National Character Area 32

Lancashire and Amounderness Plain - Natural Capital and Key Ecosystem Services


The Lancashire and Amounderness Plain 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 Lancashire and Amounderness Plain 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: The northern plain of the Fylde is used predominantly for dairy farming, with isolated arable fields. The southern plain, to the south of the River Ribble, is dominated by arable and horticulture, mainly on agricultural land of the highest quality. The basin and coastal peats, together with podsolic soils overlying the Shirdley Hill Sands, produce high-quality Grade 1 and 2 soils over much of the area. The coastal peat soils are intensively farmed for horticulture, vegetables, potatoes and cereals. Further inland, the slightly higher ground is also farmed for cereals and vegetables.

Biomass: The existing woodland cover offers small-scale opportunities for the provision of biomass, either through bringing unmanaged woodland under management or as a by-product of commercial timber production. There are also opportunities for new planting, particularly in the south, under the Mersey Forest. There are also opportunities for energy crop production.

Water availability: The water used across the plain is sourced in the neighbouring uplands of the Bowland Fells. The wide, meandering rivers Lune, Ribble and Wyre cross the plain. In rivers such as the Wyre, historic water abstraction rights may cause artificially low flows, leading to detrimental effects on fauna and flora, and to the loss or deterioration of wetland assets. Water abstraction within the area is dominated by public water supply, but is also used for industry, agriculture, fish farming and topping up the Lancaster Canal. 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)

Climate regulation: Peat soils have a particularly important role in storing carbon. The area was once extensive lowland raised bog, interspersed with various fen and wet woodland habitats (collectively known as mosslands in Lancashire). The area is now predominantly drained and used for arable agriculture. This linked network of pumped drainage assets requires considerable resources to support it, which releases a large amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. Underlying the peat are glacial clays; if the peat were to be lost, there could be a deterioration of the quality of agricultural land. There are major areas of basin peat in the east of the NCA, around Simonswood Moss, and coastal peats south-east of Hightown. Limited carbon storage will be offered by the NCA’s woodland cover (making up 4 per cent of the area), especially where this woodland is brought under management. In areas of mineral soils, carbon sequestration and storage can be enhanced by the addition of organic matter and through a reduction in the frequency and extent of cultivation.

Regulating soil erosion: Just under half (43 per cent) of the soils covering this NCA are susceptible to erosion. The freely draining, slightly acid, loamy soils (1 per cent) have an enhanced risk of soil erosion on moderately or steeply sloping land where cultivated or bare soil is exposed. This is exacerbated where organic matter levels are low after continuous arable cultivation, or where soils are compacted. Heavy traffic also increases erosion risk on the naturally wet, very acid, sandy and loamy soils (16 per cent). Both of these soil types are at risk of wind erosion – especially where freely draining, slightly acid, loamy soils are coarse-textured. The slightly acid, loamy and clayey soils with impeded drainage (7 per cent) are easily compacted by machinery or livestock if accessed when wet, and are prone to capping or slaking, increasing the risks of soil erosion by surface water run-off (especially on steeper slopes). Salt marsh soils (3 per cent) may be lost to coastal erosion, including from sea level rises but this process will help to prevent the loss of inland soils. The raised bog peat soils (7 per cent) and fen peat soils (7 per cent) are permeable, and therefore have a generally low risk of water erosion – except where cultivated land is susceptible to flooding. There is a risk of wind erosion in these soils and also in the loamy and sandy soils with naturally high groundwater and a peaty surface (2 per cent), especially where surfaces are bare or spring crops are grown.

Regulating soil quality: The slowly permeable, seasonally wet, slightly acid but base-rich loamy and clayey soils (39 per cent) may suffer compaction and/or capping, as they are easily damaged when wet. In turn, this may lead to increasingly poor water infiltration and diffuse pollution as a result of surface water run-off. Management measures that increase organic matter levels can help to reduce these problems. The naturally wet, very acid, sandy and loamy soils (16 per cent) can have a weak structure, but are easily worked. Topsoil compaction can occur, as well as cultivation pans.

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: Areas within the flood plains of the main rivers and their tributaries informally provide flood storage, and therefore are already acting to protect nearby properties and businesses. The many ponds and areas of wetland perform a similar service. Flooding from the River Wyre has historically been an issue of concern, especially within the areas of Garstang, St Michael’s on Wyre and Great Eccleston (within this NCA). Following severe flooding in 1980, flood basins were constructed at Garstang and Catterall; these have prevented major flooding to property, although flooding to a number of rural properties, roads and agricultural land has still occurred. The Environment Agency’s preferred approach to managing this flood risk includes the restoration of moorland habitat by grip blocking in the Bowland Fells, as well as changes in land and soil management practices to reduce erosion rates and increase local water retention. The Ribble catchment has a history of flooding, with the flood risk concentrated in Preston (within this NCA) and upstream in Ribchester (in the Lancashire Valleys NCA). Opportunities exist within the Upper Ribble and Hodder sub-catchments to provide flood storage and to create habitats that could reduce the downstream flood risk. Reservoirs at Rivington Moor (in the Southern Pennines NCA) play an important role in regulating flow from the upper catchment, and in reducing flood peaks on the Yarrow and Douglas. The flood plain of the lower Douglas and Yarrow consists of high-grade agricultural land where drainage is modified by pumping within a complex network of artificial channels. The main locations of fluvial flood risk to people and property within the NCA are Croston and Eccleston (on the River Yarrow), Leyland and the Lostock area (on the River Lostock), and Longton and Hutton (to the south-west of Preston, on streams draining to the River Douglas).

Regulating coastal flooding and erosion: Tidal flooding typically occurs along the coastline, where high tides combine with a storm surge, wind and wave action to raise the sea level over the top of coastal defences. The main urban areas influenced by direct tidal flooding are Lytham St Anne’s, Penwortham near Preston, Hesketh Bank and Walton-le-Dale. Many rivers are tidally influenced, with the potential to increase flooding upstream by preventing inland fluvial rivers from draining freely. Liggard Brook, Dow Brook and Savick Brook in the Ribble catchment are affected in this way. High water levels within the Douglas Estuary may prevent pumped or flapped outfalls from drainage channels from working correctly, leading to flooding behind the tidal defences, mainly affecting agricultural land. 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: A sense of place is provided by the generally flat, fertile and gently rolling coastal plain, interrupted by isolated hills. The plain is dissected by wide, meandering rivers and an extensive network of rectilinear raised drainage ditches and dykes, with wind pumps that form distinctive features in the landscape – a reminder of the area’s heritage of wetland reclamation from mosses and meres. The Ribble Estuary and coastline provide a strong sense of place in the west, with the Victorian coastal resorts of Blackpool and Lytham St Anne’s forming the focal points for settlement. Extensive intertidal sand and mudflats are backed by remnant dunes and some of the largest salt marshes in the country. Views are set against the dramatic backdrop of the Forest of Bowland in the north-east and the Lake District to the north. Blackpool Tower is visible from many parts of the area. There are extensive views across the Irish Sea and along the coastline, including distant views of mountain ranges in North Wales and the Lake District.

Sense of history: The history of the landscape is evident in its transformation from an area of extensive lowland raised mires to productive reclaimed farmland, beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries and reflected in the regular drainage ditches and dykes, canals, windmills and isolated red-brick farm buildings. Little evidence remains of the area’s former landscape, aside from small areas of remnant mosses or fen carr that provide indications of strip cultivation on boundaries of ancient enclosure between the rivers Wyre and Ribble, and place names that refer to ‘moss’ or ‘mere’. Aspects of history likely to be most evident to the general public are to be found in the Victorian seaside towns of Blackpool and Lytham St Anne’s, as well as in the area’s parklands; these are most notable to the south, and include Knowsley Park, Rufford Abbey, Lytham Hall and Stanley Park.

Recreation: There are many opportunities for informal recreation, particularly along the Fylde coast. The area is surrounded by large population centres, including Liverpool to the south and Preston in the centre; urban areas are also concentrated along the Fylde and Sefton coasts. Wyre Estuary Country Park and Lostock Valley Country Park are the only statutory country parks within the NCA, although Cuerden Valley Park fulfils a similar function. All the major conurbations have municipal parks. A number of the nature reserves within the area are free and open to the public, and offer opportunities for quiet recreation and enjoyment of the natural world. These include Mere Sands Wood, Marshside, Hesketh Bank, Fleetwood Marsh, Marton Mere and Longton Brickcroft. Brockholes and Martin Mere require payment for access, and there is restricted public access to the Ribble Estuary National Nature Reserve.

Public footpaths also offer significant opportunities for birdwatching on private farmland and on the coast. The Ribble Link, Lancaster Canal, and Leeds and Liverpool Canal all cross the NCA, and offer extensive recreational opportunities, including walking, fishing and boating. Several long-distance paths cross the NCA, including the Lancashire Coastal Way, the Ribble Way and the Wyre Way, as well as canal towpaths. The Trans Pennine Trail National Cycle Route crosses the lower part of the NCA, linking the area as far away as Hornsea on the east coast, while the Preston Guild Wheel National Cycle Route loops around the city. The Lancashire Cycleway path crosses the NCA both above and below the Ribble Estuary, and there are long stretches of cycle paths around the coast. Horse riding on the beaches is characteristic in some areas, for example at St Anne’s. Tourism is an important contributor to the local economy; however, visitor numbers are much lower than they were in the heyday of these Victorian and Edwardian seaside resorts.

Biodiversity: The NCA is an intensively farmed landscape, and agricultural changes over the past 200 years have seen the majority of habitats considerably reduced in size and quality. Despite this, the NCA supports a range of important habitats and species, and contains one Special Area of Conservation, three Special Protection Areas and three Ramsar sites, with over 2,700 ha nationally designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). In addition, the area has seven Local Nature Reserves and 219 Local Wildlife Sites, which provide further habitats for wildlife and also opportunities for communities to engage with and enjoy nature close to where they live.

The principal priority habitats within the NCA are coastal and flood plain grazing marsh and salt marsh, with some arable margins, lowland raised bog, lowland meadows, fens and lowland heathland also represented. The large number of ponds and marl pits are a particularly important but vulnerable resource.

Most of the prime agricultural land within the NCA is former mossland – under 400 ha of lowland moss habitat remains. What is left exists as small, isolated, hydrologically damaged remnants of a once-extensive moss resource. Only one of these remnants, Winmarleigh Moss SSSI, now retains anything like the original raised mire conditions supporting Sphagnum mosses.

The NCA is home to two plant species endemic to the British Isles: purple ramping fumitory and Isle of Man cabbage. The coastal habitats, along with the large areas of open water and linear canals (such as at Martin Mere, Mere Sands Wood and Marton Mere), are of international importance for their populations of migratory and wintering wildfowl and wading birds. The intertidal flats of the Ribble Estuary support thousands of birds including the knot, oystercatcher, redshank, dunlin, curlew and godwit, while the extensive areas of grazed salt marsh are of considerable importance for feeding flocks of wigeon, pink-footed goose, whooper swan and Bewick’s swan. The ungrazed salt marshes on the Wyre Estuary are of importance for their plant communities, including large areas of sea lavender, sea purslane, thrift and sea aster.