This project, funded by Historic England, shines a spotlight on the important field boundaries and linear landscape features of the Blackdown Hills AONB and highlights the important role they play in the landscape, their heritage value and the benefits that they provide to people.

An integrated approach to valuing the field boundaries and linear landscape features of the Blackdown Hills AONB

The project, which will run until September 2018 and is one of nine national pilot studies, funded by Historic England, to explore how the heritage sector might more fruitfully engage with ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ approaches by looking in detail at the heritage associated with particular environmental contexts. The aim of the overall project is to explore how the historic environment might be better included in these approaches contribute to developing guidelines.

‘Natural capital’ is defined as the world’s stock of natural resources, which includes geology, soils, air, water and all living organisms. ‘Ecosystem services’ are the many and varied benefits that humans freely gain from the natural environment and from properly functioning ecosystems.

The Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) has a suite of special qualities that together make it unique and outstanding, underpinning its designation as a nationally important protected landscape (designated in 1991). An extensive and connected field boundary network is one of special qualities that underpin its designation.

The Blackdown Hills AONB case study will explore the historic landscape character of the AONB, looking at the pattern of fields, boundaries and linear landscape features of this ‘everyday’ but extremely special farmed and managed landscape. It will consider the heritage assets that are integral to these patterns (e.g. prehistoric enclosures, parish boundaries) and those that are regularly associated with them (e.g. orchards within former extractive pits; veteran hedgerow trees and catch-meadow irrigation systems). The case study will look at the landscape as a provider of different and varied ecosystem services.

The Blackdown Hills is an isolated, unspoilt rural area and remains relatively undisturbed by modern development and so ancient landscape features, special habitats, historical and archaeological remains have survived intact. The traditional pattern of villages, hamlets, paths and roads remains largely unchanged and there is an identifiable and characteristic vernacular, pastoral landscape. There is a diversity of landscape patterns and pictures. The visual quality of the landscape is high and is derived from the complex patterns and mosaics of landscapes.

Although the scenery is immensely varied, particular features are repeated. Ancient, species-rich hedgerows delineate the fields and define the character of the landscape, enclosing narrow twisting lanes. There are long views over field-patterned landscapes. The high plateau is dissected by steep valleys, supporting a patchwork of woodland and heath, and fine avenues of beech along the ridge. The history of medieval and parliamentary enclosures has resulted in an individual, patchwork landscape of small fields in the valleys and larger fields with straight hedges on the plateau.

The landscapes of the Blackdown Hills have been created by the interplay of people and the land over the centuries. There are significant concentrations of early prehistoric evidence: since prehistoric times those who lived here have left evidence of their activities that can still been seen today; tools from the Neolithic, Bronze Age barrows on the ridge tops and spectacular Iron Age hillforts that dominate the surrounding lowlands. The Romans left their villas and extensive evidence of iron working. The pattern of fields medieval, and in places prehistoric, in its origins. The ancient woodlands and the royal hunting forest of Neroche are also survivals of the medieval period. Parliamentary enclosure of the commons, culminating in the 19th century, created the regular fields and straight roads of the plateau tops. Three airfields on the plateau played important roles in World War Two. Since that time there has been a substantial loss of hedgerows and orchards to meet the needs of modern agriculture; simplifying parts of the landscape and masking their early origins.

The biodiversity of the Blackdown Hills is one of its greatest assets. The unique geology and landscape patterns of the area have combined with traditional management to support a rich diversity of habitats and species. This immense variety, with patches of valuable habitat scattered throughout the landscape, is notable; these include flower-rich meadows, ancient hedgerows, spring line mire, wet woodland, heathland, calcareous grassland, ancient woodland, fen and bog. Bees, butterflies, birds, bats and many other animals, some nationally scarce, thrive in the Blackdown Hills, feeding and breeding in the habitats the area provides. These habitats and wildlife bring colour, texture, sound and life to the landscape, epitomising the mental picture of the ‘English Countryside’, which has, in reality, long since disappeared elsewhere.

The natural capital value of these features has not been measured and indeed there is little information on the extent and condition of the resource overall. For the historic environment a baseline desk-based survey of the area was undertaken prior to designation as an AONB.

The project is run by a partnership that includes Devon County Council (Historic Environment Team), Historic England, the local Biodiversity Records Centres and the South West Heritage Trust. For more information, please contact the Project Manager tim.youngs@devon.gov.uk

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