As the global population grows, demands on land become ever greater and environmental change is likely to add to the pressure.
The team, working within the UK research councils' Rural Economy and Land Use programme, has been investigating the most effective approaches to optimising sustainable food production while protecting wildlife.
They conclude that conservation of populations of animals and plants requires thinking and planning across the landscape, because it is at this scale, not the farm scale, that many ecological processes happen. A key advance in thinking is not how to make each farm more wildlife friendly in itself, but how to make the landscape as a whole better for producing both food and wildlife.
Farming systems that avoid using chemicals to increase yields are often thought to be the best options from a conservation point of view, but this research has shown that a mixture of high-yield, intensive farming and land managed for nature can, in some instances, produce both more food and more wildlife than the pursuit of wildlife-friendly farming across the whole landscape.
The team argues for more coherent planning of our whole approach to intensive and non-intensive production. Their research provides important pointers for this kind of strategy at farm, landscape, UK policy and European Common Agricultural Policy level.
Within each area some land needs to be managed for wildlife, and how best to do this will depend on the landscape. Across the UK, different landscapes may also be better at producing food or producing ecosystem services, so one approach may be to concentrate more conservation efforts in particular areas, such as the uplands and coastal wetlands, which are particularly wildlife friendly, while enabling areas that are best suited to food production to be farmed intensively.
Landscape level planning requires creating and connecting suitable habitat patches, on farms and off farms, into a larger-scale network. Most conventional farms already have areas that are not farmed or produce poor yields and, as precision farming techniques become more widespread, unproductive land will become very easy to identify. This may be useful for wildlife but only if carefully managed for that purpose within a larger network of habitats.
As the optimal way to manage a landscape to produce farming and wildlife will vary from place to place, a common policy framework may be needed setting overall aims and processes for making decisions, with implementation devolved to county or regional level.
Professor Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, said: "Thinking at a larger scale to create sustainable landscapes is the key. Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy provides an important opportunity to create sustainable landscapes, as it is championing 'sparing land' from food production on each farm to contribute to environmental aims. This 'spared land' could constitute a landscape-scale network if properly designed and managed.
"But we also need to plan a strategy that works at national level and look at how intensive farming within sustainable landscapes in some localities could be balanced by prioritising wildlife to a greater degree in others. Only by much larger-scale thinking can we hope to achieve the holy grail of increased production that is sustainable and does not damage irreparably the natural processes that we all depend upon."
The Rural Economy and Land Use Programme is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with additional funding provided by the Scottish Government and Defra.
Edwin Chen, Wellcome Trust (Jul 2016), £98,341
Stefan Kepinski, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Apr 2016), £461,760
David Brockwell, Sheena Radford, BBSRC (Apr 2016), £358,570
Ryan Seipke, BBSRC (Apr 2016), £340,536
Neil Ranson, Mark Harris, Ade Whitehouse, Peter Stockley, Sheena Radford, Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2016), £1,000,000
James Duce, Alzheimer's Society (Mar 2016), £84,834
Thomas Edwards and colleagues in the School of Chemistry, EPSRC (Feb 2016), £2,228,732
Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle, Wellcome Trust (Feb 2016), £89,900
William Hoppitt, EU (Feb 2016), £34,345
Mark Harris, Thomas Edwards, John Barr and colleagues from the School of Chemistry, Wellcome Trust (Jan 2016), £204,959
Katie Field, BBSRC (Jan 2016), £830,381
Alan Berry, Alex Breeze, Adam Nelson, BBSRC (Jan 2016), £479,490
Sarah Calaghan, Isuru Jayasinghe, BHF (Jan 2016), £52,050
Paul Knox, BBSRC (Jan 2016), £40,000
Andrew Smith, Rosetrees Trust (Jan 2016), £20,000
Richard Bayliss, Cancer Research UK (Jan 2016), £10,000
Richard Bayliss, BBSRC (Jan 2016), £8,000
Richard Bayliss, MRC (Jan 2016), £8,000
Joe Cockburn, Royal Society (Dec 2015), £14,960
Katie Field, Royal Society (Dec 2015), £14,700
Stephanie Wright, Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund (Dec 2015), £207,286
Zahra Timsah, Royal Society (Nov 2015), £15,000
Jessica Kwok, Wings For Life Spinal Cord Research (Nov 2015), £134,981
Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2015), £752,365
Julie Aspden, MRC (Oct 2015), £633,020
Steve Sait, NERC (Oct 2015), £386,061
Urwin, Howard Atkinson, BBSRC (Oct 2015), £200,293
Helen Miller, ABNA Ltd (Oct 2015), £115,000
Mark Harris, Royal Society (Oct 2015), £74,000
Eric Hewitt, Andrew Macdonald, Yorkshire Kidney Research Fund (Oct 2015), £46,621
Christine Foyer, Royal Society (Oct 2015), £12,000
Dave Westhead, Bloodwise (Sep 2015), £664,109
Ade Whitehouse, Alison Ashcroft, Ian Carr, BBSRC (Sep 2015), £438,975
Shaunna Burke, Andrea Utley, Sarah Astill, Arts Council of England (Sep 2015), £80,594
Samit Chakrabarty, Ronaldo Ichiyama, Intl Foundn for Research in Paraplegia (Aug 2015), £93,000
Helen Miller, Agriculture & Horticulture Develpmnt Brd (Aug 2015), £63,560
Tim Benton, M & W MACK LTD (Aug 2015), £48,711
Eileen Ingham, John Fisher, EPSRC (Jul 2015), £1,458,439
Anastasia Zhuravleva, BBSRC (Jul 2015), £483,019
Alex O'Neill, MRC (Jul 2015), £249,822
Ade Whitehouse, Richard Foster, Cancer Research UK (Jul 2015), £201,034
Ronaldo Ichiyama, Jim Deuchars, Sue Deuchars, Wings For Life Spinal Cord Research (Jul 2015), £123,895
Helen Miller, ABNA Ltd (Jul 2015), £22,968