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Landscape-Scale Conservation

25 April 2024


Landscape-scale nature conservation, often involving collaboration between multiple land managers on a larger scale, is increasingly seen as the most effective way of addressing the challenge of biodiversity loss and securing the vital ecosystem services delivered from the natural environment. Public and private funding for nature conservation now frequently prioritises collaborative actions as it is likely to deliver greater benefits than managing small areas individually.

Typical scenarios where landscape-scale conservation is likely to be appropriate include efforts to:

  • Reducing habitat fragmentation.
  • Managing highly mobile species.
  • Controlling invasive species.
  • Providing ecosystem services at scale.

Habitat Fragmentation

Most semi-natural habitats in Scotland have been reduced to small fragments of their original extent. As the remaining patches become smaller and more isolated, they are less likely to support the full range of species and features that each habitat can potentially support.

This can be due to the individual habitat fragments being too small to provide the food and resources required for some species. For example, an individual red squirrel typically needs at least 5-10 hectares of suitable woodland, while a Capercaillie requires at least 50-60 hectares of woodland. In open landscapes, a pair of Curlews can require 10-100 hectares of suitable open habitat depending on its quality.

Even where there is sufficient habitat to support a species, there also needs to be enough to support a minimum viable population. If the population is too small, there is a risk that chance events such as a run of poor breeding seasons or extreme weather can lead to localised extinction. For birds and other mobile species, recolonisation from neighbouring patches is possible if they are close enough together. However, for many less mobile species, isolated fragments are unlikely to be recolonised.

Another key impact of habitat fragmentation is that small patches of habitats experience more significant ‘edge effects’. Where one habitat adjoins another (for example woodland and farmland), there can be localised climate effects near the boundary, drift from pesticides or fertilisers from farmland into adjoining habitats, and higher predator numbers exploiting the shelter of woodland and the abundance of food in the more fertile farmland.

It's important to remember that habitat fragmentation doesn’t just affect semi-natural habitats but can also affect high nature value farming systems, where low-intensity grassland and crop management provides habitats for birds such as corncrake and corn bunting, as well as a range of pollinating insects.

There are two different, though complementary, approaches to addressing habitat fragmentation. Firstly, we can increase the size of individual habitat patches or fill in gaps between patches to create larger areas. This is well-suited to upland environments and is the approach taken by Cairngorms Connect to expand native woodland in Strathspey. Secondly, we can create habitat networks to allow the movement and dispersal of species between habitat patches. The form that habitat networks take will depend on the dispersal ability of the species involved. For more mobile species, creating ‘stepping stones’ of habitat to allow species to move between existing patches may be enough, but for others a wildlife corridor that directly links habitat patches may be required. Wildlife corridors could take the form of hedgerows, water margins or field margin habitats, depending on the species involved.

Managing Mobile Species

Species that range over large areas of land are often difficult to manage within individual landholdings as they may move to neighbouring areas at certain times, and are therefore subject to influences outwith the individual land manager’s control. This may include species of conservation interest as well as species that can conflict with conservation and land management. The most obvious example is deer, with Deer Management Groups providing an opportunity for collaborative wildlife management at a landscape scale. Similar landscape-scale management schemes and frameworks exist for beavers, sea eagles and geese, while conservation of iconic species such as Atlantic salmon requires collaborative catchment-scale management projects.

Controlling Invasive Species

Invasive non-native species, such as rhododendron, giant hogweed and American mink, are one of the major threats to biodiversity worldwide. As the word invasive suggests, controlling them on small individual landholdings is unlikely to be successful if they remain present on neighbouring land and can re-invade. Co-ordinated landscape-scale control and eradication programmes are essential to tackling these species in an efficient and cost-effective way. This is often carried out within river catchments as many invasive species are associated with watercourses and spread along these corridors in the landscape. The Scottish Invasive Species Initiative co-ordinates much of this effort in northern Scotland.

Providing Ecosystem Services at Scale

As well as supporting biodiversity, many of our habitats provide other valuable ecosystem services, such as field margins and hedges supporting insects that provide crop pollination services, buffer strips, riparian woodland and peatlands, which help to protect water quality and slow the flow of water for natural flood management. However, managing such habitats for these benefits is only likely to work if they are adopted on a large number of landholdings at landscape scale.

Water Quality

Water quality is a catchment-scale issue and individual sources of pollution can lead to landscape-scale issues. As a result, all land managers need to make conscious decisions and implement management practices that protect the water environment within the catchment. For each land holding, mitigation measures will need to be tailored to their land and business enterprises. However, interlinking efforts to safeguard and improve water quality within a catchment can improve resilience, reduce pollution incidents and may reduce costs of mitigation measures when working together.

Landscape-scale projects should try to address pollution by finding the sources, blocking pathways, and limiting what enters rivers and water systems. Restoration work such as peatland restoration will lower the amount of particulate matter lost from peat erosion and also help ensure a consistent outflow of water year-round from peat sources. Riparian buffer strips can help limit diffuse pollution from arable or livestock farming areas. These can look as simple as a separated strip with unimproved or species-rich grasslands, or enhanced to a 3D buffer with multiple layers of grass, shrubs and trees interplanted. For arable areas farmers should be encouraged to use practices that limit fertiliser runoff or soil erosion such as minimum tillage and sediment traps where appropriate.

Landscape-level change requires commitment from stakeholders throughout the area and trust that others will also act in concert to reach the best overall outcomes. By creating more opportunities to limit pollution across the catchment, every landowner will benefit from better access to clean water and lower costs associated with fewer inputs and improved yields. Landscape-scale conservation can lead to a much wider scale of restoration and security for a larger area.

Policy and Funding

Landscape-level restoration requires increased cooperation and funding as these larger-scale processes bring more complexity into any planned restoration. At the governmental level Scotland has put in place planning policy to support greater connectivity and green infrastructure, which can be best serviced by landscape-level change. There is a goal set by the government to have restored and regenerated biodiversity across the country by 2045, covering land, rivers, lochs, and marine environments. Other smaller council areas may have their own goals, but each will take their direction from the Scottish Government and the policies proposed there.

Funding options for landscape-level restoration are growing as more projects start to enter the planning phase. Public sources of finance like the Agri-Environment Climate scheme (AECS) or the Nature Restoration Fund (NRF) allow for either a small group to take individual payments or a larger plan to create change across a wide area. AECS funding can be used for example to encourage better slurry management practices across a catchment, while NRF can be used to help plan and manage large habitat connectivity projects. Other funding sources include private funding from interested companies, investment from interested outside stakeholders, philanthropic investment, venture capital or crowdfunding work. Often these private sources will require some type of return and this system is usually known as payments for ecosystem services. It can be done through increased access, actual payments such as carbon or biodiversity credits, or secondary gains from ecosystem improvements.

Currently there is a healthy level of policy support and funding for landscape-a level changes. As more of these projects start to emerge there will hopefully be further advancements in the policy and funding space to provide more support for them going forward.

How to Collaborate:

There are various ways stakeholders can come together to organise and implement their restoration objectives. Some notable examples are:

This is a farmer-led initiative where farmers, crofters and land managers come together in an informal setting with a lead farmer and advisor/facilitator to coordinate the project. This approach puts farmers as the core decision-makers in choosing who to collaborate with and how to manage their projects with expert advice. This approach is well established in England with potential for more uptake in Scotland. Some notable projects are West Loch Ness Farm Cluster, which received funding from Scottish Government Nature Restoration Fund and The Strathmore Wildlife Cluster, Scotland’s first cluster established in 2019. Clusters are an accessible and cost-effective structure for collaboration. All it takes to get started is for one farmer to speak with their neighbours. For more information, GWCT Farmer Cluster website is a great resource.

  • Community Interest Company (CIC)

A CIC is a type of limited company and social enterprise business model that operates for the benefit of community, not profit. It exists as a legal form of a “company”, but can be flexible in its structure, from single member company to a co-operative. Activities and operating structure are not limited like charity organisations but come with governance and statutory clauses to ensure transparency and that assets are retained for community purposes. It is an inexpensive and quick way to set up an organisation with the benefits of a company status, especially to access funding, loans, and bonds. More information can be found in the UK Government’s CIC website and further guidance on setting one up can be viewed here.

  • Other legal entities

Social enterprises are independent businesses that exist to deliver specific social or environmental goals with the aim of generating profit like any business in the private sector. However, profits are reinvested back into social and environmental outcomes. They exist in the form of a limited company and can be registered as a charity, Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO), co-operative, and development trusts. A notable example is the Langholm Initiative, a SCIO that aims to benefit communities in Eskdale and Liddesdale. It facilitated one of South Scotland’s largest community buyouts worth £3.8 million for 5,200 acres of land to create the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve. This buyout was supported by other organisations such as Rewilding Britain, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Trees for Life and The Woodland Trust. It highlights the potential of community-led organisations to collaborate with wider charities and generate funding for landscape-wide nature restoration. The various options to legally register a company can seem daunting, but this guidance published by OSCR clarifies some key differences between SCIO, unincorporated associations, company, and trust structures for a better understanding on which organisational structure is more relevant.

  • Landscape Enterprise Networks (LENS)

These initiatives pull together private and public organisations to pool funds and implement projects that deliver nature-based solutions. This structure is more commercially focused to identify a common business need among stakeholders that are linked within a supply chain. For instance, protecting wetlands helps mitigate flood risk, thus improving resilience of farm production and supply continuity of raw materials for a food company. Farmers and land managers who care for these landscape assets are incentivised to deliver ecosystem services that organisations benefit from. A well-known example is East of England that involves 110 farms, covering 16,324 hectares with an investment worth £3.9 million. Find out more on Scotland’s first developing LENs in Leven.

The FAS Specialist Advice page is also a good start to get in touch with relevant advisors to understand the process of biodiversity, habitat, and landscape management. The best approach to collaboration depends on several factors, such as local context, available funding streams, restoration goals and level of stakeholder engagement. FAS advisors are best positioned to point you to the right direction to get started.

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