently completed the first academic study on the politics of mega-dam construction in Myanmar. Scholars investigating large dam developments in Asia usually focus on dam campaigners, rather than the target of their campaigns ‒ the dam developers. Yet the perspective of dam developers is crucial to comprehensively understand the dynamics of social and environmental activism in Asia, as well as its implications for the region’s energy landscape.

The new study analyses the interplay of anti-dam activists and Chinese dam developers in Myanmar via two case studies: the Myitsone Dam and the Mong Ton Dam. The research is based on interaction with both activists and dam developers and includes data from some of the first scholarly interviews carried out with Chinese dam developers.

The authors present evidence of change from both sides: domestic activists have professionalized in recent years and now employ tactics comparable to those of activists in Europe and the United States; Chinese dam developers now attempt to engage with civil society, albeit with limited success in the two cases studied. Yet, even with these changes, conflict over dam development persists and Myanmar may soon face severe limitations to development options for improving water and energy security. The authors also discuss the case of Bhutan to illustrate the potential for developing Myanmar’s hydropower resources.

The new study, which was published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development, can be accessed here.

Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme evaluated

Oxford hosts European workshop to evaluate decision-making processes for flood risk reduction investment.

On May 24, Oxford University’s Distinguished Research Associate, Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, convened stakeholders from across Europe, at a workshop to evaluate decision-making processes for investment in flood risk reduction schemes. The meeting, jointly promoted by the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University and the Oxford Flood Alliance, was part of FLOOD-CBA2, an EU-funded knowledge platform which facilitates the sharing of good practice to improve decision-making and investment efficiency of flood prevention measures.

Visitors from Spain, Portugal and Greece met with the Oxford Flood Alliance, the Environment Agency, and the Chair of the Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, to discuss decision-making processes, with participants sharing experience from across the EU. The meeting heard talks from David Cotterell of the Environment Agency, Adrian Porter of the Oxford Flood Alliance and Jeremy Biggs of the Freshwater Habitats Trust, as well as two presentations on suburban flood problems in Lisbon, Portugal and Ecija, Spain.

The proposed Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme, which involves a major bypass channel in the Oxford floodplain, served as a UK case study, with delegates visiting the proposed route which runs from Botley Road, to downstream of Sandford Lock, passing the villages of North Hinksey, South Hinksey, and Kennington. The floodplain, which is predominantly used for agriculture, has been built on in the areas adjacent to the Botley Road, and also at Grandpont. These developments are now at risk of flooding, especially as flood flows are likely to increase with climate change.

The building of residential properties and commercial premises likely occurred around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps at a time when floods were relatively rare and there was a lack of awareness of the real nature of the flood risk.

The current proposal for the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme will see the excavation of a very shallow “scrape” in the flood plain. This will deepen the floodwaters, creating a less peaked hydrograph as floods pass the city. The design aims to avoid channeling excessive volumes of water downstream to Abingdon.

The meeting concluded that while flood safety can never be fully guaranteed, a broad-based decision process is necessary to appraise flood risk reduction options, in order to ensure they are economically efficient, environmentally friendly, and socially acceptable.