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Landscapes and ecosystem services - the missing link

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Why is it so hard to articulate what our ancestors understood instinctively: that the benefits (or 'services') derived from our landscape are as much down to the action of people winning those services through sheer hard work and innovation as they are to the resources (or assets) provided by the natural environment?

Attending another regional meeting on ecosystem service objectives yesterday I was conscious that out in the Weald woods that same day were a small number of dedicated coppice workers, enjoying the autumn sunshine of course, but engaged in the physically demanding job of felling and processing coppice for firewood and fencing: trying to earn a living producing the very 'ecosystem services' we are endlessly and I fear purposelessly discussing. According to our research into the housing needs of rural workers 90% of coppice workers cannot afford to live in the High Weald yet without them our woods would be unmanaged and the 'benefits' offered by woodlands unrealised. Why then is it so hard to find reference to these land based workers or the value of their skills and expertise in delivering the life support services we need anywhere in ecosystem services policy and research documents.

The welcome consideration given to ecosystem services by government is somewhat marred by the unnecessarily narrow interpretation being taken of ecosystems by those making policy. This is illustrated by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment which promotes cultural services as ecosystem benefits but struggles to incorporate in the model people and socio-economic processes in terms of the skills, organisational attributes and socio-economic systems necessary for managing natural resources and processes appropriately to deliver the life support services we need.  This matters because without proper analysis of the problem increasingly scarce funding and resources will be targeted in the wrong place.

I don't think the father of modern day ecology, Eugene Odam, would be impressed. He argued that humans are clearly interdependent with other components in ecosystems and must take responsibility for their health. He observed that 'the landscape is not just a supply depot but also the home in which we must live'. Look around you and it is clear that at the root of every landscape service be it clean water, food or spiritual inspiration there are natural assets affected by natural processes interacting with people and socio-economic forces.

How refreshing then to read an article by J.W. Termorshuizen and P. Opdam from Wageningen University promoting the concept of 'landscape services'. The language of landscape is more accessible to a wider audience than 'ecosystems'. Landscapes tend to be associated with where people live and where they visit: places people feel responsible for rather than abstract concepts. Referring to landscapes as socio-ecological systems rather than ecosystems (even if the latter technically covers the former) helps take the discussion beyond the perceived focus on science and emphasises the importance of people and the need for interdisciplinary collaboration in tackling threats to what is after all everyones' life support system.

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