Corncrake conservation: the role of heterogeneous farmland

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to share key points from a recent paper led by Ine Dorresteijn on the Corncrake (Crex crex). It’s one of the most charismatic bird species in Europe, and has attracted the attention of a lot of conservationists. In landscapes where it remains common, it’s well known for its nocturnal calls “crex-crex-crex…”, which is where it got its name from.

Corncrakes have disappeared from most of Western Europe. Where the species does persist, it is most commonly associated with extensive, wet meadows. But what about in landscapes where larger populations remain?

We studied the corncrake in Central Romania, where it seems virtually ubiquitous. It’s difficult to be out in the countryside at nighttime in June and not hear a corncrake sooner or later. We wanted to know what constitutes habitat for the corncrake in this traditional farming landscape – and our findings presented an interesting contrast to common wisdom on corncrake conservation.

We found corncrakes not only in grassland but equally in the direct vicinity of arable fields. Statistical analysis suggested that corncrakes seemed to prefer remote areas that were wet and flat, which is largely consistent with previous work. However, we also found that corncrakes were more likely to occur in areas with a high land cover diversity at the 100 ha scale. This suggests that traditional, heterogeneous arable land provides important habitat for the corncrake – and not just extensive areas of grassland.

This new finding has some important consequences for conservation. First, it suggests that focusing on grassland alone may not be enough; heterogeneous arable land also provides useful habitat for the corncrake, and may be equally worthy of conservation efforts. Second, the scale at which the corncrake responded to land cover diversity is relatively large (100 ha). This suggests that conservation management should not only promote measures taken by individual farmers. Rather, a whole-of-landscape approach is needed to maintain land cover diversity, and this by necessity will involve multiple landholders.

Finally, a simulation model suggested that even moderate losses of land cover diversity in the future would severely impact corncrake populations (see below). This sends a clear signal for landscapes such as those in Central Romania: to maintain this European hotspot of the corncrake, it’s important to maintain the diverse character of the landscape.


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Ecomodernism and the Anti-Politics of Prometheus


I have taken the liberty to reblog this new post by Bill Adams. I encourage readers to visit his blog “Thinking like a human”, which I personally find one of the more inspiring blogs out there. Personally, I had not got around to blogging about the Ecomodernist Manifesto — actually, I had decided it was not worthy of being given attention. However, Bill’s thoughts struck a chord with me, and so I decided to share them on this blog, too. Go visit the original, too! — Joern

Originally posted on Thinking like a human:

Prometheus is the man (or immortal, depending who you read) from Greek myth who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity. Like other tales from the classics, this one has been co-opted in many different ways. In this case, Promethean fire has most often been taken as symbolic of the development of technology and industrialism: Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’ in all their forms, from eighteenth century English mills to twenty first century sweat shops.

Classically, environmentalism is painted as a reaction against industrialism, a Romantic call for nature untainted by human artifice. Reflecting another Classical trope, much Western environmental thought has been seen as Arcadian, comparing a dystopian urban and industrial present with an idealized rural past.

But not all environmentalism is Arcadian. In his 1992 book Green Delusions, Martin Lewis criticised ‘radical environmentalism’, and its calls for a return to a simpler, rural, way of…

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Scenarios for the future of Transylvania (now in four languages)

By Joern Fischer

About a year ago, I shared on this blog our booklet describing four alternative scenarios for the future of Southern Transylvania (Romania). This booklet was originally written in Romanian and Hungarian – the two languages most relevant to our local stakeholders. However, Transylvania also has strong relations to Germany, and most of the international research community communicates in English. For these reasons, we have now re-produced this booklet in English and German, too. It is available as an open-access PDF, and we have a large stack of hard copies to give away in the coming months.

In a nutshell, our scenarios describe four alternative, plausible futures for Southern Transylvania. The aim of this work was to stimulate debate about these scenarios – not to tell people what’s right or wrong, but rather to get local people to think about what they want, what they don’t want, and what they can do to shape the future of their region.

In the first scenario, “Prosperity through growth”, small-scale farming is replaced by intensified, larger-scale, conventional agriculture. Forests are exploited where profitable, and tourism is restricted to the entertainment sector. Economic development is driven by local people, and consequently, people are wealthier than they are at the moment. These developments cause losses in farmland and forest biodiversity, as well as the deterioration of regulating, supporting, and cultural ecosystem services.

In the second scenario, “Our land, their wealth”, land use is also intensified and also causes the loss of regulating, supporting, and cultural services. However, economic development is driven by foreign investors, and consequently, few locals benefit from it. The gap between rich and poor widens. Crime and conflicts are frequent, including between ethnic groups. People leave their villages for Romanian towns or Western Europe, and most farmland that is unprofitable for foreign companies is abandoned. Due to the difficult socioeconomic conditions and a highly disturbed landscape, tourism all but vanishes from Transylvania.

The third scenario, “Balance brings beauty”, describes a future in which locals are organized and able to capitalize on high national and international demand for organic agricultural products. Sustainable use of resources coexists with intensified land use via modern organic farming methods. Vibrant cultural tourism and eco-tourism stabilize people’s incomes from the agricultural sector. Although few people are financially wealthy, economic and social inequalities are reduced and community spirit is high. Cultural and natural capital is valued and actively maintained.

In the fourth scenario, “Missed opportunity”, locals are unable to capitalize on the opportunities provided by a pro-environment policy setting. Instead, foreign companies set up modern organic farms in the region, exploiting easy access to cheap land and labour. Semi-subsistence farming as it has been practiced for many decades is ongoing in the villages, while forests are exploited for firewood and sometimes logged illegally. Most locals are poor, and those who are able to, leave the area. Corruption, crime, and conflict are common. Farmland biodiversity experiences moderate decreases due to intensification in some areas and abandonment in others.

Check out the booklet in English/German or Romanian/Hungarian to read more about this, and share it with your friends and colleagues!


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Eight new PhD positions on leverage points for sustainability (food, energy)

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The Human Release Hypothesis for invasive species

When my four year old son asked me what I found out during my PhD the answer did not sound exciting, nor novel, unfortunately it just sounded obvious. However, these obvious results could make a difference in the way we understand processes driving alien species abundance and their management. This is how I summarized my research to my son: “Shrubs grow bigger and are more abundant in Argentina (invasive range) than in Europe (native range) because they have more space there and no one cuts them down.” A few years of research in a nutshell.

Pictures (a) and (b) depict the situation for one particular alien shrub (Rosa rubiginosa) in its invasive range where populations expand over vast areas and where it is allowed to grow to its full size. The same species in its native range (c and d) is restricted to hedges, where it is regularly trimmed, and to highly managed, fragmented, rural landscapes.

Pictures (a) and (b) depict the situation for one particular alien shrub (Rosa rubiginosa) in its invasive range where populations expand over vast areas and where it is allowed to grow to its full size. The same species in its native range (c and d) is restricted to hedges, where it is regularly trimmed, and to highly managed, fragmented, rural landscapes.

Today I want to share with you an opinion article, where I, together with my co-authors, formulated the Human Release hypothesis around my seemingly obvious findings. We published our article in F1000 Research, whose guidelines led to lively discussion on this blog 2 years ago (immediate publication, open post-publication peer-review). We chose the term Human Release Hypothesis parallel to the established Enemy Release Hypothesis, which states that alien species benefit from escaping their natural enemies in the new range. In the case of our hypothesis the natural enemy is us, humans. Therefore, the difference in abundance of invasive species between regions is due to continuous land management and associated cutting of the invasive species that reduces population expansion and hampers growth. We illustrated this via a case study on an invasive rose species in its native range in Eurasia and in its invasive range in Australia, New Zealand, South, Africa, North and South America. This shrub builds up native population with 5 to 20 individuals whereas invasive populations consist of hundreds of individuals. Existing hypotheses of Invasion Ecology could not fully explain this pattern, but in line with the Human Release Hypothesis we only found trimming or removal of individuals in the native range. Moreover, according to the distribution of anthropogenic biomes native populations grow more often in villages and dense settlements than invasive populations.

According to the location of invasive and native rose populations the native range has a larger proportion of residential areas (data =anthropogenic biomes: Ellis and Ramankutty, 2008, Front Ecol Environ.)

According to the location of invasive and native rose populations the native range has a larger proportion of residential areas (land use categories =anthropogenic biomes: Ellis and Ramankutty, 2008, Front Ecol Environ.)

Mechanisms explaining the establishment and naturalization of alien species are well understood and human influences on these mechanisms recognized. The Human Release Hypothesis specifically addresses the effect of land use on the abundance of alien species that are already established in particular areas outside their native ranges. Invasive alien species impact their new environment especially through their high abundance, by building up invasive monocultures and replacing native communities. If release from humans would be the main driver of invasive alien species abundance, biological invasions could be prevented by preventing land abandonment, or by promoting restoration and monitoring of fallows. Particularly, in regions with low human population density land may be perceived as hyper abundant, providing ideal conditions for single disturbances followed by years without active management. Thus, the human factor in Biological Invasions demands interdisciplinary system knowledge, which can only be achieved by integrating the social and natural sciences.

This much about my obvious findings and if you like to know more about why we might yet need to pursue another hypothesis for Biological Invasions please check out our article:

Zimmermann H, Brandt P, Fischer J, Welk E, von Wehrden H (2014) The Human Release Hypothesis for biological invasions: human activity as a determinant of the abundance of invasive plant species. [v2; ref status: indexed, F1000Research 3: 109. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.3740.2

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The seesaw metaphor of leverage points for sustainability

By Joern Fischer

A picture is worth a thousand words — and an effective graphic can summarise complex relationships in simple terms. Perhaps the most famous graphical metaphor in sustainability science is the ball-in-cup metaphor used to communicate the concept of ecological resilience. What makes the ball-in-cup metaphor so powerful? And can the seesaw metaphor of leverage points (illustrated below) be equally powerful?

The ball-in-cup metaphor describing resilience — especially the bottom part of this figure has been very influential (Source: Kuei-Hsien Liao 2012, Ecology & Society)

Before we get to the seesaw metaphor of leverage points for sustainability, let’s “analyse” some of the key features of the ball-in-cup metaphor.

1. The ball-in-cup metaphor addresses an important issue that had been under-recognised. The concept of ecological resilience, when it was first raised, was new, and not entirely easy to understand to scientists or the public. People were used to thinking of the world as one that ought to be stable, and which, when “shocked”, would return to this stable state. The idea that a system might in fact “flip” into an alternative stable state was fairly different from what most people were thinking about. Today, thinking about these issues has culminated in the concept of “planetary boundaries”, that is, the notion that we might move our Earth system into an entirely different, and less livable, stable state. Most scientists and many members of the public can understand the idea of “planetary boundaries” — of moving outside the desired stability domain. Arguably, this would not have been the case without the “ground work” being done for a number of years by the simple ball-in-cup metaphor.

2. The ball-in-cup metaphor captures just enough complexity to be interesting, but no more. The concept of ecological resilience has many subtleties, which have in fact been captured graphically in various other ways. For example, some systems are characterised by hysteresis, that is, changes between alternative stable states that are not smoothly reversible. Also, systems may change their state not because of a shock, but because of a change in contextual conditions. Subtleties such as these can be drawn using the ball-in-cup metaphor, but not without some difficulties. It’s the basic ideas, however, that are most important to understanding ecological resilience, and that are captured really well by the ball-in-cup metaphor: (i) your system sits in one spot, but don’t take that as given; (ii) if you shock it a bit, it might recover and stay basically the same; but … (iii) if you shock it too much, it may flip into another state. This is relatively complex material to get your head around, but using the ball-in-cup metaphor, it’s fairly easy to explain.

3. The ball-in-cup metaphor makes intuitive sense. We get it: most of us have seen a ball roll down a hill, or be kicked over the top of one … and that’s about all you need, in terms of personal experience, to get this metaphor.

4. It’s imperfect, but not to the degree that it leads to wrong conclusions. The world is a lot more complex than a ball in a cup. Many of the mechanisms keeping the ball where it is — or driving it over the edge — remain hidden in this metaphor. Stability domains typically involve feedbacks to keep the system where it is. It’s the nature of these feedbacks (or new ones not previously operating) that drives system change, and causes regime shifts. One could criticise that these kinds of changes remain invisible in the ball-in-cup metaphor. It also doesn’t say anything about the nature of the drivers, and one might argue that thinking about the world as a simple ball ignores the fact that it’s the world itself that is dynamic — isolating the ball from its cup thus might be considered intellectually meaningless — when it comes to the Earth system, the ball and the cup are essentially the same thing, and even the people causing the changes (the drivers) are part of it. While these are potential criticisms, I’d just shrug them off in the sense that no metaphor can be perfect. But if it’s good enough to get an important point across, it can be powerful nevertheless.

So, what about the seesaw metaphor of leverage points for sustainability? The idea of leverage points dates back to a paper by Donella Meadows (as previously explained here). To communicate our research project on leverage points, we have simplified this using the graphical metaphor of a seesaw (in fact, the original credit goes to Dave Abson).

Meadows’ leverage points, depicted here using the metaphor of a seesaw.

How does this metaphor stack up against the features that seem to have made the ball-in-cup so useful?

Regarding point 1 — the importance of the issue at hand — I think we’re spot-on. Despite ever-increasing efforts, there is little sign that humanity (globally speaking) is moving towards sustainability, and there are plenty of signs that we’re moving away from it. A lot of what we’re doing is fiddling around the edges, while leaving some of the key issues unaddressed. In 1971, Ehrlich and Holdren spoke of environmental impact being a function of population, affluence and the technologies we use. Perhaps population is starting to level off, but hunger for affluence remains unsatisfied even among the richest, and in sum, the technologies humanity uses today are no less “impact-free” than several decades ago (though, of course, some technologies can alleviate the pressures caused by population and affluence). What’s missing from current solutions? Too many of the things we discuss don’t even go near those leverage points discussed by Meadows as the more influential ones. The system rules, the system goal, the paradigm driving the system, and the will to question it — addressing these things is where we could expect major change to come from. Not from adjusting constants or changing a few material flows. This point is both important and under-recognised.

Regarding point 2 — capturing enough complexity but no more — the seesaw metaphor is also quite useful. There are many things that this metaphor does not tell us, but there are also a few key things that it says quite immediately — push at the end of the seesaw, if you want to move it: we’ve been pushing in the wrong spot!

Regarding point 3, the seesaw is fairly intuitive. Perhaps not everybody has actually played on a seesaw … I suspect there are a lot more kids who kick around a ball than who sit on a seesaw! But as far as these things go, many of us have at least seen a seesaw in action, and so the metaphor is somewhat intuitive.

Regarding point 4: like the ball-in-cup metaphor, the seesaw metaphor is not perfect. Again, the complex system is being dumbed down to a “round thing”, and again, human agency sits outside that round thing (and not within it). Perhaps more importantly, the labels from low to high leverage points are driven by the expertise of one (albeit hugely experienced!) systems researcher, namely Donella Meadows. Despite her undeniable wisdom, her list of leverage points may not be perfect, and in her essay, she herself acknowledged that she had changed her mind on the relative importance of these leverage points through time. But that’s where research comes in: science ought to look at those things that are potentially important, but largely under-researched.

There’s no telling if the seesaw metaphor will speak to the world — and it would be crazy to even hope that it can be as successful as the ball-in-cup metaphor. But this isn’t a competition, after all! — It’s about getting important ideas across to as many people as possible.

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How I see qualitative coding

By Andra Ioana Horcea-Milcu

When answering to reviews of qualitative or semi-qualitative interdisciplinary papers, I noticed researchers may be sometimes challenged to explain how they arrived to the qualitative results they present. This made me think several times about how I analyze my own interview data, which often comes down to explaining how I code the data, which is potentially more difficult than the coding itself. I would like to deconstruct the way I perform or rather see coding in this blog entry. More specifically, I would like to emphasize one of the aspects that, to my mind, is often overlooked. As a disclaimer, I would like to mention there is a lot of literature on the different technicalities, types, cycles, etc. of coding, and I believe there is no such thing as a single recipe to these. Here, I aim to provide an intuitive meta-view on coding while I am still learning about it.

Coding: a 3D process

Broadly speaking, qualitative coding is a way of operationalizing the analysis of qualitative data by labeling fragments of it (Bryman 2012). I like to look at coding as a 3D process (Fig. 1) having its origin (0,0) in the research question. Simply put, one dimension are the themes, another one the concepts, and the third dimension is the interpretation.


First dimension

On the OX axis there is the actual content, the expressed themes, the substance. Coding along this axis goes more in the direction of thematic coding and content analysis. It is the more descriptive part of coding and in my opinion, it is also the most grounded stage of it. Themes may stem from prompted and unprompted content, i.e. emergent themes which may remain as a separate category.

Second dimension

I see the OY axis complementary to the first one. Here we find the underlying content, its form, the way it is expressed and constructed, the more abstract notions. This goes more in the direction of discourse analysis, axial coding, abstraction, conceptualization. It is the more analytical stage of coding. Here, I try to look in my data for more abstract concepts, sometimes guided by the literature, based on the refined codes pertaining to the first dimension.

Third dimension

Finally, I use my own knowledge and creativity to link the above together, and meaningfully “lift” the results above the data, in relation to the research question. Although generally more “invisible”, depending on the extent to which coding is aimed at building a theory, the importance of this axis (OZ) increases. It is thanks to this dimension that we are able to interpret data (i.e. attribute meaning to codes, intermediate points on OX and OY). This is also one of the reasons why qualitative data analysis software cannot fully replace the researcher. The importance of this “interference” of the researcher with the result became clear to me when a more senior social scientist recommended me two editorials: Pratt 2009 and Suddaby 2006. The third axis is, in my opinion, the salt and pepper of coding. It is an area of creativity and where the art of coding becomes possible.

The result

Qualitative results don’t just happen. Although qualitative results presented by papers may seem just as sudden as the black dot on Fig. 1, in reality they represent several dimensions. My understanding is that, depending on the research question, the result, what we report as a finding, is somewhere situated along these three axes (or more, as each of them can be further decomposed). Along the axes, we focus, we aggregate, we synthesize, we reduce, ultimately we extract. Processing and analyzing data along each of them is part of the result. For simplification, going along the axes could correspond to different iterative cycles of coding. This (at least) bimodal coding process is quite commonly described by several authors; e.g.: first-order and second-order codes in Pratt 2009, first and second cycle coding in Seldaña 2009, first-level and second-level codes in Tracy 2013. In reality, I think these dimensions are not so clearly separated and may happen simultaneously.

Reviewing coding

When coding, the researcher is inherent to the results. In my opinion this has interesting implications for the review process. It needn’t mean that one should cease looking for objectivity or repeatability or that coding isn’t pragmatic, but rather to acknowledge and recognize the characteristics of qualitative research. Although I am still learning about this, I think that the existence in the research design of elements indicating concern for quality criteria, internal coherence, triangulation, feed-backs, and transparency could increase the credibility of results and make the third dimension more embedded (and justifiable). Saving the coding tree at different moments in time allows for tracking back the way codes evolved through the analysis, if necessary. Keeping a record of iterations or metadata about codes, could be also useful ways to transform coding into a “HD” process.


I tried to briefly discuss the way I think about coding, and convey how I broadly code qualitative data. Probably, every researcher has a different way of approaching coding, and has built and adapted through time his or her own understanding of qualitative coding. There may be many other ways to decompose this process and explain how one arrived to specific results. However, openly acknowledging the third dimension of “this movement of data” would make communication among the more quantitative driven and the more qualitative driven scientists more amicable and enjoyable.


Bryman, A. (2012). Social research methods. Oxford university press.

Pratt, M. G. (2009). From the editors: For the lack of a boilerplate: Tips on writing up (and reviewing) qualitative research. Academy of Management Journal, 52(5), 856-862.

Saldaña, J. (2012). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (No. 14). Sage.

Suddaby, R. (2006). From the editors: What grounded theory is not. Academy of management journal, 49(4), 633-642.

Tracy, S. J. (2012). Qualitative research methods: Collecting evidence, crafting analysis, communicating impact. John Wiley & Sons.

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