National Character Area 15

Durham Magnesian Limestone Plateau - Natural Capital and Key Ecosystem Services


The Durham Magnesian Limestone Plateau 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 Durham Magnesian Limestone Plateau 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: This is a landscape dominated by arable production, primarily wheat, oilseed rape and winter barley. The area also produces lamb, milk and beef, with a small sheep flock and small dairy and beef herds. The local dairy herd has reduced in numbers in recent years, contrasting with an increase in the local beef herd, in line with national trends. Small quantities of fish are caught off the east coast, but there is no longer a major fishing industry.

Water availability: The Magnesian Limestone bedrock beneath the area forms part of a major aquifer supporting several abstractions for domestic supply throughout the area at Seaton, North Dalton, Dalton Piercy, Hawthorn, Thorpe, Peterlee, New Winning and Red Barnes, and it is also the sole source of drinking water for Hartlepool. This aquifer is currently considered to have surplus water available for abstraction. The main concern with the integrity of the water supply relates to rising levels of water in the underlying Coal Measures, with high sulphate concentrations and other pollutants entering the aquifer from disused mines. 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 coastal flooding and erosion: The River Tyne to Flamborough Head Shoreline Management Plan Final Report (February 2007) identified that along parts of the Sunderland coast there are issues of coastal erosion and coastal squeeze. Most of the coast is not at risk of flooding from the sea (an exception being low-lying parts of Hartlepool). Current rates of erosion present an increased risk of pollution from landfill sites situated alongside the coast. The natural topography of bays and headlands limits long-shore transportation of sediment. For information regarding current shoreline management within this NCA, refer to the Environment Agency (Shoreline management plans).

Cultural services (inspiration, education and wellbeing)

Sense of place/inspiration: The area has a strong sense of place which is heavily influenced by the history of mining in the area and the effect of the limestone on its agriculture, habitats and wildlife. Inspiration is provided by the opportunity to access natural areas at first hand on a daily basis by the good network of off-road access routes and nature reserves in this area. The coast in particular is an inspirational setting, due to its beauty and the success of recent environmental restoration.

Sense of history: The area has a strong pride in its recent industrial past. It also has a wealth of reminders of the more distant past, such as a significant fossil record, prehistoric earthworks, and medieval settlements and field patterns.

Tranquillity: The high proportion of built-up areas reduces the perception of tranquillity. However, the coast, the sea, the River Wear and the enclosed coastal denes retain a strong sense of tranquillity and can feel distant from the industry, transport corridors and development that predominate in some parts of the NCA.

Recreation: Aspects that are particularly important for local residents are the open spaces offered by reclaimed quarries and colliery sites. Also of great value are the clean beaches, coastal nature reserves and walks, restored and created under the Turning the Tide project from 1997 to 2002. There is also a good cycle and footpath network based around former railway lines.

Biodiversity: The NCA is the only place in the world where the blue moor grass/small scabious Magnesian Limestone grassland vegetation community occurs. Wildlife watching and viewing opportunities are provided by many sites, particularly along the coast and at inland reservoirs. Coastal dene woodlands provide locations for visitors to see rich spring woodland flora. Many of the area’s disused quarries support a number of rare flower species including bee orchids.

Geodiversity: The geology of the area has been the principal driver for mining and mineral processing industries. The NCA has 11 geological Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a further 7 mixed biological and geological sites (including most of the coastline as the Durham Coast SSSI).