Using evidence-based conservation to inform policy.

Nature is everywhere

While many think of Scotland as a land of mountains, glens and lochs, in fact most of us live in cities. The ecology and genetics of the wildlife that lives alongside us is a passion of David O’Brien’s: “You’re always near nature, even when you’re just waiting for the bus: look down and you’ll see amazing liverworts eking out a living in the cracks of the pavement, and moss growing around the base of the lamp-posts, benefitting from the odd dose of ammonia and other fertilizers, courtesy of passing dogs,” he says with characteristic humour.

However, it’s the ponds and other water bodies that really fascinate David. Working with colleagues across Europe, he is building on studies of amphibians in garden ponds and town parks extending back to at least the 1920s. While urban ponds offer opportunities to breed, their isolation from each other has been linked to genetic problems such as inbreeding.

Since the early 2000s, European regulations have encouraged the installation of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) in urban areas. SuDs include structures from ditches to small ponds to clusters of ponds which attempt to mimic natural processes and thereby reduce flooding and intercept pollution.

A chance observation led David to wonder whether SuDS ponds might offer good wildlife habitats, and potentially other benefits. Because they tend to be grouped together next to other green infrastructure features such as paths, they might also make it easy for amphibians to move through the landscape, colonising new ponds and finding mates. Initial studies in Inverness – thanks to the work of Marcia Rae, a graduate placement funded by NatureScot (then SNH) and the Highland Council – confirmed his suspicions. In addition, this team showed that SuDS were also great educational resources due to their accessibility to urban dwellers.

As well as providing habitat for frogs, toads and newts, it turned out that SuDS are a great place for the nationally endangered northern damselfly, to breed. If well-designed, they can not only reduce flood and pollution risks, but can also be great for wildlife and offer places to relax and enjoy nature whether on a break from work or with the family. This work on SuDS ponds has now expanded across northern Europe taking in sites in Poland, Czechia, Germany and the Netherlands. David hopes that these findings will influence SuDS design across Scotland and beyond.

Have I got newts for you?

The great crested newt stirs up strong emotions amongst conservationists, politicians and developers. Highly protected under both European and domestic legislation, it has become rather a flagship species. They are not widely distributed in Scotland: most populations are found in the lowlands, with a small number in the area around Inverness. The latter are long supposed to have resulted from human introductions from elsewhere in their range – but confirming their origin is important: if they are not locally native, then there would be no imperative to protect them.

David and research partner Jeanette Hall began an investigation of the newt’s ecology in the region and looked at its distribution in the light of past climatic change. These findings led first to research into the species’ genetics – which confirmed the newts are in fact native highlanders – and then to a programme of conservation collaborations with local land-managers including farmers, foresters and a golf club. While there had been a gradual decline in the Highlands since the 1990s, this management work reversed the trend and led to a 26% increase in the number of ponds supporting breeding populations in the region.

What gets measured gets done

As the newt example shows, genetic diversity is a key component of biodiversity, but one which often gets overlooked. Protecting genetic diversity – which in turn gives wildlife potential to adapt – is essential if nature is to cope with pressures such as climate change. But until recently, genetic diversity was not systematically recorded by any nation in the world, meaning this vital aspect was not properly taken into account in biodiversity policy or conservation management.

David’s core role managing indicators for NatureScot led to a successful collaboration with Professors Pete Hollingsworth (RBGE) and Rob Ogden (University of Edinburgh) to develop the world’s first national assessment of the genetic diversity of wild species. They worked with a group of fellow scientists from Scotland’s SEFARI collective to devise a method for selecting key species and scoring the genetic diversity of each.

The species chosen comprised five from each of five categories: conservation, cultural importance, ecosystem services, food/medicine and game, and covered a wide taxonomic spread including mosses, vascular plants, fungi, vertebrates and invertebrates. The report was submitted as part of Scotland’s commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity (Aichi Target 13) and the method has gained international interest, including a policy paper which uses the Scottish Scorecard to bring together approaches to genetic diversity from around the world.

It started with a snake in the garden

David’s interest in wildlife began at the age of four when he caught a grass snake in his aunt’s garden. Once they got over the shock, his parents encouraged his love of nature and it has been an important part of his life ever since. His subsequent scientific career followed a “rather unorthodox,” (as he puts it) pathway: after completing a BSc in Biology at Bristol University, he became a graduate trainee at a distillery, only to move to working in a warehouse when the distillery closed. Warehousing and distribution sent him as far afield as Toronto and California.

A white man in side profile holding a snake
Dr David O’Brien

It took a corporate takeover, leading to redundancy again, before he returned to his first love, biodiversity. He’s been with NatureScot ever since, currently working on evidence and reporting and managing the terrestrial vascular plant team. David believes that anyone wanting to work in conservation should spend some time in industry or commerce first: “It’s all too easy to get into an academic ivory tower,” he explains. “Understanding how the private sector works makes it much easier to see opportunities to build nature into business and into everyone’s lives”.

David fitted in an MSc and a PhD round his working life, with much of the fieldwork carried out in Inverness and elsewhere in the Highlands, for which he shows clear enthusiasm: “It’s a great place to study. You’ve got some of the largest areas without motorways or dual carriageways in western Europe, which means that there are few barriers to animal movement. All of this is right next to inshore islands giving you a brilliant opportunity to look at population genetics and evolutionary history. There’s so much to discover, and we’re just scratching the surface.”

Dr David O’Brien is Biodiversity Evidence and Reporting Manager at NatureScot, a Research Associate of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, a Fellow of the Linnean Society and was a founder of the Coalition for Conservation Genetics. His other published research covers topics from microbial ecology to evidence-based conservation, biobanking and forest management. His work is supported by Scottish Government and NatureScot, with project funding from the European Union and the United States Geological Survey’s Powell Center.

This post is part of a series showcasing Scotland’s innovative, high-impact research supporting biodiversity conservation, in partnership with Scottish Government and NatureScot. Read the rest of the series here.

Further reading

O’Brien, C.D. 2015. Sustainable drainage system (SuDS) ponds in Inverness, UK and the favourable conservation status of amphibians. Urban Ecosystems 18(1): 321—331.

O’Brien, C.D., et al. 2015. Extending the natural range of a declining species: genetic evidence for native great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) populations in the Scottish Highlands. European Journal of Wildlife Research 61(1): 27—33.

Rae, M., et al. 2019. Evaluating the validity of a simple citizen science index for assessing the ecological status of urban drainage ponds. Ecological Indicators 98: 1—8.

Hoban, S., et al. 2021. Genetic diversity is considered important but interpreted narrowly in country reports to the Convention on Biological Diversity: Current actions and indicators are insufficient. Biological Conservation 261: 109233.

O’Brien, D., et al. 2021. Reversing a downward trend in threatened peripheral amphibian (Triturus cristatus) populations through interventions combining species, habitat and genetic information. Journal for Nature Conservation 64: 126077.

O’Brien, D., et al. 2022. Bringing together approaches to reporting on within species genetic diversity. Journal of Applied Ecology 59(9): 2227—2233.