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Exe Estuary and Farmlands

exe estuary farmland landscape picture

The estuary is the visual focus of this area; and although Devon has a number of estuaries few are as extensive as the Exe. This is a landscape of open skies characterised by the sound of seabirds, the masts of boats, and mud and dunes at Dawlish Warren. Views over the river are distinctive and the detail of the scene changes according to tide and season. The open expanse of intertidal mudflat when covered with water reflects the colour of the huge skies above. The whole scene is framed by rising landform on either side, which provides low level enclosure. The land rises gradually to the high ground of Woodbury Common to the east and Haldon to the west.

This landscape is complex and diverse, combining ridge and valley systems with the open estuary landscape and red sandstone cliffs.  The patchwork of fields and hedgerows, designed landscapes, woodlands and estuarine and coastal features creates a landscape of high scenic quality which forms an important part of the setting to Exeter, Exmouth and Dawlish. The underlying red soils, frequent vernacular buildings, estuarine and coastal views and hillside backdrops lend a strong sense of place. The shoreline railway and canal add distinctiveness and frequent small boats and moorings emphasise the maritime character.

  • Context

    exe estuary landscape pictureThis area focuses on the Exe Estuary to the south of Exeter and extends inland to the east and west to include adjacent farmland. The northern boundary is defined by the built up area of Exeter, and the southern boundary by open sea. The eastern and western boundaries are transitional and defined by declining association with the estuary as the farmland becomes increasingly undulating and rises to meet Haldon Ridge to the west and Pebble Beds to the east.

  • Constituent Landscape Character Types

    Constituent LCTs: 3B Lower Rolling Farmland and Settled Slopes, 3E Lowland Plain, 4B Marine Levels, 4A Estuaries, 4F Dunes, 4H Cliffs
    Part of NCA: 148: Devon Redlands

  • Distinctive Characteristics

    • Extensive open, low-lying estuary opening onto south coast flanked by undulating farmland.
    • Deep red, fertile underlying soils that support intensive mixed farming and are visible within ploughed fields and as red sandstone cliffs at the coast.
    • Shallow valleys with small rivers and streams draining into the estuary, a landscape shaped by natural processes which changes with the tides.
    • Mixed woodland and notable areas of mature parkland concentrated within designed landscapes.
    • Few farm woods, but tree cover along streams or within occasional old orchards.
    • Patchwork of medium to large-scale fields delineated by hedgerows (often gappy).
    • Dunes, marshes, mud and sand flats and estuarine habitats (including Eel Grass) important for waders, wildfowl and sea birds.
    • Settlement pattern of nucleated villages, hamlets, farms and houses with cob, thatch, stone, render and slate and some brick; settlement denser on the eastern than the western bank.
    • Network of sunken, winding lanes with often dense, high hedgebanks connecting historic settlements and contrasting with modern infrastructure of M5 and railway.
    • Enclosed and sheltered landscape with expansive views across open water and intertidal mudflats from estuary edge and adjacent slopes.
    • Views to major urban areas including Exeter and Exmouth which lie adjacent.
    • Recreational influences seen in small boats, boatyards, moorings, quays and slipways and the Exeter Canal along the estuary shore as well as in nature reserves and walking routes and notable tourism development at Dawlish Warren.
    • Variable sense of tranquillity: tranquil in inland valleys and parts of the estuary where there is a serene quality, but disturbed close to settlements, railway and main roads.


  • Special Qualities and Features:

    • Strong sense of place and scenic quality derived from the open character of the estuary with its maritime influences.
    • Character and unique qualities reinforced by the contrasting wooded backdrop of elevated land at Haldon Ridge and Woodbury Common.
    • Internationally important habitats valued for wildfowl including Ramsar, SPA, SSSI, NNR, LNR and CWS designations for estuary habitats and sea cliffs near Dawlish.
    • Notable Historic Parks and Gardens – including Powderham Castle, Oxton House and A La Ronde and The Point-in-View – which influence landscape character and scenic qualities and have notable collections of veteran trees.
    • Various SMs – archaeological earthwork sites around junction 31 of the M5.
    • Extensive opportunities for water-based as well as coastal recreation (Exe Estuary Nature Reserve and East Devon Way and Exe Valley Way long distance routes).
    • Distinctive views across and up and down the estuary, which can be particularly scenic under certain light conditions; this, along with abandoned vessels or hulks in the estuary, attracts artists to the area.
    • Buildings and features which denote the rich commercial history of the estuary; Exeter Canal and Locks (oldest of their kind in Britain); the Brunel Tower; and Second World War remnants such as the radar station on Exminster Marshes and coastal defence pillboxes at Dawlish Warren which remain intact.
    • Strong associations with seafood – important area for shellfisheries, with the Bass nursery and Exe estuary mussels.

Forces for Change and Their Landscape Implications:

  • Past and Current

    • Light and noise pollution, as well as visual intrusion from nearby development at Exeter, Topsham, Exmouth and Dawlish which have affected scenic quality in places.
    • M5 crossing at the head of the estuary which has undermined tranquillity.
    • Scattered unsympathetic development within more rural areas resulting in a general urbanisation of the landscape, particularly along major road corridors; and expansion of some villages (e.g. Exminster) resulting in loss of local distinctiveness.
    • Significant leisure developments at Dawlish Warren and Royal Marine Barracks near Lympstone.
    • Loss of traditional orchards due to lack of management.
    • Reclamation of part of estuary as a repository for Second World War debris.

  • Future

    • Climate change causing potential sea-level rise, which could lead to the loss of dunes, marshes, coastal grassland, mudflats and intertidal habitats (including the sand spit at Dawlish Warren) and increase in flood defences.
    • Coastal erosion, exacerbated by climate change leading to changes to the coastline, coastal habitats and land use.
    • Potential agricultural intensification, leading to loss of traditional field boundaries, change to existing landscape patterns, and the need for larger farm buildings.
    • Potential for further leisure and recreation development and visitor pressure (including pressure for new access points for water-borne recreation and new cycle routes), which can erode rural character and potentially damage or disturb sensitive estuarine habitats.
    • New development at the fringes of urban areas and larger villages and on undeveloped estuary sides potentially affecting estuarine and coastal views and eroding rural character e.g. growth of Exmouth.
    • Conversion of traditional agricultural buildings and attached land for domestic and leisure uses, which can lead to unsympathetic boundary and surfacing treatments.
    • Potential pressure for the tidal energy of the estuary to be harnessed as a renewable energy source in response to government targets for climate change mitigation.
    • Abandoned vessels and shipwrecks on the Exe which may have detrimental visual and environmental impacts.
    • The restriction of natural processes by human development, including railway lines on either side of the estuary, as well as coastal defences and sea walls, all of which will continue to contribute to coastal squeeze.
    • Planned development of cycle route around the estuary.


  • Overall Strategy:

    To protect extensive open views across the landscape to the estuary, coast and high ground of the Haldon Ridge and Woodbury Common; and to protect and enhance the area’s valued maritime character. Historic settlement pattern and vernacular character are reinforced in new development; and the pattern of fields, woodlands, hedgerows and narrow lanes is managed and enhanced. Hedgerows, woodlands, historic parkland and other historic features area all sensitively managed. The natural and cultural heritage of the estuary is conveyed through sensitive interpretation, and local communities are involved in planning for future landscape change as a result of sea level rise and change in coastal erosion.


  • Protect

    • Protect the distinctive, unspoilt, and exposed skylines which define the estuary.
    • Protect the setting of Powderham Castle including the historic designed views between Powderham and Haldon Belvedere.
    • Conserve the open, expansive views across the estuary, and the area’s coastal and sea views.
    • Protect the tranquillity and remoteness experienced in this landscape, particularly along the immediate fringes of the estuary.
    • Protect traditional building styles and materials, particularly local red sandstone with red brick detailing and cob/ thatch cottages, utilising the same styles and materials in new development wherever possible (whilst seeking to incorporate sustainable design).
    • Protect the undeveloped character of the coastal cliffs by resisting cliff top development.
    • Protect the settlement pattern of nucleated villages, hamlets, farms and houses and avoid coalescence of villages and hamlets.
    • Protect the landscape setting of Exeter, Exmouth and Dawlish, ensuring new development enhances and restores features such as hedgerows, woodlands and designed landscapes.
    • Protect the landscape’s network of quiet lanes enclosed by woodland and species-rich hedgebanks, resisting unsympathetic highways improvements or signage.
    • Protect the unsettled relatively wild character of the coastline – permit development only where there will be no negative impacts on biodiversity value and wildland character.

  • Manage

    • Manage the hedgerow network by encouraging traditional hedgerow management practices and restoration of lost or gappy hedgerows sections particularly along slopes to minimise soil erosion and reduce diffuse pollution.
    • Manage designed landscapes and other historic features such as old orchards and veteran parkland and field trees and encourage a programme of replacement.
    • Manage estuarine and coastal habitats, including intertidal habitats, sand dunes, salt marsh, coastal grasslands, scrub and woodland, ensuring marshes are grazed at appropriate levels.
    • Manage the landscape’s popularity for recreation, encouraging the use of existing facilities whilst providing sustainable transport options and green infrastructure links to the surrounding settlements and balancing recreational use with environmental pressures and coastal squeeze.
    • Manage the agricultural land fringing the estuary, particularly mixed farming systems of value for bird life, encouraging local farmers to use the pastures and marshes for livestock grazing as part of their farming systems.

  • Plan

    • Plan for sensitive design of surfacing, way marking and signage on the South West Coast Path and Exe Valley Way to maintain rural character and reduce soil erosion.
    • Plan for appropriate, distinctive design of new development – particularly new residential development on the edges of villages or conurbations – and provide green infrastructure links to recreational routes.
    • Plan to enhance and restore rural character and tranquillity through sensitive siting of any new development avoiding prominent ridges, valley sides and shoreline locations, with enhancement of hedgerows, woodlands and roadside planting to major road corridors.
    • Plan for recreational and leisure-related infrastructure that is sensitive and appropriate to the landscape setting and provide interpretation on the significance and ever-changing nature of the landscape, ecology and geology.
    • Plan to control moorings and water-based activities to maintain tranquillity and regulate timing and zoning of non-peaceful water-based activities to minimise impact.
    • Plan for the future impacts of climate change, particularly sea level rise and coastal erosion, allowing natural processes to take place wherever possible whilst ensuring that local communities are involved in decision-making.
    • Plan for expansion of estuarine habitats to build resilience to future climate change.