Introduction: What is Futurescapes?

The way we “do” nature conservation in Ireland and Britain is evolving.  For the last century and more, the conservation of wildlife and the countryside depended greatly on the protection of areas of the landscape as nature reserves and protected areas.  Over the last 10 years, progress has been made towards taking a much larger and ambitious step by implementing programmes that integrate the management of these areas into the wider landscape.  This is known as the landscape-scale approach to nature conservation.

Futurescapes is the vision of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) for a large landscape-scale approach to achieving a thriving countryside.  The approach will help wildlife build resilience to climate change.  It involves managing or restoring important habitats and integrating the best wildlife sites into the wider countryside. All of this will be made possible by working in partnership with others to deliver sustainable land management.

Why large landscape-scale management?

The RSPB protects and manages a suite of nature reserves across Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We work with Governments to have our best areas protected as Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI), and as Special Protection Areas / Special Areas of Conservation (SPA/SAC) under the Birds and Habitats directives and as Ramsar under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

The Futurescapes programme builds on this work and focuses on the integration of protected areas into the management of the wider landscape, building on the network of nature reserves and the individual species interventions that the RSPB have made.

In 2001 the RSPB published a visionary document called “Futurescapes – Large scale habitat restoration for wildlife and people”.  The programme has grown and evolved quit a bit since then with our understanding of climate change, its likely impacts on biodiversity, and how we must help wildlife to adapt.

One of the biggest drivers behind the landscape scale approach is helping biodiversity adapt to climate change. Sustainable land management across larger landscapes provides much more scope for species to build resilience to these changes and will have a greater capacity to accommodate species as they adjust to shifting climate space.

Climate change mitigation for wildlife

The Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds, produced by the RSPB and Durham University, predicts that many breeding bird species will shift their range north and northeast by several hundred kilometers as climate change happens.  The Futurescapes programme takes account of this prediction, preparing for the future and building large-scale habitat restoration, re-creation, and management projects in partnership with others.  Current project areas range is size from thousands of hectares to hundreds of square kilometres.

Restoring our most precious habitats

A report under Article 17 of the EU Habitats Directive issued in 2009 confirmed that 91% of threatened habitats in the UK are in unfavourable condition.  This situation highlights how resources for tackling biodiversity declines have been too limited and implemented at far too small a scale.

The Northern Ireland Biodiversity Report 2009 states that the suite of protected sites here, though still requiring further designation and management work, cannot be regarded as “islands of biodiversity separate from the surrounding countryside” because of the pressures of wider changes in the countryside, including climate change-induced shifts in habitats and species. 

The report supports the case that habitats and many species’ distributions are becoming fragmented, and that a new landscape-scale approach is needed that integrates the needs of farming and rural communities, site protection and habitat restoration.

The fact that protected areas are not enough on their own was recognised by the European Birds Directive some 30 years ago.  The Birds Directive drew together measures both to protect and restore the places birds use to feed, live and breed.

The focus has perhaps been too often on the dramatic set-piece “battles” between development and conservation.  There remains an urgent need to take action to create and restore a sufficient diversity of habitats throughout the fabric of the countryside recognised in Article 3 of the Birds Directive. If this is achieved, our wild bird populations can reverse their historic and ongoing declines to build healthy populations resilient and adaptable to future change.

Value of nature’s services

As well as providing a healthy landscape for birds and wildlife, the landscape-scale approach benefits people socially and economically.  Such an approach is essentially about working with ecosystem services that provide major benefits for people.  The landscape and the services provided include fuel, food, fibre, water and places to live, work and relax.  Valuing ecosystem services is a first step in making a landscape-scale approach operational.

The next step is to establish the means of recognising or capturing these values in real, private and public sector decision-making processes.  Nature provides a myriad of services that are not only essential for human life, but also enrich it.  Conserving the landscape and the functions it provides often makes sound economic sense. Yet, in spite of this, ecosystems are destroyed and therefore their ability to deliver critical services, like flood mitigation, soil formation, water purification, and climate regulation.

A major advantage to developing projects on a larger scale is that this is a much more effective use of public money and the resources available, resulting in much larger and sustainable gains for biodiversity.

Case study: Cuilcagh Mountain, Co Fermanagh

An illustration of ecosystem services within a landscape can be found on the upland blanket bog of Cuilcagh Mountain, which straddles the international border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  This is one of the best and most extensive peatland areas on the island of Ireland.

In the late 1980s, the blanket bog suffered unsustainable pressure from peat extraction, overgrazing, uncontrolled burning of surface vegetation, and the damaging use of all-terrain vehicles. This damage reduced the bog’s ability to retain water, resulting in flooding and abnormally high water levels in the caves downstream. This, in turn, reduced tourist activity at the Marble Arch caves, a major attraction in County Fermanagh with over 53,000 visitors in 2007.

In 1997, a project to protect the blanket bog in Northern Ireland and Scotland was funded by the European Commission.  In Northern Ireland, the project was a partnership between the Fermanagh District Council and the RSPB. This led to the restoration of 28 hectares of cut-over blanket bog on Cuilcagh Mountain. The ecosystem services provided by the restored peatland are helping to maximise the future tourism potential of the Marble Arch caves as well as conserving an important habitat that supports a wealth of wildlife.

Back to the future

If decisions about land management and the use of resources is focused on the short-term delivery of one service, without adequate consideration of the impacts on the full range of services over time, land management can often be unsustainable.

The landscape-scale approach helps us balance the competing demands we place on our natural environment, helps us understand why unsustainable growth today, at the expense of ecosystem health, will be short lived and outweighed by future, longer-lasting climatic and ecological costs.

Ecosystem service valuation provides the rationale for taxing damaging activities and for paying for the delivery of valuable, non-marketed benefits, consistent with the ‘polluter pays’ and ‘provider gets’ principles. Key to this is that valuation should be based on all ecosystem goods and services, and not simply those that can be traded.  Eco-system goods and services provided by farmers who agree to store large volumes of water on land is just one possible benefit to be identified from this process.

Farmers who can produce food on floodplains while recognising the need to store water during periods of high rainfall are helping restore valuable wetland landscapes that help purify water and manage flood risk within the wider catchment area.  Some of the savings made by protecting infrastructure from floods in this way could be directed towards supporting such land use activities.

Big is beautiful

There are considerable health benefits that people get when they have access to beautiful landscapes.  An important part of the conservation of any landscape is its community, and conversely, an important part of a community is the landscape in which the people live, work and relax.   The natural environment has a strong influence on peoples’ relationship with place, and is consistently their preferred place to be.

A study by the RSPB in Great Britain “Natural Thinking – Investigating the links between the Natural Environment, Biodiversity and Mental Health” unsurprisingly found that outdoor space containing trees and natural vegetation was more likely to be used than a featureless, barren space. 

The report stated that the interaction that resulted from people using the local environment had important implications for the vibrancy of the community, and concluded that a person’s attachment to a place is a result of past positive experiences with the natural environment. It also highlighted that natural places provide special areas for individuals to enjoy and be restored, and that they provide meaning and purpose.

Physical inactivity is a major preventable health risk, which affects about 60% of the population.  Correcting this is a public health priority. Accessible green space has the potential to increase our wellbeing as a society, and reduce the costs of health care. In terms of physical health, inactivity costs the UK alone over £8 billion a year. It leads directly to chronic disease and lack of independence in the elderly.

Physical activities involving an environmental experience (green exercise) appear to be a sustainable way to improve public health. During green exercise, such as the 1.41 million visits to RSPB reserves, and other regular use of the countryside each year, physical exertion becomes an unnoticed secondary benefit from the enjoyable primary activity of being outdoors.

New research is also showing how the proximity and quality of nature affects our psychological wellbeing.  The World Health Organisation estimates that depression and depression-related illness will become the greatest source of ill-health by 2020. Nature, through the role it plays in stimulating and encouraging physical activity, and through the direct impact it has on our emotional state, can help alleviate a range of psychological problems.  This positive correlation between natural green space and physical and psychological wellbeing is, regrettably, seldom reflected in health care policies, planning guidelines or economic strategies.

There is evidence that green space in an urban environment can improve life expectancy and decrease health complaints. The combination of natural green space with local opportunities for social walking and other activities means green exercise can be a cheap and sustainable way of preventing public health problems.

All together now

Landscape-scale conservation will require action and resource from the EU, member states, the conservation sector, key business and industrial stakeholders, as well as local communities if we are to help shape tomorrow’s natural landscapes or Futurescapes.  Joint action across Northern Ireland will help ensure the countryside is managed sustainably for the benefit of current and future generations.

The Futurescapes programme has prioritised the Lough Neagh and Lough Erne catchments to take the landscape-scale approach forward, and the RSPB is building projects with key partners within these areas.  A priority area for the programme is the restoration and re-creation of wetland areas that can help improve water quality, provide vital floodwater storage to help reduce rural and urban flooding and natural storage for carbon.

The size of the task means that no organisation can achieve this alone.  The RSPB, with wide and deep land management experiences, is putting its resources with those of others to support collaborative working that has the most effective outcome.

First steps: Lough Neagh and Lough Erne

The landscape areas of the Lough Neagh and Lough Erne catchments are where priority is being given to the development of landscape-scale projects under the Futurescapes programme.  Both catchment areas have historically held some of the most important wetlands in Ireland, some of which still exist today.   Others have been lost or are in very poor condition because of various unsustainable land management practices.

Within the Lough Neagh catchment, a project is underway to restore large areas of wet grassland as floodplains where threatened wildlife can return.  These areas will be managed using sustainable land management solutions, especially through farming.  The first stage of this project is underway at Lough Beg.

Case study: Lough Beg, Lower Bann

Lough Beg is located within the Lower Bann Valley.  It is a shallow Lough that has been created by the water that flows along the Lower Bann River from Lough Neagh.  This is the only river that drains Lough Neagh to the sea, and as the water reaches the Lough Beg area it floods the large floodplain during periods of high rainfall.

The RSPB is working in partnership with local farmers and Government agencies to collectively manage 500ha of wet grassland here as farmland while creating the most suitable conditions that allow some of our most threatened wildlife to return.  Farmers and land managers are implementing sustainable land management practices that will help them adapt to changes in climate, and manage water resources, flooding and food demand.

The sustainable land management of this farming area is helping to address economic, social and environmental challenges at an effective scale.  The approach being taken at Lough Beg is a small part of a much larger programme that aims to restore large parts of the Lough Neagh catchment and build resilience to climate change.  For example, water levels can increase at Lough Beg in spring and summer, causing difficulties for farmers and for the ecology of the site, such are ground nesting birds.

Water levels at Lough Beg are dictated by the amount of water reaching Lough Neagh.  Lough Neagh drains around one third of the Northern Ireland landscape and therefore the pressure on the lough can be significant during periods of high rainfall.  To relieve the pressure on Lough Neagh, and therefore Lough Beg, a landscape-scale approach to restoring upland blanket bog and the floodplains along the main rivers that feed Lough Neagh is required.  For this to happen requires a joint approach.

Case study: Sliabh Beagh

Within the Lough Erne catchment work is getting underway to restore the upland blanket bog area of Sliabh Beagh on the Fermanagh/Tyrone/Monaghan border.  The priority here is to restore and manage up to 2000ha of upland blanket bog to ensure that it functions to provide the storage and sequestration of carbon, and the storage of water in the context of water management within the wider catchment area.  Again land managers and local communities are at the heart of the partnership to ensure the implementation this project.

Seamus Burns is Habitat Restoration Officer, RSPB

Further Reading

Naturally at Your Service – Why it pays to invest in nature, RSPB, 2009

Wellbeing through Wildlife – Nature conservation improves the quality of people’s lives. Protecting wildlife benefits society: it sustains and enhances our health; offers educational opportunities; contributes to the regeneration of communities and generates economic activity

Wellbeing through Wildlife in the EU – Report by RSPB and BirdLife International, with foreword by European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso.

All available at

Natural Thinking – A Report by Dr William Bird, for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, investigating the links between the natural environment, biodiversity and mental health, RSPB 2004

Comment on Natural Thinking – A comment on the report from the Faculty of Public Health

All available at

The Law of the Wild – Meeting the challenges for birds and people.  The European Birds Directive.

Available from

Futurescapes – Large scale habitat restoration for wildlife and people, 2001, hard copies available from RSPB Northern Ireland on request – Tel 028 9049 1547

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance

Available at:

Article 17 of the Habitats Directive requires that every 6 years Member States prepare reports to be sent to the European Commission on the implementation of the Directive. The Article 17 report for the period 2001-2006 for the first time includes assessments on the conservation status of the habitat types and species of Community interest.  The European Commission adopted the Composite report on Article 17 on July 13th 2009 and can be viewed at

Northern Ireland Biodiversity Report 2009, NIBG, NIEA

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One comment so far, add your own below

  • 28 Jun 2012 at 12:45 pm Justin

    nothing about the gauge of the Ulster Canal, atohlugh someone who commented did so. I have read all the published reports on the subject, I am aware that it was proposed to restore it to the same gauge as the Shannon–Erne Waterway and I said nothing to the contrary.Persons who want other people to give them money, eg by getting the taxpayer to fund their hobbies, are inclined to say that the economic case should be ignored. I see no reason why citizens, in the midst of major economic difficulties, should put money into a project that, even according to the reports commissioned by the project’s promoters, will not provide an adequate return. That there are already sunk costs in other waterways does not justify wasting more money. Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources between competing investments; there are many better uses for €35 million than building a canal to Clones, especially when the state is paying over 6% to borrow money.I have suggested a cheaper way of getting tourists to visit Clones: by providing free taxis for boaters who, having reached Belturbet, would like to visit Clones. The capital cost would be nil and the running costs would be lower than those of a canal. I have also suggested that the land might be acquired and a walking and cycling route constructed; that would provide most of the benefits claimed for the restoration, but at a fraction of the price, and without having to damage locks or bridges.As for the Northern Ireland Assembly, I have read every debate on the subject, the minutes of every NSMC meeting and the subsequent statements by Northern Ireland ministers to the Assembly. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Northern Ireland Executive will ever commit a penny to the restoration of the Ulster Canal. And, given the forthcoming cuts in Her Majesty’s Government’s subventions to Northern Ireland, I see no likelihood of a change in that position.If you want to visit the sea off the north coast of Ireland, you can put your boat on a truck and get it craned in.bjg

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