18. WOODED DOWNLANDS
Regional Character Areas
North Wessex Downs.
This landscape type covers the wooded parts of the North Wessex Downs.
This is a rolling landscape characterised by the strong contrast between enclosed woodland and open downland.
• Undulating downland dissected by dry valleys.
• A range of woodland types including varying sized plantations and blocks of ancient woodland.
• Large-scale, open arable fields and horse gallops.
• Sparsely settled landscape.
Geology and landform
The geology of the area, dominated by the Middle Chalk, has resulted in the distinctive rolling downland which is dissected by dry valleys, long sinuous scarp slopes and smoothly rounded hills towards the east. The thin, well-drained and nutrient-poor soils overlying the chalk can support species-rich calcareous grassland but are also easily cultivated and suitable for intensive arable farming.
Land use and vegetation
This landscape type is characterised by a mosaic of woodlands and the farmed landscape. The woodland is primarily linear skyline shelterbelts, small copses and larger plantations. They are both mixed and deciduous, and include species such as beech, ash and various conifers. Large, sinuous blocks of ancient woodland, with species such as ash, beech and oak, are also characteristic, and are found along the steeper slopes and valley sides.
Arable farming dominates the non-wooded landscape and semi-improved grassland is associated with the numerous horse gallops along the slopes to the south of Blewbury. Patches of unimproved chalk grassland, often interspersed with scrub, have survived on some valley sides and steep slopes. Parklands are also an important feature of this landscape type, often originating from medieval deer parks. Ashdown Park, which is owned and managed by the National Trust, is an important designed landscape with its large woodland blocks and ancient woodland to the south.
Much of the landscape was open grazing and commons until the eighteenth or nineteenth century, when Parliamentary Enclosure resulted in the establishment of large, regularly-shaped fields. Most of these field boundaries have since been removed, resulting in a very large-scale, open landscape. The woodland blocks give some sense of structure and help to enclose and frame distant views. The field boundaries are largely limited to a few post and wire fences bordering grass fields, and occasional hawthorn and elder hedges along tracks and roads.
It is a very sparsely settled landscape, with scattered farms, barns and stables. Ashdown House and its associated buildings are a significant feature towards the western part of the landscape type. Building materials include red and blue brick, brick and stone or plain brick with clay tile roofs. There are few roads but there is a characteristic network of green lanes, tracks and footpaths.
An open downland landscape with a limited range of locally important habitats and few priority habitats.
• Bioscores low-medium to medium.
• Interest largely confined to the areas of ancient semi-natural woodland and calcareous grassland.
This is a relatively small landscape type, occupying around 1.6% of the rural county. It supports a limited range of locally important habitats including plantations, semi-improved grassland, scrub and species-poor hedges. Priority habitats are also limited in number and include surviving blocks of ancient semi-natural woodland surrounding Ashdown House and calcareous grassland on the steeper slopes and valleys of Moulsford and Aston Upthorpe Downs. Most of the chalk grassland is in favourable condition and management, but some sites are being threatened by scrub invasion through lack of grazing.
LOCAL CHARACTER AREAS
An open downland landscape characterised by large scale arable fields, linear shelterbelts and geometrically-shaped mixed plantations. Around Ashdown Park there are large blocks of semi-natural and ancient woodland, and pasture. There are a few hawthorn hedges which have survived, but it is mainly post and wire fences that enclose the grassland fields.
This area has characteristic habitats such as plantations, semi-improved grassland and species-poor hedges. Ashdown Park, with its associated mature trees and pasture, is also of interest. Sarsen stones within the park are also noted for their lichen flora. The only priority habitat is ancient semi-natural woodland, such as Upper Wood, to the south of Ashdown House.
B. Lattin Downs (WD/7)
An open downland landscape characterised by large arable fields and large, interlocking blocks of mixed plantations. Gappy hawthorn hedges are restricted to green lanes.
This area includes characteristic habitats such as plantations, semi-improved grassland, scrub and a few species-poor hedgerows. There is a little ancient semi-natural woodland.
C. Blewbury Downs (WD/10)
A downland landscape with distinctive smoothly rounded hills, steep slopes and narrow valleys. It is a wooded landscape with a range of small mixed and deciduous plantations, and larger interlocking blocks of ancient woodland on the steeper slopes. To the east of the area there are areas of unimproved chalk grassland interspersed with scrub which dominate the steep valley sides. Elsewhere, the area is largely characterised by horse gallops and sheep-grazed pastureland. Hawthorn and elder hedges are confined to tracks and roads, and occasionally border grass fields.
This area includes a range of different plantations, semi-improved grassland, scrub and species-poor hedges. It supports some significant areas of calcareous grassland and ancient semi-natural woodland to the east around Moulsford and Aston Upthorpe Downs. The surviving areas of chalk grassland tend to be confined to the steeper slopes. Although they are separated from each other, they are a reasonable size and range from 10-25 ha. They have been designated as S.S.S.I.s or county wildlife sites and, generally speaking, they are in favourable condition and management. The area supports a significant block of ancient semi-natural woodland known as Unhill and Ham Woods. It is around 150 ha and is in favourable condition and management.
FORCES FOR CHANGE
• Agricultural intensification has resulted in the fragmentation and loss of the hedgerow pattern and those hedges which remain are often low and gappy.
• The increase in arable farming has also led to the loss and fragmentation of chalk grassland and the quality of the habitat that remains is under threat because of problems with grazing.
• Tall structures, such as wireless masts, can be particularly intrusive in this open landscape.
Conserve the mosaic of open downland, woodland and sparse settlement.
• Promote the sustainable management of existing woodland to safeguard its long-term survival.
• Promote the planting of small-scale deciduous woodland blocks using locally characteristic species such as oak and ash.
• Conserve the surviving areas of permanent pasture and promote arable reversion to grassland, particularly on land adjacent to existing grassland.
• Safeguard, maintain and enhance the quality of unimproved chalk and limestone grassland with sustainable grazing techniques. Identify opportunities for calcareous grassland restoration by linking and extending the existing resource.
• Strengthen the existing field pattern by planting up gappy hedges using locally characteristic species such as hawthorn.
• Maintain the dispersed and sparsely settled character of the landscape.
• Minimise the visual intrusion of structures in the landscape by careful siting and screen planting where appropriate.
Ensure that all surviving priority habitats are safeguarded, in favourable condition and management, and enhanced to satisfy the actions and targets identified within the relevant habitat and species action plans.
• The only recorded priority habitats are some blocks of ancient semi-natural woodland and species-rich chalk grassland.
• There is only a limited amount of ancient semi-natural woodland surrounding Ashdown House and the priority must be to ensure that these sites are in favourable condition and management.
• Most of the unimproved calcareous grassland has a statutory or non-statutory wildlife designation. The priority must be to ensure that all these sites are in favourable condition and management. With S.S.S.I.s this can be achieved, where appropriate, through formal agreement between the landowner and English Nature. For county wildlife sites this can be promoted with advice from organisations such as the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, and the targeting of agri-environment schemes. Opportunities for extending and linking this resource should also be promoted by targeting agri-environment schemes particularly adjacent to existing areas of chalk grassland.
• Promote the use of agri-environment schemes such as conservation headlands, overwintered stubbles and winter-sown crops to benefit farmland birds such as skylarks and yellowhammers.
• Maintain pattern of open downland, woodland and sparse settlement.
• Safeguard, maintain and expand areas of species-rich chalk grassland.