The great experiment to put a price on nature

Fresh water, clean air, peace of mind – natural landscapes make life better for humans in myriad ways. Now scientists are trying to put a dollar figure on exactly how much nature is worth.

Tucked away in the Scottish Highlands, in an old commercial forest known as Birchfield near Loch Ness, is a rewilding project with a difference.

The 100-acre (40-hectare) site is a hive of technological activity. Drones fly overhead to track the extent and condition of the various habitats below, from recently felled woodland to a newly discovered peat bog. Meanwhile, camera traps and audio recording equipment capture evidence of the huge variety of species that live on the land.

However, as well as tracking the physical changes taking place as the land is restored, researchers are busy calculating exactly how much we benefit from that restoration, in the cold hard currency of money and economic worth. This is the Natural Capital Laboratory.

The idea of putting a price on carbon is familiar by now – buy a plane ticket and you might have the option to pay extra to offset your emissions – but nature does a lot more than absorb carbon. Around the world forests provide homes, food and resources for humans and animals alike. Trees also cut air pollutionreduce the risk of flooding and help maintain soil quality. Landscapes like grasslands and coastal wetlands provide for humans, and countless other species, in many ways. Animals within these ecosystems also provide services, such as insect pollination or the carbon storage of elephants or whales. What happens when we try to put a price on those things too?