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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].

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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.

Exploring social justice in ecosystem restoration

Elaine Marshall has just started her PhD research with Jane Stout (Botany) and Susan Murphy (Geography), School of Natural Sciences. Here she describes what her research will focus on…

Global biodiversity loss and increasing awareness of the multiple values of biodiversity for people, has resulted in an array of mechanisms, actions, policy, legislative and financial incentives for ecosystem restoration. 2021-2030 is declared the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, to prevent, halt and reverse degradation of ecosystems worldwide. Efforts such as the international “Bonn challenge” – to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 – will take place in the context of sustainable development decision-making and COVID-19 pandemic recovery.

Ecosystem restoration is place-based – interventions in landscapes where people live and derive livelihoods can result in trade-offs and conflicts with existing land uses and land users. It imperative to engage the full participation of local communities around restoration decision-making to promote fair and equitable benefit sharing over the longer term. The natural capital approach frames social-well being within the context of provisioning goods and services from nature, but we seek to build a more inclusive approach, drawing from environmental and climate justice theories, to address the historical eco-centric or anthropocentric dichotomy. We will evaluate and synthesise existing International Development and Ecological Restoration approaches to develop a new conceptual framework that balances ecological, social and economic considerations for restoration, recognising different ideological motivations for restoring and maintaining biodiverse landcapes, and the differentiated impacts of interventions upon different stakeholders. Of particular interest is how restoration effectiveness varies according to the demographic and socio-economic status of recipients (power dynamics, well-being, gender, age, access to education, religion, and race inter and intra-generational differences, gender etc.), and allows us to consider which people and whose views are taken on board when decisions are made, and who is impacted by those decisions.

Methodology

Provisional research questions have been defined in order to enable the social dimensions of ecological restoration to be explored in depth.

  1. What are the most effective incentives underpinning successful ecosystem restoration outcomes?
  2. What are the social justice implications of ecosystem restoration important in ensuring success?
  3. What are the key opportunities to strengthen incentive mechanisms to ensure effective and successful ecosystem restoration?

It is envisaged that a combination of mixed methods approaches inlcuding desk-based analysis and in-field engagement with relevant stakeholders, will be employed. Methods will be refined and developed, taking a global view initially, and then focussing on case-studies for in-depth analysis:

  1. In-depth literature review of incentives for ecosystem restoration and evaluation of their effectiveness where possible; of social justice implications of restoration; the key incentives for ensuring compliance. Peer-reviewed or published (from bi and multilateral funded initiatives, UN, NGO, Academic) and grey literature will be included. Different mechanisms will be recorded and categorised; and social justice, inclusion and participation elements extracted.
  2. Including multiscale policy and regulatory analyses of international conventions around biodiversity and restoration to better understand the place-based specifics of biodiversity conservation and restoration.
  3. Stakeholder identification and consultation with case study communities (to be identified). Questionnaires and semi structured interviews based around key research questions to elicit quantitative and qualitative data on effectiveness, compliance and impacts of established and contrasting restoration initiatives. Robust, felixble methods to allow for field travel / non travel:
    • Expert opinion consultations with key informants, authors and thinkers: donors, conservation and development practitioners, private sector business, to collect their perspectives on what is successful ecosystem restoration.
    • Participatory research in communities or a combination of (in person / remote) focal group conversations and semi structured interviews to explore incentives from historical, gender, intergenerational, ethnic, perspectives; what incentives are in place for costs, benefits, rights, responsibilities, and risk sharing; perceptions of effectiveness of these incentives; barriers to implementation; and other demographic and socio-economic factors perceived as affecting successful restoration.       
  4. Analysis will focus on effectiveness of mechanisms across a range of parameters, enabling recommendations to be made around approaches and incentives for delivering effective, sustainable and ultimately successful restoration outcomes.
  5. Output: Develop a typology of incentives, or new conceptual framework, around environmental rights based and social justice to address different and diverse elements of equity, including distributional (sharing conservation and restoration costs and benefits) and procedural (involvement and participation in decision-making at different levels).

About the author: Elaine has 20+ years of experience managing collaborative relationships for research, impact assessment, communication and policy implementation across the natural resource, rural livelihoods and health sectors. She has an established interest in community based resource management and trade, poverty alleviation, governance and gender empowerment, and has worked more recently on ecosystem restoration and farmer-led interventions for mainstreaming biodiversity on farm. Wider experience includes evaluating climate change mitigation policies on agricultural systems and human health, and opportunities for sustainable energy solutions for health care provision in resource constrained settings. Her first degree was in Agriculture and the Environment, she holds a Masters in Resource Management and she believes that making progress on environmental and sustainable development ambitions relies on the engagement of local communities to ensure that enabling conditions are in place to support effective outcomes at a local scale. She hopes her PhD research will provide an exciting and timely opportunity to bring her experience and interests into a space where components of justice and equity can be more explicitly evaluated.