East End Pond – Anguilla

East End Pond is a conservation area in Anguilla, the island’s only protected salt pond and an internationally recognised reserve for wetland bird species. Fed from a large catchment and supplemented by natural springs, the pond intermittently dries out in the summer, exposing mudflats attractive to shore birds. However, during heavy rainfall events, such as those associated with hurricanes, major flooding can take place. These damage the ecological balance of the pond, the surrounding vegetation, and inundate the main road and buildings within the local community. The pond has also been subject to siltation, decreasing the volume of water the pond can hold which can increase flood risk.

East End Pond - Anguilla
East End Pond – present day erosion risk
Working with the RSPB and Anguilla National Trust, Environment Systems has carried out a study to investigate the potential for flooding, and identify where and how nature-based solutions might mitigate the issue. Planting native vegetation throughout the wider catchment can help to reduce the infill of East End Pond caused by soil erosion. Reducing sediment infill will help maintain the water volume the pond can contain during flood events.

Using a variety of datasets, including digital surface models, hydrological data and rainfall data, Environment Systems created a number of different models such as flood extents and risk from erosion under different scenarios. In addition, we created a series of maps to illustrate how habitat management interventions (natural solutions such as increasing the capacity of vegetation) could improve ecological functioning with regard to flood prevention and mitigation of erosion. This work will inform wider wetland conservation action plans, and planting proposals in partnership with local experts and community organisations. This will help to improve the ecological status and climate-resilience of these important habitats. They will also be a useful tool for policy makers when new housing is proposed.

Crop Suitability Monitoring in Wales

According to the latest Met Office UK Climate Projections (UKCP18), the UK is going to experience wetter winters, warmer and drier summers, increased incidence of storms and extreme weather, and rising sea levels. Soil is a complex medium, and different soil types, in different landscape contexts, are expected to respond to climatic changes to different extents. This creates a great deal of uncertainty in how climate change could impact on agricultural production in Wales. Environment Systems has completed a two-year project led by Welsh Government, using new climate projection and Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) data to unravel this uncertainty. The project used soil and climate information to model land suitability for 118 different crop types, including some novel crops such as tea and almonds, under current conditions and nine projected climate change scenarios.

Potato crop suitability
Overall suitability for potato grown on a commercial basis across nine climate change scenarios
During the project, the partners developed and improved the existing soil mapping for Wales, updating the ALC dataset. Environment Systems carried out additional biophysical modelling of wind, frost, salt spray, and flood risk, combining the data to consider how all factors affect our ability to grow different crops in different parts of Wales. Different climate change scenarios were explored – low, medium and high emissions scenarios, up to 2080.

A variety of crops common to Wales and the UK were considered, including cereals, row crops, horticultural crops, orchard crops, timber crops and specialist crops. The outputs from the project take the form of GIS data files which contain the models for all 118 crops. The suitability modelling shows how the spatial extent of suitable ground for each crop changes with the climate in the different scenarios. The models tell us that the agricultural sector in Wales will be required to change in a relatively short period of time but not all parts of Wales will be affected in the same way, or to the same extent. The models provide an important source of evidence for policy makers, landowners and the agricultural industry as they prepare and plan for the future.

This project was led by Welsh Government Land, Nature and Forestry Division with partners Environment Systems Limited, RSK ADAS Limited and Cranfield University.

Afforestation – Tree Suitability Modelling

The UK Government has set a target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The target requires all sectors of the UK economy, including agriculture and forestry, to make contributions. In 2019, the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) commissioned a study to investigate the application of spatial modelling to tree species and site selection in Wales to see if its ambition of planting 152,000 ha in Wales was feasible.

The project focused on one coniferous (Sitka Spruce) and one broadleaved (Sessile Oak) tree species. The project built on draft modelling outputs from the Welsh Government Capability, Suitability and Climate Programme, where Environment Systems worked in collaboration with Cranfield University and ADAS to spatially model differences in land suitability for growing 118 crops.

The afforestation case study evaluated land suitability for Sessile Oak and Sitka Spruce based on biophysical properties alone, and in combination with legal and policy constraints to tree planting. Spatial modelling and statistical analysis were undertaken for the present day, and for four future climate change scenarios; 2050 and 2080, under medium and high greenhouse gas emissions.

Oak planting suitability in Wales
Suitability of planting oak today and under a medium emissions scenario by 2050
This project utilised Agricultural Land Classification data, which considers different aspects of climate and soil properties, and assigns grades for each environmental factor. This ranks the quality of the land in terms of soil wetness, droughtiness, stoniness and rockiness, in addition to steepness of slope and overall climate of a location. This dataset was supplemented by additional modelling carried out by Environment Systems to include frost risk, wind exposure and salt spray effects. Natural Resources Wales flood risk data were also incorporated into the models.

Biophysical factors are clearly vital for understanding where it is possible to grow crops. However, legal and policy decisions also exert a very real effect on the land available for growing crops. The project considered significant constraints to tree planting, such as areas of deep peat and priority habitats where tree planting is not currently possible (or desirable). It also considered ‘sensitivities’ such as historic and open access land, where tree planting may be possible, however, additional planning and consultation may be required.

The modelling revealed that the CCC tree-planting ambition for Wales is achievable however, it is likely to require the use of land that is less than biophysically ideal, and which is likely to be under pressure from competing land uses such as agriculture and energy generation. Significantly, it questions whether the target is sufficient to achieve the level of climate mitigation required, given the likely slower growth rates of trees on limited suitability land.

The full report can be accessed here.

Woodland Trust Data Portal

The Woods for People project, initiated by the Woodland Trust in 2002 in partnership with the Forestry Commission, with support from the Environment and Heritage Service provides access to accessible woodland data. The aim was to produce a comprehensive inventory of accessible woodland across the UK to improve public access and use. Since 2003 Environment Systems has been involved in the annual data collection and maintenance for this project. The process involves contacting woodland owners and managers by email, telephone and post to update the data held by the Trust.

Woodland Trust Data Portal
Woodland Trust Data portal with editable map polygons

In 2019, Environment Systems was commissioned to develop an online portal to enable woodland owners to manage their data themselves. The portal has been set up to send out automated reminders every year to request that woodland holdings and contact information are checked and updated if necessary. Since its launch, the portal has reduced the number of those needing to be contacted by half. Data collected through the portal is fed into the Trust’s central database which powers the ‘Find a wood’ section of the Trust’s website. Members of the public can enter a location and see all the woods with open access in that area.

Bat Houses

A large part of the work the Environment Systems ecology team carries out involves bat surveys of buildings requiring renovation, demolition, restoration or conversion. This usually involves daytime inspections and bat activity surveys at dusk or dawn to identify and characterise any bat roosts present, as well as the species and the number involved. Environment Systems has successfully obtained over 100 European protected species (EPS) licences to enable work around bat roosts to take place. This involves the design and implementation of bat mitigation measures, including providing replacement bat roosts and subsequent population monitoring.

Recently we undertook dusk and dawn activity surveys around a dilapidated Grade II farmhouse that was scheduled for restoration. The surveys recorded activity from nine species, which included foraging, commuting, and social behaviour. Soprano pipistrelle bats were confirmed as present in the building as they were seen emerging from and entering access points in six locations, along ridge tiles and under a loose slate tile. A lesser horseshoe bat was seen roosting within the building during the day time inspection. An EPS license was granted by Natural Resources Wales which enabled mitigation work to be carried out. The design of mitigation was considered as the long-term for the site as a whole including the outbuildings that are present on site that will be renovated in the future.

Bat House
A former store was used, a cooling tower installed as well as baffles in the rafters

A dilapidated former store that had no bat interest was identified and proposed as a purpose-built two storey bat house, including a cooling tower with baffles that will provide a range of different conditions for horseshoe and long-eared species to roost all year round. Our lead bat surveyor was on site during the works to provide toolbox talks to contractors and advice throughout construction. The bat house was completed in December 2019. Population monitoring will continue for the next couple of years as part of the license condition.

Implementing Green Infrastructure Strategies

The Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, Planning (Wales) Act 2015, and Environment (Wales) Act 2016, set out Wales’ approach to planning and managing natural resources at national and local levels, through sustainable management of natural resources and sustainable development. For urban areas, this legislation includes a focus on Green Infrastructure (GI), which can deliver benefits from a wide range of ecosystem services, from human health and well-being to natural flood management.

A good example of Welsh Local Authorities (LA) acting to further enhance the management of their GI assets has occurred in South Wales, where action arising from Public Service Board partnerships led to the development of a regional GI project. LA officers for Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council, Swansea Council, and Bridgend County Borough Council have come together with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and Public Health Wales to develop a framework for delivery of GI. Environment Systems was commissioned to identify GI opportunities for the three local authorities by incorporating locally relevant data and scrutiny of national scale ecosystem service mapping carried out for NRW under the project GIS for Area Statements. Multi-opportunity mapping was one of the key outputs of this project; these maps show areas where establishing or restoring a natural habitat, such as woodland, has the potential to enhance multiple ecosystem services.

Multiple Benefits from Woodland Planting
Woodland Planting Opportunities Map

In the months since the delivery of these maps, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council has used the multi-opportunity maps to identify locations for action on the ground. In the ‘multiple benefits from woodland planting map (above) they identified an area of council-owned land that was modelled to benefit from enhanced tree cover. Field staff could validate that the area had a strong demand for the services that would benefit from tree-planting for example through a reduction of overland flow and improved air quality. In addition, through a community engagement process, a local improvement plan was developed, including planting and access improvements, which is being used to inform a programme of improvement works at the site. This is a great example of how Environment Systems’ ecosystem service modelling can make a real difference to local communities through proactive land management by local councils. Similar projects have taken place in Swansea and Bridgend, delivering a range of GI improvements across the region.

Light Pollution Mapping for Biodiversity Planning

Understanding dark skies is important for nocturnal species conservation. For example, certain species of bat, many of which are rare and have declining populations. By having strategic knowledge about dark skies at a regional level, it becomes possible to plan mitigation and development activities to enhance the area for these species. Dark night skies are also an important landscape feature protecting the nocturnal environment, not only for nature, but also for education, cultural heritage, and public enjoyment.

We have recently undertaken a project for Pembrokeshire County Council and Natural Resources Wales, looking at how we can obtain a strategic landscape view of dark skies and bat populations. The project used newly accessible satellite data and available street lamp data to demonstrate dark sky areas throughout Pembrokeshire. The aim was to raise awareness of light pollution and its impact on biodiversity and provide a tool to evidence policy, inform development and land use. Using these data would also enable mitigation in many cases simply by reducing light pollution in the most sensitive areas.

Light pollution data
Optical satellite light pollution data overlaid with street lamp light pollution data

Calibration of the satellite data was necessary to split marine and terrestrial environments due to exceptionally busy shipping lanes around Milford Haven, producing light out at sea. Street lamp data was available from Pembrokeshire County Council. By taking the location of the street lamps and the types of lamp it was possible to match the existing pollution level to the radiance values in the satellite data creating a mapping layer of dark skies and light pollution.

The next stage of the project focused on generating a biodiversity sensitivity layer. For this project, local bat species data, with details on hibernating, maternity, plus day and night roosting sites, was used. Whilst the impacts of artificial light pollution on plants and wildlife are generally understood, it is now being recognised as being more significant to land use planning and development design. Combining the light and bat species data together delivers information that will assist local authorities in providing advice for better land management and development in relation to the effects of light pollution on biodiversity.