Natural England Chief Scientist Report 2019 (NE759)

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Welcome to Natural England’s second Chief Scientist Report. The focus of my first report was to shine a spotlight on the breadth and depth of the science & evidence work that we do, and to show how it underpins and supports all of our work. In the three years since that report we have continued to build upon the contribution and influence of our science and evidence work. The impressive bibliography of peer reviewed papers, books and in-house reports published over the last couple of years illustrates the quality of our scientific work, and the strength of our partnership working, very well. I am particularly proud that the work of some staff has been published in major scientific journals, whilst others have received prestigious awards (e.g. the John Hoy economics award and an outstanding publication award). This gives an insight into breadth, depth, and multi-disciplinarity of our science and evidence work that is the major foundation upon which Natural England’s work is built.
The past three years have seen something of a transformation in Natural England too as the importance of being an evidence-led organisation has been widely recognised. The quality of our advice and the legality of our decisions fundamentally depend upon our use and understanding of the evidence base, from understanding how and why the natural world is changing to notifying SSSIs and protecting landscapes to advising on the design of agri-environment schemes and creating opportunities for people to enjoy nature.
So, rather than try to cover everything we do in this report, we have decided to give a flavour of our work around monitoring and indicators. Natural England has developed a clear vision for the future – to achieve Thriving nature for people and planet. In setting this vision we were keen to demonstrate our ambition to go beyond simply making improvements in nature. We want to see nature thriving everywhere – because a healthy natural environment is fundamental to everyone’s wealth, health and happiness.
The State of Nature Report 20191 and IPCC assessment reports2, amongst others, have highlighted pressures and drivers of environmental change and some of the effects of that such as threats to species populations and declines in habitat quality and the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan3 sets out ambitious goals to achieve a healthy functioning environment. In this context, understanding the changes in our environment and the effects of our actions have never been more important. How we do that is through monitoring, data analysis, and evaluation. So, for this second report, we have focussed on the theme of monitoring and the development of indicators.
You will see in this report how we have refreshed and modernised our monitoring strategy to reflect technological developments and the increased focus on recovering nature. We also show how we are increasingly using environmental DNA in monitoring across a range of habitats; and about our ground-breaking development of natural capital indicators and their use in developing a new approach to natural capital accounting.
The past couple of years have also seen rapid developments in earth observation techniques and we report on how we’ve enhanced our capability and developed pioneering methodologies that will transform our habitat mapping by, for example, combining machine learning, habitat records and satellite data to produce a map that predicts the likelihood of the presence of a specific habitat type.
Two of our major monitoring programmes have had their tenth birthday this year too, and so this report marks the occasion by looking at the impact and influence that the Monitoring Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey has had across both the environmental and health sectors. This survey has been described as the best survey of its kind in the world, and looking at the breadth and quality of the scientific studies that it underpins it is not hard to see why. Finally, the Long Term Monitoring Network (LTMN) has also been running for ten years, and is offering us invaluable insights into how plant and soil communities, and species populations, are responding to changes in the climate and air quality, as well as the role that land management interventions might be having in mitigating or amplifying the changes.
Dr Tim Hill MIEnvSc MIoD
Chief Scientist, Natural England
December 2019

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