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Covering some 44 per cent of Dorset, the AONB stretches along one of Britain’s finest coastlines and reaching inland, takes in countryside which still evokes the settings of the Hardy novels.
Curving through the county to the sea, the dominating chalk ridge of Dorset underpins the AONB’s landscape. It stretches in a broad band of downland from the Upper Axe Valley eastwards to the Stour Valley near Blandford Forum. A southern arm circles Dorchester and extends to the Isle of Purbeck. The rural landscape varies from the ridges and valleys of central Dorset, through chalk ridges and limestone plateau to the sandy heaths and flats of Poole Harbour.
The AONB’s coast, including the famous Lulworth Cove and the great pebble barrier bank of Chesil Beach, is as notable for its complex chalk, limestone and sandstone geology and rich ecology as for its scenery. It is the first British natural World Heritage Site, commonly known as the Jurassic Coast. The rare remaining downland and heathland are also highly important conservation habitats supporting a wide range of flora and fauna with notable rarities. The AONB has many Sites of Special Scientific Interest and several National Nature Reserves. The particular quality of the Purbeck Heritage Coast (website – www.purbeck-dc.gov.uk) has been recognised by the award of the Council of Europe’s Diploma for the Conservation of Protected Landscapes. Rich in prehistoric sites and field patterns, the AONB contains one the finest Iron Age forts in Europe – Maiden Castle.
Agriculture is the major land user, including mixed arable, dairying with beef and sheep grazing. Mineral-rich Purbeck is the site of extensive oil, gas, limestone and brick industries. Skirting major centres, the AONB includes picturesque market towns and ports such as Beaminster and Bridport. The AONB population of 90,000 continues to grow through in-migration of commuters and the retired.
The coastal stretch of the AONB is a highly popular tourist area and major resorts such as Weymouth and Swanage attract two million visitors a year. The 956 km South West Coast Path starts at Poole Harbour and the coast’s extensive footpath network is well-used by residents and visitors.