1. An increasing number of studies are examining the distribution and congruence of ecosystem services, often with the goal of identifying areas that will provide multiple ecosystem service ‘hotspots’. However, there is a paucity of data on most ecosystem services, so proxies (e.g. estimates of a service for a particular land cover type) are frequently used to map their distribution. To date, there has been little attempt to quantify the effects of using proxies on distribution maps of ecosystem services, despite the potentially large errors associated with such data sets.
2. Here, we provide the first study examining the effects of using proxies on ecosystem service maps and the degree of spatial congruence of these maps with primary data, using England as a case study.
3. We show that land cover based proxies provide a poor fit to primary data surfaces for biodiversity, recreation and carbon storage, and that correlations between ecosystem services change depending on whether primary or proxy data are used for the analyses.
4. The poor fit of proxies to primary data was also evident when we selected hotspots of single ecosystem services, and consistency between raw and modelled surfaces was extremely low when considering the locations that were coincident hotspots for multiple services.
5. Synthesis and applications. Proxies may be suitable for identifying broad-scale trends in ecosystem services, but even relatively good proxies are likely to be unsuitable for identifying hotspots or priority areas for multiple services.