The bioregion of South Devon is a place full to the brim with expertise and know-how for a resilient future. We value, stretch and learn from the innovation already going on here, with a focus on whole systems, connections and being people-centred. The Learning Centre is constantly evolving in response to what is happening on the ground.
Our work is all about learning because none of us have had to grapple with such momentous challenges before: we are learning as we go. In bringing challenges like climate change down the manageable scale of our place, South Devon, and opening up conversations that lead to action, we are creating a learning region. When we started on this journey back in 2017 we knew that learning would be one of the most useful things we could offer. We document and share our learning, organise Learning Journeys, host action learning groups, give talks and teach on courses, and bring our design skills to everything that we do.
How to practice Bioregioning
We made these diagrams primarily to share with members of the UK Bioregional Community of Practice to summarize our thinking about important components of a flourishing bioregion and how to step into bioregional thinking. You are welcome to make use of them. Get in touch if you have input for our next iteration Bioregioning diagrams.
How make a River Charter
We made this guide for communities up and down the River Dart. You are welcome to adapt it for your river. Once you have a group of allies assembled who are keen to move forward get in touch for a group conversation about how to move forward.
BLC talks on video
- Bioregional Learning from the Devon Doughnut – 2021
- Bioregional meets the UK bioregional community of practice – 2021
- Enabling Bioregional Learning; Isabel Carlisle & Daniel Wahl in conversation – 2021
- Working for climate resilience at bioregional scale – 2021
- Bioregional Economies with John Thackara – 2021
- Bioregional Economies with Molly Scott Cato – 2021
- ‘Collaborating for Food Change’, Devon Sustainable Food Network, available on ISSUU here – 2020
- Bioregional Learning Journey for Resilience in South Devon – 2019
- Plastic pollution leaflet in collaboration with SD AONB – 2018
- BLC Annual Report – 2018
What is a bioregion?
At the South Devon Bioregional Learning Centre we have created our own definition of what a bioregion is: A bioregion invites us to inhabit a place in a way that is full of relationship. Seeing where the natural boundaries of our bioregion are, we can then see the many ecosystems and human systems alive within it. All of these systems like fresh water and biodiversity or transport and health are connected. There is also a connecting story that starts in deep geological time, shows up in the landscape and soil and then in human culture. Bioregioning is the collective practice of bringing vitality to these connections, angling the systems towards regeneration, and taking actions for a climate resilient and biodiverse future.
In the year 2000 the EU Water Framework directive brought the holistic management of rivers from source to sea onto the statute books. DEFRA [the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] duly divided up all of England and the Welsh borders into catchments (now numbering 106) and instructed all the agencies in each catchment to form collaborations or catchment partnerships. Catchments (or watersheds) define the area into which all the rainfall in a river basin falls and then runs into the river, bounded by surrounding ridges. Using this framework, we mapped the South Devon bioregion onto the geographical spread of the South Devon Catchments Partnership but extended our western boundary to the Tamar, the big river that has divided Devon from Cornwall since the decree of King Aethelstan, the first King of England in 936, and our eastern boundary to the River Teign. Our northern boundary is where the five main rivers of South Devon (from west to east the Yealm, the Erme, the Avon, the Dart and the Teign) rise on Dartmoor. The southern boundary is the sea. If you look at our South Devon bioregion map you will see the edges of the bioregion on land are blurry and that is deliberate. We frequently find ourselves shifting scales depending on which ‘shed’ or ‘system’ we are working with.
“A bio-region is a land and water territory whose limits are defined not by political boundaries, but by the geographical limits of human communities and ecological systems. Such an area must be large enough to maintain the integrity of the region’s biological communities, habitats, and ecosystems; to support important ecological processes, such as nutrient and waste cycling, migration, and stream flow; to meet the habitat requirements of keystone and indicator species; and to include the human communities involved in the management, use, and understanding of biological resources. It must be small enough for local residents to consider it home. A bioregion would typically embrace thousands to hundreds of thousands of hectares. It may be no bigger than a small watershed or as large as a small state or province. In special cases, a bioregion might span the borders of two or more countries. A bioregion is also defined by its people. It must have a unique cultural identity and be a place in which local residents have the primary right to determine their own development. This primary right does not, however, imply an absolute right. Rather, it means that the livelihoods, claims, and interests of local communities should be both the starting point and the criteria for regional development and conservation. Within that framework many other state, investor, and other economic interests must be accommodated. Within a bioregion lies a mosaic of land or aquatic uses. Each patch provides habitats in which different species survive and flourish, and each has its own particular relationship to the region’s human population. All the elements of the mosaic are interactive; the management of a watershed affects riverine habitats, farms, estuaries, fisheries, and coral reefs. The components are also dynamic; each changes over time as rivers change course, fallow fields regenerate, storms batter coasts, and fires ravage forests. This dynamism gives a well-managed bioregion the resilience and flexibility to adapt to natural evolution and human-induced activity—be it changing climate or changing markets.
Within this ecological and social framework, governmental, community, corporate, and other private interests share responsibility for coordinating land-use planning for both public and private land and for defining and implementing development options that will ensure that human needs are met in a sustainable way. Innovative forms of institutional integration and social cooperation are needed to meet these needs. Dialogue among all interests, participatory planning, and great institutional flexibility are essential. A wide range of conservation tools and technologies must also be brought to bear—among them, protected-areas management, ex situ technologies, landscape restoration, and sustainable management of such resources as forests, fisheries, and croplands.”
– World Resources Institute
Why is working at the scale of a bioregion important?
With the systemic challenges that we are facing into today–climate change, biodiversity loss, economic contraction and pandemics–the response must be equally systemic. The bioregion offers a wide enough range of place-specific ecological processes and ‘sheds’ (water, food, fibre, energy etc) for effective systemic exploration and inclusive decision-making to be manageable.
The Paris Agreement, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the 25 Year Environment Plan, the UK Government’s legally binding commitment to carbon reduction, the declarations of climate emergency and the Devon Carbon Plan all point the way to action. But it is not until the context of a place is thoroughly explored—at landscape scale—can we discover the connections that contribute to the overall state of the system, with ‘aha’ moments when we realise how poor housing contributes to poor educational attainment, exacerbates social disadvantage and also contributes disproportionately to carbon emissions. This process of making linkages can light the fires, both in communities and among policy makers.
What role does Citizen Science play in building agency?
One way that citizen science is becoming visible and building agency in Devon is through Westcountry Rivers Trust’s river monitoring programme. With hundreds of participants across the South West, citizens are regularly measuring the health of Devon’s rivers contributing to a collective online map. BLC is working towards the concept of a Citizen Observatory, building on our experience in co-creating the Devon Doughnut, which contains indicators and thresholds that will likely point to needed data that won’t be readily found via available sources like the Office for National Statistics. We hope to work with others to fill that gap. There is an emerging role for citizens to play in regularly accessing, analysing and reporting quantitative and qualitative data, pointing to effective stewardship and development of new skills. There is evidence that citizens can do this very effectively, as demonstrated by this project in western Nepal, conducted by Imperial College.
What is a charter?
Charters have been around for a very long time and in many places around the world they have been used by the powerful and wealthy to grant rights of usage of land and other resources to communities and individuals. The earliest known charter in Devon (England) goes back to 729AD and was granted by the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelheard of Wessex to Glastonbury Abbey for land in North Devon in the Valley of the River Torridge. Our most famous English Charter is Magna Carta which was issued in the reign of King John in 1215 and reissued in 1225 in the reign of King Henry III, together with the Charter of the Forest, as “The Great Charter of English Liberties”. Clauses of this charter are in the Statute Book of the United Kingdom today.
Most recently, the Community Charter that was made in 2013 by residents of Falkirk in Scotland put down a marker in defence of shared assets that were under threat by the first application for a commercial license to extract unconventional oil and gas (UOG) in the UK (in this case coalbed methane). In the subsequent appeal the Charter was cited as the will of the community, and because this was a test case it was taken up to the Scottish government to rule on. A moratorium on UOG was called for two years while research was gathered and in October 2017 the Scottish Parliament voted to ban fracking and other forms of extracting UOG because it would be harmful to communities and the environment. You can view the Falkirk charter here.
What is a River Charter, what could it do?
A River Charter that expresses our shared values and what we care about engages civil society in co-stewarding of the water in our watershed (or catchment) in partnership with statutory and other bodies as well as landowners. It can give rights to water and the water cycle while local people protect those rights. We suggest it does not give rights to people. Rather, in keeping with how communities identify with their stretch of the river, each community will be invited to name their local water assets and create a local Charter that enrôles them as stewards and is on public display for visitors as well as locals.
We would love to hear from you
We work in and at the intersection of economy, ecology, learning, arts and culture and the gaps in between.