The Somerset Levels and Moors Natural Character Area (NCA) is a flat landscape extending across parts of the north and centre of the historical county of Somerset, reaching from Clevedon near Bristol in the north to Glastonbury in the east and Ilchester and Langport in the south. The Somerset Levels and Moors NCA is dissected by the Mendip Hills NCA and the Mid Somerset Hills NCA, notably the limestone ridge of the Polden Hills.
The western boundary is formed by Bridgwater Bay and the Bristol Channel beyond. The landscape blends almost seamlessly into the Vale of Taunton in the south-west and into the Yeovil scarplands to the south. This is a landscape of rivers and wetlands, artificially drained, irrigated and modified to allow productive farming. The coastal Levels were once mostly salt marsh and the meandering rhynes and irregular field patterns follow the former courses of creeks and rivers. They contrast with the open, often treeless, landscape of the inland Moors and their chequer-board-like pattern of rectilinear fields, ditches, rhynes, drains and engineered rivers, and roads. Today, the Levels and Moors have many similarities but their histories are quite distinct.
The Levels landscape was probably established by the time of the Norman Conquest while the Moors remained an open waste until enclosure and drainage between 1750 and 1850. Water is an ever-present element in the NCA; water from a catchment area four times the size of the Levels and Moors flows through the area, often above the level of the surrounding land. Much of the area lies below the level of high spring tides in the Bristol Channel.
The biodiversity of the area is of national and international importance, reflected in the designation of 13 per cent of the NCA as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Ramsar site. The Severn Estuary Special Area of Conservation, SPA and Ramsar site lie immediately adjacent. More than 43,000 ha, two-thirds of the area, is classified as flood plain and coastal grazing marsh priority habitat; the largest lowland grazing marsh system in Britain. Wildlife abounds, most notably large assemblages of wetland and wading birds; more rare and scarce birds, such as the bittern, great white egret and recently reintroduced cranes; and both common and rare invertebrates and aquatic and wetland plant life, such as the greater water parsnip.
The area is a popular destination for both traditional seaside visits, to places such as Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea, and to access the abundance of wildlife in the many nature reserves, including four National Nature Reserves. Coastal realignment at the Steart peninsula – the largest project of its type in Europe – has created extensive new areas of habitat. The area also contains a wealth of archaeological and heritage assets of national and international importance, much within the waterlogged soils across the area, illustrating the environmental history of human occupation and management of a wetland landscape extending over more than 6,000 years. The deep peat deposits and wetland habitats, as well as the coastal and estuarine muds, soils and habitats.
142 Somerset Levels and Moors (NE451)