VAST TRACTS of agricultural land have been lost as part of large-scale changes to the environment so far this century, academics have found.
Some 225,200 hectares (ha) of land - the equivalent of one per cent of the total area of the UK - showed a change in land cover or use from 2006 to 2012, including a net loss of more than 7,000ha of agricultural land.
While nearly 2,000ha reverted back to pasture after being used for mineral extraction projects, another 5,000ha of farmland was given over for mineral extraction and at least another 4,000ha was lost to construction sites.
One hectare is about a third bigger than the pitch at Wembley stadium.
Researchers at Leicester University and consultancy company Specto Natura studied satellite images to identify the changes. Their work contributes to the EU-wide Coordination of Information on the Environment (CORINE) land cover mapping project, and they also found that semi-natural and wetland habitats were in decline nationally.
According to their report, urban expansion has led to the loss of more than 7,000ha of forest, with over 1,000ha of wetlands given over to artificial surfaces like concrete and tarmac.
The biggest change was the clearing of coniferous forest - over 100,000ha - with nearly 3,000ha cleared for industrial development, although almost half of the total area of conifers cut down was being replanted.
The leader of the study, Professor Heiko Balzter, director of the Centre for Landscape and Climate Research at Leicester University, said the data would be useful for informing policy.
“Environmental information from satellites is hugely important to keep a check on the quality of life in the UK. The European land monitoring service turns satellite data into policy-relevant information. The CORINE map is the only consistent European information on land cover change that allows a comparison with our neighbours.”
James Copeland, regional environment and land use adviser at the National Farmers’ Union, said the growing UK population was putting more pressure on agricultural land for development.
He said: “As farmers we are keen to maintain the agricultural land that we have so we can feed this growing population.”
Neil Sinden, director of policy and campaigns at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said he was concerned by the loss of so much rural land, adding: “These changes to land cover are often just the tip of the iceberg: urbanisation can cause visual and noise disturbance way beyond the immediate footprint of development.”
The reported loss of wetlands matched what was being seen on the ground, said Peter Morris, head of campaigns at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, who believes such habitat loss increases the risk of flooding.
“As we drain or build over the boggy bits of our landscape, we lose our landscape’s ability to absorb heavy rain or storm surges, so we lose Britain’s natural protection against flooding. We also lose our wetlands’ ability to store water in times of drought, or to clean it through filtering.
“The value of the benefits of our wetlands has been conservatively estimated at around £7bn per year. But you can’t really put a figure on the enjoyment that river banks, beaches and ponds and ponds bring to us.”