The flatlands that make up the Somerset levels are first apparent as the road from Shapwick turns into a rather bumpy and undulating route typical of roads driven out across the peat. The signpost led to Shapwick Heath and Avalon Marshes and it is at the latter that information was available on a complex of nature reserves run by Natural England, Somerset Wildlife Trust, RSPB and Hawk and Owl Trust. With time to visit only one the closest, Shapwick Heath was chosen.
The path enters the site along an old railway line that follows a broad drain, the South Drain. To the south Shapwick Heath National Nature reserve extends almost to the edge of the levels. The name heath is an interesting one as little in the way of heath seems to remain, instead woodland and wet grassland crossed by numerous shallow ditches occur. Here little clumps of peatland type plants grow, bog myrtle and the impressive, in stature and name, royal fern (Osmundia regalis) amongst others. A path leads south across this area until it joins a larger track which skirts a large wetland. The Decoy hide at the end of the route looks out east, not across an ancient landscape but open water; Glastonbury Tor stands in the distance as if to prove that high land does occur somewhere out there. These wetlands are not the natural habitats that once occurred here but are a relic of peat extraction that has exploited much of the land turning wet heath, fen and bog into lakes and reedbed. It’s a process that has probably been occurring for about 2000 years and is still happening. Drainage for agriculture and to enable the peat to be removed, followed by a re-flooding of the voids left behind, has profoundly altered the environment here leaving something new and with a value for wildlife but not really compensating for the loss of peat and peatland with all its inherent implications of carbon loss and habitat loss.
The road towards Westhay and then on to Burtle passes through some of this peat exploitation, tractors and cart loads of peat trundle between fields of bare earth ready to be stripped and removed. This is not the large scale peat extraction, by milling, seen elsewhere but a slightly less industrial if no less damaging procedure. It’s a process that pulls the product of 1000s of years of formation and turns it into an ephemeral product for the garden, where it will oxidise turning into yet more carbon dioxide for our hard pressed atmosphere.