The Touchstone – Ecosystem services, better knowledge and asking the right question by Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer, RSPB Scotland

Friday, 15th May 2015

The Touchstone is a pretty remarkable object. You hold it in your hand, ask a question and it gives you the answer. You just have to be a bit careful what you ask...

This is the blurb from a children’s book called The Touchstone by Andrew Norris. My family and I listened to the audiobook on a journey last year. It is the story of how one of the most valuable objects in the galaxy falls into the hands of a schoolboy called Douglas Paterson. The Touchstone gives Douglas access to all the knowledge in the universe through a cosmic librarian called Gedrus. He can ask any question and get the answer. He can even get advice from Gedrus on how to do things, like his homework or getting his parents back together. Douglas thinks that the Touchstone and Gedrus will make life easier, but he soon finds out that acting on the advice brings unintended consequences and makes everything very difficult!

Image you had access to all the information in the world on the benefits and impacts of land management. OK, it’s not the sexiest area in which to be the font of all knowledge but go with me on this. It would be fantastic because you would know all the environmental impacts of farming or forestry activities, or building a new housing estate. You could look ahead and see if flooding a field on a nature reserve would provide good habitat to attract geese without unintended consequences like soil erosion. If we understood all the health, social and environmental benefits provided by land managed for nature it might convince our politicians to invest in more nature reserves and the wider countryside.  

RSPB Scientist recording data at a dipwell, Forsinard Flows RSPB nature reserve.

Photo credit: Andy Hay (

In policy circles we call these benefits that we get from the countryside Ecosystem Services. These are things that nature (or managed ecosystems) provide and which society benefits from, for example; food, clean water, pollination, carbon storage in soils, even inspiration and happiness.  This is a controversial area because quantifying these Ecosystem Services allows economists to put a financial value on them and the possibility of estimating the total worth of an ecosystem. Conservationists rightly point out that Society can’t just put a price tag on nature and say that one habitat is more valuable than another. You can’t put a value on a lapwing or a pipistrelle bat – they are priceless, like the crown jewels.

Academics are increasingly using the idea of Ecosystem Services as a way of bringing together our knowledge of the countryside and for understanding how the supply of these services may change if we adapt land management policies or practices. Like Douglas and his Touchstone, the knowledge gained from valuing ecosystem services can bring unintended consequences – so we need to learn to ask the right question. For example, if we ask ‘how can I make as much money as possible from my land’ the wildlife or the soil quality may well suffer as food production increases. That is what has happened with farmland since the middle of the 20th century as technology improved and policies incentivised food production.

Douglas learns that asking Gedrus questions in a different way always provides better results and cuts out the unintended consequences or lessens the negatives, e.g.  ‘what is the best way to.....’ or ‘what will provide the best result for the most people’. And with all the information in the universe at his fingertips Gedrus can assess all options and arrive at the best solution.

In the past those who manage the land and Governments have always made decisions based on what they know and on real or perceived  values. Improving actual data and predictions can help to provide more information to decision makers but it doesn’t necessarily lead to better decisions. It all depends what question you ask. For example, with more information the answer to ‘How can I make the most money from my land’ might be to build houses rather than grow barley. However, we will get a more useful answer if we carefully ask, ‘What is the best way to manage my farm to remain profitable in the long term but also to provide a greater range of ecosystem services’ or ‘How can I manage this nature reserve so that it is great for wildlife but is better at storing carbon and providing clean water’. Policy makers might ask ‘How can we best help farmers to adapt the use of their floodplain fields to temporarily store flood water’ or ‘ How can we best adapt how we use land in Aberdeenshire so that it provides food but optimises the provision of other services to society, and more people benefit overall’.

Ecosystem services, as a concept, continues to be debated.  It can be a useful tool in decision making but the threat is if we unwisely use this knowledge to answer the wrong questions or see maximising the supply or financial value of Ecosystem Services as an end in itself. Ecosystem Services is a way of describing and better understanding the huge amount of benefits that habitats provide and that we all need. We should seek to use our knowledge of Ecosystem Services as a tool to help us make better decisions.

At the end of the story, Douglas uses his Touchstone to bring peace to the universe. I don’t have quite such high hopes from better knowledge of Ecosystem Services, but better decision-making in how we use our countryside could reduce many conflicts.  To do this we must learn to ask the right question.

Jim Densham

May 2015