Centre for Rural Economy

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New initiative to combine data across studies and sites to better inform peatland policy and practice

The Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) is leading a process with researchers, practitioners and policy-makers from across the world, whose goal is to understand better how peatlands respond to climate change, land use and restoration.

The process started with a workshop in March, led by Prof Mark Reed and Dylan Young from CRE and Dr Gav Stewart from School of Natural and Enviromental Science, Newcastle University. The aim was to begin the process of finding a way to standardise the collection of environmental data so it can be combined from multiple studies and sites to better inform policy and practice. Starting with UK peatlands, the group is now replicating the process across other peatlands as part of the United Nations Global Peatland Initiative, before exploring the potential to extend the approach to other areas of environmental science.

As post-Brexit agricultural policy moves towards paying for public goods there is growing interest in peatlands as the UK’s largest terrestrial carbon store. Disagreements over policies and practices to sustain healthy peatlands have often led to calls for more research. However, much of the existing research cannot be used to guide policy and practice because of variation in the approaches taken to collect data. As a result, research often leads to confusing and conflicting recommendations with no way for decision makers to assess apparently contradictory findings.

To tackle this problem, the Newcastle workshop identified the full range of climate, biodiversity and hydrology variables or “outcomes” that can be measured in peatlands. The group is now developing a set of core (essential) variables or “outcomes” that can be measured and reported in standardised ways for UK peatlands. Researchers and practitioners will then be able to choose if they wish to measure outcome from the core list, increasing the likelihood that their data can be combined with other studies in future evidence syntheses. Alternatively, they may choose to measure different outcomes if they are more relevant to their study, in the knowledge that these will be less likely to be synthesisable in future.

The group was inspired by the medical community who developed this approach and now routinely collects data based on a set of agreed core outcomes. These data are then combined with all studies in a discipline and used to inform policy and practice. Whilst there is growing recognition that sets of essential variables are required in peatland science, the workshop in Newcastle was one of the first occasions that the approach had been applied to the natural sciences.

One of the implications of this approach is that the outcomes will need to be measured in a number of agreed ways (depending on the type of project), which will also be tackled as part of this process. A small number of outcome measures are being chosen to start this process, where all available methods will be reviewed. Working with NERC’s iCASP project, the group is identifying criteria against which methods and protocols for collecting outcome measure data can be evaluated e.g. accuracy, ease of use and cost. They will then identify relevant methods and protocols for assessing each prioritised outcome measure, and systematically evaluate each identified method and protocol against each criterion. The result will b a menu of reliable methods, ranging from very accurate but potentially highly technical and expensive methods, through to reliable but easier to measure methods that could be used by practitioners or in citizen science initiatives.

The process is being organised and facilitated by Newcastle University and IUCN UK Peatland Programme, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of the NERC Valuing Nature Programme Peatland Tipping Points project, and co-designed with Defra, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and UN Environment.


Centre for rural economy meeting

published on: 14 November 2019