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Plants @ Cambridge

Professor David Coomes, Head of the Department's Forest Ecology and Conservation Research Group and Director of the Conservation Research Institute, has been awarded £10 million in funding by NERC to create a new Centre for Landscape Regeneration in collaboration with Cambridge Zero and Cambridge Conservation Initiative partners. The Centre will deliver a major countryside regeneration programme to safeguard the UK’s most important ecosystems and agricultural land. As part of the programme, researchers will tackle environmental threats to our home-grown produce and rare and endangered wildlife, with projects spanning from eco-friendly farming in the Fens to protecting pine martens in the Cairngorms.
Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge Professor Stephen Toope exclaims “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.”
The Centre will be co-led by Professor David Coomes, Director of the Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, and Professor Emily Shuckburgh OBE, Director of Cambridge Zero, and will partner with the RSPBUK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and The Endangered Landscapes Programme. Professor Jeremy Wilson, RSPB Director of Science, comments “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.” A further 28 organisations, companies and charities UK wide will be involved in delivering the programme and the Centre will work closely with farmers, local communities and conservation groups.
Speaking about the Centre, Professor Coomes remarks “The emphasis of the Centre for Landscape Regeneration will be on whole systems approaches, as these are critical to addressing the root challenges of landscape regeneration”. This means taking a holistic, long-term view that encompasses the whole ecology of a region. Whilst Professor Shuckburgh exclaims “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.”
In the Fens, the Centre will be working closely with local farmers to find the best way to protect both the ecosystem and agriculture. The Fens contain almost 25% of all the lowland peat in England and Wales and half of all Grade 1 farmland in England. It produces 22% of England's crop output, 35% of its vegetable production, half of UK-grown lettuce and more than 75% of UK-grown celery, contributing more than £3 billion to the rural economy and employing tens of thousands in a region with high unemployment and deprivation. But the Fens are threatened by climate change, their ancient peat soils are drying out, releasing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, and they are being threatened by rising sea levels.
With agriculture in the region being of such vital importance to both the local community and the UK as a whole, simply rewilding the Fens to preserve and restore its ecosystem is not an option. Fourth generation Fens farmer and Fenland SOIL steering committee member Tom Clarke explains “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.” The newly funded Centre will provide much-needed help in devising ways to protecting both the Fens’ ecosystem and its farmers in the long term.
In the Cairngorms, the Centre’s work will focus on expanding and restoring the region’s ancient Caledonian pinewoods. These spectacular forests have suffered from a significant loss of biodiversity and the encroachment of non-native tree species, which in turn has threatened rare plant and animal species. The Cairngorms are home to more than a quarter of the UK’s endangered species, and for many the region is their national stronghold, including capercaillies, Scottish wildcats and red squirrels.
Alongside these projects in the Cairngorms and the Fens, the Centre will also be looking at how future changes in agricultural subsidies are presenting both challenges and opportunities for landscapes in the Lake District. The work on these projects will feed into the Centre’s wider aim to provide the knowledge and tools needed to regenerate the British countryside using cost-effective nature-based solutions that harness the power of ecosystems to provide broad societal benefits including biodiversity recovery and climate mitigation and adaptation.
Visit the Centre for Landscape Regeneration website to find out more.