Sussex Sustainability Research Programme

Delivering food security and biodiversity conservation through rewilding and community agriculture?

An interdisciplinary project exploring the role of large herbivores in community connected agriculture, conservation and rewilding.

‘Zero Hunger’ and ‘Life on Land’ are two Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that regularly come into conflict. Through agriculture and conservation, both compete for land area and can dictate the form and function of landscapes. The ways in which land is dedicated to sustainable food production and biodiversity conservation will determine how these and other SDGs are achieved. Here we explore the synergies and trade-offs between meat production, biodiversity conservation, and wider ecosystem service provision on agricultural and nature conservation sites in South East England. This interdisciplinary project specifically focuses on the role large herbivores, asking the question: what are appropriate assemblages and abundances of large herbivores to provide for people and nature?



The team

Principal Investigator (PI) and Co PI details

Principal Investigator


Project team

Where we worked

The project was focussed in South East England.

Project Title

Delivering food security, community resilience, and biodiversity through rewilding and community agriculture.


This interdisciplinary project examined a range of low intensity (both management and inputs) approaches to land management in the South East of England. This study contributes to current debates relating to the UK's post-Brexit agri-environment policies and to developing sustainable landscapes.

Full project description

This interdisciplinary project will examined a range of low intensity (both management and inputs) approaches to land management in the South East of England. The focus was specifically on the role of livestock and other large herbivores in conservation and community agriculture, with respect to the delivery of ecosystem services. Stakeholder meetings were run during the course of the project to engage partners in developing, steering and benefiting from the research. Field and interview data were collected during the summer of 2018 by two post-doctoral researchers: Rachael Durrant and Nick Balfour. The project was overseen by Dr Chris Sandom (Life Sciences) and Dr Adrian Ely (SPRU). The preliminary data generated was used in a NERC proposal submitted in 2019. It is hoped the study will continue to contribute to current debates relating to the UK’s post-Brexit agri-environment policies and to developing sustainable landscapes.

Timeline and funding

This project began in December 2017 and ran until July 2019. The total funding for this project was £98,230.


By combining qualitative and quantitative techniques and concepts from social science and ecology, this project provides an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to address a complex sustainability question. The study comprised of two interlinked methodological strands:

  1. a Multi-Criteria Mapping (MCM) exercise, and
  2. ecological field studies at six sites (Ashdown Forest, Brighton and Hove City Council, Butcherlands on the Ebernoe Nature Reserve, Saddlescombe Farm, Tablehurst Farm).

The MCM exercise explored different understandings of the performance of contrasting management approaches which partially mirror the study sites. Six ecological metrics (vegetation structure, medium/large mammals, birds, bats, invertebrates, soil) at four randomly situated plots were measured at each of the six sites. A management questionnaire was used to gather information about how the sites and large herbivores were managed.

LiDAR derived vegetation cross-sectionFig 1: LiDAR derived vegetation cross-section (Top), Arial photograph (Middle), and Stocking densities and Vegetation management descriptions (Bottom) for each our six ecological field study sites. LiDAR and photographs are representative selections from one of the four plots situated on each site. Stocking densities and vegetation management are given at the site scale. Columns indicate sites are geographically close to each other with similar soil types.


Multi-Criteria Mapping (MCM) descriptionsFig 2: Written and visual descriptions of the four land management options used in the Multi-Criteria Mapping (MCM) exercise.


Our Multi-Criteria Mapping (MCM) exercise provided 67 criteria by which successful land use and large herbivore management can be judged. Just over 70% of these relate to various categories of Ecosystem Services, the remainder related to different aspects of viability and desirability of the different approaches.

Overall, our MCM exercise indicates that our stakeholders believe agroecological farming is the single best option to deliver the needs of people and nature. This is driven by more conservation focused stakeholders’ aversion to conventional farming and farmers’ favouring of agroecological farming. However, the performance of different options varies across criteria and combinations of options may be best at landscape scales. The management survey highlighted that no two sites have the same large herbivore assemblage and stocking density varies considerably.

Our ecological field studies highlighted the variety of biodiversity, food production, and other ecosystem service outcomes delivered across the sites. Of particular note was that the agroecological farm (Tablehurst) produced the most red meat and was amongst the best performing sites for biodiversity. We recorded the greatest number of taxa at Tablehurst and it ranked in the top three for diversity in all four of the taxa recorded.

Summary resultsFig 3: Summary results for a variety of measured variables for each field study site, covering a range of ecosystem services. Each variable is given on a relative scale with the site recording the highest value scoring a 1. Variables from bottom to top: P = Soil Phosphorous (mg/l), SOM = Soil Organic Matter (%), Endomycrohizae = Soil Endomycrohizae (%), Invertebrate/Bat/Bird/Mammal Diversity = Shannon’s Diversity Index for given taxa, Human Use = Number of people recorded using the site, Human Activity Diversity = Shannon’s Diversity Index of recorded human activities, Red Meat Production = Site’s estimated production of red meat (kg/ha/year)


Taken overall, the results suggest that sustainable red meat consumption (14 grams/person/day) can be provided for (with the potential to help achieve SDG 2 ‘Zero Hunger’) while contributing to biodiversity conservation (SDG 15 ‘Life on Land’) and ecosystem service delivery.

Further work could incorporate Multi-Criteria Mapping (MCM), ecological assessment and GIS to enable a more context-sensitive and spatially explicit approach and support decision-making.

The SDGs offer guidance on the diversity of issues that relate to sustainable land use, but our study highlights that the needs of nature and society at a local scale are even more complex and do not map easily onto the SDG targets and indicators.

Related work

A panel event entitled “Working with Nature in Farming and Conversation,” was held in the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA) in March 2019 to discuss the findings of the "Delivering food security, community resilience, and biodiversity through rewilding and community agriculture" SSRP project.

The event was split into two sections, the first being a workshop with interviewees from the above project. This gave them an opportunity to discuss with other key participants the findings of the project, identifying what these might mean for them and how they could affect their work/organization in the future.

The second section of the event invited further delegates to participate in an engaging panel debate on the “Options for Reviving an Agri-Environment Policy”.

The panel consisted of:
• Vicki Hird - Farming Campaign Coordinator, Sustain
• Gareth Morgan - Head of Farming and Land Use Policy, Soil Association
• Lisa Norton - Head of Land Use Group, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Lancaster Environment Centre Gavin Ross - Head of Environmental Land Management (ELM), DEFRA
• Tony Whitbread - Ex-Chief Executive, Sussex Wildlife Trust & Member of Knepp’s Advisory Board

Find out more about the 'Working with Nature in Farming and Conservation' panel discussion