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Traditional landscapes are changing says Natural England

England’s unique and varied landscapes are changing says a new report launched today (Thursday 14 June 2007).

From the hop fields and apple orchards of Kent, to the grazing pastures of Somerset dairy herds, the quality of England’s landscape is changing when judged against seven criteria such as woods, hedges and dry stone walls, rivers, farming, wild open spaces and housing developments.

The ”Tracking Change in the Character of the English Landscape” report produced by Natural England, English Heritage and Defra, monitored changes in the English landscape between 1998 and 2003. Of England’s 159 Joint Character Areas (JCAs):

  • 10% have been enhanced
  • 51% have been maintained
  • 20 % are neglected
  • 19% are diverging, where new landscape characteristics are emerging.

Some of the changes are due to agricultural changes such as fewer animals grazing pasture and new crops being planted. Other changes are due to development; for example, in the flat, wide valleys of the Trent Valley Washlands new business parks and housing are being built alongside major routes such as the A38, A5 and A50.

The rate of change is accelerating along motorways and trunk roads (see map A) as urban corridors develop along the M1, M3, M4, M5, M6 and the A14. New development hot spots in traditionally rural areas such as Cumbria, North Yorkshire, and South Devon suggest that pressures from commuting lifestyles now extend beyond major towns and cities.

Dr Helen Phillips, Chief Executive of Natural England, said: “Some of our treasured landscapes are suffering from decline and neglect. We want to celebrate the countryside’s local accent such as honey coloured dry stone walls in the Cotswolds and the hedgerows of the Midlands.

“Where Natural England can target agri-environment schemes and grants to make this happen on Sites of Special Scientific Interest, farms and in partnership with National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty it is fairing well. The Countryside Quality Counts indicators allows us to monitor change and to identify the pressures causing it that will help guide policies to help ensure that the wider countryside does not slip away quietly unnoticed and unmourned.”

Landscape character is an important aspect of the overall quality of the countryside and a key contributor to people’s quality of life. Natural England, working together with top academics from the Universities of Nottingham and Sheffield, supported by communications specialists, Countryscape, devised a set of criteria to assess what is changing, and whether change matters to people.

The research was jointly sponsored by English Heritage. Stephen Trow, Head of Rural and Environmental Policy for English Heritage, said: “Change in the countryside is inevitable and necessary, but needs to be planned and managed so that we pass on to a future generations a diverse and attractive landscape in which history can still be understood and enjoyed.

“The historic character of the landscape is absolutely fundamental to its beauty and we must be concerned if this character is needlessly eroded. Countryside Quality Counts gives us a powerful new tool for understanding the process of change and for helping us to decide how to respond to it.”

Barry Gardiner, Minister for Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs welcomed the report saying:

“The way we manage our landscape is important to people’s quality of life. It is good to see that over 61% of England’s Joint Character Areas have maintained or enhanced their character. Nearly 50% of farmland is being maintained under our Environmental Stewardship Scheme, which will contribute to improving the landscape. We look forward in working with Natural England to explore what else can be done. The results will be used to inform future government policy, to help ensure that development in rural areas is sustainable.”

The picture is brighter in some of the best loved and protected areas of England from the Lake District to the Cotswolds. Our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are included within the top ten per cent of Joint Character Areas where landscape quality has improved since 1998 and 2003, when judged on seven key criteria, from woodland cover to river quality.

  • Just over half of England’s JCAs have maintained their traditional character.
  • Trees and woodlands have been enhanced or maintained in roughly equal numbers, associated with the wide take up of woodland grants.
  • For semi-natural features within the agricultural setting, the majority of JCAs assessed as maintained, benefited from agri-environment funding, which also benefits features such as dry stone walls and hedgerows.
  • Roughly 70% of the JCAs were classified as either maintained or enhanced, in relation to semi-natural features.
  • For river and coastal features, most JCAs were classified as maintained.
  • Alongside of these good indications, other landscape themes showed erosion of landscape character.
  • The assessment for settlement and development patterns suggested that the character of the majority of JCAs was diverging, or changing from previous distinctiveness.
  • For the boundary features theme, most JCAs were classified as neglected.
  • For the historic features theme, the majority of JCAs were assessed as neglected.

The development of the Countryside Quality Counts method has provided a scientific measure of countryside quality can be used to monitor change and to identify the pressures causing and this will help guide policies to ensure that what people love about the English countryside is conserved and enhanced.

Notes for editors:

The report and a selection of photographs and maps are available from Natural England press office 0845 603 9953, out of hours 07970 098005 or email

Countryside Quality Counts (CQC) is a project to develop a national indicator of how the countryside is changing. It aims to understand how and where change is occurring, and most importantly, where change matters the most. This information can be used to help plan future landscapes and inform change that delivers public benefits - enhancing and maintaining the character and quality of our countryside for this and future generations.

The seven landscapes themes covered in these criteria are woodlands and trees, boundary features, agricultural land cover, settlement and development patterns, semi-natural habitats, historic features and river and coastal features.

Natural England works for people, places and nature to conserve and enhance biodiversity, landscapes and wildlife in rural, urban, coastal and marine areas. We conserve and enhance the natural environment for its intrinsic value, the wellbeing and enjoyment of people, and the economic prosperity it brings.

Natural England is working with the Government and others in England and across the UK to develop an implementation strategy to help promote and develop the principles of the European Landscape Convention further, through our own work and advice, and with stakeholders and the public after it was ratified in 2006.

Four case studies

The case studies presented here have been chosen to illustrate what is meant when the character of a Joint Character Area (JCA) has been assessed as ‘maintained’ (51%), ‘enhanced’(10%), ‘neglected’(20%) or ‘diverging’(19%). Please contact the press office to request photographs to illustrate the case studies, together with some maps and a pdf of the report.

Cumbria High Fells – including a large proportion (88.2%)of the Lake District National Park
Status: Maintained

The Cumbria High Fells (JCA 8) is a JCA that makes up a large part of the Lake District National Park. Its distinctive qualities result from its upland character, and include the extensive tracts of unimproved rough grazing land in the higher areas, with semi-improved and improved pasture and rectilinear fields in the valleys. There are relatively few trees on the exposed higher land, but in more sheltered sites there are extensive areas of ancient, semi-natural broadleaved, mixed and conifer woodlands. Settlement density is low throughout. Analysis of the national data sets that were available for the area suggested that change in the features that produced its strong sense of place were limited, and so the overall conclusion was that character was maintained. The first assessment also suggested that the pace of change was slow, and the direction was largely consistent with character.

The Cotswolds – including a large proportion (65%)of the Cotswolds AONB
Status: Enhanced

By contrast, the evidence available for the Cotswolds (JCA 107) suggests that overall its character is enhancing. This area consists of a steep scarp and a long, rolling dip slope that has been cut into a series of plateaux by the valleys that bisect it. Much of the high ground of the plateaux is dominated by arable and woodland. Pasture is predominant in the valleys, at least on steeper slopes, and meadows and tree-lined watercourses are found along the valley bottoms. The beech woodlands of the escarpment are an especially characteristic feature. In the statements making up the Profile for this area, it was suggested that that character could be strengthened by more extensive woodland management and the restoration and management of the limestone grasslands and dry stone walls that are typical of the area. The number of agreements made through the Woodland Grant, Countryside Stewardship and the Environmentally Sensitive Areas conservation management schemes suggests that this is occurring, so that overall, the character of the area is continuing to strengthen. The first assessment also suggested that overall change was consistent with character, although the rate change now seems to have increased.

North Kent Plain (stretching from Dartford out to Ramsgate and Deal at the coast)
Status: Neglected

The North Kent Plain (JCA115) is a low and gently undulating landscape, characterised by high quality, fertile loam soils that have supported intensive arable cropping, horticulture and orchards. It is mostly a treeless landscape with occasional scattered small woodlands, and a sparse pattern of hedgerows and shelterbelts around settlement and farmsteads. Evidence suggests that there is a slow decline in the number of mixed, general cropping and dairy farms, and the uptake of agreements for the management of boundary features and orchards is low. Development, particularly in the urban fringe of Whitstable and Herne Bay, has transformed the character many parts of the area. Since significant opportunities to restore or strengthen the distinctive qualities of the character of therefore exist, the area was classified as neglected. In the first assessment it was concluded that change was marked and inconsistent with character. Thus while the rate of change may have slowed for the second assessment period, there is little sign that past erosion of character is being reversed.

Trent Valley Washlands (from Tamworth in the south up to Derby and Nottingham following the River Trent)
Status: Diverging

This is an area of flat, wide valleys, contained by gentle side slopes, with wide rivers flowing on alluvial floodplains between terraces of sand and gravel. There is very limited woodland cover, although in places the growth of riparian trees and shrubs give an impression of woodland cover. Hedgerows are low, sparse and often well trimmed on the slightly elevated river terraces where they divide large arable fields, but there are also stretches of permanent pasture, where dense, overgrown hedgerows enclose small riverside meadows. Between 1999 and 2003, grassland area has declined and there is loss of mixed and general cropping. This, coupled with the significant development that has occurred along the major route corridors (A38, A5 and A50) and around the large settlements such as Derby and Burton-Upon-Trent, suggests that landscape change is producing patterns that are inconsistent with those that previously made this area distinctive. This conclusion was the same as that for the first assessment, which also suggested that change was marked and tending to transform the traditional character of the area.

Resources available from press office

Tracking Change in the Character of the English Landscape report (pdf, 25.5MB)
Map A – Tracking Change in the Character of the English Landscape, 1999-2003 (pdf, 5.4MB)

00-7945 Trent Valley
02-1091 North Kent Plain
03-6173 Cotswolds
03-7333 Cotswolds
03-7958 Cotswolds
04-1470 Cumbrian High Fells
04-1476 Cumbrian High Fells
04-1493 Cumbrian High Fells
60278 Trent Valley
Trent Valley showing development pressures

Interactive map of JCAs – find your local JCA
List of JCAs by category – enhanced, maintained, diverging, neglected