NCWG activities

Updates on UKEOF NCWG activities

Update: November 2023 - focus on natural capital in the UK Overseas Territories

The November 2023 meeting of the UKEOF Natural Capital Working Group featured two presentations exploring natural capital monitoring in the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs). This was one of the themes selected by the group earlier in the year. Apart from the secretariat and Chair there were 13 members participating in the actual meeting including Matt Smith, formerly of UKEOF and JNCC.

Alyssa Fischer from JNCC leads a team of 22 expert scientists to deploy and advise on nature-based solutions for climate resilience in ODA-eligible countries and small island nations, including the UK's Overseas Territories. The team supports local governments in gathering and modelling evidence, developing local capacity, and translating science into policy to support improved disaster resilience, respond to urgent conservation needs, and create opportunities for alternative sustainable livelihoods. Alyssa talked us through the kind of work that has been done in various of the UKOTs and the increasing importance of quantifying and mainstreaming natural capital in policy decisions. She raised the importance of understanding:

  • Physical extent and condition of natural capital assets and the services they provide, and
  • Risk and vulnerability of assets – sensitivity to pressures – like natural events and human management.

She showed examples from Anguilla of effective modelling to help understand how natural capital assets like reefs protect other forms of capital (e.g., built). She highlighted the need for good validation data (for Earth Observation, EO) in Turks and Caicos. She also talked about the Falkland Isles, where production practices are eroding natural capital assets.

Alan Gray from UKCEH has been working in the UKOTs since 1998 helping to integrate scientific approaches to biodiversity conservation, during his talk he explored some of the problems, successes and opportunities to approaching long term monitoring of biodiversity conservation in the UKOTs to meet global conservation targets. He used some examples, mainly from the South Atlantic where most of his work has been based, but this work was relevant across the UKOTs.

Alan discussed the lack of long-term monitoring approaches in the UKOTs and subsequent use of EO data and other sensors with inherent limitations (resolution, evolution and lack of support). He described the monitoring as having episodic funding difficulties (as has been the case for the UK countries).

The presentations raised the profile of the UKOTs with the Working Group and stressed the importance of monitoring in our most biodiversity-rich territories.

Update: July 2023 - focus on biodiversity net gain

The July 2023 meeting of the UKEOF Natural Capital Working Group featured two presentations exploring the role of natural capital monitoring in Net Gain initiatives. This was one of the themes selected by the group earlier in the year. Apart from the secretariat and Chair there were 9 members participating in the actual meeting.  
The first presentation was given by Nick White at Natural England. Nick works across Government (national and local), and with developers, NGOs and academia to advance policy, practice and standards around net gain (biodiversity, natural capital and environmental). His current work focuses on Biodiversity Net Gain legislation, the biodiversity metric and Biodiversity Net Gain standards and guidance and he is also working on the evolving approach to marine net gain. Nick described the current legislation on Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) advising that the secondary legislation supporting net gain was close to being published. This will include a register of irreplaceable habitats, exemptions and the BNG procedure and approval process. He described the BNG metric v4 and its importance for baselining and providing a consistent approach, using habitats as a proxy for biodiversity. Legislation is expected by November for major development projects and from April 2024 for minor projects. BNG will require a minimum period of 30 years for habitat maintenance and associated funding. It will be used across England, Scotland and Wales and potentially more widely across Europe. It will be monitored at macro and micro scales. Local government resources will need to be adequate to enforce the policy, but it is envisaged that its implementation can help to promote the need for environmental specialist jobs. Nick also mentioned the Environmental Benefits for Nature Tool which will build on BNG and look at wider ecosystem services.
The second presentation was given by Dr Heiko Balzer, professor of Geography at Leicester University. Heiko presented the results of a small piece of work looking at the use of LIDAR data to assess above and belowground carbon in hedges in Cumbria. Destructive sampling of hedges was used to validate and train the model which indicated that in the case of the hedges sampled (10) there was likely to be as much below, as above ground carbon. Heiko stressed that extrapolation would need to be treated with caution due to the very high variability between hedges even at local scales. There followed some discussion of hedges within BNG where there is a requirement for a 10% net gain in hedgerows on any development site regardless of impact on hedgerows. Heiko’s project had been done in conjunction with a company looking for potential applications for commercial carbon markets.
The group then shared ideas on topics to be covered in a joint meeting with the EO CAL/VAL group, which will be the next meeting of the group and members shared updates on their current natural capital monitoring activities.

Update: April 2023 - focus on risk registers for NC monitoring

The April, 2023 meeting of the UKEOF Natural Capital Working Group featured two presentations under the theme The role of risk registers for natural capital monitoring. This theme was selected earlier in the year from a range of options the group agreed were of interest. 
The first presentation was given by Lucian Fernandez-Slade, who is working on developing marine natural capital approaches to underpin Scotland’s Blue Economy at NatureScot, titled “Creating a Natural Capital Asset and Risk Register for Falmouth Harbour Commissioners.” Lucian’s presentation covered how an asset and risk register can provide a meaningful risk assessment and produce actions to reduce impact. The project identified assets and linked them each to different ecosystem services as well as evaluating the asset’s status. Questions on the project and risk registers touched on the need to incorporate climate change modelling as a risk, and the need for more information on the links between the condition and the provision of ecosystem services. 
The second presentation was given by Dr Patricia Rice, a senior specialist in the Ecosystem Approach and Natural Capital at Natural England, titled “Developing a risk register for Natural England’s State of Natural Capital Reporting.” The presentation covered the proposed focus of a report on how natural capital assets fit in policy areas which use ecosystem services as the bridge to think about this. The report suggests indicators that measure change in natural capital assets, with a risk register to link to policy delivery. There was discussion on how defining condition and standardising indicators pose a challenge as well as the need to have a consensus on how we measure the environment. The group also discussed the need to understand what is happening across the whole landscape, not just protected areas, as well as looking at metrics for different targets and commitments that could potentially open up funding streams. Points were also made about the challenges of using a target-based approach, with regard to targets not being available for most of the ecosystem asset indicators, as well as the fact that existing targets were not designed to assess the provision of ecosystem services. The group suggested a UK Risk Register would be interesting to see, and Paul Robinson agreed to take this idea back to JNCC.

Update: January 2023 - focus on lack of expert field monitoring of natural capital

The idea for the meeting was to hold a debate with deliberately polarised views on the current status of monitoring across the UK countries. Instead, due to a lack of a volunteer to present an opposing view, Lisa Norton provided a deliberately challenging presentation highlighting the ongoing lack of national expert field monitoring across most UK countries and the apparent lack of consideration about the importance of these methods for monitoring change. Lisa challenged the continued emphasis on emerging technologies (e.g. Earth observation) and on citizen science, highlighting the costs of such approaches and their over-emphasis resulting in less money being available to fund expert field monitoring. She concluded that monitoring is more urgent than ever to understand the state of the environment and that we have not argued strongly enough for monitoring systems that will remain in place in the long term and provide us with the data we need to assess our impacts on the environment.

The provocation did its work and a lively debate ensued from all participants present (13 plus Lisa). Attendees felt that Lisa had raised a number of valid points, not least that monitoring does need to be long term in the future and relate directly to existing data. However, some argued that a strong case for monitoring has been made, not least from the perspective of monitoring policy impacts, such as the introduction on ELMS. It was argued that both citizen science and earth observation had a role to play alongside expert monitoring and that citizen science, whilst not ‘cheap’ can offer savings if used in the right way. Savings include lowered mileage and carbon usage. It was also argued that earth observation can provide greater coverage and cover ‘hard to reach’ areas, and could help to screen for the areas most needing expert field data. The use of automated processes to save time, including AI, was raised as a valuable tool for processing monitoring data.

Other issues raised included the extent to which we effectively use the data we do collect – and to what extent we have easy to understand (by policy and public) agreed criteria for measuring natural capital within or across countries. We discussed whether Natural Capital measures need to link to statutory frameworks and to funding, so that Nature Positive can be a measured reality – e.g. Targets developed from the 25 Year Environment Plan.

Whilst there has been a focus on developing monitoring, at the same time there have been declines in monitoring (e.g. the WFD) which are of concern. Soil has been poorly monitored – although Countryside Survey soil sampling (last done in 2007) has now been repeated under UKCEH’s UKSCAPE (final year of the rolling programme 2023). It was widely agreed that woodlands are the best monitored terrestrial habitats and that meteorological monitoring is very successful. Both of these receive fundamental government support because of their strong economic, social and political impacts. Monitoring needs an approach that is sustainable longer term, being able to adapt, and use both old data and new.