A ground-breaking study of the financial value of Britain's trees, waterways, parks and wildlife has concluded that nature provides ''free services'' to the UK economy worth tens of billions of pounds a year – from recreational amenities to crop fertilisation and water purification.
The UK National Ecosystems Assessment (NEA), carried out by 500 experts in ecology, economics and social sciences, puts a price on the economic, health and social benefits provided by the natural world.
The study is intended to make planning processes more environmentally friendly. Its authors believe the benefits of nature are usually taken for granted and are therefore making the case for protecting nature in financial terms.
Most environmental assessments focus mainly on the market value of resources that can be exploited and sold, such as timber and food crops. This is perhaps the first study to calculate the overall economic benefits of protecting the ecology.
The UK department for environment, food and rural affairs said the report ''strengthens the arguments for protecting and enhancing the environment, and will be used by the government to direct policy in future''.
"This is absolutely ground-breaking. We are the first country to do this and get a full understanding of what we get free from nature and to factor that into our decision-making,'' said environment secretary Caroline Spelman.