CCI and Cambridge Zero secure funds to tackle major threats to some of UK’s most valuable ecosystems

15th February 2022

Cumbria, c. David Morris

CCI and Cambridge Zero will tackle environmental threats that could affect a third of the UK’s home-grown vegetables and more than a quarter of its rare and endangered wild animals. Eco-friendly farming in the Fens, pine martens in the Cairngorms, and disappearing woodlands in the Lake District will all benefit from a £10 million countryside regeneration programme to safeguard the country’s most important agricultural land and beloved rural idylls.

  • The Fens produce more than 7% of England’s total agricultural production, but are threatened by climate change and their ancient peat soils are drying out, releasing millions of tonnes of CO2.
  • The Cairngorms are home to over a quarter of the UK’s endangered species, from capercaillies to ospreys.
  • The Lake District is a national treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site but future changes in agricultural subsidies present both challenges and opportunities for the landscape

The Cambridge Centre for Landscape Regeneration project will take a unique ‘whole-system approach’, with researchers working together with farmers, local communities and conservation groups to tackle environmental threats in these three high impact areas.

Dr Mike Maunder, CCI Executive Director said:

“Conservation, while vital for ensuring a sustainable planet, can only be delivered through the engagement and commitment of the communities who live in those landscapes. This NERC funded project will create the framework for communities to chart their paths to sustainability and to initiate their own multi-generational commitment to society and nature.

This uniquely collaborative, whole-systems approach will secure the future of some of the UK’s most iconic landscapes and provide case studies of global relevance during the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration.”

Whole-systems solutions

Professor David Coomes, Director of the Conservation Research Institute within CCI, said: “The emphasis of the Cambridge University Centre for Landscape Regeneration project will be on whole-systems approaches, as these are critical to addressing the root challenges of landscape regeneration”. This means taking a holistic, long-term view that encompasses the whole ecology of a region.

One example is the work done by CCI Endangered Landscapes Programme project Cairngorms Connect – the UK’s biggest habitat restoration project. Delivered through a partnership of a private landowner, two government agencies and an NGO (the RSPB), the area is still home to more than 5,000 recorded species, 20 per cent of which are nationally rare or scarce. Over centuries, much of the area has been impacted by the changing demands of farming, commercial forestry and field sports as well as additional pressures from climate change, putting these rare species at risk.

This region is of vital importance to the local community, whether for livelihood, recreation, or because their culture and history is embedded in its forests, lochs and hills. So as well as harboring a vision to expand the forest to its natural limit, this project  involves local people throughout. It delivers sustainable cultural and social benefits and creates opportunities to become involved in decision-making, participate in delivery and establish businesses suited to the area.

Professor Jeremy Wilson, RSPB Director of Science said: “As a partner in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, we are excited by this opportunity to tackle the problem of restoring some of our most precious but fragile landscapes for the benefit of nature, people and the climate. As one of the largest nature conservation land managers in the UK, our nature reserves are at the heart of these landscapes and the insights from this cutting-edge research will underpin our restoration work for decades to come.”

The Fens face a different challenge.

They contain almost half of the UK’s grade 1 agricultural land and support a farming industry worth around £3 billion across the food chain. Farming there directly employs over 10,000 people and supports around 80,000 jobs more widely. The area is the vegetable garden of UK horticulture with 33% of England’s fresh vegetables grown here.

Yet this fertile landscape faces a host of existential environmental challenges. It is estimated that only 1% of the original wetlands in the Fens remain intact and 30% of the peatlands have been lost – emitting millions of tonnes of carbon in the process. Just as alarmingly, the region is projected to run out of water in 5 to 10 years, while simultaneously threatened by rising sea levels.

Project researchers have been working closely with farmers in the region to find environmental solutions that work for them and their communities. Fourth-generation Fens farmer and Fenland SOIL steering committee member Tom Clarke said: “Farming in the Fens faces a triple threat – a climate challenge, a nature challenge, and a food security challenge. The best defence is for farming is to be less defensive about some of the problems it has contributed to. We farmers instead need to work in a positive and pragmatic way to find opportunities and solutions for the farmers of the future.”

The funding from NERC will support this work and will enable researchers to find the best ways of protecting the ecosystem and its farmers.

Professor Emily Shuckburgh OBE, Director of Cambridge Zero said: “We aim to make a demonstrable difference to the way landscape restoration is designed, implemented, scaled up and supported by policy, ensuring solutions are resilient, inclusive and sustainable.”

All three projects will offer an opportunity to develop the role of Nature-based Solutions (NbS) at an unprecedented scale, offering enormous potential to help meet net zero climate targets.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of NERC, said:

“As COP26 has shown, it’s imperative that we invest in world-leading science to find solutions now to climate change and recovery of our natural environment.

“This investment by NERC will enable an ambitious step-change in how the best science from across different disciplines can come together to address major environmental challenges facing the UK and support the transition to a Net Zero and nature-positive future.”

The Cambridge University Centre for Landscape Regeneration project is a collaboration between Cambridge Zero and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) includes partnerships with the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Endangered Landscape Programme. Project funding is part of NERC’s £40 million “Changing the Environment” programme.