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Half of this beautiful island is protected as an AONB in separate areas which include the principal landscape features of the interior’s central and southern downlands and also much of its famous coastline.
Visually, the AONB is dominated by chalk in the sharp upfold which forms both the island’s eastwest backbone and southern expanse of wide green downs, and its most famous landmark, the bright white stacks of the Needles. On the north coast, the AONB protects the low clay cliffs, salt-marsh and mud-flats of the Hamstead Heritage Coast. In the south, the complex landscapes bounded by the Tennyson Heritage Coast range from sandy bays to high unstable sandstone and chalk cliffs, cut by wooded ‘chines’. This complexity gives rise to chalk downland, arable farmland, wooded dairy pasture, small areas of heathland and hay meadows, sea cliffs and creeks.
The AONB landscape is of considerable scientific and ecological importance and includes exceptional flora-rich chalk grasslands, the north coast’s major estuarial habitats and the geologically notable southern cliffs and landslips.
A rural island, 80 per cent of its land area is devoted to agriculture with sheep rearing on the downs and heath ‘rangelands’ and dairying on the lower-lying land, together with pockets of arable farming and forestry. Farming in the north retains its traditional pattern of woodlands, fields and hedgerows, a contrast with the open grazed uplands.
The AONB, with a population of 10,000, has few large settlements. It includes small resorts such as Freshwater Bay but skirts major resorts such as Shanklin, Ventnor and Cowes which are major centres of employment, in tourism and services.
The Isle of Wight is one of Britain’s longest established visitor destinations and includes seaside family resorts, caravan and holiday parks and the seasonal day trip influx on the Solent ferries. The island is also a popular yachting centre, focused on Cowes and Yarmouth. To encourage countryside tourism, the council has created the Isle of Wight coastal footpath and seven long-distance trails.