South Dorset Downs

The South Dorset Downs is an expansive, agricultural area of open chalk upland running from the Black Down in the west to Winfrith Newburgh in the east.

The South Dorset Downs is an expansive, agricultural area of open chalk upland running from the Black Down in the west to Winfrith Newburgh in the east. Although large areas retain a rural character, parts have a more developed and complex character than the Chaldon Downs, due to the proximity of main roads, National Grid power lines and larger scale urban developments. It drains into the rivers South Winterborne and Frome rising to the South Dorset Escarpment to the south. It is dominated by broad, open and rolling downland, with gentle convex slopes and small-broad valleys. A simple pattern of regular dense hedgerows enhance the sense of structure with occasional broad-leaved woodlands set within a mixed pastoral and arable landscape. It has a textured appearance due to agricultural patterns of arable cultivation on gentle slopes, some rough grazing on the deeper valley sides and largely pastures on the broad valley floors. Small nucleated and linear villages dispersed within the landscape have a strong association with the agricultural estate character.

  • Broad open rolling uplands with convex slopes and broad dry valleys giving way to large open skies and distant horizons
  • Extensive and uninterrupted panoramic views from higher ground, providing the opportunity to look across the surrounding collection of landscape and seascape character areas and appreciate their unique sequence and structure
  • Thin calcareous soils with underlying geology of chalk
  • Valley slopes with patches of semi-natural chalk grassland, old hazel coppice stands and small broadleaved woodlands
  • Remnant winding chalk winterbourne with floodplain supporting occasional water meadows, wet woodlands, cress beds and rough damp meadows
  • Straight rural lanes with occasional farmsteads with a series of small linear and nucleated villages of brick and flint, stone, thatch and cob along the valley floor, 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 fencing and dry-stone walling on higher ground, with the latter particularly occurring towards the South Dorset Ridgeway
  • Extensive distribution of prehistoric monuments on higher ground
  • A rich legacy of cultural association, most notably due to the works of Thomas Hardy and the presence of the monument at Black Down to Thomas Masterman Hardy

Land shape and structure

The area has a structure of undulating topography with the open chalk uplands rising to a series of summits up to 237m at Blackdown, the location of the Hardy Monument. The uniformity of the landform with rolling, convex hills, gentle slopes and shallow valleys defines much of the open, large scale character of the South Dorset Downs.

Soils and vegetation

Calcareous soils are developed directly on chalk becoming thinner on steeper ground with relic calcareous grassland on slopes with patches of rough pasture towards the valley bottoms. Occasional semi-natural broadleaved woodlands are found on higher ground, often taking the form of hanger copses. Smaller hazel coppice stands can be observed on the gentler slopes. Towards the east the soils are more clay based. In the west, at Black Down, superficial geological deposits provide acidic conditions, supporting vegetation that contrasts with the wider character area.

Settlement and land cover

Small nucleated and linear villages with brick and flint cottages are found on the lower ground with occasional parklands and country houses. Large agricultural estates consist of mainly arable cover on the higher open uplands with estate plantations. A significant and increasing area of heathland is found at Blackdown, where conifer plantations have been reduced in recent years. A significant area of upland has recently been planted with native woodland species north of the A35 in west of the area. Toward the lower ground, land cover becomes more pastoral in character. Settlements in the setting of the National Landscape, at Dorchester and Poundbury, generate a notable degree of urban influence. The latter is particularly influential due to its elevation, density and the juvenility of its planted mitigation measures.  The recent construction of the Weymouth Relief Road, connecting Dorchester and Weymouth, has affected landscape character, particularly towards Ridgeway Hill, where significant engineering works were undertaken.

Historic character

Today’s landscape is primarily of recent geometric shaped enclosures, mostly planned with some parliamentary enclosure.  Areas of downland and open ground are found on the higher ground. Villages retain a strong association with the medieval field systems on the lower ground with piecemeal enclosures and paddocks found close to settlements. Geometric plantations tend to be post war. Field boundaries and footpaths often reflect the tracks that bought the livestock to and from the chalk downland during prehistoric times. The area’s rich time depth is reflected in the significant scattering of prehistoric barrows located on the higher ground.

Visual character and perceptions

The broad chalk uplands have traditionally possessed a remote and open character, contrasting with small intimate valleys. The textured appearance of patchworks of large fields gives the area an overriding structured agricultural appearance. 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 erode the undeveloped rural character of the area.

Strength of character

The area is judged to have a moderate-weak strength of character. The open character of the broad landform and agricultural patterns provides a continuity of characteristic features. However, the overall the combination and patterns appear less consistent and therefore less distinct than Chaldon Downs, for example. Furthermore, the physical presence and wider influence of notable modern development, including urban areas, road and electrical infrastructure and large-scale agricultural buildings and structures has eroded the undeveloped and historic character to a notable degree in some parts of the character area. Few sites of characteristic habitats remain compared to other chalk landscapes of the National Landscape, although the abundance of visible archaeology strengthens the cultural character of the landscape. Settlement patterns have remained along the dip slopes of the valleys. Along the major road corridors, strength of character is weaker with loss of hedgerows and changing land uses.


Post war intensive farming practices have resulted in the decline of some landscape features with fragmented hedgerows and stone walls often replaced by post and wire. Towards the dip slopes, the area is in better management due to parkland estates. Settlements maintain a consistent use of materials with defined village edges. However, along the major road corridors, the landscape is often in comparatively poor condition. Pylons and communications infrastructure have a significant impact, particularly toward the higher ground. The late enclosure of downland has resulted in the survival of some prehistoric features although these have been obscured by post war farming practices. 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.