An Interview with Rob Rowlands, Director of Ecology

20 Jul 2023

Our ecologists are making a positive impact in an urbanising, resource-scarce world. They support us in looking after natural habitats, encouraging biodiversity, promoting conscious development and helping us to build a more sustainable future.

Dr Rob Rowlands joined RPS in 2020 and is our Director of Ecology in the Republic of Ireland. He's worked in private consultancy practice for 22 years, advising landowners and developers with respect to the environmental planning policy and legislative requirements of their development projects. We sat down with Rob to discuss his career so far, how the field has evolved since starting in the industry, and where he sees it heading in the future.

QWhat inspired you to pursue a career in Ecology?

My interest in the natural environment began at a young age, I grew up on a farm in the Dyfi Estuary in Mid Wales and was surrounded by nature and biodiversity. I got to see the raised bog ripple as I walked across it, spent hours fishing along the Llyfnant river, and watched swarms of bats emerge from the roosts in the farmhouse. On occasion I also found them finding them in my slippers in the morning! These experiences got me hooked on nature.

I went on to complete my honours degree at the University of Wales and one particular field trip stands out. We were visiting the Burren, Co. Clare to learn about that incredible landscape and the ecology it supports, and I remember being amazed that you could find around 75% of all Irish plant species within this small and special part of the country. This experience got me hooked on the Burren and Ireland in general.

I was fortunate to get the opportunity to complete a PhD at University College Dublin. The research was sponsored by Bord na Móna and sought to understand the natural revegetation process on industrial cutaway peatlands in the Irish Midlands. It was fascinating to see the natural capacity of ecosystems to heal themselves and how diverse they could become if given optimal starting conditions.

Since completing my academic studies, I have worked as a professional ecologist in private practice, becoming a full member of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (MCIEEM) and Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv) in 2005/6. I’ve had the opportunity to work on a diverse range of private and public-sector projects over that time; mainly in the UK and most recently, having moved back in 2020, in Ireland. In that time it's been my pleasure to grow and lead teams of ecologists and help develop their skills and build their careers.

Poulnabrone Dolmen Tomb, The Burren, Co. Clare, Ireland

Poulnabrone Dolmen Tomb, The Burren, Co. Clare, Ireland

QHow has ecology changed since you entered the field?

The fundamental skills that you need as a professional ecologist haven’t really changed much.  You need excellent field skills to identify the habitats or species that you’re surveying and assessing. You also need to understand the processes which underpin the presence of those habitats and species within the landscape. But what is changing is the technology available in your toolbox. For example, the use of eDNA for species identification or the use of machine learning algorithms for habitat mapping and identification.  

The legislative and policy context we work within has also changed significantly. When I began my professional career, legislation and policy mainly sought to 'retain and protect' ecological resources 'where possible'. I’m glad to say things have moved on significantly. Now it’s a requirement (in some cases mandatory) to ensure no net loss, or to achieve net gain, of biodiversity. And increasingly moving towards net recovery. The world is finally waking up to a reality that ecologists have known for decades - there is a biodiversity crisis, and we need to address it. It’s an exciting time to be a professional ecologist.


QCan you expand on the applications of machine-learning in ecology?

Essentially, it’s using remote sensing satellite imagery to map areas of difference or similarity. We then look at what habitats are in those areas, and use it as training data to feed into our algorithm. This assures us of the mapping accuracy the remote sensing technology has done, and we're then able to use that with a high level of confidence in projects for baseline habitat mapping.

This provides huge value in terms of the accuracy of the data that you're collecting. It also means we can prioritise the areas we target for particular surveys easier, and use our experienced surveyors as efficiently as possible.


QWhat role can the protection of nature and biodiversity play in the fight against climate change?

By protecting, restoring and managing ecosystems, we can enhance biodiversity, alleviate flood risk, and reduce carbon emissions, either by storing carbon or by preventing its release.

Nature-based solutions are part of the toolbox we have to help us prevent climate change. For example, they're gaining traction in the policy agenda and in flood alleviation, providing more sustainable solutions compared to the traditionally favoured hard-engineering. I don't think you'd be able to go completely away from the hard engineering solutions, but it's certainly part of the answer.

The Irish Government recently announced the 2,000-hectare nature restoration project in Glenasmole Valley which will look at peatland restoration to boost water quality and reduce flood risk downstream in the River Dodder. Using these nature-based solutions, there's the potential to think a bit more creatively in terms of the solutions available. They could be beneficial in terms of not only biodiversity but also people, health, all these other things.

I think what we need is to think about how the benefits are stacked with those solutions. So in Glenasmole, you're not just dealing with the flooding issue, you're dealing with the biodiversity crisis, you're dealing with carbon sequestration and loss. You're talking about a public amenity, so there are multiple stacked benefits from one action.

Glenasmole Valley, Dublin Mountains, Co. Dublin, Ireland

Glenasmole Valley, Dublin Mountains, Co. Dublin, Ireland

QRewilding vs nature-based solutions; what are your views?

They are two very different concepts/solutions in my mind, and I stress that the following are my personal views.

Re-wilding can paint quite a purist, idealistic, picture of what a particular landscape should look like and how it should function. It doesn’t necessarily account for the fact that humans are part of that landscape and, in the case of Europe, have had a significant hand in the formation and maintenance of many of the landscapes, habitats and species that we value. If we exclude humans from the picture, we risk discounting or ignoring the impacts on other aspects of that landscape such as local communities, culture and native languages. I've experienced this first-hand from the community response to re-wilding attempts in the Cambrian Mountains of mid-Wales. I'm not opposed to the concept of re-wilding but believe it must be inclusive, rather than exclusive, of the communities which are subject to or affected by re-wilding activities.

Nature-based solutions perhaps offer a more pragmatic approach to finding sustainable solutions to the challenges we face either socially, economically, or environmentally. Often one solution can deliver on all three fronts and deliver multiple stacked benefits e.g. flood management, biodiversity restoration, carbon sequestration and amenity/recreational value. They tend to be more inclusive of the local communities which are subject to or affected by nature based solutions and, often, those communities can benefit quite significantly from them.


QIs there a danger of greenwashing with biodiversity net gain?

I think there's a significant risk of greenwashing unless a transparent, measurable and accountable approach is implemented to document and protect the gains which are delivered. Personally, I favour a more quantitative, rather than qualitative, approach to accounting for net gain. I also favour a mandatory requirement for projects seeking consent to demonstrate how net gain will be delivered and secured by the project in perpetuity.


QWhat are some exciting projects that RPS is working on at the moment?

There are always exciting projects at RPS. There is a diverse range of projects which the ecology team in Ireland is working on currently; the majority of which are dealing with the significant challenges we, as a society, face in the immediate future. For example, we're working on multiple renewable energy projects, including offshore wind, which will assist in meeting the Government’s renewable energy targets for 2030 and beyond. We are working on several projects which will update the electricity transmission network to deal with the electricity that it will generate. Also, we're dealing with the emerging requirements for biodiversity net gain on many of these projects, whilst also planning for the potential implications of the EU’s emerging Nature Restoration Law.


QIf you could snap your fingers and instantly change something in ecology, what would it be?

Seems fairly basic, however, I would make it a mandatory requirement that any project seeking planning consent in Ireland is informed and supported by an Ecological Impact Assessment (EcIA) prepared by a competent ecologist and with reference to CIEEM’s published guidance and that the mitigation measures identified within that EcIA are secured through appropriate planning conditions or, if necessary, other legal mechanisms.

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