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Natural Capital - Is it really a new concept?

Matthew Williamson

All of us are reading new buzz words & sayings in the rural economy on a daily basis… “Biodiversity Offsetting”, “Biodiversity Net Gain”, “Carbon Capture”, “Natural Capital”. 

They seem to have an aura about them that seems to require every landowner, farmer and their professional advisors to sit a new module at University! Is this really the case?

For years farmers and Landowners, via Countryside Stewardship Agreements and Environmental Stewardship Agreements, have been leaving stubbles as set-a- side, seeding nonproductive areas with wild flower mixes and replanting hedgerows. Moorland owners have been undertaking grip blocking on their moors to rewet moors and restore peatlands. There are numerous other examples but what I am trying to point out is that the concept is not new… it shouldn’t be a headache for anyone.

Biodiversity offsetting will be coming in as a requirement in planning law in the next few years. The simple concept is that what a development takes away in terms of biodiversity must be compensated for elsewhere. Wholesale changes to a field parcel at a receptor site appears to be a possible way to meet the requirement and it would look like conversion of conventional arable field to grassland will score well in terms of biodiversity units. The use of Grass Leys in an arable rotation is well known but the “creation” of a low input lowland flower meadow is not so well known. At Blagdon Estate in south Northumberland, the owner of the estate elected to create one after surface mining on the estate.

The surface coal mine secured planning permission in 2004 and a condition of the planning was the reinstatement would require the land restored as low input grassland rather than the arable land previously found at the site. Blagdon Estate was agreeable to this and also offered to have one of the fields restored as a lowland flower meadow. In 2014 after the land had been restored and the soils put down it was drilled with a carefully designed species rich flower and grass mix. The spring/summer of 2015 saw the meadow burst with colour.

The ongoing management of the meadow has seen varying techniques used with mixed results – late mowing, late mulching and cattle grazing have all been tried but then last winter some upland sheep grazed the field. This appears to have had a positive impact on the species mix and is planned again this winter to ensure that in each spring/summer the meadow bursts with colour again. Insects love the meadow which sees numerous species of ground nesting birds using the meadow – Biodiversity Net Gain at its best!

In conclusion, these new environmental concepts might appear daunting but it is likely that most land managers will have been involved in habitat creation but under a different name… the opportunities that Natural Capital offers should not be feared.