The Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (IEEM) is the UK’s main professional body for ecologists, nature conservation practitioners, ecological consultants and the like. Whilst membership is not a life-or-death choice, there are times when it has distinct benefits. Today’s IEEM conference at the Liner Hotel in Liverpool was one such occasion.

 The conference presented two days of speakers, workshops and field excursions. I attended only the second day: an excellent slew of oral presentations spanning a broad range of very topical subjects. I found it educational and interesting; educational because I feel like I’ve attended a formal training course, and interesting because I didn’t get bored (which is some feat in itself!).

Today’s programme was kicked off by Simon Marsh (RSPB) who has been involved in the drafting of the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Whilst circumspect about the widespread cynicism surrounding the Coalition Government’s new ‘localistic’ approach, he was candid in his concerns about projected spending cuts. Budget squeezes will inevitably wreak havoc with all the best-laid plans.

Jo Treweek (freelance consultant) gave an informative tour around the concept of ‘biodiversity offsetting’, mainly via her experience overseas. Offsetting involves developers buying ‘biodiversity credits’ as compensation for damaging activities. These might include creation of priority habitats, or funding species recovery work, and can be delivered by third parties via a formal system. Much of the groundwork is in place for setting up such a system in the UK, but valuable opportunities have been missed, and we are not currently heading in the offsetting direction.

Andrew Clark (National Farmers Union) spoke about the ongoing review of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and the potential benefits that changes might bring to nature conservation. CAP reform is the single largest wholesale revision of EU policy to date. As well as radical changes to payments and subsidy systems, farmers will soon have to set aside 5-7% of their land for nature conservation in the form of fallow ground, buffer strips etc: good news for wildlife, but not so popular with farmers.

John Box (Atkins) gave the case for using habitat translocation as a tool in mitigation and compensation exercises. Currently, he argued, the paradigm is against habitat translocation, in favour of habitat creation – with all its inherent risks and flawed logic. Specially-created habitat, by virtue of being reactionary, is rarely ready in time for when it’s needed. It is often immature, or of inappropriate character and quality. Translocation of mature habitat, when conducted with appropriate care, can apparently be a great success.

David Stubbs of the London 2012 Organising Committee gave an impressive account of the myriad ways in which the organisers are attempting to make next year’s event ‘the first sustainable Olympics’. However, despite all these laudable efforts, I was left feeling ‘greenwashed’ and unconvinced that true sustainability will be achieved. Big issues such as offsetting the huge carbon footprint of the Olympics have not been fully dealt with, and rather than claiming absolute sustainability, perhaps claiming to be ‘the most sustainable Olympics so far’ might be nearer the mark.

In the afternoon session, Paul Dolman (University of East Anglia) described his detailed biodiversity audit work in Norfolk, and highlighted the tendency to overlook the many thousands of species that are not Government priorities.

Roger Morris proposed a wake-up call for coastal engineers in their approach to estuary management; a talk that stirred my own long-dormant interest in coastal geomorphology. Too much focus has been on the wildlife and environmental benefits of ‘managed realignment’, he says, whereas the economically-valuable engineering benefits are left unsung; a missed trick that might sweeten the bitter pill of expensive coastal defences.

Miklos Balint described climate-related changes in montane insect distributions across Europe. Penny Anderson described peatland restoration work in Northwest England. Martin Davies and Jess Tyler also described peatland conservation work, and the importance of bringing local farmers on-side. Finally, Chris Gerrard gave an account of progress on the Great Fen Project.

All in all, this was a refreshingly-good conference, with a strong element of topical information to feed the grey matter. It will certainly go down on the CPD sheet when IEEM next requests one.

Chris Gleed-Owen, Director & Principal Ecologist, CGO Ecology Ltd