Land use change from agriculture to semi-natural land uses is crucial if we are to meet challenging targets for biodiversity, woodland and water set out in Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan. A project delivered by ADAS and RSK@Stirling for Defra and its Agencies developed a realistic and practical working approach for supporting decisions on land-use change for multiple environmental benefits including biodiversity, water quality and flood risk management.

The pilot project was funded by the Environment Agency and supported by Natural England and the Forestry Commission. There is now a desire to further develop the tool and test its performance in specific catchments in England.

How does the tool work

A prototype framework for targeting land-use change from agriculture in two case study catchments was developed, with the flexibility to be applied to any catchment in England in the future. Data used in the framework all had national coverage, and many were open-source; however, many could be replaced with local data if available.

Land use change map
A scoring system was developed based around the national datasets, considering the three environmental outcomes separately but with the option of aggregating them to give an overall benefit score. Costs were also estimated for each land-use change option to enable a cost-benefit analysis to be undertaken.

The scoring system was applied in a bottom-up manner to fine-scale mapping, which can then be aggregated to any spatial unit of analysis for decision making. The objective was to inform targeting of land-use change from agricultural land use to maximise benefits and/or cost-benefit for all the environmental outcomes.

What could it be used for?

In delivering land use change, it is imperative to consider the combined needs relating to biodiversity gain (set out in Biodiversity 2020 and 25YEP Nature Strategy); woodland increase (UK Forestry Standard and Woodland and Forestry Policy); improved water quality (Water Framework Directive); and reduction in flooding (Floods Directive and UK climate change policy). The aim of strategic land-use change is therefore to maximise the benefits across all these policy outcomes in synergy.

Nationally, the proposed post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Scheme is one instrument under which targeted land-use change could be delivered towards achieving these policy outcomes. In addition, Defra and Natural England are developing the Nature Recovery Network – a joined-up system of habitats important for biodiversity; and the Forestry Commission have a woodland creation programme.

At a more local level, land managers within catchments with specific issues would benefit from a framework that is flexible enough to incorporate local datasets and knowledge to provide bespoke decision support on targeting land-use change or changes in management.

For example, the Skell catchment in North Yorkshire, upstream of Ripon and the World Heritage Site of Fountains Abbey, is prone to flooding and siltation. The Skell Valley Project, a joint project between the National Trust and Nidderdale AONB, aims to reduce the amount of soil loss and run-off into the river using sustainable solutions such as native woodland planting. Maps indicating where this planting should be focused to provide maximum benefit for multiple environmental outcomes would not only help the project managers with their strategy but also provide a means of engagement and communication with local stakeholders.

Next steps

The framework is still a prototype and thus requires comparison against ground-truth data in catchments to test its performance for targeting the most appropriate land units and recommending the most beneficial land uses. Workshops with stakeholders would also be valuable to help steer its development. The Environment Agency and ADAS are looking for funding and partners with whom we could collaborate to take the tool forward to the next level.

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