RRC Ecosystem Services Workshop

Written by Will Barber, the RRC’s new local engagement and communications officer

On Thursday 9th of July, professionals from organisations across England, Scotland and Wales came together in Hexham, Northumberland for a workshop on Ecosystem services, facilitated by Jenny Mant from the River Restoration Centre. Participants were interested in how the ecosystem services approach could be applied, both within their work streams and the wider work of their organisations.

The aims of the day were to: understand what ecosystem services are; to practice identifying ecosystem services in the field; consider plans which would enhance service provision; and to explore the different ways of valuing ecosystem services in the workplace. Our two speakers were Rob McInnes (Director, Wetlands and Environment LTD) and Mark Everard (University of West of England), both of whom a have depth of experience using the ecosystem services approach.


What are ecosystem services?

The day began with a discussion of what ecosystem services were, with participants identifying the variety of provisioning, supporting, cultural and regulatory services nature provides. Mark and Rob then explained the origins of the approach, which in fact extends far beyond The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (which is often described as the "where it all started") to at least  the 70's and 80's, although not always in the guise of "ecosystem services".

So why consider ecosystem services? Well, most of the services nature provides have not been valued within the economic system to date. The ecosystem services approach looks to address this, not by valuing nature itself, but by the things which nature does and provides for us.


The River Tyne

We then took a trip outside to The River Tyne, and were treated to the sight of salmon attempting to leap up the Hexham weir towards spawning grounds upstream. Back to work. Both Rob and Mark believe that practising identifying ecosystem services in the field is much more important than guidelines and the like. Therefore participants were asked to rate the importance of the ecosystem services provided at points upstream and downstream of the Hexham weir in groups, using a list of services and traffic light system. Then each group considered a different planning proposal to alter the river and discussed the best solutions in each case to deliver the most services. Some thinking outside of the box was required! The list of services certainly widened the view as to the number of benefits natural landscapes can provide.

Following lunch, some of the main themes that came up during the river visit were discussed. Firstly, it was found that natural solutions would provide more services than traditional hard infrastructure. With a change in thinking processes, some unexpected benefits could be achieved. Secondly, the importance of discussing and formulating plans with local stakeholders and specialists to deliver the most ecosystem services from plans was recognised. Finally, the importance of considering the wider catchment when making plans was recognised.


How do we value ecosystem services?

Then back to Rob and Mark, who directed proceedings towards the question of how ecosystem services can be valued. They again emphasised the fact that ecosystem services is not about putting a price on nature, but assigning values to the things which nature provides. "Ecosystem services is a verb for nature. Its not what it is, but what it does", explained Mark. Secondly the importance of valuation was stressed by Rob, who explained: "If we don't keep services in the decision making process, and provide some sort of value, then the default value is zero".

The different methods of valuation and in which situations to use them, were then explained with the aid of UK and international case studies. A key takeaway message was that valuation doesn't have to be monetary to communicate value. For example, the simple scoring of the expected provision of different ecosystem services from alternative plans, and comparing scores can be very useful in decision making. Mark stated: "It’s not about giving an absolute value, it’s more about weighting (different services and planning options) for decision makers". Rob and Mark argued for a more qualitative "indicative" approach as a better and more holistic way of valuing natural systems rather than monetary only evaluations more generally seen as the way forward. It is very difficult to assign monetary values to many ecosystem services accurately; so when monetary valuations are necessary, it is important to both know and communicate the assumptions behind the figures.


Overcoming barriers

Throughout the day two main barriers to the implementation of ecosystem services came up.

Firstly, the language used to communicate the ecosystem services approach can often seem too technical or "eco". Upon discussion it was found that this could be overcome by using different language in different situations. Participants were already doing this, for example one described ecosystem services as the benefits nature provides.

Secondly, are the institutional challenges. What do we mean by these? Instead of managing the bigger picture, our landscape is often managed in pieces, like an incomplete jigsaw. The solution - join the pieces together! A lot of this comes back to language, communicating the ecosystem services approach in the right way. It’s also about advocating the importance of a bigger picture systems approach to those that need to know about it. This is of course the environmental sector, but also others who have a say in how our landscape is managed and valued, including politicians and economists alike.

Mark: "We intervene with systems at our peril, unless we take a systemic approach".



Jenny Mant led a session that encouraged participants to feedback on what they might do differently as a result of the workshop and to comment on what else they still needed to learn about. 

Almost unanimously they felt they were, as a result of the workshop in a better positon to go back to their day jobs and confidently spread the work about how best to value our natural systems. Typical feedback from the delegates included comments such as

“I now have greater confidence in assigning subjective values to different services”,

"it is ok to have a go and not be afraid if I don’t monetise a service”

“the approach taken in the practical session provides both the time and space to talk through issues and understand different values”.

And for the future?  Delegates thought it would be good to know more about the best approaches or techniques for engaging with different stakeholders and bringing diverse interests together, how the outcomes of assessing the value of ecosystem services could be integrated more fully into policy initiatives such as agri-environment schemes and payments for ecosystem services and how the intrinsic value of nature should be considered alongside the more utilitarian values. Rob, Mark and Jenny confirmed they would look into these aspects. So watch this space...

In the meantime, our next training course is on the 24th September in Colne, Lancashire. It is titled Developing strategic monitoring schemes, the what, when and how. Find out more.

If you want the RRC run a specific workshop in your area, please contact us - rrc@therrc.co.uk

Finally, thank you to our guest speakers Rob McInnes and Mark Everard and to all those who attended the course. The enthusiastic interaction made for an excellent and lively course.

More feedback:

  • It is important to think about the wider system
  • Don’t be afraid to give it a go.
  • The importance of applying a tiered approach to valuation.
  • The need to look at the ‘system’, think holistically and not fixate on killer numbers, and especially monetary values.
  • Assigning value is about using and comparing different values.
  • I feel more comfortable now about assigning subjective values to services.
  • This has provided a framework to clarify my thinking and to recognise the importance of a ‘systems’ approach.
  • This approach can bring added value to projects. I will summarise the outcomes and give a lunchtime talk at work.
  • There is a need to look a bit further than usual in order to add additional benefits to projects.
  • I thought that ecosystems services were complex and messy and I was right! But it is reassuring that this is the case.
  • The outside practical sessions were really useful and helped me to think outside the box.
  • This has helped me to learn about the contextual issues and to understand the barriers.
  • It is reassuring to learn that there is not a right or wrong way or solution. It is more about understanding the assumptions underpinning the assessment of value.
  • It’s ok not to know the exact answer or value and tit has given me the confidence not to worry about not being able to assign monetary values to services.
  • It has provided a good framework to talk through ideas and it has helped me understand the dales sense of precision associated with monetary valuation and engineered solutions.]

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