The University of Cambridge is leading a £10m project on Fens Ecological Farming and the protection of Cairngorms and the Lake District


A third of England’s fresh vegetables are grown there and they make up almost half of the UK’s top rated farmland.

But the Fens face and contribute to major threats from climate change because the ancient peat soils there are drying out, releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide.

Today, the University of Cambridge is running a project with farmers to find environmentally friendly farming solutions for this fertile land.

A Swamp Farm (55019396)

It is part of a £10million countryside regeneration program funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), under which the university will also work to save two other endangered national treasures – the Cairngorms and the Lake District – at the landscape level.

Professor Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero – the university’s climate change initiative – said: “We aim to make a demonstrable difference in the way landscape restoration is designed, implemented, scaled and supported by policy, ensuring that solutions are resilient, inclusive and sustainable. .”

The Fens cover less than 4% of England’s agricultural area, but exceed their weight, producing more than 7% of the country’s total agricultural output, worth £1.23 billion.

More than 10,000 people are employed there in agriculture and production more broadly supports around 80,000 jobs.

Over half of UK lettuce is grown in the Fens, along with over 75% of UK celery. Vegetable crops such as carrots, leeks, potatoes, onions and beets are also widely grown here.

But there are existential threats to the earth. Only 1% of the original Fen wetlands remain intact and with 30% of the bogs lost, millions of tons of carbon dioxide have been emitted.

The region is expected to run out of water in five to 10 years, while facing the threat of rising sea levels.

Researchers are now working to find the best ways to protect the ecosystem and its farmers.

Tom Clarke, fourth-generation Fens farmer and Fenland SOIL Steering Committee member, said, “Farming in the Fens faces a triple threat: a climate challenge, a natural challenge and a food security challenge.

“The best defense for agriculture is to be less defensive about some of the problems it has contributed to. Instead, we farmers need to work positively and pragmatically to find opportunities and solutions for the farmers of tomorrow.”

Some farmers are already relaxing the usually severe clearing of marsh ditches and providing more agricultural reservoirs, allowing the storage of winter water for summer irrigation. This move also provides habitats for wetland fish and birds such as herons and marsh harrier.

A panorama of the Cairngorms National Park (55019407)
A panorama of the Cairngorms National Park (55019407)

In each of the three areas covered by the Cambridge Center for Landscape Regeneration project, researchers will work with local communities and conservation groups.

Led by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI), Cambridge Zero and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), it is run in partnership with the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and the Endangered Landscape Programme.

In the Cairngorms of Scotland, climate change, deforestation, erosion and loss of iconic species are under threat and not found anywhere else in the UK. The area is home to over a quarter of the UK’s endangered species, such as pine marten, capercaillie and osprey.

Rays of sunshine over Haweswater, The Lake District, Cumbria (55019374)
Rays of sunshine over Haweswater, The Lake District, Cumbria (55019374)

Professor David Coomes, Director of the Institute for Conservation Research at ICC, said: “The project at the Cambridge University Center for Landscape Regeneration will emphasize systems approaches, as they are key to addressing the fundamental challenges of landscape regeneration.

Efforts are underway to expand and restore ancient Caledonian pine forests, which have suffered from significant loss of biodiversity and encroachment by non-native tree species.

This is home to the UK’s largest habitat restoration project, called Cairngorms Connect. A partnership between a private landowner, two government agencies and the RSPB, the focus is on 130 square kilometers of native pine forest habitat. The 200-year vision is to extend the forest to its natural limit, doubling its area. In the existing forest, the objective is to restore its natural character by cutting down certain trees to simulate natural dead wood. It is a natural feature of a healthy forest, helping invertebrates, fungi and lichens and bird species.

Meanwhile, in the Lake District – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – there are both challenges and opportunities presented by changes in agricultural subsidies, while forests have been threatened.

The Cairngorms (55019415)
The Cairngorms (55019415)

Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “Extinction and interrelated climate crises pose a major threat to our future. Harnessing the full breadth of Cambridge’s expertise, this project will develop evidence-based solutions and provide tools to government and stakeholders to regenerate landscapes for the benefit of climate, nature, economy and of the society.

Professor Jeremy Wilson, Scientific Director of the RSPB, said: “As a partner of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, we are delighted by this opportunity to tackle the problem of restoring some of our most precious but most important landscapes. fragile for the benefit of nature, people and the climate. . As one of the UK’s largest nature conservation land managers, our nature reserves are at the heart of these landscapes and the insights from this cutting-edge research will support our restoration work for decades to come.

The funding comes from NERC’s wider £40m program, Changing the Environment.

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