Oxfordshire Wildlife and Landscape Study
Historically, the focus for biodiversity conservation has been centred round
designated sites such as SSSIs and county wildlife sites. In Oxfordshire,
the total area for such sites is less than 4%, which means that the biodiversity
importance of the wider countryside is often under-represented. More recently,
greater emphasis has been placed on considering these key sites within their
wider landscape context as part of a more holistic approach to countryside conservation.
In 2001 a 3 year National Demonstration project was established within the
county in order to explore the relationship between biodiversity and landscape
character. It was jointly sponsored by the County Council, English Nature’s
Lifescapes programme, the Countryside Agency and the Northmoor Trust. The project
was designed to nest within the Natural/Countryside Character Areas framework.
It involved carrying out a detailed landscape character assessment and biodiversity
appraisal of the whole county using a combination of desk-based study and fieldwork.
Both the landscape assessment and biodiversity appraisal were undertaken at
a local scale based on the landscape description unit framework (LDU).
LDUs are the “building blocks” of the landscape characterisation
assessment and are based on common physiographic and cultural attributes. Recording
biodiversity information at this landscape scale was very broad brush and mainly
involved recording the habitats present making calculation of their size, extent,
proximity and whenever possible, an assessment of their condition. The recording
system was based on work undertaken by Reading University as part of the Living
Landscapes Project, which is also supported by English Nature. This information
was complemented by existing data on designated sites.
A scoring system was devised that was based mainly on the type and range of
habitats falling within each LDU. As a result, every LDU. was eventually
assigned a “bioscore” and these were then grouped into 6 bands ranging
from very high to low. A “biomap” of the county was established
on a GIS database and it is illustrated below. “Hot spots” such
as the Chilterns and Corallian Ridge are very obvious and the flat, intensively
managed agricultural landscapes to the south of Abingdon are also evident. The
database was also used to highlight all those LDUs, which support
a particular priority habitat, such as calcareous grassland. Based on the size,
extent, proximity and condition of these priority habitats it was possible to
highlight the variation in quality between each LDU. In turn, the GIS database
will eventually link with more detailed information on these specific priority
habitats and species. Potentially this will allow us to move through the GIS
database from a national level right down to individual species recorded on
It is anticipated that the database will ultimately provide a powerful tool
for providing strategic guidance for both planning process and targeting of
agri-environment schemes. However, it could also appeal to a wider variety of
interested parties ranging from AONB Partnerships to local communities, which
would be able to view the “biomap” from their own boundary perspectives.
Recently, the methodology has been hypothetically tested with colleagues from
South Oxfordshire District Council on a large area of land to the west of Didcot,
which has already been allocated for residential development. Referring to the
biomap the LDUs in question came out as having low/medium biodiversity
and on closer inspection the habitats present consisted mainly of enclosure
hedges, semi-improved pasture, small woods and streams. As expected, these were
replicated to varying extents within the development area. Using this information
it became possible to prepare a landscape plan which incorporated a biodiversity
framework that safeguarded the more important, higher-scoring, habitats and
also looked for opportunities for managing and expanding them so that the overall
biodiversity quality of the existing agricultural landscape could be improved
on the back of permitted development.
The whole purpose of the study is not to add further constraints to development
but to guide it in a way, which will hopefully avoid further damage to our most
sensitive landscapes and habitats and also help to improve other areas where
the landscape and biodiversity resource has been degraded. Who knows, in 50
years time the whole Biomap might be red?