The Character of Wessex: The Somerset Levels and Moors

Formed at the end of the last ice age from the floodplains of eight rivers, the Somerset Levels are the largest remaining area of lowland wet grassland and floodplain in England. Due to its importance in history – with King Alfred hiding out at Athelney and the Battle of Sedgemoor ending the Monmouth Rebellion – and to the legends surrounding Glastonbury, the area retains a hold over the imagination that extends far beyond Wessex.

The area has been settled since prehistoric times, with irrigation ditches known as rhynes draining the wetlands in order to make them habitable. More recently, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) has reclaimed a salt marsh at Steart Marshes, which provides flood defences for nearby residents, and has captured carbon at a much higher rate than expected. If replicated globally, the WWT’s experiment could help in combating climate change, and the resulting rise in sea levels.

The moors and levels are a popular area for birdwatchers. Important species include black-winged stilts, egrets, avocets, snipe and bitterns. Common cranes bred at the WWT’s centre in Simbridge were reintroduced over a period of five years, and have now established a breeding population. As well as wading birds, the Somerset wetlands are home to otters, eels and white admiral butterflies.

The economy is mostly pastoral, with beef and dairy farming providing much of the area’s income. Willow is another important crop, with the Willow Man sculpture north of Bridgwater celebrating this heritage. Teasels were once grown here for use in the wool trade, but this industry sadly died out with increasing mechanisation.

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