25-year strategy to improve the UK’s landscapes and habitats

Exeter research helps shape Government blueprint for natural environment

Pioneering research from the University of Exeter has helped shape the Government’s new blueprint to improve the natural environment.

Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday launched a 25-year strategy to improve the UK’s landscapes and habitats to ensure “a cleaner, greener country for all”, during a major speech at the London Wetland Centre.

A Government report linked to the Prime Minister’s speech, called ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’, cites several research projects from the University of Exeter, including the role beavers can play in preventing flooding,  research on the positive effects of the natural environment on mental health, and  an online guide to natural spaces.

The launch follows briefings to Cabinet Ministers by Exeter scientists Professor Tamara Galloway and Dr Ceri Lewis, as well as Professor Richard Brazier, on research into marine plastic pollution, the effects of climate change on oceans, and natural flood prevention schemes. 

Many of the reports central themes also echo the ground-breaking research carried out by experts from Exeter. They include:

  • Eliminating all “avoidable” plastic use by 2042
  • Finding natural solutions to flood prevention, including reintroducing beavers to waterways
  • Highlighting the crucial role that the environment plays in wellbeing
  • Driving a new ‘natural capital’ approach to governmental and business decision making

The highest-profile pledge  in the Number 10 blueprint was to vastly reduce the amount of plastic waste produced year-on-year, which the Prime Minister described as "one of the great environmental scourges of our time”.

Marine pollution experts from Exeter, including Professor Tamara Galloway and Dr Ceri Lewis, have played crucial roles in both highlighting the devastating effect plastics have on the natural environment, and shaping policy both in the UK and globally on ending the use of microplastics in cosmetics.

Professor Galloway previously gave evidence to the Government’s Environment Audit Committee, as well as delivering a high-level presentation at the United Nations headquarters in America, outlining the effect microplastics have on the ocean environments.

Speaking after the Prime Minister’s speech, Dr Lewis said tiny fragments of plastic are being found in the stomachs of ‘almost every marine animal’ they have examined.  She said: “The plastics that we find in the stomachs of marine animals tend to be fragments of plastics from larger single use items that have broken down over time, or small plastic fibres. So we are very glad to hear that it is now a top government priority to put in measures to reduce the use of single use plastic more widely. We urgently need to change the way in which we use this material as a society.”

Professor Brendan Godley, Director of the Centre for Ecology & Conservation, who has researched the impact of plastic on marine turtles, added:  “The UK is in a position to catalyse a phase shift in the way we use, abuse and reuse plastic.”

Theresa May also use her speech to highlight the key role that the environment can play in human health, saying “The natural environment is around us wherever we are, and getting closer to it is good for our physical and mental health and our emotional and spiritual wellbeing”. 

The report made two separate citations for research from Exeter supporting the link between the natural environment and wellbeing, including a study led by Dr Mathew White from the Medical School which showed “visits to the natural environment were associated with an estimated 109,164 Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) with an annual value of £2.2 billion”.

The University’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH), part of the Medical School, conducts world-class research into the complex connections between nature and wellbeing.

Dr Rebecca Lovell, a Research Fellow at the ECEHH said:  “There is growing evidence that suggests that the use of natural environments as a setting for health interventions, particularly for those with poor mental health, can be an effective way of improving wellbeing and quality of life.”

Dr Daniel Cox, also from the ECEHH and whose research has shown that green spaces and garden birds are linked with better mental health added:  “Having garden birds and greenery around your home has been shown by our research to be associated with better mental health. In a different study we found that people felt relaxed and connected to nature when they watched birds in their garden.”

The Prime Minister also cited a number of successful schemes that have already been implemented, including the reintroduction of beavers “to help reduce the risk of flooding and enhance biodiversity.”

Professor Richard Brazier, a hydrologist at the University of Exeter, who has been leading research on natural solutions to flood prevention – including the use of beavers -  said: “The Government’s plans to deliver enhanced natural flood management, including trialling genuinely natural approaches to water management, by reintroducing beavers are welcomed.

“Our research has demonstrated the multiple benefits that accrue from beaver reintroduction, including flood attenuation, water-quality improvements and the retention of eroded soil and pollutants as well as huge biodiversity enhancement.”

The new report also announced the Government will continue the “ground-breaking” work with University of Exeter experts to update the Outdoor Recreation Valuation Tool (ORVal) – an online map which allows people in England to view their local coastal and green spaces such as beaches, parks and nature reserves and recreational opportunities.

The map also contains statistics and information such as data about land use which can help communities, government and businesses make decisions. ORVal is funded by Defra and developed by academics at the University of Exeter.

The Government report also proposed a new approach to business and governmental decision- making processes based on “natural capital”:  the air, water, soil and ecosystems that support all forms of life. Promoting the natural capital is the heart of The South West Partnership for Environment & Economic Prosperity (SWEEP), a project to help protect the beautiful natural resources, and the jobs dependent on them, in the South West.

Professor Ian Bateman, The Director of SWEEP, and who also member of the Government’s Natural Capital Committee, said:  “I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister wants to correct decades of environmental degradation. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution we have taken more from the environment than we have ever put back and this damage has accelerated massively over recent decades. 

“Politicians need to be willing to create a better world for the next generation. The natural environment underpins everything we do and value; our economy, our health, where we live and our quality of life. This must signal just the start of efforts to restore the environment.”

Professor Michael Winter, from University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research and Natural England Board member, chairs the North Devon Biosphere partnership. This project will test how measurements of natural capital can be used to determine environmental priorities to help make decisions about investment such as saltmarsh restoration or natural flood management. This work will make an important contribution to the future iterations of the 25 Year Environment Plan and is an opportunity to test in advance some solutions to post EU-exit initiatives.

Professor Winter said: “This invitation from Defra to pioneer the 25 Year Environment Plan in Devon is a great opportunity to identify those areas where we could work together better, to be more efficient and achieve more with our investments whether it’s in land management, planning and development, tourism, or finding ways to get people benefiting from our natural environment both on land and sea for their incomes and their health as well.”

Meanwhile, the Government also revealed plans to help more children engage with the environment, including allocating £10m for school visits and a programme to create school grounds that allow youngsters to learn more about the natural world.

Professor Justin Dillon, Professor of science and environmental education at Exeter and President of the National Association for Environmental Education, said: “The Government’s commitment to improving children’s engagement with the natural world is to be commended.  The responsibility for turning government intentions into benefits for children lies fairly and squarely with schools and their leadership. They will find willing support across the country from organisations such as the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts.”


Date: 12 January 2018

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