I’ve been in the taxi just a few minutes and the driver is already warning me about the perils of local driving. ‘You get deer running into the road without warning,’ he says as we speed along the winding, unlit A-road on a wintry Gloucestershire night. ‘Little ones called muntjacs. Friend of mine hit one, wrote his car off.’ He then adds, with some relish, that the last six cars he owned had all been damaged in collisions with the local wildlife.
Thankfully, my short drive through the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is uneventful, and I arrive at my destination wondering whether I’ll come across any deer – preferably not while travelling at speed – during my visit.
SET IN STONE
At 2,038 square kilometres, the Cotswolds is the UK’s largest AONB. Designated in 1966 and extended to its current size in 1990, it sprawls across three English regions, with 15 local authorities having territory within its boundaries. Because of this inter-jurisdictional nature, it’s one of two AONBs that are managed by an independent conservation board rather than a local authority, giving it status akin to that of a national park.
Today, more than 150,000 people live within the AONB’s boundaries, two million live within a 20-minute drive, and the area receives 23 million tourists a year. Human history in the Cotswolds goes back some 6,000 years – the landscape is dotted with the remains of Neolithic long barrows and Iron Age hill forts.
Along the AONB’s western rim is the region’s defining feature – the Cotswold Edge, a dramatic 84-kilometre escarpment of Jurassic oolitic limestone that rises to elevations of 300 metres. To the southeast, the dip slope gently falls away to form the Cotswolds’ undulating landscape of farmland, grassland and woodland.
The underlying limestone also provides the area’s famous Cotswold stone. This golden rock has been quarried here since Roman times and used for building. Wherever you go in the Cotswolds, you see Cotswold stone: churches, grand country houses and even entire towns were constructed from it, giving the impression that they’ve emerged naturally from the ground. ‘The Cotswold vernacular is everywhere,’ says Mark Connelly, the AONB’s land management officer, ‘whether it’s rubble-built or shaped stone. Grevel House [in Chipping Campden] dates back to 1380.’
The dry-stone walls that criss-cross the fields are also made from the local limestone. They became prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries, when sheep rearing was still the main farming practice, but their use dates back to Neolithic times. ‘We’ve got about 4,500 miles [7,200 kilometres] of dry-stone wall in the Cotswolds, and an equal amount of hedges,’ says Connelly. ‘Most of the field boundaries you see are 250 years old or less – there are exceptions, of course, because some of those field boundaries would have been used in the open-field and Saxon [eras], and possibly beyond that.’
Today, woodland makes up about ten per cent of the AONB, much of it ancient, semi-natural beech, a valuable habitat for breeding birds and rare invertebrates. The Cotswolds is also a stronghold for water voles, otters and brown hares, while horseshoe bats roost in disused stone mines.
Another threatened Cotswold habitat is unimproved limestone grassland, which covers 3,000 hectares, half of which are classed as Jurassic limestone grassland. During the 1930s, this covered 40 per cent of the AONB – that has fallen to 1.5 per cent today, but it’s still more than half of Britain’s total, and remains a thriving plant and invertebrate habitat. ‘If you went to Painswick Beacon at the end of May or beginning of June, there would be 12 species of orchid,’ Connelly says.
‘In the autumn, you’ll get harebell, thyme, wild marjoram. And along with that are the butterflies, such as the small, chalkhill and large blue. The Adonis blue has returned after 30 years’ absence.’
Across the Cotswolds, a scheme to reverse the decline of certain farmland bird species is in full swing. Part of a wider initiative across the southwest of England, the Farmland Bird Project aims to boost the populations of six species in particular that have crashed since the 1970s: corn bunting, lapwing, grey partridge, yellow wagtail, turtle dove and tree sparrow.
‘There are several reasons for this decline,’ says Neil Harris, the project’s adviser. ‘Since the ’70s, a lot of farms have moved away from spring- to winter-sown cereals, and the effectiveness of herbicides and insecticides is that much greater, so there’s less food available [for birds]. There could also be other factors, such as global warming, especially for the migratory birds.’
The scheme encourages farmers to manage their land in ways that provide habitats and food – insects in summer and seeds in winter – for birds, in return for cash payments. More than 60 farms across the AONB have provided 350 hectares of these ‘arable options’ – ‘and that’s rising all the time’, says Harris.
At Whittington Farm, Ian Boyd has been doing this for years, without payment. He has five of the six key species on his farm, as well as skylark, yellowhammer and goldfinch. Large flocks of these small seed-eating birds are an ‘increasingly rare sight in the countryside’, according to Harris, but, Boyd adds, ‘if everyone else starts planting these sorts of crops, all of a sudden, they’ll be everywhere’.
As we stroll through these muddy fields, my earlier deer question is answered as we spot a pair at the brow of a hill in the distance. ‘We shoot to eat,’ Boyd says matter-of-factly. ‘In other words, if somebody wants a barbecue, we’ll take a deer out.’
They’re shot for a reason: deer numbers are booming here; muntjac numbers in particular are ‘racing away’, says Connelly. The AONB wants more landowners to follow Boyd’s lead and actively manage the deer by culling them. But how serious is the problem?
‘The deer–vehicle collision data we have are quite startling – there are some real hotspots,’ says Connelly, lending credence to my cabbie’s tall stories. ‘They will damage woodlands, nibble at crops; and muntjac will eat the understorey, which can have an impact on bluebells and things like that.’
WAY TO GO
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the AONB is to take in a stretch of the Cotswold Way, a 164-kilometre footpath that follows the escarpment from Bath up to Chipping Campden. A National Trail since 2007, it’s arguably the best way to see what the Cotswolds has to offer: the folly of Broadway Tower; the Iron Age hill forts of Sodbury Camp and Uley Bury; and 330-metre Cleeve Hill, the highest point in the AONB.
‘There are a few places on the trail where you’ll get a 360° view,’ says James Blockley, the National Trail officer for the Cotswold Way. ‘Cleeve Hill is a perfect example: you can walk across incredibly important limestone grassland with views all over the south of England, and then half a mile later, you’re in dense beech woodland.’
A 350-strong team of volunteer wardens helps to maintain the path, patrolling their stretch, doing minor repairs and reporting larger problems to the officers. A major concern has been bringing certain sections up to National Trail standard – heavy rainfall, including the severe floods that hit Gloucestershire in 2007, is eroding the path, making it treacherous in parts.
Right on cue, as we negotiate a muddy section near the village of Stanton, I slip and teeter on the brink of a slapstick tumble, before regaining my balance and my dignity. It’s an ignominious end to a pleasant sojourn in the Cotswolds, and as I absorb the view of mist-covered countryside, I resolve to return when the weather will allow me to see the AONB in its full glory – and to keep my footing.
A view from the Edge
‘Painswick Beacon is a great place to start any exploration of the Cotswolds. It’s situated on the escarpment, with great views over the Severn Vale and surrounding countryside, an Iron Age hill fort and stunning wildflower-rich unimproved limestone grassland.’
Mark Connelly, AONB land management officer
Birdwatching from on high
‘Cleeve Common is a great place to soak up the views from the highest point in the Cotswolds. Some wonderful birds breed here or pass through as migrants, such as short-eared owls, ring ouzels, stonechats and lapwing.’
Neil Harris, Cotswolds Farmland Bird Project adviser
A stone-built gem
‘There are many typical Cotswold towns and villages throughout the AONB, but Burford is a particularly good example. Fine buildings made of local stone line the main street as it runs down the hill to the church and river.’
The Cotswold Way in miniature
‘A walk along any stretch of the Cotswold Way will lead you through some of the best of what the AONB has to offer. To experience the trail in miniature, you can’t do much better than trying one of the circular walks: a short stroll to immerse you in the landscape and history, and a warm, welcoming pub with rest and refreshment at the end.’
James Blockley, Cotswold Way National Trail officer
First published June 2010