Traditional Boundaries in Northumberland National Park
Traditional field boundaries such as dry stone walls, earth banks and hedges contribute much to the overall character of Northumberland National Park. Created by generations of farmers and landowners as stock proof barriers and for shelter they are still valued today for their original purpose.
The boundaries also have considerable ecological value as habitats for plants and animals and can also serve as corridors for movement and dispersal for some species. As corridors they provide vital connections between the many other habitats that make up the countryside.
In many locations dry stone walls and hedges are an essential component of the landscape, both in terms of overall visual appearance and as a record of the historical use and partitioning of the land. Many of the boundaries are at risk from reduced labour inputs and less expert management.
The amount and condition of field and other boundaries are also used as one of the Governments 'Quality of Life Counts' indicators. Maintenance of traditional boundaries is therefore seen as contributing directly towards quality of life.
The traditional boundaries of Northumberland National Park are an extremely important natural and cultural heritage asset, for a number of reasons:
Dry stone walls can be important for a variety of plants and animals. Small mammals such as wood mice, bank voles and short-tailed voles use them for shelter and sometimes as locations for food caches. Stoats and weasels therefore hunt around walls for this prey and also make their homes in them.
Birds also nest in or around walls - examples in the National Park include wheatear, house sparrow and grey wagtail (beside streams). Walls support a variety of mosses, liverworts and lichens - these in turn support many invertebrates. Bats will use walls as flight lines especially where they link feeding and roosting areas.
Hedges are also important for small mammals for shelter but also for food – providing berries, rose hips, hazel nuts etc. The berries are also taken by a number of lowland birds found in the park - thrushes, blackbirds, dunnock, chaffinch etc. Kestrels will hunt above hedge lines and sparrowhawks along them looking for these mammals and birds.
The shrub species also support a vast array of insect life that is taken by bats and birds either off the foliage or from above (e.g. willow warbler, whinchat, wren, swallow, swift, house martin).
Hedges also provide a refuge for some woodland plants – such as bluebell, wood anemone, wild garlic can be found along hedge lines and native species of tree and shrub are also present. In a National Park, which has less than 1% ancient semi-natural woodland cover, hedges increase this resource.
The traditional boundaries of Northumberland National Park form a skeleton for the landscape that is as important in creating the special character of the place as the rolling hills and moorlands themselves. Walls, dykes and hedges add a vital ingredient to the atmospherics of the landscape, casting shadows in the sunshine and standing stark in the rain, mist and snow. The presence of large sod cast dykes in the area around Elsdon and Redesdale up onto the Otterburn Ranges is in obvious and marked contrast to the dark sinuous framework of the dry stone walls in the College Valley and the northern area of the National Park.
Each boundary type attests to regional variations in available raw materials but also to the skill of its builders and to their own understanding of their sense of place and attachment to their various areas. Today the range of surviving traditional boundaries plays an important role in creating the different landscapes of the Park. They enhance the diversity of the National Park as much as they seem to hold the framework of the landscape together. As such they are important aesthetic features that should be conserved and enhanced wherever possible.
Boundaries themselves are important because they can be indicative of periods of both landscape change and continuity. Within the National Park there is evidence of physical boundaries that may go back as far as 4000 years, to the Bronze Age and possibly earlier. As a result, the pattern of boundaries encapsulates within it considerable time depth. When specific boundary types can be linked directly to settlement sites of known date then a study of their form, extent and their interconnections can tell us much about landscape evolution and the changing patterns of boundaries.
A good example here might be the multi-period field systems visible at Shittleheugh Farm near Otterburn, where the potential exists to study boundaries of Iron Age, Romano-British and Medieval and later date, in association with cord rigg, broad rigg and furrow, settlement sites and a Bastle and related features.
This time depth can be further explored by a detailed study of boundary form and shape, and by an analysis of the raw materials and the building techniques employed in their construction. In areas of the National Park where this has already been done we can see that hedge banks of Iron Age date were constructed in almost the same way as recent hedge banks in the same area, thus reinforcing the notion of landscape continuity mentioned earlier.
Study of formalized boundaries within the National Park, especially when linked to documentary evidence for the ownership of the land in the historic and recent periods, also has the potential to tell us much about changing patterns of land holding over time. A classic example might be Elsdon Common where later field boundaries clearly overlie earlier landscape features.
As described above, traditional boundaries in the National Park add much to the scenic quality and therefore the enjoyment of people visiting the area.
Volunteers also take much pleasure in rebuilding and repairing boundary lengths and from the knowledge of their history.
The crossing points of traditional boundaries, stiles and field gates also provide way marks on public rights of way and are part of the 'route map' of the countryside.