The character of the landscape where people live is an essential element for developing a sense of place and belonging, of identity. The landscapes of the Somerset Levels and its Catchment are varied and distinctive, from the flat wetlands of the Levels to the prominent ridges such as the Poldens and Fivehead Ridge and Yeovil Scarplands that are characterised by mixed farmland all bounded by the uplands of the Mendips, Quantocks, Brendons and Blackdown Hills.
The seasonally wet grasslands of the levels are designated as internationally important for wildlife because of their large populations of waterfowl and wading birds. The slopes of the hills provide species-rich drier grassland and ancient woodland occurs in large blocks on the Quantocks and the slopes of the Blackdown Hills. Traditional orchards are common throughout the catchment and many contain old and locally distinctive varieties of cider and eating apples that also support many species of birds and insects. Coastal habitats are found on the edge of Bridgwater Bay that include saltmarsh, sand dunes and mudflats. Heathland with its vegetation of heather and gorse occur on the Quantock and Mendip Hills. Offshore, large parts of Bridgwater Bay are part of the Severn Estuary Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area.
Legally protected sites offer safeguards with landowners restricted in what they can do so that the right conditions for wildlife are maintained. However, most of our landscape does not have these protections; for instance traditional orchards are often located around the edge of settlements and this makes them vulnerable to development pressures. There has been a dramatic loss of traditional orchards within the Somerset landscape. Government grants were even available for removal of orchards and hedgerows in the 1960’s. We now need a programme of small scale grants to encourage new traditional orchards and the range of values which they represent.
Woodland over the whole Catchment is low at 6% compared to 10% for England and many of the smaller woodlands and hedgerow trees have been lost through removal or tree diseases. The loss of habitats such as lowland meadows, hedgerows and heathland through changes in agricultural methods, pollution and urbanisation have been drastic, especially since the Second World War. Drainage, the ploughing of permanent pasture, peat extraction, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the removal of hedgerows to enlarge fields and the growing of cereals that requires heavy equipment have all impacted on the landscape and its health.
A new approach is needed for our whole landscape and wildlife, not just protected areas. The Avalon Marshes project has shown how the landscape can be transformed by the application of good planning, vision and resources via partnership-working; a sterile and derelict area transformed to one of beauty and biodiversity. While an extreme example, this shows what can be done to create an environment which is healthy from an economic, landscape and biodiversity viewpoint.
We need to value more highly that which we have inherited from earlier generations and any subsidies paid to land managers should be directly related to the public goods which they protect or encourage, not simply because they own land. Leaving the Common Agricultural Policy following the Brexit decision has caused great uncertainty over future public policy for farming and the countryside. The Reimagining the Levels report identifies how opportunities that leaving the Common Agricultural Policy could strengthen the local farming and food economy for the benefit of local people, wildlife and the landscape. Our recommendations can be read on page 17 of the report.