Lancashire's Biodiversity Riches

The following description of the county's current biodiversity resource is based upon the concept of 'Natural Areas'(see map Natural areas).

3. Natural Areas

English Nature’s Natural Areas reflect the distribution of wildlife habitats and natural features throughout the countryside, as determined by their underlying geology, past land-use patterns and the cultural history of individual areas. These have been subdivided into Countryside Character Areas by the Countryside Agency and provide a framework for the planning and implementation of nature conservation objectives and UK Biodiversity Action Plan targets. Eight Natural Areas (see Map 1) cover Lancashire

The habitats characteristic of each Natural Area in the county are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Natural Areas in Lancashire – Key Characteristics

Natural Area

Key Characteristic Habitats


Morecambe Bay Limestones (part of the Cumbria Fells and Dales Natural Area)

* extensive limestone pavements, rock ledges and crevice vegetation

* limestone coastal cliffs overlooking extensive saltmarshes

* mixed ash woodland, juniper scrub and yew woodland

* lowland calcareous grassland and herb-rich neutral pastures

* calcareous lakes and reedbeds (Leighton Moss is the largest reedbed in NW England)

Forest of Bowland

* extensive areas of blanket bog on fells

* extensive areas of wet and dry upland heathland

* purple moorgrass and rushy pastures on upland fringes

* upland oak and mixed ash woodlands in cloughs and valleys

* small areas of upland calcareous grassland on limestone outcrops

Lancashire Plain and Valleys

* arable field margins, ditches and boundary hedgerows

* lowland wet grasslands, including coastal and floodplain grazing marshes

* isolated fragments of species-rich neutral grassland

* fragments of lowland raised bogs

* small pockets of lowland heathland and acid grassland

* large numbers of small field ponds throughout the coastal plain

Southern Pennines

* extensive areas of blanket bog on moorland tops

* impoverished areas of wet and dry upland heathland

* large areas of upland acid grassland

* frequent springs and flushes

* fast flowing streams and rivers, canals and reservoirs

* some upland hay meadows in valleys

* upland oak and mixed ash woodlands in valleys

Urban Mersey Basin (A small fraction of this Natural Area lies within Lancashire)

* lowland oak and mixed ash woodland

* arable field margins and boundary hedgerows

* small pockets of herb-rich neutral grassland

* fragmented areas of lowland raised bog

* large numbers of small field ponds

Yorkshire Dales (A relatively small part of this Natural Area lies within Lancashire - this is Leck Fell)

* limestone pavements, rock ledges, crevice and gorge vegetation

* upland calcareous grassland on limestone outcrops

* upland mixed ash woodlands in cloughs and valleys

* large areas of wet and dry upland heathland

* frequent springs and flushes

* fragmented areas of basin and valley mires (lowland raised bogs)


Liverpool Bay

* large expanses of saltmarsh within the Ribble estuary (some of the most extensive in the country)

* extensive areas of inter-tidal sand and mudflat

* fragmented areas of sand dune along the Fylde coast

Morecambe Bay

* large expanses of ungrazed saltmarsh on the Wyre estuary and sheep/cattle grazed saltmarsh on the Lune estuary and in Morecambe Bay

* extensive areas of inter-tidal sand and mudflat (second largest in the UK)

* intertidal and subtidal boulders and cobble skears with associated mussel beds

* vegetated shingle

* occasional brackish pools on the landward side of sea walls

More details about the biodiversity resource in each of these Natural Areas can be obtained by referring to the 'Natural Area Profiles' that have been prepared by English Nature for each of these Natural Areas.

A short summary of the biodiversity importance of each of the terrestrial Natural Areas is given below.

The marine habitats off Lancashire's coastline are of international significance. The Lancashire BAP Steering Group has taken the view that the conservation of the biodiversity resources of these Natural Areas is best tackled by regional and even international level initiatives. It is envisaged there will be a greater focus on key marine and maritime habitats and species as the Lancashire BAP is developed further.


3.1 The Morecambe Bay Limestones

This is the limestone country surrounding Morecambe Bay that extends from Furness to Carnforth. The landscape comprises upstanding blocks of limestone with scars, cliffs, scree, and pavement separated by fertile valleys and broadleaved woodland.

The species-rich limestone grassland, with small pockets of limestone heath and juniper scrub, and the limestone pavements are obvious nature conservation features. Semi-natural woodlands are characteristic of this area and where these form mosaics with the grasslands and pavements they can be important for invertebrates. Some of these species are addressed in this BAP such as the high brown fritillary, pearl-bordered fritillary, northern brown argus, wall mason bee and the spectacular wasp-mimicking hoverfly, Doros profuges.

Hawes Water Warton Crag

Hawes Water
Copyright: Jason Smalley

View from Warton Crag
Copyright: The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside

Lime-rich marl lakes, a rare habitat in Britain, are also found in these limestone areas (e.g. Hawes Water).

At Leighton Moss reclaimed peatland has been flooded and the areas of open water and reedbed that have developed support rare birds.

3.2 Forest of Bowland Natural Area

The Forest of Bowland Natural Area is dominated by a distinct, almost circular, dome of windswept moorland within the north eastern most part of Lancashire. This is incised by steep wooded river valleys and is surrounded by a soft, transitional and undulating landscape supporting a mosaic of rush-filled pastures, herb-rich hay meadows, and broad leaved woodlands, separated by lush agricultural grasslands, parkland, and water bodies such as Stocks Reservoir. Many rivers including the Hindburn, Roeburn, Lune, Wyre, Brock, Calder, Ribble and Hodder traverse the area.

Littledale Cromwell bridge
Littledale looking towards Blanch and Black Fells
Copyright: Jon Hickling
Cromwell's Bridge on the River Hodder
Copyright: Ed Mycock


The geology of the area, with its many rock outcrops and prominent landforms, is nationally important. The underlying rocks of Carboniferous age, including hard Millstone Grits, softer alternating bands of limestone and shales, as will as the limestone ‘reef knolls’ near Clitheroe, have resulted in a diverse landscape rich in features of wildlife interest. This has affected past settlement patterns and also the types of building materials seen within the picturesque stone villages of Chipping, Abbeystead and Slaidburn, in addition to the many isolated farmhouses with their associated stone walls and copses, which contribute greatly towards the landscape and character of the area. These are offset by the dramatic backdrops of the Bowland Fells and the outlying hills of Longridge Fell and Pendle Hill to the south.

The high Millstone Grit capped summits of Bowland Fells and Pendle Hill with their expansive areas of wild open rolling heather moorland and blanket bog are managed principally for grouse and sheep. Their peaty soils support a complex mosaic of unimproved acid grassland and bracken, at lower levels, with localised wet flushes and patches of rush between extensive areas of heather clad moorland and wet blanket bog where sphagnum mosses grow together with cranberry, crowberry, cotton grass and the scarcer cloudberry. Such areas provide a habitat for internationally important populations of red grouse, hen harrier, merlin, peregrine and golden plover.

Rapidly flowing streams and fast, burbling rivers, with attendant common sandpipers, dippers and grey wagtails, drain the moorland plateau. These give rise to steeply incised cloughs with occasional trees, patches of bracken and acid oak/birch woodlands on steep valley slopes, especially on the northern side of Bowland. These provide a link between exposed areas of moorland and the lush green pastures of the valley bottoms and are important for their rich assemblages of mosses and lichens, as well as breeding birds such as redstart, pied fly catcher and wood warbler. Elsewhere the fringes of Bowland support extensive areas of ancient woodland, notably along ridges and the valley slopes of the main river systems and their tributaries. Carpets of bluebell, ramson and dogs’ mercury, beneath oak, ash, birch, wych elm and wild cherry are characteristic of such woodlands on the softer calcareous shales and mudstones of the area. Unimproved herb-rich hay meadows and pastures are also present throughout, providing colourful displays of wild flowers in summer, such as pignut, yellow rattle, great burnet, meadow buttercup and ox eye daisy, which in turn attract butterflies and other insects as well as breeding curlews. Higher up, rush dominated pastures, just below the fell enclosure wall, provide nationally important breeding grounds for waders such as lapwing, redshank, curlew, snipe and oystercatcher. As with herb-rich pastures and hay meadows, these are fast disappearing due to more intensive farming practices.

Key nature conservation objectives for the Natural Area aim to retain and restore, where appropriate the full range and extent of existing wildlife habitats and their associated species. Particular emphasis is placed upon the maintenance of heather moorland and blanket bog, as well as the restoration of degraded areas, in addition to the positive management of ancient woodlands, including fencing to ensure natural regeneration, and also the sympathetic management of remaining flower rich pastures and hay meadows including rush dominated pastures of importance for breeding waders. If possible, the Forest of Bowland should be designated as an Environmentally Sensitive Area so that sufficient financial incentives can be offered farmers and land managers to maintain traditional farming practices, which both safeguard and enhance wildlife interests.


3.3 Lancashire Plain & Valleys Natural Area

The Lancashire Plain and Valleys Natural Area consists of the flat mosslands and low, undulating farmland of the coastal plain, stretching from Lancaster in the north to the edge of Liverpool in the south, and also the low rolling hills of the Darwen, Calder and Pendle Water Valleys, extending from Blackburn to the edge of Skipton, along with the lower reaches of the Ribble Valley near Preston.

West Lancs Plain Tree Sparrow
The West Lancashire plain from Parbold Hill
Copyright: Jon Hickling
Tree Sparrow (A map of Tree Sparrow distribution shows that this species is concentrated in the Plains and Valleys Natural Area)
Copyright: RSPB

The underlying geology of the area is obscured by large deposits of glacial boulder clays giving rise to an undulating farmed landscape dominated by dairy and stock rearing areas, whilst the peat and silt soils of the drained mosslands and ‘reclaimed’ estuary marshlands support intense arable. The coal measures of the Lancashire Valleys have given rise to the cotton and mining towns of Blackburn, Accrington, Burnley and Nelson. Other large towns of the Natural Area include Preston, Blackpool, Chorley and Lancaster.

The Lancashire Plain and Valleys Natural Area has an intensely farmed landscape. Agricultural production during the past two hundred years, including more intense farming practices since the Second World War, has seen the majority of areas of wildlife habitat reduced to fragmented remnants of a once extensive resource. In spite of this, however, no less than ten key wildlife habitats have been identified throughout the Natural Area, the most important of these being described below.

The Lancashire Plain is significant in its proximity to the coast where estuaries of international importance are present. The estuaries support huge flocks of migratory wildfowl and wading birds during the winter months. These birds not only feed and roost on the mudflats and saltmarshes of the estuaries, but also use wet pastures, areas of open water, improved pastures and arable fields of the surrounding land on the coastal plain. Wintering flocks of birds include large numbers of pink-footed geese, Bewick and whooper swans, as well as widgeon, lapwing and golden plover. The wet pastures of the ‘reclaimed’ estuary marshlands also support nesting, wading birds over the summer months, such as redshank.

The mosslands of the Lancashire Plain have largely been drained for agriculture, although small remnants of lowland raised mire (peat bog) do still exist where they were once extensive throughout the Area. These support plants such as sphagnum mosses, wild cranberry, bog rosemary, and insectivorous sundews. In between such fragments, extensive areas of intense arable are criss-crossed by a network of drainage ditches with marginal strips of semi-natural vegetation and arable weeds, including the locally rare corn marigold and purple rampaging fumitory. These provide a habitat and source of food for seed eating and insectivorous farmland birds such as corn bunting, reed bunting, grey partridge, and skylark, whose populations are declining nationally. Flower-rich sand dunes occur along the Fylde coast, sandwiched between Blackpool and Lytham St. Annes, whilst ancient semi-natural woodlands are scattered throughout the Lancashire Plain and also along the Lancashire Valleys. These are characterised by deciduous trees such as oak and ash, with a ground flora dominated by bluebell, dog’s mercury and ramsons with their pungent garlic smell. A few flower rich meadows and pastures have survived agricultural intensification during the past forty years. These are widely dispersed throughout the Lancashire Plain and Valleys and represent the fragments of a once common and widespread habitat throughout the Natural Area. Numerous ponds, which are scattered across the coastal plain on the Fylde and south to Chorley, were dug for marl to ‘lime’ the surrounding pastures. Many support populations of the rare great crested newt, as well as plants and invertebrates of local importance.

Key nature conservation objectives for the Natural Area aim to retain and restore, where appropriate the full range and extent of existing wildlife habitats and their associated species. Particular emphasis is placed upon maintaining internationally important wintering populations of wintering birds, as well as those species of breeding farmland birds and rare arable weeds in national decline, and not forgetting the restoration and recreation of wet pastures for breeding waders throughout the Area. In addition, the restoration of natural water levels within remnant mosses is also considered to be important, as well as the creation of new reedbeds where opportunities should arise, whilst securing appropriate management of ancient woodlands and also the creation of new native woodlands (especially wet woodlands) to overcome past fragmentation.


3.4 Southern Pennines Natural Area

The Southern Pennines Natural Area straddles the boundaries of Lancashire and West Yorkshire and forms a distinct and important part of the Pennine Hills between the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District. Its landscape is dominated by large tracts of wild, exposed, open moorland, and upland pasture, incised by steep river valleys in which settlements, industry, road and rail communications are concentrated.

Turton tower Earnsdale Reservoir
Turton Tower on Darwen Moor
Copyright: Peter Jepson
Earnsdale Reservoir, West Pennine Moors
Copyright: Peter Jepson

The gently sloping upland plateau of heather moorland and blanket bog, high above the industrial cotton towns of east Lancashire including Accrington, Blackburn, Burnley, Nelson and Colne, are located on hard, Millstone Grits, whilst the softer shale bands have given rise to a terraced landscape of slopes and interlocking escarpments. Agriculture has been marginalised during recent years and is now generally limited to sheep grazing. Whilst stone extraction and some coal mining has taken place, the mainstay of the large populations within the area has always been the textile industry.

Upland areas of heather dominated moorland, blanket bog and acid grassland provide the essential character of the South Pennines' landscape. In places, the effects of past enclosure, present day overgrazing, and past atmospheric pollution are noticeable, and have reduced the once varied moorland vegetation to one dominated by purple moor grass, cotton grass and mat grass. However, where rich mosaics of heather moorland vegetation still exist, these support internationally important breeding bird populations of red grouse, curlew, and merlin, whilst areas of blanket bog support valuable populations of invertebrates and also birds such as the golden plover, dunlin and short eared owl. The moorlands also act as a large water catchment area and, as a consequence, many reservoirs are present throughout the area. These water bodies provide valuable wintering and breeding habitat for wildfowl and waders, notably shelduck, mallard and teal, as well as common sandpiper and little ringed plover.

Many fast flowing streams drain the moorland plateau cutting steeply inclined ravines into the surrounding hill. These feed the many reservoirs of the Area and provide a habitat for brown trout, dipper and grey wagtail, whilst the large number of wet flushes on steep valley slopes issue lime rich waters from spring lines at the junction of the sandstones and shales, and give rise to wet grasslands supporting interesting plant communities including butterwort, blinks and round leaved crowfoot. Where the steeply inclined valley slopes are wooded (cloughs), mixtures of oak, ash, birch and rowan link the valley bottoms with the exposed moorland plateau. These are carpeted in woodland flowers such as bluebell and wood sorrel, as well as marsh hawk’s beard and horsetails in wet alder woodlands. These provide a habitat for birds such as sparrowhawk, wood warbler, redstart and pied flycatcher.

Key nature conservation objectives for the Natural Area aim to maintain all semi-natural habitats throughout the area and to enhance and expand these wherever appropriate. The most important in this respect are characteristic areas of blanket bog and heather moorland, as well as acidic and base rich flushes, damp rushy pastures and herb rich meadows just below the moorland enclosure wall (inbye land), in addition to wooded cloughs. A large number of these habitats have been neglected or have been damaged in some way during the past and are in need of restoration and appropriate management in order to safeguard their long term wildlife interests. The European Union "LIFE" Project currently being implemented by SCOSPA and the South Pennines Partnership of Local Authorities, which is based largely on the more recently designated Special Protection Area (SPA), is already starting to address many of these issues.

3.5 Yorkshire Dales (Leck Fell)

Ease Gill

Leck Fell (627 m) is the highest point in present day Lancashire. The summit supports characteristic 'montane heathland' and 'montane grassland' habitat types that include several county plant rarities such as stiff sedge.

The landscape is typical of limestone scenery of the Yorkshire Dales of which, essentially, this area is an extension. Outcrops of limestone rock abound as well as some limestone pavement.

The whole area is riddled with many pot holes and caves with evocative names such as Hairy Fissure, Pegleg Pot and Pippikin Pot. These may contain an interesting fauna. The cave spider, Meta menardi, for example, is not uncommon in such caves.

Ease Gill and Leck Beck streams flow through this limestone country, eventually feeding into the River Lune at Nether Burrow.

Ease Gill flowing through the limestone country on Leck Fell
Copyright: Tim Mitcham


3.6 Liverpool Bay Natural Area

The Liverpool Bay Natural Area is the low lying coastal zone which stretches from the Welsh border in the Dee Estuary, northwards to Rossall Point, Fleetwood in Lancashire. All the coastal areas within three counties, namely Cheshire, Merseyside and Lancashire are represented. The Natural Area also includes open sea out to the 12-mile limit.

Ribble Estuary Bottlenose Dolphins
Grazing on Saltmarsh in the Ribble Estuary
Copyright: Tim Mitcham

Bottlenose Dolphins are occasionally sighted in Liverpool Bay
Copyright: Colin Speedie


The hinterland is heavily developed with industrial and residential areas such as Liverpool, Birkenhead, Southport and Blackpool prominent along the coastline. A high level of development pressure influences the Natural Area and, in places, man-made coastal defences (some from Victorian times) have been put in place to protect the urban and commercial centres. Despite the high level of development, intervening stretches of relatively unprotected coast are of great importance, and no fewer than 12 important wildlife habitats have been identified, the most important of which are described below.

Estuaries are possibly the most characteristic features of the Natural Area. The Dee, Mersey and Ribble are amongst the largest in Britain and all contain large expanses, not only of mud and sand flats, but also extensive saltmarsh and grazing marsh.

The estuarine habitats support high numbers of wildfowl and waders and, within the Natural Area, eighteen species occur at international levels (more than 1% of the total). Sixteen of these occur on the Ribble estuary alone. The estuaries are not only internationally important for over-wintering species, but are also important staging posts for migrating birds during spring and autumn. Whilst there are considerable movements of birds between estuaries, each estuary is also subtly different in character and provide exacting conditions for different species. For example, the extensive saltmarsh on the Ribble makes it a top site for wigeon.

Major concentrations of sand dunes also occur within the Natural Area. Although predominantly located on the Sefton coast, they are also found on the Wirral and Fylde, where they form smaller, though equally important, relic fragments. A diverse range of plant and animal communities occurs, including, most notably, natterjack toads, great crested newts, sand lizards and, within fringing pine plantations, red squirrels.

The seabed of the Natural Area, like the mainland shores, are also predominantly sedimentary (non-rocky) in nature, and although few species are found, they occur in great abundance. Within the coastal waters themselves, large wintering populations of seaduck and divers, together with small number of cetaceans, exploit this food resource. Harbour porpoise and bottlenose dolphin are the most frequently recorded species. Grey seals are also important, together with a number of fisheries including those associated with cockles and shrimps. Additional habitats described include coastal lagoons, artificial habitats (such as groynes and wrecks) and lowland heathland.

3.7 Morecambe Bay

The Morecambe Bay Natural Area is the coastal zone and waters between Rossall Point, Fleetwood in the south and Walney island, Cumbria in the north. The Area includes the estuaries formed by the rivers Wyre and Lune in Lancashire and the Keer, Kent and Leven in Cumbria.

Morecambe Bay Sunset over Morecambe Bay
Morecambe Bay from Jenny Brown's Point, Silverdale
Copyright: Jason Smalley
Sunset reflecting on Morecambe Bay
Copyright: Jason Smalley

The Bay contains the second largest area of intertidal estuarine flats in Britain (the largest being the Wash). The whole Bay ecosystem is of international importance for wintering wading birds and of national significance for wintering waterfowl. For several months each year it is home to tens of thousands of birds including oystercatcher, dunlin, knot, curlew, redshank, turnstone, bar-tailed godwit, grey plover and ringed plover. The Bay is a vital link in a chain of estuaries that provide shelter and food for dense concentrations of migrating birds and peak counts may exceed 110,000 birds.

Large expanses of saltmarsh occur in the Wyre and Lune estuaries and in Morecambe Bay especially at Hest Bank, Carnforth, Silverdale and Meathop Marsh. The saltmarshes provide nesting habitat for birds and support populations of several rare and uncommon plants and a variety of nationally scarce invertebrate species.

Extensive mussel beds occur in the Bay on areas of cobbles, locally known as 'scars' or 'skears'.

Small stretches of limestone cliffs occur at Jenny Brown's Point.