NatureScot Science Quarterly Newsletter - Issue 35 - May 2021
Welcome from our new SAC Chair
It is my privilege to welcome you to the May 2021 issue of the NatureScot Science Newsletter. In doing so, I should introduce myself as the incoming Chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee! To say that I am honoured to be entrusted with this role as a newly appointed member of the NatureScot Board, is something of an understatement. The most obvious reason is that I have the highest regard for the work of the scientists, both natural and social, who inform our work in NatureScot, but also nationally and internationally. The second has to do with 'filling shoes'!
In the October 2020 issue Des Thompson expressed his recognition of the contribution of the outgoing Chair, Bob Furness, and in his customary engaging prose, of the previous Chairs of the SAC. George Dunnett was Regius Professor of Natural History at Aberdeen when I did my PhD (on salmon biology) - so you can imagine how in awe of him I was - especially when invited round to the house for tea! Jim Hunter gave me an insight into the relationship between people and land in Scotland like no other - and his book 'On the other side of sorrow: Nature and people in the Scottish Highlands', still guides my thinking and remains a key text for my students. I have not met Janet Sprent - though if Des' comments on her supporting 'good arguments and good people' are anything to go by I find myself in full empathy. Finally to Bob, whose work on the predation of Manx shearwaters by red deer I regale my MSc students with on our annual field course to the Isle of Rum. Big shoes indeed - and of course not really fillable by me or anyone else!
There is no real need for me to provide a biography here (there is one on the NatureScot website) so by way of introduction suffice to say that I have always had a deep love of our lands and seas and the biodiversity they support, and am keen to foster the understanding and respect for our natural world that will help take us towards a more sustainable future. Much of my career has been spent working in and for the environment in its broadest sense, and specifically Scotland's nature; promoting its environmental, educational, social and economic value through teaching, research, policy and practice. In all these areas we are at an extremely important and significant ‘moment in time’.
As readers of this newsletter you are undoubtedly well aware of the global and local challenges we face and the urgency in addressing these, but also the potential momentum resulting from a new Scottish Government, COPs 15 and 26 later this year, and the publication of the post-2020 biodiversity strategy for Scotland next year. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be, anything I’d rather be doing, and any time I’d rather be doing it, than working on these issues, here in Scotland, now. I look forward to supporting the work of the Scientific Advisory Committee in providing the clear advice that NatureScot and its Board need to guide its decisions and practice. We welcome submissions on the scientific work of NatureScot for future newsletters, so do please let us hear about your work and its impact.
Why Dasgupta matters...'
In February 2021, 2 years after commissioning, the Review, of the Economics of Biodiversity was released. The review was conducted by a small team at the UK Treasury led by Oxford economics professor Sir Partha Dasgupta. The final review, at 603 pages long, is comprehensive and seeks to demonstrate the importance of taking the biodiversity crisis seriously in the same way the 2005 Stern review did for climate change. Whilst many of the conclusions of the report aren’t new, it is significant that they come from the UK treasury.
What are these significant conclusions in the report? Many of the benefits of nature can’t be privatised or traded and are enjoyed by everyone (non-excludable and non-rival). This means they aren’t accounted for in our decision making. Over the last 50 years we have doubled our produced capital (stuff captured in everyday economic markets). Also, our stock of ‘human capital’ (health and education) has increased by 13%. These increases have come largely at the expense of our environment: natural capital globally has declined by around 40% in the same timeframe. This has severely affected the ability of nature to sustainably provide essential goods and services, such as food, water and a clean, habitable environment.
So we – that is national and global economies - are clearly measuring human progress incorrectly, after all “GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile” mused Robert Kennedy. The Dasgupta review highlights that the economy is ‘embedded within nature’. This is fundamentally important for how we view nature - as a life-support system rather than an external resource we can exploit. It also places limits on how big the economy can grow – bringing economic ideas around ‘post-growth’ into the equation, including Kate Raworth’s Doughnut economics model, degrowth and the ‘wellbeing economy’. We must now look beyond GDP - a flow indicator that represents benefits in a single year and can increase during war or climate disasters but excludes so many benefits that aren’t traded - as an indicator of success. Instead the Dasgupta review suggests that we focus on underlying assets and their ability to provide benefits now and into the future. We need to move away from just measuring economically productive assets to those that contribute to the wellbeing of people - natural and human capitals. This concept of inclusive wealth includes the natural and human assets we rely on as a species and the condition of these to ensure they aren’t being exploited now at the expense of future generations.
The importance of biodiversity for the provision of goods and services means that delaying investment into nature for a decade will make costs twice as expensive. It’s clear that it makes economic sense to invest in nature now.
Ultimately instead of asking “what can nature do for the economy?” we can instead ask “what can the economy do for nature?” in order to increase our natural wealth – and our inclusive wealth since investment in nature, or nature-based solutions, creates social benefits too.
The Dasgupta Review presents strong economic arguments that change is needed to our economic system for the sake of biodiversity and for the economic system itself. The evidence is already compelling but we need to continue the natural and social science work to increase our understanding of both the issues and the solutions.
Towards an operational wildfire and muirburn monitoring system for Scotland
By Gwawr Jones (JNCC) & Duncan Blake (NatureScot)
Sentinel-2 satellite data have been used for mapping individual wildfires in Scotland for several years, especially those impacting designated sites, but the overall extent of muirburn practices has been largely unmonitored.
NatureScot and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) have been working towards building a process that can automatically map wildfires and muirburn activity at national scale. The Sentinel-2 data used was processed to Analysis Ready Data (ARD) by JNCC’s Simple ARD Service and made available via a cloud computing infrastructure called JASMIN, run by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) on behalf of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
The need for this work is driven by a requirement to understand the impact of all burning on carbon emissions, biodiversity and natural capital accounting. This information would help:
- Understand the scale, distribution, timing and frequency of muirburn activity.
- Report on the damage caused by wildfires to habitats and wildlife on protected sites.
- Promote good land management practices and behaviours to reduce the likelihood or impact of wildfires into the future.
Previous studies have shown that burn scars can be mapped using indices derived from Sentinel-2 data. To test these methods specific sites were selected to identify the most suitable indices and thresholds for scaling the process to national scale. The Isle of Skye and the Eastern Cairngorms were selected as primary study sites based on known burn activity and availability of cloud-free Sentinel-2 data. Lammer Law in the Southern Highlands was used as an independent site to test reproducibility.
Pre- and post-burn Sentinel-2 imagery was selected for both sites and used to generate five burn indices and two vegetation indices. Comparison of index values for burn scars with other landcover types and landcover changes led to selection of the following indices for burn detection:
- Difference in Soil Adjusted Vegetation Index (dSAVI)
- Post fire Normalised Burn Ratio (NBR)
- Difference in Normalised Burn Ratio 2 (NBR2)
The initial investigation successfully detected the majority of both wildfire and managed burns at all sites. The national-scale test took less than 4 hours to analyse 130 pairs of Sentinel-2 images for April 2020. It identified several burns, including some that were previously unknown.
However, it also generated false positives, notably along the coast and in ploughed fields. Furthermore, burns could only be identified if they occurred between two dates which both had cloud-free imagery.
Recommendations were made for further development to address over- and under-prediction of burnt areas. For example, masking agricultural fields and the intertidal areas could increase the accuracy of mapped outputs. These enhancements should lead to a system which could be implemented operationally. A global threshold approach will never be perfect and will always produce false positives and false negatives. However, by enabling rapid, cost-effective, automated analysis of Sentinel-2 imagery, this system will improve knowledge of the extent, location and time periods of burning across Scotland.
Code development for this project was carried out in Python and Jupyter notebooks by specialist staff at NatureScot and by JNCC business associate Alastair Graham. All scripts have been made publicly available via GitHub.
This work is funded by JNCC’s Copernicus User Uptake project which is part of the Caroline Herschel Framework Partnership Agreement. The JNCC project is focused on ensuring that each country in the UK reaps the benefits of the last five years of knowledge gained in applying EO for practical environmental gain.
Connecting people and nature - evaluating Green Health Partnerships
Intuitively we know that being in green environments makes us feel better, and observations of young people disconnected from natural settings resulted in the 2005 mooting of a nature deficit disorder. The growing body of research showing the benefits to people’s health and wellbeing from connecting to nature is compelling and is supported by powerful individual life stories.
The Our Natural Health Service (ONHS) programme, led by NatureScot with cross-sectoral partners since 2017, aims to maximise the potential of connecting more people to nature to contribute to Scottish Government health priorities. Central to the programme’s delivery are four area health board / local authority-wide Green Health Partnerships (GHPs), in Lanarkshire, Dundee, North Ayrshire and Highland, each with its own dedicated project officer. The GHPs generate added value by bringing together local stakeholders from health, environment, transport, leisure, sport and education to co-ordinate action on green health. They are now in their third year of operation and through their whole-system approach are shining a spotlight on the natural environment and green infrastructure as a local resource for public health, health and social care.
Evaluation has been a key part of the GHP intervention and we have worked with Prof Richard Mitchell from the University of Glasgow, colleagues from Public Health Scotland and other partners on developing a robust framework for this. At the core is a logic model that enables the partnerships to be evaluated at the national level. Within this model, a set of key measures and associated quantitative questions were identified to monitor GHP activity around five themes:
- Provision and participation
- Green health referrals
- Strategic relationships
A mixed methods approach has been followed with the GHPs asked to gather quantitative and qualitative evidence to illustrate the impact of work in these areas of activity. Highlights of data gathered covering a 9 month period include:
- Over 230 green health delivery partners working across the four GHP areas
- An estimated 11,200 people in the health and environment sectors have been connected with through awareness-raising activities across all GHPs
- 24 referral pathways in use enabling green health activities to reach a broad range of target groups including both physical and mental health conditions
To provide an independent assessment of local stakeholders’ views at both an operational and strategic level on the process of establishing the GHPs, Edinburgh Napier University was commissioned to undertake a series of focus groups and telephone interviews. Key findings from this research include:
- Promoting the use of the natural environment is a good strategic fit with all six public health priorities
- GHPs have provided a powerful voice to raise the profile and awareness of the benefits of green health, and built upon the work of previous green health initiatives
- Employing Green Health Partnership project officers is pivotal to success as they provide focus, knowledge, and time to help develop green health
The value of making more use nature-based solutions to help tackle key health challenges around physical inactivity, mental ill-health and health inequalities has been widely recognised during the current pandemic. The environment sector has a long established track record of partnership working in this area and the contribution our natural assets make to health outcomes adds to the case for investment in nature and good quality accessible green spaces. NatureScot’s vision of ONHS has been vital in a range of work by GHPs that connects green health activities to co-benefits around enhancing biodiversity and reducing carbon emissions.
A full evaluation report for the first three years of operation of the demonstration GHPs will be prepared in Q4 of 2021/22.
A new Official Statistic (Experimental) - Marine and Terrestrial Indicators 2021
Simon Foster, David O’Brien and Des Thompson
On 22 April a new (what is termed experimental) Official Statistic on Marine and Terrestrial Indicators was published.
Three headline indicators show species trends for marine abundance (11 breeding seabird species), terrestrial abundance (371 species: 133 birds, 25 butterflies, 9 mammals and 204 moths) and terrestrial occupancy (2,466 species: bryophytes (218 species), lichens (650 species), freshwater invertebrates (151 species), terrestrial insects (1,104 species), and terrestrial invertebrates (excluding insects) (343 species)).
Over the long term (1994-2016), marine abundance has shown a significant decrease of 36%, terrestrial abundance has shown a significant decline of 31%, and terrestrial occupancy has shown a significant increase of 24%. Over the short term (2015-2016), marine abundance, terrestrial abundance and terrestrial occupancy were stable.
Within the report the results are broken down to the taxonomic groups for each of the three headline indicators. These show marked variation in the trends of the contributing species. The drivers of change are discussed within the report and include land and sea use change; climate change; pollution; natural resources and exploitation and invasive species.
This is a very significant piece of work which has drawn on scores of data sets and recording schemes. It will play a key role in supporting our reporting on the state of nature within Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy post-2020, which will take shape after COP15.
We encourage you to read the report and view the graphics on the complex nature of change. As this is an ‘experimental’ indicator, we are seeking comments and feedback.
West of Scotland Deep-sea Marine Reserve
Alice Cornthwaite (Marine Protected Area & Fisheries Advice Manager, JNCC)
In September 2020 Marine Scotland announced the designation of the West of Scotland deep-sea marine reserve. This site is the largest marine protected area (MPA) in European waters and covers 107,162 km2; an area larger than both Scotland and Wales combined. The deep seas (>800m depth) around Scotland are home to some of the most vulnerable and diverse habitats and species on Earth.
Collaboration between NatureScot, Marine Scotland and JNCC is key when gathering and assessing evidence to identify and support the designation of MPAs. JNCC worked with Marine Scotland Science to support the Scottish Government in the development and evidence evaluation for the West of Scotland deep-sea marine reserve. The site makes a significant contribution to the protection of unique deep-sea ecosystems in the seas around Scotland. Their protection ensures the site can provide a range of benefits to society, including nutrient cycling and carbon storage.
The site protects vulnerable habitats and species considered to be of conservation priority in Scotland’s seas. This includes fragile habitats such as cold-water coral reefs and deep-sea sponge aggregations, which create a three-dimensional physical structure, providing an environment which supports a diverse community of associated species. Cold-water coral reefs have a fragile structure and slow growth rate which means they can be easily damaged and take a long time to recover. Reefs of 1.5m in height can be around 250 years old. On large-scale features such as seamounts, rich communities of sponges and corals can be found where the dynamic hydrographic environment increases food availability to suspension feeders.
This site is one of only 17 locations globally where gulper shark has been reported and there is still very little known about this species. Other species such as the orange roughly are better studied but historically have been subject to intense fishing pressure. Like many deep-sea species they are slow to mature; reaching maturity at 28 years, they may live to 150 years. This MPA protects several known spawning locations for orange roughly where they form spawning aggregations around seamounts.
Blue carbon, or carbon stored and sequestered in marine ecosystems, is increasingly being recognised as an important factor in mitigating climate change. The West of Scotland deep-sea marine reserve supports long-term resilience of the protected features against the impacts of climate change, by removing or limiting pressures from human impacts, thus reducing stress on the features.
JNCC is currently developing a Science Plan for the site. This aims to achieve an informed ecosystem-based approach to deep-sea conservation in Scotland, that has its foundation in the best-available scientific evidence, creating a shared programme of research with academic partners from across the deep-sea research community. This is an ongoing opportunity to identify and research very specific questions on how deep-sea habitats and species are responding to a whole host of pressures, and to increase scientific knowledge in relation to the deep-sea marine reserve and its designated features.
For further information please see our West of Scotland MPA Site Information Centre.
Gene Conservation Units – beyond trees
In March 2019, Scotland became the first country in the UK to register a Gene Conservation Unit (GCU) with the European Forest Genetic Resources Programme (EUFORGEN). Since then, the Woodland Trust has registered several more sites across the UK, including three more in Scotland, for six tree species. Whilst EUFORGEN’s work covers trees, we were keen to consider whether the same approach would be useful in protecting genetic diversity, and thus adaptability, in other species.
Forest Research describe the background very well. Conserving the genetic diversity within species and the processes determining this are vital to enable adaptation to environmental change. The genetic diversity within a species at any one time is the result of many dynamic processes, and provides the source for future adapted ecosystems. One method of genetic conservation is to manage specific areas with the intention of allowing the full cycle of natural processes to occur. EUFORGEN’s GCU concept recognises the importance of this for sustainable forest management and increasing the resilience of Britain’s forests and woodlands. Its importance is recognised in The UK Forestry Standard, and forestry practitioners are encouraged to consider genetic diversity when managing forests and woodlands.
Melissa Minter, a PhD student at the University of York, worked with David O’Brien and I, together with Richard Ennos (SAC Expert Panel) and a wider group of expert geneticists, to consider how GCUs might be devised and taken forward for four case study species (two insects, a plant and a fungus). At the same time, we surveyed conservationists and land managers to gauge their views. There was strong support for a voluntary scheme to recognise work carried out to manage land to conserve species and manage them to support adaptation to environmental change, including the Climate Emergency.
More information about the research, and a link to the paper Could wider use of gene reserves protect rare species?
Bordered Brown Lacewing rediscovered at St Cyrus NNR
Look past the perhaps uncharismatic appearance of the Bordered Brown Lacewing and enjoy its wonderful story! Re-discovered at St Cyrus NNR after 85 years!
A huge thanks to Nick Littlewood (and Rose Toney), for re-finding this little beauty and describing it for us.
‘It’s been a long wait. Eighty-five years to be precise. But for all that time, Bordered Brown Lacewings were quietly doing their thing at St Cyrus NNR, awaiting rediscovery. The Bordered Brown Lacewing story is one of an almost forgotten species being discovered once again at a series of very special sites in eastern Scotland. Early in the 21st century, the species was feared to be extinct in Britain, having been historically recorded at just three sites. However, a singleton found at one of these sites, Holyrood Park, in 2015, prompted renewed interest, driven especially by the charity, Buglife. The last two years has seen further records from Holyrood Park and a series of records from Aberdeenshire. However, searches at St Cyrus reserve, from where the species was recorded in 1935, had drawn a blank…. Until, finally, on a hot evening in late June (one of the few this summer!), Rose Toney and I found a single Bordered Brown Lacewing low down on the slope beneath cliffs at the northern end of the reserve.
Bordered Brown Lacewings are predators, feeding on aphids and other invertebrates and they appear to have a strong association with Wood Sage. They are small and inconspicuous, so it is not difficult to understand how they can be overlooked for so long at St Cyrus reserve. However, focussed searches over the past two years have shown the species to be present at several previously unknown sites along the coast between Stonehaven and Aberdeen. Might they be elsewhere, such as on the Angus or Fife coasts, of even along the Moray Firth? Here’s hoping that interest in Bordered Brown Lacewings and the other rare and specialised invertebrates of these magical coastal sites is sustained, and that the species is not once again “lost” for 85 years.
For more information on Bordered brown Lacewing records and surveys in 2019
Simple Analysis Ready Data (ARD) Service – supporting Scottish applications
Gwawr Jones (Senior Earth Observation Evidence Specialist, JNCC) & Paula Lightfoot (Earth Observation Specialist, JNCC)
Earth observation data and products are increasingly being adopted for better, more cost-effective environmental policy delivery. Would you like to use freely available analysis-ready satellite imagery to support your work? JNCC is keen to work with you to develop operational applications.
Increasing availability of high-quality satellite data provides new opportunities to improve environmental decision making and meet evidence needs. JNCC and partners use satellite data for applications including habitat and crop mapping, risk and resilience modelling, natural capital assessment, habitat condition monitoring and change detection. In particular, the Sentinel satellites in the European Space Agency’s Copernicus programme provide openly accessible, high resolution data every few days.
Before it can be used, satellite data needs to be processed to correct for any distortions caused by the earth’s atmosphere and surface. This requires specialist skills and significant computer processing power, which can be a barrier to uptake and a source of inconsistency. To overcome this barrier, JNCC led technical innovation to automate the processing of Sentinel-1 (radar) and Sentinel-2 (optical) data to global standards. Since 2016 we have produced analysis-ready data (ARD) on demand to support our global work and to meet partners’ requirements. This saved the public sector time and money, facilitating pioneering research and development of practical applications, but there was still scope for greater efficiency.
The Simple ARD Service was set up in 2020 to support use of satellite data for public sector environmental applications in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Commissioned by the Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Executive, the service now routinely generates and provides access to Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 analysis-ready data (ARD) on a weekly basis. To promote use of the ARD, we are providing bespoke training and support materials, as well as working with partners in each country to develop analytical and operational applications.
Two services provided by the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis (CEDA) enable us to deliver the Simple ARD Service. Data processing is carried out on JASMIN, a globally unique data analysis facility. Processed data are then stored and made accessible under an Open Government Licence via the CEDA Archive.
We at JNCC are looking for organisations to come forward with ideas where we could help integrate satellite data into a variety of work areas, including providing support in data analysis and cloud computing and helping our stakeholders develop ideas from proof of concept to operational delivery. During 2020, applications that received support from the service include:
- Developing a workflow for generating coherence products from Sentinel-1 data, to aid the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and Scottish Government detect ground disturbance and illegal waste (this application was jointly funded by the Caroline Herschel Framework Partnership Agreement for Copernicus User Uptake).
- Supporting Scottish Government’s work to create annually updated crop maps through object-based image analysis of Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 ARD.
- Facilitating access to cloud computing for NatureScot’s team, supporting development of a process for scaling up wildfire and muirburn mapping across Scotland. This project will get continued support to carry out some of the recommendation this coming year (see article on “Towards an operational wildfire and muirburn monitoring system for Scotland”)
If you have any ideas about how satellite data may be able to help in any of your work areas and would benefit from our support, please get in touch via [email protected]. The service has now been added to NatureScot and Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Digital Explorer. NatureScot are working closely with JNCC to develop the ARD service and look for opportunities to use the data.
More information about each aspect of the Simple ARD Service is available on JNCC’s website.
NatureScot Scientific Advisory Committee – update from March meeting
The NatureScot Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) last met on the 1st March 2021. This meeting included discussions on Science Leadership in NatureScot, SBIF & Citizen Science and Soil Health & Carbon Budgets. The committee was updated on the next steps with the Grouse Moor review, review of the fossil code and techniques for surveying the Slender Naiad. NatureScot are recruiting a new member of the SAC and several new members to the Expert Panel, with interviews taking place at the end of May. The Committee was updated on progress with the recruitment process. The SAC was also provided with an update on the SAC sub-groups.
Research Reports Published in February – April 2021
The Woodland Herbivore Impact Assessment Method (WHIA) was developed as a means of assessing the impact of all species of large herbivores on woodlands. The aim was to provide a standard range of indicators, and standard ways of assessing herbivore impacts on those indicators. The method is based on observations, rather than measurements, of impact levels on seven indicators at ten roughly 25 metre radius 'stops' located throughout a woodland. Assessments can be used to inform target setting in an adaptive management system so that herbivore numbers can be related to the desired habitat condition. Due to the relative simplicity, low cost and speed of the WHIA method it is suitable for use by woodland, deer and stock managers as well as by professional surveyors.
Prior to the development of the Woodland Herbivore Impact Assessment Method (WHIA), assessments of herbivore impacts on woodlands were based on subjective judgement of a set of simplistic and qualitative indicators which were mostly to do with assessing the consequences of historic grazing pressure, rather than anything to do with current herbivore pressure. The method made no distinction between impacts on palatable and unpalatable species, so failed to identify the extent to which sustained overgrazing has modified habitat composition. In contrast, the WHIA measures the impact of current pressure, so allowing the observer to relate changes in the habitat to current management and target setting.
Although the WHIA has become increasingly used for a range of purposes, its reliability for formal impact assessment is currently unknown due to a lack of information on observer variation. This study sought to address this lack by comparing the results obtained by fifteen surveyors assessing the same four sites.
This project evaluated the status of pearl mussels in 6 rivers in Scotland following a very prolonged drought in 2018. There was clear evidence of large scale detrimental impacts on several rivers of international conservation importance. Local volunteer actions prevented detrimental impacts on one river. Local groups could play an important role in reducing similar damage in future.
This study shows that a clear increase in extreme drought risk in Scotland is likely in the imminent future. Using modelled temperature and precipitation data and a drought index, changes in extreme drought were calculated for the near future (2021-2040) in comparison to a baseline period (1981-2001). The results showed increases in both the number and length of extreme drought events in the near future. These changes were then mapped to highlight areas and seasons with the greatest projected change, enabling identification of 'hotspot' areas that may be at most risk. These results can be used to direct mitigation and management actions to these areas, enabling pre-emption of drought damage and facilitating improved resilience to extreme weather events.
This project tested the scope of viewing the concept of Ecosystem Services and how it relates to Gaelic culture through:
- geographical locations and place-name evidence
- song, poetry and literature
It used old and modern maps, historical documents, poems and songs, oral tradition and folklore, literature & other media, and research projects & papers, and it covered land, water and marine ecosystems.
It was wide ranging, looking at provisioning, regulating and cultural ecosystem services, and found many examples such as wildfood gathering, medicinal plants, transhumance, agriculture, fuel, timber, and recreation.
Why Research undertook the annual customer satisfaction survey in relation to our planning service. The survey gathered evidence for us to see how we are performing, and to help us identify ways we can continue to improve our service.