The scarp slopes hold remnants of the once extensive unimproved chalk grassland – a rare habitat with a huge diversity of plant and invertebrate species. Chalk streams are biologically rich and support an established sport fishing industry. Arable fields form large habitats where rare arable plants and several declining bird species can be found, and the area is dotted with typically small woodlands.
A significant proportion of the woodland is of ancient origin, but many have been replanted with non-native species or their management has lapsed. These woodlands contain some of the best aggregations of ancient trees in Europe, supporting internationally rare species of invertebrate and fungi.
The AONB supports international nature conservation designations including five Special Areas of Conservation, three National Nature reserves and fifty-seven Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
Within the AONB there are four particularly characteristic and valuable habitat types supporting a range of rare and vulnerable species. These are Chalk Grassland, Arable Farmland and Pasture, Rivers and their Associated Habitats and Woodland.
Ancient Woodland Priority Area
In total there are 7201.5 hectares of ancient woodland within the AONB. Larger woodlands of note include Cranborne Chase of which 451 hectares is SSSI, Grovely Wood to the west of Salisbury and Great Ridge Wood to the north.
The AONB has been identified as an Ancient Woodland Priority Area by the Forestry Commission (from 2009 onwards).
Ancient woodlands and trees represent a living cultural heritage, a natural equivalent to our great churches and castles. They are also our richest wildlife habitat and are highly valued by people as places of tranquility and inspiration.
The Forestry Commission are seeking to protect and enhance the ancient and native woodlands achieved by offering grants under Countryside Stewardship schemes.
For more details see the Forestry Commission Website.
History in the Landscape
Eight thousand years ago, Neolithic peoples first started to change and manage the land. They built the first burial mounds and mysterious constructions such as the Dorset Cursus.
During the Bronze and Iron ages the area became settled and large areas of pasture and arable farmland were created. The pastures of the Downs date from this period and basic woodland management was practised.
During the Anglo Saxon period large landholdings began to change rural society and the manor of Cranborne became part of The Honour of Gloucester. This was already a royal hunting area when the Normans invaded. The Honour of Gloucester passed to William I’s queen and forest law was imposed on the area that had become known as Cranborne Chase.
Agricultural expansion continued outside the Chase and by the Fifteenth Century the land was consolidated into large blocks divided by hedges and walls. This trend continued as sheep production became vastly profitable and large houses were built with extensive parks. Forest law persisted in the Chase until 1828 when the Chase was disfranchised. The period 1900 to the present has seen the most rapid changes in agriculture, but the settlement patterns are very similar to those that existed in the seventeenth century.
Rights of Way
Many of the Public Rights of way in the AONB are of immense historic importance. The AONB lies at the hub of the ancient routes that connected the south west of England, across the great arc of chalk geology, to East Anglia. Many of these routes are designated as bridleways and by-ways as well as footpaths. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 created about five thousand hectares of open access land in the AONB.
Conserving our History
We need to be able to recognise historic features both in and of the landscape if we are to conserve them successfully. This is where the Historic Landscape Characterisation and Historic Environment Action Plans projects – sponsored by English Heritage – are immensely helpful.
Historic Landscape Characterisation
The countryside we see today is an expression of the interaction bewteen people and the landscape over the millenia. Every part of the landscape has a history and this is a major component that contributes to the special landscapes of the Cranborne Chase AONB.
Rather than focus on a particular archaeological site, historic place or settlement, we can choose instead to map, study and examine the whole landscape. This approach is known as Historic Landscape Characterisation.
The starting point for the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Historic Landscape Characterisation is the present day landscape. It maps, records and describes the historic landscape character of the present day landscape and also identifies where previous land uses are fossilised in the landscape.
The full HLC dataset can be explored in the AONB Interactive Mapping pages.
Historic Environment Action Plans
The AONB Historic Environment Action Plans, or HEAPs for short, provide a summary of the key characteristics of the historic environment of the AONB at a landscape scale.
The Historic Environment includes all archaeological and historic aspects of the landscape including buildings, settlements, archaeological sites, and the the wider historic landscape character.
The HEAPs draw are based on a robust evidence base including Historic Environment Records, the AONB Historic Landscape Characterisation, and other studies and documents.
The HEAP project will provide a statement of significance for each area and theme and detail the condition and issues of the characteristics identified. The project will also detail forces for change effecting the historic characteristics of the landscape.