Why this conservation success story is great for birding
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.
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.
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.