The results of the most comprehensive survey of the Welsh countryside and its natural resources are published today in a report by the Countryside Survey partnership.
The report identifies some positive changes including an increase in the area of broadleaved woodland, an improvement in the physical condition of streams, an increased number of ponds, and a reduction in soil acidity in line with reduced emissions of sulphur. However, there is evidence that these changes have taken place against a general backdrop of decreasing plant species richness such as food plants for butterfly larvae that is at odds with the aim of halting biodiversity loss.
The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Defra commissioned the UK-wide survey on behalf of a partnership of governments, and their departments and agencies. The research in Wales was carried out by NERC’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government, Defra and Countryside Council for Wales (CCW). Additional funding from the Welsh Assembly Government and CCW allowed extra sampling in Wales to be carried out to produce the first ever country-level report for Wales.
A team of specially trained scientists from CEH carried out the survey of around 600 different one-kilometre square sites across Great Britain, with 107 of these located in Wales. The survey was conducted in the summer of 2007. Squares were selected using a rigorous statistical approach to ensure all major aspects of the Welsh countryside were effectively surveyed.
The scientists measured and recorded many different components within each one-kilometre square including land cover; length and condition of hedgerows, walls, river banks and road verges; plant diversity; topsoil condition; and water quality of rivers, streams and ponds. Satellite data for the UK is being processed and will form the next remotely-sensed Land Cover Map due for release in early 2010.
Dr Simon Smart of CEH, lead author of the Countryside Survey Wales 2007 report, described the survey as extremely complex and detailed, and allowed them to identify where changes in land use or management, pollution or disturbance have interacted to affect the Welsh countryside. "We found both positive and negative changes in the areas we monitored and are continuing to analyse the large dataset to understand why these changes are happening,” he added.
Among other findings, the scientists discovered there has been a reduction in the length of managed hedgerow in Wales over the last two decades, and an increase in unmanaged lines of trees and shrubs. And, although the number of ponds increased by 17% between 1998 and 2007, the majority of these are in an unfavourable condition.
The survey also found that topsoil carbon stocks have remained stable over recent decades.
The Countryside Survey records changes in land use, vegetation, soils and waters in an integrated way and examines how different components of the countryside are inter-dependent, providing many functions such as clean water, food and recreation. The Welsh Assembly Government's Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones said it provided a valuable and scientifically reliable insight into many aspects of the Welsh countryside. He added: "Evidence from the survey will have an important role in predicting the likely outcome of different policies and pressures such as agri-environment schemes and climate change.”
Professor Bridget Emmett, Head of CEH's Bangor site, said Countryside Survey provided clear evidence to assess the success of policies developed to deliver the Environment Strategy for Wales.
She continued: "We know that the changing ecology of the Welsh countryside is of growing scientific and political importance. Countryside Survey allows us to make those difficult decisions regarding conflicting needs in the countryside, such as trade-offs between food production and carbon storage.”
Dr David Allen, Countryside Council for Wales, welcomed publication of the separate set of results for Wales. "This is an important contribution to the evidence base that underpins our understanding of the changing state of the Welsh countryside,” he said.
Countryside Survey is conducted by CEH, and funded by a partnership of government-funded bodies led by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Other partners include Natural England, Welsh Assembly Government, Scottish Government, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission, Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage.
Results at the UK level were made available in November 2008, and results for Scotland in June 2009.
For more information on the Countryside Survey and to download the report for Wales in PDF format, please visit the Countryside Survey website (external link).
To interview Professor Bridget Emmett, Dr Simon Smart and Dr David Allen, contact Barnaby Smith at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology press office.
Related CEH news stories and links
Countryside Survey 2007: UK report published - 18 November 2008
Countryside Survey: UK Headline Headline Messages from 2007 (available as a PDF download) [NEED NEW INTERNAL LINK]
Details of CEH's Biodiversity science programme