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What Works in Freshwater Conservation?

August 16, 2016
lakenheath fen 3

Lakenheath Fen, where wetland and reedbeds were restored on arable land in the 1990s, and which now supports rich biodiversity. Image: Claire Wordley

Last year, the Conservation Evidence group at the University of Cambridge published a book titled ‘What Works in Conservation‘. Published as both hard copy and open-access pdf, the book compiles cutting-edge research assessing the effectiveness of conservation measures in protecting and improving the world’s ecosystems.

The publication contains information on different freshwater conservation measures relating to amphibians, aquaculture and invasive species, and provides a valuable source for environmental managers assessing evidence-based conservation strategies.

Intrigued, we spoke to Dr Claire Wordley of the Conservation Evidence group to find out more.  She gave this fascinating overview to the project.


What Works in Conservation is a book with a simple but important aim: to provide the scientific evidence for conservation actions, enabling conservationists to see, well, what works in conservation. It is part of the work by the Conservation Evidence project, set up by Professor Bill Sutherland at the University of Cambridge to break down the barriers between conservationists and the evidence they need to do their jobs.

In conservation, we currently have a huge divide between academics publishing more and more papers with conservation implications, and on-the-ground conservationists, who often can’t access those papers and don’t necessarily have the training to read scientific jargon anyway.

Conservationists often miss out on information in academic journals. Academics often pursue scientifically interesting questions at the expense of those that are useful to conservationists. Conservation actions are often taken but not monitored, and the results not published, reducing the capacity for the conservation community to learn from each individual’s experience.

The result is that conservation is not as effective as it could be. Disciplines such as medicine, international aid, social policy and education are increasingly evidence-based, with many of them seeing huge improvements in effectiveness; it’s time for conservation to do the same.

Conservation Evidence is working to provide an ambitiously large and comprehensive global evidence resource, freely available to conservation practitioners, policy makers and anyone else who is interested. The group tackles each topic as a synopsis on a certain taxon, ecosystem or topic. So far, synopses have been produced on bees, birds, bats, amphibians, sustainable aquaculture, soil fertility, control of freshwater invasive species, natural pest control, farmland conservation (in Western Europe) and forests. These are available as books or PDFs, or as a searchable database.

What Works in Conservation, published in 2015, summarises the evidence from most of these synopses – an update will be published in 2017. Each action in What Works has been put into a category of effectiveness, such as ‘beneficial’ or ‘likely to be ineffective or harmful’. This scoring system has also been applied to much of the searchable database.


A swimming toad. Image: Claire Wordley

So, what works in freshwater conservation? Well, a freshwater conservation synopsis will be underway imminently in collaboration with Tour de Valat, but there is still a fair amount on the Conservation Evidence website that is relevant to freshwater conservationists. The amphibian synopsis provides the published scientific evidence for a whopping 129 actions, such as adding lime to water bodies to reduce acidification, deepening, de-silting or re-profiling ponds and using antifungal treatment to reduce chytridiomycosis infection. Some of these have huge relevance to the practices undertaken on a daily basis by ecological consultants, such as translocating great crested newts.

The control of freshwater invasives synopsis (some of which is in What Works, the rest of which is available online) has 118 actions to control six invasive species from American bullfrogs to water primrose (we are currently working on additional species). Looking at the freshwater invasives synopsis, it is striking that the same intervention can affect different species in very different ways. For example, introducing predators for American bullfrogs was scored likely to be beneficial, while introducing predators for Procarambus crayfish was considered unlikely to be beneficial.

This highlights the need to collect evidence for each intervention we are trying to deliver, rather than going on the basis of ‘common sense’. Unfortunately, as in medicine, some very sensible sounding ideas can be ineffective, or worse, kill the patient.

Browse the evidence for yourself, and where there is no evidence for an action, take it as a call to arms to collect some yourself and publish it. Together, we can make conservation better.

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