A new report, which explores land use options post-Brexit, suggests that increasing the area of semi-natural habitats could increase economic growth by up to 5% and employment by up to 8%.
In Dorset alone, investing in habitats such as chalk grassland and heathland could deliver a £0.8 billion boost in the local economy and create more than 25,000 jobs – a substantial increase on the £1.5 billion and 30,000 jobs that the environment is estimated to currently contribute to the county.
In contrast, the expansion of agricultural land would increase economic growth and employment by less than 0.3%, according to the research by Bournemouth University and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH).
The findings come as a new Agriculture Bill is passing through the House of Commons, which would provide incentives for different forms of land use after Brexit. This includes payments not just for increasing agricultural productivity, but also protecting and enhancing the environment, which could lead to farmers being paid for improving wildlife and habitats, enhancing air and water quality plus tackling climate change.
The report concludes there is a strong case for investing in natural capital - natural assets such as plants, soil and water that provide benefits for humans, often referred to as ecosystem services. It calls for funding of initiatives such as rewilding and ecological restoration, which are increasing in popularity.
Professor Adrian Newton of Bournemouth University, who led the study, says: “Those farming practices that benefit wildlife and the environment, such as reduced application of fertilisers and pesticides, need supporting much more strongly. Brexit might provide some opportunities for managing rural land in new and creative ways, which could benefit both wildlife and the economy.”
The study focused on Dorset, an area with a high proportion of agricultural land, similar to many other lowland parts of Britain.
We found that nature-based management will not only benefit people and wildlife, but also the economy - Professor James Bullock
A survey of local businesses was undertaken to determine the importance of ecosystem services to their commercial activities. Almost half stated they were either moderately or highly dependent on ecosystem services.
The research – carried out as part of the Government-backed Valuing Nature Programme, which is co-ordinated by CEH - showed that many local businesses rely on having a healthy and attractive local environment. This includes not only tourism, recreation and agriculture, but other businesses such as manufacturing and construction, which require clean water, natural materials and a hazard-free environment. These dependencies of businesses on the environment mean that protecting and restoring ecosystems is likely to boost the economy and lead to job creation.
Professor James Bullock, an ecologist at CEH and one of the authors of the report, says: “We have an opportunity to manage our countryside more sustainably. In this study we found that nature-based management will not only benefit people and wildlife, but also the economy. While this research focused on Dorset, its findings are relevant for the UK as a whole.”
The report, Trends in Natural Capital, Ecosystem Services and Economic Development in Dorset, is available on the Valuing Nature Programme website.
This report was produced as part of Mechanisms and Consequences of Tipping Points in Lowland Agricultural Landscapes, a project under the Valuing Nature Programme (VNP). This five-year research programme aims to improve understanding of the value of nature both in economic and non-economic terms, and improve the use of these valuations in decision-making. Co-ordinated by a multidisciplinary team led by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, VNP funds research and also support researchers in making links with policymakers, businesses and practitioners through the Valuing Nature Network.
The programme is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Defra.