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Northern Ireland Regional Seascape Assessment


Commissioned by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) this study aimed to provide a strategic understanding of different areas of regional seascape character along the entire Northern Ireland coast.

Application in MSP:
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Questions this practice may help answer

  • What best practice guidelines are available when considering undertaking a Seascape Character Assessment?

Implementation Context

Seascape character assessment (SCA) is a method for assessing, characterising, mapping and describing seascape character. The process of SCA follows the well-established, and widely used, process of Landscape Character Assessment. 

The aim of this SCA study was to provide a strategic understanding of different areas of regional seascape character along the entire Northern Ireland coast, complementing similar assessments undertaken elsewhere in the UK. This will contribute to the aims of the European Landscape Convention through promoting the protection, management and planning of the seascape, and to support European cooperation on landscape issues.

The description and mapping of regional seascape character can provide practical tools and evidence to assist in responding to the increasing demands being placed upon the related marine and terrestrial environments. This will build upon the increased awareness of the connections between land and sea reflected in the Marine Act (NI) 2013 and the emerging marine spatial planning system. This could also provide the context for more detailed Seascape Character Assessment work and help to inform the planning, design and management of a range of changes and other projects taking place on and around the coastline.

Aspects / Objectives

  • Identify and map the different regional seascape character areas;
  • Describe the key features and characteristics of each seascape character area; and
  • Relate the description of each seascape character area to its neighbouring terrestrial landscape character areas (as described in the Northern Ireland Landscape Character Assessment, 2000) and take account of boundaries identified in relation to neighbouring seascape areas for the British and Irish coastline.


The approach to this study follows current best practice Landscape and Seascape Character Assessment guidance and was  carried out in 5 key stages:


Stage 1: Project Inception This stage of the project included the Project Inception Meeting between the Steering Group and members of the Project Team in order to agree the detailed scope, methodology, timescale and outputs,  including a review of Seascape Character Assessments undertaken elsewhere in the UK, and consideration of how lessons learnt from similar projects could be applied to Northern Ireland.


Stage 2: Desk Study -  The desk study involved the review of relevant background information and spatial data, including a number of GIS datasets to inform the assessment process. This included information on planning policy, landscape character, natural and cultural designations, and coastal and marine management and processes. This provided an understanding of how these factors have influenced the evolution of the seascape and to gauge the effects of future changes.  

Analysis of 3D modelling and an extensive database of images taken from a low level flying helicopter of the entire Northern Ireland coastline was undertaken to further understand the visual perceptions of the seascape and the relationship to its landscape setting.

Through the desk-based data analysis, twenty four Seascape Character Areas (SCAs) were identified for further assessment and validation in the field. In defining terrestrial boundaries, the landward extent has been minimised where possible to avoid duplication with the Landscape Character Assessment. Typically, boundaries followed coastal roads which as identifiable features, strongly relate to how the seascape is experienced. In situations where they have a dominating effect on the seascape extent, notable landforms or distinct breaks in slope formed the boundaries.


Stage 3: Fieldwork Fieldwork for the Seascape Character Assessment took place in early June 2013. There were two parts to the fieldwork: some boat work where possible and land-based survey. All members of the Project Team were involved in the field survey which was undertaken in pairs with at least one Chartered Member of the Landscape Institute surveying at all times. Several members of the Steering Group also took part in the field survey. 11 days of fieldwork were undertaken and involved a number of key tasks:


1. To check, refine and develop the initial classification and boundaries of SCAs prepared during the desk study;


2. Each SCA was examined in detail with notes taken on aspects considered to be relevant at the regional scale. The survey focused on factors which are difficult to assess through desk-based studies, for example special qualities, perceptual qualities (remoteness, tranquillity and relative wildness), setting and visual influences, and forces for change;


3. A tailored field survey form (based on previous work carried out elsewhere) was then filled out for each SCA at a representative location; and


4. Photographs were captured with descriptive and locational information, allowing them to be displayed on a GIS. In addition, a comprehensive coverage of digital photographs was taken to illustrate the Final Report, and to aid in the writing-up process.


Stage 4: Draft Report This stage of the project brought together the findings of the desk and fieldwork stages of the project, as well as incorporating local specialist knowledge. The format was designed to meet the needs of the different audiences who might be using the document, and incorporates a wide range of information from a variety of sources. Profiles of 4-6 pages in length were then prepared for each SCA. The profiles are structured to include the following information:


  • Photos of the SCA
  • Map of the SCA
  • Location and Setting
  • Summary Description
  • Key Characteristics
  • Natural Influences
  • Cultural Influences
  • Perceptual Influences
  • Forces for Change


Stage 5:  Stakeholder Consultation Facilitating stakeholder understanding and engagement in the project has been an important part of the process. The Project Team presented the draft findings to a group of approximately 35 relevant Departmental and Interdepartmental stakeholders and has taken account of their responses when completing the Final Report.

Main Outputs / Results

An overview of the landscape character was reviewed which identified the following 31 coastal landscape area’s whose key characteristics were summarised.

The following datasets were analysed in order to define 24 Seascape Character Areas (SCA)


  • Base mapping
  • Elevation
  • Geology
  • Landscape
  • Natural Heritage
  • Cultural Heritage
  • Hydrology
  • Marine


For the 24 SCA’s identified profiles were created which include:

  • Photos of the SCA
  • Map of the SCA
  • Location and Setting
  • Summary Description
  • Key Characteristics
  • Natural Influences
  • Cultural Influences
  • Perceptual Influences
  • Forces for Change


The Northern Ireland Regional Seascape Assessment could be used as a template to conduct a similar SCA in other areas.

Responsible Entity

Northern Ireland Executive

Costs / Funding Source

Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Direct costs of its elaboration are unknown. 

Contact person

Douglas Harman (doug[at]douglasharman[dot]co[dot]uk)