Dorchester Downs

The Dorchester Downs is defined by broad, open and rolling uplands, undulating chalk slopes and small-broad valleys surrounding the south and western fringes of Dorchester.

The Dorchester Downs is defined by broad, open and rolling uplands, undulating chalk slopes and small-broad valleys surrounding the south and western fringes of Dorchester. Maiden Castle dominates the surrounding open landscape south of Dorchester. Regular trimmed hedgerows enhance the sense of structure with occasional small broad-leaved woodlands set within a mixed pastoral and arable landscape. Towards the west a patchwork of small-scale woodlands results a degree of perceived enclosure. Toward the east, the landscape has a parkland character. Overall to the area presents typical agricultural patterns of arable cultivation on gentle slopes, with some rough grazing on the deeper valley sides and mixed pastoral and arable use on the broad valley floors. The small linear settlements dispersed within the landscape have a strong association with the agricultural character. There is a marked transition to the surrounding chalk escarpment and incised chalk valleys and the flat Frome Valley Pastures to the north. The area has experienced a range of influences from built development, including urban expansion, major roads, large scale powerlines and telecommunication masts. Furthermore, the proximity of the area to sizable populations and relative accessibility have led to increased interest in siting developments that serve this population, such as waste and recycling facilities. In recent years a sizable anaerobic digester has been constructed in the area and it has been observed that this has produced a visual impact and has also influenced local agricultural management, due to increased demand for maize feed.

  • Broad open rolling uplands with convex slopes and incised dry valleys giving way to large open skies and distant horizons
  • Some extensive panoramic views from elevated ground, notably from Maiden Castle
  • Thin calcareous soils with underlying geology of chalk
  • Complex twisting valley slopes with patches of semi-natural chalk grassland and old hazel coppice stands
  • Groups of linear broadleaved coverts and trees on upland slopes providing a sense of enclosure
  • Straight rural lanes with occasional farmsteads with a series of small linear villages of brick and flint, stone, thatch and cob, expressing strong historic and built heritage
  • Large, straight-sided arable and pastoral fields of late 18th/early 19th century enclosures with trimmed hazel hedgerows, with post & wire on higher ground
  • Parkland landscapes on the valley floors, particularly in the east
  • Extensive scattering of prehistoric monuments on higher ground, which in addition to the presence of Maiden Castle provide a particularly rich historic heritage. These features have been influential in shaping a legacy of cultural associations, reinforcing the identity of the area

Land shape and structure

The Dorchester Downs has a more enclosed character than many other upland landscapes across the National Landscape due to a series of a smaller scale hills set around a series of complex twisting downs and incised valley coombes draining into the Frome to the north and Winterbourne to the south. The area becomes more open towards the southern fringes of Dorchester with a series of small conical hills.

Soils and vegetation

Calcareous soils are developed directly on chalk becoming thinner on higher ground with relic calcareous grassland on steeper slopes with patches of rough pasture towards the valley bottoms. Occasional semi-natural broadleaved woodlands are found on higher ground with smaller hazel coppice stands on the gentler slopes.

Settlement and land cover

Small linear villages with brick and flint cottages are found on the lower ground with occasional parklands and country houses. The urban fringe of Poundbury, which is partly within the area, and Dorchester and villages to the north, contrast to the surrounding open character. Large agricultural estates consist of mainly arable cover on the higher open uplands with large estate plantations. Towards the lower ground, land cover becomes more pastoral in character.

Historic character

Towards the south of the area, the valley floor is mainly planned enclosure. Further north, there is a mixture of planned enclosure, regular enclosed fields, mixed plantations and coppice. Field boundaries and footpaths often reflect the tracks that bought the livestock to and from the chalk downland during prehistoric times. Villages retain a strong association with the medieval strip field systems on the lower ground. The areas rich time depth is reflected in the significant scattering of Neolithic and Bronze Age Barrows located on the higher ground with the imposing late Iron Age hill fort of Maiden Castle. The south and eastern main roads into Dorchester follow the lines of Roman roads.

Visual character and perceptions

The broad chalk uplands have structured appearance, with a parkland character to the east, contrasting to the dominance and open character around Maiden Castle. The textured appearance of patchworks of large fields and dark woodland blocks gives the area an agricultural estate appearance. However, the traditional rural character of the area is significantly weakened by a wide range of modern development and activities that occur within the area or are visible from it. These include major roads and power lines, urban housing development, communications masts, large scale modern farms and a number of farm diversifications, including some small-scale turbines and an anaerobic digester. There is pressure to increase the scale and intensity of farming enterprises across the area, resulting in proposals to enlarge buildings and associated development, such as silage clamps. Accommodating such expansion within elevated and visually exposed locations is particularly challenging and there is a risk that the cumulative effects of such growth may further erode the undeveloped rural character of the area.

The strength of character is judged to be moderate-weak. Although the open character of the upland hills remains largely intact, a variety of historical changes have weakened the characteristic patterns of landscape elements. Significant parkland landscapes to the east serve to strengthen the surrounding agricultural character although the variety of urban fringe land uses detract from the wider open setting. Smaller settlements retain their dip slope location although habitats in the landscape have become fragmented. Towards the urban fringe of Dorchester and associated road corridors, strength of character is weaker than then the more rural areas in the eastern and western extents.


Despite the urban influences, the landscape is largely agricultural with occasional small nucleated villages. Post war intensive farming practices have resulted in the decline of some landscape features with fragmented hedgerows often replaced with post and wire. Towards the dip slopes, the area is in good management due to parkland estates that exist. Settlements maintain a consistent use of materials with defined village edges. Pylons and communications infrastructure have a big impact on the higher ground and along the major road corridors and urban fringe, the landscape is sometimes in poorer condition. Urban influences and agricultural intensification have, to some extent, degraded the historic and ecological value of characteristic landscape elements. Overall landscape condition is moderate-weak and declining.

Overall, we should aim to conserve the undeveloped character of the downland landscape. There should be an emphasis on restoring the condition of features and habitats that have declined due to changes in farming practice and other development/infrastructure pressures.  To maintain undeveloped rural character, careful consideration should be given to the design of developments such as settlement extensions and large agricultural barns.  Sensitive siting and tailored landscaping measure should be pursued. Indirect effects arising from farm diversification and intensification should be considered, particularly where widespread changes to landscape management may arise.


Planning guidelines

  • Conserve the distinctive undeveloped character of the open landscape and the long ranging views especially from roads, Rights of Ways and key viewpoints.
  • Limit the proliferation of masts and communications infrastructure. Ensure permitted infrastructure meets essential local needs, building the economic resilience of rural communities. Ensure that the site selection process affords significant weight to the conservation of visual amenity and respects heritage assets and their settings.
  • Ensure pylons and other vertical elements are carefully sited and the number restricted to avoid visual clutter and further interruption of the characteristic open views. Encourage the under-grounding of powerlines in open, sensitive locations.
  • Ensure new housing development is complimentary to settlement scale, form and density and secure appropriate mitigation measures. Promote the use of previously developed land before greenfield sites, where this is well connected to settlement form. Require appropriate materials and architectural detailing, recognising the variable viability issues affecting market and affordable homes. Reduce the impact of associated features, including lighting, parking and access.
  • Ensure that greenspace brought forward in connection with housing development is sensitively designed. It should maintain rural character, provide benefits for biodiversity, contribute to the functionality of green infrastructure and deliver landscape and visual mitigation and enhancement.
  • Improve recreational links into the countryside, with the provision of functional greenspace around main urban areas.
  • Ensure new agricultural dwellings, barns and structures enhance the local character, are located to reduce their impact on open views and, where necessary, adopt design measures to reduce their perceived scale. Encourage the restoration of traditional barns and farm buildings and consider the replacement of lower quality structures when planning for expansion.
  • Ensure appropriate siting and design for essential infrastructure, such as water and electricity, integrating any required developments into the rural landscape, securing appropriate mitigation and delivering visual enhancements where possible.
  • Limit the impact of equine-related activity on landscape character, visual amenity and public access. Avoid the subdivision of prominent fields, particularly at settlement edges and on hillsides, and locate stables, jumps and other equipment in unobtrusive locations. Avoid the use of uncharacteristic fencing materials, which can be widely perceptible and appear out of place. Reduce conflict between equine management and public access where possible and ensure that public rights of ways are properly managed and maintained.
  • Require limitations to and mitigation of noise and light pollution, recognising the impact these issues have on tranquility and undeveloped rural character. Avoid unnecessary and prolonged noise and light pollution. Require good design to limit the impacts and use appropriate planning conditions to secure ongoing control.

Management guidelines

  • Restore and extend the network of native habitats of chalk grassland, ancient broadleaved oak woodland, and calcareous meadows. For grasslands, encourage opportunities for reversion from arable cropping back to chalk grassland on the valley sides, linking up areas in good condition and enhance management of existing chalk grasslands.
  • Restore Winterbourne streams and other water courses along with associated habitats and features of cultural interest.
  • Conserve and enhance the integrity and setting of archaeological features through low impact grassland management around prehistoric barrows and promote wider understanding through selective and sensitive interpretation for visitors.
  • Promote appropriate management of arable farmland to create a wildlife-rich habitat supporting farmland birds. This will include retaining areas of fallow land, maintaining an unploughed margin around fields and the introduction of conservation headlands. Reduce the intensity of farming practices around important sensitive habitats.
  • Restore important boundary features of cultural interest where the open character of the downs will not be affected. New hedgerow planting is not an objective of the area.
  • Promote the planting of small oak, ash and hazel broadleaved woodlands on gentle slopes to increase landscape diversity. New coniferous planting and shelter belts should not be encouraged. Restore and enhance old hazel coppice stands.
  • Conserve characteristic finger posts and furniture and the open character of rural lanes and access routes. Where necessary, move existing boundaries away from important open views.