Lowland Agricultural Tipping Points

This project is funded as part of the Tipping Points Goal of the Valuing Nature Programme.

Title

Mechanisms and consequences of tipping points in lowland agricultural landscapes

Principal Investigator

  • Prof Adrian Newton, Bournemouth University

Co-Investigators

  • Prof James Bullock, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
  • Prof John Fletcher, Bournemouth University
  • Dr Annela Anger-Kraavi, University of Cambridge

Project Summary

Ecosystems provide a number of benefits to people, including food and timber production, areas for recreation, pollination of crops, fresh water, and the storage of carbon, which can help reduce the risk of climate change. People also benefit from wildlife, including both plant and animal species, both in terms of their aesthetic value, and from the functional role that such species play in the ecosystems of which they are a part.

Many ecosystems in the UK, as in many other parts of the world, are currently at risk because of the combined effects of climate change, aerial pollution, changing patterns of land use and other forms of human disturbance. These factors can interact with each other, leading to major changes in ecosystems, which can affect their ability to provide benefits to people. Research is needed to identify which ecosystems are at risk of rapid transitions occurring, so that appropriate management and policy responses can be identified. Information is also needed on the potential impacts of such ecosystem "tipping points" on humans, through changes in the provision of ecosystem benefits.

This project aims to provide this information, by studying the landscapes of Dorset, a southern English county. Here we will examine data that have been collected over a period of 80 years in a variety of different types of ecosystem, to analyse the changes that have occurred. We will use this information to see whether any tipping points have occurred in the past, or might occur in the future, which could affect human society. We will also study tipping points by comparing ecosystems along gradients of environmental degradation. In addition, we will explore whether the environmental degradation that has already happened in Dorset, or might happen in future, could affect employment and prospects for economic development. We will test the idea that factors such as climate change, aerial pollution and land use change could cause a tipping point in ecosystems, which could have major economic consequences. We will achieve this using a combination of field data and computer models, which we will use to forecast how such impacts might occur at the landscape scale.

The project will help increase understanding of how major ecological changes occur in agricultural landscapes typical of much of the UK, and their potential impacts. This information will be of value for identifying which ecosystems are particularly at risk of tipping points, what are the processes that cause such tipping points, and what the implications of them might be for human society. We will also examine how such problems might be averted in future, through the development of appropriate management and policy responses.