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SER Europe 2014 Oulu: reflections from one barmy botanist

OK so Dr M is one of the eight barmy botanists (and a driver) who drove in a little red mini-bus all the way from the Czech Republic through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and across the water to Finland, and all in 5 days! We had lots of adventures on the way and you can read about them here!

But this post is to celebrate my week in Oulu, Finland attending the 9th European Conference on Ecological Restoration. It’s been a great meeting, as SER Europe meetings invariably are and this post is by way of a souvenir of my photographic highlights and some reflections on how SER Europe meetings can continue to build and grow.

8 barmy botanists marching to SER 2014

Eight barmy botanists marching to SER Oulu 2014


For me, SER 2014 in Oulu has had great strengths in the inclusion of policy makers and policy issues (e.g. the plenary from DG Environment, but lots of others too) and practical sessions such as loads of great stuff on the Life funding stream – a really important source of funds for restoration projects in and around Natura 2000 sites. Other highlights have been the great food, awesome field trips and of course the fabulous weather!

So why do we have European meetings of SER? Well I guess to get together a reasonable number, not too many and not too few, people and to share experiences and results and discuss some aspects of restoration ecology, which in my view should include theory, practice and policy in equal measure – we are an applied science after all!

I think the international SER meetings tend to be too big and too broad-brush (Manchester 2015 take note!). I think this is where SER Europe wins by being smaller and more focused and therefore less cumbersome and overwhelming in terms of themes and topics.

Social events

Yes these are really crucial! And the Oulu social events have been great, the ice-melting party (it was hot after all) was a great kick start to SER Oulu 2014 although it had only just got into swing before we had to break off to get to the buses! However, we had no problem at all continuing our festivities in the town, which has a great evening atmosphere, with the square and the waterside areas and only a short walk to a secluded beach for impromptu and oh so cooling skinny dipping!

The conference dinner was very fine indeed, great food and wine from the bottles on the trolley (don’t even think of moving one to your table, the eagle eyed waitress will put a stop to that, unless you have a touch of french guile on your table (we did)!

Eating (but not drinking!) over and the prize for the best poster went deservedly to Martine Lejeune for her original and informative poster “From Brachypodium-stand to fully developed chalk grassland”. Then there was a raffle for SER 2014 t-shirts, one of our group was a lucky winner, not that I am suggesting any Eastern European corruption whatsoever was involved!

The entertainment then commenced revealing the singing prowess of our hostess Anne Tolvanen and her band which was hugely effective  getting the whole room dancing almost from the first notes!

With some additional contributions from Dr M and the Disasters and Jim “Kung Fu Fighting” Harris, Anne and her group kept all on their feet dancing the night away!

It was much later, with the music and dancing over, that our group moved off into the balmy Oulu night for another satisfying late night skinny dip and a final beers before heading to bed.

Plenaries, parallel sessions, poster sessions and discussions

A successful conference needs great social activities but of course it needs great intellectual content too, and there was plenty of this at Oulu 2014.

Choosing the best plenaries and sorting through the mountain of proposed oral and poster sessions and talks to build the conference programme must be a thankless task in many ways, but finding a balance of elements and of innovation to facilitate the exchange of results and ideas is essential.

It all starts with defining the theme of the conference in Oulu’s case this is:

Restoration, Ecosystem Services and Land Use Policy

So a great theme here, it builds on the last conference in České Budějovice and it matches perfectly with examining theory, practice and policy and looks forward to SER International 2015 with a session on Resilience Ecology on the final day.

Parallel sessions: It’s always a tough call to fit everything in, and maybe the task of fitting everything in needs to be secondary to getting a good fit, or the best possible. There are no easy answers, but the session with my talk was exactly parallel with another session with rather similar issues. Not all papers in my session would have been relevant to this other session but mine was, and it was a pity I could not attend the other one too.

Now as I say, there are no easy answers and anyone who has any innovative ideas for how to deal with this thorny issue which affects many scientific conferences that I have attended (not just SER), get in touch with the organisers of SER Manchester 2015 and SER Munich 2016, I would have though they would welcome them!

I would also encourage some imaginative thinking regarding plenaries, they don’t need to be so long and they should tackle critical issues that feed into other sessions and some at least should challenge conventional wisdom etc.

There were two poster sessions – one on Day 1 (Monday) and a second on Day 4 (Thursday).  The second poster session was a tad poorly attended partly due to other competing events such as the botanic garden visit. Poster sessions are a very important conference element and must be taken very seriously as they give opportunity for a wide range of scientists including young people and practitioners to present their work.

And poster makers can learn from Martine Lejeune (see above) and try to produce posters which are not just condensed scientific papers but which are carefully thought out novel ways of communicating your message to your audience.

Overall Oulu has done a very good job for sure, a great job, but I always want more chances to discuss, to feedback, to interact, to challenge and to work through the critical issues that face restoration ecology in the 21st century.

I would also love to see more interactive sessions not just straight plenaries and parallel lectures. For example a workshop on converting experimental results into practice or on how to influence policy measures for achieving practical restoration outcomes.

These could be a refreshing addition the mix of plenaries and parallel sessions and can be very stimulating and relevant to the practical and applied nature of restoration ecology.

I think SER conferences can benefit most from being closely integrated with the host town, and in some ways the University location has not been the best for this.

Finally, it’s satisfying that we continue to see lots of scientist and lots of countries represented at SER but we always need more practitioners (NGOs, mining companies, road builders and other developers) and more environmental law and policy movers and shakers participating in our conferences as befits the interdisciplinary nature of our chosen discipline!

Dr M says: How was it for you?  Please send me your comments here or to Dr M at j.mitchley@reading.ac.uk.



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