National Landscapes in Dorset

Whether you are going for a walk, having a meal out or simply travelling through the county, the landscape in Dorset provides an OUTSTANDING backdrop!

The variety of picturesque landscapes and great views you will see around every corner are just some of the reasons that over half of the county has been designated as National Landscapes (previously Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty).

But the landscape in Dorset is so much more than a fantastic view - it’s a living, breathing landscape and it probably won’t surprise you that the wildlife and history, as well as the people who live and work here, make it a very special place.

Nationally important protected landscapes

The Dorset National Landscape and Cranborne Chase National Landscape are part of a family of nationally important protected landscapes (National Landscapes and National Parks) in the UK. The Dorset National Landscape is the 5th largest National Landscape, stretching from Lyme Regis to Poole Harbour and inland covering much of West Dorset and meeting the Cranborne Chase National Landsacpe at Blandford

The part of Dorset within the Cranborne Chase National Landscape incorporates parts of North Dorset, including Fontmell Magna and Iwerne Minster, while Sixpenny Handley, Cranborne and Knowlton sit on the eastern edge of East Dorset.    

The 'Wildlife Capital' of the UK

With well over 80% of the UK's bird, butterfly and mammal species living here, it’s no wonder that the Dorset National Landscape is often considered the wildlife capital of the UK. And don’t forget that all 6 of the native British reptile species live here too! The Wild Purbeck project is just one of the ways which has helped conserve this local wildlife for all to enjoy – you’ll see some very healthy heathland to explore in the Wareham and Swanage area. 

Cranborne Chase National Landscape's involvement in the Farmland Bird Project in Dorset helped to boost numbers of declining species, such as the corn bunting, grey partridge, lapwing, tree sparrow, turtle dove and yellow wagtail.

Great wildlife needs great landscapes

To understand the sheer variety of Dorset’s wildlife, you just have to look out of the window as you travel around! It’s the varied landscape that supports such amazing wildlife – one minute you can be in windswept chalk downland, the next in the heathlands of Purbeck or the enigmatic clay vales of West Dorset. 

Cranborne Chase, too, boasts a variety of spectacular features, from rolling chalk grassland and ancient woodlands to chalk escarpments, downland hillsides and chalk river valleys. It is such landscapes that are home to the otter, brown hare, goshawk (one of Britain’s most spectacular birds of prey), and in the summer, a proliferation of butterflies, including the stunning silver-washed fritillary.

And Cranborne Chase also has wonderful dark night skies – so free from light pollution that wildlife thrives beneath them. In recognition of this, the National Landscape has been designated as an International Dark Sky Reserve. 

History brought to life

The Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site offers you the chance to walk through time – 185 million years of geological time no less. But as you walk along the coast and witness the changes in rocks as you go, glance inland and see how these rocks shape the character of the landscape there.

You can get a more intimate insight into life gone by in the South Dorset Ridgeway - an ancient ceremonial landscape between Dorchester and Weymouth. Experts say this ridge of land is as important as Stonehenge and Avebury for the sheer scale of the barrows, henges, hillforts and stone circles. With over 1000 ancient sites, the South Dorset Ridgeway project has helped preserve and celebrate this enigmatic landscape and can help you get a better insight into the area.

Ancient peoples first began to manage the land within the Cranborne Chase National Landscape 8,000 years ago and they settled and began farming during the Bronze and Iron ages. Knowlton Church perfectly symbolises this early history and the transition from pagan to Christian worship. The forests were royal hunting areas even before the Normans invaded in 1066. Today, Cranborne Chase National Landscape's Dorset segment still boasts in excess of 2,000 hectares of ancient woodland, areas renowned in literature and legend for the spiritual and the spooky. Thomas Hardy puts its oppressive and primeval elements to powerful use in the seduction scene in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, while tales of headless horsemen and ghostly spectres abound.

Early English kings are associated with the Cranborne Chase National Landscape, including King Alfred the Great and King John, who is known to have hunted across the area. Architects and garden designers who made their mark include Sir John Vanbrugh, Charles Bridgeman and Gertrude Jekyll. Others were inspired to pick up a conductor’s baton (Sir John Eliot Gardiner) or a pen - William Barnes wrote numerous poems in a Dorset dialect.

Inspiring landscapes

The Dorset National Landscape has an outstanding legacy of artist’s work inspired by the landscape. Thomas Hardy and William Barnes are well known for their literary works that capture the essence of the Dorset countryside so carefully.

But Dorset has also attracted many artists, musicians and craftspeople, whose valuable work sheds light on our past – including Paul Nash, Constable, and even Gustav Holst. Numerous arts groups have also been the recipients of grants from the Cranborne Chase National Landscape, including Steps in Time, a group which recreates the folk dances of yesteryear, such as those immortalised by Thomas Hardy himself.

Healthy landscapes

Evidence shows that having access to the natural environment can increase your health and wellbeing – even if you are simply sitting and admiring the view.

The Dorset National Landscape project team are keen to ensure that opportunities to benefit from the landscape are open to all. The easy access trails at Black Down and their work with people with dementia and their carers are things they are very proud of.

Tasty landscapes

The tastes of Dorset are as varied and characterful as the landscape itself. The Dorset Food and Drink initiative is just one example of how we can support local producers to make a living in Dorset – benefitting the landscape and the local economy at the same time. A great way to enjoy the landscape and just some of its great tastes whilst cycling is to try the Dorset Pedal.

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