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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK
Welsh beauty celebrates 50 years
By Mark Kinver
BBC News science and nature reporter

Gower peninsula (Image: NTPL/Joe Cornish)
The Gower landscape is rich in diversity (Image: NTPL/J.Cornish)
The Gower Peninsula in south Wales is celebrating its 50th anniversary of being designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

It was the first location in the UK to be awarded the prestigious status, ensuring the unique characteristics of the landscape would be both protected and made accessible as a retreat for local communities.

Soon after, many of the nation's most treasured areas also became AONBs - from the Cornish coastline in south-west England to the north-east shores of Northumberland.

There are now 40 such areas in England and Wales, covering about 18% of the land, with a further nine in Northern Ireland.

The wide range of habitats in its 188 sq km reveals why the first AONB status was awarded to the Gower Peninsula.

Among its prized habitats are heathlands, grasslands, fresh and salt water marshes, as well as historic ancient woodlands.

Your pictures of gorgeous Gower

However, the aim is not to preserve a scene from a bygone age, says Gower AONB project officer Robert Latham.

"It is not about creating a museum; it is all about creating modern, vibrant communities that live within the existing landscape.

"The emphasis is on managing development that preserves the special qualities that led to Gower being given AONB status," he adds.

The legislation that protects the nation's most beautiful landscapes is the product of an unsettled history between town and country.

Ramblers' rebellion

In the early 1930s, tensions grew between city dwellers and landowners over access to the countryside.

A mass trespass was staged in the Peak District in 1932 to protest over the lack of access rights.

This unrest led to the formation of a committee to examine the case for public access to rural areas.

Mass trespass in Peak District in 1932 (Image: Peak District National Park Authority)
Protesters in 1932, angry over the lack of access to land (Image: Peak District National Park Authority)

Civil servant John Dower's 1945 report, viewed as the most important document in the history of UK National Parks, proposed a number of possible sites.

Dower's findings were embraced by Arthur Hobhouse, who went on to formulate the key piece of legislation that has formed the bedrock of public rural spaces: the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.

The Peak District went on to become the UK's first National Park in 1951, and the Gower Peninsula became the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty five years later.

But 50 years on, are AONBs still relevant?

When the 1949 Act was introduced, it was the only piece of legislation that offered protection to the natural landscape. Since then, a range of other designations have been introduced, some stemming from internationally binding treaties.

In the Gower AONB alone, there are 24 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), four Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), three National Nature Reserves (NNR), and one Ramsar (wetlands) site.

"There is a plethora of different schemes but they all have slightly different purposes. Most are designations linked to wildlife, not landscape," says the National Trust's head of land-use planning, Alan Watson.

"An AONB is a broad designation saying that area of land is of national landscape importance," he adds.

Adam Wallace, senior adviser at the Countryside Agency, backs Mr Watson's definition, and stresses the focus on local communities.

"These are people-based concepts. They are centred around people living within the landscape," he says.

"Biodiversity is one aspect, but community engagement in the management of their land is fundamental to AONBs and is something you do not necessarily get with other sorts of designations."

Planning powers

Looking to the future, there are a number of hurdles that will have to be overcome if the areas are to be around in another 50 years.

Paradoxically, AONBs could become victims of their own success. Tourists want to spend their holidays in areas of natural beauty, but too many tourists could have a detrimental effect.

"This is one of those eternal battles," says Robert Latham. "The biggest pressures tend to come during the summer months.

Bales of hay in a field (Image: City and County Council of Swansea)
The Gower is a working landscape (Image: City and County Council of Swansea)
"It is not about preventing tourism, but getting local tourist operators on board with approaches that allow businesses to prosper without damaging the integrity of the environment," he says.

The Gower AONB team is looking at ways to get a more even spread of visitors to the area across the year.

Yet there are a number of factors that could scupper this approach.

Reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have seen a growing number of farmers diversify into tourism and leisure activities.

There has also been an increase in the number of properties in AONBs being bought as holiday homes, putting pressure on local housing stocks.

In order to give local authorities the necessary powers to tackle these concerns, the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 granted AONBs equal planning status as National Parks.

Applications now have to conform to tougher guidelines (PPS7), which give the area the highest level of planning protection.

"It should be pointed out that development in these areas is not necessarily a bad thing," says Adam Wallace of the Countryside Agency.

"You have to remember that they are living and working landscapes, so you will receive planning applications and new buildings will go up.

"What we are looking for is appropriate developments with appropriate designs," he says.

Climate threat

Almost everyone involved in the management of AONBs is wary of the possible consequences of climate change on the nation's green and pleasant land.

You cannot turn back the clock, so you are going to have to live with that change, manage it, and make people aware of why it is happening
Alan Watson, National Trust
"Most people know what it means, but they tend to think of melting ice caps," says the National Trust's Alan Watson. "In fact, climate change is having a strong impact on the UK already.

"If you take the Chilterns, it is an area characterised by beech woodlands, but there is an increasing consensus that the trees will be threatened by the projected hotter, drier summers," he says.

"It is a shallow rooted species; it will not be able to get the water it needs to survive."

As a result, custodians of the landscape have to be prepared to manage the changes brought about by the changing climate, Mr Watson warns.

"You cannot turn back the clock, so you are going to have to live with that change, manage it, and make people aware of why it is happening."

See the natural beauty of the Gower Peninsula

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09 May 06 |  South West Wales
Winter drought fears for wildlife
24 Feb 06 |  Science/Nature
New boards responsible for AONBs
14 Dec 04 |  Gloucestershire
Campaigners lobby for NI national park
15 Mar 02 |  Northern Ireland

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