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University of Cambridge leads £10m project on eco-friendly Fens farming and protection of Cairngorms and Lake District

A third of England’s fresh vegetables are grown there and they feature almost half of the UK’s top graded agricultural land.

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

Now the University of Cambridge is leading a project with farmers to find eco-friendly farming solutions for this fertile land.

A fenland farm (55019396)
A fenland farm (55019396)

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

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

The Fens cover less than four per cent of England’s farmed area, but punch above their weight, producing more than seven per cent of the country’s total agricultural production, worth £1.23billion.

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

More than a half of UK lettuces are grown in the Fens, along with more than 75 per cent of UK celery. Vegetable crops such as carrots, leeks, potatoes, onions and beetroot are extensively grown there too.

But there are existential threats to the land. Just one per cent of the original Fen wetlands remain intact and with 30 per cent of the peatlands lost, millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide have been emitted.

The region is projected 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 of protecting the ecosystem and its farmers.

Fourth-generation Fens farmer and Fenland SOIL steering committee member Tom Clarke said: “Farming in the Fens faces a triple threat – a climate challenge, a nature challenge and a food security challenge.

“The best defence is for farming is to be less defensive about some of the problems it has contributed to. We farmers instead need to work in a positive and pragmatic way to find opportunities and solutions for the farmers of the future."

Some farmers are already relaxing the typically severe clearance of fen ditches and providing more farm reservoirs, enabling the storage of winter water for summer irrigation. That move also provides habitats for fish and wetland birds such as herons and the 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 Centre for Landscape Regeneration project, the researchers will work with local communities and conservation groups.

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

In the Cairngorms of Scotland, there are threats from climate change, deforestation, erosion and the loss of iconic species which cannot be found anywhere else in the UK. The area is home to more than a quarter of the UK’s endangered species, such as pine martens, capercaillies and ospreys.

Sun rays on Haweswater, The Lake District, Cumbria (55019374)
Sun rays on Haweswater, The Lake District, Cumbria (55019374)

Professor David Coomes, director of the Conservation Research Institute within CCI, said: “The emphasis of the Cambridge University Centre for Landscape Regeneration project will be on whole-systems approaches, as these are critical to addressing the root challenges of landscape regeneration.”

Efforts are under way to expand and restore the ancient Caledonian pinewoods, which have suffered from a significant loss of biodiversity and the encroachment of non-native tree species.

Here, the UK’s biggest habitat restoration project can be found, called Cairngorms Connect. A partnership of a private landowner, two government agencies and the RSPB, the focus is on 130 square kilometres of native pinewood habitat. The 200-year vision is to expand the forest to its natural limit, doubling its area. In the existing forest, the aim is to restore its natural character by pulling down some trees to simulate naturally occurring deadwood. This is a natural feature of a healthy forest, aiding 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 woodlands have been under threat.

The Cairngorms (55019415)
The Cairngorms (55019415)

Prof Stephen J Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “The interlinked extinction and climate crises pose a major threat to our future. Harnessing the full-breadth of expertise across Cambridge, this project will develop evidence-informed solutions and provide tools for government and stakeholders to regenerate landscapes for the benefit of climate, nature, the economy and society.”

Prof Jeremy Wilson, RSPB director of science said: “As a partner in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, we are excited by this opportunity to tackle the problem of restoring some of our most precious but fragile landscapes for the benefit of nature, people and the climate. As one of the largest nature conservation land managers in the UK, our nature reserves are at the heart of these landscapes and the insights from this cutting-edge research will underpin our restoration work for decades to come.”

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

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