The Jewel on our Doorstep

There are many good books available on the Somerset Wetlands, the Levels and the Moors, but one which came out quite recently is the most comprehensive and beautifully illustrated that I have come across. It is called The Somerset Wetlands: An Ever Changing Environment, and is published by Somerset Books, price £19.99. The Wetlands extend from Gordano to Ilchester and comprise the Levels and Moors out to the coast along and beyond Bridgwater Bay. The book is divided into three sections, each having contributions from specialists in many different disciplines, and a CD, ‘Sounds of Somerset Wetlands’, comes with it.

Part 1 deals with the Wetlands Through Time and deals with the geology and prehistoric archaeology of the area and the Romano-British and medieval reclamation of the Levels and Moors. Quarrying around Glastonbury and Street in the 18th and 19th centuries revealed the fossils of large reptiles, ichthyosaurs and plesoiosaurs. The famous Sweet track, named after Ray Sweet who discovered it while ditch cleaning, crossed two kilometres of reed swamp that separated the island of Westhay from the Polden ridge. The wood used to make the track provided evidence of the untouched primary forest, with oak, lime, ash and hazel trees predominating. Peat digging has always been an important activity, which still continues, but many of the worked out areas have now become nature reserves.

The second part is entitled ‘Wetlands and Wildlife’ and it is a fascinating account of the huge variety of mammals, birds, insects and plants that are found here. Many of us will have witnessed the wonderful winter spectacle of thousands of starlings going to roost in the reed beds. Then there are the tiny, often overlooked creatures that live in the ditches, including a rare water snail called a shining ram’s horn. The area is often flooded in winter and the pollarded willows which fringe the rivers and ditches combine to make this landscape special and unlike any other.

Finally in Part 3, the writers speculate on the future of the Wetlands and, with climate change, foresee the ending of traditional farming, to be replaced by incomes derived from harvesting reed beds, acquaculture and fisheries. In time the area could even become a Somerset Everglades, inhabited by water buffalo, pelicans and alligators.

As one of the editors recently remarked, few of the thousands of holiday-makers who speed along the M5 every year in their cars en route for Devon and Cornwall realise what a jewel they have so closely bypassed. Perhaps it is selfish but I, for one, feel grateful that they do and that the peace and beauty of the Wetlands remain relatively undisturbed.

Mary Vidal

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