Conserving what's underfoot

What is geodiversity?

Pakefiield Cliffs in Suffolk, part of the Pakefield to Easton Bavents SSSI. The dark horizon is the Rootlet Bed, part of the Cromer Forest Bed Formation. In 2003 evidence of the earliest human activity in northern Europe was found here, dated to about 680,000 years ago.
Pakefiield Cliffs in Suffolk, part of the
Pakefield to Easton Bavents SSSI.
It is easy to overlook geodiversity, although it is frequently staring us in the face: the rocks, soils, landforms and landscape-forming processes that make up the substrate for all living things, including human life. Geodiversity is a term for these non-biological aspects of nature. It is an unfamiliar term, but one which is being used with increasing frequency in the worlds of nature conservation and planning policy.

Geodiversity may be defined as the natural range (diversity) of geological features (rocks, minerals, fossils, structures), geomorphological features (landforms and processes) and soil features that make up the landscape. It includes their assemblages, relationships, properties, interpretations and systems.

The standard reference book is ‘Geodiversity’ (Gray 2004), and the above definition is adapted from this source.

Legislation and planning advice contributing to geodiversity conservation

Britain can be proud of its geodiversity – it has more geological diversity than any other comparable area in the world. But until recently, geodiversity has been an under-valued part of nature conservation in the UK.

The statutory conservation of geological and geomorphological features is part of the remit of National ParksPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet, National Nature ReservesPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)Pages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet. These were established under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and form a network of statutorily protected areas. There are about 2,300 SSSIs in Britain designated for their Earth heritage interest (about one third of the total). They were identified under the Nature Conservancy Council’s Geological Conservation Review process. In Northern Ireland SSSIs are called Areas of Special Scientific Interest. Legal provisions for SSSIs were strengthened under the Wildlife & Countryside ActPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet (1981 as amended 1985) and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000)Pages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet. The Town & Country Planning Act (1947 and 1990) ensured that local authorities consulted the Nature Conservancy and its successor bodies on planning applications relevant to SSSIs and allowed them to adopt appropriate planning policies.

The non-statutory conservation of geodiversity is principally carried out under the Regionally Important Geological/geomorphological Site (RIGS)Pages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet scheme. RIGS fall under the category of non-statutory ‘Local Sites’ (DEFRA 2006), but the network is not yet fully extended across the country (UKRIGS 2006). RIGS are treated by Planning Policy Statement 9 (PPS9) as under a category of Regional and Local Sites (ODPM 2005). PPS9 views geo-conservation as part of the Government’s objectives for sustainable development, nature conservation and social renewal. It says local planning authority policies should attach ‘appropriate weight’ to designated sites and also ‘geological interests in the wider environment’.  Although RIGS enjoy no legal protection many local authorities give them conservation status in their planning policies such as Local Development Framework (LDF) and Minerals and Waste Development Framework documents. An opportunity exists to include baseline geodiversity indicators in the Sustainability Appraisal process which is part of the LDF process.

Non-statutory geo-conservation may also be an important part of landscape designations such as the AONBsPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet and Heritage Coasts in England and National Scenic Areas in Scotland. The National TrustPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet and the Wildlife TrustsPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet are examples of conservation organisations which routinely protect geodiversity as part of their remit.

Geodiversity Action Plans

A RIGS site in Suffolk. This is boulder an outstanding example of a glacial erratic of Spilsby Sandstone, brought from Lincolnshire by an ice sheet of Anglian age, c. 450,000 years ago.
Valuing geodiversity: this glacial erratic
is a designated RIGS site in Suffolk.
The Local Geodiversity Action Plans (LGAPs) concept was first proposed by English NaturePages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet in 2001 and modelled on the successful BAP format. LGAPs aim to provide a sustainable framework for regional and local geo-conservation in defined areas, involving a wide range of partners to ensure local support for their objectives. The LGAP process is gathering momentum across Britain. As at 2007, 27 LGAPs have been launched or are in development, covering areas such as counties, AONBs and National Parks, and at least three mineral aggregate companies are preparing GAPs of their own. A National GAP is at drafting stage, to provide a national framework for geodiversity conservation.

Typically, a GAP will

Linking geodiversity and biodiversity

While a ‘torrent of effort’ is being put into biodiversity conservation in Britain, geodiversity conservation has until lately been a poor relation. However the linkage between geodiversity and biodiversity is being increasingly recognised and promoted at a national level (English Nature 2004). The Natural Areas concept developed by English Nature in the 1990s as a strategic, landscape-scale approach to nature conservation has geodiversity at its core by defining 97 terrestrial Areas based on rocks, soils and landforms (English Nature 1998). Geodiversity is also contributing to landscape conservation, which is being integrated into the planning system through the Landscape Character Types concept, placing places human settlement and land-use patterns into their context of rock types, soils and landforms (Landscape Character Network 2007). In 2006 English Nature, the Countryside Agency and DEFRA’s Rural Development Service jointly published ‘Natural Foundations: geodiversity for people, places and nature’ as major a step towards an integrated approach to environmental conservation, management and enhancement, by linking biodiversity, landscape and human life (Stace & Larwood 2006).

The above was adapted from the article ‘A Geodiversity Action Plan for Suffolk’ by Tim Holt-Wilson (Transactions of the Suffolk Naturalists Society, forthcoming 2007), with acknowledgement to Gray (2004) for detail on legislative background.