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Whenever I’m staying with family in the West Country, I always make a point of visiting one of my favourite places: the Somerset Levels. This 650 km2 landscape is a mixture of raised bog, former and existing peat works, meadows, wet woodlands and reedbeds. Although man once exploited the Levels extensively for peat extraction, a partnership of conservation organisations including Natural England, the RSPB and the Somerset Wildlife Trust now manage much of the area. Nearly thirty years of restoration work by these groups has created a huge wildlife haven and a valuable carbon sink. A visit never disappoints, and all four seasons produce some incredible wildlife sightings. First, though, a bit of history.
The Land of the Summer People
Following the last Ice Age, the Somerset Levels were as much water as land. By around 6,000 years ago, humans had settled on drier islands and nearby hills, as well as in villages within the wetter swamp areas, so-called ‘lake villages’. To move around the watery landscape, these Neolithic people built raised tracks or causeways. The oldest trackway found in the UK, the Post Track, was discovered near Westhay on the Levels. You can see a replica of a slightly later one, the Sweet Track, at Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve.
The Anglo-Saxon word Sumorsaete, the source of the modern county name, is often taken to mean ‘the land of the summer people’. The thinking is that people could only live on the land in the summer because it was flooded in the winter. Despite this, people exploited the area for reeds, peat, fish, wildfowl and willow for centuries. These resources were so valuable that the rival religious orders who owned land in the region even resorted to violence against each other. Extensive drainage for agriculture only began in the 18th century.
Peat and the Future of the Levels
Peat cutting continued on a large scale until the demand began to decline in the late 20th century. The current owner of the remaining peat works, Fison’s, consequently gave a large tract of land to what is now Natural England, and the Levels’ restoration began. Any land still worked for peat is now restored once the work is complete and often sold to one of the conservation bodies protecting the area. From 2024, sales of peat-based compost will be banned to amateur gardeners, and it is hoped this will further reduce the amount of peat working here.
The Avalon Marshes Partnership of conservation bodies now manage the area’s six reserves. In May 2022, Natural England announced that these, together with additional tracts of land, would form a new ‘super’ National Nature Reserve. As a valuable home to nature, as well as an important carbon sink to help counteract climate change, hopefully this incredible area has a secure future. But what can you expect to see through the year on the Somerset Levels?
One of the highlights of spring on the Levels is the unique sound of male bitterns ‘booming’. Although they are best heard early in the morning, they will call throughout the day. This is evidence of one of the Levels’ biggest success stories, the return of the bittern to the west of England. This member of the heron family was down to 11 booming males in the whole UK by 1997 as a result of habitat loss. They have recovered, though, due to wetland restoration across the country. And in 2021, conservationists recorded 34 males across Somerset alone.
Spring also sees an influx of migrants to the marshes, from swallows, martins and swifts to a suite of warblers, such as sedge, reed and garden warbler, along with the blackcap. The hedgerows are alive with warbler song and the air filled with hawking hirundines. Cuckoos likewise return from their winter quarters. The abundance of warblers and reed buntings on the Levels mean there are plenty of birds for them to parasitise. Migrant waders are another spring highlight. If water levels are right, a range of species, including black-tailed godwits and ruff, drop in en route to their breeding grounds, often in their stonking summer plumages.
Summer brings an abundance of new life to the marshes. Everywhere you look there are ducklings and young grebes following their parents. You might also be lucky and see the shy Garganey, our only summer migrant duck species. The summer is an excellent time to see the area’s marsh harriers hard at work catching food for their offspring. These beautiful raptors are a Levels specialty, and it is extremely rare to visit at any time of year and not see at least one bird. I could watch them quartering over the reedbeds for hours. As with most raptors, males are smaller than the females. They have a mixed grey and brown plumage with black wing tips. The larger females are chocolate brown with varying amounts of cream on their heads.
The Levels are home to a large variety of dragonfly species and summer is their peak flight season. With the dragonflies come hobbies, another summer visitor. These dashing little falcons perform incredible aerobatic feats while hunting their dragonfly and hirundine prey. Watch closely to see them take prey and eat it on the wing. Meanwhile, buzzards soar overhead. If you visit the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve, the backdrop to all this action will be a noisy chorus of croaking from the Iberian water frog population. Non-native to the UK but now established, they provide a bonus food source for the reserve’s heron species. These include some new colonists, the great white egret and the cattle egret.
Autumn is a good time to get better views of many of the warblers that skulked around the reserves in the summer. As the hedgerows fill with berries, previously secretive species like garden warblers and lesser whitethroats begin to care less about hiding and more about fattening up for the journey south. Tit flocks start to form as family groups begin mixing with others, moving in multi-species groups through the vegetation. Long-tailed, blue and great tits join goldcrests and finches. They are sometimes joined by migrants like spotted flycatchers and redstarts.
At least one osprey will stop off somewhere on the marshes each autumn for a spell. Having bred further north, they are in no rush to get back to their West African wintering quarters. Some birds will spend a few weeks at a good fishing spot. Noah’s Lake on the Shapwick reserve is a fairly reliable site in autumn. Autumn is also fungi season, with the damp woodland areas the best places to look for them.
The biggest draw to the Levels in winter are undoubtedly the enormous starling roosts that form there. Millions of birds, a mix of residents and wintering birds from the continent, use the reedbeds at night to provide safety and warmth during the winter months. As dusk falls, the birds begin to arrive from across the region, forming huge swirling murmurations before they drop into the reeds. These murmurations make it difficult for raptors to single any one bird out as prey. Peak season is November to the end of February, and calm days are best. The starlings usually roost at either Ham Wall or the adjacent Shapwick Heath. The sight is definitely a wonder of the natural world.
Winter is also when the reserves fill with wildfowl. Wigeon and teal that bred further north arrive on the lakes, joining hundreds of shovelers, gadwall and geese. There are often a family or two of whooper swans dotted around the Levels as well. With the wildfowl come peregrine falcons, drawn to the abundance of prey on the Levels in winter. In addition, freezing conditions mean that you have a better chance to seeing some of the marshes’ more elusive species, such as water rail and bittern. When the water freezes, they sometimes venture out onto the ice to find food, leaving the cover of the reeds.
These are just a few of the Somerset Levels’ highlights from around the year. There really isn’t a bad time to visit, with some amazing spectacles in every season. For more detailed information on the reserves to visit, the Avalon Marshes Partnership website is a good place to start, here.
Listen to the amazing boom of the bittern here.
Stephen Moss is a natural history tv producer, writer and is President of the Somerset Wildlife Trust. Wild Hares and Hummingbirds charts a year of natural history in the Levels village he calls home.
Ruth Pavey left the bustle of London to move to the Levels in the 1990s. After buying four acres of land, she set out to plant a wood and A Wood of One’s Own is her beautiful account of this endeavour.
Although it covers the whole of the county, there is a good section on walks in the wetlands of Somerset in this handy pocket guide. Walking is a fantastic way to explore the area.