Co-creating cultural narratives for sustainable rural development.

Ecologist Dr Rosalind Bryce is Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and leads a collaborative, cross-disciplinary project, CULTIVATE, exploring how cultural heritage can shape sustainable landscapes and communities in the context of global challenges including the climate emergency.

Place-based working

“The ethos of the Centre is to work in a place-based way, to have an impact on the way in which landscapes are understood, used and managed,” Rosalind says. “Our research is very applied, and driven by key issues such as the climate emergency and responding to land-based policy developments. Scotland’s uplands are particularly interesting because there are so many competing objectives. How can we deliver the greatest number of benefits from our upland landscapes? In a time of substantial global and social change, how can we better deliver for biodiversity, alongside reviving rural communities and finding nature-based solutions to societal issues?” She cites renewable energy, tree planting, peatland restoration, deer and grouse-moor management as just some of the competing interests to be managed. “These are quite polarized issues, and linked closely to value systems,” she says, “which is a key research area for me.”

So Scotland is a key focus but, Rosalind explains, “We’re also involved in multiple networks and international research into European and global mountain systems. I don’t want to lose sight of that bigger picture. For integrated land-use questions, working at larger scales is important.”

One such endeavour is the CULTIVATE project, centred on four UNESCO Biosphere Reserves – Wester Ross in northwest Scotland, Nordhordland, Norway, the Třeboň Basin, Czech Republic, and the West Estonian Archipelago. It is building understanding of the cultural narratives underpinning contemporary rural landscapes, from multiple stakeholder perspectives.“How are these different narratives interacting and negotiated to shape the way that landscapes are managed, and how we use this information to encourage transitions to more sustainable landscapes in the future?” Rosalind asks.

A creative departure

With two mountain landscapes (Wester Ross and Nordhordland) one wetland (Třeboň) and one island-based (West Estonian Archipelago), the project takes a comparative – and often creative – approach to untangling the socio-political and cultural context within which behaviour, land management and attempts at sustainable development reside. “It’s a bit of a departure for our Centre!” Rosalind laughs, “but that’s where a lot of interest lies at the moment – understanding cultural values and how they influence behaviours, strategies, decisions … There’s a lot of opportunities for interdisciplinarity, linking the arts and humanities with socio-ecological research.”

The project is co-produced from the outset. “We’re looking at what landscapes mean to people, so the research questions, the method development, comes from working with partners, to make sure that the findings will be relevant and useful to the communities, to the management of the areas, and to policy development,” she explains. “We try to be very inclusive in terms of engagement. We start almost every project, by working in partnership with relevant groups. It’s quite a detailed process before we even start the research.”

Exploration and adventure

Growing up in the countryside, Rosalind finds it hard to pinpoint the beginning of her interest in nature. “It’s always been there, I suppose,” she muses, “But I think it initially came out of an interest in exploration and adventure. A lot of my early reading was about explorers, about different countries and wild landscapes. I’ve always been very drawn to mountains – which explains where I am now!”

A smiling lady wearing an orange woolly hat and blue jacket stands in a woodland with lichen-covered trunks all around
Dr Rosalind Bryce

Her first experience of science was as an eighteen-year-old intern, monitoring eider ducks with the Scottish Wildlife Trust at her local nature reserve, Montrose Basin. “It was fantastic,” she says. “My first experience of actually doing science other than what I learned at school.”

After that summer, Rosalind studied Zoology at the University of Glasgow. “It was a good way to explore all the different dimensions of the natural world,” she recalls. “I think I’ve always had that interest in the big picture – how ecosystems all fit together and interact.” During her degree she took part in several expeditions to South America, learning field research methods and being surrounded by inspiring people of all career stages. “They played a big part in where I went next. Working in that team at a very early stage in my development as a scientist was really inspiring.; as well as the opportunity to travel to incredible places and to work in the rainforest! After that I was sure that I wanted to carry on in research after I graduated.”

Rosalind’s PhD was a joint studentship at the University of Aberdeen and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, looking at the role of the water vole as an ecosystem engineer. “It was very much an ecological project,” says Rosalind, “all about plant-animal dynamics in the uplands. During that time, I got very interested in upland environments and the ways in which they are managed, and how researchers can work alongside with people living and working in these landscapes. It was quite a formative period”

A postdoc followed, working with citizen scientists on the invasive American mink: “Part of my job was working with stakeholders and communities, gamekeepers,, land managers, … and part was science, looking at which management strategies were most effective.” Since then, she says, “I have continued to move towards the social aspects of land use and land management … but still working very much with ecologists too.”

Sentinels of change

Rosalind has been at the Centre for Mountain Studies since 2014, and its Director since 2021. She enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of the role: “I particularly enjoy the international collaborations – what they can teach us about the work we do in Scotland and the opportunity to work with mountain enthusiasts in other parts of the world.” She also leads a Master’s Programme in Sustainable Mountain Development: “I really enjoy working with the students. Many of them are in mountain-related jobs and studying from different locations which makes for vibrant discussions.”

A big challenge for mountain scientists is the continuing erosion of biodiversity and a ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ whereby losses go unnoticed. “How do we know what we’re losing, outside the areas that are carefully protected and monitored? There’s so much of value that has already been lost.” Here, she looks to the past – and the narratives emerging from the CULTIVATE project – for insights. “What can we learn from older landscapes about how ecosystems used to function? A better understanding of the past can contribute to a more informed discussion about restoration. Mountains can be considered sentinels of change, where the impacts of climate and land use change are often sharply evident, before changes are experienced further downstream.”

“The Scottish uplands is a good place to work on sustainability research,” Rosalind continues, “Scotland has a strong sense of community. You can develop strong networks with a common interest rooted in place and landscape. making it an engaging place to be involved in environmental issues.”

Dr Rosalind Bryce is Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College, University of the Highlands and Islands. CULTIVATE is funded by the EU Joint Programming Initiative for Cultural Heritage and Global Change. Find out more 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

Kenter, J.O., et al. 2015. What are shared and social values of ecosystems? Ecological Economics 111: 86—99.

Bryce, R., et al. 2016. Subjective well-being indicators for large-scale assessment of cultural ecosystem services. Ecosystem Services 21(B): 258—269.

Price, M.F. & Bryce, R. 2020. The online MSc in Sustainable Mountain Development at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland: experiences and impacts. Mountain Research and Development 40(4): D21—D30.

Marini Govigli, V., et al. 2022. The green side of social innovation: Using sustainable development goals to classify environmental impacts of rural grassroots initiatives. Environmental Policy and Governance.