Game of Cones

Enlisting people’s help to keep our trees healthy was the task of a team representing SEFARI at the recent science showcase event UnEarthed, held at Dynamic Earth Edinburgh. The event was put on by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to engage the public with environmental science through hands-on activities, and was the largest NERC showcase to date with over 7,000 people visiting between 17 – 20 November.

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The showcase was targeted at families and school groups. Two of the four days were advertised to schools in areas of deprivation, and grants were available for transport costs in order to remove the main barrier to attendance.

As well as communicating the science UnEarthed was very much about showcasing best practice in public engagement. All proposals went through a selection process and the support provided by NERC at all stages was exceptional.

So why do we need the public to care about and act on tree health? In short we need more people to be on the lookout for pests and diseases and reporting them so that the authorities can take appropriate action. The UK plant health risk register has around 1,000 threats listed, but the worrying statistic is the rate of growth at between 5 – 10 new pest threats per month. This onslaught of pests and diseases is a product of the modern world where goods and people move ever more freely around the planet.

This threat is particularly relevant to Scotland. We have a strong forestry sector and in recent years around three quarters of all the trees planted in the UK have been planted in Scotland. The Scottish Government also has ambitious targets to increase tree cover for a variety of reasons including economic and wildlife benefits as well as the capture of carbon from the atmosphere. To get people thinking about these issues, a group of seven research institutes including three from SEFARI – Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, SRUC and The James Hutton Institute – came together to develop the forest management computer game CALEDON which is free and available to download at home.

Bringing CALEDON to UnEarthed, along with other hands-on activities, was the latest public engagement event for the PROTREE project, a part of the UK’s Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative, which developed the game working with games designers at Dundee-based Hyper Luminal Games. The game puts the player in charge of a virtual forest and they have to make decisions and develop strategy to keep their forest healthy. Planting and felling to maintain a viable business is the basis of the game, but it is how you decide to deal with the inevitable pests and diseases that will determine your success or failure. The game provides tips on strategy and has an encyclopaedia you can explore for more information.

The game was very popular with children and some fierce competition to record high scores suggests that the game does succeed by being fun to play. The game also provides an excellent stimulus to discussion of the issues, as even just getting across the message that trees do get sick is a step in the right direction. UnEarthed was a great opportunity to speak to teachers about using the game in the classroom and for those who wanted to get more involved there was also information available on citizen science initiatives including the Observatree monitoring project, the reporting tool Tree Alert and the OPAL Tree Health Survey.

Dr Max Coleman, Science Communicator, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

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Representing SEFARI at UK Parliament

Leaving the European Union could have major repercussions on a wide range of environmental and land use concerns within Scotland, and across the whole of the UK. Whilst some of these issues may seem complex, it is increasingly recognised that SEFARI contains a wealth of expertise which can contribute to such discussions. Of course our place is not to delve into the politics, but to use our research and expertise to provide an evidence-led platform for discussion.

To this end, I was recently invited to represent SEFARI at an event in the UK Parliament, organised by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology (POST).

Davy's Blog

The meeting brought together a small number of recognised scientific experts to discuss such issues with the Houses of Commons and House of Lords committee’s subject advisers.  Representatives from the Environmental Audit; Environment, Food & Rural  Affairs; EU, Energy &Environment (Lords); European Scrutiny; Exiting the EU; Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs; Scottish Affairs; Welsh Affairs; and Women & Equalities committees were all present on the day, reflecting how integral environmental issues are to a wide range of parliamentary interests.

There are clearly a range of environmental concerns (such as addressing farmland biodiversity declines and tackling diffuse pollution at a catchment scale) which are common across the UK. But, my remit on the day was to highlight some of the additional environmental issues which were likely to be much a higher priority in Scotland, when compared to the rest of the UK.

I began by stressing that land managers have a huge role to play in helping to tackle environmental issues on behalf of wider society, and consequently it is essential that future mechanisms can appropriately support the different types of agriculture practised in Scotland. Leaving the European Union could present a real risk to the more vulnerable livestock systems in Scotland’s mountains and islands, especially those High Nature Value farming systems which cover over 40% of Scotland’s agricultural land and where the continuation of agricultural management is considered to be of high nature conservation importance. Any abandonment of farming in those areas could have a detrimental impact on the rural communities, habitats and wildlife species associated with them.

I also highlighted ambitious climate change targets as a major driver of Scotland’s environmental focus, with the Scottish Government proposing further ambitious revisions to our existing targets. Key targets include: obtaining 50% of heating, transport and electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030; to restore 250,000 ha of degraded peatlands by 2032; and a desire to markedly increase woodland cover in Scotland beyond the current 18% land cover. All these targets are aimed at reducing Scotland’s overall greenhouse gas emissions to 90% of 1990 levels by 2050 and (in recent revisions) to 56% of 1990 levels by 2020.

I was able to make the point that all these environmental issues cannot be seen in isolation from each other, and that actions to mitigate for one issue have the potential to be beneficial or have adverse impacts for other issues. That’s why there is a pressing need to understand the systems underpinning, and trade-offs associated with, any land management practice or land use change. This means landscape scale policies and practices must be designed and implemented accordingly.

The meeting was also attended by:

Sasha Leigh, Head of Policy Partnerships, who provided an overview of NERC’s new Environmental Evidence for the Future initiative which will seek to define, prioritise and address the medium- to long-term knowledge gaps in the environmental science evidence base post-Brexit;

Andy Jordan, working on political aspects of Brexit at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who outlined a number of legislative and logistical challenges to dealing with environmental issues in the run-up to Brexit; and

Nick Wells, Centre of Ecology & Hydrology, who outlined the challenges and gaps in understanding associated with a range of cross-UK environmental issues, such as support for environmental management by farmers, achieving good ecological condition of waterbodies, addressing air pollution, ensuring biosecurity associated with plant and animal imports and maintaining and enhancing biodiversity in protected sites.

I have engaged quite a bit with MSPs in the Scottish Parliament in recent years and provided evidence a number of times to what is now the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform Committee.  It was very interesting to be able to highlight where the Scottish environmental perspective can be quite distinctive when viewed through a UK parliamentary lens.  It was therefore very pleasing to see that SEFARI was able to bring something different to the discussions.

The meeting was a great opportunity for SEFARI, one we hope to build on as we contribute where we can to discussions around Leaving the European Union.

Davy McCracken

Professor of Agricultural Ecology and Head of Hill & Mountain Research Centre Future Farming Systems

Showtime!

Or at least Showcase Time…

We’re beginning to get a little paranoid at SEFARI HQ. On the day of our first significant set-piece, our launch event, Article 50 was triggered, signalling the start of the formal process for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. On the day of our second major set-piece, a research showcase event, the Prime Minister called for a general election!

The showcase event was a celebration of SEFARI research and delivery. Taking place in the magnificent surroundings of the Garden Lobby in the Scottish Parliament this was an opportunity to explore, with Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and guests, the rich seam of research delivered on food, land, environment and agriculture by the six Research Institutes who make up SEFARI.

The tone for the evening was set by our sponsor for the event, David Stewart MSP (pictured). He explained that science and research had been the foundation for much work he had carried out during his time as an elected representative in both the UK and Scottish Parliaments. In particular he highlighted the issue of diabetes, on which he has long campaigned.

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The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, in delivering a keynote address, referred back to her launching of SEFARI, up Castelaw Hill in the Pentlands. She talked how she experienced, first-hand, how the right experts can help understanding of a landscape – in that case in the context of the vital topic of climate change.

Professor Peter Morgan, as Executive Chair of SEFARI, outlined that whilst the six Research Institutes which make up SEFARI had always worked together, the establishment of SEFARI brings a renewed clarity of purpose and function to the work of all the Institutes.

Graeme Cook, Director of SEFARI Gateway, responsible for improving how SEFARI research gets used, asked those present to take a stake in what SEFARI is able to deliver – and so share in how successful the work of SEFARI can be – how can we really make best use of the immense resource of knowledge and expertise we have on our doorstep?

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All the speeches had clear threads running through them – that good research, targeted well, in the right format, and well-timed, is vital for policy development, scrutiny, business and improved individual choices. From that comes a clear challenge – how to make it more accessible and useful. Onto that challenge…

Andrew Kelloe ¦ Research and Communications Officer¦ SEFARI