Shooting for the Earth: Malta opti-hunt 2025

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In 2012 I was invited by Cerry Levy to visit Malta with a group of artists seeking to offer new thinking on the campaign to stop springtime hunting on Matla.  Below is my contribution – an imaginary article in published in online newspaper in 2025. It offers a vision of a future Europe where opti-hunting is comming to replace hunting with a shotgun and hunters and birdwatchers and uniting around thier common interests in a bird-rich world.  


Culture/Gaming & Nature: 28 April 2025

Shooting for the Earth: Malta opti-hunt 2025

Paul Jepson reports from Malta on the phenomena of opti-hunting due to debut on our screens this weekend.

Below us, Clayton Fenech, the new legend of Maltese bird hunting stalks the steep rocky fields of Datilet Qorrot.

A bird explodes into the air. Clayton reacts. A blurred quail image overlain with scoring grids and circles appears on my iPhone screen – hit accuracy ‘2.2’, hit difficulty category ‘1’ – a level 1.6. hit under today’s weather conditions.

Hardly a wining hit but the feeds are working perfectly calls top reality gaming producer Orsa Johnson from the Eurosport landcrusier.

I’m in Malta to report on the first live and interactive broadcast of a competitive optical bird hunt. Since the launch of the opti-Gun in 2018, ‘Obbying’ has become the world’s fastest growing real-game with an estimated 25 million participants in Europe alone.

Eurosport’s broadcast vision is elegant and compelling. “We integrate four visuals: HD landscape, hunter head-mounted video, the opti-Gun shot image and our new GIS data visualisation, explains Johnson.

Sat alongside Osa is Will Beebe of Digital Asset Management. “live optical bird hunts are a compelling blend of old-style wildlife programming, on-line gaming, and competitive field sports. Market research suggests major viewer interest, though we expect the real returns to come from the in-game spot betting industry”.

Clayton, accompanied by his pointer dogs, join us for a debrief. He looks pleased – three subsequent quail hits were all low level ‘1s’. It’s an opportunity for me to take a look at the prototype Leica-GO10b opti-Gun cradled casually in his arms. Clayton is enthusiastic “The focus-zoom-fire trigger is superfast, the app-phone dock beautifully positioned and the weight and balance is superb. This gun is a work of art

Back in the Maltese capital, I meet Alex Salavin, President of FNKN – The Maltese Hunter Federation and organisers of Saturday’s first competitive international migratory bird hunt. He talked of the confrontation which historically characterised the migration season. ‘They were dark times. Every migration northern birdwatchers came with their drones and binoculars, invading our privacy and publicising every minor illegality to pressure Brussels to force our government to ban our traditional sport”.

In the 1990s BirdLife International estimated that Mediterranean hunters were killing a staggering 500 million migratory birds a year. In the teen20s FNKN and Birdlife were locked in legal battles. For Alex the invention of opti-hunting was a ‘massive relief’. His hope is that tomorrow’s hunt will mark a point when hunters and birdwatchers can put the past behind then and unite around the shared goal of restoring Europe’s bird populations.

The origins if opti-hunting are easily traced to the great Eurozone crisis of 2008-2019. The hunter’s slogan ‘better a hobby than a [drug] habit” chimed with the EU life quality agenda that arose to curtail the excesses of market capitalism. Inspired by the ‘Smart, inclusive, sustainable’ mantra of the teen20’s, a collaboration involving Leica Camera, Samsung Electronics, the game developer Electronic Arts, and Oxford University formed to create the opti-Gun and the socially networked reality games and competitions it now supports.

At the newly opened Valletta i-huntscape, created in cavernous warehouse on Quarry Warfe, I run into game designer Charles Bridgeman. It’s strangely deserted. A day before the competition all the teams are practising in the field.

This is the future of gaming enthuses Charles as we enter a digitally rendered Maltese landscape projected onto a vast dome. A fusion of real and virtual life. Real opti-hunting hit data is streamed into this huntscape from the IOHA databases. The quality of these gaming environments and opt ihunting is expected to mature together. novice hunters can practice and veterans will be able to re-hunt famous past days. In these facilities opti-hunters will be able to go back in time!

The IOHA is opti-hunting’s international governing board. It sets the hit scores, rules where and when opti-Guns will function, curates the hit data, and provides a range of services including opti-hunting interfaces and leagues.

I ask Charles to explain the opti-hunting craze. “Easy” he replies. “men are men… we’re hard-wired to acquire skills and compete but we also seek purpose, escape and camaraderie. And engage in endless debate! You should see the forums… What constitutes a hit? The validity of species difficulty categories and who decides? Charles predicts that participation will accelerate further with the introduction latter this year of low cost opti–Guns that run on Dad’s old smartphone.

 Next morning, as dawn rises over scruffy terraced hillside of Mizieb, I find Clayton, his dad George, and hunt referee Gilmor Ellol preparing for their final practice. I invite George to compare hunting of old with today. “There’s no denying it felt more macho, the gun recoil, shot, smell of gun powder, but the beauty of opti-hunting is that a bird can be shot by multiple hunters so there are more shots to be had.

 The conversation turns to quailing – the chances of a big passage, the organisation of Saturday’s hunt and the quality of the international competition. The home advantage is considerable explains Gilmor “Local hunters have their focus-zoom-shoot skills honed to Malta’s local light conditions and their dogs know the terrain. However, while the Maltese may rack-up more higher scoring flushed hits, other competitors can pick up points on the easier fly by hits and Malta’s blue sky back drop definitely aids fast focusing”. Ellol’s message is that the Maltese must not be complacent. The English and French partridge opti-hunters are superb and quailing carries a big element of luck.

My last port of call is with Carl Buhagiar, Head of BirdLife Malta and veteran of the campaigns to ban migratory bird hunting on Malta. “Opti-hunting is definitely a win-win solution. The seamless shot location and data upload is revolutionising our ability to accurately map migration routes and model trends in bird populations. Carl is referring to Oxford’s ‘oBioscore’ APP that adds a ‘conservation information value’ (CIV) to each hit score. The eagerly awaited ‘oSafari’ APP, which will feed to the opti-Gun information on high conservation value target species in an area, as slated to reinvent hunting expeditions of old. It’s an open secret that the elite Przhevalsky & Zimov Club of Moscow is planning an invitee only opti-hunting expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan.

Opti-hunting seems set to become the first truly modern hobby – a compelling blend of the real and virtual, entertainment and exercise, new technology and old practices – that is simultaneously enriching lives and creating political pressure to restore ecosystems. Maybe opt i-hunting will show us a way to live well with our planet.

The 2025 Malta international bird hunt is live and interactive, SKY 1 Saturday, 29 April, 05.30 – 9. 30am, highlights Saturday 22.00.


Thanks for reading to the end.  I hope you enjoyed the ideas.   I have been using opti-hunting  as thought experiment in my teaching on biodiversity technologies to discuss the extent to which conservation is embracing technology to do what its always done, but with greater reach and lower cost (supersizing) or whether conservationists should engage with technology to reimagine solutions to old problems.

Friends, colleagues and students keep encourgeing me to take the opti-hunting idea forward and find the money to develop the idea.  I am planning to up-date my concept note this summer and would be glad to hear from anyone with constructive ideas and suggestions  .

 

Paul JepsonShooting for the Earth: Malta opti-hunt 2025
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Living landscapes as new natural assets

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Good morning all, and thanks for the invitation to present today.

Gary asked me to present some thoughts on new paradigms for conservation. My aim is to do just this. I will argue that we need to seize the opportunity of Brexit to reframe how we think and talk about rural lands.

Brexit is a reality whether we like it or not. Brexit also means CAPexit. Keeping CAP can hardly constitute the withdrawal from the EU that the majority of farmers voted for.

Brexit and CAPexit, amount to what we in academia term “critical junctures” or periods of “institutional fluidity”. They represent opportunities to bring about fundamental shifts in the underlying logics of the structures that govern – that constrain or enable what we can and can’t do.

Periods of institutional fluidity are rare – the last really big one was WWII. Brexit is similarly big and we, as a conservation movement, must mobilise to seize the opportunity to shape and steer post-Breixt institutional institutions that will structure our ability to conserve, restore and revitalise living landscapes.

We are in good shape to so. This because we know what we want. It’s long been known that with biodiversity and wildlife of a landscape is detemriend by the interaction of three components – or dimensions”

Composition: the species (units) and habitats (assemblies of species),

Structure: connectivity and patterns in the landscape, and

Function: ecological processes and dyanmics.

We now have the theory evidence and practical/management models for these three components. The first- composition  -is where ecology was ‘at’ in the 1970 and this component shaped law and policy, and hence our conservation institutions.

The rise of GIS in the 1990s enabled science to tackle the structural component and this is reflected in the Lawton report and the principles underlying the Wildlife Trust’s Living Landscape approach.

In the last twenty years advances in computation and modelling have enable scientists to get their heads round the functional component. Interacting with this rise of ‘functionalist’ perspectives in conservation science we have seem the emergence of rewilding as a new and vibrant conservation approach with pioneering projects and initiatives.

On one, level the goal is to now integrate these three components, and in particular our improved understanding of the importance of ecosystem processes and dynamics, into nature policy. Last year, Frans Schepers, from Rewilding Europe and I, made a first step in this direction at the EC policy level. The officials in the Nature and Biodiversity Units, understandably asked Rewilding Europe to first coordinate our ‘asks’ with the conservation lobby in Brussels.

This policy brief is the outcome of our ‘negotiations’ with the three big conservation lobby networks in Brussels and presents seven rewilding principles.

The process generated four insights, which I think are important in terms of looking ahead and which I’d like to share with you.

  • Existing legal frameworks are generally unsupportive of ecosystem function – key instruments such as favourable condition are compositionalist in nature and for good reason – they enable strong and defenable. It is hard to specify and defend process and dynamics in law!
  • Policy fear/institutional inertia – there’s a real worry that if we say we have a new way to do conservation the development and agricultural lobbies will turn it against us and argue that existing law should be relaxed.
  • No mandate to lobby for ecosystem process and rewilding – our lobbyist in Brussels say they can discuss rewilding but they have no mandate from their member organisations – people like you to actively lobby for functional approaches to be include in future policy mandates.
  • Conservation NGO business models- there seems to be a degree of lock-in to current stuctures and ways of doing things.

For me all of this adds up to aging environmental institutions. The question then becomes can we repurpose existing law and policy to create the living landscape we want in the mid-21st century or do we need to revist the underlying worldviews and logics on which they are built?

This is one of the first slides I show my MSc Biodiversity students. It is intended to position the contribution of academic ‘wing’ of conservation and to introduce where we will be taking them during the course.

The insights I have just shared arise from trying to learn in the double loop. The negotiating bottom line of the Brussels green lobby was;

“protect the gains of the past and kick on”

This makes absolute sense but it also risk double-loop lock-in

If we are to seize the opportunity of Brexit and leverage the institutional fluidity we have entered I believe we need to boldly go into the triple loop.

I my view, the fundamental problem lies with our cultural and policy framing of rural lands.

When we think and talk about policy it is always in terms of:

farmland:  fams:  farmers: agricultural subsidies

This is a WWII framing of necessity, which we haven’t up-dated since.

I suggest we need to ditch this framing in favour of one of

Land assets: rural enterprises, entrepreneurs and investment

I would like to see our movement uniting to lobby for a national land asset policy to replace CAP.

This would be based on the principle of public investment for public value generation.

The concept of natural asset is introduced in detail, and compared with natural capital, in Jepson et al, (in press) Protected Area Asset Stewardship, Biological Conservation

It would broadly divide land assets into agricultural assets and natural assets. Agricultural land assets would receive pubic money where they can show they are generating public value in terms of food security, the production of crops with a strategic or social need and maintaining landscapes character. We could retain a version of CAP for such assets, at least during a transition period.

Natural land assets would receive public money for generating forms of public value in the form of, for example out-door recreation, ecosystem services, flood management, a sense of heritage and identity. Public money would be invested in enterprise – either as a contract to provide publics services that markets struggle to deliver or as investments for new nature-based enterprise.

Landowners, would have the choice of how, and if they want to use and develop their land assets for generating value.

This, in my view, would promote innovation in land management. For instance, you have been looking at the rewilding model here at the Knepp estate. The owner, Charlie Burrell has no option but to innovate within the constraints of the agrciultural farm policy model.  This limits the sort of rewilding he can do and the value his efforts can generate for nature, people and the rural economy.

I do not think this idea of a National Land Asset Policy is fanciful and here are five reason why:

First, the UK government has consistently spoken against CAP and agricultural subsidies,

Second, it aligns with investment & enterprise policy narratives and the natural capital policy frame,

Third, I sense growing public awareness and disquiet at the social and environmental injustices in the agricultural subsidy regime.

Fourth, farmers know the quality of their work life is declining and they are looking for better alternatives,

Lastly, I can’t quite see how a public debate on how much to public money to spend on the NHS and farmers will wash politically.

Perhaps more importantly, framing land as a collective and individually-owend asset forces four fundamental questions:

  1. What forms of value are land assets currently generating and for whom?
  2. What forms of value could be generated from land assets and for whom?
  3. What forms of value are wanted, what are the trade-offs, and who decides?
  4. What forms of investments are needed to ensure that intended ‘publics’ can capture investment value?

Tackling such questions will introduce democratic debate and accountability into land policy.

I mentioned earlier that we – the conservation movement – have the models to demonstrate a new future for landscapes.

At Gelderse Poort in the Netherlands our Dutch colleagues have transformed agricultural assets along the River Waal into natural rewilding assets with amazing public value gains.

In brief, as you can see from this map the city of Nijmegen was on a nasty bend of the River Waal and massively vulnerable to flooding from higher peak flows resulting from climate change.

This project, designed and led by Wouter Helmer and the Ark Nature Foundation, involved buying agricultural land within the winter dykes and removing the summer dykes to widen the river corridor.

The old river meanders and profile have been restored through selling the silt to a brick factory which generated value for the Dutch constructing industry.

The new rivering lands we rewilded through the introduction of wilded pony and cattle heads, through the reintroduction of species such as beaver, white stork and even sturgeon. Sturgeon can you believe it! – the Dutch are so far ahead of us!

A whole load of spontaneous rewilding also took place. Black poplars once an endgared species in the Netherlands regenerated en mass and it was relased that their seeds need warm shallow summer water to germinate and this river habitat had all but disappeared in the Netherlands and indeed Europe. Another habitat that reappeared was river beaches and sand dunes.

Talk about reframing. Before I visited Gelderse poort I though sand dunes we confined to coasts!

The new natural assets of Gelderse Poort stimulated a range of value generating practice among the citizens of Nijmegan –  some old such as cycling and bird-watching others new such as beach picnicking, sun-bathing and nature-photography. In turn, these practices constitute a cultural assets which entrepreneurs can monetise through new local enterprises such as botuique cafes and hotel and a wild meat company.

Twenty years ago the land assets along the Waal generated about 20 farm jobs: as a rewilding asset they are generating perhaps four or five times as many jobs, but more importantly diverse form of public benefit value – from reduce flood defence costs, to enhanced liveability for citizens and the recovery of wildlife and ecosystem processes.

This is the sort of post-Brexit vision we as a movement could be advocating for Britain.

As a nation and culture we have change deep frames before. In the 18th century we made landscape cultural, in the 19th century we established extinction (avoiding the knowing extinction of other animals) as a moral steer for society, in the 20th century we established National Parks as part of the process of reimagining Britishness after empire.

If the conservation movement is to retain its position as a cultural force in the 2ist century we need to mobilise to bring about similar shifts in the underlying worldviews that shape and steer policy and cultural institutions.

Brexit is our opportunity to do just this. To retire the idea that agriculture is the primary public purpose of land and replace this with a worldview that frames land as collective and individual assets that should be invested in to restore value for all – society and nature alike.

 

Paul JepsonLiving landscapes as new natural assets
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David Novillo: conservation entrepreneur and innovator

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David Novillo opened his presentation to my Masters students with the words

“Do today what you want to happen tomorrow”

Using an engaging mix of stories, facts  and mine he went on to describe with humour, candour and humility his work to restore the marine ecosystems in the municipality of Adeje, Tenerife.  But David is more than a gifted communicator. I bring my students to meet him because the work of his innovative Océano Sostenible enterprise illustrates the cutting edge interdisciplinary conservation that I teach.

David is a diver with a conservation dream: an entrepreneur who has mobilized his available assets to bring about change from the ground up. These include his experience in the dive industry, an out-going ‘can-do’ personality and a local administration looking to upgrade its tourism offer and willing to listen.

He started with a plan to control the population of lime urchins which strip the rocky seabird of life supporting algae. His focus was the small cove of El Puertito he imagined a future where the turtles seahorses, octopuses and fish shoals would return where people would discover and come to care about the life of Tenerife’s ocean.

The small cove of El Puetito cove. Photos: Paul Jepson

Clearing the thousands of urchins requires many dives and diving is not cheap. David set up his foundation – Océano Sostenble – along side his dive company. Through the foundation he secured support from the municipality and local hotels to fund dive training on the condition that once trained the divers would ‘pay-back’ their training hours in volunteer hours to remove urchins. Through his company he marketed a ‘flyover’ (trail dive) experience where tourists could try out scuba diving and he and his team could monitor the urchin clean up and show them the recovering marine life.

Halfway through his presentation David he exclaimed “and the marine world says thanks so fast”, but then went on to explain how the return of turtles had proved a huge draw for other dive operators.   He flipped into figures – in 2014 an estimated 7,260 boats and 57,400 visitors entered the bay – but it was a free for all. The turtles suffered propeller damaged  and colesterol build up as a result of being fed fish by divers seeking a photo or boat operators trying to attract them to the surface. Five died and in 2017 the last surviving turtle was relocated from the bay on the instruction of the island conservation authority.

Jet ski safari. Following a boat means tourists can ride a jet ski without a licence.

David had foreseen the threat that popularity of sea-based tourism could pose to his restoration activities. Tenerife’s party capital Playa de la America is a few kilometers south of El Puertito and in Spain the coastal zone is public domain meaning that it is governed by the Directorate General of Coasts, Ministry of Environment in Madrid, 1750 km away.

David initially explored the possibility of acquiring a concession for his company or Oceano Sostenble so he could exclude other operators from the cove. He quickly realized that this was a no go. There is no precedent in Spain for granting marine concessions and anyway tourism concessions in Spain are normally only given to major enterprises.  He changed tack. Leveraging the profile and good will thathis schools education programme had brought him int he community, he approached the municipality and suggested that the town hall ask Madrid for a marine concession where the local government could regulate access to the cove and charge to finance the restoration, monitoring and management of the area.

In 2016 all David’s dreams and efforts were jeopardized by another threat to El Puertito. A Belgian developer put forward a proposal to build hotels and apartments in the valley running inland from the cove, and the Municipality felt that the development would help develop and secure the local economy.

After his presentation that year we stood together overlooking El Puertito and David described to me the deep love he’d developed for the El Putito and how the news had hit him hard. “the municipality promised me that the sea lab and our education work would be protected, but it knew it would be impossible to combine marine restoration with a big population living around this tiny bay.”

He  continued “They wanted my support, but I could not give it, I felt it was the end of my dream.” “After a couple of weeks I was invited up to the town hall to talk to them. I could see they felt bad, but I could also understand their perspective on why the municipality needed the development.   So I said why don’t we expand the project to La Caleta bay next door and the Mayor said ‘deal’!”

David walked be across the peninsular to described his new vision  It was then that I realized that he was a big-thinker with an intuitive grasp of how to get buyin for his ideas from different levels of government.

He estimates there are 3 million urchins to control in the bay, which is contiguous with the La Caleta Site of Scientific Interest, designated for its endemic flora and breeding Cory’s shearwater.

Informal beach settlement is a particular headache for the authorities.

“Every level of government can ‘win’ something from the La Caleta project. The ocean is a Natura 2000 site and under the competence of the Canary Island Government and the SSI is the responsibility of  the Cabildo (Tenerife government). If all levels of government come together we can create a reserve that connects the terrestrial, marine and coastal zones and work together to find solutions to management problems like the marine tourism and hippies who have settled the area.

As noted earlier, coastal zone planning and management is the responsibility of the Spanish state, but municipalities have legal responsibility for urban planning. David together with officials from the town hall and Javier Almunia of the Loro Parque Foundation conceived the idea of marine resource concession, whereby the Ministry would delegate their planning and management competencies to Municipality who would also have powers to regulate the area and charge use fees.

In January 2017 this team traveled to Madrid to pitch their proposal to the DG of Coasts.  They received a surprisingly positive response. The officials were already aware of their work because they had provided a grant for buoys to zone boat traffic in El Puertito a few years earlier and were looking for innovative models with the potential for wider application. Issuing a management concession was within their competence and did not need new legislation: what they needed was a worked up planning, management and financial proposal, which they could check for consistency with legislation.

David concluded his presentation with maps showing their survey transects and planned tourism use zoning. He is joining weekly technical meetings at the town hall to prepare the proposal concession.  If, as looks likely, it comes to fruition Adeje municipality will be leading one of the most exciting marine restoration projects in Europe – one that is restoring a natural asset that will generate value for local enterprises and the tourism economy and be self-financed by fees charged to tourism operators.

David is proud of what he has achieved so far, but sees himself as an ideas man. His dream is that the relevant government agencies will take forward the project and he and his team can focus on sharing their love of  marine environment with others and inspiring them to care.

Connect with David and Océano Sostenble on Facebook 

Paul JepsonDavid Novillo: conservation entrepreneur and innovator
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Rewilding: why now?

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On 19 April Rewilding Europe celebrated its 5th anniversary with a special gathering in Amsterdam called Wild Ways. The event included dialogue, a ‘rewilding’ market, previews of film projects, music by Lex Empress and two talks, one by Rewilding Europe MD Frans Schepers and one by myself. Here is the text of my talk. 

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen.

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be here this evening.

I would like to offer some reflections on this question ‘Rewilding: why now?”  and from two perspectives.

Firstly, Why are we celebrating the 5th anniversary of Rewilding Europe on this April evening in 2017, why not 1997 or 2007 or 2037?  What forces have brought us together now?

Secondly, why does the 21st conservation movement need rewilding now?

Rewilding forces

For me four trends explain why rewilding is big now.

The first is the comeback of large animals in Europe which is an outcome of strong laws, conservation management and rural depopulation.  This has created the perception that even in densely populated Europe humans and large animals can get along.

The second are advances in ecological science and conservation that are unsettling some of the conceptual underpinnings of conservation policy

It has long been realised that the biodiversity of an area is the function of the interactions between composition, connectivity, and ecosystem processes or function.

But it is only in the last 10-15 years that advances in computing have enabled ecology to engage fully with the complexities of the later. For many ecologists, rewilding embodies advances in their science.

But rewilding ideas are also driving ecological science.

In particular, Frans Vera’s argument that that there is a forth European natural archetype  – one of grazers and grasslands -challenged ecologists to think about some of the fundamental assumptions underlying their science. Crucially, his theory of cyclic vegetation turn-over attracted the attention of paleo-ecologists.

Vera argues that European culture is based on 3 natural archetypes: high forest, the uplands and the pastoral. He argues there is a forgotten 4th – grasslands & graziers.

Now paleo-ecologists are a learned and authoritative bunch and they made two things clear: 1) there are multiple-past natural states, or natural baselines and 2) ecosystems are always in transition.

Along side these advances in ecology, conservation science has broadened beyond its natural science roots to embrace social and political science.

This new inter-disciplinary conservation science has adopted three important insights: 1) the natures (baselines) we choose to conserve are a cultural decision, 2) we have internalized ecological impoverishment in our culture, policy and institutions, 3) we can’t restore past natures, but we can take inspiration from the past to guide future natures.

Rewilding is big now because rewilding practice and advances in conservation theory are increasingly inter-twined.

However, both are ahead of nature policy

My third explanation for the rise of rewilding is that rewilding visions and practice seems to chime with trends in outdoor recreation. I´m sure we’ve all noticed the growing popularity of mountain biking, wild swimming`, hill running and the like ´- these all suggest a desire for more active and immersive engagements with nature ´ what George Mombiot termed ‘rewilding the self’.

My fourth reason for why rewilding is taking off now is the attitude of aspiring conservation professionals.

Ten years ago our MSc students told us they had little interest in learning about biodiversity loss and back-to-the-wall strategies to protect remnants of past natures. The education they wanted was one that empowered them to develop conceptually rigorous and innovative means to shape a better future for nature and for society.

This shift in aspiration is significant. Twenty years ago my student’s heroes were esteemed scientist such as E.O. Wilson and conservation biologist such as Russ Mittermeier. Eminent and charismatic scientists talking truth to power and framing the biodiversity agenda. Today their hero’s are local, entrepreneurial conservationists – people like the rewilding practitioners I’ve spent the last days with. People who through tenacity, persistence, ingenuity and vision can find ways to work with complexity and restore nature in ways that benefit culture and economy.

So why now?  In my view rewilding is gaining profile now because it is given form to wider currents in science and society.

Becoming more than a conservation zeitgeist

There is little doubt in my mind that rewilding is the conservation zeitgeist of the moment. But it is vital that rewilding become more than a fad or enthusiasm. I believe the conservation movement and Europe in the 21st century needs rewilding and here are my three reasons why.

First,  our European nature institutions are strong, powerful and have achieved much – but they are ageing. To keep relevant institutions must change, adapt and modernize. However institutions tend to be  path dependent and resistant to change.

Institutional theory suggest that one way to modernise institutions is to create ‘post-normal’ ways of doing things outside the institutions: new and innovative approaches that challenge and contrast current practice.

Rewilding is doing just this. It is creating a new body of conservation theory and practice that institutions can reject, appropriate,  adapt or adopt.  A challenge for rewilding will be to ensure that our work builds its trans-formative potential.

The second reason the conservation movement needs rewilding is because technology looks set to bring about major changes in society.

If you think the internet, smartphones and social media have had an impact, Kevin Kelly in his recent book The Inevitable argues that we haven’t see. anything yet. Multiple artificial intelligence are just kicking in and are likely to change everything. I agree with him, and would add that if conservation is to retain its position as a cultural forces in the 21st century we must engage with the information revolution.

The question is how.

Kelly poses these interesting questions which to me seem relevant to rewilding and conservation futures.

  1. In a future where everything is streamable, copyable, rentable and plentiful what will be valuable?

2. If, as seems likely, computation replaces 70% of today’s occupations by the end of the century.

“What will we all do? “ “What will be the purpose of humanity”

Kelly’s answer to the first question seems to chime with the new nature-based economy ethos of rewilding Europe. He argues that what will become valuable is experiences and in particular personalized, embodied experiences.  Rewilding projects across Europe are beginning to do just this – creating opportunities for people to have very special and tailored wildlife experiences.

Kelly doesn’t offer an answer to his second question but rewilding seems to be doing so.

Freed by automation we could invest our energy and capital in restoring the Earth’s natural systems – in making our planet more livable for all life. This would provide purpose and generate rewarding jobs and lifestyles.

My third reason relates to Brexit.

Every conservationist knows that we need environmental governance at a level above that of the nation state.

Brexit suggests that ordinary citizens are comming to perceive Europe as Brussels – faceless technocrats regulating for economic efficiency with little concern for what matters to them in their everyday lives.

The European project needs to communicate a new vision and I believe that nature and rewidling can play an important role in this.

Iconic landscapes and species have long been deployed as means to generate a sense of collective identity and territory that transcends political structures, class and ethnicity. Think of the role of the US national parks in constructing a sense of what it means to be American. Or the role of UK national park policy in re-imagining what it meant to be British after empire.

I believe the emerging network of European rewilding sites can play a similar role in constructing a new sense of Europeaness

This new map of Europe is fresh, compelling and exciting.

Rewilding is creating new places to know, discuss and visit. Places that generate a sense of hope, pride and maybe awe, places that create a sense of being European.

 

 

Investable Earth: an environmental narrative for the 21st century

So to conclude, and bringing these themes together I believe the conservation movement needs rewilding because we need a new overarching environmental narrative fit for the 21st century.

The 1970s narrative of a finite nature that we must protect from the humanity’s wounding ways is increasingly a turn off.  The 1990’s narrative of a natural capital and ecosystem appeals to politicians and policy makers but is divisive within our movement.

Rewilding is beginning to frame a new narrative – one of investing in the restoration of natural processes to generate value for all. I think this narrative has widespread appeal and trans-formative potential.

This is why I am proud to be here this evening.

Paul JepsonRewilding: why now?
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Why doesn’t Teneife tourism make more of the canary?

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Each March I take my MSc students on a field trip to Tenerife and each year I ponder on why more is not made of the canary in the island’s tourism promotion, tours and branding.

This year the first canary I encountered was whilst eating breakfast in the Albergue de Bolico hostel. One alighted on a tree in front of the hostel’s panoramic windows – it’s yellow and green coloration created a beautiful aesthetic against the blue-grey lichen encrusted branches and green laurel forest backdrop. I took the header photo on the scrubby edge of the beachside car park in Puerto de la Cruz. This canary had just landed from a song flight and its beautiful trilling song had inserted a sense of verve and beauty into the bustling soundscape of this tourist hotspot.

The wild canary is endemic to the Canary islands, Maderia and the Azores. It evolved in isolation from a founder population of Eurasian Serin which reached these Atlantic islands hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Subsequently the canary has become one of the most familiar and ubiquitous cagebirds appearing in popular culture in varied forms –from the ‘canary in the coal mine’ metaphort to the tweetie pie carton character. Its popularity in cultures as diverse as Germany, Indonesia and Chile is due to its simple husbandry requirements and ‘plastic phenotype’ – the ease with which colour and song variations can be bred and then enhanced through special feeding and training.

Red CanaryThe significance of the canary in world culture and science is superbly told by Tim Birkhead in his book ‘The Red Canary’.  He relates how  following Spanish settlement of the Canary islands the ‘canary bird’ with its beautiful song was initially a high status acquisition of European royalty but quickly spread to the masses due to the ease with which it could be bred and kept. Prof Birkhead is an evolutionary biologist and his purpose is to explore the history of his science through the story of the canary.  During the 1920s, a maths teacher (Hans Drucker), canary breeder (Karl Reich) and local philanthopist set out to  breed true a red-coloured canary. This required cross- and back-breeding canries with Red Siskins which are native to Venezuela which were transited through Tenerife on their way to European bird markets. Drucker was a strict adherent to Mendalian principles of genetic hereditary and through his efforts to breed an ‘improved’ canary became an promient voice in German eugenics.  He and his team suceeded in creating an orange canary and the first example of a GM animal. Their failure to  create a red canary from a pure focus on genetics led to the realisation that characteristics of a species are a relation attribute of genetics (nature) ineracting with the environment (nuture). Given the growing popularity of citizen science in conservation biology, the history of the red canary is a salutory reminder that it is easy for such science to get mixed up with politics and/or place too much emphasis on a particular approach.

A focus of our Tenerife field trip is conservation biogeography. Tenerife supports over two thousand species found nowhere else on earth. Many of these unique species are found in restricted areas, which reflects the variety of geomorphology and specialists habitats on this volcanic island. The system of protected areas designed to balance the need to protect this biodiversity with the need to develop and support the islands tourism economy is world class but also faces new and varied challenges. This is why we visit the island for study.

Tenerife postcardMy students are invariably frustrated by the limited presence of Tenerife’s unique fauna and flora in island’s tourism offer. Why does the tourist industry promote, macaws, gorillas, dolphin shows and strelitzia blooms as symbols of th Tenerifian nature experience rather than the endemic Tenerife blue chaffinch, giant lizard or Teide violet? Why do exotic parrots occupy the ‘bird’ spot on postcards and not a canary – the islands greatest ever export?

At first sight the canary might seem to be a good candidate for connecting tourists with Tenerife’s unique nature. It has a place in the cultures of both the UK and Germany from where the majority of Tenerife’s tourists originate. Furthermore the three identities of the canary – as a wild, pet and competition bird – flourish side by side on the island. The wild canary is common and easy to see and the pet canary is widely kept outside cafes and in residential areas where it enriches the atmosphere of every day life. In addition, Tenerife supports six canary assocations who breed and compete canaries – although rather bizarely they favour the extreme gibber canary breed which is as different as you can get from the wild canary that inhabits their local fields and parks.

Look and listen and you'll quikcly encounter a pet canary on Tenerife

Look and listen and you’ll quikcly encounter a pet canary on Tenerife

 

The more I think about the canary the more I am comming to realise that that it lacks what it takes to become a tourism asset. This not because the species is in anyway lacking in beauty and interest. It is because the canary assembles cultural references that are inconsistent with how Tenerife is marketed, and how we are coming to see it as a holiday destination.

I asked a group of MSc students studying island biodiversity and conservation in Tenerife’s La Laguna university what the canary meant to them. They responded in two ways. First, that it was of lesser importance compared to the more endangered blue chaffinch and laurel pigeons that inhabit remnant forest areas supporting a myriad of other species. Second that their grandfathers kept and bred canaries. The problem with the canary is that it assembles an old fashioned frame of working class people keeping caged birds that is of little interest to a more technology and animal welfare-orientated generation.

In contrast the parrot symbol – promoted by Loro Parque (a world class zoo, parrot conservation breeding centre, and the islands 3rd largest tourist attraction) – conjures up thoughts of exotic places and travel. In addition, the dolphin symbol widely promoted by the island’s two aquaria and booming whale and dolphin watching sector connotes a sense of ocean freedom and adventure. These animal symbols and attractions communicate nothing about Tenerife’s rich, unique and endangered fauna. However they affectively contribute to the image and reality of Tenerife is an island paradise within Europe.

That’s what Tenerife wants and that’s what most us want. From this perspective the canary, for all the everyday pleasure it brings to people in Tenerife and around the globe, just doesn’t make the cut as a symbol for an exotic island getaway .

Paul JepsonWhy doesn’t Teneife tourism make more of the canary?
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Technology Empowered Conservation

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This is the text of a presentation I made at the #Conservation2037 event at the Linnean Society of London in 26 Jan 2017.  I hope you enjoy the ideas.

Kraftwerk_-_Die_Roboter_CoverIn 1977 Kraftwerk embraced the affordances of emerging technologies to expand the range and repertoire of musical possibilities.

Their innovative electronic music inspired new genres of music: techno, house, hip-hop, dance and so forth.

The Rolling Stones can play Glastonbury. Kraftwerk can play Glastonbury and the Tate Modern.

When the histories of music are written Kraftwerk will be up there as the group who first embraced new technological forces and in so doing shaped both the future of music and the interaction of new technological forces with this major component of human culture.

My message today is that we are at an exciting juncture in the history of conservation. We are at a point in the development of computational technology where – during this decade and the next – new technological forces will shift human society into a different phase.

Conservation – our movement, vocation and profession – has to be part of this phase shift.

We must react and engage with technology in innovative and perhaps radical ways if we are to protect the gains of the past and ensure that conservation remains a cultural force in the 21st century.

In the deeper past cJacques Cousteuonservationists engaged creatively with new technologies.

Orla Johnson pioneered wildlife cinematography: William Beebe nature broadcasting

And then there was Jacques Cousteau – in my view the greatest techno-conservationists of the 20th century.

Such people made nature and nature conservation part of aspirational 20th century culture.

However in the 1970s the shock of ‘environmentalism’ propelled conservation into quite a different relationship with technology.

earthdayThe environmentalist cause was taken-up by a young, well-educated, middle-class generation with an activist confidence instilled by the 1960s.

Politicians responded quickly, and were able to do so because the Conservation Foundation had already prepared the policies and people needed to create an international conservation regime.

However, a regime able to exert influence across multiple scales and geographies required three things:

.expertise: systematic information : data management

Fortunately the PC appeared in the early 1980s which empowered conservation in these three key areas.

But this interaction between the political opportunity for conservation, the need for knowledge that was ‘policy fit’, and increasing access to computation and communication exerted a strong centralising force on conservation.  For instance

  • Technology was still expensive: dbase IV was about £550 (£1400) per licence,
  • people with the combined ecological, systematics and computation skills were in short supply,
  • international communications was costly and limited,
  • access to policy and funders needed strong insider relationships.

Technology and centralisation also provided the finance and know how to transform conservation NGOs into inter-governmental players: it enabled membership management & recruitment, funder databases, and the dot.com boom of the 1990s produced board members with exceptional ambition, strategic acumen and wealth.

The Bingos were borne.

During 1990s technology empowered centralized conservation achieved huge gains, which we should respect and celebrate.

Photo: Susanne Schmitt

Photo: Susanne Schmitt

Species were saved from the brink of extinction and a huge expansion of protected areas was achieved.

But the centralising forces of the later part of the 20th century also brought downsides and I would argue that our conservation institutions are showing their age.

They turned conservation upside down. When I started out most of conservation professionals worked on the ground and very few worked in the central offices.

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 17.30.47

Thanks to Jeff Sayer and Intu for sharing this image

We had embodied knowledge of nature and worked with local networks to achieve change. We didn’t necessarily earn much but work life was generally purposeful, varied, and rich.

The workscape of conservation you are entering is better illustrated by the triangle in the left. Conservation work has become ever more desk-based and bureaucratic.

We have come to know the nature we conserve in terms of graphs, spreadsheets and maps. We write and adopt blueprints and strategies.

A network of grounded conservationists has been replaced by an army of conservation policy technocrats, managers, marketers and support staff. Professional wages are in decline and career futures narrowing.

In addition, the amazing gains of the past have brought with them huge liabilities which you guys are going to need to address. For example, mega-diverse countries that expanded PA networks post CBD are moving into upper-middle income and this means they have ower eligibility for ODA under common but differentiated responsibility principle. But another was 20th century conservation didn’t have a long term financial plan.

Now for the good news – new technological forces are dissipating the need for a centralisation conservation led by small group of Bingos and opening the possibility of new networks of situated conservationists.

This is Action Sampiri – a hugely effective conservation team that emerged on Sangihe 15 years ago.   They split up after 3-4 years because they couldn’t sustain themselves without a bigger conservation patron

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 17.31.06

All this has changed: Nowadays anyone with a decent laptop and within reach of a broadband has similar access to:

  • Knowledge, news and training resources
  • Computing power
  • Sensors and sensor software
  • Data and data management
  • Productivity tools, co-working and networking
  • Communication and design resources
  • Campaigning, decision support and fund-raising support

Today grounded conservation can have similar access to know-how, data, and networks as do those of us working in Universities, government agencies or NGOs. Further the quality and power of these resources is light years beyond anything we could have imagined in 2007.

And all for less than £400 per year!

Humanity is building the greatest machine ever, in the assessment of Kevin Kelly it is the most complex, decentralised, intelligent, collective, accessible, resilient and powerful machine every created. We are entering a future of sapiens plus machine smartness.  I future where conservation action can by augmented by hundreds of AIs.

This machine – the cloud – opens the opportunity for a horizontal, networked, technologically empowered conservation movement.

One that transcends nations, sectors, ideology, and scale

It opens the prospect of a future where myriad conservation groups work in myriad localities across our plant. Not as individual efforts but as part of a loose ecosystem of conservation action with transformative power.

But does this mean big conservation is dead?

My view is no. Any effective force needs a degree of central leadership and coordination.

However, if conservation is to be a cultural force in the 2Ist century, if it is to build on the conservation gains of the past and kick on, we must engage with and steer the technological forces that are shaping the future of humanity.

My view is that centralised conservation needs to embrace the culture of the crowd and switch its focus from one of advocate and implementer to one of facilitator and service provider.

My vision for Conservation 2037 is a future where centralised organisations create platforms, tools and services that empower a new generation of situation conservationist to act, share and suceed.

I imagine the practical expression of Technology Empowered Conservation as virtual mall – places on the web where situated conservationists can visit, shop for tools, kit and services, meet friends, learn and mobilise.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 20.53.18

Entering this mal of conservation you might visit

The plush second floor where branded conservation enterprises showcase and sell their triple A conservation products

Then drop down to the first floor where a raft of smaller outlets offer just about everything you could need to assemble an effective conservation action.

After this you might head up to the third floor to hang out with friends, attend networking events or a seminar.

In the central auditorium the mall’s owners will periodically put on exhibitions, TED style talks and other inspirational material.

As you navigate through this virtual mall avatars of our conservation heroes will walk towards you. You may wish to stop them and hear or read about their life, contributions and values.

Situated conservationists will need to own little – everything will be available on subscription or to rent.

They will not be dependent on established organisations for work and the ability to make a change. Should they wish they can create or join start-ups – bands of conservationists – in places where they feel an affinity.

Kelly argues that “Technology is humanities accelerant”

It needs to become conservations accelerant.

It is yours – the cloud belongs to us all..

Let me know what you think

Paul JepsonTechnology Empowered Conservation
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Ecospace, rewilding and the cow that didn’t die

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On a Saturday afternoon in late November I went for a walk along Iffley meadows in Oxford. The gate to the BBOWT meadow was hung with a sign telling the story of a cow that had gotten stuck in a ditch and was pulled out with a neck rope. Those entering the field were asked not to approach the traumatised herbivore.

I was in the midst of preparing a lecture on rewilding and in particular taking stock of developments in ecological theory that argue for the restoration of large animal guilds.

If Iffley meadows had been a rewilded area the unfortunate cow would have likely succumbed and its corpse would have become a highly localised and rich source of nutrients at the onset of winter.

Had I been in regular birding mode the image of a cow carcass would likely have promoted thoughts of what it might attract – the local red kites, the ravens that occasional cruise over Oxford, and maybe the local stray dogs if we have any.

But on this Saturday I was in theory mode and pondering on concepts of ecospace and biotic expansion. From this perspective a cow’s carcass is not simply a food source, rather it is a place of multiple temporary niches. The metabolic and other processes of decomposition involve and support multiple life forms: from bacteria to maggots, to beetles and foxes. Some of these organisms flourish and multiplie within the carcass: others feed on it and conduit nutrients into the wider ecosystem.

It is not hard to see how large animal carcasses expand the range of niches and hence the biodiversity of an ecosystem and how their absence contributes to ‘trophic down-grading’.

The meadows atI Iffley. Lovely, but satic and short on ecospace. Photo: P Jepson

The meadows atI Iffley. Lovely, but satic and short on ecospace. Photo: P Jepson

Across Europe there is a rise of naturalistic grazing in our reserves: deploying breeds of cattle and horses that create disturbance dynamics with their gazing and pounding. Mangers steer their herds to create ecospaces that support species considered valuable and in place. Allowing some of these large herbivores to die and become additional ecospaces would be illegal and scandalous to many.

We know that carcasses would (re)expand the biotic diversity of our landscapes, but I struggle to imagine a future where European societies would allow this to happen.

For a start there are major ethical and welfare considerations. We only know cattle and horses as animals in our care. Millenia of agriculture and centuries of pet-keeping have condition us to extend compassion and care to animals that we have domesticated and transformed for our use and benefit. This is codified in law. If a cow or horse becomes weak it is the legal responsibility of the owner to feed it better, or call the vet out if its ill.

Next, is the issue of contemporary attitudes to death, decay and decomposition. Modern day perceptions of such processes are mostly negative. The possibility of encountering a smelly, rotten carcass on a Saturday afternoon stroll would be considered distasteful, and maybe even distressing, to most people. Millennia of disease and pestilence have conditioned us to fear the consequences of leaving carcasses of animals that enter our food chain lying around in our landscapes. They are classed a biohazard and the law says they should be removed and destroyed.

Whilst we live comfortably with the values and laws of animal welfare and sanitation other co-inhabitants of our plant loose out. Rodents, boar, vultures, foxes, lynx and myriad other fellow species would experience quite different sensations in relation to a carcass.

My conservation values were forged in the 1970s when the idea was to be a voice for nature – to speak up for non-human species in decision making.  I was motivated by the idea that humans have a moral responsiblity to leave spaces for other life-forms to live out natural lives.

But I also care for the welfare of individual animals. I don’t like seeing a cold starving bison or hearing a deer having its life squeezed from it by a python. If I’d been the person encountering the cow in the Iffley meadow ditch I would have been straight on my phone to the relevant authority. But by doing so I would have put my human sensitivities ahead of the needs of other species.

Resolving this conundrum is one of the great societal frontiers for rewilding.

In my view the way to do so is to designate places that are less in our care – what we used to call the wild – and then have the confidence and compassion to allow our domestic species to re-find and re-live their wild identity. This is termed ‘trophic upgrading’: the restoration of historic guilds of large animals and the dynamic ecosystem processes they generate.

In the UK such an agenda would require an amendment to existing nature law to specify a new type of conservation area: an ecosystem restoration (ER) reserve.

I suspect we’d all agree that ecosystem restoration reserves would likely be more acceptable in regions that wider society already considers remote, wild and natural. However if we did go down the ER route, I would argue for a legal designation that allows smaller, more managed ecosystem reserves close to urban areas.

This is because we can never separate society and nature: introducing a ‘new nature’ will throw up all sorts of issues requiring debate and dilberation. Ecosystem restoration is not a technical problem it is something that will require societal learning to achieve. Having places where rewilding is a bit more in the public’s face will ensure the widest possible discussion on principles that should govern rewilding practice.

Paul JepsonEcospace, rewilding and the cow that didn’t die
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Six different ways to think about ‘extinction’

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The WWF’s new Living Planet report highlights a 58% decline in the abundance of 3,706 animal species since 1970, reinforcing the fear that humanity is bringing about a sixth mass extinction.

The roots of this fear stretch back more than a century, when a series of well-publicised extinctions provided incontrovertible evidence that human actions could wipe out other life forms, even superabundant ones such as the passenger pigeon. These extinctions had a profound influence, and saving species has been a fundamental tenet of conservation ever since.

What is less widely appreciated is that contemporary usage of the term extinction encompasses a wide variety of meanings and applications, each with a distinct role in conservation advocacy. In a 2008 paper we classified several different types of “extinctions” to better understand the rhetorical power of each, and to ask whether they reinforce or undermine conservation communication. Here’s an updated version of our list:

True extinction is well summarised by the IUCN definition that there is “no reasonable doubt that the last individual [of the species] has died”. This category includes many iconic species such as the dodo, passenger pigeon, great auk and Steller’s sea cow. Here, extinction only refers to species that we know of: if not, how could the fate of a last individual be ascertained?

Twice the size of a manatee, the Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction in the 1700s.
Biodiversity Heritage Library, CC BY

Ecological extinction is where a species only survives in zoos and private collections. The Scimitar oryx, Spix’s macaw and the pheasant-like Alagoas currasow all fall into this category and are classed by the IUCN as “extinct in the wild”.

Local extinction refers to when a species has been wiped out from part of its range. The beaver is a good example. Once common, it had been hunted to extinction in the UK by the 16th century but many people are now working to bring them back.

Wallacean extinction is named after Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who independently developed a theory of natural selection. It refers to species that are erroneously classed as extinct due to our ignorance of where they actually live – that is, species that are “lost” rather than extinct. The most famous example is the coelacanth, which was classed as an extinct fossil fish until a living specimen was found in 1938 off the east coast of South Africa. These rediscoveries are a continued source of hope for people trying to find animals like the Tasmanian tiger or the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Coelacanths were once thought to have gone extinct 66m years ago.
smerikal, CC BY-SA

Linnaean extinctions, named after Carl Linnaeus who invented the system of scientific species names, involve the large discrepancy between the number of species described and the likely number out there. Here, extinctions are extrapolated from the rate of habitat loss for known and undiscovered species. This type of extinction underpins widely used estimates of tens of thousands of extinctions per year.

Lazarus extinction refers to cases where there is still hope of resurrection because DNA of extinct species lives on in domestic breeds and a “replica” species could be recreated though back breeding. De-domestication is a component of European rewilding. Herds of wild cattle resembling the extinct Auroch in looks and ecology are being established in natural areas in the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Romania.

Aurochs, the ancestor of domestic cattle, went extinct in the 17th century.
Prof saxx / French Ministry of Culture, CC BY-SA

Closely related to Lazarus extinctions is the concept of de-extinction, the idea that advances in synthetic biology will eventually allow us to extract DNA from the preserved remains of extinct species and insert them into the eggs of surrogate animals. An elephant with mammoth-like traits may well be born within the next 20 years.

Some ‘extinctions’ have more impact than others

“Extinction is forever” was a rallying cry of the conservation movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Images of gorillas, tigers and rhino made extinction feel real and meaningful and reminded people of the sense of collective loss and remorse they would feel if these species died out.

Fast forward several decades, and individual species no longer have such an impact. In September 2016, for instance, the death of the last Rabb’s fringed-limbed tree frog passed with little media comment.

Since the 1990s conservation rhetoric has focused on the zoomed-out, planetary-scale Linnaean extinctions. Conservation International’s extinction clock presents the end of a species as a routine and impersonal event happening every 20 minutes. Why should one extinction be newsworthy if more than 26,000 are happening each year?

Nevertheless, it was the spectre of mass extinctions that grabbed the attention of policymakers. While they may not have shed any tears for an individual tree frog species, they rightly feared the loss of economically-valuable ecosystem services. Governments responded with a massive and systematic expansion of protected areas internationally. However, the impact of “sixth mass extinctions” and other doom and gloom rhetoric may be on the wane, especially since the 2007 global economic crisis.

Beavers back to Britain?
Rudmer Zwerver / shutterstock

A different tack might be needed: one that repersonalises extinction and balances stories of loss with stories of hope. This could be achieved by bringing local and Lazarus extinctions to the fore. Both of these can be tied to reintroduction projects that offer an optimistic sense that humanity can make amends for the ills it has inflicted on other life forms.

We need to match reports of alarming declines in species with reports analysing places where populations can be restored. The idea that “extinction” is in some cases reversible certainly supports the new practice of ecosystem restoration. If conservation is to regain the initiative it needs to both protect what’s left, and restore what is lost.The Conversation

by Paul Jepson and Richard Ladle, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Paul JepsonSix different ways to think about ‘extinction’
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The changing face of British bird watching

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A slightly edited version of this article was publish by Geographical Magazine on 26 Oct 2016. It was a bit of a hit and its nice to know that so many people are interested to read about birdwatching. 

The face of British bird watching is undergoing a transformation: in the last decade telescope carrying birders have been joined by growing numbers of long-lens bird photographers. A new era of British birdwatching may be upon us.

Birding is a mode of bird watching characterized by a focus on bird-finding, identification and listing. It emerged half-a-century ago facilitated by affordable high quality binoculars and a better road network, and became established with the appearance of high-quality field telescopes and the rise of rare bird information services in the 1980s.

Scillies: early 80s

Scillies: early 80s

I was a student during birding’s heyday in the 1980s: one of many who collected their grant checks, hitched to the Isles of Scilly, chased rarities, and were back in class before anyone noticed. Birding was youthful and adventurous: birders created the bird tour industry, provided much of the data upon which international bird conservation is founded and introduced the term ‘twitcher’ into popular culture.

So what of bird photography? Is it an extension of birding or a new and distinct mode of bird watching that may shape the future?

In 2005 I published an article titled Natural History Remastered in the journal British Wildlife. In this, I argued that the digital photo can be prepared, shared and discussed in much the same way as the natural history specimen of old and, as a consequence, digital technologies are giving new expression to old cultural practices of engaging with nature.

With these thoughts in mind I have been engaging bird photographers in conversations about their practices and motivations. I quickly homed in on two questions that generated interesting insight, namely “what do you do with the photos you take?” and “were you a bird watcher or photographer first?

A preliminary typology of British bird-photographers

Responses to these questions suggest that practices of bird-photography, and to an extent bird photographers, fall into seven general types.

The first is photo-identification. A digital photograph is a valuable identification aid especially when learning a new avifauna or developing competencies in difficult to identify groups such as juvenile gulls. Many birders now carry a ‘digiscope’ adaptor or bridge camera along with their binoculars and telescopes. For those skilled or lucky enough to find a rarity, even a poor photo is better than a field notebook sketch in terms of checking a identification or providing evidence of a sighting.

Photo: Paul Jepson

Photo: Paul Jepson

A second is photo-listing, which replicates the twitcher’s desire to see as many different species as possible in a particular place or in a given time. National and county life- and year-lists are the most popular. Some photo-listers are twitchers who have decided to start over again. One such ‘re-lister’ remarked that the appearance in the UK of a species he’d not already seen was now a rare occurrence and his memories of past rarities were fading. Photo-listing seemed less ephemeral. However, many photo-listers are new to bird-watching and have embraced the practice of listing because it give the pastime a focus and purpose.

The third bird photography practice is akin to butterfly collecting. In ‘tile’ view, file management programs such as Windows Explorer have the appearance of a specimen draw. I’ve met many bird-photographers who are working to complete quality collections of the different plumages and/or classic behaviours of groups of species. For the Victorian butterfly collector every field excursion held the prospect of accruing a new morph or a better quality specimen. The same is true for the photo-collector.

Amateur bird photography is my fifth type. Mike Gurral of Outdoor Magazine describes amateur photographers as ‘people striving to perfect the practice of picture-taking’. Many people with an interest in photography are getting into birds because it gets them out of doors, the equipment is available and there are masses of inspiring amateur bird photos on the web. This practice adopts the conventions of art and is all about composition, pose, lighting and so-forth. Any avian subject will do, although some bird species are more photogenic than others – swans, barn owls, and robins for instance.

Photo: Paul Jepson

Photo: Paul Jepson

My sixth type is trophy-hunting. This may be a variant of the last type but the motivation here is to taking impressive photos of iconic species and their behaviours: a regal golden eagle, diving kingfisher or lekking capercaillie. Pay-to-use nature photography hides for ‘classic’ species are popping up all over the country. They are carefully located for backdrop and often baited to attract the target species. There is probably something of the trophy-hunter in every bird photographer. Indeed when an iconic rarity such as a red-flanked bluetail turns up, bird-photographers appear in force.

My seventh and final type is perhaps the most intriguing. In January 2013, I approached three guys dressed in camouflage gear photographing a rare Lesser Yellowlegs with top of the range photography kit. When I asked what they did with their photos the response was “Nothing. When a memory card is full we just buy another”. I have discussed this type of bird-photography with many other photographers whose simple and consistent response is ‘it’s the hunting instinct’. These are photo-hunters, men who find satisfaction tracking down their quarry and getting the shot.

Digitally enhanced bird watching

As I have come to know bird-photographers, I have come to realize bird-photography in its various guises enhances bird watching.

Marsh Lane nature reserve in the West Midlands is the focus for an active community of local patch photo-bird watchers. One of their company explained how bird photography had transformed their birdwatching. The area has a stable avifauna so conventional birdwatching visits quickly became humdrum and rarely produced anything new to talk about. In contrast bird photography holds the promise that every visit could result in a better photo of a familiar species leading to a sense of achievement and something to share and discuss with others.

This spring I chatted with a ‘serious’ twitcher and photographer who had twitched the mega-rare black-billed cuckoo on North Uist. He told me how his camera deepened and extended his engagement with a rare bird. To get a good photo he needed to tune into how it was feeding and moving in the habitat so he could predict where it would appear. This requires a different level of skill to simply getting good views through binoculars or a telescope, which is what I do. Birding is akin to stalking but photo-birding seems to require the aptitudes of the angler.

Photography is central to the design and development of social media and Web 2.0. Blogs, facebook and photo-sharing platforms such as flickr are integral to the pastime. They create repositories to share, discuss and show-off photos and sightings thereby building friendship groups and community and broadening the appeal of bird watching. Blogs, in particular, also create connections between bird-photographers and birders. Birding being older is better organised and there are well-established county and site blogs reporting recent sightings. Many bird photographers contribute their photos adding significantly to the visual appeal of these blogs.

The big lens as an asset

In 2014 I took a day-trip to the Farne Isles to experience the fabulous seabird colonies with my family. On our boat were four French bird-photographers with expensive 600mm Cannon lens. I asked the warden about his experiences of the rise of bird photography and he recounted a day the previous summer when a 100 photographers got off a single boat, remarking ‘I saw a million pounds worth of photography equipment land on the island!

Photo: Paul Jepson

Photo: Paul Jepson

In the south of England a popular set up among bird-photographers costs £11,000 new: 600 mm lens (£8500), camera body (£1500 upwards) and tripod (£450). The bird photographers I meet are not high rollers: most are regular people doing regular jobs. My academic salary is not bad but I can’t imagine investing that amount in my hobby.

One late summer evening – a quiet time for birds – I met a professional landscape photographer for whom bird photography was a hobby. He was good enough to talk through how this costly equipment was seemingly affordable to regular Brits. His analysis was a good one.

Many highly paid professionals seeking a retirement hobby are attracted to the idea of bird photography and buy new. They quickly find that getting a photo requires much more than the equipment. Realising this, they enrol on bird-photography courses but many still loose heart and sell or trade in their equipment. As a result there is a regular supply of second-hand wildlife lenses and, like high-end cars initial depreciation is substantial. A one-owner 600 mm lens can be bought for £5K.

Unlike camera bodies, where significantly better new models appear each year, lens technology is mature. New models of these lenses appear infrequently and improvements are small. As a result, once second hand these lenses hold their value. If looked after they can be sold for not too much less than their purchase price.

Many people told me that they had bought their lens from a redundancy settlement, pension lump sum, or small inheritance. In this era of near zero interest rates it makes sense to invest in an asset that generates life quality returns.

Looking ahead

I am convinced that the number of bird photographers is rising steadily and will continue to do so. During the mid-19th century natural history reached craze proportions with an estimated 120,000 participants. This was when our population was around 22 million – a third of what it is now. Based on my conversations, bird photography is combining photography with old cultural practices of collection and hunting, with newer practices of birding and the affordances of digital technologies. As such it appeals to a wide range of nature-minded people. Given that an entry-point bridge camera retails for just £350 bird-photography seems set to become a major recreational pastime.

This is presenting new challenges and opportunities for the birdwatching fraternity, the managers of nature reserves, the out-door recreation industry and for the science of ornithology and nature conservation.

Over the decades birders have developed a strong voluntary code of conduct to govern their behaviour, particularly in relation to disturbing birds, keeping secret the location of rare breeding, birds and respecting the rights and privacy of landowners. New entrant bird-photographers are unaware of these informal rules and understandably want to get close for a shot. This is leading to some ill feeling that will hopefully work itself out as the relationship between birders and bird photographers matures.

More tangibly reserve managers will need to re-think and redesign their visitor infrastructure, and in particular their trail systems and hides, in response to the rise of photo-birding. The conventional bird-hide is designed and located for long distance viewing using telescopes. Bird photographers need hides that are closer to the birds and with a lower angle of view.

Bird-photographers seem more willing than birders to spend on their hobby. Their increasing number represents an opportunity for the photography and leisure business but also for conservation organisations who desperately need to find new sources of revenue to finance the management of their reserves. Few UK bird reserves have an entry fee and no one would pay to use a bird-hide. In contrast bird photographers will happily pay good money to spend a day in a photo-hide that promises a special shot.

jamesfisherOne dimension that seems missing from bird photography is the link with science. The first popular book on watching birds, authored by James Fisher in 1940, presented bird-watching as a purposeful scientific pastime and for decades teachers conveyed this ethos to any pupil showing an interest in birds. Organisations, such as the British Trust for Ornithology (est. 1932), mobilised birdwatchers to submit their observations and have built up large datasets leading to the publication of landmark bird atlases and supporting sophisticated modelling of the relationship between environmental change and bird populations. The birder generation fanned out across the world in search of new species, but also fed their observations back to BirdLife International who used their knowledge to assess the extinction risk of all bird species; a feat that contributed enormously to the effectiveness of international conservation policy. Bird photographers can and do submit their observations, but as yet little thought has been given to the scientific use and value of ‘digital bird specimens’.

Science apart, bird photography is broadening public engagement with birds. An established pastime is becoming refreshed and refashioned. This has to be a good thing. New bird watching practices, icons, ‘meccas’, and networks are taking form and with this a new case for protecting and restoring our bird populations should surely emerge.

Please add your comments and perspectives on th rise of bird photography

Paul Jepson, Oxford Sept 2016

Thanks to Steve for many conversations on this topic and to all the bird photographers who talked with me about their hobby.

Paul JepsonThe changing face of British bird watching
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Rewilding and the uplands: perspectives on valuing nature

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Photo: Paul Jepson

Photo: Paul Jepson

This is the text of a lecture I delivered in the Valuing Nature Keynote lecture series in London on 22 September 2016

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Helen Meach, CEO of Rewilding Britain started a recent article in Ecos with the statement:

Britain is one of the most ecologically depleted nations on Earth”.

Given the interplay between ecology, landscape and identity I realise that such statements can appear provocative. However I ask that you receive it in the spirit its intended. As an invitation to reassess, revisit and reflect upon our relationship with nature and landscape. This for me is what rewilding represents and signifies.

I’d like to start with an illustration of what ecological depletion means for me.

Photo: Paul Jepson

Photo: Paul Jepson

This summer we holidayed in Slovenia’s Triglav national park. Slovenia has undergone spontaneous rewilding since WWII. Nowadays this landscape supports a huge variety of out door activities enjoyed by people from all backgrounds: multiple types of walking, cycling, swimming and canoeing, skiing in the winter, canyoning, and paragliding, eating out and hanging out.

The hills are alive with the sound of laughter

The hills are alive with the sound of laughter

We hiked into the mountains and alms where the soundscape was one of laughter – groups of friends sharing stories over a radler. It struck me that the natural value they were capturing was conviviality – a state of being we surely all value.

I contrast this European upland experience with our Whitsun hike up Snowden. On the way up I saw five birds – 3 meadow pipits and 2 stonechats. My daughter didn’t find any flowers worth photographing and when we reached the summit I overheard a Dad explaining that the herring gulls scrounging scraps weren’t “mountain birds, they shouldn’t be here. The raven is a mountain bird”.

Photo: Paul Jepson

Photo: Paul Jepson

I share these recollections to make two points.

The first concerns where natural value resides.

I think of value as a relational outcome – as an emergent property of interactions between entities and systems. It follows that natural value is generated through ‘practices of engagement’ – that range from the informal to the mechanised.

In relation to practices of commerce, value long ago became standardised as money. However, in other areas of life this has not been the case – relational values are values that contribute to a good quality of life and social well-being. They are expressed in social values such as tolerance, democracy and in the conservation values that govern our relations with nature e.g. the moral imperative to avoid the extinction of species and the idea that monuments of nature are part of cultural heritage.

If systems are simplified there are fewer entities to interact – function and process is depleted – and the value (service) generating opportunities of our ecosystems are diminished or constrained.

This is the situation we are in now.

This concept that value is an emergent property of interactions between entities and systems also applies to the concepts of ecosystem function and services.

Restoration of trophic levels creates rich and dynamic systems with numerous niches that allow species to flourish and create a diversity and abundance able to support a range of value-generating practices

The second point I want to make is that as a society we seem to have internalised ecological impoverishment in our culture, policy and institutions.

Maybe some of you like I spent teenage years listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. My problem – as an ecologists and geographer – is that when I visit our uplands I can’t get that Roger Waters lyric out of my head “hanging on in quite desperation is the English way”.

This annoys me but pushes me to ask why? Why is it that we have come to value bleakness and become overly protective of our wildlife?

quitedeserpation

We know that there was a major shift in practices of engaging with nature between and after the two world wars. Up until then hunting, natural history collecting, bird-keeping, the harvesting & eating of natural produce were all mass participation pastimes. But due to the impacts of industrialisation – in it’s various guises – our ecosystems became steadily less able to sustain such practices and this was becoming clear to scientists.

Rewilding the self. Photo: Colin/Chillswim

Rewilding the self. Photo: Colin/Chillswim

And then we had men coming back from the hell of warfare and sick of killing. The stories they could tell to their families were not of the horrors they’d experienced, but of the symbols of hope – the swallows nesting in the trenches and skylarks singing above the battle field.

The new discipline of ecology argued for protection of the remnants of what we had left and public opinion supported this – it no longer seemed right to hunt, collect or harm wildlife.

But that was three generations ago. It is part of our cultural heritage but I believe people want to move on – they want better quality ecosystems that restore the opportunity for the rich and diverse engagements with nature that contribute to a quality life, and that contribute to a new and better society.

This for me is where rewilding comes in.

So what is rewilding?

I’d first like to address two common perceptions.

Rewilding is about abandoning land.

Abandon to me means discard or turn your back on something. I hope my remarks on relational value will have made it clear that rewilding is about restoring ecosystems to revitalise practices of engaging with nature and landscape. For me it is about reformulating old and creating new connections.

2. Rewilding is about reintroducing the wolf.

The media loves this idea but it is a very minor aspect of the rewilding discussion in the UK and Europe. Of course this is not the case in areas of the US such as the Yellowstone ecosystem.

I am also aware that the term (Re)(wild)ing puts some peoples backs up. For instance in Scotland the legacy of the clearings has generated sensitivity to agendas that appear retrospective and frame the highlands as an unpopulated wilderness.

For me rewilding is a label like punk or hippy that that signifies an unsettling – a desire and a need to shake-up the present and move forward. I see it as an ‘opening’ – a space of creative thinking and action on future natures. Where our multi-cultural society can outline and debate new visions for society-nature-landscape interactions.

Rewilding is also consistent with the general direction of travel in ecological science and environmental policy. Three components of ecosystems interact to determine the natural value of an area: composition, structure and function. Historically we have given most attention to composition – in part because it converts into strong law and measurable targets.

The Lawton report “Making space for nature” foregrounded the need to move on with its “bigger, better, more connected” strapline and rewilding is a progressive expression of this call.

Earlier this year Frans Schepers of Rewilding Europe and I published a policy brief titled “Making space for rewilding” where we outlined 7 emerging rewilding principles following discussion with rewilding experts and EC conservation lobbyists. I’d now like to run through these.

The first is restoring natural processes and ecological dynamics: abiotic, biotic and/or socio-ecological.  This is the core of the emerging rewilding movement.

Second is the bigger picture aspiration of creating self-sustaining, resilient ecosystems at the scale of landscapes and regions. It is useful to note that rewilding has emerged following the accession of east European countries to the EU.  This accelerated rural depopulation and declines in livestock grazing affecting the region’s herb-rich grasslands. Conserving these habitats with agro-environment schemes designed for the western European situation is impractical.

Third is taking inspiration from the past but not replicating it.  This is a key contribution from long-term ecology and environmental politics.  Ecosystems have moved on and their are multiple past ‘natural’ baselines. Choosing one baseline to restore to would be political and likely impossible to achieve anyway.

Forth is working towards the ideal of passive management where, once restored, we step back and allow natural processes to shape conservation outcomes. The idea of self-wilded lands in central to rewilding but this principle recognises that many ecosystems are so degraded that in many cases management activities will be necessary in order to ‘kick-start’ ecosystem processes

The fifth principle relates to the above and is a situated approach where the goal is to move up a scale of wildness within the constraints of what is possible. Rewilding is not just something for remote and large natural areas: giving ecosystems an upgrade is something to aspire to everywhere.

Sixth is creating new natural assets that connect with modern economy & society. This reflects the perception that rewilded landscapes are cool and exciting for many urban people and this can form the basis of new or extended recreation economies in rural areas. It is also a reflection of the influence of the 1990s livelihoods agenda in conservation and the entrepreneurial attitudes among many modern conservation professionals.

Lastly, is the principle of reconnecting policy with public conservation sentiment. I’m not sure this is really a principle. Many of us active in rewilding feel we are just part of a zeitgeist, but at the same time we also want to articulate fresh conservation visions that will engage and inspire citizens.

Time to walk the talk

The question now is how to proceed– how can we put rewilding into practice beyond a few model sites or places.

This time last year I was thinking about the feasibility of experimental rewilding sites on ex-mining landscapes with high ‘green space’ value but lower ecological and agricultural value and the idea of a competitive scheme – based on the successful new national forest model of the 1990s.

I think there are many other places with great potential for ‘demonstration’ rewilding projects. I drove past one recently – the Hole of Horcum shown in the header image – imagine a landscape evoking the Ngorongoro crater in Yorkshire! I think such a place might give a boost to the upland economy of the North York Moors!

Brexit means CAPexit

But June 23 opened a new dynamic that I’d like to explore in the remainder of the talk

Keeping CAP as it is can hardly constitute the break from Europe that the majority of landowners and farmers voted for.  The means we have to decide what to replace it with

My rewilding-inspired suggestion is that we replace it with a national land asset policy that offers landowners choice on whether they want to develop and manage agricultural assets or natural assets or a blend of the two.

(c) Paul Jepson

(c) Paul Jepson

Now if you will bear with me I’ll introduce some of the conceptual underpinnings of this idea.

The natural capital frame represents a welcome engagement of economist in natural resource policy. However economists often view capital and asset as interchangeable terms. Dieter Helm defines natural capital as the assets nature provides us with for free: geology, water, life and frames these natural assets as key inputs to the economy. They undoubtedly are but this concept of natural assets is limiting and becoming ever more divisive among ecologists – perhaps because the notion of natural capital aligns with the ills of capitalism and growing concerns with neo-liberal agenda.

In my view natural assets are not provided by nature, rather they are produced by human cultural engagements with the bio-physical world. I understand assets as a more expansive concept that includes forms of capital but refers to things that can generate forms of value beyond what can be monetised.

assetearth

Think of your home or our planet. Viewing the Earth as capital seems wrong. But as an asset? I can live with that!

Together with colleagues at the Smith School and the University of Alagoas in Brazil, I have been working up the idea of natural assets to restate the policy case for protected areas in ways that might be more meaningful to politicians, policy makes and the wider public.

I suggest that our asset framework could be adapted to the concept of land assets.

assetschematci

It is core is the idea that a nature reserve or a land parcel is made up of a package of five asset types that interact to generate forms of value.

The character or state of these assets and their interaction determines what value is generated and who can ‘capture value’ from these assets.

value-generation

 

My point is that practices of engaging with nature generate multiple forms of value and a national land asset portfolio that supports multiple practices of engagement generates more overall value to society.

So to summarise

Rewilding signifies a desire for the restoration of functional ecosystems & the creation of new natural assets better able to generate life-quality values

Practices of engaging with nature generate value and a land asset portfolio that supports multiple practices of engagement generates more overall value to society.

Replacing CAP with a Land Asset Policy that invests in new natural assets as well as agricultural assets would empower landowners & rural communities to develop new rural economies.

Rewilding principles amount to a distinct and complimentary approach to biodiversity and landscape conservation – one that is about investing in new natural assets and that can be adapted to local context.

If we can agree a fundamental logic of what our land is for we all have a bright future.

Thank you for listening.

 

Paul JepsonRewilding and the uplands: perspectives on valuing nature
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