The BurrenBeo Learning Landscape Symposium is an annual event, every March, that aims to “bring together leading national and international specialists on the theme of how best to use our local places as a learning resource through different principles and practice in place-based learning”.
As such, it seems a good place to discuss ideas about the natural capital values and ecosystem services that our landscapes provide us with, but often only very inadequately recognised by mainstream economists, policy makers, and sometimes even conservationists.
So this year, environmental writer Paddy Woodworth and environmental economist Craig Bullock of the IFNC offered the organisers a workshop entitled “What is a native forest really worth? Integrating ALL the values of woodlands into our national accounting system through natural capital valuation”.
We were given a slot on the Sunday morning of this year’s weekend event, and we decided to do the workshop outdoors, a common and appropriate feature of Learning Landscape sessions. And we chose the relatively ancient hazel woodland in Slieve Carran nature reserve, precisely because this little forest might be regarded as almost without value in today’s economy – but only if the only value we see in a forest is commercial timber.
We got a good turnout of 15 people on a day on which snow and even hail were sweeping in off Galway Bay. Paddy and Craig gave brief presentations on general natural capital concepts at the car park, and we then managed the 15 minute hike to the start of the wood before the next shower hit.
Sheltered in under its low but magical canopy, we talked about how we could find market values in this landscape: pollination, carbon sequestration and – though not in this particular case – flood mitigation, and we discussed savings to health services through the physical and mental well-being communities experience when they have access to biodiverse native woodlands.
Further into the forest, at the remains of an archaeological site associated with St Colman, we talked about non-market values, such as aesthetic and spiritual cultural responses to nature, and the intrinsic value of biodiversity for its own sake. All around us, the understory biodiversity mostly hidden in winter here – carpets of wild garlic and wood anemone – were just becoming evident, even as snow floated down on us.
There were lively discussions on issues like how the discounting concept in economics – the value a resource may have in the future – might be applied to natural capital. Some people felt that the values locked up in nature, but threatened by climate change, might actually be even more valuable to societies in future than they are now, as they become scarcer and scarcer, making their conservation in the present all the more important.
On the hike back we broke into small groups for further informal discussion. Feedback was very positive. And more than one attendee undertook to spread information about the IFNC, about TEEB and natural capital advocate Pavan Sukhdev, through their own networks. So here is one happy outcome: