21. WOODED FARMLAND
Regional Character Areas
Cotswolds, Midvale Ridge, Upper Thames Vale, Chilterns.
The landscape type is associated with the wooded areas of the Cotswolds Regional Character Area, including Wychwood Forest and the upper Evenlode valley. It also includes the upper part of Boars Hill, the area to the southeast of Otmoor and the dip slope of the Chilterns.
This landscape type has a distinctively ancient, rural character typified by a mosaic of woodland, enclosed pasture, arable fields as well as scattered farms and settlements.
• Large blocks of ancient woodland and a large number of plantations.
• A varied field pattern of arable land and pasture enclosed by woodland and hedges.
• Species-rich hedgerows with many hedgerow trees.
• Dispersed settlement pattern with settlements and scattered farms.
Geology and landform
The geology varies throughout the landscape type. The area around Wychwood Forest is underlain by the thick limestone bed of the Great Oolite. Marine sediments of the Lower Greensand form pockets at the top of Boars Hill. The upper Evenlode valley is underlain by Lower Lias beds that consist of clays, siltstones and shales, covered in places by glacial deposits, whilst Oxford Clay covers the area around Horton-cum-Studley. The Chilterns plateau is underlain by the Upper Chalk, which is covered by extensive deposits of clay with flints that mask the chalk over parts of the plateau.
The landform is generally rolling and visually prominent in the elevated area around Wychwood Forest, particularly where it is less wooded and the landscape structure is weak. The upper Evenlode valley and the area around Horton-cum-Studley is characterised by a low-lying and gentle topography. In the Chilterns, the land dips very gently towards the southeast, appearing almost like a plateau.
Land use and vegetation
The landscape has a mix of land uses, but arable farming dominates where there is less woodland cover. Woodland is a key element in this landscape type. There are large, interlocking blocks of secondary and ancient woodland, exemplified by the remnants of the former Royal Forest of Wychwood and woodland in the Chilterns, and a number of copses and plantations of variable size and type. Ancient woodland consists mainly of oak and ash in the Cotswolds, whereas beech woodland is more characteristic of the Chilterns. Plantations often consist of oak, ash, beech and Scots pine with the latter planted mainly in the Cotswolds. In some areas, as at Milton under Wychwood and around Horton-cum-Studley, willow-lined ditches are a localised feature. In the Chilterns, acid soils over flint and clay deposits have given rise to pockets of acid grassland and heath, but this is now largely confined to village greens and commons.
Although there is some variation in the field pattern, there is a recurring theme of small, irregular grass fields and large regularly-shaped arable fields enclosed by a strong structure of woodland and hedges. In particular, the small to medium-sized irregular fields, which were carved out of the extensive woodland through a process known as assarting, are very characteristic of this landscape type. The tall, thick hedges reinforce the ancient character of the landscape in many places, particularly along roads, country lanes and in the vicinity of woods. They are of a great age, and support a wide range of shrub species. Many hedges in the Chilterns are relic woodland edges. Overall, they make a significant contribution to the woodland network and have a distinct landscape value in their own right. To the east of Horton-cum-Studley and to the west of Wychwood Forest, where arable farming dominates, the landscape structure is weak, with fields enclosed by straight hawthorn hedges. Mature oak and ash hedgerow trees, particularly within roadside hedges, are a prominent unifying element throughout the landscape. However, they are sparser and less prominent in areas where arable farming is dominant. This mosaic of large blocks of woodland, tall compact hedges and dense trees creates an enclosed and intimate landscape and frames distant views. From the elevated plateau of Boars Hill there are long-distance views across Oxford and the surrounding countryside.
The settlement pattern varies from moderate to high density. It is often linear, stretching out along roads, or encircling a village green. The irregular pattern of fields and winding roads is generally unplanned and organic, and has evolved over a long period of time.
In particular, the Chilterns landscape is a very settled pattern of scattered farms at woodland edges, wayside dwellings, clustered farmsteads and rural settlements. There is also a network of country roads and sunken, winding narrow lanes which adds to this distinctive pattern of settlement. A similar pattern of linear settlements and scattered farms is found in the Cotswolds to the east of Wychwood Forest. However, to the north of the landscape type, villages such as Milton-under-Wychwood have a more compact nucleated shape. The areas to the west of Wychwood Forest and around Horton-cum-Studley are more sparsely settled. Boars Hill has many private dwellings from different periods and with different styles enclosed within the woodland.
The pleasing character of the rural settlements is reflected in the consistent use of vernacular building styles and materials, although this varies across the landscape type. In the Cotswolds, the houses are built of stone with stone roof tiles, and in the Chilterns brick and flint are the dominant materials but there are also houses with brick and clay roof tiles. Older houses are frequently made out of brick and timber frames, and old barns of timber or flint and stone are also characteristic. This character is very strong around Checkendon, Cookley Green, Catslip and Nettlebed. Around Horton-cum-Studley, the main building materials are stone and clay tiles.
This is an enclosed wooded landscape dominated by ancient woodland and tall, thick species-rich hedgerows.
• Predominantly medium to very high bioscores.
• Priority habitats include ancient beech woodland, ancient semi-natural woodland, species-rich hedgerows, acid grassland and heath.
This is a relatively large landscape type, occupying around 7% of the rural county. Within the Chilterns there are significant blocks of ancient beech woodland at places such as Aston Rowant and Bear, Oveys, and Great Bottom woods. Similarly, in the vicinity of Harpsden Wood there are many ancient semi-natural woodlands including a number that are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and of national importance. There are also several acid grassland and heathland sites associated with Chilterns commons such as Nuffield and Peppard. However, they are predominantly acid grassland and the amount of surviving habitat which supports heather species is negligible. Although some of these commons are comparatively large, 20-40 ha, they are no longer grazed and this has led to them becoming dominated by birch, gorse and bracken. On the Corallian ridge, around Boar’s Hill to the west of Oxford, there are also similar habitats of ancient woodland and acid grassland, with Hurst Hill being a good example of the latter. The area associated with the old Royal Forest of Wychwood includes Wychwood, the largest single block of ancient semi-natural woodland in the county at around 480 ha. There is also a small part of Cornbury Park, with its veteran trees and surviving patches of species-rich calcareous grassland. There are species-rich hedgerows, with trees found throughout much of this landscape type, often as part of a network with the ancient woodlands. The remaining areas that fall within the landscape type are generally smaller and have lower bioscores because they support a more limited range of habitat types.
LOCAL CHARACTER AREAS
Small-sized, irregularly-shaped arable and grass fields are surrounded by interlocking blocks of woodland and hedges. There is ancient semi-natural oak and ash woodland, as well as mixed and coniferous plantations. Mature, dense oak and ash hedgerow trees also form part of the tree cover. The overall wooded structure is reinforced by a network of well-maintained tall and thick hedges which, in places, are species-rich.
There are a number of locally important habitats including plantations, semi-improved grassland, species-poor hedgerows with trees and tree-lined watercourses. Other important habitats include ancient semi-natural woodland at Bruern and Bould woods, which are around 35 ha and 53 ha respectively. The parkland and lake associated with the Bruern Estate is also locally important. Wet species-poor grassland and some small pockets of acid grassland within Bould Wood have also been recorded.
B. Wychwood Forest (CW/13)
In this area, there are medium to large-sized arable and grass fields and these are enclosed by woodland and hedges. The field pattern also consists of small, irregular fields around Wychwood Forest and more regularly-shaped, predominantly arable fields to the west of the forest, where they are enclosed by hedges and stone walls. Woodland cover is dominated by large blocks of ancient woodland, which has been traditionally managed as oak and ash coppice with standards and an understorey of hazel. Significant parts of the woodland have been replanted with Scots pine and beech. Discrete mixed plantations of oak, ash and Scots pine are also found throughout the area. Oak and ash hedgerow trees of varying ages add to the overall tree cover, but they are generally sparser to the southwest, where arable farming is more dominant. The hedges consist of hawthorn, blackthorn and occasionally dogwood, wild privet and wayfaring tree. They are in better condition around Wychwood, but are more fragmented to the west of the forest.
This area supports a range of locally important habitats including deciduous woodland, plantations, semi-improved grassland, scrub and species-poor hedges with trees. There are a number of ancient semi-natural woodlands including Wychwood, the largest remaining block of ancient woodland in the county at 480 ha, and Widley Copse at 43 ha, which are the remnants of the Royal Forest of Wychwood. Within Wychwood and along some of the adjacent road verges, there are surviving pockets of calcareous grassland. There is also some surviving acid grassland at places such as Ramsden Heath, which is currently a coniferous plantation.
C. Boars Hill (CR/10)
This is a prominent and heavily wooded hill. It is covered by large interlocking blocks of ancient and secondary oak-ash woodland enclosing small irregular fields of semi-improved grassland. The latter is interspersed with patches of gorse on the steeper slopes. Ornamental gardens, and small mixed plantations with species such as Scots pine that are an integral part of these large gardens, are a characteristic feature of the area. Hedges are generally not a prominent element in the landscape but, where they do occur, they are frequently overgrown and gappy.
There is a range of locally important habitats including deciduous woodland, plantations, scrub, semi-improved grassland and species-poor hedges with trees. There are also blocks of ancient semi-natural woodland and small surviving areas of acid grassland and fen at Hurst Hill near Cumnor.
D. Horton-cum-Studley (UT/44)
The area is characterised by medium to large-sized, regularly-shaped arable and grass fields, which are enclosed by woodland and hedges. To the southeast of the area, the pattern of enclosure is mainly defined by hedges and ditches. Ridge and furrow pasture is a feature in some parts. Mature hedgerow trees of oak and ash are a prominent feature, and provide a unifying element throughout. They are denser along roadsides and lanes. Large blocks of ancient woodland are locally prominent on the slopes of the surrounding hills. Most hedges are in good condition and mainly consist of hawthorn, blackthorn, elm and, in places, goat willow. Bordering roads and lanes they are frequently tall, thick and species-rich with wild privet, spindle, field maple and dogwood. Hedges next to ditches are also taller, with dense tree-belts dominated by crack willow.
This area includes locally important habitats such as deciduous woodland, plantations, scrub, semi-improved grassland and species-poor hedges with trees. Because parts of this area are low-lying there is also a network of ditches draining the fields. In addition, there are other important habitats including ancient semi-natural woodland, such as Whitecross Green, Holly and Noke Woods. These are between 18 ha-63 ha and although they are not all in favourable condition, they are being managed sympathetically. The area also includes some species-rich unimproved meadows near Murcott, which cover approximately 23 ha and these are generally in favourable condition and management. There are also examples of neutral, wet and flood meadow grassland, as well as species-rich ditches in the flatter, low-lying parts of this local character area. Species–rich hedgerows with trees are characteristic of the area as well.
E. Chilterns Plateau (CH/5, CH/6, CH/7, CH/8, CH/12, CH/15)
In most places, there is an irregular pattern of arable and grass fields surrounded by woodland and ancient, species-rich, hedges. Arable farming is particularly dominant around Nuffield and Cookley Green, where the fields are larger and more regular in shape. Semi-improved grassland occurs mainly around Sonning Common and Goring Heath. The area is dominated by large, interlocking blocks of secondary and ancient oak-ash and beech woodland, with hazel and holly as an understorey. There is also a large number of surviving ancient semi-natural woodland as well as deciduous, mixed and coniferous plantations with beech as their main species. Old, densely-scattered trees of oak, ash, and some beech and holly are equally characteristic. They appear as very dense belts along lanes and parish boundaries. Hedges are generally well-maintained, consisting of hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, hazel and holly. However, where they border arable land, they are frequently low, gappy or removed altogether. Pockets of acid grassland and heath survive on greens and commons, such as Russell’s Water, Nettlebed, Catslip and Crowley Park. Wide, species-rich verges are typically associated with the winding lanes. In places they are mixed with bracken, particularly to the south of Sonning Common.
Bioscores/biobands: 43/LM; 67/M; 179/VH; 158/VH; 93/MH; 95/MH.
Although there appears to be some significant variation in bioscores and biobands across this local character area, most of it is either medium-high or very high. Those parts which have lower scores are generally small and unrepresentative of the area as a whole. The plateau supports a range of locally important habitats such as deciduous woodland, plantations, semi-improved grassland, scrub and species-poor hedges with trees. However, it is particularly important for its ancient beech and oak-ash-beech woodland, including a part of Aston Rowant Special Area of Conservation and other nationally important sites such as Harpsden and Bear, Oveys and Great Bottom Woods. There are also many other interlocking blocks of ancient semi-natural woodland. Surviving fragments of acid grassland and heath are associated with a number of the Chilterns Commons and Greens including Peppard, Nettlebed and Russell’s Water. Some of these commons are no longer traditionally grazed and have subsequently been colonised by oak and birch woodland. The amount of actual heathland is relatively small, and the surviving heather is often over-mature and leggy. However, they are reasonably large sites ranging from 16-43 ha and although many remain in unfavourable condition and management, there is great potential for restoring them to their former state.
FORCES FOR CHANGE
• Overall, this landscape type has an unspoilt rural character, but there a number of factors which have impacted on the area.
• There have been significant numbers of conifers planted, particularly within the Cotswolds. These are either single species plantations or restocking of existing woodlands including ancient semi-natural woods.
• Although hedges are generally in good condition and the network intact, they are often fragmented or lost in areas where arable farming is dominant.
• The Chilterns commons traditionally provided rough grazing and fuel, and were typically areas of open heath with few trees. Today, the reduction or cessation of the traditional grazing management has resulted in the development of bracken, scrub and secondary woodland at the expense of the acid grassland and heathland vegetation.
• The settlements are generally picturesque and retain their rural character, which is reflected in the scale, use of traditional materials and the clear definition between village and countryside. However, there are residential developments and farm buildings that are out of character, particularly bordering some of the main roads leading into the Chilterns.
• Communication masts are a prominent feature to the west of Wychwood Forest, and the elevated character of the landscape and the weak landscape structure in this area accentuates their impact.
• Masts have also been erected in Crowsley Park in the Chilterns and, despite the fact that are screened by dense beech trees, they have a visual impact on the pastoral character of the parkland.
• Power lines are prominent around Caversham.
• There are a number of golf courses in the Chilterns and they have a suburbanising effect.
To conserve the interlocking mosaic of woodlands, fields, hedgerows and hedgerow trees, and distinctive patterns of settlement and buildings.
• Strengthen the pattern of hedgerows and hedgerow trees where it is weak, by planting up gaps using appropriate native tree and shrub species. Hedgerow trees are a key feature of this landscape type and felling of mature specimens should be resisted whereas the planting of new hedgerow trees and tree belts should be encouraged.
• Promote the sustainable management of existing ancient woodland to safeguard its long-term survival. Within the Chilterns, this should be in line with the Chilterns A.O.N.B. Woodland Policy Statement (1992). In the Cotswolds, promote the removal of conifers and replanting of native deciduous trees and shrubs in ancient semi-natural woodland.
• Promote the re-establishment of acid grassland and heath on the Chilterns Commons through a combination of selective tree felling, scrub and bracken control, and fencing and grazing.
• Maintain local distinctiveness by controlling the quality of built development, taking into account its scale, setting and use of local building materials. Where appropriate, this should conform to design guidelines prepared by Local Authorities and the Chilterns A.O.N.B. Management Board. In the Cotswolds, the houses are built of stone with stone roof tiles, and in the Chilterns brick and flint are the dominant materials, but there are also houses with brick and clay roof tiles. Older houses are frequently made out of brick and timber frames, and old barns of timber or flint and stone are also characteristic.
• Safeguard, maintain and enhance the characteristic landscape features of existing parklands including veteran trees, avenues of trees, lakes, woods and walls.
• Enhance and strengthen the character of tree-lined watercourses by planting willows and ash and, where appropriate, pollarding willows.
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.
• Much of this landscape type supports a wide range of priority habitats and the emphasis should be on conserving and, where appropriate, extending this resource.
• A significant proportion of the ancient semi-natural woodland within the Chilterns and Cotswolds has been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserve or Special Area of Conservation. The priority must be to ensure that all these sites are in favourable condition and management by formal agreement, where appropriate, between the landowner and English Nature.
• There is only a limited amount of acid grassland and heath within the landscape type. This habitat is primarily associated with commons such as Nettlebed, and the priority is to ensure that it is restored to favourable condition and management. Traditionally, the commons would have been grazed but are now usually dominated by woodland, scrub and bracken. Selective clearance, followed by fencing and the re-introduction of grazing on appropriate sites, should be actively encouraged. There are opportunities for extending this resource within the landscape type to meet the targets outlined in the relevant habitat action plan.
• Species-rich hedges are a significant feature throughout the landscape type. They should be safeguarded, where appropriate, with the use of the Hedgerow Regulations administered by Local Authorities and enhanced by sympathetic management and replanting, if necessary, using native tree and shrub species characteristic of the area.
• Parklands, and their associated habitats of woodlands, trees, lakes and grassland, make some contribution to the biodiversity resource of the landscape type. Some parklands support veteran trees and a priority must be to ensure that there is a sustainable, long-term programme for safeguarding and perpetuating this resource.
• To conserve the interlocking mosaic of woodlands, fields, hedgerows and hedgerow trees, and distinctive patterns of settlement and buildings.
• A significant proportion of this landscape type is of prime biodiversity importance. The emphasis must be placed on conservation and, where appropriate, expansion of this resource particularly acid grassland and heath associated with the Chiltern Commons.