On behalf of the South West Protected Landscape(SWPL) and the Dorset AONB, Environment Systems has completed a pioneering study that identifies areas to prioritise action to arrest biodiversity decline, enhance existing habitats and create new ones. The work covered by this project has been carried out under the auspices of the EU Cordiale project for managing landscape change (http://www.cordialeproject.eu).

In this study the team set out to map existing high quality (‘core’) habitats in the Dorset AONB and then to evaluate the ability of different species to move freely through the landscape (permeability). If species can move freely between ‘core’ habitats then the resulting ecological networks can both protect these habitats, and potentially reverse a decline in biodiversity. Maintaining and improving connectivity is important to ensure the long-term survival of biodiversity in a fragmented landscape, especially at a time of changing climate. Connectivity is a key biodiversity indicator recognised by Defra and JNCC (‘UK Biodiversity Indicators in Your Pocket 2012’).

Environment Systems used a variety of datasets including aerial photography, SPOT and Landsat satellite imagery. Useful feature information was also provided by IHS(Integrated Habitat System) and large scale Ordnance Survey mapping. A digital terrain model provided detailed information about elevation slope and aspect. Ecological knowledge together with advanced data processing and earth observation expertise enabled the team to establish a rules based classification of the AONB landscape. Through this classification and the application of landscape permeability theory broad habitat classes were selected to be mapped. Grassland for example was split into several different classes based on vegetation productivity, species richness and landscape function.

‘Core’ semi-natural habitat, ‘potential’ and ‘permeable’ areas of the woodland, grassland, wetland and heathland classes were classified and habitat networks created by combining the locations of suitable target areas with the ‘permeability’ of the surrounding landscape. Buffer zones around these core networks representing the distance species could move through the surrounding land cover were also created. Restoration of these buffer areas will have the most benefit by enhancing the existing network. New small fragmented patches of habitat were also identified to provide ‘nodes’ for further network expansion.

The final layered habitat and network opportunity maps serve to identify the ‘core’ areas of high ecological value together with areas where restoration of habitats will prove to be of greatest benefit. The maps will provide planners, land owners, managers and land advisers with wide scale insight for a broad range of issues including planning mitigation, green infrastructure and agri-environment monitoring. Whilst visits to potential sites will be essential to assess the exact conditions on the ground all the preliminary analysis can be carried from the comfort of the office with a considerable saving in both time and resource.

To see an image showing the habitat classifications mapped by the project, click the following link: Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Map