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Walls of wonder

A chequerboard of drystone walls criss-crosses the Mendip Hills in Somerset instead of the hedgerows found on the lower ground. Their presence signifies the reason why this high and lovely countryside, perched on a core of carboniferous limestone, has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The thin-soiled fields are littered with stones, which farmers over the past two or more centuries were forced to clear when trying to plough the land. To mark boundaries and create stock-proof enclosures, they made best use of the material by building walls.

Wall building on an extensive scale began as a result of the Enclosure Acts of the late 18th century, but the main building period was from 1800 to 1850. This was a time when labourers and out-of-work miners could be hired at, doubtless, extremely modest rates of pay.

Today, the stone walls of the Mendip Hills are a reminder of the past though, sadly, many are now crumbling ruins. But repairing them is costly and relatively slow. Fortunately, there are still a few skilled drystone wall builders on hand to repair the Mendip walls. One such is father-and-son team John and Sam Wedmore. John, 62, milked cows from the time he left school, but when he was 45 he started to rebuild walls, spurred on by new Government grants for Mendip wall restoration. At one time the grant paid for nearly half the cost of a wall to be rebuilt and was an incentive for farmers to have the work done by specialist builders.

Forming a skilled team

Des Clothier, former Field Master to the local hunt, the Mendip Farmers, initially taught John the art of building a drystone wall by taking him round to help build hunt jumps, nearly all of which were stone walls. With the advent of the Government grant, suddenly miles of work were available on the walls, and at this point John’s son, Sam, joined him to form a team and learn the necessary skills.

For some 30 seasons, John also worked as terrierman for the Mendip Farmers, but when the hunting ban was instigated in 2004 he stepped down. But his son keeps a kennel of Jack Russells, all bred through the same line, and today he works them for the hunt under legal conditions.

It is worth noting that every year John used to win the drystone walling section of the annual Mendip ploughing match — until Sam started to beat him! The contest was started in 1999 and the Wedmores have won it 12 times out of 14. This year John has been asked to act as judge.

Today, following in John’s footsteps, Sam milks a dairy herd of 180 and acts as herdsman. Between milkings, he puts in three or four hours of drystone walling several days a week with his father. Many of the walls they now build are for domestic gardens rather than fields.

The importance of these structures cannot be over-estimated in terms of the natural world. In many ways they are wildlife rock gardens. Lichens camouflage exposed faces while algae, liverwort, stonecrop, ivy and ferns bring life and colour to the grey faces. Cavities are used by spiders, snails, insects, bees, wasps, voles and shrews, while stonechats, wheatears and wrens use the walls as feeding areas, song posts and nest sites — indeed, a deep hole may even house a little owl. Colonies of lesser horseshoe bats also use the walls as navigation aids. Nevertheless, once reduced by crumbling over time to less than half their original size, the habitat value of the walls is greatly decreased, though frogs may still enjoy the damp security of a wall at its base even though the upper stones have collapsed.