National Character Area 107

Cotswolds - 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 Cotswolds form a mix of steep scarps, rolling slopes and increasingly wooded valleys, forming a distinctive and pastoral landscape. Increased storminess, drought and pests or diseases increase stress on veteran trees, threatening the characteristic woodland. Development pressures and urban extensions in surrounding large settlements as well as continued conversion of traditional farm buildings in more rural areas may also alter the character of the pastoral landscape.

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)

Agriculture

  • Land use trends show a mixed pattern with a decrease in 9 per cent in land used for cereals from 83,424 ha in 2000 to 75,952 ha in 2009. However there has been an increase in oilseed rape from 17,449 ha in 2000 to 18,828 ha in 2009 and an increase of 33 per cent in other cereal farming from 9,539 to 12,650 ha between 2000 and 2009. There was a 23 per cent increases in the land used for cash roots and 42 per cent increase in the land used for growing stock feed in the same time period.
  • The total number of holdings has increased since 1990 although census data indicates that there was a significant decrease in mixed farms in the area from 259 to 170 between 2000 and 2009. Over this period there has been a small decrease in arable holdings, a 39 per cent decrease in the number of dairy farms and a 28 per cent increase in poultry farms. Despite a decline in dairy farm numbers there has been an increase in beef and sheep farms since 2002, reflecting those leaving the dairy sector but retaining cattle and sheep.
  • Census data indicates that farm size has changed slightly. The number of medium-sized holdings has declined while there has been a small increase in the number of larger farms over 100 ha in size reflecting a general trend towards fewer and larger units. This is reflected in data for the AONB which shows that 70 per cent of the area is managed by 14 per cent of the registered land holdings, highlighting the trend towards bigger and fewer farms.
  • Sixty-five per cent of the area is under an agri-environment scheme; above the national average. This includes management of calcareous grassland and neutral/acid pasture and reversion of arable land to permanent grassland. Some 94 per cent of SSSI are in favourable or unfavourable recovering condition. The north-west facing scarp slope was the focus for the Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme.
  • The Cotswolds are identified as a priority area for farmland birds, in particular six rarer species: grey partridge, lapwing, turtle dove, yellow wagtail, tree sparrow and corn bunting. These species have declined over recent years, but measures have been put in place through the South West Farmland Birds Initiative to help redress this loss. This has seen significant small-scale landscape changes, including the introduction of wild seed field margins, changed cropping patterns and hedgerow management, with 3,848 ha of key arable options for birds put in place.
  • The agricultural labour force has continued to fall with a significant 45 per cent fewer farm workers in 2007 compared with 1990.

Boundary features

  • Boundary features are an important aspect of the Cotswolds and overall the resource of 16,604 km of hedgerows, stonewalls and other boundary features has been largely retained. The management of drystone walls and their condition, especially on the high wolds, has been in long-term decline, a reflection of the conversion from sheep grazing to arable cropping and the rising costs of stone and labour.
  • Between 1999 and 2003 there was extensive investment in boundary management with 6 per cent of boundary features brought into management under agri-environment schemes. In 2003, 8 km of hedgerow and 32 km of drystone wall were restored. There continues to be an increase in positive environmental management for boundary features with 7,272 km of hedgerow and 340 km of drystone wall currently managed through agri-environment schemes.
  • From 2002 to 2007, 20 km of drystone wall within the AONB area was restored under ‘Caring for the Cotswolds’ grants, and from 2010 to 2012, 7 km was restored under the Gas Pipeline Walling Grant Scheme.

Coast and rivers

  • The River Basin Management Plans which cover this area, four in total, indicate that surface water quality is generally good. Most rivers have shown improvements over the last few years. However, phosphate concentrations are a concern on the rivers Evenlode, Glyme and Ampney Brook.
  • Due to the permeable nature of the catchment much of it experiences periodic low flows, particularly during summer months, which in some locations have been exacerbated by abstraction for public water supply. Works to address this in the past have resulted in reducing abstraction at a number of locations. Flow and ecological monitoring are undertaken to assess the benefits of reduced abstraction to rivers such as the Churn and Ampney Brook.
  • Rivers such as the Evenlode display heavy degradation of river channels which affects the quality of the habitat, their setting and leads to hydromorphological issues.
  • There are 51 river water bodies and two lakes in the catchments which fall inside this NCA. Water quality has generally improved across the catchments. Under the Water Framework Directive water bodies are artificial or heavily modified. Of the rivers in the area, 37 per cent currently achieve good or better ecological status/potential, including the Shill Brook, Kencot Brook and Sherborne Brook. Of the rivers assessed for biological status, 28 per cent are rated as good or high, 30 per cent as poor, and 10 per cent as bad. Failures are due to enrichment, principally phosphate, or fish numbers. Of the rivers in the Cotswolds, 31 per cent are predicted to improve for at least one element by 2015.
  • The Jurassic Limestone aquifer which underlies the area is valued as a high quality source of drinking and agricultural water. Over-abstraction and excessive levels of nitrates and pesticides are a concern and arise from changes in land management such as increases in arable cultivation and demands for urban extension. Ground water is good to poor quality in the Upper Thames Catchment.

Historic features

  • The density of historic parkland remains a key feature in this landscape. In 1918, about 6 per cent of the area was historic parkland making this area nationally important. By 1995 it was estimated that 37 per cent had been lost. About 47 per cent of the remaining parkland is covered by Historic Parkland Plans and about 45 per cent is included within an agri-environment scheme.
  • The rate of barn conversions is high in this area in part due to the demand for housing. About 66 per cent of historic farm buildings remain unconverted, and most are intact structurally.
  • Data shows that in 2003 archaeological features included in ESA agreements constituted more than 26 per cent of the total number reflecting the high concentration of archaeological remains in this area.
  • Agri-environment schemes are providing important opportunities to improve the management of archaeological sites within the area.

Minerals

  • In the post-war period a number of large-scale mechanised quarries have been established in response to demand for crushed aggregate and cut stone for building. However, the number of working quarries is now small and delving as a means of abstracting local building stone has all but disappeared. Production is now largely confined to only the highest quality construction and repair work.
  • Cotswolds limestone is still quarried for pulverised and reconstituted facing blocks and to produce limestone aggregate mainly for local use and is limited. Only small new quarries have opened in recent years for building or tiling stone.
  • The character of stone varies considerably across the NCA, and local sources are required to maintain local distinctiveness. In 2003 the former Cotswolds AONB Partnership published a study, Local Distinctiveness and Landscape Change. This identified the reducing local supply of stone (other than crushed rock) as a threat to the maintenance of the locally distinctive built environment.

Semi-natural habitats

  • Much of the species-rich limestone grassland has been lost or has declined in quality, particularly along the scarp face as a result of scrub encroachment, a decline in grazing and lack of management of common land. In particular there has been a conversion of permanent pasture for sheep grazing to arable cultivation on the high wold and dip slope. In 1983, 2 per cent of the land was unimproved pasture compared with 40 per cent prior to the Second World War.
  • Work over the last decade to improve the condition of SSSI in the area has shown considerable progress with 94 per cent now in favourable or unfavourable recovering condition.
  • The Cotswolds Hills Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) covered 85,000 ha of the NCA. It covered a high proportion, nearly 2,000 ha, of the remaining unimproved Jurassic limestone grassland in Europe. Management of species-rich grassland across the NCA has been the subject of some effort and 1,212 ha are being maintained, 2,378 ha are being restored and 410 ha created under agri-environment schemes.
  • Extensive agreements are in place for pasture management, restoration and the enhancement of wet grassland on the dip slope and valley bottoms along the headwaters of the Thames. This includes 66 ha of wet grassland being maintained, 137 ha being restored and 3 ha created under agri-environment schemes.

Settlement and development

  • There is evidence of high demand for residential development within the Cotswolds, and an increase in second home ownership in many villages. This reflects the desire of many to settle in an area renowned for its relative affluence, rural tranquillity, accessibility and high-quality landscape.
  • Chipping Norton and Chalford are examples of the peri-urbanisation of smaller towns and villages within the area.
  • Many traditional stone farm buildings have been converted to residential use. In particular the rate of barn conversions is high; with a high density of conversion per numbers per area when compared to other areas.
  • The AONB’s Landscape Characterisation indicates that there has been a loss of long straw thatch, in particular, and replacement with ‘alien’ materials such as reed thatch and slate.
  • There are pressures for the development of recreational features in the area, and especially on the scarp face, such as golf courses, riding stables and camping sites.
  • The Cotswolds is a popular tourist destination and there has been localised pressure for development of facilities at tourist ‘honey pots’ to meet this demand, alongside associated congestion, erosion of footpaths, bridleways and viewing points.

Trees and woodlands

  • Evidence suggests that during the period between the 1960s and 1970s ancient woodland was lost or replanted with conifer. There was some planting of coniferous woodland for timber and shelterbelts on the high wold and dip slope to provide shelter for increasing arable activity. Strategically located, this also benefited game management and shooting interests. Some restoration of ancient woodland planted with conifers has taken place.
  • Countryside Quality Counts data for the period 1999 to 2003 indicate that the area of woodland is expanding through new tree planting such as that under woodland grant schemes. From 1999 to 2007, new woodland increased by 3,610 ha in the area of the AONB. Much of this new woodland is in the form of small scattered blocks of mixed broadleaves.
  • The proportion of woodland sites covered by a woodland grant scheme increased from 37 to 50 per cent and ancient woodland in particular, having a positive effect on the condition and character of woodland.
  • The Cotswolds has been identified as one of 12 national priority areas for woodland conservation and reinstatement of management to restore the internationally important ancient beech woodlands, and nationally important mixed and oak woods and parks (Preliminary nature conservation objectives for Natural Areas – Woodland and Forestry, English Nature Research Report 239, Reid, C.M. and Kirby, K.J, 1997) in response to deteriorating condition.

Drivers of Change (reported in 2014)

Climate Change

  • Climate change trends suggest increased storminess, periods of drought and the increased prevalence of pests and diseases.
  • Changes in climate may have a significant impact on the area’s internationally important beech woodlands. Effects will vary due to location and soils where there may be loss of the shallow-rooting beech to wind throw and drought-stress. The nationally important mixed/oak woods and trees within parks may be lost through ‘sudden oak death’ and increased stress on veteran trees. Conversely, warmer winters could promote increased tree growth, as well as the suitability of new non-native species or native species of a different provenance, further affecting woodland composition.
  • Other semi-natural habitats may also deteriorate, including remnant fragments of unimproved limestone grassland with the spread of invasive and woody species as a result of higher temperatures, along with a reduction in species diversity as a result of warmer winters and more frequent drought conditions. However, there is the potential for the migration of new species to these sites such as the Glanville fritillary moving north which could see species diversity maintained.
  • Important wetland habitats such as fragmented mires and fen-meadows may suffer from increasing drought conditions brought on by hotter drier summers and potentially an increased demand for irrigation lowering groundwater levels.
  • A longer growing season with increasing temperatures may also encourage the expansion of arable production, but with greater variability in quantity and quality including total crop failure on the thin brash soils, putting more easily cultivated areas of pasture under pressure. Higher temperatures may also encourage the introduction of new crops, for example vineyards, into the landscape, as well as different crop timings, which could offer opportunities for diversification and long-term sustainability. The thin light limestone soils may be vulnerable to damage, such as that caused by increased erosion through wind-blow and run- off, along with nutrient loss and decreased soil microbial activity. Over- abstraction of the aquifer is already an issue and may become a greater problem with lengthy dry periods.
  • A longer growing season could see an increase in timber and biomass production, although, as with crop production, there will be potential stress which could affect product quality. Impacts from increased drought conditions may cause stress on trees and storminess, causing wind damage uprooting, and increased fire risk. A changing climate could increase pest prevalence and this has the potential to affect large stands of trees.

Other key drivers

  • Development pressures and urban extension are likely to continue particularly around larger settlements such as Bath and Cheltenham and smaller market towns such as Chipping Norton, alongside continued conversion of traditional farm buildings in more rural areas.
  • Demand for recreational opportunities and tourism on already strained ‘honey pot’ locations such as Bourton-on-the-Water and Bath will continue. This will place additional strain on road networks, localised erosion of key footpaths such as parts of the Cotswold Way National Trail, development to meet tourism need, water usage and resultant landscape and wildlife impacts.
  • There is likely to be pressure for increased agricultural production and in particular arable conversion on the high wold and for an increase in novel crops such as soya, sunflowers and grain maize and biofuels such as miscanthus and oil seed rape. Increased agricultural production may impact on the quality of the soils.
  • There is likely to be a continuing trend in conversion of medium-sized farm units into smaller horse paddocks and associated facilities with a resultant impact on wildlife and landscape, particularly around towns and villages or of them being amalgamated into larger farmed units.
  • The Cotswolds is home to nationally significant populations of many rare species and tracts of priority habitats. It has a relatively diverse landscape and topographic variation that sits on a north-south axis. This means that it is well placed for initiatives to enhance ecological connectivity and ecosystem functioning. Much of the NCA could act as a key ecological corridor to facilitate climate change adaptation at a regional and national scale.
  • Mineral extraction will continue to influence the area, not least in the supply of local stone for local development and restoration projects. Potentially small-scale local quarries as opposed to further expansion of the larger operations and a resurgence of the formerly widespread “delving” tradition, particularly for low-grade walling stone, could be investigated where appropriate.
  • There is likely to be an increasing demand for abstraction of water from rivers and the aquifer, particularly if there is a trend towards drier hotter summers, changes in agricultural practice and increases in development and numbers of people living within or downstream of this area. While the regulatory regime should protect ecological flow needs, these conditions could exacerbate low flows already experienced in rivers such as the Evenlode and Glyme. Managing and extending locally important wetland habitats – water meadows, fens, springline flushes and rivers – would help to form a strengthened and more climate change-resilient network. Managing habitats to reduce flow through sensitive abstraction and to aid aquifer recharge will also help reduce flood risk and improve water quality.
  • Protecting beech woods, unimproved calcareous grassland, and parkland, geological and historical features throughout the NCA will remain important, benefitting nationally important species (such as Duke of Burgundy butterfly, Cotswolds pennycress, red hellebore and the greater horseshoe bat), notable landscape features, and geodiversity resources.
  • Woodland management and small-scale creation may result as there may be increasing demand for local woodfuel and timber. Urban tree planting may increase to mitigate heat island affects in towns and cities and to help soften new development.
  • Individual hedge-row trees are important in the Cotswolds dip slope landscape, many of which are ash and vulnerable to ash dieback. Their loss could have a significant impact on this landscape setting.
  • There are also pressures for commercial recreational activities that may adversely impact upon the tranquillity of rural areas.