Fostering resilience through genetic diversity and co-development.

With global environmental change accelerating, resilience is crucial. And genetic diversity is central to species’ resilience. Jeanette Hall pioneers the use of genetic conservation units (GCUs) across taxa to harness diversity and provide potential for evolutionary adaptation in challenging times.

In the past, applications of genetics to conservation were mostly limited to avoiding bottlenecks in captive breeding programmes. “Which is fine,” Jeanette explains, “but it assumes that the environment is constant, and populations are adapted to their situation. Whereas now we’re in a fast-changing environment – organisms need to be able to adapt to deal with that.”

“The UK has been quite slow on the uptake,” she admits. For instance, EUFORGEN (the European Forest Genetic Resources Programme) was established as long ago as 1994, whereas Scotland registered the UK’s first GCU (Beinn Eighe NNR, Wester Ross), for Scots pine, as recently as 2019. “That got rather more public attention than we expected, to be honest!” she laughs. But it was important: “Certainly within NatureScot, that was the first time we really started to consider the importance of genetic diversity for resilience to environmental change.”

Now, Scotland is catching up fast – moving from trees to a host of other species. “GCUs for trees are well-established,” says Jeanette, “so I started thinking, ‘How can we apply this to other organisms?’ I was working with Joan Cottrell [Forest Research], Richard Ennos [Edinburgh University] and Stephen Cavers [CEH], and we said, ‘We haven’t got any money! How are we going to do this?’”

Silver lining

Then COVID19 hit. “We had a PhD student, Melissa Minter, working at the University of York on butterflies … she couldn’t get into her lab, she couldn’t do any fieldwork, everything looked pretty rough.” Jeanette and colleagues brought forward a placement scheduled for Melissa at NatureScot, and together started working on the concept of expanding GCUs to new taxa.

They asked three questions: Would the GCU concept work for taxa outside trees? How should such taxa be selected? And crucially, how could this be beneficial to both nature and people?

“Co-development was really important,” says Jeanette. “There has been a perception – not entirely incorrect – that scientists, ecologists, conservationists, go along and tell people how to manage their land.” She wanted to do this differently: “Was this something we could develop with land managers? Because they are the ones who are going to need to make it work, and who have a really good understanding of their land. Do they find this idea interesting? What drawbacks and advantages can they identify? If you develop solutions without them, you miss out on a huge amount of useful insight.”

With this in mind, she engaged a steering group and questionnaire to elicit input from all stakeholders, from geneticists to farmers. They found significant support for a programme that recognises the beneficial aspects of how the land was already being managed, as well as how management could be improved for particular species. “Farmers ‘get’ this,” Jeanette enthuses. “They understand genetics, breeding, adaptation to the environment.”

Target species

Four species were selected to test the GCU concept: mountain ringlet butterfly (Erebia epiphron), great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus), hazel gloves fungus (Hypocreopsis rhododendri) and harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). Jeanette was particularly keen to include invertebrates and fungi, as groups generally neglected from conservation and genetic studies. The mountain ringlet was included due to the availability of good genetic data from Melissa’s work; the bumblebee for its recent, rapid decline, hazel gloves for its distinctiveness from other groups, particularly in terms of mating system, and the formerly widespread harebell, as a genetically complex farmland flower.

Despite being one of the least complex fungi, genetically, the team found that they couldn’t generate enough information to reliably define GCU’s for hazel gloves. “But for the other three species, we felt that [the approach] could work really well,” says Jeanette. “A combination of understanding genetic distribution and habitat requirements would really help us define areas [for conservation].” By the end of the process, she says, “We had quite a bit of enthusiasm from land managers and other stakeholders that, yeah, this could work!”

She cites the 30×30 commitment and ‘OECMs’ – Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures as potential applications of the method. Defined at 2018’s COP14, OECMs lie outside formal protected areas, but are managed to obtain positive outcomes for biodiversity. “GCUs can be a useful measure that isn’t overlain by legislation – managed through dialogue and discussion, landowners wouldn’t see them as an imposition or a threat,” Jeanette argues. “That gives them a lot of potential.”

In the family

Jeanette has a poignant reason for becoming a scientist, citing her father, a keen naturalist, as her inspiration. “He didn’t get to be a scientist, because he failed his ‘eleven-plus’. In those days … that was kind of it, really. He became an engineer, but it wasn’t what he really wanted to do. He was absolutely determined that [his children] would get to do what we wanted – although he was also determined that what I wanted would be science!” she laughs.

A white woman wearing glasses, with long hair, handling a leopard snake
Jeanette Hall

Jeanette began her career working on woodlands at English Nature, before moving to NatureScot and recently expanding her remit to grasslands. “I’ve always wanted to keep learning,” she says. Her goal now is to build understanding of the crucial role genetic diversity plays in resilience. “We think a lot about species diversity … but genetic diversity is at least as important,” she says. “I want to see greater consideration of how practical conservation can contribute to resilience to environmental change.” And that, she predicts, “Will require insights from social and behavioural sciences, as much as traditional ecological sciences.”

Jeanette is a great advocate for co-development in many forms: between scientists and land managers, among scientific disciplines, and also between science creators and science users… “a really fertile area for collaboration.” “I’m not the one who’s actually going out there and clearing Rhododendron ponticum, or monitoring lichens … I try to provide an overview of the kinds of knowledge we need, and that’s all about working with people.”

And Scotland is a great place to do this. “Science is quite concentrated in Scotland. Everyone knows each other. There’s an interconnectedness between scientists and policymakers and conservationists. It’s a good place to collaborate,” she concludes.

Jeanette Hall is Woodland and Grassland Advisor at NatureScot. Her work is supported by the Scottish Government and NatureScot, with the Leverhulme Trust, the Genetics Society and NERC funding Melissa Minter’s project also described here. Follow Jeanette on Twitter here.

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

Ennos, R., et al. 2020. Species diversification – which species should we use? Quarterly Journal of Forestry.

Coomes, D.A., et al. 2021. Review: Implementing woodland nature-based solutions – a UK perspective. Pp. 24—37 in: Stafford, R., et al. (eds.). Nature-based Solutions for Climate Change in the UK: A Report by the British Ecological Society. London, UK.

Minter, M., et al. 2021. Exploring the potential for ‘Gene Conservation Units’ to conserve genetic diversity in wild populations. Ecological Solutions and Evidence 2(2): e12061.

O’Brien, D., et al. 2021. A co-development approach to conservation leads to informed habitat design and rapid establishment of amphibian communities. Ecological Solutions and Evidence 2(1): e12038.

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