National Character Area 88

Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire Claylands - Natural Capital and Key Ecosystem Services


The Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire Claylands NCA provides a wide range of benefits to society. Each is derived from the attributes and processes (both natural and cultural features) within the area. These benefits are known collectively as ‘ecosystem services’. The predominant services are summarised below. Further information on ecosystem services provided in the Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire Claylands NCA is contained in the ‘Analysis’ section of this website.

Note: The natural capital in this NCA is mapped below. This displays more recent national and publicly available data sets as used within Natural England’s 2020 Natural Capital Atlas Profiles.

The predominant ecosystem services in this NCA are also summarised below. The text contained in this section is based on the previous NCA profiles in 2014, and so is not entirely current. Further information on ecosystem services provided in the North Northumberland Coastal Plain NCA is contained in the Analysis: Ecosystem Services page of this website.

What is Natural Capital?

Natural capital means “the elements of nature that directly or indirectly produce value to people, including ecosystems, species, freshwater, land, minerals, the air and oceans, as well as natural processes and functions” (Natural Capital Committee, 2017).

It is helpful to consider natural capital in the form of a logic chain that represents the links between ecosystem assets, services, benefits and value to people. The figure below displays that logic chain. The quantity and quality of ecosystem assets (woodland, bogs, etc) support different types of ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration or water filtration. These ecosystem services then provide different benefits to society, providing value for people. The figure also shows how management interventions, as well as pressures and drivers of change, influence this chain. Other capital inputs are also often needed for people to obtain the benefits from ecosystem services (a simple example is the processing of trees to produce wood products).

As an example, an area of woodland (ecosystem asset) may reduce air pollution created by traffic on a nearby road. This woodland is therefore improving air quality (ecosystem service) in the local area which results in cleaner air and improved health in the adjacent residential street (benefit). This cleaner air has a value because we know it impacts the health and wellbeing of communities.

Sometimes for ease of understanding, economic framing is used to give these benefits a monetary value. The figure below shows how natural capital assets support the provision of ecosystem services, benefits and value. The roots of the tree show how aspects of asset quality are critical to the provision of ecosystem services. The roots also show that geodiversity underpins the ecosystem assets and therefore the ecosystem services and benefits they can provide. It is important to remember that this diagram, and natural capital frameworks more generally, are a simplification of how nature works in practice.

Natural Capital within this NCA

In 2018, Natural England published ‘Natural Capital Indicators: for defining and measuring change in natural capital’ (Lusardi et al., 2018). This report identified key properties of the natural environment vital for the long-term sustainability of benefits, which can act as indicators of change.

These indicators are designed to inform our understanding of the state of our natural assets. The indicators highlight the importance of our natural assets for delivering which ecosystem service and the benefits they provide for society. The indicators and datasets identified in Natural England’s Natural Capital Indicators Project provide the foundation for the Natural Capital Atlas Profiles.

Natural England’s Natural Capital Atlas Profiles provide an “off the shelf” natural capital evidence base for each county or city region. They have a wide variety of uses with more information in the How to Start Using Your Natural Capital Atlas.

The Natural Capital indicators are presented on the map below by broad asset theme, displaying the natural capital within the NCA.

It is noted that not all indicators listed within the Natural Capital Atlas Profiles are included within the map as data is not yet available to measure them. Refer to the “Indicator Gaps and Limitations” of the Natural Capital Atlas Profiles for further information.

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated.

Provisioning services (food, fibre and water supply)

Food provision: Seventy per cent of the area is in agricultural use, although statistics indicate that there has been an overall decrease in the area of land in agricultural use, total farm size and area of land held. Soils are moderately fertile and classified as Grade 2 and Grade 3. The arable landscape is important for food production, is a major industry within the area and provides a significant food resource. It is likely to be influenced by changes in the market. Multiple benefits could be gained in terms of maintaining levels of food production, preserving historic character and enhancing biodiversity, although there are pressures on soil and water resources, especially water availability.

Water availability: The River Great Ouse is the main river in this NCA, with many others feeding in as tributaries. A small part of the River Nene also passes through the NCA, supplying Rutland Water (outside the NCA) which is internationally important for nature conservation and provides drinking water to Kettering, Northampton, Peterborough and surrounding areas. Grafham Water near Huntingdon, constructed in the 1960s, supplies water to Milton Keynes and towns in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. There are also several aquifers. Water availability within the NCA is considered to be restricted, with many waterbodies listed as having no water available. Water is abstracted for a number of different purposes, including agriculture, spray irrigation, industrial use, power generation and public water supply. Any new development is likely to put additional pressure on water resources. Careful management of water resources will be required. For information regarding the current state of water availability within this NCA, refer to the Environment Agency (Abstraction Licensing Strategy).

Regulating services (water purification, air quality maintenance and climate regulation)

Regulating water quality:For information regarding the current state of water quality within this NCA, refer to the Environment Agency (Draft river basin management plan maps).

Regulating water flow: The soils covering the majority of the NCA have some degree of impeded drainage which, if damaged, can increase the likelihood of run-off under high precipitation conditions. Flood risk occurs along the course of the River Great Ouse. Many of the rivers are heavily modified, embanked or re-sectioned rivers, with weirs and flood defence structures in place to manage water flows. The numerous lakes and other waterbodies within river valleys are also used in some cases for water storage and management purposes. The River Great Ouse catchment is known for its quick response during periods of heavy rainfall. Therefore measures taken in this NCA to reinstate the natural functionality of the flood plain will help to regulate and manage flows further downstream in other NCAs and help protect sites that are important for nature conservation and which are known to have issues with water quality and flow, such as the Nene and Ouse Washes.

Cultural services (inspiration, education and wellbeing)

Recreation: Recreation is a significant service in the NCA. It is generally low key, close to the main urban populations and associated with the river valleys, existing sites and restored post-industrial landscapes, particularly within the Forest of Marston Vale. There are numerous country parks and nature reserves available for local residents and visitors. Large towns and cities – including Milton Keynes, Bedford, Cambridge and Peterborough – have a good network of parks and green spaces within them and recently improved links to allow access to adjacent countryside. With the high development pressures in the NCA, it is likely that demand for leisure and recreation will increase with subsequent pressures on biodiversity, soil and water resources. Opportunities exist to cater for increased demand without significant effects on other services as long as the assets are positively managed.

Biodiversity: Although only a small proportion of the NCA is designated for its biodiversity interest, the NCA contains a diverse range of habitats of importance. These include coastal and flood plain grazing marsh, lowland mixed deciduous woodland, fen, lowland meadow, reedbed, traditional orchards, wood pasture and parkland with ancient and veteran trees. These support a range of species – some rare and scarce. Many are associated with the remnant ancient woodland – including butterflies such as the white admiral and purple and black hairstreaks, dormouse, barbastelle bat and specialist invertebrates. Riparian and wetland habitats provide valuable habitat connectivity within the landscape and support populations of breeding and overwintering birds, water vole, otter, great crested newt and species of stonewort. The farmscape supports farmland birds such as skylark and grey partridge, and brown hare. The biodiversity of the area is under pressure from land use change, development and infrastructure improvements, and demand for resources (especially water). However, there are also opportunities to benefit biodiversity and recreation by creating new green infrastructure. The management and extension of semi-natural habitats within the NCA will bring benefits for biodiversity, soil and water quality, climate regulation and recreation.

Geodiversity: Geodiversity has significantly influenced the landscape character of the NCA and development within the NCA. Oxford Clay has been a major source of material for the brick-making industry since the early 19th century, providing the dominant building material for many of the towns and villages of the NCA. Jurassic limestone from the west of the NCA has also been used as a building stone. The brick pits are particularly noted for their Jurassic marine reptiles and have yielded the most important collections of marine reptiles of this age, many of which are on display at local museums. There are five geological SSSI and 19 Local Geological Sites across the NCA, many of which are found in active and disused clay, sand and gravel workings. This reflects the importance of these extraction sites for accessing and understanding the area’s geodiversity, which is otherwise poorly exposed. The restoration of these sites provides opportunities for retaining geodiversity, developing a range of habitats, enhancing landscape character and offering new leisure and recreation opportunities.