Project update: Integrated Wetland Network launch new ecological network tool

Natural England announce the completion of a new ecological network tool for wetlands and woodlands in Northwest England

It can provide an evidence base for prioritising off-site Biodiversity Net Gain opportunities, and contribute to the evidence base for the development of Local Nature Recovery Strategies in the Greater Manchester pilot. Freely available as a single GIS layer, it will support partnership working at landscape scale and help maximise nature recovery for both terrestrial habitats and waterbodies.

As part of  Natural Course, Natural England has created an innovative ecological network tool which models wetland and woodland habitat networks across Cheshire to South Lancashire.  It highlights priorities for biodiversity and nature-based solutions for Natural Course objectives (such as Water Framework Directive), and provides an evidence base for Local Nature Recovery Strategies. Natural England is happy to announce that the tool has been completed and is ready to be shared with partner organisations to catalyse habitat restoration across the region.

Historic habitat loss means that only a small fraction of natural wetland and woodlands now remain across Cheshire to Lancashire, and ecological networks are significantly fragmented, which can disrupt species dispersal and ecological function. Providing bigger, better, and more connected habitats will be vital for nature recovery in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss, and will also provide a range of natural capital benefits such as improved water quality and resilience against flooding.

The Ecological Network Tool was produced using a multi-pronged approach. Firstly, habitat distribution modelling identified areas where soil conditions are appropriate for creation of semi-natural wetland and wet woodland habitats, using BioMod2 R modelling package. Next, the software Condatis, developed by Liverpool University, was used to model habitat connectivity and identify bottlenecks in our wetland and woodland habitat networks. An additional habitat connectivity modelling package, Circuitscape, was also employed to ensure the model could predict how wetland and woodland species may disperse across the highly modified landscape in response to climate change.

These three approaches, combined, allows the tool to identify priority areas for habitat creation and restoration. Through Natural Course collaboration, Natural England is combining this modelling with datasets, such as the Environment Agency Water Framework Directive Objectives data, to identify where management actions could have maximum natural capital benefits. Early findings have highlighted some opportunity areas where, for example, wetland creation may mitigate diffuse water pollution such as phosphates from agricultural runoff, or protect communities at risk from flooding.

Discussions with partners have already identified uses of the model: as Biodiversity Net Gain becomes a legal requirement with the passing of the Environment Bill, the model provides planners, developers, local authorities and land management partners with a much-needed evidence base for prioritising off-site Biodiversity Net Gain opportunities and their locations. The Ecological Network Tool will also contribute to the evidence base for the development of Local Nature Recovery Strategies in the Greater Manchester pilot. With the ambitious tree-planting commitments across northern England, such as the Northern Forest, the tool can help woodland partners understand where best to focus their efforts to ensure this additional tree-planting has maximum benefit for reconnecting our fragmented woodland habitats while also addressing issues of water quality central to Natural Course.

The Natural Course ecological network tool is a versatile, innovative piece of work, which can now be shared with our partners as a single GIS layer, supporting partnership working at landscape scale. This tool demonstrates the great benefits of collaborative working across organisations to maximise nature recovery for both our terrestrial habitats and our waterbodies, and is an exciting product which partners can now freely use when planning for their strategic objectives.

For more information or to request access to the GI data layers, please contact the Natural England project lead, Tom Smart:


Ecological Network Tool - final output

Ecological Network Tool – final output