Policy Option 07:
Nature Recovery

  • It is recognised that nature is declining around the world at unprecedented rates and that there has been continued decline of biodiversity nationally and locally over the past decade. Although there have been some conservation successes in Oxfordshire, nature is still in decline.

  1. A key finding of the 2017 'State of Nature in Oxfordshire' report was that there is continued fragmentation and loss of connectivity across the county's landscapes, affecting the future viability of habitats and species. Long-term decline in woodland and farmland biodiversity in particular has continued, threatening a number of associated species with extinction.

  1. Historically, agricultural changes have been one of the main contributing factors to habitat degradation and fragmentation with losses of semi-natural grasslands and floodplain meadows resulting from more intensive agricultural methods.

  1. Climate change is also a significant contributory factor with changes in temperature and rainfall resulting in negative impacts on species composition and the integrity of habitats. Pollution and growing urbanisation and invasive species are also known to contribute to species decline.

  1. Despite widespread degradation and loss of habitats, Oxfordshire retains some of the finest and rarest habitats anywhere in the country such as the wet grasslands of Otmoor. It is important that the Oxfordshire Plan aims to protect all that is good and valuable while aiming to repair and recover that which has been lost through harmful land use practices in recent years.

  1. Key actions identified for Oxfordshire in the State of Nature Report included the need to create larger and more connected areas of high-quality habitat and to assist landowners and farmers in identifying financially viable ways of managing land in a more nature friendly way. Better planning for green and blue infrastructure is regarded as being beneficial for both people and nature.

  1. The Oxfordshire Plan has an opportunity to take a proactive approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change, taking account of flood risk, water supply, biodiversity and landscapes, and the risk of overheating and drought from rising temperatures.

  1. It is proposed that the Oxfordshire Plan takes a holistic approach to nature recovery and environmental enhancement, enabled by the Plan's county-wide coverage. This allows the plan to look at threats and opportunities for the natural environment at the landscape scale which isn't necessarily possible for district-level local plans.

  1. The Oxfordshire Plan aims to protect and enhance the natural environment of Oxfordshire, including its natural capital assets, landscapes and wildlife. A key focus of this approach is on minimising impacts on and delivering net gains for biodiversity.

  1. Supporting the health and resilience of habitats and species and supporting biodiversity is fundamental to the delivery of ecosystems services for the multiple benefits that they bring to the health and wellbeing of the planet and the human populations that comprise Oxfordshire's communities.

  1. There is a wide distribution of wildlife rich, protected sites across Oxfordshire. Such sites benefit from protected status, meaning that national policy and adopted local plan policy steers harmful uses away from such sites and aims to deliver enhancements where possible.

  1. This well-established approach may have been successful in protecting individual sites but less successful in arresting the fragmentation of habitats and building resilience amongst species to a changing climate. Wildlife within protected habitats cannot survive indefinitely in isolation but need to be part of a wider network of habitats connected at the landscape scale.

  1. Conservation Target Areas (CTAs) were introduced to Oxfordshire in 2006 to identify areas where targeted conservation action could deliver the greatest benefits. There are currently 37 CTAs in Oxfordshire, covering over 20% of the county providing a focus for co-ordinated delivery of agri-environment schemes and biodiversity enhancements delivered through the planning system.

  1. The Oxfordshire Plan presents an opportunity to build on the CTA approach, to map and plan for ecological connectivity and enhancement at a landscape scale and to link key wildlife sites to achieve measurable gains in biodiversity.

  1. The establishment of a Nature Recovery Network (NRN) for Oxfordshire is considered to be an important step in defining the key spatial elements required to deliver more coherent and robust ecological networks for the county and to ensure that future development avoids harmful impacts on nature and makes a meaningful contribution to nature's recovery.

  1. For nature to recover it is important to look beyond currently protected sites and take action to extend and link existing sites, both to support wildlife and to recover the range of economic and social benefits that nature provides.

  1. Looking at ecological networks at the landscape scale, provides an opportunity to consider where existing habitats can be improved and increased in size, to improve connectivity between patches of habitat and to restore natural processes.

  1. The primary role of a Nature Recovery Network for Oxfordshire would be to support abundant wildlife but should also enhance natural beauty, conserve geodiversity and provide opportunities and benefits for people including flood alleviation, recreation and climate change resilience and adaptation.

  1. The map below shows the distribution of many of the protected wildlife sites across Oxfordshire. Although these sites benefit from protected status and many sit in a rural setting surrounded by countryside, they are not necessarily resilient to change and are in many cases disjointed from other similar habitat types as a result of intervening land uses. Species living within such sites may be threatened by not being able to migrate under changing environmental conditions. It should be noted that the map is not exhaustive and does not include all protected sites and habitats in Oxfordshire, such as all local designations.


  1. The following map illustrates how protected sites for wildlife are set within the existing network of Conservation Target Areas in Oxfordshire.

  1. Conservation Target Areas were first established in Oxfordshire in 2006 and since then have been recognised in local plans as a focal point for conservation work and deliver biodiversity net gains in a more co-ordinated manner. Local plans in Oxfordshire ensure that the aims of CTAs are considered as part of the plan-making and decision-taking process for changing land uses in Oxfordshire.

  1. Establishing a Nature Recovery Network for Oxfordshire could build on the foundation of the CTAs and expand to include important freshwater areas, to ensure that the network includes both aquatic and terrestrial habitats.

  1. Important freshwater areas are those areas that are most important for freshwater wildlife. In order to identify coherent ecological networks to be protected through plans and strategies, it is necessary to understand the extent and geographical distribution of such areas. Important freshwater areas are illustrated on the map below.
  1. There is significant overlap between the CTAs and Important Freshwater Areas, emphasising that aquatic and terrestrial habitats should be considered in tandem in identifying ecological networks and making space for nature. For freshwater networks, there are a number of terrestrial habitats that are important to the health of freshwater areas, such as woodlands in the upper catchments of river systems, which regulate both the flow and quality of water entering rivers systems.

  1. There are several catchment management plans already in place in Oxfordshire which guide conservation and flood management and improved water quality along water courses in the county. Such management plans consider the interaction between land uses in river catchments with a focus on how nature-based solutions can deliver benefits to both people and nature. Examples of such work include natural flood risk management schemes which aim to reconnect rivers with their floodplains, remove blockages to wildlife and delay the responsiveness of river channels to rainfall and to slow and store surface water runoff. Further work is required to tackle sewerage discharges.

  1. Combining both Conservation Target Areas and Important Freshwater Areas provides a strong spatial overview of where conservation efforts could be targeted in Oxfordshire to deliver multiple benefits, reducing fragmentation of sites and waterbodies and helping to build climate change resilience in the natural environment.

  1. Building a greater understanding of how these valuable areas for biodiversity can be better connected, will assist in the formation of a coherent ecological network for Oxfordshire, setting the framework for future planning for development and conservation and enhancement of the natural environment.

  1. Analysis has been undertaken in Oxfordshire to identify the most important areas for biodiversity and the areas that are most important for connecting these together. The analysis has enabled the identification of a draft Nature Recovery Network for Oxfordshire. A draft NRN has been refined through a process of engagement and consultation to define three distinct zones in Oxfordshire with 'soft boundaries' that can be subject to further refinement through the process of creating a future nature recovery strategy.

  1. The draft NRN for Oxfordshire comprises the following components and the map which follows indicates the extent of the areas.

Core Zone:

The Core zone of the NRN contains the most important sites for biodiversity in the county. The identification of the core zone of the NRN does not diminish the protection afforded to such sites through existing national and local policy, which will continue to benefit from a high level of protection.

Special Protection AreasSpecial Areas for Conservation,
Sites of Special Scientific Interest
Ramsar sites
Local Nature Reserves
Local Wildlife Sites (including proposed)
Cherwell District Wildlife Sites
Oxford City Wildlife Sites
BBOWT reserves
Woodland Trust woodlands
Other sites of local importance for nature conservation
All priority habitats

The core of the NRN is the main priority for nature conservation. Actions within the core zone should focus on the protection and management of important sites to support the greatest amount of biodiversity.

Recovery Zone:
The recovery zone consists of Conservation Target Areas, Important Freshwater Areas and a freshwater network, with additional areas of land added to provide better connectivity.

The recovery zone is where new habitat creation and habitat restoration should be focussed. Habitat creation and restoration in this zone will better link parts of the core network, either by buffering and connecting core sites or by providing corridors or stepping-stones between core sites.

Wider Landscape Zone:
The wider countryside is still important for nature's recovery. The focus within the wider landscape zone should be on strengthening landscape character and making room for nature, including hedgerow restoration and creation, managing farmland with nature in mind or improving access to the countryside.

Policy Options

Preferred Policy Option

The preferred option is to identify those parts of the county that are important for establishing a well-connected ecological network and to use this mapped resource to shape the policies, define the spatial strategy and determine the spatial distribution of development in the Oxfordshire Plan. Utilising the draft Nature Recovery Network to shape the Oxfordshire Plan will ensure that future development and ecological enhancements are directed to locations where they can minimise harm and secure the greatest benefits in supporting nature's recovery and building resilience in communities and ecosystems to climate change.

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