Farming has played a key role in the creation of the unique landscape of the Avalon Marshes. Since Roman times the wetlands have been drained to provide summer grazing, resulting in the landscape dominated by grassland which we see today. This landscape is maintained by farmers who graze cattle and sheep and cut grass for hay or silage for use as winter feed.
The Farming Landscape
The low lying grasslands are an important part of the farms in the area. During the summer months when the grass on the hills dries out and becomes brown the Avalon Marshes maintains its lush green pastures, providing valuable summer grazing. In the winter, when the waders and wildfowl move in, most of the livestock are moved onto higher land or housed in barns away from the winter flooding.
The wet ditches provide a rich and varied habitat for wildlife but are also important for the farmers. In the spring they help to drain the fields ready for livestock to graze and in the summer provide wet fences to keep livestock in and irrigate the fields to keep the grass growing.
Copses of alder and willow trees and occasional hawthorn hedges provide shelter from the weather for grazing livestock.
1980s onwards, a period of great change
Farming on the levels has undergone many changes as technology has developed and markets have changed. Until the 1980s there were many small dairy farms and farmers would bring their cattle onto the moors during the summer months and milk the cows in mobile milking bails in the fields. As herds increased in size and milking technology developed many of the milking herds disappeared or moved off the middle of the moors nearer to the farmsteads. Now these areas are grazed by young cattle and beef animals.
Wildlife Sensitive Farming
In 1987 the first schemes were introduced on the wider Somerset Levels and Moors to encourage wildlife friendly farming. These schemes, called Environmentally Sensitive Areas, paid farmers to maintain permanent grassland and prevent the ploughing of grasslands for arable crops. The schemes have also encouraged farmers in some areas to keep more water on their fields in the spring and early summer to support breeding waders and more water in the winter months for wintering waders and wildfowl such as lapwing, snipe, wigeon and teal. These schemes were replaced with the Environmental Stewardship scheme in 2005 and then Countryside Stewardship in 2015.
Stock also plays a vital role in helping to manage the varied habitats of the nature reserves. Sheep and Ruby Red Devon cattle are often seen on the wildflower rich meadows after they have been cut for hay. Highland cattle may be spotted in the drier reedbeds before the nesting season, Exmoor ponies on the mire at Westhay Moor and Bagot goats at Canada Farm. Most of this stock is cared for by local farmers and the premium meat can be purchased locally.
With special thanks to Adam Lockyear of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group South West