A new toolkit to help navigate diverse perspectives in landscape restoration

Posted: 10th June 2024

David Morris

People have diverse and strongly held views about landscapes, particularly when they are deeply embedded with places, potentially over generations. Because of this, proposals for restoration often generate lively debates about what landscapes should look like, about the jobs and livelihoods that should be associated with them, and about changes in vegetation and wildlife.

How restoration initiatives encounter and respond to these debates can be challenging, and so far, there has been little guidance on how best to approach these debates.  A year-long research project by the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge has created a toolkit to help UK restoration practitioners understand and discuss different stakeholder views and manage disagreements respectfully and productively. The toolkit includes two main components: a survey to gather data on stakeholder perspectives, and workshops where stakeholders discuss and interpret the survey results.

Political ecologist Dr Annette Green, a key member of the project team, reflects on the process of creating the toolkit and the importance of partnership in restoration. To develop the toolkit, the team used the Cumbria Connect restoration landscape as a case study.

Cumbria Connect: a partnership case study

Cumbria is home to a uniquely treasured landscape in the UK. The Lake District is a World Heritage Site, singled out by UNESCO as possessing a unique cultural aesthetic, curated by traditional farming and husbandry practices, which has persisted over several centuries. For many modern-day tourists, the county of Cumbria still represents a bucolic idyll.

Other observers, however, consider the Cumbrian landscape to be an ecological disaster zone. For these people, the sheep that dot the rolling Cumbrian hills are destructive, grazing closely to create the clipped grassy slopes that are emblematic of the Lake District, and preventing other, more varied vegetation from establishing.

Ruined stone cottage with lakes and dales in the background.

High Loup, Mardale Common. Photo: Patrick Neaves.

Debates about the state of the Cumbrian landscape often play out publicly in the pages of national newspapers or live debates – and frequently, they are reduced to the extremes presented above: Cumbria is either a cultural landscape to be preserved and cherished, or an ecological wasteland which should be transformed. Public figures weigh in; disagreements intensify; and complexity or nuance in these perspectives is all but lost. At the same time, the UK’s departure from the EU has catalysed a transformation in the government’s approach to farming, which is increasingly orientated towards the delivery of public goods, including clean air, thriving plants and wildlife, and clean and plentiful water. This will have far-reaching implications for upland farmers in Cumbria, both economically and emotionally.

This is the context in which the Cumbria Connect project has been working since launching in 2021. Cumbria Connect is an Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme restoration landscape project, with the aim to restore 33,000 hectares of English upland landscape. Based in eastern Cumbria, it is a collaborative project between RSPB, Unted Utilities, Natural England and the Lowther Estate, working to restore natural processes in a set of core sites, and supporting farmers and land managers outside of these core sites.

In order to work effectively with its many stakeholders in this complex, sometimes contentious restoration context, the Cumbria Connect project needs to sensitively navigate those many and varied perspectives on land management and restoration. This includes the perspectives of project staff, partner organisations, and those who live and work in the project landscape – particularly farmers.

Developing and testing the toolkit

We developed and tested a toolkit using real-life restoration case studies, ensuring its practical application. In the first stage a user-friendly survey on land management was carried out in the Cumbria Connect landscape, targeting key stakeholder groups.

Participants rated thirty statements, revealing both consensus and contention, especially on issues related to local versus scientific knowledge and the impact of change. Following the survey, we carried out a workshop using a format we developed where participants can discuss their viewpoints in a structured and respectful setting.

 

Example result from RPD toolkit survey (Statement ‘I am concerned there will no longer be a place for me in this landscape if it changes too much’)

Feedback from workshop participants was very positive. A Cumbrian farmer remarked that he was encouraged to learn that “broadly speaking we all wanted the same fundamental goals achieved, but not always in the same way,” adding that it was “still enlightening to hear the opposing viewpoint and opinions.”

Looking forward

The work we did with Cumbria Connect was the first iteration of what has become the adaptable and free-to-use Restoration Partnership Development toolkit. The toolkit is available in app format, with a self-guided training manual, and has been designed to help restoration practitioners and project leaders better understand key stakeholder perspectives.

Stakeholders’ perspectives in most landscapes are shaped by  their personal and professional experiences, knowledge, values, and priorities. These differences are frequently at the root of conflict, which technical approaches usually can’t fix. This toolkit helps start meaningful conversations in restoration projects. Instead of forcing consensus or ignoring disagreements, it highlights them and encourages stakeholders to reflect on all perspectives with respect and without judgment. By fostering mutual understanding and trust, the toolkit helps stakeholders collaborate more effectively, even when they disagree.

To access the toolkit, visit the ‘Toolkit for Restoration Partnerships’ project page.


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