Coastal Monitoring

In 2012, Environment Systems became a preferred supplier of ecological mapping for the coastal monitoring frameworks for the North West, North East, South West and South East of England. Since that time, we have carried out projects across all of these areas. The habitat mapping component of the monitoring is undertaken to provide freely available coastal and terrestrial habitat extent data for use by Local Authorities, the Environment Agency, Natural England and other stakeholders. They help to improve the understanding of the current situation, and how change is occurring in these dynamic environments. The data can also be used to predict how factors such as climate change, driven by sea level rises, could impact flood risk and biodiversity.

The monitoring takes place every 5-8 years to ensure that changes are monitored effectively and that new improved processes and analyses can be brought to bear. Most recently, we have returned to the South East, an area that stretches from the Isle of Grain in the east to Portland Bill in the west. The project ran for nine months and included ground surveys over ten randomly selected areas to assess the coverage of vegetation and different habitat types. The ground survey data were compared to the habitat attribution in the map data, mostly generated through air photo interpretation, in order to gauge the accuracy of the dataset as a whole, and on a class-by-class basis.

Coastal monitoring
Example of change in cliff (SR0) and intertidal underboulder (LR4) habitat distribution between 2013 (left) and 2019 (right), overlain against 2019/2020 aerial imagery
The resulting map data provides an extremely detailed representation of habitat distribution throughout the project area, which includes particularly detailed mapping of fine-scale features such as hedgerows and saltmarsh, as well as fine-scale definition of other intertidal habitats such as shingle and sand/mudflat.

Coastal environments are very dynamic by their nature, and frequent monitoring of these areas is invaluable for identifying trends and changes that need to be dealt with, such as threats to important habitats and species, and flood risk for coastal communities. One recommendation that has resulted from this survey is that algal communities, not currently included within the scope of the ecological mapping, should be included in future monitoring. A good example is nutrient enrichment, particularly in the Solent region, where increased nutrient loading is a key risk to the condition of protected sites such as the Solent Maritime SAC. This has been cited as a reason for delaying new residential developments.

Future Agriculture: Land Suitability for Trees and Permanent Crops

SENCE, our land suitability modelling technology, is proving to be a valuable tool for future agriculture assessment. Trees and permanent crops require long-term investment, so in a changing climate it is important to ascertain the long-term suitability of land for their production. Using SENCE, we have been working in the Caribbean to provide scientific evidence to guide land acquisition reconnaissance for a forest production enterprise. Our work established the biophysical suitability (climatic, topographic and soil characteristics) of land for four different tree species, modelled at national scale. Using different climate scenarios stretching through to 2080, we located areas that will remain suitable for each tree species in a changing climate.

future agriculture
This map shows the long-range suitability for tree planting on optimal soils
The analysis revealed that extensive areas would become of limited suitability, or totally unsuitable, for some of the tree species due largely to a predicted reduction in rainfall. The assessment went on to factor in other considerations, narrowing the search locations to wooded areas with optimal soil types, as well as avoiding the main areas of productive agricultural land and protected areas.

Next steps include rapid site assessments using satellite imagery to provide comparative information on prospective sites quickly and at low cost. In-depth assessment of preferred sites and their surroundings can be supported by the following sustainability metrics:

  • Carbon storage estimates & their market value (current and future projected)
  • Biodiversity value (with habitats identified, such as endemic forests)
  • Green and blue corridors, tree cover within fields and vegetation productivity
  • Surface water regulation and flood mitigation opportunities/sources of soil erosion risk
  • Places where nature-based actions (like tree planting) can improve water regulation, benefit biodiversity and reduce soil erosion risk in the local landscape.

These approaches show the value of SENCE to evidence investment decisions and help deliver company sustainability goals.

Nature Recovery Networks in Northern Ireland

Habitat loss and fragmentation are factors driving biodiversity decline on a global scale. Northern Ireland (NI) ranks 12th worst in the world for biodiversity loss, with 11% of vegetation species at threat. Environment Systems, on behalf of Ulster Wildlife and in partnership with the National Trust, RSPB and the Woodland Trust, has created Nature Recovery Networks (NRN’s) across the whole of Northern Ireland, as well as local-scale case studies in Ards & North Down Council and the Belfast area.The first of its kind for Northern Ireland, these data were created with the aim of providing evidence that can help steer momentum towards conserving and improving biodiversity in Northern Ireland.

Deciduous woodland
Network maps for deciduous woodland in Belfast showing the national network (left) and local network (right)
The maps produced for the project show the areas of primary habitats and associated habitats (habitats which are found in mosaic with the primary habitat type, that support species movement throughout the landscape), as well as areas that could be restored to strengthen each habitat network. These opportunity areas were identified based on soil type, existing habitat cover, and proximity to areas of primary habitat. The opportunity areas are divided into different classes (Network Enhancement Zones, Network Expansion Zone, Fragmentation Action Zone), which assist with prioritising and selecting the best locations for habitat restoration and recreation, in order to increase the resilience of existing habitats and maximise the effectiveness of the action.

NRNs were created for 20 habitats at a national scale, and for 14 habitats at a local scale. The NRNs were also combined to produce four grouped networks (grassland, wetland, woodland and coastal networks) at national and local scales. The local network maps complement the national network datasets but incorporate more locally focused data and local conservation priorities (e.g., by incorporating small urban habitat features), and provide more detail on habitat networks and opportunities at a finer scale. For example, the local network of deciduous woodland in Belfast shows urban street trees and their importance in connecting areas of deciduous woodland, as well as supporting biodiversity in urban areas.

30 by 30 ambition
30 by 30 is a global initiative for governments to classify 30% of Earth’s land and sea area as protected by 2030. NI has over 1.3 million hectares, which means over 400,000 ha would need to be protected. Our work on this project indicates that 27.1% of NI is primary habitat, just short of meeting the 30% goal. Much of these primary habitat areas are not currently protected, but protecting all of the existing habitat fragments may not be the best way to protect and enhance ecological resilience; for example, if habitat patches are geographically isolated, they are more likely to be vulnerable to disturbances and extinctions. Even if all areas of primary habitat became protected it would still be necessary to look to restore or create new primary habitats – our work has indicated that this is entirely possible.

National habitat network of deciduous woodland
National Habitat Network map showing areas of deciduous woodland and the opportunities for restoration. The map illustrates how fragmented woodlands are in Northern Ireland. There are many opportunities to plant trees and it is hoped that further work will explore how these areas can be prioritised

Additional input datasets are required to support decision making when choosing which areas to prioritise. NRNs alone do not provide the solution and need to be supplemented with other data. Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI’s) are an important network of protected sites that could serve as a starting point for identifying new priority sites for protection, in order to strengthen ecological connectivity between existing priority sites.

Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

The Cotswolds National Landscape is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It is made up of 204,270 hectares spanning six counties and a variety of landscapes. In this pilot project, funded by Natural England, the aim was to investigate how an integrated approach using offline ecosystem service mapping together with an online dashboard could help this and other AONBs / National Landscapes in meeting their nature recovery reporting requirements. This process is often compromised by heterogeneous or incomplete data.

Environment Systems was tasked with creating the ecosystem service maps using its SENCE ecosystem service modelling tool.
The ecosystem service modelling focused on four services: carbon storage, water quality regulation, water flow regulation (natural flood management), and farming. Additionally, nature recovery networks were modelled to highlight areas of particular biodiversity value. Working closely with project partner Triage, a data dashboard was conceived which could support nature recovery reporting and form the basis for monitoring moving forwards.

Using the web-based data dashboard implemented by Triage, the data can be viewed, queried, and summarised by a wide range of stakeholders without requiring the user to have Geographical Information System expertise. The data is presented in a
range of tabs (Habitats, Nature Recovery, and each of the ecosystem services, which are in turn broken down into their component parts (e.g. stock and opportunities for most of the ecosystem services).

Cotswold AONB dashboard
Cotswold AONB dashboard displaying the carbon stock map
Each tab is accompanied by text explaining the data to the user, with additional technical detail available in a separate report. The dashboard not only visualises the data in a map view, but also enables the user to create summary statistics by different criteria. The data can be filtered by broad habitats and landscape character areas (LCAs). Three broad landscapes were formed within the Cotswolds by grouping the 19 LCAs, and local authority areas. Setting any of these filters updates both the map, associated bar charts, and all other figures presented on the dashboard.

The carbon stock dashboard shows the values produced on a by-pixel basis, but these are then converted to a format more suitable for reporting. On the dashboard, this information is converted to the actual storage in tonnes of Carbon, so that, when filtering, for example, to a broad habitat the bar charts will show the total amount of carbon stored within that habitat.

The project has demonstrated that the integration of ecosystem service modelling with the online dashboard was particularly helpful to Cotswolds staff, as it meant that data could be summarised flexibly to match reporting areas without requiring any in-house data manipulation.

Due Negligence Report

The UK’s draft deforestation due diligence regulation, which is part of the Environment Bill currently making its way through Parliament, would make it mandatory for large companies to carry out due diligence to ensure that there is no illegal deforestation in their agricultural and forestry supply chains. However, legal deforestation and conversion of natural land for agriculture could continue. What are the implications of this?

This Due Negligence report, commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and prepared by 3Keel and Environment Systems, presents an analysis of the potential consequences of the UK’s proposed due diligence obligation. Legality would be defined by producer country regulations. Clearly the issue of deforestation has huge implications for existing carbon stores and biodiversity.

Cerrado Brazil
Cerrado, Brazil – a mixed landscape, the result of deforestation and agriculture
The report features two case studies – soy from Brazil and palm oil from Indonesia. Its overarching finding is that a due diligence law based on whether deforestation is illegal according to producer country laws will not de-link the UK supply chains from deforestation, and it will be difficult for companies to comply with and for the government to enforce it.

The report had a number of key findings:

  1. A regulation based on excluding illegal deforestation may only have limited impact on the overall conversion of natural land associated with UK supply chains.
  2. A regulation based on illegal deforestation will be harder to implement and enforce than one based on all (legal and illegal) deforestation and conversion, due to the complexity of legal structures in producing countries, the variation in what is defined as legal between countries, and the lack of comprehensive, publicly available data on legality.
  3. Focusing on forests alone, rather than all ecosystems, puts those other ecosystems and the people and species that live in, and depend on them, at risk.
  4. Getting the right model of due diligence and effective penalties for non- compliance matters.

A question this poses, for example, is how much deforestation is likely to happen in the UK’s Brazilian soy supply chain by 2030? Depending on the rate of deforestation and conversion in Brazil under the different scenarios, conversion of 36-59,000 hectares of natural vegetation would be directly attributable to UK supply chains between 2021 and 2030. This vegetation stores 18- 30 million tonnes of carbon, equivalent to between 4-7% of the UK’s current annual domestic Greenhouse Gas emissions. The impact on biodiversity is dramatic. Out of 2,462 species of plants and animals present in the biome, a quarter of them are on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity. The implications for the ecosystems and the future wellbeing of the species that thrive within them are stark.

With this detailed analysis available, policy makers have the evidence to draw up regulations that will work effectively. The WWF Due Negligence Report is a significant call to action with recommendations for the UK Government to strengthen its legislation. If this is acted upon, supply chain companies will have an effective and auditable system with which they can work. As COP26 President, the UK would also be in a stronger position to encourage others to do likewise. Failure to act would be more than just a missed opportunity.

You can read and download the report here.

Ecosystem Resilience Guide

Recently, Environment Systems, working with LDA Design, were tasked with producing an Ecosystem Resilience Field Guide by Natural Resources Wales on behalf of the Nature Recovery Action Plan Ecosystem Resilience and Restoration Group. The need to build ecosystem resilience is driven by the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act and the Environment (Wales) Act.

Ecosystem resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to deal with pressures and demands; resisting, recovering from or adapting to these whilst retaining their ability to deliver ecosystem services. A resilient ecosystem will demonstrate:
Diversity – including genetic diversity, species diversity, diversity within and between ecosystems, and structural diversity.

Extent – where its area is sufficiently large to sustain populations, support ecological processes and cope with negative edge effects like predation.
Condition – where the physical environment can support a comprehensive range of organisms and healthy populations.
Connectivity – where organisms can move within and between different ecosystems, from foraging or migration of individuals, through dispersal of seeds and genes, to the major shifts of species’ populations to adjust to a changing climate.

The guide sets out to inspire people to take action for sustainable land management, demystifying the concept and assisting stakeholders to understand and help build ecosystem resilience on the ground. In many ways it is a practical guide with specific actions highlighted for townscapes, lowland, upland and coastal areas. It is illustrated with annotated photographs that help in the understanding of the practical measures such as tree planting, hedgerow restoration and specific crop and livestock management that can be taken.

The guide also looks forwards to 2050 to show what a resilient future might look like. As we move towards 2050, the way in which we choose to manage our land will increasingly be based on its ability to provide multiple ecosystem services, not just one or two; crops or timber for example. Not all land will be suited to providing all ecosystem services, but all land will have the potential to provide a variety of services, and its ability to do this will greatly depend upon the diversity extent, condition and connectivity of the ecosystems found there.

Natural Resources Wales Ecosystem Resilience Guide
Lowland Journey towards 2050 – Annotated photographs help indicate where and what types of measures can be taken – photo ©John Briggs
  1. Trees planted to diversify farm income, provide shelter for grazing animals (improving animal welfare), storing carbon and increasing habitat extent and diversity.
  2. Woodlands managed to create a diverse range of tree ages, species and structural types, improving habitat condition and diversity.
  3. Lowland habitats, like semi- natural grasslands and wetlands, restored and created to increase diversity, condition, extent and connectivity.
  4. Continuous hedgerows and field margins provide corridors for wildlife movement, and carbon storage when managed sympathetically; increases habitat connectivity.
  5. A mixed farming model with diverse crop rotations together with livestock, agroforestry and orchards support wildlife as well as maintaining soil fertility and controlling pests and diseases; increases diversity and condition.
  6. Riparian planting reduces soil erosion and sediment inputs into watercourses, provides beneficial shading and nutrients to watercourses, and improves condition.
  7. Fencing watercourses creates a buffer strip to prevent livestock access, reducing soil erosion and sediment inputs into watercourses, improving diversity and condition.

You can access the guide here.

From Research to Action

From Research to Action

In the Caribbean, the increasing frequency and severity of storms due to climate change has greatly impacted coastal areas. The 2017 hurricane season in particular saw massive destruction of coastal infrastructure and habitats. There is now wide recognition of the importance of natural coastlines, with healthy habitats including mangrove and coral reefs. These provide a frontline defence to protect local communities against the effects of storm surge, wind and wave action. The mangroves that grow in or near the water’s edge provide multiple benefits to nature and human communities. They provide habitat and nursery areas for fish (supporting 80% of the global fish catch) and also act as significant carbon sinks as well as a buffer against storms, wind and waves.

Samuel Pike, one of our Remote Sensing consultants, and Katie Medcalf, our Environment Director, worked with Louise Soanes (Roehampton University) and colleagues in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) to produce a research paper recently published in the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Management. The research used remote sensing to identify mangrove extents before the 2017 hurricane and the ongoing recovery. The research showed all sites had some form of recovery from the hurricane, but none had recovered to pre-hurricane Irma levels by 2019. In addition, ground surveys in 2020 identified a high presence of the fast-growing seaside mahoe, an invasive tree which does not have the coastal protection benefit of mangroves. The paper also presents how scientific rules were used together with our SENCE tool to model storm surge vulnerability and to identify those coastal regions at most risk, from future hurricane seasons and areas best for mitigation. This work has provided robust evidence for mangrove restoration and provides an important tool for further studies in the wider Caribbean region to help inform coastal restoration and resilience building activities.

We recently carried out work in Anguilla funded under the UK Government’s Darwin initiative. In our part of the project, we took 100 years of hurricane data detailing their direction, frequency and strength and then used SENCE and the key factors that influence storm surge to provide maps. These show areas at risk from storm surge, where there are opportunities to enhance, restore and recreate natural defences such as planting mangrove and restoring dunes and how these measures will impact on the vulnerability of communities.

Mangroves which grow in or near the water’s edge provide multiple benefits to nature and human communities
Using the results of this work the Government of Anguilla identified seven priority coastal sites for habitat restoration, including beaches, dunes, and wetlands. Priority action plans for each site have been developed, outlining potential habitat restoration measures. Together with hundreds of community members, project partners have been working to implement the action plans by collecting and germinating seeds, air-layering woody coastal vegetation and planting over 1,000 buttonwood, seagrape, red, black and white mangrove seedlings in some of Anguilla’s most vulnerable and storm-affected coastal areas. Over seven acres of coastal habitat have been restored in the last few months and this is just the start.

This is a great example of our work moving from research to policy and action. With coastal wetlands being the richest source of carbon in the Caribbean, these cost-effective nature-based solutions will help tackle the negative effects of climate change and biodiversity.

On the back of this work, we will be leading a significant new project in the Turks & Caicos Islands funded under the Darwin initiative. The project will provide evidence of the dynamic resilience of Caicos Islands’ wetlands, and how they support biodiversity, coastal protection, and natural capital. It will evaluate historic change, show how future climate could impact the wetlands, and provide evidence to review the Ramsar Nature Reserve which covers the majority of the southern wetlands of North and Middle Caicos, and a small region on East Caicos. It will develop a monitoring framework and dashboard to view project and ongoing monitoring data, build technical and scientific capacity in local staff, in order to help sustain wetland management in the long term.