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18 June 2014
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Wetlands | Somerset Levels

Rhynes and rills

Somerset Levels  Photo courtesy of RSPB

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 its name.

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 its name.

Stick cuttingLevels and moors

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 feet.

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.

It is this balance between the soil types of clay and peat that make each area of the Levels and Moors appear different.

Cutting machine Photo courtesy of RSPBLandscape tapestry

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.

Each area is separated from its neighbour by well-wooded, low Jurassic clay and limestone ridges.

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.


The 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.

There's 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.



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