Kew's Landscape Ecology Programme: the living laboratory championing nature-based solutions

Kew experts have launched the Landscape Ecology Programme, launching seven studies of diverse UK sites to gather scientific evidence to support UK nature-based solutions. Becca Roberts and Ed Ikin set out the plans

The UK is facing multiple ecological threats to nature; biodiversity loss, climate change and land use change. These threats are connected and are inextricably linked to our societal structure and economy, whose disparities often result in the destruction of or disconnection from nature.

Spanning ecological, economic, social and climate science disciplines, the same, clear message emerges: we must take immediate, rapid and large-scale action to tackle these threats and restore balance between humanity and nature, or we will face catastrophic and irreversible impacts on the ecosystems on which we and all of life on Earth depend.

There is hope for the future. We can choose to shift away from the ineffective narrative of nature versus humanity and towards one where humans, as individuals and as a collective, act as ecological stewards of nature.

We can choose, in our daily lives and all the way to policy and infrastructure, to recognise and protect the many social and ecological benefits that biodiverse, functional landscapes offer. In essence, we need nature-based solutions.

An ecosystems approach

Nature-based solutions (NbS) is an umbrella concept for multiple interventions that work with nature to address societal and environmental challenges. The term was initiated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2009. Interventions range from protecting and restoring natural ecosystems to sustainable land management and creating new ecosystems.

What makes nature-based solutions so appealing is that these diverse interventions offer multiple benefits for the environment and people, if done effectively.

Restoring an upland species-rich forest enhances the ecosystems that help to store carbon and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The forest will also regulate the physical effects of climate change, such as extreme flooding, and provide commercially valuable products.

In other words, nature-based solutions mitigate climate change and help society and economies to adapt and become resilient in the face of crisis.

At the absolute heart of nature-based solutions is biodiversity – the totality of all life on Earth – and engagement with people, especially local communities.

Biodiverse systems can be highly resilient, buffered against external perturbations through genetic and species variety and functional redundancy – the ecological phenomena where multiple species can share similar, if not identical roles in ecosystem functionality.

To understand this diversity, including people’s values and voices, we must ground nature-based solutions in scientific research and collaborative governance. Retaining these foundations will enable nature-based solutions to achieve their multiple benefits and be sustainable in the long term.

RBG Kew’s mission is to understand and protect plants and fungi for the wellbeing of people and the future of all life on Earth. Our new flagship Landscape Ecology Programme demonstrates our commitment to investing our scientific expertise and collaborative partnerships to halt biodiversity loss and provide evidence for nature-based solutions.

Based at Wakehurst, RBG Kew’s wild botanic garden in Sussex, the Landscape Ecology Programme researches, engages with, and shares the benefits of UK biodiversity. Delivering innovative and impactful research, RBG Kew scientists and our partners will lead research across four areas; carbon, pollination, hydrology and nature connectedness, all underpinned by biodiversity.

Seven UK landscapes

The Landscape Ecology Programme is funded by HM Treasury, Defra, Ground Control, Mount Anvil, People’s Postcode Lottery and Sky Zero. Already, we have seven projects doing active scientific research across the landscape.

The carbon research is now part of a multi-year project, Nature-Based Solutions for Climate Change at a Landscape Scale, a partnership with Natural England, the Forestry Commission, University of Sussex and the Environment Agency.

Using Wakehurst as one of five pilot sites, RBG Kew scientists will use high-resolution science to research greenhouse-gas stocks and flows in biodiverse habitats over space and time, focusing on UK systems including woodland, grassland, heathland and farmland.

The methods and protocols developed will be open-access, which will help to scale this novel research across the UK. Wakehurst will become a hive of scientific activity, investigating the complex relationships between above and below-ground biodiversity, the environment and greenhouse-gas flux and sequestration.

Our spatial analysis combines hyperspectral and LiDAR analysis of biomass and biodiversity to build a complex picture of the inter-relationship between tree and vegetation function and carbon flows across the Wakehurst landscape. Our greenhouse-gas flux monitoring will be correlated with temporal variations in landscape, climate and environment, underpinned by an interconnected gas-flux sensor network.

Below ground, Kew will apply DNA and chemical analyses of extensive soil and root samples to determine the carbon content, diversity, abundance and function of fungal communities. This seeks to identify key fungal indicator species or mycorrhizal types associated with extensive soil exploration and carbon-sequestration abilities.

Crucially, the team will correlate and model the inter-relationships between environmental variation – drought, flooding, frost – as well as gas flux and above and below-ground biodiversity, defining the role nature can play in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Multiple benefits

This research will fill vital evidence gaps on the interrelationship between biodiversity and carbon. It will feed into the wider project’s evaluation of the benefits and trade-offs linked to nature-based solutions for climate change alongside trial opportunities for public-private blended finance to invest in these solutions.

Trialing different finance and governance models will allow policy makers and business to develop a pipeline of investable nature-based solutions projects that demonstrate multiple benefits over the long term in a tangible way.

Understanding the best governance models will inform development of climate policy alongside markets such as carbon offsetting, ensuring local communities and other stakeholders working in the UK landscape are included in these benefits.

RBG Kew scientists are also researching ecosystem services such as the role of invertebrates in Wakehurst’s landscape in enhancing biodiversity and improving people’s wellbeing. Working with the University of Sussex, scientists are examining the importance of roadside verges as a comparable habitat for pollinators, the UK having lost 97 per cent of its species-rich wildflower meadows.

This research can influence business and council decisions, such as adopting a no-mow policy and letting roadsides and train track verges flourish with wildflowers and pollinators.

Scientists are researching the role of invertebrates as natural pest control in grasslands, benefiting the biodiversity of grassland habitats but also showing the potential economic and environmental benefits to neighbouring farmland through the spillover effect of enhancing species richness and natural pest control in this habitat as well.

In building public and private partnerships, the Landscape Ecology Programme will help to ground policy and practice such as the 25-year Environment Plan and targets such as net zero by 2050 in robust scientific evidence.

Alongside influencing national change, the Landscape Ecology Programme will also help the public to understand why nature matters, enhancing society’s nature connectedness. And RBG Kew is collaborating with a leading London university to research the psychological and health benefits that people draw from biodiverse landscapes.

We will also develop a citizen-science programme to gather large datasets on biodiversity at Wakehurst and engage and inform local communities. This is especially important to understand the diversity of nature’s benefits to society and to shift the narrative towards one that sees people as part of – not separate to – natural ecosystems.

Living laboratory

Our hope for the future is that Wakehurst becomes a long-term living laboratory. Located in the heart of the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty, it is the ideal location for a new programme that connects science, the landscape and people.

Wakehurst is a biodiverse 535-acre site, a mosaic of multiple habitat types in favourable condition, from unmanaged SSSI woodlands and coniferous plantations to wetlands, species-rich grasslands, designed landscapes and gardens. Its diverse living collection combines UK flora and temperate tree species from Chile, Tasmania, USA, China and Europe.

Around Wakehurst lie acres of agricultural land, suburban habitats and the Ashdown Forest, representing 3 per cent of UK’s lowland heathlands, making the site a microcosm of UK habitat types. The land has been sustainably managed for centuries, generating a host of archival data alongside ecological surveys to create a complex, long-term picture of Wakehurst’s biodiversity and land use over time and space.

The social and ecological data collected in the Landscape Ecology Programme will be gathered to form a baseline of biodiversity across Wakehurst, showing how living things – from trees to pollinators and fungi to flowering plants – interact across the landscape and their benefits to people.

By measuring a baseline, we can monitor this over time. This will inform land management at Wakehurst and will empower and inform stakeholders such as landowners, business and local authorities across the UK about how to best to use and enhance nature to solve environmental and social challenges.

Ultimately, the Landscape Ecology Programme aims to showcase Wakehurst’s landscape as a living laboratory, encouraging scientists and research partners to continue to use this wild botanic garden to test the effectiveness of UK nature-based solutions for people and planet now and into the future.

Ed Ikin is director of Wakehurst, RBG Kew. Becca Roberts is RBG Kew’s Landscape Ecology Programme officer

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