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1.5 The benefits of the Mendip Hills AONB to society

Climbing in Burrington Combe © Mendip Hills AONB Unit

The Mendip Hills AONB provides a wide range of benefits to society. Each is derived from the attributes and processes (both natural and cultural features) within the area. These benefits are known collectively as ecosystem services and are shown on a summary table. The table shows the importance of these services nationally, regionally and locally. Services of national importance reflect the AONB's special qualities that have given its national protected landscape status.

The predominant services are summarised below:

Cultural services (inspiration, education and wellbeing)

Sense of place/inspiration: The Mendip Hills have a very strong character defined by their geology and position rising abruptly from the Somerset Levels. Species-rich scarp slope woodlands, calcareous grassland and the sparsely settled open plateau defined by rectilinear dry stone wall enclosures contrast with the Chew Valley with pattern of hedgerows, spring line settlements, and lakes.

Geodiversity: The AONB has 7 nationally designated geological and 8 mixed interest (geological and biological) SSSIs and 18 Local Geological Sites reflecting the importance of the geological interest. These include natural features of exposed rocks, dry gorges, sink holes, areas of sunken ground and cave systems of the classic Carboniferous Limestone karst landscape to sandstone peaks and along history of quarrying and mining which ties it closely to the history and culture of the area.

Sense of history: The history of the landscape is evident ranging from prehistoric settlement and activity to World War 2 archaeology. The prehistoric henges of Gorsey Bigbury and Priddy Circles form in combination with over 300 Bronze Age barrows, a ritual landscape of national significance. Large hill forts from the Iron Age such as Dolebury and smaller sites such as Banwell are evidence of a complex pattern of territories and lordship. Quarries and pitted landscapes are evidence of lead mining and other extraction activity some of which continues today. Field patterns reflect the various histories of enclosure and settlement.

Recreation: The Mendip Hills are accessible to the large populations of Bristol, Bath and Weston-super-Mare and the smaller surrounding settlements. Access to the outdoors is fundamental to promoting healthier lifestyles. Tourism is important to the local economy, Wookey Hole and Cheddar Gorge drawing in large numbers of visitors. Caving, climbing, cycling and walking are also popular activities.

Biodiversity: There are 27 SSSI’s covering 2712 ha, 3 Special Area of Conservation (SAC), 1 Special Protection Area (SPA) and 2 National Nature Reserves within the Mendip Hills AONB. Ash woodland and calcareous grasslands are internationally designated as well as sites for greater horseshoe bats.

Provisioning services (food, fibre and water supply)

Food provision: Cheddar has a long tradition of, and is internationally associated with, cheese production. Dairying is prevalent on the plateau, including land owned by the Yeo Valley dairy, a national food producer.

Water availability: The entire area lies over an important Carboniferous Limestone aquifer which is designated as a Major Aquifer Unit making a major contribution to public water supply and supplying Bristol and the surrounding area via Cheddar, Blagdon and Chew Valley reservoirs. The Mendip aquifer also supplies the hot springs in Bath.

Regulating services (water purification, air quality maintenance and climate regulation)

Regulating soil erosion: The vast majority of soils covering the Mendip Hills are at risk of erosion where poor management could result in loss of stabilising vegetation. This is exacerbated by the steep slopes and high precipitation. Sustainable systems of arable cultivation and appropriate levels of livestock to reduce poaching and soil exposure, particularly on steeper slopes are encouraged.

Regulating water quality: Most of the AONB is within a Groundwater Source Protection Zone due to its contribution to public water supply. Groundwater quality is generally good. The ecological quality of the emergent rivers is largely moderate, Parts of the Mendip Hills fall within the Congresbury Yeo catchment, part of the North Somerset Moors Catchment Sensitive Farming Priority Catchment.