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Devon Character Areas

DCA 58: Taw Torridge Estuary


DCA 58: Context map of Devon Character Area location and component Landscape Character Types

DCA 58: The River Caen near Velator Quay, with grazing marsh and characteristic 'linhay' animal shelter.

The River Caen near Velator Quay, with grazing marsh and characteristic 'linhay' animal shelter.

Contextual description

This Devon Character Area (DCA) comprises the estuary of the Taw and Torridge Rivers, and a small margin of land on either side. Northam Burrows and the dune system at Braunton Burrows are also included in the area. This area is distinctive for its flat topography and the dominance of the sea and estuary. To the north are the North Devon Coastal Downs (DCA 43) and North Devon Downs (DCA 44), to the east (beyond Barnstaple) lies DCA 14 Codden Hill and Wooded Estates, and to the south the Taw Valley (DCA 59), High Culm Ridges (DCA 32), Torridge Valley (DCA 63) and the Bideford Bay Coast (DCA 3). The DCA is almost entirely within North Devon district, apart from a small area to the south of the Taw-Torridge estuary mouth. The western area of the DCA (around the estuary mouth) is within the North Devon Coast Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and the north-west is defined as Heritage Coast. This DCA contains the core and buffer zones of the North Devon Biosphere Reserve, centered on Braunton Burrows.

Link to National Character Areas and Constituent Landscape Character Types

Constituent LCTs: 4A Estuaries, 4B Marine Levels and Coastal Plains, 4E Extensive Inter-Tidal Sands and 4F Dunes.

This DCA falls within the Exmoor National Character Area (NCA 145).

Summary character description

This is a flat, sky-dominated landscape with strong sensory characteristics. The habitats within the mosaic (dunes, beach, saltmarsh, mudflats and farmland) each have unique qualities of pattern, colour and texture which are juxtaposed in different combinations. The salty smell of mudflats and the sea are ever-present, as are the calls of birds. Within the dunes, there is a strong sense of enclosure, isolation and wilderness. This contrasts with the open views towards the surrounding settlements, and the time depth associated with the strip fields at Braunton. The estuary settlements have a strong maritime character, with historic quays and impressive bridges.

DCA 58: Locally distinctive traditional round linhay (animal shelter) within wet grassland field on Braunton Marsh.

Locally distinctive traditional round linhay (animal shelter) on Braunton Marsh.

Distinctive characteristics

  • Carboniferous Culm Measures south of the Taw; Devonian sandstones, limestones and mudstones to the north; underlying geology topped with tidal and alluvial clay, silt and sand.
  • A landscape constantly changing with the tides, with active geomorphological processes including pebble spit and dune formation.
  • Low-lying, open and flat topography, at or very close to sea level, surrounded by higher land to the north and south.
  • Extensive areas of grazing marsh (e.g. Northam Burrows, on Braunton Marsh); some arable land on better quality soils; very limited tree and woodland cover.
  • Diverse field boundaries, including brackish ditches, stone walls, thorn hedges and, on Braunton Great Field, earth banks marking individual landsherds or furlongs.
  • Extensive areas of active sand dunes and maritime grasslands on both sides of the estuary, framing a rich diversity of estuarine habitats including saltmarsh, sand spits, lagoons and reclaimed farmland.
  • High biodiversity interest, supporting major populations of migrating and overwintering wading birds, fish (including sea trout and salmon), and rare plants and flowers.
  • Diverse archaeology, including a submerged forest at Westward Ho!, prehistoric and Roman organic features preserved in anaerobic mud, and important 20th century military sites (e.g. American practice sites for the Normandy Landings in World War II).
  • Important historic and cultural landscapes, including Braunton Marsh (drained in the early 19th century and dotted with roadside dykes, sluices, mortared stone walls and small stone linhays) and a rare surviving example of traditional strip-field arable farming at Braunton Great Field.
  • Strong maritime history linked to trade, evidenced through historic quays and impressive bridges.
  • Few settlements except for the peripheral towns of Braunton, Northam, Westward Ho!, Barnstaple and Bideford, which have a visual influence on nearby parts of the estuary.
  • Open estuarine views contrasting with the sense of remoteness, isolation and wilderness experienced within the dunes. Wind turbines on Fullabrook Down are prominent in some estuary views.
  • Strong sensory characteristics: colour and texture of habitats; smell of mudflats and the sea; birdsong and calls and sunlight reflecting off water.
  • 19th Century reclaimed land used for grazing alongside the Taw Estuary in particular (including Chivenor Marsh, Yelland Marsh, Horsey Island and Home Farm Marsh at Fremington). 

Special qualities and features

Exceptionally high scenic quality, with most coastal areas falling within the North Devon Coast Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB); the northern part of the area is also defined as Heritage Coast.

Strong sense of tranquillity at Braunton Burrows and Saunton Sands.

Sand dune system at Braunton Burrows designated nationally (Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and internationally (Special Area of Conservation) due to its complete active dune sequence.

Core of UNESCO North Devon Biosphere Reserve centred on Braunton Burrows, with the buffer zone extending eastwards and southwards up the Taw and Torridge estuaries, and north to Croyde Bay.

Coastline adjoins the Bideford to Foreland Point Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ), valued for its range of intertidal habitats and for providing connectivity between North Devon and Cornwall MCZ sites.

Extensive areas covering the river channels and their associated estuarine habitats including mudflats, saltmarsh, grazing marsh and sand spits are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. There is an RSPB Reserve at Isley Marsh.

A Regionally Important Geological Site designation covers tidal deposits found at The Skern, near Appledore.

The prehistoric stone row on Isley Marsh is a Scheduled Monument.

Numerous listed buildings, including scattered cattle shelters on Braunton Marsh, as well as the impressive historic bridges at Barnstaple and Bideford.

Conservation Areas covering the historic cores of adjoining settlements, including Northam, Appledore, Braunton, Barnstaple, Fremington, Instow and Bideford.

Strong maritime history associated with the textile trade - including the 24-arched Grade I listed Long Bridge in Bideford, the listed Barnstaple Long Bridge and historic quays dotted along the shore.

Cultural associations with the popular composer John Gay (1685-1732) who was born in Barnstaple, and the 19th-century author Charles Kingsley who wrote the novel Westward Ho! whilst living in Bideford.

Well-used recreation facilities, including Northam Burrows Country Park, golf courses (including North Devon Royal Golf Course, the oldest golf course in Britain), and wide beaches popular for surfing, bathing, and sand yachting.

Open access land and Registered Common Land at Northam Burrows.

The South West Coast Path and Tarka Trail recreational routes, providing further opportunities for people to access and experience the landscape.

DCA 58: View east from Velator Quay towards warehouses at Chivenor Airfield, with the church tower at Heanton Punchardon on the skyline

View east from Velator Quay towards warehouses at Chivenor Airfield, with the church tower at Heanton Punchardon on the skyline. (LCT 4b).

Forces for change and their landscape implications

Past and current

  • Poor agricultural management, leading to under-grazing or overgrazing of valuable habitats and consequent loss of biodiversity (including a loss of coastal heath to agricultural improvements or scrub encroachment).
  • Diffuse pollution from agricultural land and sewage overflows having a detrimental impact on water quality and estuarine biodiversity.
  • Draining of grazing pastures for intensive arable production and horticulture, leading to falling water levels on the Braunton Marsh, affecting the wildlife and hydrology of the adjacent Braunton Burrows.
  • Reduction in numbers of strip-holders at Braunton Great Field, leading to a loss of characteristic landsherd/furlong boundaries.
  • Some farmland on settlement edges used for horse grazing and subdivided by pony tape, introducing a suburban character to the landscape.
  • Lack of management at the disused Chivenor airfield, resulting in a neglected character.
  • Past and ongoing military training activities on Braunton Burrows, (including vehicle manoeuvres and live firing), leading to localised erosion and occasionally impacting upon the wild and tranquil qualities of the dune landscape.
  • Past development of golf courses on sensitive dune environments.
  • Visual impacts and light pollution from development at adjacent settlements, including Westward Ho!, Bideford and Barnstaple; skyline development at Westward Ho! and large buildings on Westward Ho! Seafront affecting the edge of the AONB.
  • Estuary crossed in two locations by the A39 major road corridor, impacting on the landscape's levels of peace and tranquillity. Noise and air pollution also arises from the A361 running parallel to the northern estuary bank.
  • Modern infrastructure, including major roads and a new retail park on the edge of Barnstaple, affecting the traditional character of the estuary setting and impacting on tranquillity.
  • Construction of masts on downland summits at Saunton Down just to the north affecting the backdrop to views northwards across the estuary.
  • 22 x 110m Wind Turbines at Fullabrook Down, forming prominent moving features on skylines in views north from the estuary.
  • Damage to fragile dune system habitats from trampling and erosion as a result of recreational activities and land uses.
  • Further growth in popularity of the area and the surrounding coast for both coast and water-based recreation and tourism, impacting on levels of tranquillity (and sense of wilderness at Braunton Burrows), leading to increased demand for facilities and infrastructure.
  • Recreational pressure and demand for facilities along popular access routes (particularly the South West Coast Path and Tarka Trail) and 'honeypot' sites, such as Northam Burrows Country Park.
  • Concerns regarding wildlife disturbance due to increased use of the estuary - including by jet skis, motorboats, and bait diggers. These issues are being addressed by a voluntary Code of Conduct developed and promoted by the North Devon Biosphere Reserve.
  • Past sand extraction at Crow Point affecting its ability to protect the estuary mouth from coastal erosion.
  • Effects of climate change resulting in wetter and warmer winters, and more frequent hot and dry periods (increasing the risk of drought in summer), plus more frequent extreme weather events and sea level rise leading to increased coastal flooding.

DCA 58: Visitor facilities on the South West Coast Path at Fremington Quay.

Visitor facilities on the South West Coast Path at Fremington Quay.


  • Uncertainty over post-Brexit agricultural support, potentially resulting in traditional farming methods such as strip fields and use of 'marginal' land such as grazing marsh and sand dunes becoming unviable. This may affect management of vegetation on Braunton Burrows.
  • Sea level rise and coastal erosion as a result of climate change, potentially seeing a significant rise in the estuary's water levels and a consequential widening of its channels, with possible damage/loss of tidal/coastal habitats, agricultural land, coastal archaeology and flooding of settlements.
  • Potential environmental impacts from a former landfill site at Northam Burrows.
  • Loss of sand dunes, resulting from higher sea levels, and greater wave energy due to increased frequency and intensity of storms. Changes may also occur in the volumes of sand being deposited.
  • Potential changes in water table affecting dune systems and artificially drained areas such as Braunton Marsh.
  • Former areas of dry grazing land (including Horsey Island) threatened with inundation from rising sea levels.
  • Changes in species composition as a result of extended growing seasons due to longer, warmer summers, and the introduction of new species, pests and diseases.
  • Potential land loss at Northam Burrows due to Shoreline Management Plan proposal to retain sea defences for Westward Ho! and Northam, but to allow managed realignment of the pebble spit.
  • Continued military use of Braunton Burrows, with live firing and vehicle movement intermittently impacting upon levels of tranquillity.
  • Development pressures and new development proposals on brown- and green-field land fringing the estuary (e.g. the former Yelland power station site and Chivenor airfield), impacting on the estuary's naturalistic and tranquil qualities, levels of light pollution, and potentially its wildlife.
  • Continued demand for tourist accommodation and recreational facilities, introducing new commercial and residential development (including conversion of farm buildings), changing the character of the area.
  • Increased traffic congestion and development pressure in and around popular locations including Braunton, Northam Burrows and Barnstaple.
  • Further demand for renewable energy developments, including tidal schemes, offshore and onshore wind, all potentially affecting the character of the area.

DCA 58: Car park, golf course and surf hire facilities at Northam Burrows Country Park, backed by development along the coastline at Westward Ho!

Car park, golf course and surf hire facilities at Northam Burrows Country Park, backed by development along the coastline at Westward Ho!

Landscape guidelines


  • Protect the open character of the estuary and views from and to surrounding landscapes.
  • Protect the open and undeveloped character of Braunton Great Field, ensuring that any new development in the area respects the scale and historic character of the landscape.
  • Protect, and where appropriate restore historic features such as quays, bridges and agricultural structures (including those of Braunton Marsh and Braunton Great Field); provide sensitive interpretation where appropriate to increase the public's awareness of these features.
  • Protect the area's distinctive seascapes and open views across Bideford Bay.
  • Protect high levels of tranquillity, sense of wilderness and dark night skies, resisting development or land use changes which would adversely affect these characteristics.
  • Protect sensitive skylines (e.g. Westward Ho!) from further ridgeline development.


  • Manage the estuary's internationally important habitats including dunes, saltmarshes and mudflats, using traditional techniques including appropriate levels of grazing, in accordance with North Devon Biosphere Reserve guidelines.
  • Manage the land within the North Devon Coast AONB in accordance with the AONB Management Plan.
  • Manage agricultural land fringing the estuary using traditional farming and land management practices, encouraging farmers and commoners to use the pastures and marshes for appropriate levels of grazing as part of their farming systems.
  • Manage Braunton Marsh through continued agricultural grazing. Explore opportunities to restore previously intensified agricultural land to grazing marsh, including through the new Environmental Land Management Schemes.
  • Continue management of Horsey Island as transitional habitat from freshwater marsh to saltmarsh.
  • Manage agricultural run-off from adjacent farmland to reduce contamination of the estuary and nature conservation sites.
  • Manage and support continuation of arable and horticultural farming on Braunton Great Field within the original medieval strips.
  • Manage hedgerows around Gallowell, Lower Thorn and Middle Thorn to reinforce the sense of a well-managed landscape.
  • Manage the popularity of the landscape (land and water) for access and recreation, ensuring it is of an appropriate scale and does not detract from the tranquil qualities of the area. Ensure higher tourist footfall does not have a negative effect on features including the extensive fragile semi-natural habitats.


  • Mitigate the impacts of climate change (particularly the effects of sea level rise and coastal erosion), by allowing natural process to take place where possible, whilst ensuring that local communities are involved in making decisions about their future landscape.
  • Expand estuarine and wetland habitats as part of a nature recovery network approach to build resilience to the impacts of future climate change.
  • Respond to the UK-wide policy drive for woodland planting in line with the Devon Local Nature Partnership Right Place, Right Tree guidance to ensure the distinctive characteristics of the landscape are retained and enhanced, including using new tree planting to help screen and soften visual impact of new built elements that detract from rural character.
  • Ensure any future expansion of towns on the estuary fringes is sensitively incorporated and does not detract from the landscape setting of the estuary.
  • Develop Green Infrastructure links from settlements to strategic routes such as the Tarka Trail and South West Coast Path.
  • Ensure any new development - particularly within or adjacent to the AONB - is sensitive in terms of its design and scale and impacts on the naturalistic/tranquil qualities, light pollution and wildlife are minimised.
  • Aim to reduce light pollution from Barnstaple, Bideford and other settlements and major roads. Explore the introduction of appropriate screening (e.g. tree, woodland, hedgerow planting) to reduce existing impacts on the landscape.
  • Sensitively incorporate flood defences within the landscape, favouring 'soft engineering' solutions, including natural flood management techniques where appropriate.
  • Plan for future need for energy and telecoms infrastructure including masts and renewable energy installations, so that these can be sited in appropriate locations and their impacts mitigated through careful design.
  • Explore options for future redevelopment of Chivenor airfield, involving local people in decision making. Ensure that the new use of the site is harmonious with the surrounding landscape.


DCA 58 Taw Torridge Estuary (PDF) [1MB]


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