Along The Moors
Two thousand years ago, the predominant landscape of the Weald Moors would have looked very different from today and, judging from scientific examination of local peat deposits, appears likely to have been comprised of watery fenland with an abundance of sedges (grass-like plants) and willow. While this might not seem a very promising environment in which to eek out any kind of existence, the moorland habitat was arguably far more productive than it is now and evidence of the determination of past inhabitants to conquer their surroundings can still be found at The Wall, which takes its name from a low-lying Iron Age hillfort that encircles the island settlement and is one of only a few examples of its kind in Great Britain.
Occupation of The Wall Hillfort appears to have taken place over a period of about 400 years, between 300BC and 100AD. The site encloses an area of some 12 hectares and is both extensive and complex; its ramparts appear to have been built in several phases, with the earthworks consisting of inner and outer banks and two entrances — much of which are still visible. Archaeological excavations have revealed the presence of at least three structures within the interior of the enclosure and the presence of circular gullies, stakehole rings and a possible clay floor suggests people may once have lived on site; although quite what it was used for remains open to conjecture.
While its seems probable the hillfort had a defensive function, perhaps as an outpost of the Cornovii tribe on The Wrekin, its principal use may have been in controlling the resources of the moorlands. Nearby Shray Hill, which stands guard on the Portway road between Newport and Shrewsbury, would certainly have offered a better vantage point over the surrounding area and the discovery of an Iron Age enclosure near its summit, during the early 1970s, suggests this might well have been the case. Indeed, the shallow nature of the outer defences of the hillfort point to a dual usage for the structure and it may have been utilised as a holding area for livestock brought to the moors for summer grazing from the higher ground to the north.
The Shrinking Moors
Sadly, much of the traditional fenland habitat that made the construction of the hillfort necessary in the first place has now disappeared. With a water content that is typically above 90%, peatlands are highly susceptible to long-term ecological damage from activities that affect their delicate hydrology. On the Weald Moors, centuries of drainage for agriculture and more recent housing development on the fringes of the moorlands have had a catastrophic effect on local peat deposits, reducing large parts of the former mire to a thin layer of dark soil that will disappear within several decades.
Historically, peatlands were often regarded as waste but they are now widely recognised for their role in combating climate change (both as a carbon store for dead plant life on the surface and as a sponge for excess rainwater) making their continued existence an imperative. However, the ability of fen vegetation to bind and filter water has also made the Weald Moors a target for abstraction for local drinking supplies, drying out peat deposits even further; the effects of which can be seen in the undulated appearance of many minor roads through the area.
The Wall Farm
Despite the continuing threat of decomposition, the moorlands around The Wall continue to retain significant peat deposits and important work is currently being undertaken to conserve and enhance the delicate moorland habitat. At The Wall Farm, which has been in existence since at least the mid-1500s, a long-term programme of reverting farm land to wet pasture and traditional fen habitat has enabled once abundant moorland flora and fauna to re-colonise the area, encouraging the bio-diversity for which peatlands are highly prized. Traditional methods of haymaking (allowing seeds to drop and settle for the following year) have also been adopted, allowing re-sown wildflower meadows to thrive, while rare breed sheep and cattle, which take longer to mature and are better suited to grazing, help to sustain many different grasses and flowers.
Re-wetting of pasture has also encouraged many farmland birds to re-visit this part of the moorlands, with over 147 species having now been recorded in the area, including Barn Owls, Skylarks and Yellow Hammer. By reversing the flow of pumps previously used to dry the land, water from the Strine Brook has been used to create a marsh and pools. A bird hide has also been provided to complement a series of public footpaths and permissive bridleways running through the farm, which has received a prestigious RSPB President’s Award for its work.