NovelEco: Is it time to rewild our cities?

If you work in the environmental sector, whether as an academic, professional or volunteer, you may have noticed the term “Rewilding” gaining significant interest over the last decade. But what exactly does it mean to rewild something? Is it the case of planting a few trees and letting them look after themselves? Fencing off an area, never to let humans interact with its existence again? Or is it necessary for humans to interact with these ecosystems in order to let them truly be wild again? As the saying goes, nature knows best, but maybe humans can provide a helping hand to enhance the conditions necessary for nature to truly flourish.

Rewilding Europe defines rewilding as “a progressive approach to conservation. It’s about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems, and restore degraded landscapes. Through rewilding, wildlife’s natural rhythms create wilder, more biodiverse habitats”. Rewilding projects are particularly successful when implemented in ecosystems in which the original keystone species are absent. This is based on the notion of ecological trophic cascades, a powerful process of interactions where the actions of predator species have impacts on the entire ecosystem. The reintroduction of a keystone species into an ecosystem has the potential to provide a range of benefits to the habitat networks in the wider landscape. The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park is probably the most famous example of how rewilding projects can positively impact an entire ecosystem.

Wolves were notably absent from Yellowstone National Park for many years because of hunting. Due to their absence, deer began to overgraze large sections of the ecosystem, destroying much of the vegetation. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced as a measure to help control the number of deer in the park. Their reintroduction changed the behaviour of the deer, with many avoiding the valleys and gorges, which were now free to naturally regenerate the vegetation. This created novel habitats for species such as beavers to increase in population. The return of these species had knock-on effects creating additional habitats and niches for a huge range of species within the national park, including rabbits, hawks, weasels, bald eagles, badgers, and bears. This series of processes also changed the physical geography of the ecosystem, impacting the shape and flow of the rivers and reducing soil erosion. It’s a remarkable set of events and the perfect example of the importance of keystone species and rewilding projects.

That’s all well and good in a vast area such as Yellowstone National Park, but when it comes to our towns and cities, is there much room for rewilding? Or is it even possible, given that humans may be considered the keystone species of the urban environment? Well, keystone species don’t always take the form of large carnivorous mammals sometimes, the species which impact an entire ecosystem most may be as tiny as a bat or a bee, and sometimes they may even take the form of living structures such as a large park tree. Although humans have created the urban environment entirely for us, nature has persisted in its efforts to be part of the ecosystem. So maybe it’s time to give nature a seat at the urban table. After all, research is consistently showing the importance of interactions with nature for the human species.

That is where the NovelEco project comes into play, a five-year European Research Council (ERC) funded research project led by Prof. Marcus Collier of Trinity College Dublin. NovelEco will engage with citizen scientists to examine novel urban ecosystems, exploring wild spaces of all shapes and sizes within our cities. The aim of the project is to examine the novel ecosystem theory as a connecting concept and potential conduit to not only rewild our cities but also rewild ourselves. The project will research societal attitudes towards the urban wilderness, engage with local citizens to co-create an online instrument to enable ecological data collection, and explore whether this engagement impacted their environmental values and behaviour. The project has significant potential to refine and redefine the concepts of novel ecosystems and urban rewilding while also generating consciousness about the transformative potential of urban wilderness.

But, what are these values? This is what NovelEco is looking to find, and it is why we need citizens. The most remarkable aspect of this new project is the potential for all those tiny, seemingly insignificant, knock-on effects usually associated with rewilding projects. It is the unexpected result of letting nature back in. Whether that is positive or negative, we won’t know until we try, just like the wolves in Yellowstone. What we do know is that currently, 55% of the world’s population lives in cities with that figure expected to nearly double in size by 2050. We also face two of the largest crises in the history of humanity, the climate and biodiversity crises. These crises are deeply intertwined and require to be tackled together. Our attitude up until this point has been to dominate nature with impunity but unfortunately, that is now backfiring at an unprecedented rate. So why not let nature back in? Why not rewild ourselves and our cities? The results may surprise us in ways we could have never imagined.

About the author:

Mairéad O’Donnell is a PhD student with the ERC funded NovelEco project in the School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Mairéad previously completed a MSc. in Development Practice in TCD and currently works part-time as a Research Assistant with Prof. Jane Stout. Mairéad’s PhD project will focus on the social-ecological systems of urban wilderness and is being supervised by Dr. Marcus Collier.

Previously published by NovelEco.

Nature+ Energy

In this blog, Research Assistant, Emma King, introduces this exciting new project focusing on biodiversity on wind farms in Ireland.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are joint emergencies, jeopardising the future of the planet’s ecosystems. Ireland has set out targets to mitigate climate change in a new Climate Action Plan, aiming to increase our reliance on renewable energies to 80% by 2030. While green renewable energies can be part of the solution to tackle the climate crisis, they can potentially cause negative impacts on the surrounding biodiversity (e.g. Dai et al. (2015), Thacker et al. (2018)). If planned, managed, and mitigated against correctly, however, the land surrounding renewable infrastructure poses a potential opportunity for biodiversity restoration and protection (Gorman et al. 2021). There are currently 300 operational onshore wind farms in the Republic of Ireland, sited on a range of habitat types, including forest, bog, and agricultural settings. Thus, wind farms are sited on a lot of natural capital that provides ecosystem services, which, until now, has not been quantified. In a new report from SEAI, Renewable energy accounted for just over 40% of electricity generated in Ireland during 2020, with the wind sector making up 86% of the renewable energy produced (SEAI, 2021). The growth of the Irish wind industry presents a new opportunity to develop methods and measures to maximise the biodiversity that surrounds these sites, in turn protecting the ecosystem services this natural capital provides for us.

Nature+ Energy is a collaborative approach to providing these solutions. A joint venture between research (SFI/MaREI, Trinity College Dublin, & Maynooth University) and industry (Wind Energy Ireland and eight industry partners), this project aims to add significant value to green renewable energy by maximising the positive impacts of wind farms on biodiversity and ecosystem service provision, while mitigating the negative effects. The collaborative nature of this project provides an opportunity to showcase how research and industry can work together to develop innovative solutions for the environment, economy, and society. Using a Natural Capital Accounting approach, we will be able to quantify the stocks of natural capital within and surrounding Irish wind farms in standardised way. This will enable biodiversity to be brought to the table and accounted for in business decisions. Using the data we gather for our natural capital accounts, we will develop a decision-support tool for land-use planning and natural capital enhancement, and a natural capital asset and risk register which will enable land managers of wind farms to make more informed decisions about how they manage biodiversity in the areas surrounding the turbines. Furthermore, companies are increasingly incorporating biodiversity into their business strategies, but can often lack site-specific knowledge to best achieve this. The data that we will collect during the project will be used to develop an evidence-based biodiversity action plan for the onshore wind sector in Ireland, as well as individual plans for the representative wind farm sites we will study. Environmental monitoring is often a critical component of both pre-construction and post-construction planning requirements for wind farms, which can be a large investment of both time and money for operating companies. Part of this project aims to develop a new environmental monitoring system for wind farms, which will enhance data resolution, while reducing running costs. At the moment, we are prioritising acoustic monitoring of birds and bats but we are broadening the sensor arrays in the system to enable much more efficient monitoring of wildlife in the vicinity of wind farms and potentially the development of improved mitigation measures.

Figure 1. Types of habitats wind farms can be sited upon, including plantation forestry (left and top right), including a settlement pond fenced in the top right photo; and a wind turbine on a bog (bottom right).


We have selected several representative wind farm sites across the country, in collaboration with our industry partners, for which we will develop Natural Capital Accounts and biodiversity action plans. Currently, we are collating data for each of these sites from environmental impact assessments, environmental monitoring reports, GIS datasets etc. We have also conducted a preliminary site visit to most of our sites, which has given us a better idea of what is there that we can study in greater detail, what type of landscapes we are looking at and we get to see, of course, the wind farm infrastructure itself. We were also able to put out an acoustic recorder at one of our sites to collect sample data on bat and bird calls which will be used to help inform a model of the environmental monitoring system. Talking to site managers and site ecologists during our visits gave us a better understanding of the extent of the biodiversity which can exist within the wind farm surroundings. In addition, we were able to identify many areas within each of our survey sites which could potentially be interesting features to study. Settlement ponds, for example, are a novel feature at some of the sites we visited which are formed when gravel is removed to create the turbine hardstand and then infills naturally with water, so it will be important to assess biodiversity within those. The site visits also made us realise the scale of these sites, they can cover a large area and have a mosaic of habitat types within them, which can pose a challenge for fieldwork logistics but also make them quite exciting to study! The next steps for the project are to start organising fieldwork for the upcoming season and to put out more bird and bat acoustic recorders to help build the environmental monitoring system.

About the author:

Emma King has an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from Trinity College Dublin and a BSc in Zoology from National University of Ireland, Galway. Emma is working with Trinity Nature+ Energy PIs Ian Donohue, Yvonne Buckley and Jane Stout.

References

Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (2021). Climate Action Plan 2021. Dublin, Ireland: Government of Ireland.

Gorman, C.E., Torsney, A., Gaughran, A., McKeon, C., White, C., Donohue, I., Stout, J., and Buckley, Y.M. (2021) Small scale study of the impacts of climate change mitigation measures on biodiversity. Dublin, IrelandL Nature+, Trinity Centre for Biodiversity and Sustainable Nature-base Solutions.

Natural Capital Ireland (2021) Natural Capital FAQs. Available at: https://www.naturalcapitalireland.com/resources [Accessed: 28th January 2022].

Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (2021) Energy in Ireland: 2021 Report. Dublin, Ireland: Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland.

Wind Energy Ireland (2022) Facts and Stats. Available at:  https://windenergyireland.com/about-wind/facts-stats [Accessed: 28th January 2022].

FOR-ES: New sustainable forestry project using natural capital accounting launches

A new research project will build on natural capital work by our INCASE project to co-develop tools for sustainable forestry management decision-making. FOR-ES is led by natural scientists at Trinity College Dublin in collaboration with University College Dublin and Coillte and backed by the Department of Agriculture…read more below.

It is well understood that forestry provides timber but it also supports biodiversity and supplies other public benefits, including carbon capture to tackle climate change. However, unless forestry is managed in a way that recognises these multiple benefits, and decisions are made to consider these additional values, they could become ignored.

FOR-ES will implement a more holistic approach, known as ‘Natural Capital Accounting’, and the research project could have a huge influence on how Ireland approaches forestry in the future. The involvement of Coillte as Ireland’s largest forestry company underlines the potential of the project and the interest in developing new processes for managing Ireland’s forests.

NCI director Professor Jane Stout from Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences is the project lead. She said:

“I am excited to be working with colleagues in UCD and Coillte on this project, because it builds on seven years of collaboration to bring natural capital approaches to practice and policy through Natural Capital Ireland, and on our ongoing research to apply natural capital accounting methods at various scales.”

This interdisciplinary approach is really important because assessing natural capital stocks and valuing benefits from forests can help enable sustainable decision-making, which is crucial to address the current biodiversity and climate crises.”

This project will develop Natural Capital Accounts for specific forest sites. These accounts will capture information on forest natural capital stocks (the amount, location and condition of forest habitats), and the flows of ecosystem services (in terms of commercial timber production, carbon sequestration, water retention, biodiversity and recreation).

Speaking about the potential for the project Imelda Hurley CEO of Coillte said:

“Coillte is delighted to work with Trinity College Dublin and UCD on this exciting and innovative research using natural capital accounting approaches. Forests provide multiple benefits: they clean the air we breathe, are key to tackling climate change (through carbon storage and sequestration), provide essential wood for building our homes and create beautiful biodiverse habitats.”

Additionally forests provide wonderful recreation spaces, known to support our physical and mental health, features which we have come to value significantly more during Covid. This project will allow us to better understand and value those benefits.”

Bayesian Belief Network modelling will be used to understand the effects of different management decisions on ecosystem service flows, and an interactive web-based management scenario tool will be developed.

Project partner, Associate Professor Mary Kelly-Quinn, from the School of Biology and Environmental Science at UCD, also a long-term NCI Steering Committee member, added:

“This is the first time a natural capital accounting approach has been combined with Bayesian Belief Network modelling of ecosystem services supply to support structured decision-making in an Irish context.”

The tools developed will help inform forest managers in the design and management of forests for multiple benefits other than just timber production. This work will build on the research undertaken by the EPA-funded ESDecide project, which developed a decision-support tool for management of river ecosystem services.”

The new project also builds on a previous Trinity-led EPA-funded project, INCASE, that developed the processes for natural capital accounting at catchment scale in Ireland, and it runs alongside the Kinsella Challenge-based E3 Multi-disciplinary project FOREST, led by Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences. FOREST is taking a multidisciplinary approach to developing socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable approaches to native woodland afforestation.

Previously published by Natural Capital Ireland.

See www.for-es.ie for more information on the project.

Which is better – a sown ornamental wildflower meadow or a biodiversity meadow created by reduced mowing?

Read about this MSc project in Trinity College Dublin which compared ornamental meadows sown with wildflower seed mixes versus biodiversity meadows created by reduced mowing in which no seeds were sown

Pollinators and urban environments

Pollinators are in decline globally, with habitat loss due to changing land use proposed as a major catalyst of this decline. Expansion of urban environments, with increasing areas of land being used for buildings and paving, have drastically reduced the habitat and floral resources available for insect pollinators, and what remains is often highly fragmented. For these reasons, urban environments, such as city centres, were thought to be barren wastelands for wildlife, however, recent research has shifted this vision, highlighting urban areas as places in which wildlife and humans can coexist, if managed correctly. Not only can wildlife co-exist in urban spaces, but due to their huge human populations, such areas have the potential to act as important educational tools to inform and engage their populations about wildlife, and the need to protect it. Understanding how wildlife, especially pollinators, utilise urban spaces can be complex, however. Different species have different tolerances and abilities when it comes to coping with changes in the landscape or increased fragmentation. Pollinators are especially diverse in this respect, with insect pollinators varying greatly in their mobility, dependence on host plant species, and responses to increased anthropogenic activity. Therefore, there is a great need to better understand insect pollinators and their communities within urban environments.

Experimental design

Within Dublin City Centre, the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan’s ‘Actions for Pollinators’ map reveals that there is a network of actions to provide habitat and floral resources for pollinators. The two most frequently occurring within this urban landscape are ‘pollinator-friendly planting’ and ‘reduced mowing.’

  • To understand how insect pollinators were utilising these actions, I selected ten sites within Dublin City Centre, and carried out observational surveys to determine their insect pollinator communities, and to understand how these insects were utilising the flowering plant resources available.
  • Five of these sites represented ‘pollinator-friendly planting’ as planted meadows, sown with ‘wildflower’ seed mixes, and five represented ‘reduced mowing’ as no-mow meadows, in which no seeds were sown, and the sites were left to regenerate on their own. Both types of site were subsequently managed as long-flowering meadows with one cut per year, usually in September.

No mow meadows support as many pollinators as those sown with wildflowers

The observational transect walks revealed that both planted, and no-mow meadows yielded similar results in terms of the insect pollinator communities that were recorded. The results of the transect walks indicated that bumblebees and hoverflies were more frequently recorded in planted meadows, however, this difference was not statistically significant, nor was there any difference in the overall community composition of insect pollinators between the two types of meadows. Additionally, there were a greater number of plant species identified from planted meadows, which would be expected as usually the seed mixes used include a large species variety, however, again, the difference observed was not significant.

This suggests that reduced mowing can generate varied long-flowering meadows, even within urban environments. The interactions occurring between plants and insect pollinators were also similar for both planted and no-mow meadows, further highlighting the similarity in the results these two types of actions can generate in terms of insect-pollinators.

A bumblebee moves between knapweed while foraging in a long-flowering meadow.

Doing less may be doing more in terms of providing resources for insect-pollinators within urban environments

Ultimately, the similarity between pollinator communities of the two meadow types indicates that doing less may be doing more in terms of providing resources for insect-pollinators within urban environments. Simply reducing the mowing frequency to create a mini-meadow within an urban environment can provide resources for insect pollinators, while being cost-effective and less labour-intensive than sowing a site with a seed mix. Opting for reduced mowing also can reduce the risks associated with ‘wildflower’ seed mixes in terms of their potential to introduce new genotypes. Creating mini-meadows by reduced mowing is simple to do, and less work than is usually involved in maintaining a lawn or managing a planted meadow. It may take a bit longer to generate but no-mow meadows can result in diverse plant assemblages and provide plentiful resources for insect pollinators. Such mini-meadows within urban environments can be important for habitat connectivity and reducing fragmentation for insect pollinators, while also providing important floral resources for insect pollinators.

Future studies

The ten sites studied within Dublin City Centre represent only a small subset of the total number of actions occurring for insect pollinators within urban environments. My study highlighted how useful they can be for urban insect pollinator populations but there is lots more to still be determined. These actions do not exist independently from an ecological perspective. Hopefully in the future, further studies will identify the shared benefits such insect pollinator actions have for other forms of urban wildlife, as they have the potential to act as refuges or habitats for birds, small mammals etc. Additionally, understanding the contribution of each conservation action within Dublin City Centre to the overall network of resources available for insect-pollinators is also an important aspect for future study.

Conclusion – Don’t Mow Let it Grow

The number of actions within Dublin City Centre highlights how positive the uptake and engagement has been with the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. The simple action of reduced mowing can support pollinator communities within urban environments and the greater costs (both economic and labour) of planted meadows do not necessarily translate to a larger benefit for insect pollinators.

Thus, pollinator conservation can be accessible and manageable with relatively little intervention. Benefits can extend beyond insect pollinators to other urban wildlife, but also to the large human populations within city centres, providing important aesthetic and recreational value. This study contributed to a growing body of research which highlights that pockets of biodiversity can exist within urban environments, and in these spaces both humans and wildlife can co-exist. Ensuring the continuation of good uptake, engagement and education will ensure that future generations will experience cities, such as Dublin, as a combination of anthropogenic and natural features, with a more positive outlook of urban environments for nature.

About the author: Emma King is currently a Research Assistant at Trinity College Dublin, and conducted this study, supervised by Prof Jane Stout, as part of her MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation, during 2021.

This blog was first posted 11th January 2022 on pollinators.ie.

Accounting for Forest Ecosystem Services in Ireland (FOR-ES): PhD Studentship available

An exciting new multi-disciplinary project is seeking to recruit a PhD student. The student will work as part of a team to develop Natural Capital Accounts for specific forest sites in Ireland. These accounts will capture information on forest natural capital STOCKS (the amount, location and condition of forest habitats), and the FLOWS of ecosystem services (in terms of commercial timber production, carbon sequestration, water retention, biodiversity and recreation). The PhD student will assist in creation of these accounts, and in the development of an interactive web-based management scenario tool. This will enable decision-makers to make more sustainable decisions regarding forest management. 

This project will be led by Professor Jane Stout in the School of Natural Sciences in Trinity College Dublin, who will be the primary supervisor for the PhD student. The PhD student will be co-supervised by Dr Catherine Farrell and Professor Yvonne Buckley, also in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity. The PhD student will also work with collaborators at UCD and Coillte.

This PhD is a 4-year structured programme, with an anticipated start date of March 2022. It is available to both EU and non-EU applicants, with an €18,000 annual stipend and a contribution of €6,000 per annum towards tuition fees.

Applicants must have:

  • First class or upper second class BSc (Hons) or MSc in environmental sciences, environmental studies, environmental management, ecology, botany, zoology, biology or similar
  • Knowledge of ecosystem services and natural capital concepts, and approaches to assessment
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills
  • Excellent numerical/data analytical skills, including GIS
  • Ability to work in academic team and with industry partners
  • Full clean driving licence, valid for Republic of Ireland.

Application Process

Informal enquiries should be made to Jane Stout via email stoutj@tcd.ie.

Applications can be made by emailing Jane Stout stoutj@tcd.ie by 14th January 2022. Late applications will not be accepted. Applications should include:

  1. A curriculum vitae (including the names of two referees, one of which must be an academic referee).
  2. A cover letter (maximum 1000 words) outlining the applicant’s research interests and why they are suitable for this project.

Interviews will be held remotely by video-link in early January 2022. The successful applicant will subsequently apply to register as a PhD student through the Trinity College Dublin central portal but must meet all requirements for registration in order to be eligible for this studentship. Postgraduate admission requirements are available here: https://www.tcd.ie/study/apply/admission-requirements/postgraduate/. The successful applicant will be required to provide evidence of English language competence following the award offer and before registering.