Conservation Covenants and Rewilding

By clairefowler

In January ELF was sent an email from Sussex Wildlife Trust regarding an emerging academic project at Sussex University for case studies of rewilding projects in light of the concept of “conservation covenants”. ELF’s Emma Montlake went to meet Dr Christopher Sandom, senior lecturer in Biology, specialising in rewilding and paleo ecology and Dr Bonnie Holligan, a law professor and lecturer In Property Law (Law, Sussex Sustainability Research Programme). Read on for website

A most interesting conversation ensued, they are looking for partners and case studies in their exploration of what “conservation covenants” (as set out in the Environment Bill) might have to be capable of where rewilding was the objective. How a covenant would need to define the terms of not doing something and accommodating multiple outcomes, which may be unknown but which will increase biodiversity. See here for the full text of the project. Please contact Christopher or Bonnie if you are interested. ELF certainly is. Later in the year we will hold a public event on “Conservation Covenants”. Link here to further information.

The project explores the conflict between dynamic/diverse ecosystems and attempts to capture and stabilise biodiversity by legal and economic systems.

Rewilding is gaining increasing attention as a means of restoring nature and ecosystem services. However, a key tenet of rewilding is to allow natural processes, as driven by plants, animals, and natural events like flooding, fire, and storms, to determine natures form and composition in any particular place and time.

The outcomes of a nature-led ecosystem are inherently dynamic and so uncertain. As a result, the form of the ecosystem in any particular place and time cannot be precisely predicted.

Legal frameworks are often designed with stability rather than responsiveness in mind. Environmental protection regimes find it easier to focus on preserving existing biodiversity rather than facilitating change. This is particularly true when biodiversity values are linked to financial values. The creation of markets in ecosystem services depends on the construction of a stable commodity, whether tonnes of CO2 equivalent or units of biodiversity.

Proposals in the UK Government’s recent Environment Bill (expected to be reintroduced in the new parliamentary session) seek to quantify biodiversity in the form of biodiversity credits and secure biodiversity gains over long periods of time through a new legal mechanism, the conservation covenant. Conservation covenants involve the creation of long-term obligations in relation to land. It is not clear to what extent they will facilitate flexible and responsive land management.

There is potential for a positive relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem service delivery. Diverse ecosystems provide a diverse suite of ecosystem services. But, again there is difficulty predicting the exact composition of the ecosystem services delivered. When considering payment for ecosystem services, and, in particular, the creation of long-term obligations such as conservation covenants, the lack of certainty regarding the actions that might be required and the results that may be achieved presents real challenges.

There is a need to explore how legal systems mechanisms can allow uncertainty in the specific structure of ecosystems and the composition of species and ES supported in order to support dynamic systems that supports biodiversity and provides the richness in ecosystem services society needs.

We propose an interdisciplinary research pilot project to explore how the dynamics of nature can be supported within legal frameworks that aim to secure provision of ecosystem services, such as conservation covenants. The initial method of research would be desk-based research, interviews, case studies, and workshops.