Iford Biodiversity Project is the latest environmental strategy for Iford Estate, a farm in the South Downs National Park.
In 2020, Iford Estate was selected to be one of Natural England’s statutory biodiversity credits pilots, in preparation for mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG). Monies from the sale of statutory biodiversity credits will be invested in habitat delivery in England. Together with Defra, Natural England is investigating the potential projects that may be selected to get future investment.
Initially, the aim was to explore options offered by this new policy. Iford Biodiversity Project is now a well-established business model selling biodiversity units and delivering an increase in biodiversity in the area.
In the current agricultural transition and with a growing need for climate mitigation, many farmers are looking to broaden their opportunities. This has been the approach of the Iford Estate. BNG is one of the many alternative income streams open to landowners, offering a structured way to contribute towards nature recovery while maintaining ownership of the land.
Managing Director Ben Taylor says: “Iford will not have development on the farm owing to our environmental status and location within the South Downs National Park. We can, however, support development in a way that contributes to the recovery of nature and finances the good work we do on the land.”
BNG-inspired land management principles
“BNG has been a real catalyst for developing our vision and a new approach to our land management principles,” says Anthony Weston, Technical Lead for Iford Biodiversity Project and Director of CLM, a land and property management consultancy.
“It has prompted a whole different way of thinking. By doing the BNG baseline and considering our options with BNG, we have also found ourselves exploring other environmental, social and governance options.”
Preparing for BNG can take time and should always be supported by a ‘competent person’. “I always approach these things with a good amount of scepticism,” adds Ben. “It feels like a lot of time and money, and therefore a big risk. But three years later it is so exciting to realise what we can do. We’re looking at factoring in the cost of the risk taken into the price paid by private markets for off-site units.”
BNG involves many people, from developers and landowners to local planning authorities (LPAs) and the communities impacted. Engaging with everyone involved is key.
Iford Biodiversity Project found that a large variety of stakeholders have bought into BNG as a ground-breaking vision. Finding the right people to move things forwards was less straightforward. “We struggled to engage our more technical stakeholders early on as we didn’t know how to find them,” says Ben. “We succeeded by reaching out to as many people as possible.”
As BNG becomes mandatory, there will be greater awareness of the policy and engagement will be easier.
Securing the land
Iford Biodiversity Project is a little unusual in that the local planning authority is the South Downs National Park, meaning it has some different objectives to other LPAs. The South Downs National Park did a call for nature sites, which was the perfect route to setting up a section 106 agreement to secure the land. The hope is that more LPAs will do a call for nature.
The temporal multiplier in the biodiversity metric 4.0 means biodiversity units that are ready today but not used for some time actually increase in value, as the same habitat is worth more units each year it has been allowed to develop.
Investing in and beginning the habitat creation or habitat enhancement process before starting to sell the biodiversity units is called ‘habitat banking’. This is different from ‘land banking’, which is when biodiversity units are sold before habitat creation and delivery works only start when a deal is done.
“This is a clear benefit for the early movers,” Ben says. “We’ve made our first sale with habitat banking. It is an investment for the developer and means we can work on our habitat delivery now.”
Complement to agriculture
“It is important to note though that we will still be producing food. We will still be farmers,” stresses Ben. “We have deliberately allocated the best quality land to remain as arable land. The more marginal land, which our forefathers found to be suitable only for grazing, will once again be used for grazing in a very low intensity way, and with the environment as the focus, not the livestock.”
Challenges as opportunities
The design of Iford Biodiversity Project has largely been led by the BNG metric. It is important to be realistic about what can be delivered rather than too aspirational, which would open up the project to risk. Ben says: “We’re looking at what will really work in this landscape.” The biggest challenge is the possibility of losing the seawall further off the estate owing to rising sea levels and climate change. “It was a bit of a bombshell, but actually, it comes with huge opportunities for us,” says Ben, “We were thinking of freshwater habitats and now we can consider saline habitats, too.”
The 30-year agreement covers anticipated milestones in the national and global efforts to address climate change.