National Character Area 79

North East Norfolk and Flegg - Natural Capital and Key Ecosystem Services


The North East Norfolk and Flegg 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 North East Norfolk and Flegg 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: There is major commercial agriculture in this NCA, with 70 per cent of the land area under some form of agricultural management. Significant quantities of arable crops, (including cereals , oilseed rape, potatoes and sugar beet, are sown in rotation, with more specialist crops such as field beans and peas and a range of horticultural vegetable crops (celery, sprouting broccoli and carrots) also being produced. Soft fruit production around Tunstead is significant. Meat production from lamb and beef is low by comparison with The Broads NCA; pig and poultry production dominates, although pig numbers have fallen since 2000.

Water availability: The NCA is in the driest part of the country with an average annual rainfall of 600 mm. Droughts are a regular feature of the climate here. The holiday resorts of the coast undergo significant population expansions in the summer months, which coincides with greater water demand from the agricultural sector, creating a seasonally high summer demand on water resources. In the east of the NCA a small section of the River Yare, which is tidal, runs from the Breydon Water through Gorleston-on-Sea and Great Yarmouth to the North Sea. Near North Walsham 7.25 km of the disused canal section of the River Ant, runs north to south through the NCA but is dry for 6 km so water availability is very limited. Further north at Mundesley the River Mun is distinct in being little more than a stream and runs for 2.5 km through the NCA. Water availability for licensing is only during high flows. Omesby Broad in the The Broads NCA is an important water source for this NCA’s farmland and settlements. There are potable water boreholes at Trunch and Mundesley which draw water from the chalk aquifer below. Abstraction from these sources is strictly limited due to concerns about the impact of abstraction on aquifer-fed fen communities, low river flows and saltwater ingress from the North Sea. In the south-west of the NCA groundwater is pumped from the chalk aquifer and surface water which is abstracted from the River Wensum. (Anglian Waters) For information regarding the current state of water availability within this NCA, refer to the Environment Agency (Abstraction Licensing Strategy).

Genetic diversity: Many villages and farmsteads retain small traditional orchards, preserving a number of locally important apple varieties including Happisburgh, Green Roland, Vicar of Beighton and Winter Broaden.

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

Regulating soil erosion: Over half of the NCA land area is under arable cultivation, and soils are at risk of erosion on moderately or steeply sloping land around North Walsham and when high risk crops such as sugar beet and potatoes are grown on sloping sandy soils. Erosion is exacerbated where organic matter levels are low after continuous arable cultivation, or where soils are compacted. There is potential for wind erosion, particularly near the coast.

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 NCA has limited storage capacity; the agricultural enhancement of the past few hundred years has tended towards rapid drainage of the land rather than water retention. Fluvial flooding of the River Yare, combined with high groundwater levels, poses a significant risk to Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, while the River Mun poses a significant flood risk to Mundesley. Other settlements at high risk of flooding in the NCA includes North Walsham, Caistor-on-Sea, Stalham, and Hembsy.

Regulating coastal flooding and erosion: The coastline in the NCA is dynamic and constantly evolving. The coastal strip between Mundesley and Happisburgh is part of the most physically active length of coast within Britain and is the main source of sediment for beaches along the southern part of the coast. The natural process of erosion and accretion which takes place unimpeded along this section of coast is necessary to feed beaches, enabling them to build up, helping to provide a natural defence against flooding in towns and villages, and satisfying statutory nature conservation requirements (Kelling to Lowestoft Ness Shoreline Management Plan – First Review: Non Technical Summary, 2010). Extensive natural dune systems fringe parts of the low-lying stretches of coastline, acting as a natural defence by absorbing wave energy and/or providing extra flood storage needs. 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 sense of place in the NCA is created by the dual influences of the coast and the North Sea and the farmland of the hinterland, which is much valued for agriculture. The coastal environment is of exceptional importance for its historical, biological, geological and geomorphological interest. Long, wind-swept, sandy beaches create a striking landscape, with a sense of wilderness enjoyed by millions of people. Next to the coast, large agricultural areas have resulted from extensive hedgerow removal. This contrasts with the high hedgerows, small blocks of woodland and small- to medium-scale irregular fields that produce a more intimate character further inland.

The strength of vernacular built character in settlement cores such as Winterton- on-Sea and North Walsham is notable and creates a strong sense of identity. Skyline features in Great Yarmouth result from resort development and the industrial activities associated with the port and deepwater outer harbour. Flegg is dominated along its coastline by extensive tourist developments. Authors such as Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens and Anna Sewell have strong connections with the area, and the Nelson monument in Great Yarmouth is a reminder of his many maritime achievements locally and his cultural importance to the NCA.

Sense of history: The history of the landscape is evident in the area’s archaeology, herring fishing heritage, rich agricultural associations, and historic buildings and landmarks. Coastal erosion in places such as Happisburgh has been a constant theme throughout its history and extends back into the geological timescale. Footprints from a family dating back 850,000-950,000 years were discovered in Happisburgh in 2013. They are the oldest human footprints found in Europe and are some of the oldest in the world. Herring fishing and work in associated industries such as salt production, sail and net making and basket weaving have been part of local life for the last 900 years.

Early enclosure of land is reflected in the dense pattern of nucleated villages and lanes, with many isolated pre-19th-century farms. Arable cultivation historically gave way to sheep husbandry on the lighter lands in the west of the NCA, as evidenced by the major wool centres of Worstead. The 1953 flooding was a trigger for the building of defences from sea flooding, and the evocative anti- invasion defences of 1940 are dotted around the coastline and inland.

Tranquillity: A sense of tranquillity is likely to be particularly associated with the undeveloped stretches of the northern coastline, as well as the more remote inland areas with views over the Broads, where patches of woodland and semi-natural grassland occur. Longer term, the tranquillity of the NCA may be compromised by increases in road traffic (traffic levels are projected to increase by 30 per cent by 2015) and new development.

Recreation: The Weavers’ Way long-distance footpath runs between North Walsham and Stalham, and the National Cycle Network (Regional Route 30) runs through the area, from Mundesley to Great Yarmouth. Tourism is very much centred on the coastal resorts of Great Yarmouth, Gorleston-on-Sea and Hemsby. There are smaller, associated tourist hotspots at Scratby-California, Walcott and Mundesley, although most of the settlements along this coast offer tourist accommodation on some level. The 25 km stretch of golden sand along the coast attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to Great Yarmouth and neighbouring resorts. These quintessential British seaside resorts provide pier-based pavilion theatres and many traditional holiday activities and amusement arcades.

Biodiversity: There are more than 392 ha (less than 2 per cent of the NCA) of priority habitat within the NCA. This includes 145 ha of coastal sand dunes, maritime cliff and slope, undetermined grassland, coastal and flood plain grazing marsh, reedbeds and rush pasture, lowland mixed deciduous woodland, wet woodland, and lowland heathland. The NCA contains two SPAs, three SAC and a Ramsar site, and 149 ha (around 1 per cent of the NCA) is designated as SSSI.

Geodiversity: The area is geologically complex, with glacial deposits of boulder clay, sands and gravel over Crag (shelly sands and pebbly gravels frequently with embedded fossils). The cliffs between Overstrand and Mundesley include some of the finest soft cliff habitat in Britain. The coastal strip between Mundesley and Happisburgh is part of the most physically active coastline in Britain and is the main provider of sediment for the area’s beaches and coastal sand dunes. Natural offshore banks along this stretch help to protect the coastline between Winterton-on-Sea and Great Yarmouth by affecting both the waves and the currents at the shore.