The role of social sciences in environmental and conservation conflicts

It has been long recognised that an understanding of human interests and positions is important in better understanding and delivering conservation policies. Environmental issues and conflicts do not consist solely of matters which can be addressed by the natural sciences. The involvement of those who specialise in the social sciences in environmental and conservation conflicts will often provide insights into the way people behave which are key to ensuring effective actions and outcomes follow.

Bennett N.J. et al (2017) have recently published a review paper of how a broad range of social sciences can contribute to and help deliver conservation outcomes which are more ‘legitimate, salient, robust and effective’. The paper ‘Conservation social science: understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve conservation’ is published in Biological Conservation and is open access – it can be downloaded here.

I have recently read How culture shapes the climate change debate (Hoffman 2015) which is a good example of how the social sciences can provide context, understanding and potential approaches for conflict resolution in the polarised debate around the issues of climate change, science and anthropogenic global warming in the United States.

Hoffman argues that climate change is not really about carbon dioxide and complex mathematical models, it is really about opposing cultural values and worldviews.

The book describes how we all use cognitive filters to look for information that supports our pre-existing beliefs. These cognitive filters reflect our cultural identity known as cultural cognition. This leads to us developing ‘worldviews’ are consistent with others in our group. This cultural identity can overpower scientific reasoning. Our cultural identity is also influenced by economic, political and technological matters and this creates our own political economy which creates an inertia for change.

In the case of the polarised debate in the US around climate change it means that different groups view the same science but see different things which creates a cultural schism. For example, those who dismiss climate change as a threat to society, see policies brought in to lessen the impacts of climate change as an interference with the market, the overpowering hand of Big Government which diminishes personal freedoms – a threat to their livelihoods, their wealth, their way of life and perhaps even their religious beliefs.

This leads to the use of ideological filters which are influenced by our belief systems and creates motivated reasoning and our cultural cognition. Greater weight is given to evidence that supports our pre-existing beliefs and causes biased assimilation or confirmation bias. Conversely, we refute evidence that challenges our pre-existing beliefs and this is known as disconfirmation bias.

These biases are exacerbated by our bounded rationality i.e. we are limited by the type and amount of information we can access and by our cognitive ability to process it. As a result, we are cognitive misers only spending time on things that are important to us.

Hoffman goes on to suggest that there are four main reasons why people disagree about climate change.

  1. Distrust of the messengers – e.g. Al Gore for example is seen by neo-liberal Democrats as a left wing liberal environmentalist who is using the issue to make himself money. A ‘watermelon’ – green on the outside, red on the inside.
  2. Distrust of the process that created the message – e.g. the scientific review process is corrupt (peer review = pal review), Climategate, distrust of the IPCC and the United Nations. Scientists only do the research to get grants to keep them in employment.
  3. Distrust of the message itself – e.g. carbon dioxide is good – it makes plants grow, environmental disasters as a result of climate change are simply not possible, climate change challenges their notion of God.
  4. Distrust of the solutions that come from the message –g. interventions to reduce climate change lead to an intrusive Government, impacts our personal lives and the free market.

In effect both sides of the argument are speaking different languages: science verses neo-liberalism.

As such there are three options for resolution:-

  • The optimistic path – a technological solution will be invented which means we can maintain our lifestyles and levels of prosperity without needing to use fossil fuels.
  • The pessimistic path – a combative path in which the battles will continue until one side eventually wins.
  • The consensus based path – a consensus based approach to conflict resolution.

Tactics for bridging the cultural schism – a social science approach

  1. The messenger is as important as the message – choose leaders carefully – ones that can bridge the divide
  2. Address the process by which the message was created – rather than trying to address the issue in its entirety e.g. the IPCC Consensus Statement, break it down into a number of discrete pieces e.g. are greenhouse gases increasing?, does this lead to a warming of the planet?, has the climate changed?, are humans responsible?, what is the environmental and social impacts? Gradual consensus building.
  3. Choose messages that are personally acceptable – messages needed to be framed to specific audiences and need to be made personal e.g. some may prefer a risk management approach i.e. what will happen to our insurance premiums; others may prefer public health threat approach as it is personal and salient.
  4. Present solutions for a commonly desired future – rather than focusing on what must be sacrificed concentrate on solutions, innovation and current successes

Defining a social science theory of change

  • Build the trust of those we are trying to influence
  • Create a vision for where we might go
  • Understand how to overcome people’s fears

Building trust is vital and something that is sadly lacking at the core of many conflicts. Creating a joint vision can only occur once there is trust and dialogue led by a trusted messenger. Understanding people’s fears again can only come from dialogue and research.

Hoffman finally states that there three central points to a theory of change.

  1. Focus on the middle – not the extreme scenarios like 6m sea level rise
  2. Employ the radical flank – there are those with radical positions – use them to create a bigger and more attractive central ground
  3. Never waste a good crisis – in the aftermath of recent hurricane events the costs of insurance have been monetised by the Markets and this makes climate change current and real in people’s minds and makes them more likely to act.

These four quotes from the book seem very pertinent to me.

“More science, though important, will not by itself change people’s minds and create the collective will to act”

“It is about competing worldviews and the cultural beliefs of people who must accept change even when it challenges their beliefs”

“When engaging in the debate we must think not only of the science but also about the socio-political processes and tactics necessary to get people to hear it”

“Know your theory of change and enact it”

I found How culture shapes the climate change debate a fascinating book which helped explain to me why climate change science is so divisive in the US.

Interestingly a great many of the ideas set out in the book are directly relevant to our own conflicts in the Uplands here in England and on Dartmoor along with the search for consensus. We need to spend a great deal more time working out tactics for bridging the cultural schisms, building trust, focusing on the middle, employing the radical flank(s) and not wasting the good crisis that is Brexit.

Nathan J. Bennett, Robin Roth, Sarah C. Klain, Kai Chan, Patrick Christie, Douglas A. Clark, Georgina Cullman, Deborah Curran, Trevor J. Durbin, Graham Epstein, Alison Greenberg, Michael P Nelson, John Sandlos, Richard Stedman, Tara L Teel, Rebecca Thomas,
Diogo Veríssimo & Carina Wyborn. (2017) Conservation social science: understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve conservation. Biological Conservation 205: 93-108. Open Access.

Andrew J. Hoffman (2015) How culture shapes the climate change debate. Stanford Briefs. Stanford University Press.

The 25 year Environment Plan – the wait is over

After months of waiting the Plan has finally been published and launched by the Prime Minister. So ….. has the wait been worth it? Of course this is just a plan BUT if it is delivered an awful lot to do with the environment will change for the better. There will of course be those who say it doesn’t go far enough here and opportunities have been missed there – they will probably be right too. BUT, my goodness who would have thought a plan such as this would have been published during the Paterson or Leadsom eras? I’m not going to systematically review the document I’m just going to pull out a few bits and pieces that caught my attention and made me smile.

You can download and the the 25 year plan here and I recommend you do 

To start with I wonder whether the cover of the report contains a Defra joke? This is Mam Tor in the Peak District with the sun rising in the background (at least I assume it is rising). It is owned by the National Trust who are developing plans to encourage hen harriers and peregrines back into the area. A new dawn is breaking …. hang on …. that was somebody else.

Back to Gove, he repeats in his introduction this –

We will support farmers to turn over fields to meadows rich in herbs and wildflowers, plant more trees, restore habitats for endangered species, recover soil fertility and attract wildlife back. We will ensure broader landscapes are transformed by connecting habitats into larger corridors for wildlife, as recommended by Sir John Lawton in his official review.

In the main report we are told again that subsidies are on the way out.

£3.2bn is spent in the UK under the CAP. £2.59bn of this is spent under ‘Pillar 1’ – the ‘basic payment scheme’ (BPS). This pays farmers according to the amount of land they own, rather than the outcomes they achieve. It concentrates money in the hands of those who already have significant private wealth, without improving environmental outcomes.

And that the ‘greening’ measures have failed and that only a fraction of the money has been spent on things that make a difference.

There have been efforts to improve this by ‘greening’ one third of BPS payments – but scholars have recently found these to be largely ineffective. Just £0.64bn – 20% of the total – is spent on environmental stewardship programmes under ‘Pillar 2’.

The principle public good ….. that is progress!!

After a period of stability to ensure a smooth transition, we will move to a system of paying farmers public money for public goods. The principal public good we want to invest in is environmental enhancement.

OK nothing specifically about uplands, hill-farmers or Commons but Gove covered them in his OFC speech last week – see here. These topics will be specially covered in the Agriculture Command paper due in the Spring and all will be well! Hill-farmers will be supported and the uplands will be restored.

Incentives ….. and ….. the ‘polluter pays’ – I never thought that I would read that regarding fertiliser and pesticide usage

We will introduce a new environmental land management system to deliver this. It will incentivise and reward land managers to restore and improve our natural capital and rural heritage. It will also provide support for farmers and land managers as we move towards a more effective application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle (whereby for costs of pollution lie with those responsible for it).

Here is the strong influence on Government that the Natural Capital Committee has had. Before the NCC ‘externalities’ were just jargon from economists but now it looks like we will all be using the word to reduce pollution.

Farming can be a powerful force for environmental enhancement but it currently generates too many externalities such as emissions from livestock and pollution from fertilisers and pesticides. Overall, farming is now the most significant source of water pollution and of ammonia emissions into the atmosphere in the UK. It accounts for 25% phosphate, 50% nitrate and 75% sediment loadings in the water environment, which harms ecosystems.

Finally a clear and not tacit admission that atmospheric pollution harms soils and alters vegetation.

By ensuring fertilisers are used efficiently, we can cut the air and water pollution that harms public health and the environment, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Poor storage of manure and slurry can lead to the release of harmful chemicals and gases such as ammonia (in 2015, more than four-fifths of ammonia emissions in the UK stemmed from agriculture). This can cause acid rain, combine with pollution from traffic and industry to form smog, and harm soils and vegetation.

A clear indication that peat bogs will be conserved and managed better in the future.

Our peat bogs and fens are important habitats that provide food and shelter for wildlife, help with flood management, improve water quality and play a part in climate regulation. Most peat soils support ecosystems that are sensitive to human activities including drainage, grazing, liming and afforestation. This makes them susceptible to degradation if poorly managed.

If I were still working at Wicken Fen on the National Trust’s Vision or the Wildlife Trust’s Great Fen project I would be very excited about this – opportunities, opportunities, opportunities.

Over the last 200 years, we have lost 84% of our fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia. The fens there could lose the remainder in just 30-60 years given current land management practices and a changing climate. In view of this, we intend to create and deliver a new ambitious framework for peat restoration in England.

Habitat creation on a grand scale …

Through changes in the way we manage our land, we will develop a Nature Recovery Network providing 500,000 hectares of additional wildlife habitat, more effectively linking existing protected sites and landscapes, as well as urban green and blue infrastructure.

Five years ago commissioning a review into National Parks would have been a recipe for their further emasculation – this can only mean they are going to be strengthened and properly funded! Who to chair the review? Dame Fiona Reynolds would be a good choice in my view.

The UK’s first National Parks were created by an Act of Parliament in 1949 following the government’s 1947 Hobhouse Report, which remains the basis for most protected landscape designation in England today.

Now, 70 years on, the Government will commission a review for the 21st Century. This will consider coverage of designations, how designated areas deliver their responsibilities, how designated areas are financed, and whether there is scope for expansion. It will also consider opportunities to enhance the environment in existing designations, and expand on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks to connect more people with the natural environment.

To my eyes much of this plan looks excellent, of course it will only be effective if things happen – that is the next stage.

This tweet which I posted earlier sums up my feelings

There is also an annex which was published alongside the main report – this is also very good – it is full of useful data with url links to the sources. You can download the annex here.

I can’t see the Defra joke though in this image – can you?

Restoring Dartmoor’s blanket bogs

The Background
Peatlands across the UK have experienced historic human impacts such drainage, peat cutting, unsustainable grazing and burning pressures along with acidification and damage from atmospheric pollution. These pressures are well known to limit the capacity of peatlands to carry out their natural regulatory functions. These include their ability to sequester and store carbon, store and deliver potable drinking water and support animal and plant communities which are of European importance.

The Dartmoor Mires project which ran from 2010 to 2015 piloted peat restoration works on the north moor to assess their feasibility, desirability and potential for success. Work was carried out at three sites: Winneys Down, South Tavy Heads and Flat Tor Pan. Interventions, which have included blocking gulleys, were carried out which aimed to raise the water tables in the pilot areas. The project involved extensive pre- and post-project hydrological monitoring carried out by the University of Exeter. This work demonstrated that prior to the restoration works the water table was dropping to an average of 30cm below the surface. Once the works had been carried out the water table had risen by an average of 9cm.

Pre-works monitoring also showed that high levels of dissolved organic carbon (i.e. peat) was being lost in water flowing from the blanket bog as a result of exposed and unvegetated peat erosion. Monitoring work is currently being carried out by the University of Exeter to determine whether the restoration works have reduced this.

In the areas where the wetting occurred breeding dunlin numbers increased by 38% and vegetation surveys showed that bog plants such as Sphagnum mosses returned to areas where they had previously been absent.

South West Water have funded the bulk of this work as 40% of their (our) water comes from Dartmoor and if peatlands are degraded the dissolved organic carbon has to be expensively removed at a Water Treatment Works.

The Dartmoor Peatland Investigation and Mapping Project
In November 2016 the Dartmoor National Park Authority commissioned the University of Exeter’s Mire Research Team to produce a GIS resource of peatlands on Dartmoor to include bare peat areas, gullies and erosion features, areas of peat cutting and previously unmapped archaeological features. These impacted areas were included as they are known to affect ecological and hydrological processes operating in peatlands.

Various datasets were used in the analysis including LIDAR, infrared analysis and soil maps. In May 2017 two outputs were delivered to the DNPA: a technical report ‘Dartmoor Peatland Investigation and Mapping Project Report’ and an on-line summary of the features mapped. This can be viewed at

The table below summaries the extent of the peatland resource and the extent of damaged areas.

The on-line GIS map produces outputs such as this.

This shows the extent of peat less than 40cm deep and more than 40cm deep based around the National Trust land in the Plym Valley with an OS map base.

This is the same area and features but with an aerial photo base.

This map is of the same area but shows areas of bare peat, drains, peat cutting along with gulley areas where erosion is possible.

The same area and features but with an aerial base – this interpretation highlights the gulley erosion areas more clearly (yellow and red markings).

This on-line resource is very flexible and can be manipulated and zoomed to highlight specific features in specific locations.

 DPIM Supplementary Report
Following on from this report the DNPA asked the University of Exeter team to undertake a further piece of work to

  • Estimate the extent of eco-hydrologically damaged areas of peatland within Dartmoor National Park.
  • Estimate and map the area/s of functionally intact bog.
  • Identify the best candidate sites for future restoration based on ecohydrological analysis.

This work was completed during 2017  and can be summarised as follows.

The report also includes a map displaying these features across Dartmoor.

I was very surprised at the low area of intact bog (3.6km2) – perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised as Dartmoor has clearly had a great deal of human manipulation since the Mesolithic.

Defra Fund to restore peatlands
The DNPA used this new information to make a bid to Defra’s new peatland restoration fund which was launched in July 2017 (see here). This DNPA bid (submitted along with projects on Bodmin and Exmoor) includes completion of works started during the pilot re-wetting project at Flat Tor Pan along with new restoration schemes at Red Lake, Hangingstone Hill and Amicombe / Rattlebrook. The Dartmoor element is costed at £1.68m. Members of the DNPA approved the project on the 1st December 2017 and Defra will announce who has been successful on the 22nd December 2017.

The dominant narrative is that peatlands need to be restored (as they have been damaged by anthropogenic activities over the millennia) in order to ensure they effectively deliver their ‘ecosystem services’ e.g. carbon capture and storage, drinking water provision, biodiversity conservation and flood prevention. The need and benefits of such an approach are set out in the British Ecological Society’s Review volume ‘Peatland Restoration and Ecosystem Services’ see here.

However there are some that disagree and later in the week I will set out the position held by the Dartmoor Society who believe that such an approach unduly favours nature at the expense of the cultural landscape.





ECOS Student Article Competition – I’m a winner!

I’m delighted to say that my article entitled ‘The elephant in the uplands and the tale of two narratives’ has won BANC’s ECOS Student Article competition.

You can read the paper here – it’s open access and you can read the other winner and commended papers here. Of the nine winners, highly commended and commended papers four of the students are from Exeter University. Well done to everyone and thank you  BANC – an organisation I have been a member of for over 35 years!  BANC is the British Association of Nature Conservationists and it publishes the journal ECOS – see here for more details.

The Rippon Tor Rifle Range

Around a mile to the south of Rippon Tor lies a Second World War Rifle Range on Halshanger Common. I have seen it from afar on a number of occasions but never visited it – that is until last weekend. It was rather a gloomy day and eventually the rain came in. The range was set up in 1942 and eventually closed in the 1960s. Legendary Dartmoor gives a detailed account of its use and history – see here.

It is best accessed from SX752733 – have wandered around in circles I think this might be the only way in and out …..

It is a huge striking structure which divides opinion – eyesore and an interesting relic four military history

There are 19 buttresses on the back of it

And six on the side

This slope is the place where the bullet’s travel would end

In this protected trench soldiers would use these pulley systems to raise and lower the targets which the shooters who were located in butts to the south would aim at.

Definitely worth a visit and easy to combine with a trip to the 10 Commandments Stones (see here) which are nearby at SX733731. I will be going back at some point now that I know a bit more about how it operated having read the Legendary Dartmoor piece.

10 Commandments Stones – restored

I went to Buckland Beacon over the weekend to see the newly restored Ten Commandment Stones. I last went there in 2014 and commented then that the writing was becoming illegible (see here) and I am pleased to say that the Moor than Meets the Eye Project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and managed by Dartmoor National Park Authority have restored the lettering.

The two 10 commandment stones  were carved  by WA Clement in 1928 – see here for the full story

Dendles Wood, Hawns, Dendles Waste and High House Waste and what might have been

A couple of days ago I visited Dendles Wood, Hawns, Dendles Waste and High House Waste with a few fellow Dartmoor enthusiasts. These places are near to Cornwood in the south of the moor. In the sunshine they appeared blissful, in reality it is a miracle that they still exist at all. If events had panned out differently they would now be a large commercial conifer plantation.

Conifer afforestation has long been a controversial issue on Dartmoor. The first plantings occurred around Brimpts, by the Dart in 1862 and following World War One the major plantations at Fernworthy and Bellever were commenced in 1920 and 1921 respectively.

After the Second World War Soussons was afforested between 1945 – 9. These major land use changes were high contested on Dartmoor and the fight against them was led by the Dartmoor Preservation Association. Matthew Kelly (2015), in his excellent ‘Quartz and Feldspar’ provides a detailed historic account – see pages 244 – 266.

Dendles Wood National Nature Reserve

It was partly through re-reading this account and then trawling the internet (particularly information from the DPA) that I have been able to piece together the troubled pasts of Dendles Wood, Hawns, Dendles Waste and High House Waste. The word ‘Waste’ is a south Dartmoor term for a New Take i.e. moorland that has been enclosed and is no longer Common Land.

In the 1950s and 1960s there were a number of efforts made to increase the area of conifers on Dartmoor. In some cases it was proposed that deciduous woodland (in many cases Ancient Woodlands) should be converted to conifers whilst in other places it was proposed that open moorland should be planted up.

In 1959 Wing Commander Cyril Wolrick Passy, a decorated World War Two Hurricane fighter pilot and the owner of the Blanchford Estate (which consisted of Dendles Wood, Hawns, Dendles Waste and High House Waste) proposed that it should planted up with conifers. Dendles Wood, an Ancient Woodland would be converted whilst the open moorland Wastes would be planted up.

This caused great controversy and protest (see Kelly p256), led by the Dartmoor and DPA campaigner Lady Sayer, it was debated in Whitehall and led to discussions around the future direction of the Forestry Commission.

Eventually permission was granted to allow planting on Hawns and Dendles Waste but permission was refused with respect to High House Waste. The land was acquired by the Economic Forestry Group and Hawns and Dendles Waste were ploughed and planted up in 1960.

The controversy continued and in 1961 the Economic Forestry Group offered to sell the entire site to Devon County Council. Legal complications meant that this failed but in 1964 High House Waste was acquired by the DPA and 1965 Dendles Wood was acquired by the Nature Conservancy (now Natural England).

Stream In Dendles Wood

The DPA appeared not to have a constitution which allowed them to acquire land so a Trust was set up to hold the land. It was originally their intention to pass the site onto the National Trust or a similar body. In 1980 the land was held by four Trustees of the DPA and the organisation decided to not pass on the land to another body.

In 1997 the Dartmoor National Park Authority acquired Hawns and Dendles Wastes following the clear felling and removal of all the conifers.

Dendles Wood in the background with High House Waste on the right and Hawns on the left

The plan since then has been to plant broadleaved trees within deer proof enclosures on the southern end of Hawns and the south east corner of Dendles Waste. At the northern end of Hawns and Dendles Waste it was proposed that the former conifer plantation should be allowed to revert back to moorland.

Moorland restoration – regenerating heather and bilberry

This is largely what has happened but it is also clear that the enormous funding cuts that the DNPA has suffered in recent years has meant that they haven’t be able to follow their plans as vigorously as they had originally intended.

Interestingly this has meant that the moorland restoration on Hawns and Dendles Waste has a feel of rewilding about it and as a result a very interesting and diverse set of habitats have developed. This area contrasts remarkably with the adjacent areas of sheep grazed moorland.

Dendles Wood (green), High House Waste (blue), Hawns and Dendles Waste (red), red hatched area = moorland restoration.

I don’t know if this area is being ecologically monitored (I can’t find anything on the DNPA website about Hawns and Dendles Wastes) but it would make a very interesting case study and demonstration site.

Dendles Wood, Hawns, Dendles and High House Wastes is now owned by Natural England, DNPA and the DPA. It is a very rich site for wildlife and it is all part of the South Dartmoor Special Area of Conservation (except for Hawns and Dendles Waste).

It might have been so different.

Enclosure Wall at High House Waste – the builders of this wall built around a hut circle settlement – thus the wiggly wall.

The area has open access except for Dendles Wood where a permit from Natural England is required.

If you wish to visit – be warned, the nearest parking is in Cornwood so it is a long old trek just to get to the area before you even start to explore.

One step backwards but two steps forward

Kelly M. (2016) Quartz and Feldspar. Revised edition. Vintage. London