Mapping Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services for Malvern Hills AONB


The Malvern Hills Area was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1959. The designation covers 105 square kilometres, and includes parts of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. The primary purpose of AONB designation is to conserve and enhance natural beauty.

In 2020, the Malvern Hills AONB Partnership began work to produce a Nature Recovery Plan. All of the UK’s AONB have agreed to produce such plans, as part of the 2019 Colchester Declaration. They are part of the AONB network’s commitment to help create a Nature Recovery Network (NRN) – essentially an interconnected network of wildlife-rich places – as laid out in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan of 2018.

It is expected that Nature Recovery Plans will, in turn, support statutory AONB Management Plans and future Local Nature Recovery Strategies. The latter are a new system of spatial strategies for nature which will plan, map, and help drive more coordinated, practical and focused action on nature recovery, which will contribute to the creation of the NRN.

Project brief

In January 2021, Ecosulis was commissioned to develop ecosystem service baseline maps for the Malvern Hills AONB and surrounding land within a three kilometre radius. The study area encompassed land in Worcestershire, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire. This spatial mapping exercise would contribute to the development of the Malvern Hills AONB Nature Recovery Plan.

The work carried out built upon natural capital assessment tools developed as part our ecosystem service mapping project with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.

There were three main elements to the work:

  • Production of a suite of ecosystem service baseline and opportunity maps for the Malvern Hills AONB and a surrounding buffer area of three kilometres.
  • Development of an innovative technique to spatialise landscape character within the historic AONB landscape, with input from historic environment advisors from Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire county councils.
  • Integration of this technique into natural capital mapping to create maps of landscape character as an ecosystem service.

The initial ecosystem service mapping element of the project was completed using the habitat service scoring matrix (HSSM) approach developed by Natural England and the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford.




manage Biodiversity

The spatial mapping exercise carried out by Ecosulis will contribute to the development of the Malvern Hills AONB Nature Recovery Plan. The overall aim of this plan is to enhance wild nature and stop and reverse biodiversity decline, both within the AONB, and as part of a nationwide Nature Recovery Network. The work carried out by Ecosulis complemented a parallel project undertaken by the Gloucestershire Centre for Environmental Records (GCER) to model ecological networks and undertake biodiversity opportunity mapping within the Malvern AONB.

Protect Habitats

Functional, healthy habitats that are rich in wild nature are better able to generate the ecosystem services that people rely on. Mapping the natural capital assets and the ecosystem services they generate within the Malvern AONB will enable decision making that leads to the upgrading of natural habitats.

empower-us-to-act People

The people living in and around the Malvern Hills AONB rely on the benefits that nature provides. Accurately mapping the area’s ecosystem services, and the natural assets which generate those services, will enable those benefits to be protected and enhanced.

How we added value

Extending the HSSM 

The HSSM is a key component of a forthcoming eco-metric tool that is being co-developed by DEFRA and Natural England. It will work alongside the DEFRA biodiversity metric to support the delivery of natural capital net gain (which links biodiversity net gain with environmental net gain). 

A limitation of the HSSM approach when applied to AONBs is that it does not currently account for landscape character. Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) is the process of identifying and describing variation in the character of the landscape. LCAs identify and explain the combination of elements and features that make landscapes distinct from one another by mapping and describing Landscape Character Types and Areas. The associated description of their distinctive characteristics shows how the landscape is perceived and experienced by people.

Local heritage specialists from Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire county councils provided us with access to existing landscape character and historic environment assessments. Ecosulis used this to develop an approach to extend the HSSM, enabling it to recognise the role of different habitats in contributing to each of the landscape character types identified through the LCA. By integrating landscape character into the HSSM, Ecosulis were able to explore the relationship between landscape character and ecosystem service provision in the Malvern Hills AONB.

Innovation in mapping and scoring cultural ecosystem services 

Cultural ecosystem services are not as strongly associated with habitat as other ecosystem service types. Indeed, Dales et al. (2014) concluded that habitats are not a valid proxy for mapping the production of cultural ecosystem services. The HSSM approach developed by the Environmental Change Institute integrates cultural ecosystem services. However, while adapting these values for our work in Gloucestershire , we found that input from expert review groups exhibited subjectivity and “conservation desirability” bias. 

In response to these challenges, Ecosulis developed a novel scoring methodology based on the natural asset approach (Ecosulis, 2019; Jepson et al., 2017). Under this novel approach, value is treated as a relational outcome, reflecting developments in ecosystem service theory, where cultural ecosystem services are increasingly recognised as the result of engagements between human culture and nature (Chan et al., 2012).   


“Understanding the many different benefits or ‘services’ that our individual habitats (such as woodlands, orchards and grasslands) provide for people and the rest of nature is an increasingly important part of our work. However, the Malvern Hills AONB is designated for the quality of its landscape, which is the result of the complex action and interaction of natural and/or human factors over time. 

This significant piece of work by Ecosulis has helped us to better understand how ecosystem services relate to landscape character and to the historic environment of this nationally protected area. This will help us as we work with partners to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the AONB in the future.” 

Paul Esrich, Malvern Hills AONB Partnership Manager 

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