Skip to content

What is an ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’?

    An area of outstanding beauty can be a wonderful place to visit. From a tourism management perspective, these areas are an important component of tourism with the UK.

    What but actually is an AONB? Why are they important? And why should you visit one? I explain all in this article…

    What is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty?

    An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is an area which has been designated for conservation due to having significant landscape value. These areas are designated in recognition of their national importance by the relevant public body: Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, or the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. 

    They are precious landscapes with distinctive character and natural beauty. They are so outstanding that it is in the nation’s interest to safeguard them for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

    Areas of outstanding natural beauty are often important rural tourism areas.

    Why are AONBs important?

    The outdoors is beneficial in so many ways. Nature provides education, and allows people to explore their surroundings in the fresh air.

    A study by Team4Nature showed that nature is important to people for so many reasons. These reasons included beauty and fascination, balance and security as well as escapism. It showed that nature helps people feeling part of a greater thing: the universe. The study also showed that people recognised the importance of nature in terms of providing sustenance for humanity.

    This last point is crucial. Nature needs to be protected for the ecology of the planet. Fresh water sources, pollination, seed dispersal – these are all important aspects of nature. We need healthy soil, and plenty of biodiversity. The designations of AONBs ensures that these areas are looked after so that they can continue to provide sustenance and enjoyment to future generations.

    How many Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are there?

    There are 38 AONBs throughout England and Wales. Created by the legislation of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949, AONBs represent 18% of the finest countryside across England and Wales. There are also 8 AONBs in Northern Ireland.

    They are looked after by the local authorities as well as the organisations, community groups and individuals who live and work within them or who value them.

    area of outstanding natural beauty
    We loved spending time in the Mendip Hills, which has been designated as an AONB.

    How are AONBs designated?

    Each Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has been designated for special attention because of its high qualities. These include:

    • Flora
    • Fauna
    • Cultural associations
    • History
    • Scenic views

    AONBs were first created under the same legislation as national parks. This was the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. There were limited statutory duties imposed on the local authorities at this time. However, the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 provided further regulation and protection for each Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. New designations are made under this act. Further protection still was brought about by the National Planning Policy Framework in March 2012; this stated that AONBs and national parks now have equal status in terms of planning decisions on landscape issues.

    The criteria for designation are: outstanding natural beauty across the area as whole, and/or an area of such significance that its conservation and enhancement will be best met through designation as an AONB.

    AONB designation in England

    In England, it is Natural England who make orders to designate an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. They can also vary the boundaries of an existing AONB. Areas must meet the following list of criteria:

    • Landscape quality, where natural or man-made landscape is good quality
    • Scenic quality, such as striking coastal landforms
    • Relative wildness, such as distance from housing or having few roads
    • Relative tranquillity, where natural sounds, such as streams or birdsong are predominant
    • Natural heritage features, such as distinctive geology or species and habitat
    • Cultural heritage, which can include the built environment that makes the area unique, such as archaeological remains or historic parkland

    If an area meets these specifications, Natural England must issue an order under section 82 of the CRoW act providing it is desirable to do so in order to conserve and enhance the area’s natural beauty. They must define a detailed boundary too. From there they must:

    • Consult each local authority affected by the proposed order (or variation order)
    • Publish the proposals in The Gazette and local newspapers of each affected local authority
    • Consider all representations made against the proposals and make any necessary modifications
    • Submit the order to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, including any unresolved representations or objections

    It is then up to the Secretary of State to confirm, deny, vary or modify the order.

    AONB designation in Wales

    This designation process in Wales is very similar to that in England. The power rests with the Countryside Council for Wales. Under Section 82 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, CCW can designate any area in Wales (which is not already a National Park) as an AONB if the area has so much natural beauty that it should be conserved and enhanced.

    Before designating an AONB, the CCW must consult with every local authority whose boundaries fall within the proposed AONB. They must then place a notice in the London Gazette as well as in a local paper in each of the local authority areas affected.

    Once this consultation has been carried out, the CCW must send the Order to the Welsh

    Government along with any information gathered during the consultation. The Welsh Government can then confirm, modify or reject the designation. If the Welsh Government confirms the designation with modifications or rejects the designation then it must go on to consult with the CCW and every local authority involved.

    UK national parks

    AONB designation in Northern Ireland

    An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Norther Ireland is designated under the Amenity Lands Act (NI) 1965 and the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (NI) Order 1985. They are landscapes with a distinctive character and are designated for the quality of their landscape, heritage and wildlife. They also have an important amenity value for recreation.

    The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) will examine these areas, and, providing they meet the criteria, go to the government and present their findings. The Northern Irish government are then able to confirm or deny AONB designation.

    Where are the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

    AONBs in England

    • Arnside & Silverdale 
    • Blackdown Hills 
    • Cannock Chase 
    • Chichester Harbour 
    • Chilterns 
    • Cornwall
    • Cotswolds 
    • Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs 
    • Dedham Vale 
    • Dorset 
    • East Devon 
    • Forest of Bowland
    • Howardian Hills
    • North Devon
    • High Weald
    • Isle of Wight
    • Isles of Scilly
    • Kent Downs 
    • Lincolnshire Wolds 
    • Malvern Hills 
    • Mendip Hills 
    • Norfolk Coast 
    • North Pennines 
    • North Wessex Downs 
    • Nidderdale 
    • Northumberland Coast 
    • Quantock Hills 
    • Shropshire Hills 
    • Solway Coast
    • South Devon 
    • Suffolk Coast and Heaths
    • Surrey Hills
    • Tamar Valley

    AONBs in Wales

    • Anglesey
    • Clwydian Range and Dee Valley
    • Gower – this was the first AONB, designated in 1956!
    • Llŷn
    • Wye Valley

    AONBs in Northern Ireland

    • Antrim Coast and Glens 
    • Binevenagh
    • Causeway Coast 
    • Lagan Valley
    • Mourne Mountains
    • Ring of Gullion 
    • Sperrins 
    • Strangford Lough

    Does Scotland have AONBs?

    Scotland does not have the same designation system. Their equivalent is the National Scenic Area (NSA) designation. There are many across the country:

    • Ardnamurchan 
    • Assynt
    • Ben Nevis 
    • Cairngorms 
    • Coigach 
    • Cuillin
    • Dornoch Firth 
    • Garvellachs
    • Glen Affric
    • Glen Lyon 
    • Hoy
    • Jura
    • Keills Chapel
    • Glen Coe
    • Kintail
    • Knapdale 
    • Knoydart 
    • Kyles of Bute
    • Loch Rannoch 
    • Loch Tummel 
    • Lochnagar
    • Loch Lomond 
    • Lunga (Slate Islands
    • Mallaig
    • Moidart
    • Morar 
    • River Earn
    • River Tay 
    • St Kilda
    • Scarba
    • Shetland
    • Loch Shiel
    • Small Isles
    • Glen Strathfarrar
    • South Lewis
    • Harris and North Uist
    • South Uist
    • Tongue
    • Highland
    • Trossachs
    • Trotternish 
    • Wester Ross

    What do Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty look like?

    AONB landscapes range from rugged coastline to water meadows to gentle downland and upland moors. From trickling streams to lush greenery, thick trees and rolling hills, there is one thing that ties every Area of Outstanding Natural beauty together: they are beautiful. From the turquoise waters of the Isles of Scilly to the scattered purple petals of the Howardian Hills and the soft white sand at Gower, these are amazing places to explore.

    Some AONBs are geological formations, like Ring of Gullion in County Armagh, with rocks that draw attention and walks to enjoy. Some, like the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire and North Yorkshire, have deep valleys and peat moorland. And some are whole islands, like Anglesey in Wales, with beaches and ancient sites. It has castles and caravan sites and so much more.

    Visiting an AONB is something anyone should do when visiting the UK. And for those who live here, AONBs make the perfect staycation. These areas have so much to offer – from beauty spots to educational experiences, photo opportunities and a chance to see somewhere new. Enjoy fresh air and learn about local histories, ecology and so much more.

    Areas of outstanding natural beauty

    As you can see, an area of outstanding natural beauty is an important part of the British countryside. These areas can be enjoyed by all and are given this special protective status so that they will continue to be ‘outstanding’ for many years to come.