The above principles of the Ecosystem Approach are evident (light green) or significant (dark green) within this case study

Natural Resources Wales: Embedding the Ecosystem Approach

What is this case study about?

This is about the development of a framework for staff in Natural Resources Wales (NRW), a newly formed body that has taken over the functions previously carried out by the Countryside Council for Wales, Forestry Commission Wales and the devolved functions of Environment Agency Wales, to embed the ecosystem approach in all their work activities.

What is its contextual setting?

NRW has a unique opportunity to take a more joined-up approach to managing and caring for the environment and its natural resources. As a new organization bringing together a range of functions within a sustainable development remit, the ecosystems approach will be central to its thinking. The NRW Ecosystem Approach Framework is aimed at all staff in NRW. Its purpose is to help staff understand what the ecosystem approach is about, and to start to apply it in everyday work. It is an introductory guide setting out:

  • a set of core principles;
  • an understanding of ecosystems and the services they provide;
  • some key steps that can be applied to a range of activities from projects and programmes to plans and policies; and
  • a range of resources available to assist in decision making.

The framework was initially based on a review of what other organisations are doing, in the UK and around the world, and has drawn out common features and best practice from these examples. As well as being a useful resource within NRW, the framework will help partnership working, and the information can be adapted to suit a range of other agency audiences.

How has the Ecosystem Approach been used?

The framework was further developed through consultation and workshops with members of the key Welsh agencies that now make up the new organisation. In addition, close co-operation was established with the TABLES project to share best practice in the co-development of their respective Ecosystem Approach frameworks. Here, there has been particular emphasis in the mapping of potential ecosystem-serviced tools from the TABLES project to the specific stages of the project or programme. The approach has been built around a policy/programme cycle and highlights key activities within each stage of the process in the form of questions and tasks that should be undertaken. It sets out seven ways in which the Ecosystem Approach should be applied:

  • integrated: it should be integrated with existing decision-making;
  • timely: it should be engaged early in the decision-making process;
  • participative: the process should involve multiple stakeholders.
  • visionary: the use of the approach should be ambitious (but realistic);
  • iterative and adaptable: the approach employed should be constantly reviewed and adapted;
  • outcome-driven: providing environmental benefits above all and risk-based; the environment should be taken into account.

What is the added value of using the Ecosystem Approach?

In setting up the new agency and bringing together a wide range of different environmental functions, the ecosystem approach is providing a fundamental basis to a new way of working, capable of pointing the way forwards to more sustainable use of our natural resources. In future it should help to:

  • produce win-win situations;
  • assess positive and negative impacts of options for NRW activities on ecosystems, their services and associated benefits;
  • develop a shared vision and clear ecosystem based objectives for activities and monitoring them;
  • support better decisions with a wider evidence base and ensure that lessons learned are captured to improve the way NRW and its partners manage natural resources;
  • identify distributional impacts of activities in terms of who benefits and who loses from investments in ecosystem services.

What are the key barriers to progress/mainstreaming?

  • The creation of NRW marks a major change to the institutional landscape of Wales. As such there may be other priorities that take precedence in the short term.
  • The creation of a new body from CCW, EAW and FCW involves a lot of institutional baggage and legacy issues that may conflict with the roll out of new working practices.
  • In terms of implementation of the ecosystem approach, getting everyone to understand what this means for them and their work and just understanding the terminology is a challenge (language around ecosystems can be perceived as a barrier).

What are the lessons learnt?

  • Being the innovator in mainstreaming or institutionalising the Ecosystem Approach means that it is always going to be a harder journey as you are venturing into the unknown.
  • Political support within the institution and its partners to maximize traction is vital.
  • The huge investment in time and resources to produce organizational working frameworks must be recognized.
  • There is already good practice out there; important to reassure that framework is a fusion of good working practices; a lens within which to order work practices situations.

What next?

This innovation is being led by a small core who understand and have been involved in the framework, but in terms of implementing it across NRW, the bigger majority has yet to be reached. The Ecosystem Approach needs to move from being perceived as a theoretical concept (albeit with some really good practical case examples) to being something that people can get to grips with in their day to day work. The pilot scheme is currently being tested and reviewed by the staff. NRW is the first agency to attempt to embed the Ecosystem Approach explicitly in its day to day working. There is ongoing collaboration with the Tables projects with work currently proceeding on the mapping of the NEAT tree to the NRW guidance. The focus on using ecosystem serviced tools will be key.

Case study authors: R Elliott and K Monk