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.
Dave Westhead and colleagues in Experimental Haematology, Cancer Research UK (Jan 2015), £700,521
Sheena Radford, Mark Harris, Peter Stockley, Alan Berry, Alex O'Neill, Thomas Edwards, Adrian Goldman, Anastasia Zhuravleva, Wellcome Trust (Jan 2015), £443,015
Bill Kunin, EU (Jan 2015), £157,490
John Colyer, Leeds Teaching Hospitals Charitable Fund (Jan 2015), £40,000
Chris Hassall, Royal Society (Dec 2014), £14,500
Ryan Seipke, Royal Society (Nov 2014), £13,700
Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2014), £749,865
Ian Hope, Marie-Anne Shaw, BBSRC (Oct 2014), £396,565
Alison Ashcroft, Peter Stckley, Sheena Radford, Nic Stonehouse, David Brockwell, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2014), £340,937
Les Firbank, Joe Holden, BBSRC (Oct 2014), £210,302
Darren Tomlinson and colleagues in Chemistry and Pathology, anatomy and Tumour Biology, Dr Hadwen Trusy (Oct 2014), £194,475
Paul Knox, EU (Oct 2014), £167,229
Martin Stacey and colleagues in Medicine & Health, Pfizer (Oct 2014), £90,453
Darren Tomlinson and colleagues in Experimental Oncology, YCR (Oct 2014), £69,480
Andrew Macdonald, Jamel Mankouri, Kidney Research Fund UK (Oct 2014), £58,878
Mike McPherson and colleagues in Dentistry and Engineering, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2014), £58,437
Dave Westhead and colleagues in Experimental Haemotology, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Sep 2014), £281,424
Emmanuel Paci and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £636,759
Andrew Peel, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £371,598
Lars Jeuken, Stephen Evans, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £333,684
Lars Jeuken, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £313,463
Michelle Peckham, Mark Harris, Rao Sivaprasadarao, Eileen Ingham, Nic Stonehouse, Nikita Gamper, Wellcome Trust (Sep 2014), £192,763
Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Aug 2014), £355,253
Stuart Egginton, BHF (Aug 2014), £271,094
Darren Tomlinson, Mike McPherson, Technology Strategy Board (Aug 2014), £98,665
Peter Henderson, Leverhulme Trust (Aug 2014), £15,222
Mike McPherson (and colleagues in the School of Chemistry), EPSRC (Jul 2014), £819,880
Peter Stockley, Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Jul 2014), £455,787
Sheena Radford, Univesity of Michigan (Jul 2014), £138,452
Ryan Seipke, British Society Antimicrobial Chemistry (Jun 2014), £11,960
John Trinick, BHF (Jun 2014), £222,614
Chris West, Leverhulme Trust (Jun 2014), £181,241
Jon Lippiat, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (May 2014), £125,174
Christine Foyer, Royal Society (May 2014), £24,000
David Brockwell, Sheena Radford, Medimmune Ltd (Apr 2014), £337,661
Peter Stockley, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £251,019
Mike McPherson, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £146,596
Andrew Macdonald, Kidney Research Fund UK (Apr 2014), £127,237
Elwyn Isaac, DEFRA (Apr 2014), £126,512
Mike McPherson (and colleagues in School of Design), Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £114,350
Paul Millner, Peter Stockley, Darren Tomlinson, YCR (Apr 2014), £95,874
Carrie Ferguson, Karen Birch, Shaunna Burke, Heart Research UK (Apr 2014), £60,140
Tim Benton, Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £24,969
Bill Kunin, Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £21,244
Dave Westhead, MRC (Apr 2014), £18,304