Long, dark ridges, deep valleys and dynamic cliffs are the essence of the Blackdowns National Character Area (NCA). The ridges create prominent backdrops from afar and offer far-reaching views. Flat plateaux, large, regular fields and long, straight roads create a sense of openness and uniformity on the ridges. Beech hedgerows and avenues enclose the grazed landscape, although areas of remnant common, lowland heath and scrub still exist, providing open access.
Woodland, much of semi-natural origin, dominates the steep valley tops, creating sinuous dark edges to the ridges; some conifer plantations also exist and intrude onto the plateaux. Below the wooded edge pastoral valleys feature with a medieval field pattern of small, irregular fields bounded by dense species-rich hedgebanks and hedgerow trees, creating an enclosed, tranquil setting. A myriad of springs and streams flow south through the valleys and can often be traced by semi-natural habitats: springline mires, rush pasture and carr woodland. Some valley floors widen and provide an opportunity for arable production, notably the Axe Valley which is characterised by a much wider flood plain. The entire River Axe within the NCA is designated for its biodiversity value, notably lamprey and bullhead fish.
Along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site tall red sandstone cliffs abut the starkly contrasting white chalk before passing into grey clay and limestone to the east. The geology results in frequent landslips and constantly changing coastal features: beaches, stacks and bars. Natural erosion also maintains internationally important fossil-rich exposures. The South West Coast Path National Trail follows the coastline, providing access to the wind-blown cliff-top plateaux with exhilarating views and the steeply enclosed, tranquil combes.
The NCA’s ridge and valley topography has influenced settlement since prehistoric times, with bronze-age barrows and iron-age hill forts on elevated sites. The medieval pattern of settlement along springlines or clustered at river or road crossings remains evident. During the Regency era textile industries promoted the growth of inland market towns and ‘fashion’ established coastal resorts, coinciding with the development of the railways. Much recent development for housing and tourism has centred on these towns. Despite this growth the Blackdowns NCA retains a very rural character, with a strong sense of place, a rich biodiversity resource and opportunities to enjoy quiet recreation. These attributes are reflected in 78 per cent of the area being designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Statements of Environmental Opportunity
- SEO 1: Manage the coastal and estuarine landscape with its diversity of cliffs, geology, geomorphology, palaeontology, historic features, habitats and associated wildlife, contributing to livelihoods, enjoyment and education of people.
- SEO 2: Protect and manage the tranquil, enclosed valleys and the network of streams, springs and associated semi-natural habitats set within a farmed landscape, for the maintenance and enhancement of livelihoods, public enjoyment and ecosystem services.
- SEO 3: Protect and manage the open, exposed character of the ridgetop plateaux and the associated rich cultural heritage. Plan for the restoration and extension of semi-natural habitats and promote and create opportunities to enhance public understanding and enjoyment.
- SEO 4: Protect the relatively unsettled, rural character of this nationally important landscape, maintaining open skylines and historic settlement form. Reflect the local vernacular and geodiversity in new development and encourage provision of high-quality green infrastructure.
The Blackdowns NCA provides a wide range of benefits to society. Each is derived from the attributes and processes (both natural and cultural features) within the area. These benefits are known collectively as ‘ecosystem services’. The predominant services are summarised below.
Provisioning services (food, fibre and water supply)
Food provision: Food production from this mixed farming landscape is a key service in this area. The dominance of livestock farming, notably dairy, with some arable in the valleys, reflects the soil’s productivity, the favourable climatic conditions and the availability of water. Changes in climate and weather patterns may challenge the traditional outputs from the area, but new opportunities may also arise. Maintaining soil structure and condition will also be necessary to maximise adaptability. Such activity must be carried out in a sensitive manner to manage potential impacts on other assets including biodiversity and the historic environment. There has been an increase in interest in local produce, including traditional apples, apple juice and cider. Changing ownership of farms has also caused a renewal of interest in restoring or replanting orchards on traditional sites with local varieties of fruit trees.
Timber provision: Fourteen per cent of the NCA is woodland (11,010 ha) of which 70 per cent is broadleaved, notably on the steep, often inaccessible slopes. While the economic value of these woodlands is low, they are significant landscape features, rich in biodiversity and important for soil and water functions. There are 1,676 ha of ancient woodland, much of it designated as SSSI. Just over 20 per cent of the woodland is coniferous, predominantly under commercial operation. Some plantations have undergone wide-scale restructuring and now achieve multiple objectives.
Regulating services (water purification, air quality maintenance and climate regulation)
Regulating water quality: Water quality is particularly important in this NCA owing to the relationship between the river catchments and the coastal designated sites. Water quality is highly variable throughout the NCA. Groundwater quality is generally good overall, but poor to the west. The chemical and ecological quality of the rivers ranges from good to moderate and poor with stretches of rivers to the west classed as poor. The Blackdowns NCA falls within two priority catchments: the River Exe (which includes the River Culm) and the rivers Axe and Otter catchment (which includes the Upper Axe and Yarty). The rivers Axe, Otter and Yarty are recorded as having high levels of phosphates and sediments, and the River Culm has problems associated with nutrient leaching, as well as soil erosion. An increase in arable cultivation and use of inorganic fertilisers and pesticides continue to affect water quality and the condition of valuable wetland habitats.
Regulating water flow: While most of the area is at little or no risk from flooding because of the hilly topography, there are areas of high flood risk along the rivers Yarty, Otter and Axe. The Axe Estuary is influenced by fluvial and tidal flooding (Seaton suffers from flooding from the Axe). Flood risk is expected to increase with climate change and changes in land use. Actions within management plans for flood risk reduction include increasing flood plain storage and creating wetlands; ensuring that development does not increase run-off;
reconnecting estuaries with flood plains, creating habitat and wildlife corridors and therefore enhancing biodiversity; maintaining banks; and promoting better land management practices. The upper catchments of the rivers have been recognised as the most effective location for changes in land use and land management to reduce peak flows downstream.
Regulating coastal flooding and erosion: There have been attempts to manage the challenges of beach loss and coastal erosion through beach stabilisation as part of multi-million pound schemes to protect towns such as Sidmouth and Lyme Regis. The western parts of Lyme Bay consist of cliffs formed of resistant lithology that erode slowly. This western part is also sheltered from south-westerly waves, meaning that the shoreline is controlled by waves from the south and east. In the eastern part of Lyme Bay there is little cliff protection and the cliff toe erodes easily, contributing to existing instability of ancient and modern landslides which are driven largely by groundwater. The cliffs are retreating here at a relatively rapid rate. In the Shoreline Management Plan a ‘with present management’ scenario is being considered, involving continued presence of hard defences at Lyme Regis, and a policy of ‘do nothing’ for less developed areas of the coast. Seaton and Sidmouth have a high risk of coastal flooding (in Seaton, particularly, combined with fluvial flooding from the Axe Estuary) with the largest number of properties at risk. There are a range of flood defence schemes in place along this stretch of coast (within settlements mainly).
Cultural services (inspiration, education and wellbeing)
Sense of place/inspiration: The significance or scale of importance of sense of place for this NCA is reflected by 78 per cent of the area being designated as AONB. It is a landscape of dramatic ridges offering a sense of exposure and opportunities for far-reaching views, incised by steep-sided, enclosed and tranquil valleys of a small scale. There is a heavily wooded appearance created by long, sinuous woodland along the scarp slopes, including ancient and seminatural woodland, and an extensive network of hedgerows and hedgerow trees. The area’s diverse geology is reflected in the local vernacular while at the coast it is dramatically evident through the tall cliffs, landslips, and sand and shingle beaches. The vibrant red sandstone starkly contrasts with the adjoining white chalk. The significance of the coast is recognised by the entire length of the NCA being inscribed as a natural World Heritage Site. The exposed cliff-top plateaux offer exhilarating views for miles along the coast and, from high peaks, extensive views inland. Steep-sided pastoral combes dissect the plateaux and by contrast provide sheltered and tranquil areas. The Axe Estuary contributes to the area’s sense of place and creates a zone of maritime influence inland. The area’s landscape has inspired writers including John Fowles.
Sense of history: A sense of history is associated with a wealth of archaeological remains including iron-age hill forts such as Hembury and Castle Neroche. There are bronze-age barrows predominantly between Gittisham Hill and Black Down and Second World War defences ranging from pillboxes, anti-tank cubes, rail- and road-block plinths and machine gun emplacements to military airfield landscapes at Upottery, Culmhead and Dunkeswell. The historic character of the landscape is further reinforced by a sharply defined settlement pattern. Sparse settlement on higher ground with mostly 19th-century farm buildings following straight enclosure roads contrasts with farmsteads and hamlets of medieval origin lying along the springlines at the foot of escarpments or at river crossing points. Buildings are constructed using a wide variety of traditional building materials including cob, sandstone, chalk, chert, flint, slate and thatch with older colour-washed buildings along the coastline. Threshing barns, open-fronted linhays, ancient orchards, a number of manor houses including Cricket House and Rousdon, and masonry bridges are all characteristic features of the landscape.
Tranquillity: The NCA has experienced a significant decline in tranquillity since the 1960s. Undisturbed areas have decreased from 97 per cent in the 1960s to 61 per cent in 2007 (Campaign to Protect Rural England Intrusion Map, 2007). Areas of low tranquillity are around the main towns (Honiton, Sidmouth, Seaton, Lyme Regis, Axminster and Chard) and along the main roads (A303, A30, A35 and A3052) as well as along the railway line. Away from these more developed areas, tranquillity often features as a special quality, particularly in the coastal combes and enclosed valleys. The weather can have a significant influence on tranquillity along the coast: on calm days the cliff-top plateaux can feel tranquil while on stormy days they feel exposed.
Recreation: The NCA offers an extensive network of rights of way totalling 1,100 km at a density of nearly 1.4 km per km2 as well as open access land covering 850 ha or just over 1 per cent of the NCA. In addition, 34 km of the South West Coast Path National Trail together with the National Cycle Network, East Devon Way, Blackdown Hills Valley Heads Way, the circular Herepaths and other local routes provide a wealth of recreational opportunities. However, there is a disparity in provision across the NCA: away from the coast the network is often considered fragmented with limited off-road routes for horse riders and cyclists, although there have been some successes in developing promoted circular routes. The local road network provides other opportunities but the twisting, narrow lanes raise safety concerns for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.
Biodiversity: The NCA supports a range of priority habitats including 6,030 ha of woodland, 882 ha of coastal and flood plain grazing marsh, lowland meadows (658 ha) and maritime cliff and slope (606 ha). Some 1,500 ha (2 per cent) of the NCA is designated as SSSI and there are four Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). At present, 36 per cent of the designated resource is in favourable condition and a further 46 per cent is in unfavourable but recovering condition. Improvement in the condition of designated sites, principally SSSI, is likely to have a positive impact on biodiversity overall, as well as other services. Improvement in the condition of coastal habitats will also assist in the storage of carbon. Connectivity of habitats and the current mosaic of habitats are essential to supporting and maintaining the numbers of the more mobile species found in the area (mammals, birds and many invertebrates). Less mobile species (many
plants, lichens and mosses, and some invertebrates) will benefit from new and permanent opportunities to extend their current range, particularly in the face of climate change.
Geodiversity: The importance of the NCA’s geodiversity is recognised internationally by the inclusion of the coastline as part of the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site (Jurassic Coast). The coast is also designated as an SAC and SSSI for interests including geodiversity. There are seven geological SSSI across the NCA and a further five designated for mixed interests. Beer Quarry and Caves is also designated as an SAC and SSSI. The alternating periods of marine incursion and uplift can be observed both in the topography of the area and the coastal and inland exposures (cliffs, quarries and road cuttings). The underlying geology, particularly the red Permo-Triassic sandstones, Greensand and flint gravels, has influenced the biodiversity, agriculture, industry, building materials, culture and traditions across the area. The geodiversity of the NCA has deep cultural resonances and allows for the study and interpretation of earth sciences up to the earliest occupation of the landscape by man.