Why Do The Weald Moors Look The Way They Do?
The peatland soils laid down at the end of the last Ice Age, some twenty thousand years ago, continue to exert a major influence on the plants, insects and animals to be found on the Weald Moors. However, the modern day landscape owes as much to events that unfolded just two hundred years ago, when the area as we recognise it today really began to take shape…
So far as the east Shropshire moorlands are concerned, the name ‘Weald’ is thought to derive from the word ‘wild’, a state of affairs that could hardly be said to describe the ‘forensically drained’ (copyright: Dr Paul Evans!) landscape existing today. Fortunately, there are a number of historical accounts to help us piece together a picture of the area in earlier times, most notably within the memoirs of Reverend George Plaxton. He began his long tenure as Vicar of Kynnersley (the largest of the ‘island’ villages that poke out above the peatlands) in 1673 and wrote an evocative account of parish life exactly thirty years later.
Large Morasses and Shrunken Soils
Kynnersley, observed Reverend Plaxton, was ‘surrounded by a large morass’ that sometimes overflowed to the extent ‘that you could not come into the parish in anyway upon arable land’. Indeed, other contemporary reports speak of coffins having to be brought to nearby Edgmond church by boat and local farmers dragging their cattle along by the flanks, difficulties to which the Reverend also alluded:
‘I have been assured by aged people that all the wild moors were formerly so overgrown by rubbish wood such as alders, willows, salleys, thorns and the like that the inhabitants commonly hung bells about the necks of their cows that they might the more easily find them’.
Yet, even in Plaxton’s day, drainage schemes had been carving a swathe across the moorlands for at least two hundred years and were already changing the landscape:
‘These grounds have been formerly much higher for I have observed oak trees where the soil is so much shrunk and settled from them that they stand upon high stilts and are supported from the great fibres of the roots, so that the sheep may easily creep under them’
By the turn of the Nineteenth Century the situation had deteriorated to the extent that the local custom of cutting doles of peat was effectively curtailed, its efficacy as a household fuel the victim of improved drainage. However, these largely piecemeal attempts to bend the wet and wild moorlands to the needs of agricultural reclamation paled into comparison to what was just around the corner.
The Improvement Scheme
In 1538, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Lilleshall Abbey and its lands were purchased from the Crown by Staffordshire wool merchant James Leveson. So followed a long period of consolidation whereby his descendents’ Lilleshall Estate encompassed practically all of the moorlands by 1800. This provided the scope for a landscape-wide programme of agricultural renewal that passed before Parliament a year later in the form of the Weald Moors Improvement Act. By 1820 the work was practically complete and documented in detail by its principal architect James Loch (Lord Sutherland’s Land Agent).
The object was to create a ‘drainage run’ across the whole area. It involved straightening, widening and embanking existing waterways and digging many fresh ditches, all siphoning water into a new main drain connecting the moors to the River Tern at Longdon. To facilitate the works, east-west running causeways were constructed across the whole length of the moors. One of them, Kynnersley Drive can still be walked in its entirety, while Crudgington Drive now forms the minor road from that village to Kynnersley. Indeed, the changes wrought by the improvement scheme are perhaps more visible here than anywhere else; the linear woodlands that isolate both Waters Upton Moor and Crudgington Moor were planted to protect the area from ‘blasts that come around The Wrekin’, as Loch put it. Several farmhouses, including Tibberton Grange and the Buttery, were also rebuilt but perhaps the most enduring edifice to the scheme is the obelisk on nearby Lilleshall Hill, which was erected in 1833 by the tenants of the Duke of Sutherland to commemorate the radical programme he instigated.
While flooding was never completely eradicated, the newly created moorland pastures (where water levels were regulated by a system of seasonally active sluice gates) quickly developed a reputation for high quality cattle and livestock. Crops, formerly grown only on the islands of mineral soil above the peat level, were also sown for the first time in several locations. Sadly, the cost to the natural ecosystem was equally profound and the area’s already diminishing peat stocks dwindled further still — a situation that continues to this day and is evident in the dusty layers of dark topsoil to be found in bare arable fields around the moors. This phenomenon, known to archaeologists as ‘skirtland’, represents the last vestiges of a peat inheritance once metres thick. Ironically, the planted woodlands of the early 1800s, known to have an equally damaging drying effect on peat, have to an extent shielded some of the deepest deposits in the western moorlands. Elsewhere, some landowners are actively working with the landscape to preserve the best of what is left but what the future holds for this critically important landscape is very much in the balance.