Biodiversity underpins many of the key ecosystem services provided by multifunctional landscapes, including food and water security and human health and wellbeing. The integration of species protections within planning and development processes is a legal requirement in the United Kingdom under the National Planning Framework and is also a goal of the government’s 25-year environment plan. Typically, developers are required to identity potential impacts to priority species and habitats during the planning stages of a proposed development and then take appropriate action to mitigate these impacts. However, protections for biodiversity are often weakened simply because the distributions of priority species are poorly known and this hampers efforts to identify potential impacts.
The vast majority of information on the locations of species comes from opportunistically collected occurrence records. The common practice of screening these opportunistic records against planning applications to identify the species for which mitigation might be required is often undermined simply because there has been no previous effort made to survey a site. The absence of a species record is mistaken for evidence that the species does not occur at the site. This weakens protections for biodiversity in planning and development processes and increases costs for developers when the need for mitigation is discovered relatively late in a project.
A solution to this problem is to use an appropriate modelling framework to estimate the likelihood of a species being present at a site from opportunistic records. Species distribution models aim to infer the distribution of species in a landscape based on the association between known occurrences and environmental predictors. With careful development, these models can provide critical information on the suitability of any location in a landscape for a particular species and could be used to indicate whether costly site-specific ecological surveys are required to confirm the need for mitigation.
In a collaboration between the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, we are developing an open source, user-friendly species distribution modelling software package that integrates with existing databases of biodiversity records held by UK biological record centres. This UKRI funded Landscape Decisions Fellowship will focus on developing robust automated modelling methods and the co-production of mapping products, practitioner-friendly software, and species distribution modelling best-practice guidelines specific to UK planning processes.
The integration of species distribution modelling into ecological impact assessments will strengthen biodiversity protections by improving the information used to underpin planning and development decisions and by ensuring methodological consistency, clarity, and rigour.