Land Designations in Somerset
Exmoor National Park
Exmoor was awarded National Park status in 1954 and is one of 10 national parks in England. It covers 693 Square Kilometres, over 70% of which falls within the Somerset boundary. The landscape is incredibly varied, from spectacular coastline to wild moorland, rolling hills and steep wooded valleys. Some of Exmoor’s woodland dates back to before 1600AD, and there are over 1700 Ancient Trees recorded. There are also species of whitebeam trees that are unknown anywhere else in the world.
This variety of habitats provides homes for an array of wildlife, including the iconic red deer, the largest wild land animals in England, which have survived on Exmoor since pre-historic times. The semi-wild Exmoor Ponies are a common sight on the moorland, these endangered animals are one of the oldest breeds of pony in the world, but have come close to extinction during the late 1800s, and following World War II.
The northern boundary of the park follows the coastline of the Severn Estuary, which has the second highest tidal range in the world. This extreme change in water level can be seen from the South West Coast path, which runs the length of the park, and is very popular with walkers. Exmoor has the highest coastline in England and Wales, with coastal hills rising to 433m, and Great Hangman, which is the highest sea cliff in England and Wales at 244m. The dramatic scenery of waterfalls, ravines and steep cliffs gained the Exmoor Coast recognition as a Heritage Coast in 1991.
In 2001 Exmoor was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve. According to the International Dark Sky Association Exmoor boasts the darkest skies in the country, and visitors are encouraged to experience these with events such as the Exmoor Dark Skies Festival, guided Stargazing walks, and even the opportunity to hire professional telescopes from the National Park Centres.
Exmoor National Park
Visit Somerset - Exmoor
National Parks - Exmoor
International Dark Sky Association - Exmoor
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is an area of countryside protected by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW Act), to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the land. The CROW Act sets out the roles and responsibilities that different organisations must follow to manage AONBs. There are 34 AONBs in England, 4 of which are in, or partially in, Somerset.
The Quantock Hills AONB covers 99km2 between Taunton and Bridgwater, stretching northwest towards the Bristol Channel. They were the first area in England to be awarded AONB designation, in 1956. The area is characterised by steam-cut wooded valleys known as “combes”, hilltops consisting of open heathland, and agricultural land. Exposed geological beds and abundance of fossils make the Jurassic coastal border of the area popular for tourists and geologists alike.
Visit Somerset – Quantock AONB
The Blackdown Hills were designated AONB status in 1991. Situated south of Wellington, rising steeply out of the Tone valley and extending down across the border into Devon, they cover 370km2, around a third of which is within the Somerset boundary. The area is sparsely populated and relatively isolated, and consists of well-established hedgerows and copses surrounding small farms, and deep valleys cut with narrow winding lanes.
Visit Somerset – Blackdown Hills AONB
The Mendip Hills AONB covers 200km2 of the western and central areas of the Mendip Hill range, over half of which is within the Somerset boundary. It was designated as an AONB in 1972. The distinctive limestone cliffs rise from the Somerset Levels and Chew Valley south of Bristol to form a high, windswept plateau, cut by valleys and gorges such as the famous Cheddar Gorge. The area has produced many artifacts of archaeological importance, including the Cheddar Man, the oldest almost complete skeleton of our species found in Britain. Below the hills a vast network of limestone caves make the area popular with both tourists visiting attractions such as Wookey Hole, and cavers exploring the less accessible caves.
Visit Somerset – Mendip Hills AONB
Cranbourne Chase is one of the largest AONBs, covering 983km2, although only a small fraction lies within the Somerset boundary. It was designated AONB status in 1981 and is part of a large chalk plateau in central southern England, covering several counties. The landscape includes rolling chalk grassland, ancient woodland, chalk river valleys and downland hillsides.
Sites of Special Scientific Interest
Sites of Special Scientific Interest represent the best sites for flora, fauna or geology. They provide higher levels of protection than that of other designations such as AONB, and are therefore often used to protect rare or endangered species and habitats. Natural England is responsible for identifying and protecting SSSIs in England. There are 127 SSSI’s in Somerset, 39 designated for their biological interest, 35 for their geological interest and 9 for both.
National Nature Reserves
National Nature Reserves were created to protect important habitats, species, and geology, and provide an ‘outdoor laboratory’ environment for research purposes. Most NNRs are open to the public and are visitors are encouraged to experience wildlife first hand, and learn more about nature conservation. Somerset has 13 National Nature Reserves across the county. Dunkery and Horner Wood is one of the largest NNRs in England, and is internationally important.
Somersets National Nature Reserves
Local Nature Reserves
Local Nature Reserves are created by Local Authorities to protect areas that are locally important for wildlife, geology, education or enjoyment. They offer opportunities for people to study or learn about nature, or simply enjoy it. There are 23 LNRs in Somerset.