Learning by doing.

Professor Chris Spray is a self-confessed nature enthusiast, never happier than when his feet are in a wetland, his binoculars round his neck and with a field notebook in hand. Collecting first-hand information on the natural world to help underpin changes in conservation practice and policy has driven his lifetime interest in wetland management, policy and practice in Scotland and further afield, both professionally and as a committed amateur recorder.

Water, wildlife and restoring wetland ecosystems

From an initial interest in what controls bird population dynamics, Chris’s focus has developed into one championing the need for better evidence of the multiple gains to biodiversity and climate adaptation possible from taking an integrated approach to river restoration at catchment scale. Since 2010, Chris has been the Science Manager for Scottish Government’s long-running empirical study of the effectiveness of natural flood management (NFM) to reduce flood risk to downstream communities and improve riparian biodiversity.

The Eddleston Water project is led by the participative catchment NGO, Tweed Forum, who, along with SEPA, Scottish Borders Council, the British Geological Survey and the University of Dundee, has overseen the implementation of NFM measures across the 69 km2 catchment in the Borders, including remeandering 3.5 km of once-straightened river channels, creating 38 flood-storage ponds, planting over 330,000 native trees and installing 115 high-flow log structures. Key to this is monitoring: the site has probably the most dense and complete hydrological network of any similar-sized catchment in the UK, backed by groundwater studies and detailed monitoring of aquatic ecology, notably invertebrates and fish of the salmon family.

Alongside the development of a combined catchment hydraulic and hydrological model enabling exploration of the effectiveness of a variety of NFM scenarios, the studies have provided empirical evidence for the impact of measures on: increasing lag time for floods – ‘slowing the flow’ – reducing flood peaks and restoring in-stream habitat structure and macroinvertebrate populations. Furthermore, using environmental DNA (eDNA) alongside ‘traditional’ survey methods, Chris’s team has shown the added value of temporary flood storage ponds in contributing to wider catchment biodiversity. Using environmental economics, they also been able to show that, whilst the NFM measures already implemented provide nearly £1 million net benefit in terms of flood damages avoided to downstream communities, they also provide over £4 million-worth of benefits from other ecosystem services, including biodiversity, carbon management, water quality and recreation. As such, this is demonstrating the value of taking a catchment-wide approach using NFM measures as nature-based solutions to improve biodiversity and to enhance the resilience of both freshwater and human ecosystems to climate change.

Birdwatching with a purpose

Growing up in rural Wiltshire, before moving to Scotland to do a PhD at Aberdeen University on carrion crows, Chris has always explored his local patch, and where possible contributed observations and records of wildlife in an ‘amateur’ capacity. Initially, this was mainly about birds – wardening RSPB and Wildlife Trust reserves, undertaking BTO breeding bird surveys, or counting wildfowl for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. The move to Scotland let him spread his wings to include studies of lead poisoning in whooper swans in Iceland and Scotland; ringing Bewick swans in Arctic Russia; and ringing hundreds of barnacle geese (which winter in southwest Scotland on the Solway Firth) in their Arctic breeding grounds in Svalbard. This all in an amateur role alongside his university studies of population dynamics of mute swans and the impacts of spraying organophosphorus insecticides on bird populations in Scottish pine plantations.

Along the way, Chris moved in to the water industry, carving out a career in the public, regulatory and private sectors, initially in the flat expanses of the Anglian fens working on conservation with the National Rivers Authority. Moving up to join the privatised Northumbrian Water as Director of Environment, he started a long-lasting engagement with the Tweed – both its mute swans and as chair of Tweed Forum, for whom he led their successful multi-million pound bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, delivering the UK’s first landscape-scale HLF project. It also saw him join the English Biodiversity Committee, the UK Government’s Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, and attend the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. However, having his feet firmly on the ground with local practical conservation work has always been a main driver and, returning to Scotland in 2004 as Director of Environmental Science for SEPA, Chris has managed to continue birding, but has now also added bumblebees and butterflies to his local recording surveys.

A white man wearing a red fleece and jacket and carrying binoculars, stands in front of a mountain landscape. There is some snow on the peaks.
Professor Chris Spray in the Cairngorms National Park

Landscape-scale nature recovery and science into policy

Looking to the future, Chris sees the increasing importance of transferring science into policy, something he was able to do within a NERC fellowship embedded in the Welsh Government in 2016 and now in his role as a ministerial appointee on the Board of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. The two Scottish National Parks (soon to become three or more) offer a wonderful opportunity for leadership in terms of delivering nature recovery at a landscape scale, and in ‘learning by doing’, providing multiple benefits from initiatives built on an increasing evidence base for action. Future Nature, Loch Lomond and The Trossachs’ new flagship programme, looks to provide a step-change in both ambition and delivery which, in partnership with others, could and should be seen to be making a difference.

Professor Chris Spray is emeritus professor of Water Science and Policy at the UNESCO Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science, University of Dundee, and Tweed Forum’s Science Manager for the Scottish Government’s Eddleston Water project. He is currently a ministerial appointee to the Board of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park where his focus is on nature recovery. Find out more about his work 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:

Gilvear, D.J., Spray, C.J. & Casas-Mulet, R. 2013. River rehabilitation for the delivery of multiple ecosystem services at the river network scale. Journal of Environmental Management 126: 30—43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2013.03.026

Saidi, N. & Spray, C. 2018 Ecosystem services bundles: challenges and opportunities for implementation and further research. Environmental Research Letters 13(11): 113001. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aae5e0

Ncube, S., Spray, C. & Geddes, A. 2018. Assessment of changes in ecosystem service delivery: a historical perspective on catchment landscapes. International Journal of Biodiversity Science, Ecosystem Services and Management 14(1): 145—161. https://doi.org/10.1080/21513732.2018.1489306

Spray, C., et al. 2021. Freshwater Systems. Pp. 89—106 in: Stafford, R., et al. (eds.). Nature-Based Solutions for Climate Change in the UK: A Report by the British Ecological Society. United Kingdom: British Ecological Society. https://discovery.dundee.ac.uk/files/59211433/Nature_based_solutions_for_climate_change_in_the_UK.pdf

Spray, C., et al. 2022. Strategic design and delivery of integrated catchment restoration monitoring: emerging lessons from a 12-year study in the UK. Water 14(15): 2305. https://doi.org/10.3390/w14152305