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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Lying cows. Measuring regeneration.

Is this rangeland healthy or not? How could we tell?

The Gobi desert
Shurkhan Zalaa

In eco world the only thing that matters is outcome. Nobody cares about all the input and the effort and the programs and the support if it doesn't make a tangible difference.

Too many sustainability outfits and schemes dwell on inputs. Measuring regeneration is hard - but in the end only outcomes matter. Everything else is moot.

How can we tell if the rangeland is recovering?

Do we have a simple way to tell if the rangeland is getting better?

Yes and no.

We have a simple system of numbers that grades an area according to whether it's OK (1), needs 3 to 5 years to recover (2), needs more time (5 to 10 years) (3), or is in a really bad way and we're not sure if it can be recovered (4).

The numbers come from a very comprehensive and systematic way* of looking at the health of different ecological types. (In rangelands we have numerous ecologies - from deserts to steppe to mountainous and beyond, and then various sub-types. What good looks like in each is different). The system is based on the presence, or absence, of key plant species. Which are dominant, which are not.

Here's an example from the mountain zone:

Recovery class

As the quantity and quality of the vegetation per hectare declines, the number of animals that each hectare can support declines. (We measure animals in sheep equivalents - basically a goat and a sheep eat about the same, but a yak eats 6 times as much).

This is why overgrazing is so treacherous. Once a system starts degrading the gap between carrying capacity and livestock widens, unless livestock numbers adapt.

What that looks like

Photo-monitoring points are placed across the landscapes to represent mini-areas, so that we get some kind of granular picture. In one South Gobi landscape there are 5 monitoring points across about 50,000 hectares.

Photo-monitoring points

The idea is that each point covers an area of similar topography and ecology. But inevitably there is some extrapolation here - and of course given that this is the desert there are specific differences around the (all too scarce) water points. (The dark lines on the map are roads or rail tracks - not especially animal friendly).

Over time the photographic records vegetation enabling us to classify the rangeland state.

Recovery class

So this area, where the Shurkhan Zalaa community are the land stewards, is generally recoverable, and in a couple of places getting towards "OK".

A simple number but a complex story.

Only a number

What's great about this system is that it can apply in many areas, across many different ecological types. The use of critical plant communities to determine health feels pretty good. And because there are photo-monitoring sites (not enough but hey ho) everywhere we have some kind of baselines.

There are some gripes on the data - in that we're guilty of underusing the potential. Ideally we'd train some machines to work with remote sensing to recognise plant community signatures. That way we could see much more "real time" the health of each system. But we've not had much luck getting hold of the data other than through manual extraction.

But of course this is just one lens. It doesn't tell us about livelihoods. It doesn't tell us about the animals. It doesn't tell us about the wildlife.

And that's the problem with simple numbers. They can't tell you the whole story.

Are the cows lying down? Metrics vs indications

Simple metrics are loved by business. Narrow down to one key number and focus just on that. Call it a KPI or something similar. Maybe it's customer acquisition cost or conversion rate or profit per unit. One number to rule them all.

Simple metrics are the enemy of bio-complexity. How can we capture in a number all of the things that matter when looking at whether a landscape is healthy, or degrading, or getting better? Biodiversity, vegetation, wildlife, soil, water. None of these are easy to capture in a simple metric.

Simple metrics don't tell us how a community and a landscape co-exist. Simple metrics don't tell us about happiness, or anxiety, or love, or laughter.

Those of us involved in regeneration know this acutely. There are many different ways, many different lenses, so we tend to use a number of indicators across a number of domains: ecosystem health, community, animal welfare. The Regenerative Fund for Nature has a fairly broad set of indicators, Textile Exchange a slightly different set, TNFD yet another set. And then we spend a lot of our life filling out questionnaires for various brands all of which have a slightly, but only very slightly, different set of indicators.

Indicators are just that. Indicators. Suggestions. Clues.

How do you know if it's going to rain today?

Is it cloudy? Is that enough of a clue?

Does the air feel a bit moist? Is that enough?

Is there thunder?

Does your hair curl up when it's about to rain?

Do you get a funny feeling in your knees?

Are the cows lying down?

It's important that we don't just look at numbers. The world of sustainability is chock full of science and metrics. As we develop better finance to support landscapes there's even more emphasis on numbers.

Numbers are useful. Recovery class numbers like the ones we use are very good proxies to gives us a decent idea of whether things are getting better.

But they're not the whole story.

*known as the State and Transition Model. It was developed through Green Gold via the Swiss Development Agency. You can see more of it here.

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