English · Français
Forum Synergie

Linking sustainable practices throughout Europe

[EXP] Peatland Restoration at Shapwick Heath on the Somerset Levels in South West England

The restoration of peat-workings to natural habitat in Somerset, includes countryside stewardship and educational work

Rural topic(s): Sustainable development in wetlands, Conservation and management of natural resources

Type: Success story

Date of writing: July 5, 2010

Author(s) of this page: Gwilym Wren

Organization(s): Natural England


Regional Background and Project Objectives

The Project took place in Somerset, South West England and is based at the Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve (NNR) on the Somerset Levels. The site is part of the Somerset Levels and Moors SPA/SAC and consists of approximately 400 ha of reedbed, wet meadows, wet woodland, fen and open water. The purpose of the project was to take over ownership and management of peat workings and to join and incorporate them into the management of the NNR, thus creating a major wetland reserve in an important area for birds. Since bird numbers had been falling across the whole area there was a strong incentive to reverse habitat lost through agricultural intensification.


Initiators of the Project

The project was initiated by English Nature (now Natural England). In 1990 a peat company, Levingtons, agreed to abandon its peat cutting operations on its land holdings on the Somerset Levels and give the land to English Nature for nature conservation. The working of peat was causing much damage to a very important wildlife area and would have been incompatible with the proposed Nature 2000 status. English Nature has worked closely with partners like the RSPB and the Somerset Wildlife Trust to develop a linked chain of nature reserves known collectively as the Avalon Marshes which is now one of the best nature reserves for birds in the South West of England. Each organisation was responsible for its own reserve area but they collaborated over shared facilities and promotional events.

Activities With Respect To Sustainable Development

English Nature took ownership of abandoned peat workings and over a period of 15 years has created a sustainable 500ha nature reserve in a Natura 2000 wetland landscape which forms part of a series of linked reserves.We can say that there are 3 main types of activities:

  • Nature, landscape and biodiversity conservation

  • Countryside or environmental stewardship (with the farm)

  • Nature tourism visitors and Educational work

This was achieved by careful planning and management, which has centred on raising and controlling water levels. It was agreed that the reserve should provide a series of wetland habitats from woodland through wet meadows to open water. The intention was to support the variety of species on the site but also to attract species, particularly birds, that were nor present but should be expected in lowland southern England such as bittern and marsh harrier. The reserve includes a farm (with organic status) and investment has involved the provision of farm buildings to support a local grazier producing organic beef from Devon cattle and traditional breed sheep. This business is now thriving and the cattle are grazing and eating hay from the nature reserve thus producing the correct habitat conditions for some key species. We have a 10 year management agreement with the farmer and much of the beef he sells as ‘Levels Best’, a local standard, together with organic status to achieve best price premium.

Visitors are welcomed to the reserve and it is increasingly popular with local people as well as those who travel some distance. It is particularly good for birdwatchers and there are 4 hides looking out over open water and reed beds. There is also a healthy population of otters and rare wetland birds. In the winter months large populations of starlings congregate in the area giving spectacular displays at dusk as they prepare to roost for the night. The starlings are proving to be quite a tourist attraction and bring associated problems of traffic to narrow country roads.The site is extremely important from an archaeological point of view as well. A prehistoric wood trackway (4000BC) running across the reserve was discovered in the 1960s and is preserved under the peat soil. A modern pumping system was installed 10 years ago to ensure that ground water levels were maintained so that the track does not dry out and decay.

The organic cattle enterprise and the visitors bring some revenue to the area. The meat is transformed and marketed locally. Agricultural management work is carried out by local contractors. Accommodation providers have benefited from increase to 75,000 visitors to NNR/year. No new jobs directly.The current managers of the site, Natural England are fully committed to sustainable development and are currently undertaking a major project to build a Visitor Centre to replace the old café and recreated roundhouses.Over the last 10 years there has been a lot of effort put into attracting visitors by holding open days and improving access on foot and by bicycle. We have also financially support the appointment of a Schools coordinator and have recently constructed a classroom to give school children a really valuable experience.

Main Results, Lessons Learned

  • Learning how to restore peat voids to conservation use using a mixture of non intervention and proactive techniques, knowing when to leave well alone and when to manipulate water levels for the best nature conservation outcome. As some voids have been filled and left, some have been ‘landscaped’ to produce reed covered islands for birds and invertebrates. Judicious use of each technique has created a landscape which is as close to Neolithic as is possible.

  • In particular it is absolutely vital to have control over water levels and to be able to manage them ‘at will’. Consequently areas have been isolated hydrologically and the reserve is managed in these discrete blocks. The flatness of the area has meant a heavy reliance on pumps and it will have to be seen whether this is sustainable in the long term. If more, higher land were available it may be possible to dispense with pumping and rely on seasonal fluctuations to provide the mix of habitats.

  • Managing vegetation in the fen and reedbed areas has proved very challenging and this relies very much on reserve staff with assistance from volunteers. Machinery is expensive and of limited value so most work has to be done by hand.

Very important to engage local community and keep promises. Breeding bittern have returned to the area. The area is rural and there are several villages around which value the reserve but they are also concerned about the pressure that a popular successful reserve brings to their locality. The money is valued by some but the extra traffic is not welcome. Consequently we have sought to keep excellent communications about our plans with the local population. Local community are involved in decision making and in carrying out practical conservation work as volunteer teams. Farm demonstration days have been held to encourage other farmers/land owners to be more sustainable. There are no conflicts with hunters and deer control is practised on the reserve using local deer stalkers. Fishing lake owners nearby can complain of otters taking their fish, but protection methods are available and this provides the solution. Rod fishermen fish the canal which borders the NNR and there is no conflict here.

Future Challenges and Perspectives

Maintaining management and investment in a very difficult economic climate will be a major challenge over the next 10 years. Added to this is the pressure of sustainability on the operations. Most pumps used are powered by diesel and require close management and attention. Natural England is committed to a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2010 which will mean hard choices in relation to intervention in natural processes. Nevertheless we are confident that the hard work of the last 20 years means that Shapwick Heath will soon be one of the most important nature reserves in the UK.


This project has been a spectacular success and is a real testament to the work of many dedicated individuals over the last 20 years.Shapwick Heath forms the core of several reserves in the heart of the Somerset Levels SAC/SPA and makes a major contribution to the maintenance of birds and other important species in this site. The habitat works here and on adjacent reserves provide a corridor 1.5km wide right to the coast at Bridgwater Bay.




Natural England : Stephen Davies and Phil Holms


Scale of intervention : Local

Keywords: landscape preservation, ecotourism, land stewardship, conservation and management of natural resources, wetlands, Information / Education for sustainable development, woodland, protected area, Natura 2000, natural habitats preservation, organic farming, water management, rural heritage, participation by inhabitants, concertation, peatland, landcare

Places: United-Kingdom

Actors: association, environmentalist

Methods: resources mobilization, partnership, job creation, raising awareness