National Character Area 12

Mid Northumberland - Analysis: Landscape Attributes & Opportunities

Analysis supporting Statements of Environmental Opportunity

The following analysis section focuses on the landscape attributes and opportunities for this NCA.

Further analysis on ecosytem services for this NCA is contained in the Analysis: Ecosytem Services section.

Landscape attributes

Upland fringe plateau comprising a series of ridges and intimate river valleys in the north, opening out to a broader, flatter landscape in the south and east.

Justification for selection:

  • The area is dissected by several small rivers which flow eastward to the sea. The rivers Coquet, Font and Wansbeck, and their tributaries, wind through the farmland and wooded valley landscapes.
  • Rivers are important features in the agricultural landscape and form important habitat networks.
  • The broadleaved woodlands including alder and ash woodland associated with rivers are characteristic of the landscape and particularly important in conveying a sense of tranquillity.
  • The River Coquet and Coquet Valley woodlands form the largest SSSI in the NCA
  • The rivers in the catchment are important fisheries, especially the Coquet which supports salmonids and lamprey.
  • The Wansbeck supports nationally significant populations of white-clawed crayfish.
  • The higher plateau areas to the west are relatively open and windswept, with large rectilinear fields of improved pasture enclosed by traditional stone walls or hedgerows.

Glacial till is widespread, and largely blankets underlying geology, except for sandstone and dolerite crags (the latter associated with the Whin Sill) which form local landscape features.

Justification for selection:

  • Deposits of glacial till give rise to relatively fertile soils which support managed grasslands and arable.
  • Resistant rocks locally emerge from beneath the till cover; particularly prominent are the sandstone crag of Rothley and Shaftoe, and the Whin Sill crags at Gunnerton.
  • Vegetation on the thin soils of the Whin Sill is made up of an unusual and specialised flora. The plant communities often occur as a mosaic with acid grassland species in close association with species more characteristic of calcareous grassland.

Woodland cover is variable at 8.5 per cent of the NCA and made up of small fragmented woodlands, most closely associated with river valleys.

Justification for selection:

  • This NCA contains 5,414 ha of woodland (where woodlands are over 2 ha in size), including 793 ha of ancient woodland (400 ha are planted ancient woodland sites).
  • The most extensive semi-natural and ancient broadleaved woodlands are found along river valleys.
  • Small plantations of coniferous woodland are found, some of which support populations of red squirrel.
  • There are five Registered Parks and Gardens: Belsay Hall 218 ha, Wallington 167 ha, Capheaton 156 ha, Kirkharle Hall 112 ha, St Mary’s Hospital, and Stannington 43 ha with specimen and veteran trees.

Largely a farmed landscape, with few areas of open water, or semi-natural grassland or heath.

Justification for selection:

  • The few reservoirs and parkland lakes are important features in an otherwise predominantly agricultural landscape.
  • Important for wintering and breeding birds including national important populations of black-necked grebe.
  • Hallington Reservoirs support wintering wildfowl such as wigeon and teal, otter and white-clawed crayfish.
  • Ornamental lakes are associated with country houses at Wallington, Belsay, Capheaton and Bolam.
  • Small isolated area of lowland heathland at Longhorsley Moor, the finest example of lowland heathland in Northumberland.
  • Whin Sill grasslands support an unusual and specialised flora.

Boundaries are typically formed of drystone walls and hedgerows, giving rise to strong rectangular patterns of large fields, dating from the time of the parliamentary enclosures.

Justification for selection:

  • There are 100 km of drystone walls and 387 km of hedgerows within the NCA. These boundary features provide a sense of structure in the landscape and historically are essential components of the farmed landscape.
  • Hedges are significant features, although many are agriculturally redundant. Hedgerow trees are an important element in the landscape.

Historic landscapes and features of importance, dating from the Iron Age, Roman period, medieval through to designed landscapes of the 18th century onwards.

Justification for selection:

  • Evidence of iron-age settlement include standing stones, tumuli, cairns and beacons which remain as landscape features on prominent ridge top sites.
  • Roman influence is reflected in the alignment of Hadrian’s Wall, which forms the southern boundary, and the modern A68 road, which follows the alignment of Dere Street through the area.
  • There is evidence of a number of Romano-British settlements throughout, now evident as rectilinear cropmarks.
  • Remnants of medieval open field systems provide evidence of the ‘shrinkage’ of larger medieval settlements, particularly within the southern part of the area.
  • Small castles, fortified farmhouses with towers and bastles were built in response to cross-border raiding. Some, such as at Mitford, Belsay, Shortflatt and Ray Demesne still form distinctive features in the landscape.
  • From the 16th century onwards, fine country houses were constructed throughout the area, many of them incorporating the original medieval fortified towers and castles. Most of the mansions were located within fine settings in designed parklands laid out with tree-lined drives and ornamental lakes. Belsay Castle is a particularly fine example, as is the Kirkharle Estate, Dissington Hall, Wallington Estate and Bolam Hall.
  • 89 Scheduled Ancient Monuments across all periods, for example, Middle Newham deserted village, iron-age enclosure on Whittle Hill, Roman camp near Mitford Steads.
  • World Heritage Site: Hadrian’s Wall (72 ha) and 2,315 ha of Hadrian’s Wall Buffer Zone.

Pattern of dispersed, small nucleated villages, many of medieval origin or earlier.

Justification for selection:

  • ‘Green villages’, which were originally developed around a rectangle of open land on which stock could be securely grazed; Kirkwhelpington, Matfen, and Stamfordham are particularly well preserved examples in this area.
  • Unity provided by use of local building materials such as fell sandstones and gritstones.
  • Dispersed farmsteads.

Tranquillity is a significant feature of this NCA.

Justification for selection:

  • The features of the area which contribute to high levels of tranquillity include broadleaved woodland associated with rivers, areas of parkland and open waters away from major roads, and low population, few settlements and few roads.

Landscape opportunities

  • Conserve the farmed upland fringe plateau landscape, seeking to expand, buffer and link the fragmented areas of semi-natural habitat including valley woodlands and transitional scrub, into a coherent ecological network, to provide increased resilience to environmental change for its native flora and fauna, safeguarding strongholds for red squirrels, and habitats for salmonids, otter and bats.
  • Protect and extend semi-natural woodland in the area as a functioning habitat network, enhance wet woodland along the Coquet, Font, Blyth and Wansbeck valleys. Manage ancient woodland sites, restoring those which have been overplanted with non-native timber species, and manage and restore the landscape parkland associated with country houses, as part of a coherent woodland habitat network.
  • Seek to maintain or restore natural fluvial processes in the area’s rivers, maintaining or improving sufficient flow and quality of both surface and ground waters and controlling invasive species.
  • Improve protection to sub-surface archaeological features, protecting under permanent grassland or shallower cultivation, and seek to protect examples of historic field and settlement systems within the farmed landscape.
  • Reduce the numbers of heritage at risk sites, and improve the management/encourage restoration of Registered Historic Parks and Gardens to retain their historic integrity and designed parkland features, while also enhancing their biodiversity interest and provide improved access where appropriate.
  • Identify, record, and positively manage locally important geological sites, such as those associated with the Whin Sill, using these for research and enhancing public understanding. Seek opportunities on Whin Sill sites to establish the locally characteristic Whin Sill grasslands and promote the design and implementation of high quality restoration plans for quarry sites.
  • Maintain the built fabric of the landscape, such as the stone wall and hedgerow field boundaries, and the distinct pattern of small, dispersed, nucleated settlements. Promote sustainable new development which has sustainable resource use at its core and which, in its use of local building materials and settlement pattern can reinforce existing character within this rural area.
  • Encourage engagement with the natural environment amongst local communities in and close to Morpeth, together with the nearby larger conurbation of Newcastle, increasing opportunities for educational access, volunteering, and health activities such as walking for health, together with nature-based tourism that deliver benefits to the local economy. Promote sustainable and responsible access and recreation, particularly around sensitive sites, ensuring that suitable provision is made for people of all abilities where appropriate.