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  • Writer's pictureFiona Smith

Ireland’s progress in mapping natural capital

Before you can value nature, you need to know what benefits it’s providing, and how it provides them. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has recently completed a pilot study to map some of the potential stocks of Ireland’s ecosystem services. Gemma Weir (NPWS) discusses the project’s progress to date.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service recently completed a project to map and assess a selection of Ireland’s ecosystem services. We did this in response to the EU Biodiversity Strategy, in which the European Commission called on Member States (under Target 2, Action 5) to:

Map and assess the state of ecosystems and their services in their national territoryAssess the economic value of such servicesPromote the integration of these values into accounting and reporting systems at EU and national level ​In doing so, the Strategy aims to support the achievement of over-arching aims around No Net Loss of biodiversity, green infrastructure, the prioritisation of restoration, and biodiversity-proofing the plans and policies of other sectors...

Video: Gemma Weir presenting Ireland's Progress in Mapping Natural Capital at Chartered Accountants' House - 7th February 2017. Slides available here.

The Commission is figuring out how to do this itself and also helping Member States to do it through the Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystem Services (MAES) project and its associated expert working group. This consists of official representatives of EU Member States, experts affiliated to different European Commission services and of the European Environment Agency, as well as independent scientists. Ireland is represented on this group by NPWS. MAES developed a common analytical framework, in which biodiversity is linked to human well-being. The framework utilises a common language for classifying ecosystems and their services (Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services [CICES]). This common approach will allow comparison between projects and assessments in different locations.

Ecosystem Services Mapping and Assessment is still developing. The MAES working group are working to address some key knowledge and data gaps, such as; looking at the links between biodiversity and ecosystem condition and the ability of ecosystems to deliver one or many services, and also the scaling of data and indicators for assessments at different spatial scales.

Designing the Project

NPWS commissioned a short (six) month project to map a suite of prioritised ecosystem services in Ireland using available tools and data. Having reviewed approaches for mapping and assessing ecosystem services in other countries we saw that the JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the UK's statutory adviser to the government on nature conservation issues) had invested considerable resources and expertise in ecosystem assessment and mapping. The ‘spatial framework approach for mapping ecosystem services’ which they commissioned seemed like a good starting point for us because it considered the evidence needs as well as the suitability of different types of data at different scales and how data could be combined.

The NPWS project was awarded to a consortium led by the Welsh based company Environment Systems Ltd, who had developed the spatial framework approach for the JNCC. and leading experts in CICES and ecosystem services assessments. We started with a three-pronged approach: 1) Reviewing policies across Government to see what the key pressures were on biodiversity (for example, in agriculture, forestry, water, etc.), 2) Consulting with stakeholders through a series of workshops to a) explore the data that we had and how it could be combined to map and value services according to CICES, and b) to select ecosystem services to focus on. In doing so, we also wanted to raise awareness and build capacity both in NPWS and with the wider academic and scientific community.

Key factors influencing ecosystem services

The spatial framework approach (termed ‘SENSE’ by the consultants) is based on a model of a set of key factors influencing service provision:Above ground cover (what habitat is present)Below ground (soil, geology)Spatial context (where it sits within the landscape, topography, climate)Management (how it’s being used, e.g. type of farming or cultural uses) Through the cooperation with many public bodies, we sourced and collated several hundred terrestrial and marine environmental data sets as potential indicators for these key factors. Only data available nationally could be incorporated to avoid local or regional distortions in the modeled outputs. Weightings, based on scientific literature, expert opinion and stakeholder consultation, were assigned to the spatial indicators, according to their relative influence on the different ecosystem services. The resultant outputs include a set of weighted spatial indicators combined to generate qualitative ecosystem services maps.

Fig 1: Key factors & rules base

​Proxies were developed to cover data gaps

Where there were critical data gaps (such as the lack of a continuous national habitat map), proxy map layers were generated. The project’s proxy Habitat Asset Register has been based on the mixed data available to define the extent of different habitats nationally. It was a considerable undertaking to develop. However there wasn’t enough data to enable us to map the spatial variation in condition or status of ecosystems at national level. Proxies were created for land use, too: in the absence of any land use mapping, we used spatially-based farm and forestry payment systems (LPIS and FIPS) as indicators of land use and management. By applying spatial network models to inputs such as the Habitat Asset Register and others, it was possible to generate ecological network maps (to show areas for potential habitat network expansion (grasslands, woodlands, wetlands). Hundreds of thousands of terrestrial species locations (from NPWS, NBDC and others) were combined to generate a heat map of legally protected and other policy relevant terrestrial species. By combining selected ‘intermediate’ layers, maps of biodiversity (terrestrial and marine) have been created to show areas of relative biodiversity hot spots. Project Outputs

The Habitat Asset Register above was an ‘intermediate’ output, developed by the project to create a seamless spatial indicator of the living systems that support ecosystem services. This is an important project output and component of the spatial framework for ecosystem services mapping and assessment for Ireland in and of itself.

Fig 2: Habitat Asset Register: Proxy spatial indicator for living systems

The mapped service outputs are high-level maps of potential stocks of ecosystem services showing where in the landscape the service is predicted to be high or low. Due to the lack of consistent national data to describe the spatial variation in ecosystem state and trends, the outputs do not capture current or future capacity to deliver a given service.

Fig 3: Potential ecosystem services

The Qualitative rankings of factors that determine ecosystem services (e.g. soils, geology, land cover, management, landform) are stored in a transparent ‘rules base’ which can be readily updated as new data or evidence becomes available. Identification of knowledge and data gaps for each map, and identified projects that were going on that could plug into our maps in the future. A map is a process, so it’s important that it can be improved on as new information becomes available A query-able database which holds details of available Irish data sources allows users to explore the data requirements for mapping selected CICES services for Ireland and vice versa. There is still some way to go; we hope to build on this national spatial framework to look at ecosystem services hotspots, and opportunity and risk mapping. The models and inputs can be refined for specific sectoral and local decision-making - we’re running pilot projects in Kerry and Dublin to look more closely at just how to do that – and we’re keen to work with potential end users to ensure that the maps are as useful as possible. We will continue to follow the work being done on spatial indicators of condition and integration for assessments. In the meantime, what we have produced to date shows - at an all-Ireland level - that land delivers more value than just productivity. These maps also identify risks and opportunities around ecosystem service provision, help to inform the thinking around trade-offs between ecosystem services some and, by consolidating the bio-physical building blocks, help us move towards socio-economic assessment of the benefits and values that ecosystem services provide.

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