Science and sustainability: Dr Emily Taylor

In the early Summer of 2009 I was preparing a move from Lancaster University to take up the position of Head of Campus for the University of Glasgow in Dumfries. I was fulfilling a long held ambition to make Dumfries and Galloway my home, after years of spending time here in the holidays and at weekends. On a bright June morning I couldn’t believe my luck that I was driving west towards the Galloway Hills to attend an ‘away day’ with a group of people involved in the Crichton Carbon Centre, one of our partner organisations on Campus.

It was billed as a ‘green skies’ meeting and these enthusiastic folk welcomed me into a territory that was relatively outside my comfort zone for a specialist in medical sociology and end of life care: climate change, carbon capture, and the vast range of mitigations that might be adopted to influence global warming. In the years that followed I worked closely with the ‘CCC’ team, as I came to know them. From my point of view the jewel in the crown was a ground breaking Master’s degree in Carbon Management, which we ran jointly and which paved the way later for a much bigger environmental studies development at the Dumfries Campus.

So it was with great pleasure last summer when, newly freed from full time academic duties, I received an invitation to join the three-person board of this dynamic and innovative local charity. I took up my Trustee duties in November 2020 and my first meeting was with Dr Emily Taylor, the CCC General Manager and a graduate of that self-same Carbon Management degree. Our paths had briefly crossed in my first year at the University of Glasgow.

I was immediately struck by Emily’s commitment to her CCC role. She seemed incredibly happy in her work and despite the strictures of lockdown, was looking after her team and ensuring that the Centre continued to develop and thrive. The pandemic and all its consequences somehow served only to heighten the importance of addressing the global issue of climate change, with all of its complex local implications.

Listening to her talk, I was again on a steep learning curve. I knew something of the importance of peatlands, a little about nature-based solutions to environmental challenges like flooding, and a smattering on innovations in land management. Now I began to understand better the underlying science, and most importantly the practical steps and strategies that could be used to apply knowledge in realistic ways with local communities, landowners and the many partner organisations concerned about environmental issues. Her commitment to science, practical action on the land, and to innovative and creative forms of environmental education was palpable. It was undoubtedly my best Zoom call of the winter.

Finally, in the spring of 2021, at a CCC board meeting in the outdoor cafe of the Loch Arthur Community, I got to meet Emily, ‘mask to mask’. She led us effortlessly through a packed agenda, her exciting plans for new collaborations, and the pleasure of welcoming terrifically talented new colleagues to the Centre.

So as this series of interviews with inspirational people in Dumfries and Galloway got underway, Emily seemed an obvious choice. Her experience and her message is relevant to us all. I hope you will read her responses to my questions here with as much pleasure and discovery as I did. Let’s celebrate people like Emily who are working so hard to address perhaps the greatest challenge that we human beings have faced, since we first rose onto two legs and walked the earth.

1. Where did you grow up and go to school?

I grew up on the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, attending the primary school on the island before going to Keil secondary, a boarding school in Dumbarton near Glasgow. Due to the small population, Coll doesn’t have a secondary school and there are usually less than 20 pupils in the primary school.

2. What took you into the field of environmental science? 

On Coll I was raised on a farm which my parents managed, so I had a strong connection to the ways of the farm and the amazing wildlife and environment of the island. From an early age I was fascinated by birds, sea life and animals of every description. Coll offered a fantastic introduction to an incredibly special environment; it was only when I went to school on the mainland that I realised not everyone saw seals every day!

After school, and a year spent in China working as an English teacher, I went back to my roots and studied Marine and Terrestrial Ecology at the University of St Andrews. This was a fantastic four years which taught me the principles of ecology as well giving me some great experiences tracking sperm whales in the Mediterranean!

3. How important was your Masters in Carbon Management for your future path?

After completing my undergraduate degree I worked as a Countryside Ranger and as a Farm Conservation Advisor. Then, just as I secured my dream job with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, then I had to rethink my career, as very sadly the organisation struggled for funding and went into liquidation.

This prompted me to revaluate my direction of travel but allowed me the space to consider returning to study. So in 2009, and at the age of 25 (which seems very young now!) I began a Master’s in Carbon Management at the University of Glasgow, Dumfries Campus. By then I had lived and worked in Dumfries and Galloway for a few years. Being able to study at a world class University and stay in the region was really important to me. Studying Carbon Management was also intriguing, as people at the time had started to talk about climate change and carbon and land use. I felt I really needed to understand these things more myself.

It turned out to be a pivotal moment for me, not only because it was a whole new take on farming and the environment, but it gave me the confidence to ultimately go on and do a PhD in carbon cycling in peatlands.  

4. What did you focus on in your PhD?

My PhD was brilliant. It was the only doctorate I applied for and luckily, I managed to get it! Hosted by the University of Edinburgh, but based with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, it focused on the impacts of fire (used as a tool for managing moorlands) on greenhouse gas emissions from blanket bogs.

This subject appealed massively to me. I pretty much grew up on a blanket bog, a type of wetland where deep layers of carbon rich peat are formed over thousands of years, and I understood why burning was used as a management tool. But I was also really interested in understanding how land management had wider impacts on carbon cycling, which is the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the peatland, as well as the wider the environment. So I was pleased I could study something that had real world implications.

My main focus was on measuring greenhouse gas emissions on burned and unburned areas of blanket bog across Scotland to understand the impact of fire. I also spent quite a lot of time trying to kill Sphagnum moss in lab simulated fires and then monitoring its recovery. As all good PhDs do it got a bit “Blue Peter” at times, with blow torches, kitchen pans and plant pots…

5. How did you get into your current role? 

During the final year of my PhD I was sent a link to a job advert for a Land Management Project Developer at the Crichton Carbon Centre. I knew the CCC of course through my Masters degree and it seemed a really exciting role. However, I still had quite a bit of my PhD to complete. So I got in touch with the Centre and explained my position, and luckily they took a chance and employed me on a part time basis for a few months, to allow me to complete my lab work before joining full time. Over the next period, my role changed as the projects and responsibilities grew and I am very proud to now be the CCC General Manager.

6. What are your main responsibilities at the CCC?

I think my main role really is guiding the ship that is CCC through its ever-exciting journey! From coming up with project ideas, securing funding, delivering projects, to working as part of a wider environmental network, the role is extremely varied. I also mange an amazing team at the Centre and work with our equally brilliant Trustees, all of which really motivates and inspires me. No idea is too wacky or challenging to be explored, and it’s been really rewarding over the past few years to see some of our  imaginings become real-life projects. As you might expect, a big part of my role is delivering and supporting peatland restoration and we continue to help others to learn about restoration techniques through the training programme that we designed and deliver for Peatland Action.  

7. What exactly is the role of the CCC in promoting peatland restoration, what are the technical and practical challenges, and what benefits will result from the work, long term?

The role we play in promoting peatland restoration is becoming more and more important for us. We occupy quite a unique space where we work with practitioners; the digger drivers, the land managers and the ecologists designing and delivering peatland restoration projects, as well as collaborating with peatland scientists, environmental artists and a network of other organisations looking at peatland restoration as a way of improving the environment for people, water, biodiversity and carbon. This allows us to “join the dots” and ensure the science filters through to peatland restoration best practice and that many different people are engaged in projects to ensure they deliver maximum benefits.

Peatland restoration is a relatively new industry, and it is certainly only in the last 10 years, mostly thanks to the Peatland Action initiative, that we have seen techniques emerge and develop that can improve the condition of our peatlands across Scotland.

Every project is different, it might be working to restore eroding bare peat in the uplands to removing trees from areas of deep peat in the lowlands. The techniques could range from reprofiling eroding peat edges with diggers, or installing dams to hold back water – much of this often carried out in the worst of the Scottish winter weather!

The training events we run and the guidance that we are developing seek to teach people not only the vast range of techniques we use, but what each technique is trying to achieve. For example, this might be holding back water to allow the peatland to return to a more natural hydrological state, or stabilising bare peat so vegetation can establish. We feel it’s vital to have an understanding of the end result we are aiming for, and the real-life practicalities of restoration. You can’t be too prescriptive when conditions are ever changing and challenging!

8 Why is the work of CCC so important? Can you give some specific examples of your favourite projects or work that you are particularly proud of?

Our work is so important because we look for the gaps and try and fill them. We want to be a bridge between science and application. There is important research both old and new which can really improve our understanding of how we should and could improve our environment and it is vital that this is understood and used. We are also really keen to support and develop new research that could directly inform land management practices. For example, at the moment we are developing a project that could help us better understand the long-term impacts of forestry on carbon-rich deep peat soils.

Since its inception in 2007 the CCC has worked to communicate the science of climate change and support people to make changes to how they live and work in order to reduce environmental impact.

There are many individual projects that make me incredibly proud, such as Moss of Cree an area that was once commercial forestry and is now a rich open lowland raised bog habitat. Having had a helping hand in restoring some significant areas of peatland is hugely satisfying, but so too are the relationships we have built up with land managers and other organisations. I get immense enjoyment and satisfaction from working with people and groups who have embraced peatland issues, and have gone on and worked to deliver and integrate peatlands into wider management plans and projects. Importantly, we are working behind the scenes too, on regional strategies that will pave the way for restoration at the landscape scale.

It makes me immensely proud that people come wanting to work with us and that’s a strong testament to the staff, Trustees and the success of the projects we have delivered.  

9  COP26 is happening in Glasgow later this year – can you explain what it is and how the CCC is playing its part in drawing attention to it?

COP26 is a hugely significant international conference, organised through the United Nations, which brings countries together, ultimately to sign up to a global agreement to tackle climate change and the issues it presents across our planet. COP26 is being held in Glasgow and so will be putting a global spotlight on us as a nation. We want to ensure we can showcase and celebrate some of the amazing work going on, as well as highlight how important it is that this work continues at scale. We also want to empower people to get involved, have their say and better understand what the issues are and what they can do to make a difference.

We can all play a role, no matter how small. We can all do something positive.  

10. How optimistic are you that there can be real global progress on climate change?

I must be optimistic. There is no point being pessimistic; we try hard at CCC to find ways forward which can engage and inspire people. So many people we work with are genuinely seeking to do the right thing, and it is great we are seeing more Government support for things like peatland restoration.

But what gives me real hope is that I see the younger generations now coming through the ranks. They are asking us all “what are you going to do about it?”. They do not need convincing that climate change is happening. They need convincing that every one of us is taking it seriously.

You can learn more about the Crichton Carbon Centre and contact Emily and her colleagues here: https://www.carboncentre.org/

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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