DRY STONE WALLS ON MENDIP
In this article on dry stone wall, we can understand the importance of a unique piece of landscape history. How they came into being, who built them, who, if anyone benefited? They undoubtedly had a purpose so what led to their decline and why do we need to conserve them.
Many of the walls on Mendip were built just after the enclosure act, although some date back to Medieval and Roman times. Much of Mendip was divided by large estates, parts were royal hunting forest, which in turn was then owned by the Lord of the Manor who would have total control over his village and even the surrounding parish. The Church exercised a lot of power and were major landowners in their own right.
These people could influence further acts of parliament giving themselves limits of two or three years in which to complete their estates, with their wealth they could employ labourers to build all walls within their estate in the allocated time, thus pushing small farmers to forfeit their land.
It wasn't until 1801 with the passing of the general consolidation act that city planner's sub-divided old common field system's into small farmsteads of about 8 acres or more in size and were built by professionals, most were completed by 1820.
The stone was cleared from the field systems to improve the general condition of the land and also for the plough, any additional stone was quarried close by and the remains of these intermittent shallow depressions can he seen all over Mendip.
The stone is mainly Limestone from the carboniferous period, there is also a narrow line of Sandstone running across Mendip, of which three main areas are visible, Pen Hill, North Hill and Blackdown. On he southern slopes there are pockets of dolomitic conglomerate, a mixture of Red Sandstone and Shale.
With the advancement of technology and the introduction of farm machinery the need for farm labour declined. The ever increasing demand on the landowner's time and the rise in wages, all sadly contributed to the walls falling into disrepair.
Dry stone walls are very important as a wildlife habitat, they are home and a food source for many species including beetles, butterflies, moths. snails and spiders, snakes, toads and lizards, weasels, stoats, rabbits. mice and nesting sites for small birds. They are also hosts to ferns, mosses and lichens.
Dry stone walls not only make good boundaries, they have the advantage of being excellent shelter belts for stock and crops and also help prevent soil erosion.
Dry stone walling as a craft was a dying art, but fortunately more and more people are taking an interest and are getting practical experience with volunteer groups. Rebuilding and repairing these special landscape features will ensure they are here for the next hundred years for everyone to enjoy.