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Part of: Natural Environment

Related to: Rural Areas, Mental Health and Illness, Air Quality, Biodiversity, Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation, Environmental Health, Green Infrastructure and Spaces,Built Environment

Key Facts:

  • Whilst the district is a relatively small area it has diverse habitat characteristics. It sits within a much larger functioning catchment of the river Avon, and is split almost equally between two National Character Areas (NCA), the Cotwolds and the Bristol Avon Valleys and Ridges. It also includes a small part of The Mendip Hills NCA.
  • The UK National Ecosystem Assessment study (2011) concluded that whilst the UK’s ecosystems are currently delivering some services well, others are still in long-term decline; that 30% of the services we get from UK’s ecosystems are in decline. Population growth and climate change are likely to increase pressures on our ecosystem services in future.
  • Woodland network in the West of England is 282km², with 80km² being core woodland.
  • Core grassland network in the West of England covers an area of 46km² and 22% of it is protected by a conservation designation.
  • The total area of water and wetlands in the West of England is 100km² and 79% of the wetland network in the West of England is protected by a conservation designation.
  • 21% of the land in the West of England has a ‘high’ ability to contribute to good water quality.
  • 15% of the land in the West of England is currently providing high natural flood management services.
  • There are plans to map and review the key ecosystem service across Bath and North East Somerset and neighbouring districts through the work of the Local Nature Partnership Pilot and the Bristol Avon River Catchment Pilot.

Background

The billions of species on our planet, including humans, interact with one another in many ways. These interactions among and between species are what define ecosystems. Ecosystems in turn, provide many "services" from which humans benefit. Ecosystem services are the transformation of a set of natural assets (soil, plants and animals, air and water) into things that we value. For example, when fungi, worms and bacteria transform the raw "ingredients" of sunlight, carbon and nitrogen into fertile soil this transformation is an ecosystem service. 1

Why are ecosystem services important?  2

The natural environment supplies us with a multitude of life supporting and life enhancing benefits.

These underpin our economic and social well-being:

  • Ecosystems create a breathable atmosphere and provide us with food , fibre, timber and a host of other raw materials.
  • Ecosystems breakdown waste products, control water supplies and help regulate climate.
  • Ecosystems provide space for recreation and contemplation
  • Ecosystems play a pivotal role in creating a sense of place that underpins our mental and spiritual well-being.

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK-NEA, 2011) describes ecosystem services as “the benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living.” The Assessment categorised ecosystem services into four categories:3

Figure 1:The UK National Ecosystem Service Assessment categorisation of ecosystem services 4

The continual decline in biodiversity and the quality of the natural environment is a serious threat to the quality and vitality of ecosystems, and so to economic, social and cultural prosperity. Healthy and robust natural environments provide better and more beneficial services than degraded or declining natural environments.

What does the data say?

Global perspective 5

In March 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was released. This 2,500-page report was four years in the making, drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over four years, and funded by the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Foundation, the World Bank and various others. Surveying the planet, it made a number of conclusions. The key messages from the report included the following points:

  • Everyone in the world depends on nature and ecosystem services to provide the conditions for a healthy and secure life.
  • Humans have made unprecedented changes to ecosystems in recent decades to meet growing demands for food, fresh water, fiber, and energy [which has] helped to improve the lives of billions, but at the same time they have weakened nature’s ability to deliver other key services such as purification of air and water, protection from disasters, and the provision of medicines….
  • Human activities have taken the planet to the edge of a massive wave of species extinctions, further threatening our own well-being.
  • The loss of services derived from ecosystems is a significant barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, hunger, and disease.
  • The pressures on ecosystems will increase globally in coming decades unless human attitudes and actions change.
  • Measures to conserve natural resources are more likely to succeed if local communities are given ownership of them, share the benefits, and are involved in decisions.
  • Even today’s technology and knowledge can reduce considerably the human impact on ecosystems. They are unlikely to be deployed fully however, until ecosystem services cease to be perceived as free and limitless, and their full value is taken into account.
  • Better protection of natural assets will require coordinated efforts across all sections of governments, businesses, and international institutions. The productivity of ecosystems depends on policy choices in investment, trade, subsidy, taxation, and regulation, among others.

National perspective 

In order to properly understand the nature, condition and importance of ecosystem services in the UK, the government commissioned the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. This study was reported in 2011 and concluded that whilst the UK’s ecosystems are currently delivering some services well, others are still in long-term decline; that 30% of the services we get from UK’s ecosystems are in decline. Population growth and climate change are likely to increase pressures on our ecosystem services in future. 6

Woodlands - Woodlands cover 12% of the UK land area. Across the UK, woodlands store around 150 million tonnes of carbon.7

Wildflower rich grassland (meadows) - The value of this ecosystem service has been estimated at £440m to UK agriculture annually. Wildflower-rich grassland in the UK is in decline, with over 97% of meadows degraded since the 1930s. 8

Wetlands - The services wetlands provide to the UK economy (flood prevention, carbon storage, water cleaning) saves the UK economy at least £6.7bn per annum. 9

West of England

Ecosystem Services, Understanding nature’s value in the West of England report 10

The West of England Nature Partnership (WENP) is the Local Nature Partnership for the West of England region, covering the four Unitary Authority areas of Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.

In order to try and develop a better understanding of the contributions natural resources make the West of England Nature Partnership (WENP) is undertaking a comprehensive ‘State of Environment Assessment’ to take full account of the environment in the West of England, assessing risks and opportunities, and the value of ecosystem services to society.

The Ecosystem Services, Understanding nature’s value in the West of England report is a summary of findings from the first phase of the assessment, specifically the development of fourteen ecosystem maps, which illustrate a selection of the region’s natural assets – or ecosystem services. 

Over 200 datasets were analysed to produce the maps. To determine the level of ecosystem service provision, the following information was overlaid and analysed to develop the maps:

  • The type of land cover and infrastructure, for example farmland, woodland or urban
  • The land management systems in place, for example a regularly ploughed arable field, or a semi-natural habitat such as a woodland
  • The underlying soil and geology, for example clay, silt or sand
  • The position or elevation in the landscape, for example on a slope or close to a river.

By assigning values to different factors, the maps grade the land on its ability to deliver particular ecosystem services, for example clay soil on flat land with tall vegetation will be able to hold water for much longer than on a steep slope with sandy soil. Therefore, the ecosystem service of water storage is better on clay soil.

The following services were mapped across the West of England:

  • Woodland, wetland and grassland ecological networks
  • Land that improves water quality
  • Land that provides natural flood management
  • Multiple ecosystem service provision

The maps visualise the ecosystem services and networks within the West of England region. For every ‘stock’ map, a complementary ‘opportunity’ map has been created, to show where the land could be modified to provide additional and enhanced ecosystem services or habitats. The maps have been designed for multiple users and can be used at a strategic level, to identify cross-boundary, large-scale ecological networks, or at a field scale to better understand the services in a specific field. 

Click here to view or download the ecosystem services and network maps.

The woodland network in the West of England11

Woodlands provide a multitude of beneficial services, such as recreation, flood alleviation, carbon storage and soil stability.

The West of England Nature Partnership (WENP) identified the woodland network in the West of England as being areas of broadleaf woodland greater than two hectares that close enough together that species and seeds can easily disperse across the area. As well as this core network WENP also identify  smaller patches of woodland and established hedges and scrub that are crucial to enabling the network to function effectively, as they allow wildlife to move and forage for food, provide shelter and other essential roles.

The whole woodland network in the West of England is 282km², with 80km² being ‘core woodland’.

The grassland network in the West of England12

Wildflower-rich grassland (meadows) are vital for pollinating insects, which pollinate over 80% of the plants we eat and can support over 50 species of flowering plant per square metre.

The WENP identified the grassland network in the West of England as being areas of good quality grassland, areas of land greater than 0.5 hectares that contain a diverse array of plant and flower species and the surrounding land that supports these core areas.  

Core grassland network in the West of England covers an area of 46km² and 22% of it is protected by a conservation designation.

Wetlands in the West of England13

Wetlands are home to a number of rare and notable species, particularly birds and invertebrates, who are attracted to these watery environments. They also provide a range of ecosystem services, including regulating water quality and quantity, making them an important habitat.

Within the West of England, there is an extensive wetland network that predominantly runs along the land adjacent to the Severn Estuary. This area is characterised by the presence of a man-made rhyne and ditch system and is a beacon for wildlife.

The total area of water and wetlands in the West of England is 100km² and 79% of the wetland network in the West of England is protected by a conservation designation.

Combined ecological networks in the West of England14

By overlaying the woodland, grassland, and wetland networks, the West of England Nature Partnership (WENP) highlighted the combined ecological networks across the West of England. Landscapes that have a range of habitats tend to be more biodiverse, as species require a range of habitats to fulfil different requirements, such as feeding, sheltering and breeding. Different habitat types will also attract different species, adding to biodiversity.

Land that improves the quality of water in the West of England15

Fresh water is essential for life. The WENP has identified areas where the natural environment contributes to improving the quality of water by aiding the filtration and purification processes. It has also identified areas where water quality may be due to impurities entering the river system, such as runoff in urban areas or in rural areas where some farming methods can result in agricultural chemicals and sediment being washed into rivers.

21% of the land in the West of England has a ‘high’ ability to contribute to good water quality.

Only 24% of the Bristol Avon Catchment is classified as having ‘good ecological status’ (Water Framework Directive).

Land that provides natural flood management in the West of England

16

Flooding is a major hazard in the UK, with extreme flood likely to become more frequent as a result of climate change. Slowing surface water following rainfall, helps to reduce the risk of flood. The vegetation structure, slope gradient, soil type and underlying geology all affect the amount of water that is absorbed into the ground, and where and how that water is channelled overland. By spatially assessing these factors, it is possible to show where the land is slowing the movement of water and reducing the risk of flooding.

15% of the land in the West of England is currently providing high natural flood management services.

Multiple ecosystem services in the West of England17

It is often the case that in each type of network/area more than one ecosystem service is being delivered, for example woodland can provide water quality improvements and reduce flood risk. By combining the data layers the West of England Nature Partnership (WENP) has been able to show where multiple ecosystem services are being delivered in different areas.

Click here to view or download the ecosystem services and network maps.

Bath and North East Somerset

Whilst the district is a relatively small area it has diverse habitat characteristics. It sits within a much larger functioning catchment of the river Avon, and is split almost equally between two National Character Areas (NCA), the Cotwolds and the Bristol Avon Valleys and Ridges. It also includes a small part of The Mendip Hills NCA.

 National character areas map

Figure 2: Bath and North East Somerset in relation to Natural England’s National Character Areas

Natural England has divided England into a number of these National Character Areas (NCAs) in order to help practitioners involved in land use make better management decisions in terms of protecting important ecosystem services.

Whilst we do not yet have specific and systematic data for the Bath and North East area about the condition of our ecosystem services it is likely that the national trends prevail.

Are we meeting the needs?

The West of England Nature Partnership (WENP)18

The West of England Nature Partnership (WENP) working with their partners, create and coordinate plans for the restoration of the natural environment in the West of England. They also work to integrate these plans into strategies for spatial planning, economic development and public health.

The WENP takes an ecosystem services approach to their work. The ecosystem services approach seeks to maintain the integrity and function of ecosystem services by taking an integrated approach to the way land, water and living resources are managed. The approach explicitly recognises the fundamental interdependence between economic development, societal wellbeing and environmental protection. By considering these factors in unison the approach aims to support sustainable outcome.

The WENP’s current ‘State of Environment Assessment’ takes an ecosystem services approach to assessing the environment and will be able to form the basis for understanding the contribution that natural resources make and where enhancement in provision is badly needed. As well as informing the way in which decisions regarding further development will impact on the state of the environment. Therefore helping decision makers in the West of England to take full account of the environment and embed it into their strategies for spatial planning, economic development and public health so they can reduce further fragmentation or damage and safeguard the environment for everyone’s benefit.

Revitalising our local woodlands project19

Local tree and woodland charity: the Forest of Avon Trust, is contacting all woodland owners across the West of England to get their woodland in to active management.

To date, the charity has produced Forestry Commission approved woodland management plans for 800ha local woodlands, with a strong focus on conserving and enhancing biodiversity. The charity is also promoting new planting to maximise connectivity and landscape value. 

The West of England B-Lines project20

The West of England B-Lines project is a collaborative project between Avon Wildlife Trust and Buglife with support from a number of other partner organisations from across the West of England. B-Lines are a series of ‘insect pathways’ that link the best areas of grassland together. The project seeks to restore wildflower rich habitats and stepping stones, to extend and strengthen the grassland ecological network.

This will provide large areas of restored habitat benefiting bees and butterflies– but also a host of other wildlife. Since starting in 2014 the project has worked within

the B-Lines zones principally around Bath, Bristol and the Chew Valley and has restored 114 ha of wildflower meadow on land in private ownership. 

Payment for Ecosystem Services – Winford Brook21

Payments for ecosystem services (PES) are payments provided to landowners for providing an ecological service. A project was undertaken within the Winford Brook catchment to investigate the potential of running a PES scheme. The Winford Brook runs into the Chew Magna reservoir, which provides drinking water to Bristol. Bristol Water regularly has to remove silt and elevated nutrient levels from the reservoir and were keen to investigate whether changes in land management to tackle soil erosion and reduce flood risk further upstream would be a more viable and cost effective option. These changes could also deliver a range of other benefits, such as enhanced biodiversity. 

What can we realistically change?

West of England22

As part of the State of Environment Assessment the West of England Partnership (WENP) has developed opportunities maps that show where the land could be modified to provide additional and enhanced ecosystem services or habitats in the West of England.

Click here to view or download the opportunities maps.

These maps demonstrate the following:

  • Opportunities to strengthen the woodland network - The areas with the greatest opportunity are those close to the existing woodland networks, in particular areas that can help buffer and protect woodlands that are of ecological importance, helping.
  • Opportunities to strengthen the grassland network – The areas with the greatest opportunity are those close to core habitats, designated sites, good quality soils and management regimes.
  • Land that provides opportunities to improve water quality - The areas with the greatest opportunity tend to be those in rural locations, on steep slopes with shallow soil. Woodland and wetland creation have been shown to be effective at delivering water quality improvements, as they reduce run-off, trap sediment and absorb pollution. These improvements can often also benefit wildlife, and often cost less than hard engineered solutions.
  • Areas with opportunities to provide natural flood management - Used in tandem with the water quality map, this shows where the greatest opportunities exist to provide natural flood defences. By analysing the underlying geology, soils, slope, and land management practices the map shows the best places to slow run-off. The drainage routes have been modelled to show how water travels overland and where interventions would be most effective.
  • Opportunities to deliver multiple ecosystem services – By combining the data layers the West of England Nature Partnership (WENP) has been able to show where opportunities exist to restore habitats to provide multiple ecosystem services simultaneously. The maps have identified 7% of the West of England which could be enhanced to provide three ecosystem services simultaneously. Investing in these areas, will help strengthen the region’s resilience and provide multiple benefits for all.

Other recommendations - The West of England Partnership (WENP) has also made the following recommendations in terms of the approach looking after the environment of the West of England:

  • That data is available via open access so that evidence based decisions to be made about the State of our Environment
  • That the value of safeguarding ecosystem services in the WoE are factored into strategic planning and growth
  • That strategic planning and growth result in a net gain in natural capital across the West of England.

West of England Joint Spatial Plan - The four Unitary Authorities (including B&NES)  in the West of England have committed to working together to produce a Joint Spatial Plan, which will determine the amount of homes and jobs required across the sub region and how this growth can be delivered sustainably, considering the economic, social, environmental and transport issues. The ecosystem services and networks maps produced by the West of England Partnership (WENP) will be used as a key piece of environmental evidence to help inform the Joint Spatial Plan.