Views from Friends of Quantock

 

On the first evening of the workshop, two members of Friends of Quantock introduced participants to the Quantock Hills and the independent group that has sought to protect its beauty and other landscape values since 1949. Denys White provided an historical perspective while Alan Hughes covered more recent history and the situation today (Peter Coates).

 

An Historical Perspective

By Denys White

On top of Quantock Hills

Workshop participants with Iain Porter and Emma-Jane Preece of the AONB service (on the far left) at the top of Cothelstone Hill, looking north). (Photo: Peter Coates)

In 1956 the Quantock Hills were designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (or AONB) – the first in England. The hilltop is about 7 miles long and from 1 to 2½ miles wide but the AONB includes the lower slopes and some flat land so it is 11 miles by 3½ miles with an area of 39 square miles. The history of the Friends of Quantock, however, goes back before that.

After the 1939-45 War, there was a great demand for timber and the government encouraged people to fell unwanted trees and plant conifers. In 1949, a major landowner at the north west end of the hills began to fell all the marketable timber in Hodders Combe and at the same time had offered the Forestry Commission a long lease of 1200 acres of moorland at East Quantoxhead for the planting of conifers. This provoked a reaction of unprecedented intensity from both the commoners and those concerned for the natural amenities. A public meeting was called in June 1949 in Nether Stowey and as a result of this the FoQ came into being. The inaugural meeting was held in Bridgwater on 31st August and the Rt. Rev. Harold Bradfield, the then Bishop of Bath & Wells, agreed to be President; Louis Kelting OBE engineer to the Water Board a qualified barrister and a popular local councillor was elected Chairman together with a Secretary, a Treasurer, an Auditor and nine members of the committee.

As the objections to the felling grew, the County Council (SCC) had imposed a two-month temporary tree preservation order on Hodders Combe and, at this first meeting, Louis Kelting was able to announce that this order had now been made permanent. He was also able to say that membership was already over 500. This may have been encouraged by the fact that the annual subscription was fixed at l/- (or 5p). It stayed as such for the next 21 years when in 1970 it was increased to 2/-. It is now £12.

The matter of planting conifers on the open hill had not been resolved however and it was not until two years later in May 1951 the landowner decided to withdraw his offer of a lease to the Forestry Commission.

It would probably be sensible at this point to talk about the commoners and their rights. Except for some land owned by SCC The next worry was the proposed construction of a Nuclear Power Station at Hinkley Point The committee was in favour of being represented at the Public Enquiry but, as the site is five miles north of the AONB area, we restricted our comments to the visual impact on people using the Hills. Minor worries over the next few years included such things as gypsies and litter, deer poaching, quarries, overhead power lines and rights of way particularly the problems of motor vehicles on the hilltop as well as looking at all planning applications.

In 1970, another major threat appeared in the shape of a proposal to build a golf course to championship standards on the hilltop about half away along its length. Again we took a leading part in the opposition to this resulting in a large increase in our membership which fell away again after we successfully defeated the proposal at a Public Enquiry.

Early in the nineteen sixties the Friends had let it be known that they were ‘deeply dissatisfied’ with the administration of the AONB. The main reason was that, although less than 40 square miles in area, the Hills were in three different District Councils each responsible for its own planning policy, amongst other things, whilst the County Council had some authority but were reluctant or unable to exert overall control. It was not until 1973 that the County Council finally responded to our constant criticism and set up a working party to compile ‘A New Policy for the Future of the Quantock Hills’ as a result of which a Joint Advisory Committee was set up. This consisted of 3 County Councillors (one of whom is the Chairman) and three Councillors from each District together with some officers and some representatives of Government organisations. In the early days, amenity organisations were understandably excluded from this but over the years this gradually changed; first we were admitted as observers but unable to speak; then were allowed to speak for two minutes before the meeting proper began but now our Chairman is a Member of the Committee, free to comment on any matter but unable to vote if finance is involved.

In 1974 the first Quantock Warden was appointed: a retired colonel of the Australian army he was an immensely practical and approachable man. Living on the north slope of the hill he rode over the whole area getting to know everyone who worked or had business there as well as being respected by the various county or district council officers with whom he had to deal He was succeeded by another very practical person who for awhile was also warden of Fyne Court the headquarters of the Somerset Wildlife Trust. Before this he had been a member of our committee for four years which meant he knew us well and completely agreed with our aims. By 1988 when he left the AONB office was getting underway. Over the years it has increased in numbers and now has an AONB officer, two wardens, a projects officer and a part time planning officer as well as office staff. This however may change with the proposed cuts in local government.

One of the major benefits of the JAC was that it was able to sort out many problems over which the Friends had previously taken the first initiative and thus allowed the Society more time for pro-active work such as the commissioning of detailed and scholarly reports on streams, the increase of bracken and descriptions of all the small patches of woodland with lists of the species in them. We have also produced a booklet of Quantock Walks (recently updated), a collection of aerial photograhs, restoration of St Agnes’ Well and the re-erection of a fallen statue with the co-operation of the owner of the Cothelstone estate, collecting old photographs and publishing them in book form with commentaries by two committee members of that time. Alan, who will speak next, will doubtless enlarge on some of these.

In conclusion, our constitution says that the object of the charity is to ‘safeguard the landscape and natural environment’ of the Quantock Hills and it also says ‘to work with other bodies with similar interests’. It is so easy for there to be conflict between landowners and commoners, between locals and visitors, between long established residents and new comers, and between the AONB office trying to impose restrictions and independently minded people who want to go on doing what they have ‘always done’.   I like to think that the fact that there has been so little real conflict on the hills is in no small way due to the efforts of the Friends of Quantock over the past sixty years.

 

Challenges to the Quantocks

By Alan Hughes

You have heard my colleague Denys White outline our history. No-one is better qualified than him. He has served as a committee member for nearly 40 years, 11 of those as Chairman and we owe him a great deal.

 

So what of the present?

To start with let me say a little about the Quantock  AONB and how they are organised.

Firstly it is important to note the small scale of the Quantocks. They are barely 12 miles long and around 3 miles wide. This small area contains an unusually high proportion of open moorland, both heathland and forested combes and virtually all this land is designated as a SSSI. It is also all open access land. There is the largest Forestry Commission holding in the South West at Great Wood, as well as much ancient woodland in the coombs with some of the sessile oak woodland being listed as of international importance. It has an important stretch of coastline rich in fossils and interesting geological formations. It shares with Exmoor the only remaining herd of the wild Red Deer in England, is the home of Nightjars, pied fly-catchers and many other species and is rich in flora. There are stone-age barrows, standing stones and the iron-age fort of Dowsborough tops one of the hills. There are also twelve flourishing villages within its boundaries and the A38 crosses the N end. So there is a great deal going on within a small area.

Secondly let me point out the complexity of the Quantocks – There is the usual mosaic of private ownerships but of particular relevance are the considerable holdings, particularly within the open commons, of the National Trust, the Forestry Commission and the County Council all of whom play a role in the management of the Commons. It is all in Somerset but straddles three district councils and thirteen parishes. So there are over 20 public bodies involved in administering the Quantocks.

Pony grazing

Low-tech animal tool to ‘keep down’ bracken and scrub. Exmoor pony grazing on the upper slopes of Cothelstone Hill. (Photo: Peter Coates)

 

A third point of importance is the rights that the commoners exercise on the hills. The commoners are a body of farmers and landowners from around the hills and sometimes some way from them who have historic rights of common grazing on the hills. In practice the numbers who exercise their rights is relatively small and the rights are almost exclusively used for the grazing of sheep but they are active and play a significant role in the Quantock commons. The commoners also have the responsibility for maintaining the common land, for which they receive EU grants. In practice this is now organised by the AONB staff on behalf of the commoners and I will return to that in a moment.

The AONB is administered through the Joint Advisory Council (the JAC), which is made up of representatives of the five funding partners, DEFRA, The County Council and the three district councils of Taunton Deane, Sedgemoor and West Somerset. DEFRA have only just taken over their role which up to now has been undertaken by Natural England. The JAC also has representation from several of the parish councils within the AONB and other bodies concerned with the Quantocks including the Forestry Commission and FoQ.

The JAC meets four times a year to determine policy and the executive currently comprises a Manager,  two Rangers one of whom is shared with the Forestry Commission, a part-time planning officer, a Volunteer Co-ordinator, a part time Communications Officer and a support assistant. They operate from premises at Fyne Court on the Quantocks  and are assisted by a body of volunteers, who provide the equivalent of approx. another three full time staff.

The AONB team operate under a 5 year Management Plan approved by the JAC and which covers all areas of their work from the management and maintenance of the landscape, the wildlife and its habitat, the safeguarding of ancient monuments and historic sites, providing information and education for visitors, assisting and advising farmers and landowners and working with local communities. Arguably the most important role is the management of the open heathland within the SSSI and in this they work partly as agents for the Commoners, managing the heather by swaling, that is controlled burning, controlling the spread of bracken, which has recently been done by spraying from helicopters, reducing areas of scrub and endeavouring to eradicate the invasive Rhododendrons that are carriers of Phytophera which is threatening our woodlands. Much of the work of the AONB Service is undertaken in partnership with other organisations such as The Forestry Commission and the National Trust. I can here only give the barest outline of the work of the AONB team and I strongly recommend that you peruse the Management Plan and annual reports, which are available online, to see the range and nature of their work.

So what is the role of FoQ in all this? Indeed it is fair to ask, do we have one? When we were founded we were a lone voice crying in the wilderness and struggling to protect the Quantocks against all-comers but the creation of the AONB and the statutory protection that goes with it, the passing of the CROW Act that created a duty on local authorities to have regard to the special status of AONBs, and the coming into being of a professional team of managers and rangers at the AONB office, have taken over much of what we stood for in the early days. So yes our role has changed but it still has a place in the management of the AONB and I believe an important one.

Of course we have no powers to actually decide or do anything.  Our role is to ensure that the right questions are being asked, to represent and put forward the views of those with an interest in the Quantocks, particularly local residents and those with a lasting connection with the hills, and to campaign for the right answers and solutions. Our real value is that we are the only totally independent body monitoring what happens on the Quantocks.  We are very fortunate in having a dedicated group of people responsible for work of the AONB; they do a highly professional job of managing the hills, but at the end of the day they are employees of central and local government and there are times when because of that, they may be inhibited from commenting on or opposing plans which they would otherwise be unhappy about. He who pays the piper calls the tune. On the other hand FoQ are responsible to no-one except our members who are largely local and by definition are people who know and love the Quantocks. We are therefore able to look at all proposals dispassionately and to speak without fear, of our views on any subject and how it may affect the Quantocks in the long term. To do that we need to be well-known as the voice for the Quantocks and as representing a wide range of popular and particularly local opinion.

The fact that the Quantocks are so small and that the main ridge is Public access land, leads to a lot of conflicts between different groups. This small area supports traditional field sports such as hunting and shooting, riders, mountain bikers, orienteers, ramblers, dog walkers, people studying and conserving the flora and fauna, or the archaeological heritage, and those just seeking to escape into the peace and quiet of the countryside and enjoy the fabulous views. Unfortunately not all these activities are compatible and this leads at times to conflicts.  Our role is not to side with or oppose any particular group but to look at the long term effects that any activity may have on the hills and natural landscape.

I should perhaps pause there for a moment, as it is easy to talk about the natural landscape when in fact there is no such thing – what appears to us as an unchanging, timeless prospect, is of course the product of centuries if not millennia of man’s intervention in and use of the landscape. The Quantocks have at different times been enclosed, ploughed, planted, grazed and neglected. In some places settlements have been created and vanished again. What we see today is the outcome of countless generations of man’s occupation. So we have to take a view on the landscape that we want to preserve and we immediately find conflicts. There will always be contrary views; some people do not like the loss of bracken on the hilltops, others want to preserve the glorious flowering of the Rhododendrons; to some people gorse is a glory to others a noxious weed. Today we often object to the 20th century innovations such as the conifer plantations, the introduction of alien species such as rhododendron, and modern traffic routes. It is no good pretending that the answer is to do nothing and let nature take its course, we have to manage the landscape and take a view on what form that management should take.

 

What are the current issues for FoQ?

You would be surprised if I didn’t say that finance is dominating our thoughts at present. The Quantocks like all AONBs are largely dependent on finance from both central and local government for the all the work that they do and that funding has been severely cut under the present recession. It will mean that many items in the Management Plan will have to be cut back or abandoned. At the same time our own income has been severely squeezed by the fall in interest rates which means that we are not able to assist with funding of projects such as the  wildlife surveys that we have supported in the past.

Ownership is another issue that is currently under discussion. You will be aware of the proposals, now apparently dropped, for the sale of the Forestry Commission, and the County Council is also reviewing its landholding on and around the Quantocks and may be selling some or all of these. Arguably a change of ownership does not imply a change in management and safeguards can be built in to the transfer, but at the same time a change from public to private ownership does raise some legitimate concerns. Public ownership can take account of public benefit whereas private ownership is more likely to be governed by the profit motive. We are carefully monitoring the situation.

Planning is an on-going concern and as a society we monitor all applications within the AONB. Hinkley Point is of course the major issue at present. It is of course outside the AONB yet has a very considerable impact both in terms of visual impact from the hills and in terms of traffic generation along the A38 where it crosses the northern end of the AONB. We have made representations on both points. Other planning issues are sometimes difficult. We are very keen to see the continuation of the traditional small scale farming particularly on the lower slopes of the hills but sometimes the modern buildings that are required for the economic operation of these farms are in conflict with the landscape we are pledged to protect. Barn conversions are another problem – do we prefer to see traditional buildings decay and disappear or accept the intensification of use and traffic that conversion entails. Other issues are more insidious. We have some concerns at present about the trend to horse management, with ménages springing up and the dividing of fields into small paddocks.  Each application is in itself small in scale but overall there is a creeping but significant change.

However I do believe that our major threat comes from man and there is a serious risk that man will by his numbers destroy just what he wants to preserve. Over the ten years that I have lived on the Quantocks I have seen a marked increase in the use of the Quantocks. Last year the rangers monitored nearly 80 different organised events quite apart from individual visits and there were no doubt other events that they were not told about. The numbers are rising every year and the pace of change is ever increasing. As I have pointed out the Quantocks are only a small area and as visitor numbers increase so does the disturbance to wildlife, erosion of tracks and paths, intrusion of car parking, risk of accidental or malicious fires, litter, contamination and vandalism. It is difficult to see where all this will lead. Yes it needs management and control but does that mean pay and display car parks, timed entry permits, public lavatories, interpretation centres and security guards on the Quantocks, like a theme park? Where and how do we strike the balance? I can’t pretend to give an answer.

Man is not the only threat however. Nature provides its own threats, mostly in the guise of foreign invaders such as Phytopthera, which threatens not only the woodland but also the Bilberries, or Worts, which are such a feature of the Quantock heathland, and their disappearance would be a disaster. Then there is the over-arching threat of climate change, whose effects are far from clear.  As a small amenity society FoQ have neither the skills nor the resources to investigate these threats – our role is to stay well informed on current thinking and to work with others to endeavour to understand and mitigate the effects.

So I fear that I have painted a gloomy picture of constant threats, conflicts and unresolved problems but if you stand on Black Hill or the Beacon on a fine day and admire the view you cannot but feel optimistic. Which brings me back to the role of Friends of Quantock. We have no magic answer to the problems. Our role is, as I have said, to stay well informed and to work closely with all those bodies charged with the management of the Quantocks, providing an independent and dispassionate viewpoint, informed by those who know and love the Quantocks best. I trust that we shall continue to do so for many years to come.

 

 

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