National Character Area 156

West Penwith - 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
West Penwith is a peninsula with high cliffs and rocky moorland at its centre, and is subject to drivers of change particularly related to the remote coastal environment. Changes in climate and rainfall may increase the rate of erosion, impacting coastal habitats, heritage features and protected species, and may lead to agricultural changes. There is also potential pressure for renewable energy developments due to the remote and exposed nature of the area, which may threaten the character and quality of the 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)


  • The mix of types of agricultural practices within the area – vegetables, roots, flowers, stock and dairy- has been maintained but the overall number of holdings has decreased. The area is still dominated by extensive cattle and sheep grazing on permanent pastures and rough moorland areas. A significant shift towards arable production has occurred since 2000 and the number of dairy units continues to decrease.

Boundary features

  • Cornish hedges form the significant boundary features in this landscape, many have remained in use for 4,000 years. Their maintenance and restoration through the ESA scheme reflects their importance. This extends to the sunken track-ways which still carry many of the roads across the area.

Coast and rivers

  • The hard cliffs of the majority of the NCA mean that little change has occurred to the coastline with only some minor coastal defence work associated with protecting fishing villages. The Shoreline Management Plan for this stretch of coast identifies major areas of ‘do nothing’ with a few areas of ‘hold the line’ associated with the small fishing villages and holiday destinations.
  • In relation to the area’s minor rivers, the water quality has remained good and is expected to remain at a high level.

Historic features

  • The NCA is characterised by a particular wealth of archaeological and historic features. The visible remains of human occupation provide a significant depth to the landscape of the area. Many of these sites have remained unaltered for many centuries, although in places neglect is starting to affect the legibility of sites through scrub growth and bracken invasion. The notification in 2006, of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site has further enhanced the links between the landscape and historic features such as the famous Crowns mine engine houses at Botallack. This designation has also significantly improved the interpretation of the area, has lead to significant consolidation work and has lead to cohesion of tourist destinations under the World Heritage Site banner.


  • Mining for tin, copper and other minerals has had a significant impact on the landscape that we see now. The peak of industrial extraction and production ended 100 years ago although mining at Geevor continued until 1992.

Semi-natural habitats

  • While designated areas (SSSI, SAC) only make up 6 per cent of the NCA, priority habitats, including lowland heathland, maritime cliff and slope, broadleaved woodlands, purple moor grass and rush pasture, cover a further 3,000 ha of the NCA. This diverse range of habitats, in a small geographical area creates an intricate mosaic with the surrounding farmland much of which is of high conservation value. This area is an excellent example of where the variety of habitats provides a high density of species niches. This network has led in recent years to the return of breeding choughs to the area around St Just.
  • Many of the semi-natural habitats in the area has benefitted from a period of positive management under the West Penwith Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme.

Settlement and development

  • Development pressure is low, on average, with development focussed on the main towns of Penzance and St Ives. There has been limited development scattered through the open countryside and smaller settlements, where barn conversions remain the main developments, although increased pressure is expected on the small market towns in the future as part of the social and economic regeneration of the area.
  • Emerging planning policy suggests an increase in the number of new homes over the next 20 years across the County with a proportion of these being located in the existing small towns and villages, with some of these linked to small business development opportunities.

Trees and woodlands

  • While woodland is not currently a significant part of land cover (776 ha, 4 per cent of the NCA) it has an important role locally in landscape character and habitat connectivity especially in the southern and eastern areas. Single wind-sculpted trees are often considered a poignant reminder of the extreme weather experienced by the area. Since 1999 only 3 ha of planting has occurred through Woodland Grant schemes.

Drivers of Change (reported in 2014)

Climate Change

  • Potential sea level rise may affect low-lying beaches and coves.
  • Increased storminess may also affect coastal habitats, heritage features and protected species. It also increases the rate of erosion of landscape features such as the maritime cliffs and slopes which are a major priority habitat in West Penwith. The igneous rocks are very resistant to erosion but the Mylor slates, where they outcrop at the coast, are less so. These landscape features are a valuable geological resource in their own right.
  • Potential changes in rainfall patterns may impact on the types of crops grown within the area, this combined with potential desiccation of soils and flash flooding may lead to landscape change.
  • A change in the climate may lead to the development and use of novel / unusual crops such as olives and vineyards. These reactive changes have occurred a number of times over the last 200 years in connection with early vegetables and flower production.

Other key drivers

  • Allowing natural coastal processes to operate unimpeded.
  • Pressure to develop within the area is generally low, but with higher demands in localised areas. Given the overall sensitivity of the landscape and natural environment, great attention needs to be applied to ensure the enhancement of both their character and quality resulting from any development.
  • Given the generally sparse population, exposed nature of the area and southerly location, pressure to erect renewable energy developments, wind farms and solar farms, may increase. Conserving and enhancing the character and special qualities of the designated landscape – the Cornwall AONB – will remain a priority and present a challenge. In addition, off-shore wind farms and other marine renewable energy schemes may result in changes to seaward views and a perceived intrusion into the ‘wildness’ of the coast.
  • Maintaining pastoral farming activity and encouraging extensive, low input livestock production to maintain and extend the amount of semi-natural habitat, such as lowland heath, and purple moor grass and rush pasture. However, maintaining an agricultural economy to sustain a labour force sufficient to manage the farmed landscape may be a challenge.
  • The integrated management of semi-natural habitats, heritage and cultural features, and geological assets at a landscape scale, may result in more beneficial ways of working with a wider group of interested parties.
  • Sustained and increased numbers of visitors present both a challenge to limited and restricted resources, but also an opportunity to engage a wider range of communities and support the local economy. Making valued habitats, geological features and heritage assets available to a wider audience may need to be balanced against increased rates of erosion, consumption of local resources – principally water and energy – and economic benefits.