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Surveyed – the state of the UK countryside

john-watkins.jpg John Watkins, from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, is trying to look at the state of the UK’s countryside.

He’s teamed up with SAS, a company that is clever at interpretting data, and ESRI, a mapping software company ESRI to do this.

Greenbang asked him what it’s all about…

What does your organisation do?

[It] is the UK’s Centre of Excellence for research in the land and freshwater environmental sciences. We are a wholly owned research centre of the Natural Environment Research Council employing around 500 staff across England, Scotland and Wales.

Our staff have specialist skills in a wide range of environmental disciplines, ranging from the smallest scale (the gene) to the largest scale (whole Earth systems). Our research is aimed at improving understanding both of the environment as we see it today and the natural processes that underlie the Earth’s support systems – for example climate & water resources.

We are particularly interested in the impacts of human activity on natural environments. We aim to generate workable solutions to today’s pressing environmental problems.

How does that relate to business?

Rapid economic and population growth are increasing pressure on the world’s natural resources and changing the climate. The UK needs world-class scientific research to provide solutions to these key challenges.

Our staff work on many environmental issues in these areas, linking blue skies research to practical solutions that help maximise positive impact on economic, social and environmental well being.

Key examples where we have made maximum impact include the world leading Flood Estimation Handbook, long term monitoring programmes allowing detection of climate change impacts – for example spring coming earlier across Europe which will have major implications for agriculture, and ground breaking work on water pollution issues, for example the impact of drug releases into the ecosystem.

What pressures are businesses now under to change their way of working to adopt greener initiatives in the workplace? How can this be made profitable as well?

We don’t specifically provide advice in this area but as an organisation we are adopting green initiatives.

For example our Welsh based staff have just moved into the new Environment Centre Wales, a partnership venture between the ourselves and the University of Wales, Bangor. This new building is on track to receive the Building Research Establishment’s (BRE) highest environmental assessment rating for its design and construction elements.

The Centre has been built with the environment in mind. For example, photovoltaic panels have been installed to generate electricity from sunlight, ground-source heat pumps will air condition the building using minimal energy and at low cost, and a rainwater recovery system is used to flush the lavatories. It has been built using indigenous materials including Welsh oak and slate.

Where do you see business opportunities in this area?

Two examples – Our staff are currently working on the following issues which have links to greening the planet and creating a sustainable future:

The impacts of renewable energy adaptation, including biofuels. And the impacts of different types of farming (GM, organic, conventional) on biodiversity and farm output.

What is the most important research you are working on and how does it relate to people?

Earlier this year, the biggest and most comprehensive survey of the natural resources of the British countryside began The Countryside Survey will be carried out by a team of over sixty specially trained scientists working for the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology With a total budget of around £8M.

More than 600 one kilometre squares of the English, Welsh and Scottish countryside will be surveyed. At the same time a complementary survey will be carried out in Northern Ireland, completing the picture for the UK. Information will be collected on natural landscape features including plant communities and habitats within farmland, woods, heathland, moors, soils, small rivers and ponds.

This is especially important as the countryside faces major challenges such as climate change, pollution, non-native species and the introduction of new crops including biofuels. The first results are due in Autumn 2008.

The 2007 Countryside Survey is the fifth in a sequence that stretches back to 1978. The survey provides evidence that informs us about the status of our countryside and feeds into new Government policies.

The last survey, which reported in 2000, demonstrated the effectiveness of this system by confirming a reversal in the decline of hedgerows. Countryside Survey data from 1978 onwards had provided evidence of the extent of this decline which led to changes in legislation and new agricultural policies encouraging more effective land management.

The full Countryside Survey partnership consists of the Natural Environment Research Council, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and eight government departments and agencies headed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

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