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Catch up with all the hard work from the Natural England’s Somerset National Nature Reserves team with their latest newsletter covering April to June.

This issue includes news about species surveys, brush cutting and white admirals alongside wildlife highlights from Ospreys to Otters. There is a special article which covers Habitat Management for the Argent and Sable Moth, and events updates with details of up and coming activities.

Don’t forget you can now own your very own Shapwick Heath NNR FSC guide which is packed with information about the reserve and full colour pictures for some iconic species of flora and fauna to look out for. Details of how to purchase a copy are at the end of the newsletter.

To download your free PDF copy of the newsletter please click here.

 Shapwick Heath NNR Field Studies GuideShapwick Heath NNR Field Studies Guide


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A new ebook, launched to showcase the county of Somerset, is believed to be the first of its kind in the UK.

Compiled by renowned photographer Ian Brodie on behalf of Visit Somerset, ‘Visit Somerset: History and Heritage’ exhibits Somerset as a wonderful destination to visit, displaying in stunning imagery all that the area has to offer: fascinating attractions, captivating vistas, amazing coastal views and much more.  The Avalon Marshes features in the section on The Levels with a focus on the nature reserves at Shapwick Heath and Westhay Moor as well heritage sites such as the Abbot’s Fish House, Glastonbury Abbey and the Sweet Track.

With over 750 images, in-depth touring information, handy hints and maps the ebook is free to download to your PC, or as an app to your chosen device.

Page 169 of the Visit Somerset E-Book; image shows view looking down the South Drain on Shapwick Heath National Nature ReservePhotographer and author Ian Brodie was behind the lens for the Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook and Cameras in Narnia, and unveiled the ebook at the tourism association’s spring conference on Friday May 6 before its official launch at the Houses of Parliament on Somerset Day May 11th 2016.

Ian has said

“The seven months I spent in Somerset were pure adventure. Every day out photographing was a treasure.”


“I fell in love with The Levels. It is an area of unexpected beauty. Walking along a path with the rustling of reeds on one side and distant views of the magic of Avalon peeping through trees on the other is quite spectacular. We arrived at a bird hide and expected to spend a moment there. An hour later we were still there, the only humans in sight, watching the sun and clouds play over the water of The Levels.”


“The people of Somerset are so proud of their county. This was evident every time I went out to photograph. They would ask what I was doing and why – when I told them about their wonderful county you could see how proud they were, that it was about to be shared world-wide.”


The ebook is available to download for free by clicking here

Alternatively you can read it online here


Visit Somerset logo

Image credits and copyright: Visit Somerset and Ian J Brodie

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The South West Heritage Trust’s historic replica buildings have seen lots of action since our last update, including their first public open days and group visits. The scaffolding from the outside of the Romano-British dining room has been removed and the box flue tiles put in place completing the hypocaust. The Anglo Saxon longhall shingle roofing continues and another stained glass window has been added; there is proof that coloured glass was made at Glastonbury Abbey during the Saxon period. The design for this glass is based on one from Jarrow, and the decorative lead strip on evidence from Jarrow’s twin foundation – Monkwearmouth.

Reproduction Romano British box flues, Anglo Saxon Glass, Anglo Saxon Roof Shingles.

The Avalon Marshes Young Wardens joined the Hands on Heritage volunteers on Wednesday June 1st.  They began by laying some of the course aggregate that makes the  floor-base for the Anglo Saxon longhall. The group also washed finds from the recent archaeological excavation at Beckery Chapel and then continued works on the fireplace.

Young Wardens working on the reproduction buildings at the Avalon Marshes.

On Sunday June 5th, at the Avalon Marshes open day, the buildings were bought to life.  There were re-enactors from a Viking living history (acting as Saxons), guided tours and Hands on Heritage volunteers demonstrating traditional woodworking skills.  This proved a huge hit with the 300 or so visitors we had that day and shows the potential of the buildings as a key element of the Avalon Marshes Centre in years to come.

Demonstrations and living history at the Avalon Marshes day.

The following Saturday on the 11th June our buildings were invaded by MAYA (Mick Astons Young Archaeologists Somerset), who spent the morning making pots and casting pewter. In the afternoon they split into factions and fought small battles as Celts and Romans.  You can see one of the epic battles on our YouTube page – Avalon Marshes YouTube

Mick Aston’s Young Archaeologists getting their Hands on Heritage.

Tuesday 15th June was a ground breaking day too. Not only did our first official school group visit but the hypocaust was lit for the first time. The images show that the box flues are drawing well and by the end of the day the floor of the Romano British dining room had reached a toasty warm 40°C.

The replica buildings have been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership.

The Romano British building hypocaust when lit with smoke drawing through the box flue tiles.

The Romano British building hypocaust when lit with smoke drawing through the box flue tiles.


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We are delighted to report that Natural England has launched its new Field Studies Centre guide to Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve (NNR) at the Avalon Marshes Open Day on Sunday 5th June.

Image of the front side of the guide.

Designed by the Somerset NNR team the new guide is dedicated to the diverse flora, fauna and history of the Shapwick Heath NNNR. Its features include a reserve map, historical timeline, habitats and seasonal highlights. The full colour guide is packed with images for species identification as well as information about the formation of the landscape and the impact of man on the Avalon Marshes.

Image of the back of the guide.

Simon Clarke, Senior Reserve Manager for Natural England Somerset, told us:

‘This project has been a long time in the pipeline and we are really pleased with the finished product which showcases some of the most iconic species of our reserve’.


The guides are now on sale and can be purchased for £3.80 each directly from the Natural England Shapwick Heath Office by contacting:

Julie Merrett: or call 01458 860120 during office hours.


They are also on sale at the Eco Friendly Bites Café on site at the Avalon Marshes Centre.

The Natural England logo alongside the Feild Studies Council logo

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The Avalon Marshes was recently described by Stephen Moss on Radio 4’s Today programme as one of the best new places to see wildlife in the whole of the country. Well, the weekend of 4 / 5 June proved a brilliant opportunity to celebrate what makes the area so special. Not just in terms of its wildlife, but also its landscape, heritage and the people who live, work and visit here. We may not have the official status and funding of the country’s designated areas but we have benefitted over the last 4 years from Heritage Lottery funding through the Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership scheme.

On Saturday 4 June more than 180 people enjoyed a day of talks, presentations and films at Strode Theatre in Street telling the story of the Avalon Marshes. Chaired by Stephen Moss it included talks on water level management by Phil Brewin, pre-historic archaeology by Richard Brunning, the monastic landscape by John Allan, the history of the peat industry by Mike Woodhead, the creation of the nature reserves by Simon Clarke, and people and wildlife by Chris Sperring. It also included part of John Betjeman’s nostalgic film from the 1960s on his trip through the area along the former Somerset and Dorset railway.

On Sunday 5 June the sun shone setting the scene for the Avalon Marshes open day organised by Natural England. After a day inside it was a chance for people to get out to enjoy the area and see what has been achieved with Heritage Lottery funding. More than 300 people, including many families, enjoyed activities at the Avalon Marshes Centre with tractor rides on to Shapwick Heath, bird box making, pond dipping and, perhaps best of all, tours of the newly constructed Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon buildings, which were brought vividly to life. There were also guided walks at Catcott and Westhay, and activities at Ham Wall.

Feedback from both days was extremely positive; from people new to the Avalon Marshes and those who knew it well but who had discovered something new. The Avalon Marshes is a unique landscape with huge potential for the future. As one person commented from the Saturday event it is developing into a very special place for people, wildlife and heritage, but one that is quite distinct from areas like “The Norfolk Broads”.

Combined image: Image 1 shows people at the 'Hills to the Levels' project stand and participating in the Avalon Marshes Open day 2016 . Image 2 shows an Anglo Saxon king re-enactor sat with a raven in the reproduction Anglo Saxon Long Hall at the Avalon Marshes Open Day.


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Much of the focus in the Avalon Marshes has been on the nature reserves which lie at its heart.  However, most of the area is characterised by wet grassland which has been farmed since the area was drained.  The loss of this wet grassland to other forms of agriculture would fundamentally change the area’s unique landscape and wildlife conservation value. So, working with FWAG (the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group), two training courses were held in May to help farmers and landowners develop the potential of their wet grassland.

The first course focussed on developing the potential of the more commercial areas of grassland outside the designated areas.  Although less important for conservation these areas are vital to the viability of farming.  Grassland consultant Charlie Morgan shared his expertise and experience, particularly focussing on soil management and how to maximise productivity at the same time as minimising inputs.

The second course focussed on the conservation value of wet grassland, and in particular fields lying within the raised water level areas.  Cath Mowat from Natural England shared her expertise on how to conserve the area’s wet meadows; encouraging wild flowers, improving conditions for breeding waders and dealing with problem weeds.

Both courses included trips out to look at examples of current practice, including fields near Mark and on Tealham and Tadham Moor.  The project has been delivered through the Heritage Lottery funded Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership scheme and will conclude with visits to individual farmers, advising them on the particular challenges on their landholdings.


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The chapels on Beckery island have been uncovered again for the first time in 50 years. Glastonbury Abbey sources from the 12th century link the chapel to King Arthur, who had a vision of Mary Magdelene and the infant Jesus there, and to the Irish Saint Brigit, who is said to have visited in 488 AD and left some items behind. In the Medieval period the chapel was dedicated to Brigit and became a place of pilgrimage to visit her relics.

The new investigations were undertaken by the South West Heritage Trust as a community training excavation, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership.

The early Norman and late 13th century (poss. 1274 AD rebuild) chapel walls were exposed and human remains excavated from the earlier cemetery. Analysis of those remains will provide the first precise dating evidence for the cemetery, which is thought to be part of a small Saxon monastery. Study of isotopes may also reveal if they had come to the site from distant areas. Other trenches investigated things seen on a geophysical survey (by Geoflo Ltd) – another medieval stone building, which looks to be 13th-14th century in date, and an enclosing ditch which proved to be of similar date.

Several hundred people visited the dig open day. Interim results will be presented on a special day at the nearby Red Brick building in the autumn and a local lecture given in 2017.

SWHT manage the site on behalf of Somerset County Council who own the land. It is intended to mark out the site of the chapel on the ground surface and show a revised plan of what we know on the interpretation board beside it. On the former tip site to the south an orchard has been planted and we had just grafted some traditional varieties onto the root stock.

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Booming Bitterns, Tower Hides, Grasslands and Livestock plus much more in the latest newsletter from the Shapwick Heath NNR team.

Great artcles and up to date news from Natural England about the goings on at Shapwick Heath NNR.
To download your free PDF copy click here

If you would like to receive your own quarterly copy contact Julie Merrett of Natural England:

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Shapwick Tower Hide awaiting its superstructure

Hides, especially tower hides, provide a great location to see wildlife with minimal disturbance, shelter from the elements and fantastic vistas over the magical Avalon Marshes landscape. However, two key challenges face the teams from the Hawk & Owl Trust, Natural England, RSPB and Somerset Wildlife Trust – how to fund and build them.

On the funding side we are fortunate that Heritage Lottery has funded four new hides around the reserves through the Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership scheme. In addition, on Shapwick Heath Natural England has funded the “Shapwick Tower Hide” through a highly successful “crowd funding” appeal and on Westhay Moor Somerset Wildlife Trust are building a new North Hide with funding from Viridor Credits through the Landfill Communities Fund.

The next challenge is their detailed design and construction. The soft peat of the Avalon Marshes, which helps give it its distinctive character, is underlain by many metres of soft clay. Neither is the best foundation material!

Natural England’s Shapwick Tower Hide, currently under construction, illustrates how these challenging conditions can be overcome in a cost-effective way. Take 8 telegraph poles donated by Western Power; bring in a local excavator to “push” the piles into soft ground (and when we say push we really do mean push!); employ a local contractor to build a simple welded steel framework to sit on the piles; then top this off with a timber, architect-designed, room with a view. And wow what a view it is going to be!

Views from the hide:

South view tower view bittern

South view from lower deck – Booming Bittern as this shot was taken

North view lower deck great white egrets

North view from lower deck – Two Great White Egrets and a lot else!


Unloading – they are long!                                   The driven piles – a lot in the ground

Tower Hide construction Tower Hide construction

Piles cut to length and steelwork in place        The lower deck

Piles and steelwork tower hide lower deck tower hide

Progress photos with thanks to Alan Ashman

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As you will know, Easter weekend this year was a real mixed bag of weather. Inevitably this was reflected in the visitor numbers to the Avalon Marshes reserves, picked up by the new visitor counters. These have been installed as part of the Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership Scheme.

Good Friday was a glorious day and visitors to Ham Wall, Shapwick Heath and Westhay Moor approached 1,500. Numbers dropped dramatically on Saturday, when the weather was pretty atrocious, to just over 100. However, they picked up again on Sunday and Monday, when the weather was reasonable, to 600-700 per day.

So how does this compare with previous years? We only have figures for Shapwick Heath, where counters have been installed for some time and it appears that this year’s figure of 1,380 is about average, similar to 2012 and 2013, but up on 2010 and down on 2011, 2014 and 2015. The figure for 2011, 2,660, is startling, until you realise that this was an exceptional year. 2011’s “barbecue” Easter was in late April and one of the hottest on record with wall-to-wall sunshine and temperatures hitting 25C across the south of England. Easter 2014, again later in April, was also sunny if not quite as hot with visitor numbers approaching 2,550 over the weekend.

Visitor numbers to the Avalon Marshes reserves have been steadily increasing over the years but clearly we can’t escape the vagaries of the weather. So let’s hope for a fine 2016 so more people can enjoy the area’s rich heritage and wildlife, set within its unique landscape.