What do we need to know to achieve Europe’s restoration targets?

A paper published today in the journal Biological Conservation identifies 100 questions that, if answered, would make a significant difference to the restoration of Europe’s terrestrial and marine environments. The questions will help identify new directions for researchers and policy-makers, and assist funders and programme managers in allocating funds and planning projects. Answering these questions should lead to improved understanding, and more effective implementation of landscape-scale ecological restoration in Europe.

When it comes to conserving biodiversity, we know that a defensive strategy won’t be enough. This is the approach that currently underpins conservation policy and regulation worldwide – efforts to protect what is there, in the places that are most important for biodiversity because of their species richness, diversity or rarity.

But important as defence is, it won’t halt, let alone reverse, the loss of nature and natural ecosystem processes. In Europe, whilst the fitness check of the Birds and Habitats Directives – the legislative under-pinning of biodiversity conservation – concluded that they are ‘fit for purpose’, the Mid-Term review of the EU’s Environment Strategy, carried out in 2015, revealed the inadequacy of current measures. Across Europe species populations, habitats and ecosystem services are all in decline, and the reason for this is largely attributed to the loss and fragmentation of natural habitat.

The extent of habitat degradation and fragmentation has reached a stage where we need to start thinking much more about how to bring nature back – we need strategies that restore natural ecological processes, that create opportunities for natural populations to re-colonise and recover. We need to reconnect the remaining fragments to establish populations and ecosystems that are resilient to climate change. And we need to do this at a large scale – we need to restore our landscapes.

This imperative is increasingly embedded in biodiversity-focused policy and plans. The Convention on Biological Diversity has a target to restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems, a target also picked up in the EU Biodiversity Strategy. And nationally, in the UK for example, the recently published 25 Year Environment Plan has ambitious targets to restore 75% of the UK’s one million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to favourable condition; to create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat outside the protected site network; and to increase woodland cover by planting on 180,000 hectares.

These are challenging targets and will require significant investment if they are to be achieved. Resources will need to be spent wisely, by prioritising the restoration actions that are most efficient and effective – and to satisfy the scrutiny of tax payers and donors. But restoration isn’t straightforward. It has often been said that it needs only limited knowledge to take a machine apart, but to rebuild it requires a deep understanding of how it works and the function and inter-relation of the different parts. The same can be said of ecosystems, and it’s not just the ecological elements that we need to understand. We need to get to grips with their interactions with economic, political, institutional and cultural factors if initiatives are to have a chance of being successful – and sustainable.

So where are the knowledge gaps – the areas where research should be focused to ensure the achievement of these restoration targets in Europe? That is the question that experts gathered at the  Cambridge Conservation Initiative’s David Attenborough Building last November sought to answer. The results of that meeting , convened by the Endangered Landscapes Programme and the Society for Ecological Restoration-Europe Chapter, have just been published in a paper in the journal Biological Conservation.

The 100 questions that are outlined in the paper cover a wide range of subjects, habitats and approaches, and were whittled down from an initial set of nearly 700 questions, by a group of 37 restoration experts from a range of different backgrounds.

The workshop’s emphasis on landscape restoration, with its large spatial scale, means that social, cultural and economic factors feature heavily in the questions listed. Working at large scale almost invariably means that the homes and livelihoods of people are affected, and understanding the relationships between culture, local economies, the environment and community engagement becomes critical to gaining local support, and ultimately success.

Another dominant theme is connectivity. Europe’s mosaic of habitats, the flow of ecosystem services between regions, and the impact of climate change on species and habitats mean that improving our understanding of how these systems interact and how to support their recovery will be vital for effective large-scale restoration.

The questions also reflect the recent rapid rise in interest in carrying out major marine restoration, due to increasing concern about the severity of the degradation of European oceans and the resources they support. There has been progress in the development of methods for the restoration of some marine and coastal habitats, such as oyster beds and seagrass meadows, but the questions revealed that much more needs to be done to fully understand how to restore the marine environment.

The knowledge gaps that the paper reveals suggest that interest in long-term landscape-scale restoration projects may be advancing ahead of the knowledge base – which may be unsurprising given the recent rapid rise in awareness and implementation of restoration. The short time that most projects have been in place, and the patchy monitoring that has been reported suggest that this review of gaps in our understanding and knowledge is timely. It is an exciting time for landscape-scale restoration projects across Europe. The questions posed in the paper should help to focus research efforts, to allow the increased implementation and effectiveness of these programmes.

Until 2nd May 2018 the paper is available to download for free by clicking this link https://authors.elsevier.com/c/1WixV1R~e75JC.

The Endangered Landscapes Programme is funded by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.