AECOM launches pioneering natural capital lab in Scottish Highlands

The site of AECOM's proposed new natural capital laboratory near Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands.

AECOM has launched what is believed to be the first natural capital laboratory of its kind, located on a 100-acre site near Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. 

Working with the landowners, their local advisors and conservation charity The Lifescape Project, the site’s natural environment will be restored, bringing back native forest, engaging local communities and reintroducing locally extinct species with the aim of identifying and demonstrating the environmental and social benefits of rewilding. 

Over the next five years, AECOM will design and test experimental new techniques to quantify, measure and communicate environmental and social change, applying cutting-edge technologies such as drones, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality and space satellites. 

With the site mostly covered by commercial forestry, the project will regenerate tree cover to bring back ancient Caledonian forest. Initial estimates suggest that replanting the whole site would store around 550 tonnes of CO2 each year – equivalent to the amount produced every year by more than 120 cars. A river also runs through the site and the AECOM team will undertake a feasibility study for introducing a fish ladder to bring back species such as salmon and trout. 

Rare species including red squirrel, pine marten and mountain hares have already been spotted at the site and there are also promising signs of the critically endangered Scottish wildcat. Reintroducing and boosting the population of locally extinct and threatened species where appropriate and working with nearby organisations to support species reintroduction at a wider level, will be a priority. 

AECOM will use the natural capital laboratory as a testbed for emerging ecological approaches. These include technologies such as using drones to plant trees, robotic rovers to undertake soil sampling, exploring the use of AI techniques to reduce the costs associated with data collection and analysis, and using space satellites to capture aerial imagery, map habitats and assess their condition. 

Drawing on the data collected through the use of these innovative techniques, AECOM will develop a set of natural and social capital accounts for the site to record, quantify and value environmental and social changes for each year of the experiment. 

AECOM hopes to tap into the increasing prominence of natural capital accounting in UK policy-making, and the growing demand for public and private sector organisations to better account for their environmental and social impacts. 

Robert Spencer, director for sustainability at AECOM, said: “Primarily, the natural capital laboratory is about restoring a stunning slice of the Scottish Highlands back to what it was. But we also see this live laboratory as a way to demonstrate the value of conserving and enhancing ecosystems, including benefits to wellbeing, health and economic prosperity. 

“We expect this will affect real change among businesses and organisations with significant land assets and encourage wider uptake of natural capital thinking. This project could be one of a network of natural capital sites across the UK. With growing demand for public and private sector organisations to better value and account for natural capital, they will need to consider how they interact with and manage their natural assets in everyday decision-making.” 

AECOM will partner with leading research institutions, universities, businesses, government organisations and local wildlife trusts to maximise the potential for research and trials throughout the five years.

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