Natural England - Energy crops and landscape character

Energy crops and landscape character

The aim of both the joint character assessment maps and accompanying tables is to ensure that landscape considerations are taken into account when planning short rotation coppice (SRC) and miscanthus plantings, and to see how they can blend in with the rest of the landscape thereby ensuring that change and development does not undermine whatever is characteristic or valued about any particular landscape.

The guidance below must be referred to when using both the maps and tables for assessing opportunities and optimum sitings of energy crops. Background information regarding both the maps and tables is provided below as well as information about how to interpret the tables.

Background to the landscape character map

In 1996 the former Countryside Commission and English Nature, with support from English Heritage, produced The Character of England Map. This map divides England into areas with similar landscape character known as Joint Character Areas (JCAs). There are 159 JCAs. These have become a widely recognised national spatial framework, used for a range of applications. One example is the targeting of Environmental Stewardship.

The map provides a picture of the differences in landscape character at the national scale. It was accompanied by detailed descriptions of each JCA showing the influences that determine the character of the landscape. These descriptions have been published in a set of eight regional volumes. For more details see National Character Areas.

It should be possible to identify which JCA an area of land falls within. However, it is important to remember that the boundaries of the JCAs are not precise and that many should be considered as broad zones of transition.

Background to the JCAs and energy crop tables

The ability of the landscape to absorb new energy crop planting without harming the qualities that make it special or distinct will vary greatly according to the scale and location of planting and the specific characteristics of that landscape. Energy crop establishment should be encouraged in locations where it will be of greatest environmental benefit and minimal risk of environmental damage.

In order to understand the potential landscape impacts of energy crops Natural England (NE) undertook a brief assessment for each JCA. This is presented as a set of tables, one for each JCA. The table numbers correspond to the JCA numbers, identified on the maps.

How to interpret the tables

The tables are based on an analysis of existing written information, especially the 1996 JCA descriptions and some later work carried out at a finer detail for agri-environment scheme targeting, supplemented by local staff knowledge. Their purpose is to summarise the key landscape characteristics of the JCA and identify the potential landscape issues associated with short rotation coppice and miscanthus. Where appropriate, guidance is given on how energy crops can best be assimilated into the landscape.

It is important to recognise that this assessment is very ‘broad brush’ and that the guidance is only indicative.  Very often there is a great deal of variation in the landscape within a JCA, and therefore the scope for energy crops will vary across the area.  On the whole, it has not been possible to reflect this in the guidance.  For this reason, all applications for grant support are considered on a site by site basis and may require a formal environmental impact assessment (EIA).  NE hope to be able to publish more detailed landscape guidance later in the year.

Notes on the table

The numbers below refer to the numbers in each JCA table.

1. Overall comments

This section summarises the key characteristics of the JCA and the potential impacts and issues concerned with energy crop planting. It aims to provide an overall indication of the suitability for biomass crop establishment. In JCAs where the physical characteristics are so extreme that it is unlikely that land managers will want to plant biomass crops this is generally noted.

2. Generic landscape characteristics

The headings are based on those used in NE’s Countryside Quality Counts (CQC) project, with the addition of ‘topography’ and ‘views and inter-visibility’.  They provide a way of breaking down the physical and visual qualities that help to make up the landscape.   The potential impacts of energy crops have been assessed against this common framework.

3. Key landscape characteristics

This section aims to highlight for each of the generic categories, the specific landscape features and characteristics within each JCA that may be relevant to the growing of energy crops

4. Potential effects

This section summarises the main potential effects of SRC and miscanthus on each of the key landscape characteristics and features.  In making the assessment NE considered both the presence or absence of crops, and the effects of scale and pattern in the landscape.  Where the impacts are likely to differ between SRC and miscanthus this has been noted.  Although it is very difficult to estimate impacts at such a general level NE have attempted to assess whether the landscape impact could be beneficial, neutral or adverse, as follows:

PB       Potentially beneficial         
N         Neutral
PA       Potentially adverse

5. Topography

Topography, or landform, is often one of the main influences on landscape character, particularly in hilly or upland areas.  NE have summarised the overall topography of each area, together with an explanation of any specific or exceptional areas or major landform types.  Topography will influence how obtrusive energy crops might be in some areas, or how they might fit in well in others. 

6. Woodland

This covers all types of woodland, from ancient and semi-natural woodlands to commercial plantations, and includes broadleaved, conifer and mixed woodlands.  As well as woodland type, NE are interested in the pattern and scale of woodlands and how woodland cover varies across the JCA.  In some areas there are close associations between specific types of woodland and particular landforms.  Issues of concern include how biomass crops might contribute to or impact on local patterns of woodland cover, and what layouts or scale might be appropriate.

7. Boundary features 

These include all forms of traditional boundaries, including hedgerows, stone walls and ditches.  NE are also interested in field patterns, particularly where these are of historic importance or are distinctive to the area.  Issues considered included whether the establishment, growth or harvesting of energy crops could have an impact on traditional and valuable boundaries, either through direct damage (e.g. to allow access for farm machinery) or by obscuring or affecting the integrity of existing field patterns. 

8. Agriculture

Agriculture  includes arable, pasture (livestock), horticulture and mixed farming.  In areas that are already intensively cropped, energy crops are likely to be less of an issue, and the impacts could be beneficial or neutral depending on scale.  Adverse impacts are more likely in pastoral areas, particularly in less intensive, unimproved grassland areas.  In areas where there is an existing underlying trend from grass to arable, the assessment has taken account of any existing landscape and land management priorities that may exist.

9. Settlement and development.

This covers population centres, roads, other infrastructure and mineral workings.  In most cases energy crops are unlikely to have a significant impacts.  However, in some cases there may be issues concerning the scale or pattern of planting where this would impact on the character of the local road network, or significantly affect the setting of towns or villages.

10. Semi-natural habitats

In this section NE are concerned with the presence or absence, scale, and pattern of semi-natural habitats, other than woodland which is covered under 6.  In general, many impacts will only be apparent at the detailed site level, which is outside the scope of this exercise.  NE have only commented where it is likely that biomass crops would impact on semi-natural habitats that are an integral part of the landscape. 

11. Historic features.

Historic features refer not just to visible monuments and remains, but also historic areas such as parks and battlefields.  As well as the presence or absence of features, NE are interested in their density and pattern of distribution, and whether they are above or below ground.  Specific, extensive archaeological or historic landscapes are noted. Issues considered included whether planting would obscure or damage historic sites, or whether it would affect the setting or integrity of a historic site.  It is important to note that historic remains are extremely widespread and many have not been fully recorded.  At this scale NE have only referred to obvious sites and concentrations of sites.  A more detailed site assessment will normally be necessary. 

12. Rivers and coasts

Water plays a key role in determining landform and defining landscape character. Issues of concern include whether energy crops could obscure watercourses or disrupt drainage patterns, and any hydrological and coastal management issues.

13. Views and inter-visibility

In some JCAs, views in, out or across an area are a key characteristic of the landscape.  These may be broad, sweeping views or local, intimate ones.  A key concern will be whether biomass crops would obscure or otherwise have an impact on the nature of these views.