In addition to being of value in their own right, natural systems and processes provide a broad range of goods and services which help to support human health, well-being and economic success. Ecosystem services are the benefits which nature provides for human well-being, society and the economy. They include:
- Provisioning services: the goods people obtain from ecosystems, including food, water, fuel, raw materials and genetic resources
- Regulating services which control conditions, including the processes that regulate the climate and water flows; air, water and soil quality; pollination; and pests and diseases
- Cultural services, including aesthetic, spiritual, educational and recreational benefits
- Supporting services, which provide the basic infrastructure for life, including photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, and soil formation
Understanding and working with nature where possible will enable us to achieve more sustainable outcomes. This means taking a more proactive approach than assessing and mitigating the environmental impacts of policies, strategies and projects through formal processes including Strategic Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal, Environmental Impact Assessment and Habitat Regulations Appropriate Assessment.
The ecosystem approach is a holistic and inclusive approach to planning and decision making, which takes account of the benefits and services we derive from nature and seeks to maintain or enhance them. It involves understanding the ecosystem services provided across a given area; valuing them appropriately; and involving the relevant stakeholders to make balanced and effective land management decisions, based on the best possible understanding of the implications.
It is important that ecosystem services are accounted for in decision-making for their own sake, but in these economically constrained times, applying the ecosystem approach will also help ensure that limited funds are targeted at the interventions which will deliver the maximum benefits to the environment, people, and the economy.
The ecosystem approach has been fundamental to the development of the Partnership Management Plan for the South Downs National Park. An overview of the ecosystem services provided by the National Park is included in the introduction to the document, and this understanding informs the policies on farming, forestry and woodland, water, tourism and other aspects of management.
The ecosystem approach is reflected in major projects in the National Park, including the South Downs Way Ahead Nature Improvement Area. This £3 million project is bringing together farmers, community groups, government bodies, research organisations, charities and local businesses to protect, restore and reconnect endangered chalk down land, enhance biodiversity and improve water quality.
In addition to informing planning and decision making, applying this kind of thinking can help to identify, develop and raise funding for projects which support adaptation to climate change and sea-level rise while enhancing the natural environment and benefiting local communities. The Medmerry coastal realignment scheme in Sussex is a great example of what can be achieved by working with nature (see case study).
When the social and economic benefits provided by the natural environment are clear, their value can be estimated and used to make the business case for funding or direct payments to those who help to maintain them.
Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes provide incentives to farmers and landowners to manage the land in a way which will deliver these services to an agreed standard through a voluntary agreement. A number of pilot studies have been undertaken across England, including the Slowing the Flow project in Pickering, North Yorkshire, which sought to reduce flood risk downstream and improve water and soil quality, by changing land management practices and planting additional woodlands to slow the flow of water through the river catchment. This approach builds on established schemes such as Environmental Stewardship and the Woodland Grant Scheme which are already widely taken up by landowners.
Case study: Medmerry managed realignment, West Sussex
The following case study is part of the No Regrets: Planning for Sea Level Rise and Climate Change and Investing in Adaptation Good Practice Guide sponsored by the Southern Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, August 2015. Local authorities and other organisations involved in planning, decision-making and infrastructure investment are encouraged to follow these case studies and plan for the long-term future of coastal communities in the South East of England and further afield.
Medmerry is the largest coastal realignment scheme on the open coast in the UK. It is sited on the west side of the Manhood Peninsula, which juts out into the English Channel south of Chichester. This is a flat coast line protected by shingle beaches, which are vulnerable to breaching and over-topping in storm conditions, resulting in regular flooding by the sea. Rather than building up the beaches to ever higher levels, as sea levels rise, the Agency decided to work with nature.
The scheme involved building up some 7km of new earth walls inland, breaching the existing shingle beach and forming a large new saltmarsh habitat. This helps to absorb wave energy and manage flood risk for 350 homes, two holiday parks, and a sewage treatment works. It also provides important compensation for loss of intertidal saltmarsh habitat elsewhere, allowing other flood defence schemes to proceed around the Solent.
The new habitat is now an RSPB Reserve with extensive walks and cycle tracks for people to enjoy and benefits for local businesses. It is a model for win-win climate change adaptation, combining improved flood defences with new natural habitats and opportunities for recreation and business on the coast.
The £28 million scheme was carried out by the Environment Agency from 2011 to 2013. At all stages, the scheme was developed in close consultation with a stakeholder group embracing a wide range of local interests.