The most southerly point of England, the Lizard is sparsely populated with just over 3% of the area being defined as urban - settlements mainly being concentrated along the coastline. Almost all of the Character Area lies within the Cornwall AONB, 23% is defined as a Less Favoured Area, and 20% is designated as SSSI.

The area is dominated by a gently undulating exposed heathland plateau (downs) cut by narrow river valleys. The surrounding coastline is rugged and geologically complex with caves, enclosed bays and skerries. Off the plateau is a more sheltered, gently rolling landscape with small valleys and derelict coastal quarries.

Recent conifer plantations disrupt the generally treeless plateau. Stunted patches of woodland cover are found in the steep valleys which dissect the moorland. Small woodlands and copses occupy the more sheltered valleys on the lower lying land.

On more fertile soils fields are rectangular while in the valleys small, irregular shaped ancient fields are enclosed by traditional Cornish hedges .

A mosaic of enclosed pasture with rough grazing fringes the plateau while more productive land is dominated by pasture, with some arable.

  • Settlement pattern is dispersed and linked by minor lanes, with ancient hamlets and farmsteads concentrated in the valleys and main settlements along the coastline.
  • Tourism-led development around the coastline is often out of keeping with the local vernacular style. The wind farm and BT Earth Station on Goonhilly Down break up the skyline and are dominant features in an otherwise remote and wild landscape.
  • Heathland with heather and moorland grasses dominates the plateau while remaining fragments of cliff top heathland also survive, in the past providing common grazing. The majority of both cliff top and moorland heath is managed sympathetically for nature conservation
  • Bronze Age barrows on the downs, ancient trackways, and prehistoric defended farming settlements (rounds) form important landscape features.
  • Traditional buildings are simple, constructed of local stone and thatch.

Overall Character

The current overall assessment of countryside character on The Lizard is summarised;

Although there is evidence of neglect in relation to the woodlands and boundary features, the character of the agricultural landscape has been maintained and development pressure is low. The character of the semi-natural habitats and river and coastal features has also been maintained, suggesting that overall the character of the JCA is sustained.”

The scale and geographic spread of The Lizard NNR enable it to have a significant influence on the overall landscape. Its land management practices can have a profound effect on semi-natural habitats and agriculture, two elements which have been well maintained in sustaining landscape character. Inconsistent with the Joint Character Area vision for The Lizard is the neglect of trees and woodland, and of boundary features. It could be possible for the NNR to take opportunities to repair the overall perceived neglect of these features in the landscape

Archaeological and Historical Features

The NNR includes a wealth of features which highlight the use of the area in past times. There are18 Scheduled Ancient Monuments (SAMs), and many more features which are not Scheduled.   In 2007 the Tomorrow’s Heathland Heritage (THH) Heath Environment Agriculture Tourism Heritage (HEATH) project commissioned Cornwall County Council Heritage Environment Service (CCC HES) to produce Archaeological Assessments for those sites included in the project (Polcoverack, Goonhilly Downs, Goldgotham, Main Dale, Rosuic Common, Lizard Downs). These are an excellent summary of the historical resource contained on the NNR, and it would be most desirable to obtain this level of in-depth knowledge for the rest of the reserve. There are many recommendations for future management of the archaeology in the assessments, far too many to be implemented with the current level of resources, and the key actions need to be distilled from the assessments. Generally though, the broad goal of extensive grazing of the reserve is in keeping with the prescriptions for the management of the historical resource.

Land-Use History (derived from Taylor 2006)

The climatic amelioration marked by the start of the present interglacial c9500 BC is likely to have seen the replacement of an open tundra vegetation with a scrubby woodland dominated by hazel, and later by oak woodland, perhaps around 7000 BC. The windswept nature of the Lizard Peninsula is likely to have ensured that the density of the climax oak woodland never reached that in more sheltered areas. The relative openness of this landscape is likely to have been exploited by people from the Neolithic (c4000 BC) onwards, resulting in the clearance of much of the woodland, and its replacement, through the use of fire and grazing livestock, with a mixture of heathland and scrubby woodland. Pollen analysis of a buried soil beneath a Middle Bronze Age barrow at nearby Polcoverack has revealed a vegetation dominated by willow, hazel scrub, and heathland around 1500 BC (Staines 1984). However, pollen analysis of a buried soil beneath another barrow at Trelan, to the west on the edge of Goonhilly Downs, identified relatively open vegetation dominated by grasses (Smith 1984). Further palaeoenvironmental work on the Lizard is being carried out as part of the HEATH project and it is anticipated that this will enhance our understanding of the vegetational history of the area.

As the exposed heathland soils became more acidic, combined perhaps with a climatic deterioration in the 1st millennium BC, subsequent settlement and intensive land use retreated to the more sheltered areas of the Lizard, in the valleys and lower-lying coastal regions. From this time onward enclosed fields of both pasture and arable use would have started to appear, breaking up and isolating areas of both heathland and woodland.

Summer grazing between c1500 BC and c.AD 1950 established and maintained the open rough ground of Crousa Downs and the other Lizard downlands. The continued use of the heathland for summer grazing led to the establishment of trackways across the open ground, providing a habitat for several specialised plants, including Juncus mutabalis, a rush, Pilularia globulifera, a water fern, and several aquatic buttercups, all of which depend on the occasional use of trackways by wheeled vehicles to provide water-filled ruts to grow in (Rackham 1986).

By the early medieval period the settlement and field patterns were largely established in their existing form across much of the Lizard Peninsula. On the more marginal lands intermittent attempts would have been made to reclaim the heathland for more intensive use but these were often short-lived. Many such attempts were made during the food shortages of the Napoleonic Wars at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries (Rowe 1996). The predominant land use of the downlands continued to be summer grazing and the collection of fuel. It is likely that there will have been stands of furze, maintained and cut for fuel by the commoners, alongside the turf (peat).

In recent decades much of the heathland has been unmanaged

If left unchecked, through the absence of burning and grazing, the majority of the drier heathland is likely to revert to willow and hazel scrub, possibly followed eventually by woodland.

Despite the severe limitations imposed by exposure, underlying geology and infertile shallow soils, the semi-natural heathlands and coastlands of The Lizard have been grazed for centuries. Only the steepest of cliffs and the isolated offshore islands would have escaped human activities. The absence of trees on the peninsula has meant that extensive areas of the heathland have been cut for turf for fuel since the Middle Ages.

Changes in agricultural practices since the Second World War have led to a decline in the area of grazing over recent decades, resulting in the invasion of scrub and bracken, and a loss of age diversity in the heathland. This trend is now being reversed with the re-introduction of grazing to over 1700 hectares of heathland and coastal grassland on the NNR.

Much of the inland heath was affected by fire during the extreme summer drought of 1976, as well as by other controlled and uncontrolled fires since then.

Some of the inland heathland was destroyed in the past by the building of Predannack airfield and the Goonhilly Earth Satellite Station. Commercial quarries have extracted serpentinite and gabbro, although only one is currently in operation. Elsewhere, extraction of serpentine rock for ornaments for the tourist trade continues on a small scale.