National Character Area 28

Vale of York - Natural Capital and Key Ecosystem Services


The Vale of York 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 Vale of York 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 Vale of York is part of a large swathe of agricultural land starting in the Vale of Mowbray in the north and running down to the Humberhead Levels in the south. Glacial lake deposits have helped to produce high grade soils (54 per cent Grade 3 and 28 per cent Grade 2), and historic drainage has helped to make the area ideal for arable farming, with 82 per cent of the total area in cultivation. Most holdings are given over to cereals and root crops, such as potatoes and carrots, with smaller proportions of mixed cropping, lowland cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, as well as some dairy.

Water availability: The Vale of York provides a large amount of water for local communities and for those as far away as Sheffield, both from underground aquifers and from abstraction from the rivers running through the NCA. The western part of the NCA overlies a Permo-Triassic sandstone aquifer (the Sherwood Sandstone aquifer, which is a major source of drinking water for the region). Rainfall is low in the NCA, and due to existing high levels of demand on these aquifers they currently have no water available for additional abstraction (except for a small area in the south-eastern corner). 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: A low proportion of carbon is stored within the first soil horizon (0-5 per cent) across most of the NCA, although there are pockets of higher soil carbon content which coincide with the heaths at Allerthorpe and Strensall as well as some areas underlying the south-western part of York.

Regulating soil erosion: Regulation of soil erosion is currently low, although almost half the soils in the NCA are not susceptible to erosion. The light, sandy soils across much of the Vale are prone to soil erosion, with wind erosion an increasing concern in this area. Intensive agricultural practices increase the risk of erosion, especially after heavy rains or in areas of poorly draining soil. The risks are also enhanced on the steeper slopes where bare or cultivated soil is exposed and where continuous cultivation of crops such as potatoes has reduced organic levels in the soil.

Regulating soil quality: Soil quality in its current state and management enables highly productive agriculture to prevail across the NCA. The value of slowly permeable, seasonally wet, slightly acidic but base-rich loamy and clayey soils (which cover 37 per cent of the NCA) could decrease, as such soils are susceptible to compaction and can be easily damaged when wet.

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 (flooding): The NCA includes a large number of rivers that drain surrounding areas; high levels of drainage within the natural flood plains have increased the pressure on the river system, leading to a long history of flooding. The amount and speed of water arriving in the NCA are dependent on the condition of surrounding upland areas where the river headlands are located; land within the NCA is heavily drained, so more water arriving more quickly from surrounding areas increases flood risk locally. There is potential for a more naturalised regulation of flood waters in this NCA, although the system currently runs at capacity, especially along the River Ouse. Many sections of river have been canalised, disengaging them from their flood plains. These rivers cannot naturally deposit silt within flood plains, and build-up in the channels can exacerbate flooding problems by limiting the storage capacity of the waterbody. Restoration of washlands has helped to alleviate some of the flooding pressures in the lower parts of the Vale, for example to the north of the City of York.

Cultural services (inspiration, education and wellbeing)

Sense of place/inspiration: Sense of place and cultural heritage services are dominated by the arable landscape and the major rivers that dissect the flat, open landscape. Semi-natural features such as remnant heathlands, ponds, wetlands, grasslands, hedges, hedgerow trees, copses, shelterbelts, remnants of ancient semi-natural woodlands and commons are scattered through the area, as are historic features such as irregular fields, Romano-British settlements, parkland associated with country houses, distinctive linear villages, isolated farmsteads, masonry bridges and vernacular buildings of traditional materials of mottled brick and pantile roofs. Within the walls of the City of York the historic buildings and minster provide a strong sense of place.

Sense of history: There is a great sense of history throughout the NCA and the landscape is littered with evidence of settlements from Roman times. History within the Vale has been dominated by the continuous mixed land use of lush river meadow pasture and productive, versatile soils. Villages within this landscape have a structure relating to post-Norman settlement and planning but also reveal subsequent medieval redevelopment and modification. The history of enclosure, management and cultivation of the land is evident in the landscape but is being eroded due to imbalance in activity (for example there is more arable land and less pasture now). The City of York provides a central focus for historic character and entertainment, education and recreation in the Vale, attracting local, national and international visitors. The development of the city through different periods can be experienced within the city walls.

Recreation: Recreation and access are supported by the Yorkshire Wolds Way and Ebor Way long-distance routes, the network of footpaths (816 km at a density of 0.8 km per km2) and small areas of open access land (0.28 per cent of the area is open access land). The relatively little open access land in this NCA reflects the high levels of private land ownership; the areas and old estates that are open to the public provide good opportunities for recreation. Within the City of York itself opportunities exist for recreation focused around historically important sites and themes. New developments provide opportunities to improve access to, and recreation within, a wider number of sites and areas and to ensure that the public realm remains accessible and does not become privatised.

Biodiversity: The remaining heathland sites at Strensall Common and Allerthorpe Common and the river flood plain of the Lower Derwent Valley are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest for their nature conservation value. The Lower Derwent Valley Special Protection Area/Special Area of Conservation/Ramsar site is one of the most important traditionally managed, species-rich alluvial flood meadow habitats remaining in the UK. All the rivers and their corridors that flow through the Vale are important features for biodiversity, and reconnecting the rivers with the flood plain along these corridors and decreasing external pressures on them will have benefits for biodiversity.

Strensall Common and Allerthorpe Common feature the best remaining examples of heathland habitat in the NCA, supporting a number of rare invertebrates and birds.

Patches of semi-natural habitat and small features such as ponds, ditches, hedgerows and trees provide permeability to the wider landscape for biodiversity and act as important stepping stones through the agricultural areas. The NCA is a priority area for action to support farmland birds, species of which are declining.