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Shaping the Future of UK Upland Environments

October 30, 2015

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Upland communities of people, plants and animals that live on the UK’s high hills, lakes, rivers and moors are under increasing pressure. Whilst uplands form a large proportion of the UK’s land area (around 40%), they are often challenging places for communities – both humans and non-humans – to survive.

A lack of rural jobs coupled with the dwindling profitability of agricultural practices in many upland areas of the UK has put strain upon traditional communities.  Upland areas are on the leading-edge of climate change in the UK, as the climate niches in which communities of plants and animals – many of them rare or endemic – live are moved slowly upwards in altitude until potentially little or no suitable habitat remains.

For example, upland peat bogs – a crucial store of carbon and regulator of water flows in the landscape – require cool, wet conditions to regenerate.  Studies such as this 2013 report led by Professor Colin Prentice of Imperial College London suggest that future climatic change in the UK is likely to cause peat bogs to shrink – which when coupled with human degradation of peat bog landscapes through overgrazing and cutting is likely to have widespread effects on the ecological health of the wider upland environment.

As the figure below shows, upland landscapes provide a range of important ecosystem services to humans and support unique assemblages of plants and animals, making their ongoing sustainable use and management a key issue.

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A new report led by the DURESS Project based at Cardiff University in Wales assesses the potential impacts of four different upland land-use scenarios on UK upland communities towards 2050. Funded by the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Sustainability (BESS) programme of the Natural Environment Research Council, the report assesses the consequences of four possible scenarios for UK upland landscapes over the next 35 years: Agricultural Intensification; Managed Ecosystems; Business as Usual; and Abandonment.

The scenarios were developed through analysis of the drivers of environmental change, both local (e.g. food markets, farming practices and hydro-schemes) and global (e.g. climate change, global food and timber markets and EU environmental policy), and the probabilities for their different paths of development over the next 35 years.  These projected scenarios were supported by a process of ‘backcasting‘ in which historical environmental changes to the uplands since 1945 were analysed.

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Each of the four projected scenarios has different environmental drivers and outcomes.  The Agricultural Intensification scenario is projected to occur if global food security forces UK policy makers to focus on production, making hill farming an important contributor to the national livestock industry and limiting environmental protection to comply with the demands of the market.  Here, riparian zones along rivers are likely to be removed to create more grazing land, alongside an increased input of fertilisers, chemicals and pesticides into upland rivers: creating new cocktails of multiple stress on aquatic life.

The Business as Usual scenario is projected where UK environmental policy aims to balance the aims of agricultural productivity and environmental protection.  Here, upland farming does not contribute to UK food security, and environmental protection is based on a limited amount to small areas of land such as national parks and protected areas, areas with high tourism value, or areas requiring specific protection to meet regulations.  Agri-environmental schemes are likely to help improve the health and diversity of upland rivers, but there will be difficulties in creating connected, landscape-scale environmental management schemes.

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The Managed Ecosystem scenario is projected where carbon and biodiversity management becomes the dominant management paradigm in upland landscapes and environmental policy is focused on restoring peatlands, and expanding wetlands and woodland to regulate soil carbon loss and increase biodiversity. Whilst reliance on overseas areas for provisioning services (fuel, fibre and food) may increase, upland ecosystems will benefit from reductions in livestock grazing pressures and reduced erosion and pollution.

Finally, under the Abandonment scenario, existing upland policies become too costly to implement because of competition for public funds for other priorities and the lack of viable markets for products and services. The sustainability of farming enterprises decreases due to the loss of familial farm succession and poor uptake of new technology and practices. Declines in farming activity and upland livelihood opportunities leads to eventual agricultural abandonment. With grazing pressure removed, it is likely that upland ecosystems will undergo a process of ‘rewilding‘ to greater ecological health and diversity. (although as many recent studies have shown, the tangents of such environmental change are likely to be complex and difficult to predict).

is a project focused on promoting diversity in upland rivers as a means of improving their ecosystem service sustainability (watch their new Shaping Our Future film above).  As such, river ecosystems are placed at the centre of the projected scenarios in the report, as a means of informing environmental managers on upland decision making.  For each scenario, maps are created to show where land cover change would occur, the magnitude of this change, and its likelihood.

Rather than offering firm recommendations, the new Upland Scenarios report is framed as a ‘stock-take’ of ongoing DURESS research, part of which will inform the MARS catchment modelling work.  It suggests that UK upland economies – particularly farming – are fragile and heavily dependent on national and European subsidies to continue. As such, the report ends with the question of whether rural economies can be managed by UK government policy to promote ecosystem services such as water resources, flood management, carbon sequestration, renewable energy and biodiversity.  Balancing such environmental goals with issues of dwindling and aging rural populations, fragile economies and ecosystems gradually affected by climate change is likely to pose significant future challenges for UK policy makers and environmental managers.

Download the Upland Scenarios report (pdf)

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