Behind the cover 2:1 – Q&A with David O’Brien

In this Q&A, we find out more about the author and research: “A co‐development approach to conservation leads to informed habitat design and rapid establishment of amphibian communities” behind the cover image of our first issue of 2021.

The research


What’s your article about?

Issue2-1_cover
Cover of Issue 2:1

Our article describes habitat creation and management for amphibians in economically active sites. We worked with farmers, foresters and a golf club to come up with a series of projects that could deliver for biodiversity while still meeting the land managers’ business goals. We used evidence from local studies of habitat preference to guide our work. New ponds were quickly colonised by all five amphibian species native to the area and their community richness is now greater than that of a set of high-diversity local sites.

What is the background behind your article?

Jeanette Hall and I began studying amphibians in the Scottish Highlands around 2005. We’d become worried about loss of breeding sites for our rarest local amphibian, the great crested newt. A review of 19th century maps suggested that there had been a decline in lowland ponds, the newt’s core breeding habitat, since the region was first mapped in detail. This in turn had led to population fragmentation, with some ponds completely isolated and at risk of losing their amphibian populations through inbreeding depression. Lone ponds are also at risk from stochastic events, which lead to a local extinction with no opportunity for recolonisation.

Why is it important?

Land around the world is coming under ever more pressure. People need food and resources, we’re understanding the benefits of outdoor exercise too – and all of this requires land. Biodiversity has often been the loser when it comes to land conflicts. Even when sympathetic to conservation, understandably, land owners want to make a living. We’ve shown that by working together from the earliest stages of the project, we can avoid conflict and produce results that are a source of pride to land managers, as well as being brilliant for nature.

Were you surprised by anything when working on it?

The project went surprisingly smoothly. Once we understood what motivated each of us in the partnership, we found the work on the ground went well. A sense of stewardship was important to all of the land managers. In some cases, responsibility for the land had been passed down through the generations: one site had been in the owner’s family since the 17th century, and we recognised that this good management made our work easier. The golf course ‘pro’ had grown up next to the course and remembered catching newts as a boy. He was a key team member when it came to reassuring some club members who worried that their golf course would be taken over by environmentalist outsiders who would tell them how to run it.

ApEc pic 2
Construction of a pond at Forres Golf Course. Forres holds Britain’s most northerly population of great crested newt (Tritutus cristatus) and they colonised this pond in 2019 © Richard Lockett

These connections to the land and its wildlife were vital not only to the construction phase, but also to ongoing management. We were very lucky that two of the project managers, Richard Lockett and Tony Seymour, had loads of experience working with farmers (Richard is a farmer himself) as well as being very knowledgeable about habitat management.

What are the key messages of your research?

Look at the evidence and see whether it applies to where you’re working before you start habitat work. Animals don’t read the literature and will frequently behave in unexpected ways, particularly at range edges. This may mean that you have to do detailed habitat studies before you start work on the ground.

For a lot of us in ecology, talking to land managers can be daunting. It’s very easy to get into a ‘them and us’ mindset. Ask lots of questions, recognise the good work they’ve already done, be willing to learn, but first and foremost remember: it’s their land.

About The Author


ApEc pic 5
My first book on wildlife. Even as a child I was inclined to dress formally © Norman O’Brien

How did you get involved in ecology?

When I was four years old, I caught a snake in my aunt’s garden and thus began a lifelong passion for nature, particularly reptiles and amphibians. My parents always encouraged me and I still spend time watching wildlife with my mother, who is now 88 and a better birder and botanist than I.

What are you currently working on?

My professional work at NatureScot is focussed mainly on managing our biodiversity reporting and indicators, the conservation of genetic diversity, and developing a strategy for plant conservation. Outside of work, I study reptiles and amphibians, particularly in the Pyrenees and the Scottish Highlands, and urban biodiversity.

What’s your current position?

I’m Biodiversity Evidence and Reporting Manager at NatureScot and a Research Associate of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

What project/article are you most proud of?

At the moment, this one. I can walk to some of the intervention sites from my house, chat with the farmers and see the difference we’ve made together. Even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a great morale boost and I was able to send the rest of the team photos of the sites and their wildlife.

What is the best and worst thing about being an ecologist?

The best thing is seeing the patterns and struggles of life, the worst is being bitten by midges, mosquitos and ticks when you’re trying to do field work.

What do you do in your spare time?

Enjoy nature of course, and once COVID-19 is under control, I look forward to being able to watch cricket (Durham CCC) and go to the pub with friends.

One piece of advice for someone in your field…

Work in industry at some point in your career. It really broadens your understanding of life outside of conservation and research, it helps you to understand other perspectives and it could even provide you a decent pension.

Read the full research: “A co‐development approach to conservation leads to informed habitat design and rapid establishment of amphibian communities” in Issue 2:1 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence

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