Blueprint for ecological recovery

Members of the NNCG have played a key role in the compilation of an intensive biodiversity audit carried out by the University of East Anglia (UEA).

A roomful of NNCG group members and associates heard from Professor Paul Dolman of the UEA School of Environmental Sciences as he outlined the findings of the audit and emphasised the part farmers and land managers could play in nature recovery.

The year-long audit, which included more than 5.5 million species records, has identified land management priorities to achieve nature recovery across North Norfolk farmland.

Collaboration was key in the analysis of the records and taxonomists, farmers, site managers, conservation NGOs, local authorities and Natural England all worked alongside the UEA team to come up with a set of results and implications for land management in the future. The work has quantified, for the first time, how habitat and ecological corridor creation can have a powerful impact on nature recovery.

Since 1980, 14,906 species have been recorded in the area. Of these, 2,093 are conservation priority species, meaning that are rare, scarce, threatened or designated.

The survey covered 78,000 hectares and 84 per cent of this is dominated by agriculture such as arable or improved grassland. Just two per cent is biologically irreplaceable, with features such as fens, chalk grassland, heathland and ancient woodland. Within this two per cent, 73 per cent of the priority species were found.

These important, semi-natural sites exist in small fragments across the area. A key finding of the report is that buffering and extending these habitats would play a massive role in restoring biodiversity resilience across the landscape. Field scale habitat blocks of features such as woodland, wetland or scrub, would provide the greatest biodiversity uplift. To put a figure to it – such habitat blocks could provide as much as 4.5 times the number of priority species found in conventional farmland.

Some ideas for land management that would have greatest benefit include: cultivated margins, complemented by grass margins, sown mixes, well-managed hedgerows and ponds – enabling seed dispersal, enhancing pollinator services and supporting in-field crop yields. Farmland incorporating these mid-nature value features can potentially hold up to 2.4x the numbers of priority species found in conventional farmland.

For a quick win for nature and low cost to farmers, restoring degraded and ‘ghost’ ponds, or where necessary creating new ponds, is also a high priority for nature recovery, providing a rapidly enhanced biodiversity level.

The report, which will be the focus of Professor Paul Dolman’s presentation at the NNCG Autumn Conference, pushes for ‘bold landscape-scale actions’ as an essential requirement to restore biodiversity. This includes habitat restoration within farmland and the reversion of any valley floodplain currently under arable or intensive (high-input) management to low-input wetlands, such as wet (fluvial) woodland, wet grassland, grazing marsh, or tall herb fen, using a combination of incentives and market mechanisms, strategically to enhance catchment scale heterogeneity and water quality.

Prof Paul Dolman, said: ‘We hope that placing these findings in the hands of farmers, local authorities and conservation NGOs, such as Norfolk Wildlife Trust, will encourage landscape-scale cooperation and habit restoration, for example through Environmental Land Management Schemes and Landscape Recovery Funding.

‘To best achieve our aims, our report is as user-friendly as possible and includes clear guidance on actions that land managers can take to restore a resilient, thriving, wildlife-rich landscape that goes hand in hand with productive farming.’

The study was funded by the Norfolk Coast Partnership (AONB), Natural England and Norfolk County Council, with support from the Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL) scheme and was facilitated by a public private partnership led by the North Norfolk Coastal Group (NNCG) and Norfolk Coast Partnership (NCP).

The presentation by the UEA was one of five presentations that were given over the course of the Conference. A full report and video of the day’s activities will be published on the website at the end of the week.

Image courtesy of Georgie Banks