Traditional Boundaries in a National Context
Dry stone walls, banks and ditches and hedges (traditional boundaries) have probably been constructed in the area of the Northumberland National Park since the prehistoric period.
As the Countryside Agency has observed, 'Field boundaries are often the strongest features in landscapes, stitching fields together to form the 'patchwork' which is frequently said to characterise the English countryside. After hedgerows, stone walls are arguably our most notable traditional field boundary. Although lack of management, dereliction and loss of hedgerows have been the subject of extensive public debate, the condition of dry stone walls has had a comparatively low profile' (1996).
Two national large-scale projects had been carried out prior to the Commission's survey, Monitoring Landscape Change (1986), and Countryside Survey (1990), and these included surveys of changes in the quantity of walls over time, although no data was collected to determine their condition.
By comparison with the loss of other prominent landscape features, such as hedgerows, the apparent rates of wall loss in these surveys were relatively low. For example, the Monitoring Landscape Change project estimated that England lost about 155,000 km (23%)of hedgerows between 1947 and 1985 compared with only 7,000 km (7%) of walls. The Commission suspected, however, that this figure masked a gradual deterioration in the condition of the remaining 93% walls. This would affect landscape character and could result in an increased rate of loss in the future.
There had been some surveys of wall condition, notably in the Cotswolds (1992), in the Lake District (1975 and 1980), and in the Yorkshire Dales (1992). However, although locally valuable, these were too limited in scope to form a basis for estimating a national picture. Therefore, in 1994, the Countryside Commission contracted the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS) to survey the condition of dry stone walls on a national basis.
As most dry stone walls in England are found in upland areas, the survey was concentrated in places more than 100 metres above sea level. From this land, 700 one-kilometre National Grid Squares were randomly selected for surveying.
All walls in each sample square were individually examined, and assessed as being in one of six condition categories. The categories were devised specifically for this project, in conjunction with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain, and ranged from A (the best walls) to F (the worst walls). Apart from wall condition, the survey also recorded predominant land use and the frequency and condition of footpath crossings for walls in each square.
The results indicate that, overall, the condition of walls is generally poor, with about half (49%) failing in the bottom three categories, and only 13% which could be considered in good condition. Of particular concern is the fact that over one-third (38%) are category C walls. These walls remain functional but show major signs of the onset of decay and, unless repaired, are liable to deteriorate with increasing speed.
The survey also indicates that the total length of dry stone walls in England may be between 20% and 33% greater than previously estimated.
Condition of Dry Stone Walls Nationally
|A||Stockproof and in excellent condition||4% (4500km)|
|B||Sound and stockproof with minor defects||9% (9800km)|
|C||Major signs of advancing or potential deterioration||38% (42700km)|
|D||Not stockproof and in early stages of dereliction||20% (22800km)|
The DEFRA and NERC funded Countryside Survey 2000 (CS 2000) concluded that between 1984 and 1990 the length of hedges in Britain declined by about 23% and that the length of walling declined by some 10% (CS2000, 52). In discussing hedges in the course of the CS2000 survey, the report further subdivides those features call 'relict hedges' in earlier work noted above. These are split into three categories:
- Remnant hedges (These are differentiated from other lines of trees and shrubs by the retention of a residual hedge structure)
- Lines of trees and shrubs with fences
- Lines of trees and shrubs without fences (CS2000, 54)
Between 1990 and 1998 it was estimated that some 2.7000km of walling disappeared in England and Wales. This represented a 2.5% decrease on figures available over the period 1990 – 1998. The length of remnant hedges, however showed a marked decline over the same period, with some 14000kms disappearing, a loss of some 21% . Lines of trees and shrubs also increased (an indication of increased hedge dereliction) by over 62% in the period 1990 – 1998. Fences also showed a marked increase of over 25000kms, some 6.6% (CS2000). Thus there is a need to instigate detailed study of the Traditional Boundary resource.
It should however, be noted that since the late 1980s grant schemes have been introduced across the UK to encourage the creation and restoration of hedges, walls and other boundary features. The active management and conservation of these features has been supported by free conservation advice and guidance on good practice from DEFRA. The England Rural Development Programme (ERDP) provides for a major increase in spending on these schemes over a seven year period starting in 2002.
The Countryside Stewardship Scheme in operation since the early 1990s, is part of the England Rural Development Plan. It makes payments to farmers and land managers to improve the natural beauty and diversity of the countryside and has six major aims:
- to sustain the beauty and diversity of the landscape
- to improve and extend wildlife habitats
- to conserve archaeological sites and historic features
- to improve opportunities for countryside enjoyment
- to restore neglected land or features
- to create new habitats and landscape where appropriate
Within the Northumberland National Park 40% of all agricultural holdings, covering some 60% of the land area of the Park, are signed up to Stewardship agreements. National Park staff have secured well over £10 million in grants and some of this has gone towards the conservation and repair of traditional boundaries. The impact of Stewardship is discussed below in Section 5
Ancient and/or species rich hedgerows were included as a Priority Habitat in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan in 1995. The targets were to halt the loss of all such hedgerows by 2005; achieve favourable management of 50% of these hedges by the same date; and maintain overall numbers of hedgerow trees.
Northumberland National Park Authority has in place a Habitat Action Plan for Ancient Woodland which includes targets for hedgerows and hedgerow trees. The importance of such corridors is also acknowledged in a Species Action Plan for Pipistrelle bats. In the past Northumberland National Park Authority grants have also been used to replant existing hedge lines and to create new hedge features.
The Hedgerow Regulations, made under the Environment Act 1995, were introduced in England and Wales 1997 in order to protect this characteristic element of the countryside. The Regulations prevent the removal of most countryside hedgerows without first submitting a hedgerow removal notice to the local planning authority. The Regulations also set out criteria that must be used by the local planning authority in determining which hedgerows are important. The local planning authority may order the retention of important hedgerows. In 2003 DEFRA began a public consultation process which will lead to the amendment of the Hedgerow Regulations.