Meet Professor Zoe Davies

Emily Collins

Protecting the Earth’s biodiversity is critical, not just for its own intrinsic value, but also for the ecosystem services it underpins. Ecosystem services are benefits to humans that are provided for free by fully functioning ecosystems, such as a natural defence against climate change. Yet biodiversity is in crisis, with more than one million animal and plant species at threat of extinction this century. Professor of Biodiversity Conservation, Zoe Davies, is working with a pioneering team of interdisciplinary researchers in Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) to address the challenges facing conservation management and policy.

What attracted you to join DICE?

I discovered DICE as an early career researcher and its mission really resonated with me: ‘to conserve biodiversity and the ecological processes that support ecosystems and people, by developing capacity and improving conservation management and policy through high-impact research.’ Most conservation issues stem from human values, attitudes and behaviours, and we can only solve them by engaging and working with people. DICE has never been a conventional university research unit. It has a solutions-driven ethos, applied to real-world contexts, which is genuinely transformative. It is also unique in the UK in terms of taking an interdisciplinary approach to conservation. All these factors excited me, so when DICE was recruiting new lecturers in 2010, I jumped at the opportunity to work with a group of like-minded researchers.

In 2019, DICE was awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize in recognition of our ‘pioneering education, capacity building and research in global nature conservation to protect species and ecosystems and benefit people’.  This exemplifies the reputation DICE has for providing ground-breaking training, as well as the level of esteem in which our applied research is held. I was so proud to have my work featured as part of the Prize materials.

A group of Kent students hold up cloth banner which says 'Selamat Datang Welcome'

Professor Zoe Davies (far left) visits Borneo with Kent students

Your research is broadly interested in how we maximise our landscapes for people and biodiversity. What are the challenges and opportunities here?

One of the key global conservation challenges of our time is how we reconcile biodiversity protection with other land-uses. Land is finite, yet it underpins the delivery of a vast array of goods and services that society needs and wants, from those with a direct market value (e.g. timber, crops, housing, water), to those without/limited market value (e.g. nutrient cycling, recreation, flood alleviation). Our landscapes are also fundamentally entwined with our history, culture and language. By 2050, the global human population is likely to reach 9.7 billion, with food demand predicted to rise by up to 60%. Land is also going to play an increasingly vital role in climate change mitigation because we need forest ecosystems to store the huge amounts of carbon humanity is emitting.

The choices we make about how to manage our landscapes now are therefore likely to have far-reaching ecological, social and economic consequences that will be felt for centuries to come. It is absolutely critical that we make the right decisions for stemming biodiversity declines, as human-driven habitat loss and degradation are the single greatest cause of extinction.

Given these pressures, there is a growing realisation around the world that there needs to be a radical shift in how we imagine, design and implement successful and inclusive multifunctional landscapes. My work is embedding biodiversity at the heart of informed decision-making and brokering better approaches for conversation practice.

Spending time in green spaces is widely considered to be good for our human health, but are all green spaces made equal when it comes to boosting our wellbeing?

That is an excellent question! As you say, researchers, decision-makers and practitioners all accept that interacting with nature (e.g. in urban parks, forests, coasts) is fundamental to human health. The evidence is convincing. For instance, being in nature is known to relieve physical stress, enhance mood, and improve cognitive ability and social cohesion, amongst an array of other benefits. However, the role of biodiversity plays in this has been generally overlooked. As a conservationist, this has always frustrated me.

The findings from the handful of nature-health studies that have examined objective metrics of biodiversity, such as the number of species and abundance of individuals, show inconsistent outcomes. For example, some of my work back in 2012 revealed variable relationships between people’s wellbeing and the actual number of species present in urban green spaces across taxonomic groups (birds, butterflies and plants). Intriguingly, however, there was a positive relationship for all wellbeing measures examined against the number of species people perceived to be present. These results suggested that people want to interact with biodiversity, but that they are not particularly good at recognising how biodiverse their immediate surroundings are.

More recently, my collaborators and I have tried to step back and stop thinking like ecologists. While objective metrics for biodiversity, such as species diversity and abundance, are the two most widely used ecological metrics of green space quality, they don’t reflect how people interact with the biodiversity around them.

I recently completed a six-year European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant project, looking at how people relate to biodiversity and how this impacts on their wellbeing, both positively and negatively. Through this work, we have found that sensory attributes (e.g. colour, textures, smell) are key for how people relate to biodiversity and the wellbeing they gain from being in green space. The influences of culture (e.g. literature, films, gaming characters, comic superheroes), community (e.g. family, friends) and personal experiences are also important, with previous biodiversity encounters being central to people’s preferences and perspectives. This emphasises the need for biodiversity to be a part of everyday life. Sadly, this is unlikely to be the case for everyone in the UK, as the country is now one of the most nature-depleted in the world.

Zoe sitting on the ice in the arctic

In the arctic.

DICE has recently announced that it has been awarded £2.2 million from the Leverhulme Doctoral Scholarship scheme. Can you tell us about what this means for Kent and who will benefit?

DICE is committed to training the next generation of conservationists. As such, we are absolutely thrilled to be launching the Leverhulme Space for Nature Doctoral Scholars programme in 2024, which will provide postgraduate training for individuals interested in developing effective conservation areas in multifunctional landscapes. Along with matched funding from University of Kent, we will be able to offer 21 fully-funded PhD scholarships over the coming years. To complement this, we will also offer ~12 taught MSc studentships as a pathway onto a doctorate. We would particularly welcome applications from individuals from ethnic minority or lower-income backgrounds. We are also very open to applications from candidates from atypical backgrounds and career paths, irrespective of geographical, sectoral and inter-organisational mobility. Please email and/or see the Leverhulme Space for Nature Doctoral Scholars website for more information.

Zoe in a puffer jacket and sunglasses with plants and rocks behind her

Visiting the remote volcanic tropical island, Saint Helena


Professor Zoe Davies is an esteemed wildlife conservationist and has worked on applied projects in the UK, across Europe, Chile, Guyana, Kenya, Madagascar, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.  She is the Senior Associate Editor for Conservation Letters, Chair of the Board of Trustees for the British Trust for Ornithology and a Natural England Science Advisory Committee member. Zoe is open to being featured in print, on TV and the radio.