This post is by Eleanor Tew, runner-up of the Rachel Carson Prize 2019.

Eleanor Tew, runner-up of the Rachel Carson Prize 2019.

My PhD evaluated ecosystem service delivery in UK forestry. I’m an ecologist and conservationist by training. I like numbers and measuring what I observe in a quantifiable way, so I have to admit that I approached cultural ecosystem services with some trepidation. It seemed like a minefield of multiple disciplines, all offering different perspectives on the importance and meaning of cultural values, and how they can (or cannot) be measured. However, gradually I started to understand the different ideas (I recommend the People and Nature Editors’ papers as excellent places to start) and was encouraged by the call for researchers from multiple and varied disciplines to tackle the research questions. For me, the challenge was whether I could somehow measure the value that people placed on the natural environment (to generate the numbers that I knew how to analyse!) in a sympathetic way that didn’t ignore the complexity of human-nature interactions.

The focus of my research was to understand how policy and land management can influence the delivery of ecosystem services. For cultural ecosystem services this is particularly challenging, as their value is related to a multitude of landscape factors as well as heritage, history, and the different ways that people interact with the natural environment. This complexity has often led to their neglect, and a call to arms to close the gap between research and decision-making (see Gould et al.’s recent paper and the accompanying video). To approach this, I considered what we, as land managers or decision-makers, can actually influence. For example, we might not be able to re-route the river or move the mountain that inspires a sense of wonder or tranquillity, but we can and do alter the way that the surrounding landscape is managed. So, would it be better to have mixed deciduous woodland or open space next to the river or mountain?

Photo credit: Forestry England.

In the paper, my co-authors and I presented a novel methodology that disentangles the importance of these different factors – those that are fixed and those that are more easily influenced. The results therefore form the basis of tangible and practical management recommendations to increase landscape values for cultural ecosystem services. We used a combination of participatory GIS (we used Map-Me, which is an online spraycan tool that allows the user to capture ‘fuzzy’, vaguely defined ideas of place) and a random simulation method taking inspiration from site matching techniques.

In addition to the methodological innovation, the results of the case study presented in the paper are significant and highly topical. Tree planting in the UK has reached a new height of political importance as a strategy to tackle climate change, and large-scale afforestation is pledged over the coming years. The results of this paper – such as the importance of tree species diversity and open space to maximise cultural values – are of key relevance.

I was fortunate in that People and Nature was established around the time that I was searching for a suitable journal to send the paper. Its emphasis on content that crosses multiple disciplines (see the opening blog) was perfect. I tried hard to make sure that my manuscript appropriately addressed perspectives and ideas from the social sciences as well as the natural sciences that I was more familiar with. Then at review, the Editor and reviewers were very supportive and helpful in suggesting papers and authors whose work we hadn’t recognised in order to increase the overall context of the research.

Photo credit: The Forestry Commission.

I’ve presented the paper to a variety of audiences both in and out of academia, where it has been universally well received and stimulated lively discussion. The results and recommendations specific to Thetford Forest in east England have been welcomed by the forest managers and now form part of a management programme, which I am overseeing in my new job, post-PhD. I hope the paper is of interest to a wide range of people, academics and practitioners alike, and contributes further to the progress in incorporating cultural ecosystem services more effectively into decision-making.

I was so proud to have my paper published as one of the first in People and Nature, and I’m delighted that it has now been recognised as the runner-up for the Rachel Carson prize. Many thanks to the great team at People and Nature, and to my co-authors for their helpful discussions, ideas and input.