The forgotten Levels

FAITH MOULIN helped rewild an overlooked corner of Somerset

My part of Somerset hides its age well.  When the Romans came to Yatton and Congresbury, they inherited an Iron Age salt-panning industry, set up the first systematic drainage system, and established an industrial-scale pottery at Congresbury, using the estuarine clay. A Roman temple has been unearthed on nearby Cadbury Hill next to an Iron Age settlement, and a cemetery was excavated there in the 1950s. Lead and other minerals from the Mendip Hills passed close by on a direct route to their slave-powered boats on the Severn estuary. Over 2,000 years ago, the chieftain buried on Cadbury Hill enjoyed luxury imports from much of the known world, including wine and jewellery from Byzantium. Now, people also appreciate more natural treasures.

William Stukeley’s painting of Cadbury Hill

Yatton has a peat moor on one side of the village, leading onto the Tickenham, Nailsea and Kenn Moors Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a clay moor on the other side, Biddle Street SSSI, which is mainly in the parish of Congresbury. The wetlands are bisected by Yatton High Street, a natural limestone ridge, and the archaeological survey for hundreds of new houses in 2019 provided new information showing that Yatton village’s ridgeway had been an important route for thousands of years – not only to those escaping traffic jams when there is an accident on the M5!

Yatton and Congresbury are linked by two great wildlife features. One is Cadbury Hill, the Iron Age hill-fort owned jointly by our two parish councils. Both Yatton and Congresbury people have access to the hill from their own sides, as it straddles the parish boundary. The second is the Strawberry Line – a disused railway now a heritage trail, part of the National Cycle Network and a nature reserve owned by North Somerset Council.

In 1998 a local farmer was selling a field next to the Strawberry Line for £25,000, and a group of local residents decided to save it for the environment. To apply for grant funding, the group had to be a registered charity and thus the Yatton and Congresbury Wildlife Action Group (YACWAG) was born. The farmer was willing to wait a year while we raised the money. After an initial award from the Heritage Lottery Fund, YACWAG successfully gained grants elsewhere and increased our landholding. In our first seven years, we bought ten fields and a small woodland, with over £250,000 raised from outside sources. It is no longer so easy. Most land around Yatton and Congresbury is marketed as ‘Investment Land’ and is snapped up by developers.

YACWAG grew out of other local initiatives going back decades, including the multi-agency ‘Forgotten Levels’ local campaign of the 1990s.  North Somerset includes the Cinderella Levels, up to five metres above sea level, step-sister to the better known Somerset Levels, who gets invited to all the balls.  By that time, we had run a children’s environmental group for 13 years, a Wildlife Trust group for five years, a Friends group for two, and we had gained a lot of experience and knowledge about local wildlife as well as a network of keen volunteers and others more expert in their field.

When naming the charity, the word ‘action’ was a deliberate inclusion. We aimed to create and maintain nature reserves in an area that was rapidly developing into commuter belt – to provide a refuge for the wildlife that was denied habitat by modern farming methods, increased disturbance and pollution. Our second objective was, and is, to raise awareness of nature conservation and natural history.

This natural history is entwined intimately with our own. In 2000, we funded a project to increase wetland habitat in a small field owned by the council. The digger turned up stones and pottery sherds, including Samian ware, coins and metal buckles; it was a previously unknown Roman occupation site! (We worked with the local school to make a mosaic seat in celebration.) 

We also obtained a grant to link our communities along the Strawberry Line with activities for all ages. With the relevant local MPs at each former station site, simultaneously blowing the whistle and waving a flag to kick the event off, crowds of local people were led from one village to the other, exploring the natural wonders of the disused railway corridor. The local museum service showcased Roman artefacts and we provided hands-on activities at intervals. On both the station sites we offered a booth where retired railwaymen could record their memories of working life before the closure of the Strawberry Line. (These later formed the basis of a book, which we sell to raise funds for our work.)

Due to more relaxed management, our fields look very different from neighbouring land and their character has been continuously changing. Close your ears to traffic and planes, and half-close your eyes to exclude the neighbours’ unnaturally green ‘improved’ short grass, and you could be in the 18th century before the Enclosure Acts. We haven’t planted wild flowers; we have just allowed them. When farmers complained about thistles, we smiled and watched the butterflies on them and the flocks of finches in the winter. In nature there is waxing and waning and we saw that as soil fertility declined a balance arrived. A few years ago a beautiful green-eyed fly was photographed. Professional verification was required and an entomologist visited the following year to see our Four-lined Horsefly. It is a rare wetland species, the nearest site being 30 miles away. People don’t like horseflies but this one is very docile and hundreds of them peacefully sip nectar from thistles in July.

In a couple of our fields we do have ‘proper’ wild flowers. In 2002 and 2003 we held ‘Field Days’ on Congresbury Moor with farmers bringing horses and vintage tractors to demonstrate their skills with old machinery, cutting and turning our hay. One local farming family restored an old hay cart for the event and staged a show for the crowds, tossing the hay about for hours in the bright sunshine.  I remember our excitement when we first saw a knapweed plant in that field displaying its feathery purple stars. Now to see the drifts of them in this ancient hay meadow, first enclosed from Congresbury Moor in the seventeenth century, is a taste of how life could be. In the surrounding fields the grass is never long; if the plants do exist they never get the chance to flower.  

In 2006 we were offered an opportunity to buy two fields off a busy street on the north side of Yatton.  These are our other wild flower meadows. They are within 500 metres of the primary school – ideal for educational visits. This time we went to the community for help and were supported by Yatton Parish Council, Yeo Valley Lions, local businesses and many individuals as well as bigger funders. Last year we held a bank holiday event in the fields, offering local people the chance to explore “Nature as Your Neighbour”. Local families enjoyed pond-dipping, spider-hunting, owl pellet dissection and hands-on interaction with wildlife. In the evening we led a bat walk along the road for 25 local people, opening their eyes to the secret world of bats.

North Somerset is a bat hotspot, with Greater Horseshoe Bat roosts on our doorstep. We have engaged young adults through the exciting mix of technology and cute little furry animals. It led to new discoveries – even on a national scale as we found the first evidence of a Nathusius pipistrelle bat migrating across the North Sea – and raised awareness of bats’ protected status. We were able to support the council when they developed technical guidance for planning applications. As we are mainly self-taught, YACWAG loves citizen science projects. We get people involved in surveys and facilitate national initiatives locally, like the Big Schools Bird Watch, National Moth Night and a BTO Christmas bird survey, as well as four walks for the National Bat Monitoring Programme.

In the two fields near the school we could see a remnant of the damp pasture that used to surround the village. The previous owner had managed the fields as a private nature reserve, just cutting hay once a year for the past 17 years. Marsh marigolds grew in the open field and there were swathes of pink ragged robin. Along the ditch edges was the regal purple loosestrife and its rarer relative, yellow loosestrife.

Yellow loosestrife Photo: YACWAG

This lockdown year, having heard that among 250 species of bee there is something called the Yellow Loosestrife Bee, with more time to look and gorgeous weather, we went looking for it – and found it! This little bee has a complex association with its namesake plant, collecting pollen on its brush-like legs and manufacturing oil from the pollen to waterproof its underground nest chambers. I was moved to tears by this discovery, which was newsworthy enough for Radio Bristol and the BBC website. If YACWAG hadn’t bought the fields – if a traditional farmer had bought it, or a pony owner – the yellow loosestrife would have been grazed out or cut down, and the bees would have been lost. We simply don’t know what’s there and what is important. Wildlife is so fragile and we casually lose precious species that have survived centuries in our rural landscapes. With them can go whole networks of other species that depend on them, and we don’t even know what we have lost. We have  proved you don’t have to do much to reverse this trend, except wait and watch.

When we bought our first field we had a visit from Chris Sperring MBE of the Hawk and Owl Trust. He advised us rookies to grow our grass long – basically to “farm voles” and put up a barn owl box. “The owls will come”, he said, drawing on his experience on the Somerset Levels, from where young owls were dispersing to new territories and finding nowhere to nest. The boxes on our poles are easily seen from the Strawberry Line and local people love to watch the ghostly white owls drifting over the fields on late summer evenings. YACWAG boxes have raised 60 chicks to colonise elsewhere. One year we had three pairs breeding on our tiny landholding. We have regular breeding kestrels too, thanks to the fecundity of the short-tailed field vole.

There are unexpected spin-offs. A local widow who enjoyed walking her dog on the Strawberry Line liked the barn owls so much she decided to leave YACWAG money in her will. We didn’t know her but she spoke to our Secretary, who said a polite thank you and thought no more about it. This lady has now died. We haven’t received the bequest yet but it may be enough to allow us to buy more land, even at today’s prices. Our 300 members want us to buy more land. It is the way to keep it safe for nature, ‘in perpetuity’ as the legal documents say.

An earlier bequest gave us “Harry’s Plot”, one-seventh of a field bought by residents behind their houses to save their views from development. It is very small but includes a magnificent oak tree and the residents have let us plant another oak tree in the field this winter.

YACWAG’s work has been varied and evolving, rooted in the community and wholly voluntary. When someone comes along wanting to do something, we go with the flow, so when the North Somerset Otter Group was homeless, we provided an umbrella. When someone wanted to learn about small mammals we encouraged him to go on a course, started surveys, and bought a trail camera. We have since found in our fields all three types of shrew, both species of voles and the tiny harvest mouse. We have several moth traps which members can use in their gardens and then a few keen amateurs try to identify the catch.

Over the 20 years we have seen a decline in local wildlife, mirroring the national and global picture. But in our fields, at least, biodiversity is increasing. The local farmers who once thought we were mad now talk to us with a lot more respect and understanding. Some help us with management of our land, and one even wants to plant more trees on his own farm. 

It isn’t hard work to get the results we have – give Nature a chance and it will reward you richly. Just try to imagine the impact if every parish set aside just one field for Nature…