The Somerset Levels

Shapwick Heath
Shapwick Heath ( Li-Li Williams 2010)

These two recordings come from a weekend spent in the Somerset Levels, one of south-west England’s richest wildlife habitats. An area of peat moorland less than 5m above sea level, the Levels have endured centuries of agricultural drainage and peat extraction. Several nature reserves have now been established, collectively refereed to as the Avalon Marshes. Consisting of thousands of acres of rough pasture, flooded peat workings and moorland, the marshes are now an important habitat for breeding and wintering birds.

The first track is from Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve (NNR) and was recorded at 9:30pm. Shapwick Heath and the adjoining Ham Wall NNR support a large population of introduced Marsh Frogs (Rana ridibunda). The origin of these isn’t clear, but they seem to have been around for many years. In this recording the microphones are positioned beside a marshy pond, surrounded by trees. A cloud of mosquitoes over the water create a drone loud enough to register on the recording, although you may need to listen through headphones for the full itch-inducing effect. As the Marsh Frogs begin croaking a Tawny Owl hunting over the marshes joins in with an occasional hoot.

The second recording was made at 5:15am the following morning in Ham Wall NNR, from a hide overlooking a flooded peat working. The reason for using the hide will become apparent during the recording when a sudden rain shower passes through – the weather that morning was far from ideal! Again we hear the Marsh Frogs, although as the daylight grows they become much less vocal. A pair of Mute Swan were feeding on submerged plants just in front of the hide – you can hear them calling to each other with quiet grunts, and occasionally blowing bubbles beneath the surface. Also listen out for the cow which is clearly trying to pass itself off as a booming Bittern!

We never did hear a Bittern that day, but we certainly saw one – what both Lil and myself had taken to be a large tuft of grass about 10m in front of us on a grassy track suddenly spread its wings and flew away across the marshes. Shows just how good their camouflage is!

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