ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Ancient Somerset Levels

Updated on October 6, 2014
A view over the Somerset Levels from Glastonbury Tor
A view over the Somerset Levels from Glastonbury Tor | Source

The Somerset Levels - Environmentally Important

The Somerset Levels and Moors are an internationally environmentally important wetlands habitat situated in the south west of England (UK).

Across the area, 25ft above sea level is the maximum height attained. A coastal clay ridge protects the area from sea flooding. The moors usually have peat soil while the Levels are usually marine clay. The Polden Hills run through the middle like a backbone while the northern edge is bounded by the Mendips and, to the west, are the Quantocks.

Situated in the county of Somerset to the south west of Bristol and Bath, the Levels and Moorland were once covered by sea which retreated 6000 years ago. Gradually peat and clay were laid down and then man arrived and has had the greatest impact on the landscape since earliest times to the present day.

Gradually, the local residents learned to manage the water allowing the Levels to be farmed and the floods controlled - at least some of the time.

Nowadays the importance of the wetland habitat is recognised as a precious and important habitat for flora and fauna and local farmers are rewarded for managing the water levels to maintain it.

Map of the Somerset Levels - In South-West England

Map showing the Somerset Levels
Map showing the Somerset Levels | Source

Nature Reserves on the Somerset Levels

West Sedgemoor RSPB Reserve - Located near Langport

Birds seen at this reserve include curlew, nightingale, little egret, hobby, quail, skylark, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, buzzard, redwing, lapwing, nuthatch and peregrine. In part of this reserve called Swell Wood, there is a heronry which is the largest in this part of the country. Visitors can watch the herons from a public hide.

Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve - Located west of Glastonbury

This is the site of the Sweet Track (see above) and it is an important wetland habitat, once an area of peat digging. When it was given to English Nature, water levels were controlled to give a good range of habitats. There is open water, reed beds, swamps and hay meadows. This is a good place to see starlings, particularly large flocks weaving their fascinating patterns in the air. Rare breeds of cattle and sheep are kept in the hay meadows to stop them being overrun by scrub so making them home for rare species of flowers and plants including the southern marsh orchid.

Westhay Moor Nature Reserve - Located north west of Glastonbury

Part of this reserve was also an area of peat digging, some of it dug right down to the clay. These areas tend to be open water and predominantly reeds and catstail. On English Nature's notification of an SSSI, it says, "Westhay Moor forms part of the nationally important grazing marsh and ditch systems of the Somerset Levels and Moors..." This reserve contains many rare plant species and invertebrates. Thirteen species that appear on the endangered list in the Red Book are found here including lesser silver diving beetle and the rare marsh fly.

History of the Somerset Levels

A reconstruction of the Neolithic Sweet Track
A reconstruction of the Neolithic Sweet Track | Source

History of the Somerset Levels

Around 10,000 years ago, the whole area was once covered by sea. The sea retreated around 3500 years later and the peat and clay was laid down on top of the old seabed.

Man has had the greatest impact on the landscape of the Levels. Neolithic man built wooden trackways to travel between the 'islands' interspersing the moors and Levels.

The best known of these is the Sweet Track, built about 6000 years ago. These 'islands' are hills and tors ranging from just 30 or 40 feet above the surrounding land to several hundred feet and were the places that people built their villages, safe from the regular flooding of the land. The best known of these is probably Glastonbury Tor.

Iron Age villages have been excavated near Meare and Glastonbury. The villages at Mere date from Neolithic time, apparently contemporaneous with the trackways, through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age. The latter was built on higher ground than the earlier settlements. Finds include pottery and combs.

Glastonbury Lake Village was occupied for hundreds of years and its remains have been well preserved in the peat. There have been a wide range of finds including bronze and glass, enamelling, pottery, dugout canoes and wicker hurdles.

You can learn more about prehistoric man at the Peat Moors Centre to the west of Glastonbury. Here you can see reconstructed roundhouses, modeled on those at the Lake Village, and there is living history to illustrate how these people lived.

The Romans farmed in the Axe Valley but it was the monasteries that had the greatest impact. The islands (hills and tors) were chosen as sites for Saxon abbeys and monasteries attracted by the fertile land and rich grazing. This continued during the Middle Ages with abbeys like Glastonbury flourishing as they improved drainage on their lands and harnessed the power of rivers to drive mill wheels.

The Eighteen Feet Rhine - a main drainage channel on the Somerset Levels
The Eighteen Feet Rhine - a main drainage channel on the Somerset Levels | Source
Wetland: Life in the Somerset Levels
Wetland: Life in the Somerset Levels

Photographs show life on the Somerset Levels with a written commentary.


Management of the Somerset Levels

As in the New Forest, local people had Common rights on the moors and Levels. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, these were threatened which, of course, met considerable opposition.

Historically, the water was managed using small fields and ditches called rhines or rhynes (pronounced reens). A balance was needed between ditches and fields; too many ditches and valuable agricultural land was wasted while big fields would take too long for floodwater to drain away. Now the rivers run in embankments and water is pumped into them to drain floods away more quickly.

Today water management and flood control is managed by a partnership between the government's Environmental Agency, who own the pumps, and local landowners and tenant farmers sitting on Internal Drainage Boards, who monitor and manage water levels.

Farmers are now paid to carry out a system of sustainable farming to reduce the shrinkage of peat by having too much water removed, particularly relevant where crops are grown. There are also grants for those who plant cider apple orchards, grow willows and other landscape enhancing schemes aimed at preserving the Levels and moors as a wildlife habitat.

This is of supreme importance. It is one of the few areas in England where otters live. It is rich in fish, insects like dragonflies, butterflies, water beetles, amongst others, and of international importance for migrating birds. Here, birdwatchers may see the sedge warbler, whimbrel, black-tailed godwit, lapwing and curlew. They can also see birds like widgeon, teal, thrushes, merlin and peregrine falcons that overwinter here. The Levels and moors are important for their flora and fauna and include many that are rare or endangered elsewhere.

Floods on the Somerset Level in Early 2014

© 2008 Carol Fisher

Have you a favourite place that is important to conservation and the environment?

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Max Globe profile image

      Max Globe 

      5 years ago

      I love this area of the UK! And I love your lens, it's very informative and capturing. Thank you for it)

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 

      6 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      I'm reading this lens in Somerset, Pennsylvania right now!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Had a holiday in Somerset many moons ago - enjoyed it. Visiting your lens reminded me of one of the best holidays I have ever had. Thank you.

    • makingamark profile image

      Katherine Tyrrell 

      8 years ago from London

      Excellent lens - blessed and added to the Best of the UK

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 

      10 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Your lenses are always so packed with interesting information, I could bite on them and they would make a crunching sound.

    • KimGiancaterino profile image


      10 years ago

      Just gorgeous! I always enjoy your lenses. Welcome to All Things Travel.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Great Lens 5* and welcome to Travelmania group!

      Tapir Travel


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)