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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 the ground.

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?