Can habitat restoration pay?
New project seeks to facilitate land-use transition in the Esk Valley
By Chris Watt, River Esk Project Officer at the North York Moors National Park Authority
The Esk Valley is situated in the northern corner of the North York Moors National Park and is characterised by a mosaic of habitat types including moorland, farmland, grassland, woodland and rivers. The River Esk is the main watercourse in the valley and flows for 28 miles from the upper reaches of Westerdale to Whitby where it enters the North Sea. The River Esk is home to an array of important wildlife including Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), sea trout (Salmo trutta) and the critically endangered freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera). Other charismatic species in the valley include the brown hare, dipper, kingfisher, otter and roe deer. The cultural and natural heritage, along with the dramatic landscapes make the Esk Valley a very special place to conserve and enhance.
The Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund (NEIRF)
Earlier this year, the North York Moors National Park Authority was awarded £100,000 from the Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund to boost biodiversity in the Esk Valley catchment area while simultaneously attracting private investment.
The Fund is designed to support the development of nature-based projects until the point they become sustainable through financial return. This could be through the sale of carbon and biodiversity units (giving companies the opportunity to compensate for their emissions through habitat improvements), natural flood management benefits or through reduced water treatment costs.
The Esk Valley project will focus on restoring and creating habitats such as species-rich grasslands, riparian woodland and riverside meadows at a catchment scale. The ecosystem services arising from this work include increased carbon sequestration through woodland creation and improved water quality.
Working in partnership with the Esk Valley Farmers Group, Palladium, Natural Capital Research and the Environment Agency, project partners will seek to explore how nature recovery can be privately financed. No other projects in the UK are currently working with farmers on this scale to better understand the private financing opportunities that may be available in managing land for the benefit of the environment.
The aim of the project is to test a theory that by delivering nature restoration in the Esk Valley, long-term economic returns for land managers can be generated through the sale of resulting ecosystem services.
The project will be undertaken in three phases, operating until autumn 2022. These include:
Phase 1 - Natural capital baseline and opportunity mapping
This involves mapping existing natural capital assets in the Esk Valley to get a clear understanding of the current state of the environment. Opportunities to enhance natural capital through actions such as hay meadow creation and woodland planting will also be mapped. The actions that result in the most environmental benefit will then be identified along with exploration of how they could be sold to provide a viable long-term income for land managers.
Phase 2 - Assess private investment potential
The next step will involve determining if the nature restoration opportunities can attract private finance that will fund their delivery, maintenance and provide a guaranteed annual income for land managers. Potential local ‘buyers’ of ecosystem services will be identified, followed by the design of a revenue model for land managers.
Phase 3 - Design restoration delivery agreement templates
The final phase will involve understanding the opportunities for both landowners and tenant farmers in the management of land for nature. Draft template agreements covering the roles and responsibilities of each delivery partner will be assembled and can be pursued if the land manager wishes to proceed. Project findings will be reported to DEFRA and the land management community.
Following the conclusion of these three phases it is hoped the project will deliver a feasible restoration and land-use transition concept for the Esk Valley. This will include elements such as hay meadow creation, hedge-planting and woodland creation. These restoration measures will be accompanied by estimations as to the water quality, climate mitigation/adaptation and biodiversity outcomes it has the potential to deliver. A commercial model will be developed for this restoration case, taking into account the costs of delivery and estimated long-term revenues for land managers that can be generated from the sale of resulting ecosystem services. If successful, the project will facilitate long-term restoration and management of habitats within the Esk Valley while generating sustainable incomes for land managers.
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