We have been working as part of a consortium with CCRI (Countryside and Community Research Institute) and LUC, an environmental consultancy. The consortium has recently been successful in winning three agri-environment monitoring and evaluation projects under the Defra/Natural England ESME framework. Agri-environment schemes are important because they set out to provide funding to farmers and land managers to farm in a way that supports biodiversity and enhances the landscape.
In one of these projects we are looking at SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest). These sites are ‘special’ because of their habitats, species or geology. Agri-environment schemes have an important role to play in ensuring that they are maintained and protected. SSSIs contribute to a government goal of restoring 75% of over a million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to a favourable condition securing their wildlife value for the long term. SSSIs represent some of the best of England’s biodiversity sites and it is important to Defra and Natural England to be able to evaluate the contribution that agri-environment schemes make in delivering for biodiversity when they occur on SSSIs. Our task was therefore to evaluate the evidence of change in condition, assess the evidence of the relationship between agri-environment schemes and changes in SSSI condition and understand what motivates owners and occupiers to manage their SSSIs.
One of the other projects won under this framework seeks to quantify the retention and loss of grassland established through ‘arable reversion.’ Arable reversion occurs when farmers are paid a subsidy to lay aside arable land to grassland in the interests of biodiversity, enhancing landscape quality and conserving wildlife. This task uses the existing ‘CROME’ crop map of England and other data and compares it against current Sentinel satellite data, available directly from our own Data Services. Through spatial analysis it is possible to identify those parcels which have reverted to ploughing. When asked, farmers suggest that they will maintain arable land converted to grassland once the subsidy has ended but analysis suggests that this is not always the case. Understanding the motivation behind these decisions is important.