This unique landscape is one of the lowest, flattest areas in the country.
In ancient times it was known as the summerlands... because it was too wet to
use in the winter... and it is thought this is where the county of Somerset got
|Somerset Levels. Photo - RSPB|
At the heart of Somerset, lies a beautiful area called the 'Levels
and Moors' which has international status as one of the most important wetlands
of its type in the world.
All of the levels and moors in Somerset were
under water until about 4500 BC when peat deposits began to form in salt marsh,
fen and raised bog environments.
In order to cross these wetlands and reach
the islands of rock and sand in the valleys, prehistoric people built wooden trackways.
The oldest is the Sweet Track, a raised walkway built in 3806 BC, which
still exists today.
This rich grazing land may have given rise to the name
'Sumersata' - land of the Summer people - from which Somerset is said to derive
Over the centuries humans have struggled to farm and manage
this boggy wetland.
Most of the area is no higher above sea level than 25
Some parts, the coastal marine clay 'Levels', are higher than the
'Moors' which are further inland and often have peat as their central feature.
These areas are protected from sea flooding only by the slightly higher
clay ridge at the coast and by careful control of water through pumping.
is this balance between the soil types of clay and peat that make each area of
the Levels and Moors appear different.
To the north of the Polden Hills the wetland is supplied by the
rivers Axe, Sheppey and Brue, while to the south, the rivers are the Cary, Yeo,
Tone and Parrett, the last of which is tidal up to Oath Lock near Langport.
area is separated from its neighbour by well-wooded, low Jurassic clay and limestone
The pattern of small fields, ditches (local name - "rhynes"
pronounced "Reens") seen across the Levels and Moors, was created as
a result of two main forces:
- the enclosure and sub-division of the wetland
between the previous commoners, whose villages are reflected in the names of the
droves or tracks; and
- the need to optimise the balance between the size
of a field and the amount of land lost to ditches.
If fields were too large,
then the flood waters that used to cover the Levels and Moors, could not be drained
fast enough from a field, conversely, too much of the land converted to ditches
meant land lost to production.
Levels is extremely rich in wildlife and wild flowers.
It is one of the
finest remaining lowland wetlands left in Britain, and is also internationally
important for migrating birds.
Look out for birds such as Whimbrel and breeding
Waders, which need moist ground so they can probe for worms and insects.
also a community of Marsh Frogs, a non native which colonised the wetland from
the 1930s onwards.
The wetland is also one of the few areas of England
where Otters flourish.
Because this lowland area is an 'unimproved' (unfertilised)
meadow, it is especially rich in wild flowers such as Cowslip, Green-Winged Orchid
and Purple Bugle.
Its ditches or dykes are also good places to look for
snails and beetles.