Branching out

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As the new QS World University Rankings reveal the University is top in the UK for sustainability, Bulletin speaks to Edinburgh’s first Forest, Peat and Rural Land Manager.

As part of the University’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2040, the Social Responsibility and Sustainability (SRS) team has been working with colleagues across the institution to reduce our carbon footprint. Now the new QS World University Rankings have introduced sustainability as a framework and placed Edinburgh first in the UK and fourth in the world in recognition of our work and commitment to being environmentally and socially responsible.

Yvonne Edwards

One such example has been the creation and appointment of a new role: Forest Peat and Rural Land Manager. Coming from a long career in Forestry and Ecology, Yvonne Edwards has worked in Scotland and abroad on restoring and protecting peatland and woodland habitats.

Her role at Edinburgh is to identify and buy land for peatland restoration and woodland creation as well as partnering with others to do the same. She explains: “I’m here to lead on the forest and peatland programme. It’s mainly a carbon mitigation project for the University to enable us to address unavoidable emissions, but will have multiple benefits for biodiversity and local communities.

“We all understand that there is a climate emergency,” she continues. “As a University and as a business we must play our civic part in taking action. We already deliver educational and behaviour change training to support changes to low carbon lifestyles, however, our students and researchers need to be able to travel to and from the University, as part of their studies and world leading research. As low carbon air travel technology is still some decades away and we know there isn’t any proven technology that can capture carbon dioxide at scale, better than the way trees and forests do, this project will ensure that these unavoidable travel emissions will be mitigated in some way.”

Getting outside

Six months in post, what does an average day for Yvonne involve? “Same as everybody else – too many Teams calls!” she says. “A lot of meetings with my team or looking to engage external partners. Most of my day is about negotiating either on buying land for ourselves or with partners, trying to get them interested in our project.

“Other than that, as a forester and ecologist, I’ll be out on site looking at soils, and the climate potential of the land or the partner’s land for creating woodlands or peatland restoration.”

Yvonne (left) with Vanessa McCorquodale, Community and Student Engagement Manager for the Forest and Peatland programme

Whether she’s in front of her laptop or outside on site, she loves the variety the role brings: “It’s fantastic. It’s nice to have a bit of both thinking and analysis time. Getting a time out and walking on the ground is essential to truly understand the potential of a site.”

Being outside and walking around Scotland’s forests has always been a huge part of Yvonne’s life: “My parents were from Edinburgh but we moved out to the suburbs. I just always used to love walking in the trees and it felt amazing to be among them. I remember when we went to places such as Killiecrankie and thinking wow, what an amazing place.”

Now, she’s using that passion to restore land and address the climate crisis head on: “I feel a thrill when buying a bit of land and envisioning the potential habitats that can be created. You get this idea of what this bit of land can be. I get very excited at the thought of that.”

Are trees the answer?

The past few years have seen a huge number of crises for the world. The Covid-19 pandemic and now the cost of living crisis have seen climate concerns pushed into the background. With action needed urgently to reduce carbon emissions it’s no surprise that some are questioning how effective restoring peatland and planting forests can be.

Yvonne has an answer: “As a forester it’s a no brainer, especially if they are planted using the principle of the right tree in the right place and follow sustainable forest management which identifies multiple objectives for a woodland. These can include access, biodiversity, water and soil protection, and economics.

“We know that trees capture carbon and that the trees grow at a certain rate, and we can calculate the carbon being stored. And, yes, some trees may die and decay but then they do regenerate again, and deadwood is one of the most important habitats we have in terms of biodiversity. Decaying wood will break down into soil carbon to be stored there. Cut timber can be used for construction or furniture and the carbon is held for a long time, known as embodied carbon.”

Nevertheless, Yvonne admits trees may only be a part of the solution: “I truly believe that technology will be the answer but right now, we’ve got to use the tools that we have and apply them. We can’t afford to sit around and think somebody will come up with the technology we need in 20 years’ time.”

Community collaboration

In the meantime, focusing on identifying and buying land is Yvonne’s priority: “It can take time to find the land, to negotiate, and then go through all the legal work.

“After that, you start a process of planning the forest or the land and the habitats and consulting everybody on that, so it’s an exciting time,” she continues. “You’ve got this new site you can plan and that’s the bit of my job that I love the most – creating new forests.”

Vanessa (left) and Yvonne

There’s a lot of discussion in Scotland currently about being a green laird and simply growing trees. Yvonne is keen to stress this is a far cry from her work and the University’s aims: “Although we’re doing this project for climate change and carbon mitigation, we will only be doing it where there’s a biodiversity benefit or a benefit to Scotland. We are investing in Scotland.”

Alongside this, she’ll be looking for potential partners for similar projects. Yvonne elaborates: “We’re getting lots of proposals from other landowners in Scotland to create new forests or do peatland restoration. We’ll also be looking to engage with our academic community on how they can use that land, as well as our own, to continue carrying out world class research as well as utilise newly available Scottish sites for local living lab opportunities with global impact.

With ambitious plans underway to eventually offer these sites for our students and staff to use for their learning, teaching and research, this project will look to involve and benefit all areas of the University too. Yvonne explains more: “This is a huge opportunity for our students, academic and professional services staff to visit the sites for field trips, learn new skills and engage with nature and our Scottish heritage to improve our wellbeing.

“By bringing students and researchers and our own team to these new sites, we’ll be part of that community. We’re not going to be stood at a distance, even with our partners’ sites. We’re going to be going out to those sites and working with the partners and be part of those communities.”

Net zero by 2040

Yvonne’s work involves huge collaboration across the University and beyond so it’s not surprising that she’s optimistic about the University’s sustainability pledge. She explains how this commitment to restoring land sends a clear message: “I really believe the University is leading the way on getting to net zero. Other universities are looking at their carbon emissions but not many have employed someone or committed the level of resource and detailed plans that the University of Edinburgh has.”

“One of the unique things the University is doing is buying land themselves,” she continues. “It’s not easy to be a land manager. It takes investment and skills and time so it’s fantastic that the University is taking this step to work with other land managers too, not just to mitigate for climate change, but to benefit biodiversity and communities.”

That this is reflected in the QS result confirms Yvonne’s belief that we’re heading in the right direction: “It’s fantastic news and a testament to the great body of work and enthusiasm the University already has in place. The Forest and Peatland project will keep us in position as a leader through investment and delivery of sustainable land management and climate mitigation.”