This is the second of a series of posts about conservation and project management. I’ll try not to be too boring and I promise you will learn something – I certainly have. I believe that this material contains some ideas that are fairly novel and are applicable to a wider range of problems than just nature conservation.
My intention is to put together a bunch of ideas that I can tailor to a variety of different audiences and present in a number of ways. If you want me to come and present this material, or tailor it for use on your blog or in your publication, then please get in touch.
In the first post in this series (here) I compared bitterns and skylarks and concluded that when we know what the problem is, have worked out a solution, have tailored that solution to the local context, and have worked out how to sustain that solution, then we can successfully deliver species conservation.
On the day that I started to write this post, skylarks were clearly trying to tell me that they were ok really. I walked for about eight hours, and for the majority of that time I could hear singing skylarks. I was walking the boundaries of a town in the Thames Valley and most of my route was past flood meadows, horse fields and waste land. Only a small proportion of the countryside that I passed was crop fields.
Skylarks and curlews are both birds. They are both brown and stripy, they have both graced dining tables in the past, and at certain times of year you are more likely to hear them than see them. The UK populations of both species are declining and conservationists are worried. However, the key difference is that with skylarks we have a solution, even if it doesn’t appear to be working, and with curlews we don’t.
For more information on skylarks, see my previous post (bitterns and skylarks)
The curlew is a large wading bird with a haunting onomatopoeic call. In summer, they breed in upland areas and on similar habitat in the islands of the north and west. In winter, they can be found in estuaries all around our coast. Their curlew, curlew, curlew cry is a sound that I associate with moorland.
Curlews have recently had their national and international conservation statuses changed to reflect their declining numbers and conservationist’s concerns. The UK holds 28% of the European breeding population and is an important wintering stop for curlews breeding further north, mostly in Scandinavia. There has been a 48% decline in the UK breeding population in the last 20 years and a 15% decline in the European population over a similar time period. (BTO, 2019)
The RSPB suggest that the reasons for the curlews decline in the UK include upland farming and drainage, forestry, and predation. It is also likely that the degradation of our estuaries has an impact on both the breeding and wintering populations. (RSPB, 2018)
There are lots of theories about what can be done, including the proposal that predators should be removed from important nesting sites. Several studies have shown that ground-nesting birds, like curlews, do well on moorland managed for driven grouse shooting. However, this seems to be to the detriment of other wildlife and ecosystem services (Wikipedia, 2019).
Removing conifer plantations seems to be having a positive impact on the numbers of curlews, and other moorland birds, in areas like Forsinard in north-east Scotland. As well as providing additional nesting habitat, conservations believe that fox and corvid predation is a problem where curlew nesting sites are near woodland.
On Orkney, curlew numbers are high in part because of the low numbers of mammalian predators. However, on some of the islands, curlew eggs are increasingly being predated by great skuas (“bonxies”) which are themselves recovering from persecution.
With skylarks we have a solution, but it might not be right. With curlews we don’t currently have a solution. However, the RSPB has been running a research project where they are trialling six different interventions, including predator control to determine which works best. I am convinced that this approach, which my former IT colleagues would call “prototyping” is right, but the conservationists and conservation scientists need to do a better job of adopting some of the rules of prototyping.
Prototyping, the idea that you try out a solution on a small scale to see if it works, is related to a project management approach called “agile”. In an agile project, you work closely with your customer to develop a solution quickly, and then improve that solution iteratively. Successful agile projects require teams of people with a range of skills working together full-time to achieve an agreed objective. The main difference from traditional project management is that the customer’s requirements don’t have to be well-defined in advance.
I contend that conservation projects where we can define the problem (the UK breeding population of curlews is declining), but we don’t have a solution should adopt the following concepts from prototyping and agile. Conservationists should identify a range of potential interventions and then create teams / projects to deliver each of those interventions. If an intervention doesn’t work, then it should be stopped immediately. If an intervention works, then that team should be asked what can be learnt and what can be done to improve it. As new potential solutions are identified they should be considered for future breeding seasons.
My theory is that different project approaches are needed for different types of conservation projects. For projects where we know what the problem is, we have a solution, and that solution works and is repeatable, then we must use traditional project management tools to ensure that those projects are delivered efficiently and effectively, and the solution is sustainable. For projects where we know what the problem is but don’t have a solution, then we should trial a number of interventions. During these trials, resources must be swiftly removed from interventions that are not working, lessons must be shared with all teams involved in that particular conservation effort, and the project teams must also recognise the context in which their solution works (e.g. skylark plots only work on arable farms where farmers are prepared to leave patches, they don’t work on flood meadows etc.)
BTO, 2019. BTO Curlew Appeal. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bto.org/support-us/appeals/bto-curlew-appeal
[Accessed 25 March 2019].
RSPB, 2018. Curlew Conservation. [Online]
Available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/curlew/conservation/
[Accessed 25 March 2019].
Wikipedia, 2019. Driven grouse shooting. [Online]
Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driven_grouse_shooting
[Accessed 08 April 2019].