North Devon – a great example of what Biospheres can achieve

By Andy Bell of The North Devon Biosphere

North Devon Biosphere’s innovative new programmes: trials for the new Environmental Land Management Scheme; Pledge for Nature

UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme has established 668 Reserves in 122 countries, with the intention of securing a better future through linking people and nature. Of the six designated in the UK, the first was that of North Devon. The Biosphere carries out numerous projects underpinned by the three functions of conservation and caretaking, learning and research, and sustainable development.

Of the current projects, one is a test for the new Environment Land Management Scheme, working in partnership with the Defra Landscape Scale Pioneer programme, and will be testing a new approach to agri-environment policy and support.

“The trial seeks to achieve a change in how farm businesses regard the environment as an essential part of their business assets for farm business resilience,” explains North Devon Biosphere Reserve Manager Andy Bell. “The trial will operationalise the natural capital approach at both the landscape and farm holding levels. At the heart of this trial will be gaining consensus on the natural capital priorities for the landscape across a broad range of stakeholders, including land managers and communities and clearly articulating these to land managers, encouraging them to make natural capital offers to meet the demand for public goods and services.”

“The proposal also explores with the farmer how the good stewardship of these natural features is also an intrinsic part of the farm business for reducing risks from prosecution and ensuring supply chain resilience to ever more savvy buyers; effectively linking a sound environment with a sound business.”

North Devon Biosphere have been working with landowners for the last year through group meetings to introduce the trials to ensure will be as effective as possible. The trial will work through using agreed landscape scale priorities. The team then work with farmers to decide on which natural capital indicators are most relevant for their holding, and what level of offer on each indicator they will try to deliver. The natural capital scenarios will then be costed using current payment rates (income foregone plus costs) and the farmer will identify a preference to generate their Natural Capital offer.

“By mid- February we will be working with farmers in the North Devon area, having completed the four landscape scale plans,” added Andy Bell “We hope to develop the environment and business plans with 28 farmers in total.”

‘Pledge for Nature’ is a new project which launched early in 2020 and aims to reverse the decline in North Devon’s nature by galvanising community action from all parts of society.

The project invites citizens, schools, landowners, and businesses to join Seasonal Activities to tackle priority issues for nature’s recovery, with the ambition of securing more space and wilder areas in farmland, gardens, and greenspaces. It is financially supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Devon County Council and a successful Crowdfunder campaign.

What does Candidate Status mean?

This November the proposed Fens Biosphere was awarded Candidate Status by UK Man and the Biosphere (UK MAB) on behalf of UNESCO.

This means :

We have achieved all the criteria necessary to be recognised as a potential Biosphere – for example we have draft defined area and a good working partnership to guide the development of the nomination process.

We have the right plans in place and have made sufficient progress to give UK MAB confidence in our ability to complete the nomination process and achieve Biosphere status once all the stakeholder input has been achieved.

UK MAB will now actively support and advise the Fens Biosphere Steering Group in order to help us achieve Biosphere status.

There is no such a thing as a standard Biosphere. UNESCO Biospheres have some common themes: they are special places for people & nature, delivering sustainable socio-economic development, nature conservation and learning and innovation. However each Biosphere can develop according tho the areas needs and resources – by working with a wide range of partners and consulting stakeholders we aim to develop a Fens Biosphere that is right for our area and which will bring many benefits for the communities, businesses and wildlife in the area.

Fens Biosphere Progress: November 2019

The Fens Biosphere Area

One of the first steps in achieving Biosphere designation is to draft out a map of the Biosphere area. This is then submitted to  the UK Man and Biosphere committee (UK MAB) – the committee which oversees the UK Biospheres on behalf of UNESCO.

Many other UK Biospheres have used existing designations to define their areas such as National Park boundaries. We are not in this position. Over the past months we have been working on defining an area which we think captures the essential nature of the fens – soil, water, farming, nature and people. The current map is based on the peat soils, the Internal Drainage Board ditch network and Parish/Town/City boundaries. It is already one of the largest proposed Biosphere areas.

Defining the exact geography of the Fens Biosphere is proving tricky and is still a work in progress. We will be consulting further on this issue over the next two months and adding a new map page to this website. On the plus side the UK MAB are very interested in our unusual situation, the uniqueness of the Fens strikes again!

Good News – Candidate Status

On the 6 November we presented the map of the proposed area and other progress to the UK Man and Biosphere Committee. This is the first step towards designation and welcoming the Fens Biosphere to the family of UK Biospheres.

Spreading the Word

Popular topics of conversation the last few months

Over the past few months we have:

  • Met with Local Authorities and Statutory Agencies
  • Met with Internal Drainage Boards
  • Met with local organisations and businesses e.g. Water Resources East, The Water Care Partnership, The Local Nature Partnership, Ely Chamber of Commerce and G’s Growers Group, Fens for the Future, The Fenland Trust, Visit Cambridge and Beyond
  • Talked to communities and community members: The March Society, Fascinating Fens, Fenland Flag, Stretham Old Engine Trust, Parish and Town Councils
  • Attended and presented at events: Cambridge Conservation Forum Autumn Symposium, Local Councils Conference, Agri-Tech East REAP
  • Supported and met with new initiatives: Doubling Nature, The Fenland Peat Pilot
At the Local Councils Conference

What’s Next?

  • “An Introduction to the Fens Biosphere”. An afternoon event and workshop  on the 18 December aimed at helping people to find out more about the aims and potential benefits  of the proposed Fens Biosphere
  • A new website is being developed, this will be ready in the New Year
  • Map consultation: November & December 2019
  • More meetings with Local Authorities, Research Institutions, Farmers and Academics
  • Community Engagement – will start Spring 2020

Peat plant plugs?

G’s Growers Nurseries Ltd. (near Ten Mile Bank, Norfolk) produce small plug plants for the rest of the G’s group farmers to grow into mature plants. These will eventually supply our major supermarkets with lettuce, celery and other salad crops.     

A plug plant: Photo courtesy of

Plug plants are baby plants grown in their own individual cells of growth material – usually a peat-based compost.   When large enough these small plants are planted out in the fields – because the plants have been grown as individual  plugs plants (i.e. not in a large tray of plants)  root disturbance is reduced when they are moved on which means they are less stressed and start growing more quickly.

Each year G’s Nurseries supplies over 130 million plug plants to its growers. Each plug is made from compost – usually peat -based. However, G’s have been trying to reduce the amount of peat used in their plugs and have got it down to 20%. They would like to get it to zero and are currently trialing alternatives to peat such as sphagnum moss.  

Good news for the environment and a fantastic example of a business tackling  sustainability challenges.

Reduced peat “plugs” ready for their seeds at G’s Growers Nursery Ltd