Valuing the Cober – Ecosystem Services Mapping

In 2015 Katrina Threadgill conducted her MSc Geography dissertation on different ways people value the Cober catchment. You can read the full report here: Mapping social and biophysical values of ecosystem services on a catchment scale: a case study of the River Cober catchment, West Cornwall. Kindly Katrina has also summarised her research and findings for this blog.

The Cober catchment, like any landscape, can be valued by lots of different people in lots of different ways.  While to some it may represent a productive agricultural landscape, to others it may be a place of recreation, cultural heritage, aesthetic beauty or rich biodiversity.  To most, its value is made up of a complex combination of many of these different benefits, or ‘ecosystem services’ (see below). Or alternatively put in the UK National Ecosystem Assessment “the benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living”.


As part of my MSc studies at the University of Exeter, over the last few months I have studied the way in which ecosystem services are spatially distributed across the Cober catchment, both in terms of physical measures of the capacity of the landscape to provide nature-derived benefits such as agricultural productivity and flood mitigation, and in terms of the social values (i.e. the non-monetary values perceived by people) borne out of and ascribed to natural systems.


In order to collect data about social values of ecosystem services, I surveyed local members of the community and, presenting them with a map of the catchment, I asked them to identify locations where they felt each of a number of ecosystem services (table below) were provided.  These data were then analysed to produce maps of statistically significant hotspots for social perceptions of each service within the catchment.

Social value type Social value description
Aesthetic This area is important to me because I enjoy the scenery, sights, sounds, smells etc.
Agricultural This area is important to me because it provides economic and life-sustaining benefits of agriculture
Biological Diversity This area is important to me because it provides a variety of wildlife, plant life, fish etc.
Cultural This area is important to me because it is a place for me to continue and pass down the wisdom and knowledge, traditions and way of life of my ancestors
Flood Defence This area is important to me because it defends my property, lifestyle, economic interests or wellbeing from flooding
Intrinsic This area is important to me in and of itself, whether people are present or not
Recreation This area is important to me because it provides a place for my favourite outdoor recreation activities
Tourism This area is important to me because it supports tourism activities, which provide economic and/or cultural benefits to the area

Social values of ecosystem services assessed in this research

To assess the biophysical values of ecosystem services within the catchment, two example ecosystem services of relevance to the Cober were chosen: agricultural productivity and flood mitigation.  Agricultural productivity was mapped using satellite imagery data to derive a vegetation productivity index, and flood mitigation was mapped using a topographic model of the terrain of the catchment combined with a land cover dataset to assess water regulation capacity.  Again, these data were analysed to identify statistical hotspots of each of these two ecosystem services within the catchment.


Maps of social and biophysical value show that whilst most social value hotspots were found in downstream regions, biophysical values predominated in the upper regions of the catchment.  As we might expect, Loe Pool offers a multitude of cultural benefits to the local community.  Hotspots of social values of aesthetic, cultural and recreational values are centred in and around the pool.  So too are hotspots of social perceptions of biological diversity, suggesting that the public have a good understanding of the biological importance of the pool.

social raw edit

Perceived social values of eight ecosystem services within the Cober catchment.[White areas indicate areas for which no locations of social value were identified]

social hotspot edit

Social value hotspots

No overlap was found between hotpots of social and physical measures of agricultural productivity, suggesting either that the public tends to measure different aspects of agricultural value to those assessed through biophysical measures (perhaps putting an emphasis on heritage over productivity), or it may suggest that the public experiences difficulty in mapping physical services such as agricultural productivity, as opposed to cultural services such as aesthetics or recreation.

No statistically significant hotspots of social values of flood defence, tourism or cultural could be identified. However, spatial distribution of social values of flood defence does appear to follow the route of the watercourse, suggesting that the public may put a emphasis on riverside artificial defences in their perceptions of flood mitigation value, as opposed to recognising the role of upstream natural ecosystems in regulating downstream flows (although only very limited hotspots of biophysical flood mitigation could be identified in this catchment).

physical hotspot edit

Biophysical value hotspots

Wider Context

This research provides explicit social evidence for the value of the Loe Pool SSSI to the local community.  It also highlights potential discrepancies between the spatial distributions of social and biophysical values of ecosystem services.  Both social and biophysical dimensions should be considered when assessing landscape value because both are important to management decisions, yet explicit comparison between these different types of value is rarely considered.

The value of ecosystems should not be evaluated simply in terms of the economic benefits.  It is important to also consider social perceptions of ecosystem services in order to understand how the public views the contribution of nature to their own wellbeing. This research suggests that social perceptions of physical ecosystem services (agricultural productivity and flood mitigation) may not align with biophysical measures.  Spatial separation between hotspots of landscape value types upstream (high biophysical value), and downstream (high social value) suggests that certain regions may suffer from a lack of prominence in the public consciousness whilst at the same time biophysical assessments are insufficient to capture all dimensions of the value of the Cober catchment landscape.


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