National Character Area 147

Blackdowns - Landscape Change

The full NCA Profile landscape change page, is temporarily unavailable until publication of the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan Indicator G1 later in May 2024.

Monitoring Landscape Change

Drivers for change
The Blackdowns are a rural and pastoral landscape of ridges, deep valleys and dynamic cliffs, with important historic and geologic features that attract increased development and recreation. Pressure to introduce renewable energy developments such as wind and solar farms, intensification of agriculture, and increased housing demand may alter the character of the area. Additionally, increased rainfall events inland may increase soil erosion and flooding, and sea level rise may increase coastal flooding, affecting settlements and threatening the biodiversity and wildlife in the estuaries.

Monitoring landscape change
This section is temporarily unavailable until publication of the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan Indicator G1 later in May 2024.

Additional information on landscape change

Landscape change reported in 2014

Recent changes and trends (reported in 2014)


  • Evidence from Countryside Quality Counts suggests that, for the period from 1999-2003, although the rate of grassland loss seemed to have slowed, there was continued loss of rough and permanent grass offset only partly by an expansion of temporary grass. There was a decline in the number of holdings classified as dairy, and a shift to lowland cattle and sheep. In 2003, within the ESA, the extent of agreements for all land was 5,847 ha; low-input permanent grassland was 3,929 ha, improved permanent grassland was 3,195 ha, and all unimproved pasture was 512 ha. The most extensive Countryside Stewardship agreements in 2003 were for lowland pastures on neutral/acid soils (1,065 ha) and base payment to sustain existing heath (226 ha).
  • The landscape is still predominately characterised by grazing livestock farms. There was a drop in the overall number of grazing livestock farms from 519 in 2000 to 494 in 2009, but this still represented 34 per cent of all farm holdings. The amount of land used as arable has remained static. There was a significant decline in oil seed growth from 451 ha produced in 2000 to 262 ha in 2009, a visually noticeable difference in the summer months.
  • The number of full time and salaried workers dropped over 50 per cent from 451 in 2000 to 251 in 2009. The number of part time farm workers rose by 27 per cent from 233 in 2000 to 316 in 2009, in line with the national trend of agricultural workers boosting their income with non-agricultural work. It was also consistent with the relatively high number of small holdings.
  • Changes in land ownership, away from successional ownership, and the consequent loss of traditional land management skills coupled with the introduction of new management practices such as use of synthetic fleece is beginning to have an impact on landscape character.

Boundary features

  • In 2003, within the ESA, the extent of annual agreements for traditional hedge management supplement was 111 km, hedge and hedgebank restoration supplement was 6 km, and protective fencing (sheep fencing) was 15 km. Between 1999-2003, Countryside Stewardship agreements for linear features included fencing (76 km), hedge management (67 km), hedge planting and restoration (60 km), and restored boundary protection (66 km). The estimated boundary length for the NCA is about 5,908 km; the total length of boundaries under agreement, between 1999 and 2003, was equivalent to about ten per cent of this total.
  • A decline in traditional skills including hedge-laying has impacted on landscape character, particularly noticeable with a change away from traditional succession ownership.

Coast and rivers

  • Storm surges coupled with high tides have led to a higher incidence of flooding and landslips along the coast, sometimes impacting on property and changing the character and morphology of the seascape.
  • The occurrence of river flooding has been more frequent in recent years, impacting on communities, particularly at road crossing points.
  • There have been water quality improvements across the area as a result of European directives, private investment programmes and Environment Agency- supported initiatives which aim to improve the standard of bathing waters.

Historic features

  • Evidence from Countryside Quality Counts suggests that in 1918 about two per cent of the NCA was historic parkland, but by 1995 it is estimated that 49 per cent of this area had been lost. Between 1999 and 2003 approximately 45 per cent of the remaining parkland was covered by a historic parkland grant, and 42 per cent was included in an agri-environment scheme. It should also be noted that about 67 per cent of historic farm buildings remain unconverted and most are intact structurally.
  • Remnant traditional orchards are scattered across the NCA, providing significant cultural associations in some neighbourhoods, for example in the coastal combes. Interest in local products, including cider, is beginning to drive the restoration of these landscape features.
  • Development pressures are threatening some historic features and cultural landscapes, for example redevelopment at some Second World War airfields.


  • Both Beer and Uplyme quarries have current planning permissions but are not currently being worked.
  • Isolated cases of small-scale quarrying is enabling heritage building restoration schemes to be progressed at former quarry sites such as Dunscombe Manor Quarry for restorative work at Exeter Cathedral.

Semi-natural habitats

  • Ten per cent of the NCA SSSI resource is classed as unfavourable declining. The River Axe is notable within this category, with issues caused by invasive species including Himalayan balsam, and heavy grazing of the riparian zone.
  • Widespread flooding and storm events have more frequently impacted on the coastal and flood plain grazing marsh priority habitat in recent years.
  • There is evidence (from the Umborne grassland project) to suggest an under- recording of biodiverse semi-natural habitat, in particular grassland. Sites are generally small in scale and particularly marginal, often on small farm holdings.

Settlement and development

  • As some agricultural practices continue to intensify, the demand for modern large-scale agricultural buildings is rising. The introduction of new regulations regarding the management of agricultural nitrates has imposed the requirement for large-scale slurry storage facilities, often in isolated and elevated locations with associated landscape and visual impacts. The need to manage surface water has resulted in the enclosure of open yards, often infilling the gaps between existing structures resulting in the visual massing of buildings.
  • Noise and activity arising from developments, together with light pollution, are having an adverse impact on the area’s tranquillity and dark skies.
  • Numerous significant wind and solar energy development applications have been made within the NCA, which, along with similar developments within the setting of the NCA, may impact on landscape character.
  • Increased demand for new housing is impacting on the NCA. There is evidence of expansion into the peri-urban fringe around Chard, Axminster, Honiton and Seaton, as well as development in the open countryside, especially along the coast and most notably inland from Sidmouth.
  • Over the last decade there has been notable tourism- and leisure-related development including caravan sites, holiday parks and golf courses, especially along the coast, impacting on the character of the NCA, its tranquillity and its built form.

Trees and woodlands

  • Results from Countryside Quality Counts data indicate that there was a marginal increase in the amount of woodland under management agreements between 1999 and 2003. In 1999 about seven per cent of the established eligible National Inventory of Woodlands and Trees stock was covered by a Woodland Grant Scheme management agreement. This increased to eight per cent in 2003. There are 1,676 ha of woodland on ancient woodland sites. The proportion of these sites covered by a Woodland Grant Scheme has changed since 1999 from nine per cent to 13 per cent in 2003. The majority of woodland Sites of Scientific Interest (SSSI) are in favourable condition. In 2003, within the ESA, the extent of agreements for woodland maintenance was 471 ha. A significant proportion of the woodlands are within the Forestry Commission public forest estate, but there is limited evidence of restructuring/restocking.
  • Large areas of coniferous plantation have been removed in the northern part of the NCA as part of the Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme (2006-2011). In other areas, post-Second World War coniferous plantations are reaching maturity and areas are being felled and forests restructured, changing their visual appearance, character and setting in the landscape.
  • The Blackdowns and East Devon Woodland Association has done much to encourage the cooperative management of smaller woodlands and use of local timber. There is considerable scope for continuing this work. Community woodland schemes, such as Neroche Woodlanders, Axe Woods and Culm Woods, are encouraging new ways of managing woodlands.
  • Woodland is increasing in value and there is growing interest in wood as a sustainable energy source.
  • Disease in woodland, such as Phytophthora in larch and ash die back, has resulted in the clear-felling of some areas with a resultant change in character.

Drivers of Change (reported in 2014)

Climate Change

  • The main issues likely to result from climate change, away from the coast, include increased soil erosion, run off and flooding due to heavy rainfall events, impacting on the road network (particularly at river crossing points) and the associated communities.
  • Coastal properties and infrastructure may be particularly vulnerable to flooding and damage with a predicted increase in the occurrence of severe storms coupled with high tides. These events may also result in landslips along the coast and accentuated cliff erosion.
  • With future predicted rises in sea level, coastal areas will be more vulnerable to flooding, as will settlements around the estuaries, as protective spits and bars potentially become inundated. Such inundation will have a significant effect on the biodiversity of the internationally important estuaries and their wildlife, including the wading birds on Seaton marshes.
  • Increasing occurrences of droughts may lead to increases in water demand for crop growth, business and domestic use, and drying out and erosion of soils.
  • As is common across the south coast, the area may be more susceptible to colonisation by migratory species currently not native to England, and particularly flying invertebrates. Northward migration in response to a changing climate may be first recorded throughout this and other coastal areas.
  • Warmer winters could promote increased tree growth, as well as the suitability of new non-native species such as Corsican pine and holm oak, further affecting woodland composition, with, in particular, the potential loss of characteristic beech.
  • Changing climate may also result in an increase in the prevalence of pests and diseases which may affect species and semi-natural habitats, change woodland tree species composition, change crops and cropping practices, and see a spread of non-native and alien species.

Other key drivers

  • The introduction of vertical elements in the landscape such as wind farms may become a significant challenge as the pressure to increase the provision of renewable energy continues. The setting of the NCA may particularly be challenged with developments in the adjoining NCAs and out to sea.
  • The emergence of large-scale photovoltaic ‘farms’ and the cumulative impact of smaller units present both challenges and opportunities within this relatively small-scale landscape with a strong sense of place.
  • Rising food demands may result in the intensification of agriculture on the more fertile valley pastures, leading to an increased risk of diffuse pollution in watercourses and loss of semi-natural habitats.
  • Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the impact this will have on land management will be a significant factor influencing the character of the NCA.
  • Increased demand for housing is impacting on the NCA, with evidence of expansion into the peri-urban fringe around Chard, Axminster, Honiton and Seaton, as well as development in the open countryside, especially along the coast (notably inland from Sidmouth), and close to the M5 corridor (such as around Hemyock).
  • Recreational pressure is likely to increase with further demand from expanding urban centres both within and adjoining the NCA, such as Cranbrook; a potential increase in UK-based tourism; and an increase in more active recreation such as mountain biking and ‘challenge’ events such as The Grizzly.
  • Economic regeneration and development of communication/broadband is likely to result in increases in small-scale enterprise development, alternative use of rural buildings and a demand for communication masts.
  • Demand for improved transport connections into the south-west, notably the A303, could result in enhancements to the trunk roads or possibly dualling.