Cornwall’s farmers could unlock “natural capital” worth millions of pounds, a new report suggests.
Natural capital means benefits humans get from nature – ranging from food, medicine and timber to flood prevention, carbon storage, recreation and improved mental and physical health.
The report examines the potential impact of paying farmers in one section of the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) to restore nature and boost natural capital.
It sets out a ten-year plan – developed with farmers – that would create new natural capital worth between £3.7 million and £15.8 million.
The report’s authors estimate that each £1 invested would bring a £3 return.
The report – called the Natural Capital Prospectus – is published by the Cornwall AONB, produced by Gain Consulting, and supported by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West and the University of Exeter.
“Nature provides a vast range of ‘free’ services that benefit humans – but these are often undervalued or ignored in decision making,” said Dr Grace Twiston-Davies, of SWEEP, and the Environment and Sustainability Institute on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.
“This has led to the degradation of natural capital.
“Our report shows that positive investment can bring returns far in excess of the initial costs.
“Producing food in an environmentally sustainable way is often not economically viable in the face of global markets without grants to support farming businesses.
“The natural capital returns calculated here show the advantages of supporting these businesses to farm in this way.
“Farmers in the Lizard have led the way in establishing ambitious objectives and targets for land management, which will result in landscape recovery in this unique and special area of Cornwall.”
The report focusses on section eight of the Cornwall AONB, a “protected landscape” that includes the Marazion and the Mounts bay coast, the whole of the Lizard Peninsula, and the Helford Estuary.
It outlines a “Landscape Recovery Framework” to improve ecosystems and associated benefits to humans.
Farmer David Oates said: “The Lizard test and trial has been successful at bringing together a range of farmers and stakeholders, showcasing a great opportunity for future nature-friendly land management across our AONB.
“We hope that Defra (UK government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) will use our report to build a future scheme that will protect our unique landscape and support viable, sustainable farm businesses.”
Actions to be taken by farmers include restoring Cornish hedgerows, increasing the number of ponds and wetlands, and diversifying land use away from “monocultures” to provide a richer mix of habitats for birds, insects and mammals.
The plan also includes increasing woodlands and using more land for orchards, wood pasture and other tree-based farming.
The scheme aims to improve “engagement with the natural environment”, partly by providing educational opportunities for schools, colleges, universities and other groups.
Emma Browning, Partnership Manager of Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), said: “Cornwall AONB is an incredibly diverse landscape with numerous additional designations making it very significant for nature and conservation, however we know that biodiversity is in huge decline here, as it is across the world.
“In Cornwall, there has been a 30% decline in farmland birds between 1994 and 2019, along with a reduction in butterflies associated with farmland.
“152km of Cornish hedge and hedgerow has been lost. Overall, 41% of species have declined since 1970. Only 24% of rivers and 15% of lakes are in good ecological status.
“Action is required immediately to halt the decline in our natural capital, to build back biodiversity, stabilise the climate, restore our soils and improve our rivers and seas.
“The Landscape Recovery Framework, co-designed by farmers specifically in this Test Trial for Section 08 of Cornwall AONB, sets out a ten-year plan to vastly improve, and increase, biodiversity aligned with sustainable farm businesses.”
Colette Beckham, of Gain Consulting, said: “It’s been a pleasure to work with such a committed and forward-thinking group of farmers.
“I’ve been struck with how ambitious they’re prepared to be if supported in ways that reflects the significant value of environmentally friendly farming that we’ve demonstrated through the project.
“I feel the countryside and Cornwall’s protected landscape has a safe and sustainable future in their hands.”
The test trial in the Lizard area is part of “Farming for the Nation”, a Defra-funded research scheme coordinated by the National Association of AONBs.
Cornwall AONB will be able to offer grants to farmers and landowners to deliver for people, place, nature and climate. These grants will come from Farming in Protected Landscapes, a new programme funded by Defra and delivered locally by Cornwall AONB.
The University of Exeter has launched a ‘Green Futures’ campaign and website to drive action on the environment and climate emergency. To find out more please visit https://greenfutures.exeter.ac.uk