Som­er­set Lev­els

Why this con­ser­va­tion suc­cess story is great for birding

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - Words: Ed Hutch­ings

The Som­er­set Lev­els are a coastal plain and wet­land area, run­ning south from the Mendips to the Black­down Hills. They have an area of about 160,000 acres and are bi­sected by the Polden Hills; the ar­eas to the south are drained by the River Par­rett, the ar­eas to the north by the Rivers Axe and Brue, while the Mendip Hills sep­a­rate the Lev­els from the much smaller North Som­er­set Lev­els. Made up of ma­rine clay ‘lev­els’ along the coast and in­land peat-based ‘moors’, agri­cul­tur­ally, ap­prox­i­mately 70% is used as grass­land and the rest as arable. Wil­low and Teasel are grown com­mer­cially, while peat is ex­tracted. So, the Lev­els have been man­aged for mil­len­nia. Sub­se­quently, the Lev­els are also sat­u­rated with his­tory. A Palae­olithic flint tool found in West Sedge­moor is the ear­li­est in­di­ca­tion of hu­man pres­ence in the area, be­fore the Ne­olithic in­hab­i­tants ex­ploited the reed swamps for their nat­u­ral re­sources and started to con­struct wooden track­ways, with the world’s old­est known tim­ber track­way, the Post Track, dat­ing from 3800-3900 BC. Later, sev­eral set­tle­ments and hill forts were built on the nat­u­ral ‘is­lands’ of slightly raised land, in­clud­ing Brent Knoll and Glas­ton­bury. In the Ro­man pe­riod, sea salt was ex­tracted and a string of set­tle­ments set up along the Polden Hills, with a dis­cov­ery of 9,238 sil­ver Ro­man coins, known as the Shap­wick Hoard, rank­ing as the sec­ond largest ever found from the Ro­man Em­pire. Sev­eral Saxon char­ters doc­u­ment the in­cor­po­ra­tion of ar­eas of moor in es­tates. Be­cause of their wet­land na­ture, the Lev­els and Moors con­tain a rich bio­di­ver­sity of na­tional and in­ter­na­tional im­por­tance. They sup­port a vast va­ri­ety of plant species, from com­mon plants such as Marsh Marigold, Mead­owsweet and Ragged-robin, to much rarer va­ri­eties. Som­er­set is at­trac­tive to wild­fowl and waders in au­tumn and win­ter, thanks to a mild cli­mate and its po­si­tion on the Bris­tol Chan­nel. The area is an im­por­tant feed­ing ground for birds, in­clud­ing Bewick’s Swan, Curlew, Red­shank, Sky Lark, Snipe, Teal, Wigeon and Whim­brel, as well as rap­tors in­clud­ing Marsh Har­rier and Pere­grine. A wide range of in­sect species is also present, in­clud­ing rare in­ver­te­brates, par­tic­u­larly bee­tles such as the Greater and Lesser Sil­ver Wa­ter Bee­tles, Flow­er­ing Rush Wee­vil and Orange­horned Green Colonel. In ad­di­tion, the area sup­ports an im­por­tant Otter pop­u­la­tion, and Wa­ter Voles are be­ing en­cour­aged to re­colonise ar­eas of the Lev­els where they have been ab­sent for a decade, by the cap­ture of Amer­i­can Mink.

The Lev­els of­fer some­thing for nat­u­ral­ists of all per­sua­sions. Ex­ten­sive habi­tat restora­tion work since the 1980s has boosted bird breed­ing suc­cesses here (in­clud­ing Bit­tern), and Cranes, hatched at Slim­bridge WWT, have been re­leased and are breed­ing in the area, un­der a project started in 2010 to rein­tro­duce Crane to the Lev­els af­ter an ab­sence of 400 years. The birds’ eggs were flown from Ger­many to Slim­bridge and the young reared to the age of four months be­fore re­lease, with the ‘Great Crane Project’ re­leas­ing about 20 young birds each year be­tween 2010 and 2015. So far, 93 birds have been re­leased and, with sur­vival rates higher than ex­pected, no fur­ther re­leases are planned.

Spe­cial in­ter­est sites

The Lev­els con­tain 32 Sites of Spe­cial Sci­en­tific In­ter­est (12 of them also Spe­cial Pro­tec­tion Ar­eas), the River Huntspill and Bridgwater Bay Na­tional Na­ture Re­serves, the Som­er­set Lev­els and Moors Ram­sar Site cov­er­ing about 86,000 acres, the Som­er­set Lev­els Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve, Shap­wick Heath Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve, Ham Wall Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve and nu­mer­ous sched­uled mon­u­ments. Sev­eral re­serves on the Lev­els are now part of the Brue Valley Liv­ing Land­scape con­ser­va­tion project, which com­menced in Jan­uary 2009 and aims to re­store, recre­ate and reconnect habi­tat. It aims to en­sure that wildlife is en­hanced and ca­pa­ble of sus­tain­ing it­self in the face of cli­mate change, while guar­an­tee­ing farm­ers and other landown­ers can con­tinue to use their land prof­itably, and is one of an in­creas­ing num­ber of land­scape scale con­ser­va­tion projects in the UK.

Cat­cott re­serves

The Cat­cott Com­plex Na­ture Re­serves com­prise five re­serves – Cat­cott Lows, North, Heath, South and Fen – now man­aged to­gether by Som­er­set Wildlife Trust. Wet meadows are man­aged all year round to en­cour­age a va­ri­ety of species. Win­ter flood­ing brings Wigeon, Teal, Pin­tail, Shov­eler, Gad­wall, Bewick’s Swan, Pere­grine and other rap­tors. Siskin and Lesser Red­poll are typ­i­cally found in Alders. Na­tion­ally im­por­tant num­bers of roost­ing Whim­brel use the re­serve in spring, plus pas­sage Green­shank, Ruff and Black-tailed God­wit. Sum­mer graz­ing en­cour­ages breed­ing Lap­wing, Snipe, Red­shank, Yel­low Wag­tail and

war­blers. Lit­tle Egret, King­fisher, Cetti’s War­bler and Reed Bunting are res­i­dent. Other notable flora and fauna in­cludes Otter, Roe Deer, Great Crested Newt, rare drag­on­flies and the threat­ened Great Fen-sedge. Cat­cott Heath is noted for its rare vas­cu­lar plants.


For­merly arable farm­land, Grey­lake is a large wet grass­land re­serve bought by the RSPB in 2003. The re­sults in 15 years are re­mark­able. Spring and sum­mer brings King­fisher, Grey Heron, Lit­tle Egret and breed­ing Gar­ganey, Snipe, Lap­wing, Red­shank, Sky Lark, Meadow Pipit and Yel­low Wag­tail. Au­tumn is best for Green Sandpiper and waders on pas­sage. The lat­ter, such as Lap­wing and Golden Plover, are joined in win­ter by wild­fowl in­clud­ing Shov­eler, Pin­tail, Teal and Wigeon. Rap­tors such as Pere­grine and Hen Har­rier ter­rorise them. Other crea­tures in­clude Roe Deer, Wa­ter Vole, Stoat, Otter and drag­on­flies in­clud­ing Four-spot­ted Chaser.

RSPB Ham Wall

This site, just west of Glas­ton­bury, was for­merly old peat dig­gings. Now it’s un­ques­tion­ably one of the finest re­serves in south-west Eng­land. With 200-plus hectares of wet­land, in­clud­ing the South West’s largest reedbed, it holds a re­mark­able wealth of species. Bit­tern (the first breed­ing in Som­er­set for forty years), Cetti’s War­bler, Wa­ter Rail and Barn Owl are res­i­dent. Spring and sum­mer at­tract mi­grant war­blers, hirundines, Hobby, Whim­brel and sand­pipers, while mi­grant thrushes, Lesser Red­poll, Siskin, King­fisher and Bearded Tit favour au­tumn. Win­ter is per­haps the most ex­cit­ing time to visit ow­ing to a mil­lion-plus Star­ling roost, plus large flocks of ducks, Bit­tern, Lit­tle Egret, Pere­grine, Mer­lin and Short-eared Owl. Cranes have been rein­tro­duced into the area and other im­por­tant fauna in­cludes Otter, Roe Deer, Wa­ter Vole, drag­on­flies and but­ter­flies.

Shap­wick Moor

This wet grass­land re­serve, man­aged by the Hawk and Owl Trust, cov­ers 134 acres of graz­ing pas­ture, hay meadows with rough grass edges, fen, open ditches, pol­lard wil­lows and hedges. Sum­mer brings Hobby, Barn Owl and Reed Bunting, as well as Whim­brel and other pas­sage waders. Passer­ines in­clude Sky Lark, Bullfinch, and Yel­lowham­mer. Au­tumn and win­ter finds flocks of Bram­bling, plus Snipe, Shov­eler, Gad­wall and Stonechat. Pere­grine and har­ri­ers, Buz­zard, Kestrel, Spar­rowhawk, King­fisher, Lap­wing, Grey Heron and Mute Swan are res­i­dent, while other notable wildlife in­cludes Roe Deer, Brown Hare, Stoat, Badger, Otter and Wa­ter Vole.

RSPB Swell Wood

Part of the Som­er­set Lev­els and Moors, this site of­fers semi-nat­u­ral an­cient oak wood­land and views across wet grass­land from wood­land trails. The largest heronry in south-west Eng­land is here with up to 100 pairs of Grey Heron plus Lit­tle Egrets. Spring and sum­mer pro­vides breed­ing Buz­zard, Bullfinch, Spot­ted Fly­catcher, Song Thrush and war­blers such as Chif­fchaff, Black­cap and Gar­den War­bler. On es­corted walks, one could ex­pect to see Curlew, Snipe, Sedge War­bler, Yel­low Wag­tail, Sky Lark and Nightin­gale. Au­tumn at­tracts Green Wood­pecker, Robin, Wren and Coal Tit, while win­ter is best for Long-tailed Tit, Treecreeper, Great Spot­ted Wood­pecker and Nuthatch. The wood­land is also home to Roe Deer, Dor­mouse, wood­land flora such as Blue­bell, Wood Anemone and Lesser Celandine, plus great in­sects. Th­ese are just some of the pos­si­ble high­lights on of­fer at this spe­cial ex­panse of sea­son­ally in­un­dated low­lands that span 650 sq km be­tween the Quan­tocks and Mendips. This an­cient habi­tat, that un­til re­cently had fallen vic­tim to drainage and other mod­ern farm­ing de­mands, has now been re­stored to much of its for­mer glory by the RSPB and other con­ser­va­tion bod­ies. It’s a heart­en­ing mod­ern-day con­ser­va­tion suc­cess story.

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