Taking stock: Key messages from our paper on applying Natural capital in an Irish catchment context

Updated: May 6

Dr Catherine Farrell outlines key findings from our newly published paper on using the UN's System of Environmental Economic Accounting-Ecosystem Accounting to map and assess the extent & condition of natural stocks at catchment level in Ireland for the first time.

Anyone who owns anything understands the concept of a stock take. And we often hear the phrase 'taking stock' in relation to assessing where we are at – either in a project, in life, in training – whatever endeavour we are taking part in. Makes sense doesn’t it? Before we can move on, we must understand what we have achieved, where we are at, or what we have, before we head into the next work of the future.

Stock is something we look after, or we build on, depending on our perspective. From solid stocks flow reliable benefits. So too with natural systems, from land to sea. Take our freshwater systems - how many rivers and lakes do we have? Are they big, small, are they changing in number or extent? Are they working well enough to support those that depend on them (think people, but also salmon and trout) and what is the water like within? Is it clear enough to see through to a gravel bed or is it dark and murky like a bog hole?

Part of the work of INCASE is to build a picture of how our natural stocks are doing – where and what they are, and what condition or quality (think health check) they are in. If stocks are in good health, they work for us, but if they are suffering or declining, they won’t work as well and we can’t rely on them. Unless of course, we take time to look after them – to nurse them back to health – that means to re-invest.

Our first steps in INCASE were to gather the data around one of our catchments – the Dargle - and see what kind of picture we could build about how the natural stocks (aka natural capital) were doing. We gathered data on everything – starting with the bedrock, and all that lies beneath the fine skin of soil that supports life as we see it.

We talked to a lot of very dedicated people in Ireland who are specialists in the geological and ecological layers, and we gained understanding of what we might use to best effect in building the knowledge around those stocks (the extent and condition accounts). Thanks to everyone who helped us on the way. The array of agencies that hold the data is many (mind boggling) and highlighted well by our GIS analyst, Lisa Coleman, at the Data 4 Nature workshop.

The fruits of our labour are mapped out in a publication on geosystem services from 2020 and another specifically on ecosystems, in what we in the INCASE team called our Stocks paper, published in One Ecosystem in April 2021. The paper explains it all, but here we've tried to condense some of the key messages that might inspire you to have a more in-depth read.

Data, data everywhere…

So much data. And really great, smart people organising it in their own way and for their own purpose. If that data were aligned (in some way) it might be better used. Lisa talks about that here. The establishment of a centralised data platform would facilitate wider use of data, not least for the development of natural capital accounts, but for more holistic/joined-up decision-making.

Landcover and land use does not equal ecosystem, but it’s all we have for now

We used CORINE mapping which are reliable time series landcover data (freely available to everyone) but isn’t ideal for use at catchment or local scale to determine extent and type of ecosystems (at 25 hectare resolution it misses important stuff that might be only a hectare in size – think small wetlands in the corner of a field). Landcover is indicative of what is growing or not growing at a given time – and land cover is a different beast altogether compared to a land use map. A peatland may be covered in conifers – does that make it a forest or a peatland? And it might be used for amenity but it’s long-term use is timber production. The upcoming OSI Landcover map (highlighted in the EPA’s State of the Environment report) should give us more detail than CORINE - we can’t wait to use it!

Natural or not natural?

Most of the habitats that we see on the landscape of Ireland are modified. At best, some areas of peatland, woodland and freshwater rivers and lakes are semi / near natural. What’s left in between is artificial / derived forest, urban (think concrete and tar) spaces, grassland and arable land, with precious corridors of former woodland in the shape of hedgerows in between. We note (with enthusiasm) that hedgerows make up more than the total area of tree cover in the Dargle catchment when you only add up the forests and woodlands evident from CORINE. Hurray for hedgerows – lifelines for nature.

Forests are different to Woodlands

Commercial plantations are highly managed, usually comprising exotic and faster growing species than we have naturally occurring in Ireland. That’s not to say they aren’t diverse; they support an array of species and provide really important amenity (green) spaces for the urban and rural dwellers of the Dargle. Woodlands are something different though – not managed for the intent of cropping. Precious remnants of Old Oak and Alluvial (that means wet areas along flood plains) woodland persist in the valleys of Wicklow – we need to look after them. These are akin to living Seamus Heaney poems.

All grasslands are not the same…

…but it’s impossible to tell the difference from space (which is where the data come from for the landcover maps). This is a challenge and again, a national ecosystem map as opposed to a landcover or land use map would save us all the bother of guessing and making wild assumptions about what might or might not be left of semi-natural grasslands.

The living dead

Based on aerial imagery and what we could scavenge in terms of habitat surveys, most of the bogs and heathlands in the Dargle are degraded (drained, overgrazed or burned). What gets burned gets savaged by bracken, and that’s no good for nature or farmer. The bogs in the Dargle were drained decades ago, so the damage pre-dates this generation. Equally the heathlands were consumed by forest (conifers grow very well on the valley slopes so why not?). One hundred years ago it was a very different landscape. What’s the message? Our signature on the land is ever changing.

People love nature

All across the Dargle people are walking in the hills and down the wooded glens, enjoying the incredible seascapes, and relishing in the mystical upland mists. Nature here – the ecosystems draped across the geological heritage scaffold – is spectacular. And we love it! Car parks, golf courses, hill trails and a dense network of viewing points make this place a rich reward for anyone looking out their winter (or any season) window.

Thoughts and next steps

These are but a few insights. How do people make a living in this catchment – with difficulty as our friend and farmer Philip Maguire has so openly described for us. But more importantly for the focus of our work – how are the ecosystems sustaining their living? What shape is the stock in? Hard to tell because people have never really asked those questions before, though we need to ask them now. The water quality tells us: not too bad in the sub-basins and overall okay, but there are continual pressures relating to the numbers of people (think wastewater), roads, the structural changes we made to the rivers and the effects of forest practice in places.

Taking stock can be a frightening experience, especially if you find that the cupboard is bare. We’re not quite there yet and INCASE is about phrasing the questions to get answers as to how we can use the stocks we have left, but use them wisely. That means investing. And yes, that means trade-offs and more than likely, (policy aka politically) unpopular choices.

That’s the next step for us – tracking how we use these remaining, dwindling stocks and the shape of their contributions to our sustainable living (the services and benefits). The evidence to date tells us we need to start using them wisely, but the devil is in the detail, and that’s what we aim to tease out.

Taking stock of nature needs to become a routine part of our nature, but not just that. It must also be integrated into all of our decision making, be it at business, planning, county, local action or political levels. Working together, we can figure it out.

Read our full 'Stocks paper' aka 'Applying the System of Environmental Economic Accounting-Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA-EA) framework at catchment scale to develop ecosystem extent and condition accounts' - authored by Catherine Anne Farrell, Lisa Coleman, Mary Kelly-Quinn, Carl G Obst, Mark Eigenraam, Daniel Norton, Cathal O'Donoghue, Stephen Kinsella, Orlaith Delargy, Jane C Stout - accessible free at One Ecosystem.