Over the last 16 months, the team at the Gloucestershire office have been running a trial for DEFRA’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), which is envisaged to replace the current Basic Payment Scheme from 2024. We have been exploring the role that technology can play in helping to identify, monitor and improve Natural Capital (the monetary value of the natural assets, such has peatland or grassland, valued at their benefit society - a buzz word that has been mentioned in a number of these blogs, and this certainly will not be the last). An example of natural capital is the value a woodland has to society, in terms of the services it provides such as flood mitigation, carbon capture, etc. Therefore to map natural capital, we start by mapping the habitats in the landscape. Thus, by assessing what habitats make up a landscape, we begin the journey of understanding what ecosystem services the land is providing and can invest public money in those public goods.

But for significant change, this mapping must be at a landscape scale, looking across borders and boundaries. Do paper maps still have a role to play?

It is hoped that ELMS will not only pay landowners and farmers for the natural capital currently present, but to also fund improvements in these natural assets. This includes protecting and enhancing what is there while joining it up with other similar habitats. In order to do this, the system needs to be flexible, versatile, sophisticated, scientifically robust, and simple front-facing. Yikes!

Luckily, the technology we have at our disposal is remarkable; the power and ease-of-use of GIS platforms allows us to begin mapping every hedge, woodland, and pond to an extremely high resolution. To do this, we have used a combination of the free-to-use software The Land App and the landowners knowledge to build a baseline of the farmed environment based on authoritative Rural Payments Data - no-one knows the land better than the farmers, communities and volunteers who dwell there. They live and breathe the landscape, and therefore must be part of the solution.

What’s more, we can build our maps off data from the topographic giants Ordnance Survey, using their Master Map layers. It then becomes more of an exercise of chopping and merging shapes for an accurate representation of the habitats in the landscape than starting from scratch. So, from the comfort of my living room, I can speak face-to-face (via videoconferencing) with a land-owner who lives and breathes their little corner of the world and develop a map that is a digitised representation of what’s on the ground. I can then put this map onto my smartphone (via ArcGIS Collector) and take it with me on my farm survey, annotating and amending the habitats and making notes for change. In times like these where social contact is limited, I have felt more connected than ever with our members and gained a fuller understanding of their land than ever before.

And to many of our farmers, high-end technology is already helping several arable and livestock farmers become more efficient. I recently had a tour of one of our members precision minimum-tillage drills, which uses weather data, previous yields, geology, soil type, and satellite information to adjust the amount of seed going to different areas of the field.

This ELMS trial has given us the vehicle to explore a mechanism that allows us to value the local knowledge while harnessing the power of high-end data analysis. If we can digitally map neighbouring farms based on their habitats, and how each of those habitats are managed, it not only improves the sense of place each landowner feels, it also allows us to develop projects that are relevant to the local community. Whether that be trying to find sites for flood management or identifying areas where pollen is lacking, this allows the digitised data to be borderless. Digital data empowers landscape scale conservation and restoration while being flexible and locally relevant.  

There are other benefits. By moving towards a system that requires submissions to be digital, there is a reduced need for admin (one of the huge limitations and reasons for delayed payment, etc by the RPA), and hopefully opens up more resource to invest in what is important: change on the ground. What’s more, when next year comes around, the maps just need updating about what has changed – no need to start from scratch.

But I must confess. Despite all this technology, I still find myself falling back to paper maps on occasions. Whether preparing for a Stewardship agreement or completing a natural capital survey, sometimes there is nothing easier than a paper map and a pencil – then digitising it afterward. It is comforting. Alongside this, we must be careful to not leave anyone behind. Several rural communities do not have access to internet or have the computer literacy to digitise maps. The system needs to work for all both on and offline. But that is what our trial has identified; if we can encourage as many submissions as possible to go digital through a simple and structured system, outcomes will be immense. There will be a need for upskilling landowners and agents through future farm support and helping those who wish to continue using paper maps. But there are a number of landowners ready for the shift, and we just need to enable those who are prepared to help contribute and ground-truth.

This is an opportunity like no other. I spent four-years studying Zoology, and rarely is there chances to create coordinated conservation at a national scale. The UK is 70% agriculture. If we can get joined up action from the ground up, empowering landowners and making real change, it could make a huge impact on the natural world. I regularly find myself thinking of the piles and piles of Farm Environment Records, Stewardship maps and Phase 1 habitat surveys sat on a desk somewhere, gathering dust; all for the sake of a tick box exercise. Conservation works best when it is Bigger, Better, More and Joined up. If we get this right, we can create a system that rewards landowners for working together, producing sustainable food in a landscape that is delivering all the services that we so heavily rely upon.


A paper map

Examples of 12 farms submitting digital maps for analysis and shared learning