Text of the Second Agrifood Systems Scholars’ Open Letter to FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva

Joern:

Reblogged post by Jahi Chappell, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, USA

Originally posted on AgroEcoPeople:

(see original posting and pdf version available here from IATP)

24 June 2015

Dear Director General da Silva,

As scientists and scholars working in sustainable agriculture and food systems, we are writing to support and bring to your attention the recent Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology[1], dated 27 February 2015. The Declaration affirms that agroecology can produce food in ecologically sustainable and socially just ways, and can “generate local knowledge, promote social justice, nurture identity and culture, and strengthen the economic viability of rural areas.”

The Nyéléni Agroecology Declaration resulted from a historic meeting in Nyéléni, Mali of “delegates representing diverse organizations and international movements of small-scale food producers and consumers including peasants, indigenous peoples and communities (including hunters and gatherers), family farmers, rural workers, herders and pastoralists, fisherfolk and urban people.” Together, they represented those who produce as much as 70 percent of…

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Social-ecological research: achievements and next steps

By Joern Fischer

The Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) seeks to understand linkages between ecosystems and human systems. At a recent PECS meeting, we asked: (1) What key lessons have been learnt so far? (2) What are the most important challenges for the future?

figure ses

Our paper has now been published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (online for free for 50 days from today – check my ResearchGate profile after that or email me!). At least its first half provides a good news story, in the sense that social-ecological research has indeed begun to shift research and practice in important ways:

Advance 1: Recognition is growing that humanity depends on nature – it’s no longer a small community that understands that humanity fundamentally needs nature (and has an ethical obligation towards it).

Advance 2: The need for solutions to sustainability problems has increased communication and collaboration across disciplines, and between science and society – interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are growing rapidly, especially in a sustainability context.

Advance 3: Conceptual and methodological pluralism is increasing in an effort to better understand complex social-ecological systems – scientists increasingly seek to understand systems through multiple modes of enquiry.

Advance 4: Appreciation of social-ecological systems is beginning to influence major policy frameworks – although there is a long way to go still, national assessments and international frameworks now explicitly recognize social-ecological linkages.

We also identified a set of priorities for the future.

Priority 1: Social-ecological interactions between regions need to be better understood, and institutions should be developed to govern such interactions – this is the issue of “teleconnections”, which are common and important, but poorly understood and governed.

Priority 2: Both researchers and decision makers must pay greater attention to long-term drivers that gradually shape social-ecological systems – these long-term drivers continue to be (largely) ignored and include inconvenient issues such as dominant value, political and economic systems.

Priority 3: The interactions among power relations, equity, justice and ecosystem stewardship need to be better understood – this is the issue of who is in control and who benefits from ecosystems, and includes greater attention to major global injustices.

Priority 4: Commitment is needed by governments and society at large to support the development of a stronger science-society interface – we have only just begun to link science with society through transdisciplinary processes, but a step change is needed to bring about major changes.

… and major changes are what we need. As we say in the paper: Despite the progress that has been made, “there is a real danger that the growing challenges of the Anthropocene – such as climate change, global social injustices, and biodiversity loss – will outpace the progress that is being made.” A good reason to keep up the collective effort to further advance social-ecological research!

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If I were to design a funding programme …

By Joern Fischer

Different funding programmes have very different sets of priorities. These priorities typically reflect – more or less coherently – the priorities of the funding bodies. Having received funding from several different sources, and having reviewed applications for a range of additional bodies, I thought it might be nice to summarise what I perceive to be key “DOs” and “DON’Ts” in funding programmes.

  1. Reward strong track records relative to opportunity. Clever ideas and proposals are one thing, but the best indicator of future performance by far is past performance. That said, this needs to be judged in the context of people’s opportunities: if someone has come through one of the major research labs in a given discipline, her track record will look better. Similarly, if people have not been exposed to the Western education system, or come from a background where publishing is not encouraged, the track record may look weaker. Finally, someone’s track record will just about always look better through time. Unless this is taken into account, funding systems become biased towards just funding “the big guns” – which stifles innovation and encourages the building of research empires. I like a motto that I have seen used by the Humboldt Foundation: “we fund people not projects”.
  2. Don’t over-rate any single performance indicator on track records. I have heard people say that to make it through natural sciences panels of the ERC, you should have Nature or Science papers. If that is so, this is a major worry. These journals favour some kinds of excellence (e.g. within disciplines), while rarely acknowledging other kinds (e.g. interdisciplinary). It is vital to not fall in love with any single performance indicator – neither h-index, nor particular journals, nor numbers of publications. For an excellent scientist, the combination should look impressive. I am particularly sceptical of indicators based on how much funding has been raised. Once you have funding on your CV, it gets easier to attract more funding. This, in its own right, says that you are a good “grantsman” – it does not say anything about the outcomes of your science.
  3. For early career applications: consider references. References work. If you see three references for someone you know a lot more about this person than if you don’t. If, on top of that, you get the people to tick boxes as to whether a given person is in the top 1, 5, 10, 25% bracket of their cohort, you will immediately get a sense for someone’s relative quality as a researcher. Again, references should be considered in context, but they are very worthwhile, especially for early career researchers.
  4. Reward people examining complexity instead of testing hypotheses. Hypothesis-testing is rewarded in our journals and most funding schemes. While this is well suited to some kinds of problems, many of the bigger challenges of our times (especially in a sustainability context) relate to complexity. The reductionist approach of hypothesis testing is often not overly useful in this context. The cruel thing is that it is much easier to sell and “elegant” set of hypotheses than a “messy” set of ideas for how to unpack complexity. Overall, I’d like to see more projects deal with complexity, and hence, I would like to see this funded more widely.
  5. Reward genuine interdisciplinarity. Many funding schemes claim that they encourage interdiscplinarity, but mostly, very shallow attempts at this are enough to satisfy the funders. Interdisciplinarity is not, for example, when social science provides numbers for a box in a flow chart. And when molecular biologists work with field ecologists this also is not exactly radical. Genuine interdisciplinarity means people working together who have actually different backgrounds and understandings. In the context of complexity, it’s usually in these situations that insights emerge. Notably, to work, interdiscipinarity requires certain means of integration, and not all excellent scientists are necessarily good at integration.
  6. Encourage methodological and epistemological pluralism. Real interdiscipinarity, including in a sustainability context, demands a pluralistic worldview. There are many ways of approaching problems, and many answers to the same question. Yet, things get interesting when multiple perspectives identify similar directions to solve a particular problem. Pluralism in science demands openness in the review process of funding bodies.
  7. Demand “impact”, but be open to this being generated in many different ways. People think of impact as journal articles, as policy influence, or as stakeholder engagement. All three – and more – are worthwhile ways of having an impact. I think it is worthwhile to ask proponents of a new project how they intend to have an impact: but it makes little sense to squeeze this all too tightly into narrow categories. Many projects now have stakeholder workshops because they have to, or write policy briefs because they have to. I’d encourage a more open and diverse way of thinking about impact.
  8. Minimise reporting procedures. This can’t be over-emphasised. It’s worth noting that EU-projects get audited stringently, while projects by the Australian Research Council only have to report the bare minimum (or not at all). And whose researchers are better, Australia’s or the EU’s? Considering its small size, Australia regularly punches above its weight. Researchers are not babies, nor are they highly corrupt compared to many other sectors in society. Especially when focusing on excellence as a selection criterion, there is little need to have stringent reporting procedures: it just wastes resources.
  9. Don’t reward networking activities without a purpose. Many projects include workshops or small conferences. Unless there is a clear purpose for such events, I see no benefit in these. The last few years have seen a rapid increase in such events (at least that’s my impression), and I don’t think that research quality, as a result, has increased. I’d be sceptical about such events as a funding body.
  10. Provide funding for carbon-neutral transportation. In line with the previous point, a lot of sustainability research still includes a lot of travel. For example, in my current research, we fly people back and forth to Ethiopia. Modern sustainability research should minimise such trips. Where they are needed, it would be great to see funders explicitly encourage offsetting the carbon footprint generated. Not flying is better than offsetting, but offsetting via accredited schemes is probably better than not doing anything. This kind of “walking the talk” is a major problem in sustainability science still, and I think a more critical perspective is needed on the limitations and impacts of transportation in the name of knowledge generation.

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Sixteen strategies for a successful PhD

By Joern Fischer

With four of my PhD students having recently submitted their theses, and four new ones having started, I found myself thinking about the attributes of what makes a successful PhD student. But then I figured thinking about this in terms of personal attributes makes it somehow a fixed thing, and that’s not quite right – rather, students use certain strategies, some innately, and some may have to learn these strategies. And so I have compiled a list of the “strategies” that I believe are particularly useful for successfully getting through one’s PhD research.

  1. Know your natural talents and skills, and capitalize on them. People differ in their skills. For some it’s communication (written or oral), for some it’s quantitative analysis, for others it’s data collection. You should rejoice in your skills and build your success around them; most likely nobody can take these skills away from you.
  2. Know your weaknesses, and work on them – but don’t try to turn them into your biggest strengths. You will also have natural weaknesses, which can hinder progress. For example, if you’re not good at writing or analysis, this will need to improve for you to get through the PhD. But most likely, what is currently just “not your thing” never will be your greatest strength. So compensate your weaknesses, but don’t try to over-compensate and be someone or something you will never be. Build on your strengths (see above) instead of trying to build on your weaknesses.
  3. Don’t compare yourself to others, especially not fellow PhD students or more experienced scientists. Many PhD students suffer from self-esteem problems at one point or another because they feel less capable than those around them. This simply isn’t helpful. We can’t all be good at the same things, and the point is that ultimately, all seven billion of us have to find a niche where we are valuable. You don’t need to be like others, and shouldn’t try to be, either. Find your own way (though of course, you can learn from others).
  4. Don’t wait for little problems to turn into big ones – talk to people before things get bad. Having an attitude of “I can do this” is good, but many students waste large amounts of time and emotional energy on trying to prove to themselves or their supervisors that they need no help – when in fact they do. This applies to personal problems as much as to technical or scientific ones. I suggest you ask for help when you need help.
  5. Don’t expect others to fix your problems. While asking for help is valuable, it’s YOUR PhD, and you’re responsible for it. Be grateful if others help you, but don’t expect it or depend on it. To a minimum level, you should be able to cope with each task in your PhD on your own; though for many, things will work much better if you ask for help and collaborate with others.
  6. Set yourself timelines, planning for about 20% each of logistics, reading, analysis, writing and “other stuff”. If any of these go significantly above the 20% mark, most likely, you’ll not manage in the time you had allocated (because you allocated too little time for one of the others). People tend to do what they find fun or easy, and tend to avoid the rest. This is normal, but a bit of reality is in order. I suggest you write up your first two papers after a first field season. That way you have gone through the whole process of empirical science (all the way to publication) relatively early on, and you’ll most likely find the second half easier. When you need to step up to postdoc level, you’ll be ready for it.
  7. Monitor your own progress, and if you’re not making progress for weeks or months, be honest with yourself: it can’t go on like that. Sometimes people just don’t move forward. Things can be painfully slow at times. Mostly, such structural ineffectiveness is a strong sign that science – requiring a high degree of self-motivation and self-organisation – is just not going to work in the long term for some people. Be honest with yourself if you’re not progressing and talk to others about what can be done.
  8. Communicate clearly, and frequently, with those you work with. I highly value a workplace culture where people work at work, and not primarily form home or off-campus. This way there is frequent, informal communication, and lots of helping each other with bits and pieces. If you isolate yourself from such an environment, you will not receive help, and nobody will ask you for help or your opinion. To get the most out of your PhD, be an active member (not a consumer) of a group of peers and collaborators.
  9. Engage with the multiple sources of advice around you, even when you’re not desperate. You can ask many people for advice, not just your supervisor. You can ask other students. Often, postdocs are the best people to ask – they often have more time still, and often are close to the experience of being a PhD student still.
  10. Network enough, but don’t mix that up with doing your work. Personally, I find networking is over-rated. We’re so incredibly connected these days that a lack of connections is problematic far less often than it used to be. I would suggest to network when you have a genuine interest in other people, but not as a goal in its own right. I find networking for its own sake disingenuous and frankly, it can be a big waste of everybody’s time.
  11. Collaborate with others, but not at the expense of the work you’re leading. Opportunities to collaborate are great, but shouldn’t be used as a displacement activity to avoid your own (more difficult to face) work.
  12. Take breaks, lots of them, and don’t let the PhD take over your life. Contrary to what many think, many excellent students I have worked with have taken plenty of time off and worked something like “regular hours”. If you’re not making progress, increase your efficiency, not your work hours.
  13. When you’re working, work. Speaking of efficiency … set yourself tasks to achieve for a given day and do them. Don’t stuff around for hours on facebook and waste time. Focus when you do things: focus on people when you deal with people, on writing when you’re writing, and on analysis when you’re doing analysis.
  14. Know two key currencies of science: one, you must read to know where your field is at, and two, you must publish or none of your grand ideas count. You cannot compensate for these two, they are simply key. You must read, and you must publish, or you cannot be a scientist.
  15. Find self-esteem in something other than scientific success: your perceived worth as a person should not depend on doing well. Your PhD will have highs and lows, but you as a person, are not your PhD. Your self-esteem is worth gold, in that it is the basis of your functioning. Focus on healthy ways of building self-esteem (such as connecting with friends and family) and not on bean-counting how successful you are (or otherwise).
  16. Know that a research existence is not for everyone, and should that be the case for you – relax. You can either get through your PhD and then shift directions, or even drop the PhD. Many people have done this, and for some people, this is precisely the right thing to do.

Comments, including on other key strategies, are of course welcome!

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Now officially open: PhD positions on leverage points for sustainability

Please help distribute this widely — we have too few expressions of interest so far!

Applications are now officially open for 8 Leverage Points PhD Positions (start date ideally October 2015). The application deadline for all eight positions is 30th of June 2015. These are 3-year positions for scholars to complete their PhDs at Leuphana (standard time in Germany; coursework is minimal).

A pdf of this overview is available here.  Please help to distribute this widely! Thanks you!

PhD1: Institutional dynamics in sustainability transformation (RESTRUCTURE: Policy and Governance)
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Jens Newig, Prof. Dr. Thomas Schomerus

This position focuses on processes of institutional change for restructuring food and energy systems. RESTRUCTURE will address dynamics (transformations) in institutional arrangements. Social structures embodied in institutions (rules, regu-lations and policies) enable, constrain and guide human action and thus are of central concern to sustainability transfor-mations. Different from most existing research, Leverage Points will not only consider institutional innovation and ‘success-ful’ institutional arrangements, but will specifically investigate what can be learnt from institutional failure, and assess how purposeful institutional decline could foster sustainability.  More detailed information on this position is available here PhD1.

PhD2: Institutional dynamics in sustainability transformation, e.g. with special focus on energy or food/agriculture systems (RESTRUCTURE: Law and Governance)
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Thomas Schomerus, Prof. Dr. Jens Newig

This position focuses on legal and policy analysis regarding food/agriculture and energy, and its dynamics in a multi-level institutional setting (case study regions, countries, EU). Tasks may include: systematic review and meta-analysis of productive functions of institutional failure and decline for sustainability transformation; study of institutional redundancies and inconsistencies within study regions; compare sustainability-relevant institutional change; study of the role of citizen and stakeholder participation in institutional change, i.e. regional resistance against renewable energy and citizen’s financial participation. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD2.

PhD3: Human-Nature Connections and Institutional Dynamics
Principal supervisors: Dr. Julia Leventon, Prof. Dr. Joern Fischer

This position has a primary focus on conceptualising and quantifying human-nature connections and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes, in food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). In addition, the position links to considerations of institutional change for restructuring food and energy systems and will address dynamics (transformations) in institutional arrangements. Social structures embodied in institutions (rules, regulations and policies) enable, constrain and guide human action and thus are of central concern to sustainability transformations. This position will consider how institutions reflect connections, and the implications for guiding human action. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD3.

PhD4: Conceptualising and quantifying human-nature connections (conceptualization)
Principal supervisors: Dr. Dave Abson, Dr. Julia Leventon

This position focuses on conceptualising human-nature connections and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes, in food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). This will involve the conceptualisation and quantification of actors’ aspirations and appreciation of local ecosystems; consumer choices in obtaining energy and food; and how behaviour, attitudes and knowledge influence individuals ‘connectedness’ to their environments. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD4.

PhD5: Conceptualising and quantifying human-nature connections (quantification)
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Henrik von Wehrden, Dr. Dave Abson

This position focuses on quantifying human-nature connections and how changes in such connections relate to sustainability outcomes, in food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO).Tasks and responsibilities may include: the creation of a literature review of the connections between people and ecosystems and quantifying ecosystem service flows within the empirical study regions. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD5.

PhD6: Sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (opportunities for change)
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Daniel Lang, Prof. Dr. Ulli Vilsmaier

This position focuses on consolidating and further developing conceptual foundations related to new forms of knowledge production and use, and will apply these to local transdisciplinary case studies. The themes of the case studies will revolve around the food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). Tasks and responsibilities may include: Systematic review of the (types of) knowledge needed for regional sustainability transformations; review of existing knowledge and experiences related to designs and opportunities of different forms of knowledge production to foster sustainability transformation; empirical analysis in how and how far knowledge and experience gained in specific contexts can be transferred between regions and themes and contribution to the organization and management of one of the transdisciplinary case studies. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD6.

PhD7: Sustainability-related knowledge creation and use (sustainability conceptualization and opportunities for change)
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Daniel Lang, Prof. Dr. Henrik von Wehrden

This position focuses on consolidating conceptual foundations related to new forms of knowledge production and use, and will apply and investigate these in local transdisciplinary case studies. The themes of the case studies will revolve around the food and energy systems in Lower Saxony (DE) and Transylvania (RO). Tasks and responsibilities may include: Reviewing the state of sustainability related knowledge production and use in the study regions; analysis of sustainability conceptualisations in different contexts in the specific case study regions; identification and design of opportunities for creating new forms of knowledge production and use for regional change; and contribution to the organization and management of a transdisciplinary case study. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD7.

PhD 8: Inter- and transdisciplinary Knowledge Creation in Action
Principal supervisors: Prof. Dr. Ulli Vilsmaier, Prof. Dr. Daniel Lang

This position will analyse the processes of knowledge production in the inter- and transdisciplinary research processes in Leverage Points. It will generate a more profound understanding of integrating different epistemics, life worlds and objectives, in particular in transdisciplinary sustainability science, and transdisciplinary case studies. The cooperative team of Leverage Points and the two transdisciplinary cases studies in Lower Saxony/Germany and Transylvania/Romania will serve as principal research space. More detailed information on this position is available here PhD8.

To apply

The official job adverts for all eight positions and details of how to apply can be found at http://www.leuphana.de/bewerben/jobs-und-karriere/forschung-lehre.html

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The role of intuition in science

By Joern Fischer

Science is supposed to be a rational activity – guided by careful analysis, without undue influence of gut feelings. While this may be so, I thought it’s useful to keep this in perspective a bit, and reflect on what the role of intuition might be for scientists.

First, what is intuition, and how does it differ from “feeling”? Wikipedia defines intuition as follows: “Intuition, a phenomenon of the mind, describes the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason (ref). The word “intuition” comes from Latin verb intueri translated as consider or from late middle English word intuit, “to contemplate” (ref).” The term “feeling”, by contrast, and again according to Wikipedia, “is usually reserved for the conscious subjective experience of emotion”.

My own understanding of this is that intuition is somehow the combined outcome of many thoughts and feelings about a particular matter – assembled in a way that may not necessarily be re-constructable, and very likely is not solely rational. Feelings most likely will come into one’s intuition, but they are not the same thing.

Going with this idea – that intuition results from the unconscious blending of many thoughts and feelings – it should be clear that intuition has something to offer. With rational thought alone, we limit ourselves to those experiences that are conscious and can be re-constructed through argumentation. While those are the most defensible insights (because they can be expressed and reasoned), it seems logical that if you add additional inputs – like unconscious thought and feeling – you may well gain in completeness of understanding of a given phenomenon. (I suppose you may blur things, too, which is important to keep in mind!)

Given that science is centred around rational arguments, where does intuition come in? I can think of three key areas.

  1. Intuition helps identify “hot topics”. When screening the horizon for the “next big thing”, this is rarely going to be just about a rational analysis. It’s what happens before formal (rational) science starts: we all have to think about which questions are worth asking. Reading the scientific landscape, in turn, is not just about reading arguments, but also about reading the people behind those arguments, their power relationships and agendas. Intuition can be extremely helpful for understanding “where things are at”.
  2. Intuition helps with inductive analysis. The majority of science these days is deductive, i.e. hypothesis-testing oriented. But every so often, and especially when trying to understand complex phenomena, it will be necessary to build new theory. This needs to be based on rational arguments to be defensible, but very likely draws on more than just a couple of reasoned chains of arguments. Most likely, building new theory comes from assembling many experiences in a way that is collectively useful or interesting – rather than singling out individual chains of reasoning.
  3. Intuition helps navigate conflicting opinions. With all its emphasis on rational analysis, one would think (naively…) that science is not very controversial. But when you operate in science, you note that people disagree with one another all the time, and things can get quite furious, passionate, or even personal. It takes intuition about people to navigate these situations and make sense of who sits where and why. Often, it is different truths being more or less salient to different scientists that lead to nuances (or even big differences) in their worldviews. This phenomenon can be best understood by drawing on an overall perspective on people in science, based on intuition as well as facts.

So, while rational arguments remain at the core of the scientific method (especially for deductive analyses), to operate as a scientist on a day-to-day basis, it is very beneficial to also listen to one’s intuition. Not everything going on in our heads can always be de-constructed into individual thoughts or feelings – and that’s okay, and does not necessarily mean those insights are of lower quality. I’d argue that quite often, insights based on intuition are particularly worth paying attention to.

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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.

simulation

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