The ‘special qualities’ of the Shropshire Hills AONB are those aspects for which it is considered important, and on which the priorities for its management are based. Different people have their own opinions on what is special about the Shropshire Hills, and no definition can claim to be absolute. Each aspect below could occupy many pages of description, and the purpose of this brief outline of the special qualities is to help determine how best to manage them within the remit of the AONB. This involves dealing with some aspects which are subjective, hard to define and ultimately not well represented by words. Such qualities are nevertheless greatly valued by people and may be threatened, making it important to consider them in a structured way. The qualities described relate to each other and overlap to some extent. The interaction between natural and cultural factors creates a significance which is not recognised by looking at one aspect in isolation.
Diversity and contrast
With a variety of geology unequalled in any area of comparable size in Britain, the Shropshire Hills have no single dominant feature or landform. The area’s landscape character is one of variety and of transition – between the lowland plains of the English Midlands and the uplands of Wales, and between north and south of Britain, and this is reflected in both ecology and patterns of human activity.
The key elements in the Shropshire Hills landscape are the hills, farmed landscape, woodlands, rivers and river valleys.
The rocky Stiperstones, the dissected plateau of the Long Mynd, the craggy volcanic Stretton Hills and Wrekin, the harsh quarried landscape of the Clee Hills, the long wooded scarp of Wenlock Edge, and the rolling enclosed hills of the Clun Forest all have their own distinctive character. The hills define the identity of the area, and are the backbone of our landscape. Here are found commons, heath, moorland and rough grasslands, home to upland birds including Curlew, Red Grouse and Merlin.
The patchwork of fields, mostly pasture bounded by hedges, results from generations of farming. Hedgerow and field trees, including many veteran trees, give the landscape a maturity. Remnants of valuable grassland and hay meadow habitats survive. Some small scale arable cultivation mostly for feed crops is found, with larger scale cropping in the valleys which extend down outside the AONB.
The area has higher than the national average cover of ancient and semi-natural woodland, and this is found especially on steeper slopes. Some hills are dominated by woodland cover, such as the Wrekin, Helmeth above Church Stretton, and Wenlock Edge, which has continuous woodland for nearly twenty miles. There are many small woodlands, along with larger predominantly conifer plantations many of which are being diversified, parkland and wood pasture, and many small, often remnant, orchards.
Rivers and River Valleys
The Rivers Clun, Teme and Onny, along with many smaller rivers and streams, are relatively clean and natural in form, and of high quality. Many are lined with Alder, and home to important species such as Dipper, White-clawed Crayfish and Otter. Freshwater Pearl Mussel is found in the River Clun just outside the AONB. Valleys vary from the steep-sided batches and dingles of the Long Mynd and Stiperstones, to larger valleys with some flood meadows, and the broad dales such as Corve Dale and Ape Dale which divide up the area. A short stretch of the River Severn within the AONB divides the Wrekin from Wenlock Edge. There are no large water bodies but many small ponds, marshes and flushes.
For a more detailed breakdown of landscape types found in the Shropshire Hills, see our landscape page.
The other special qualities defined below are characteristics which are found in different ways across the whole area, including geology, wildlife, heritage, scenic and environmental quality, tranquillity, culture and opportunities for enjoyment.
The Shropshire Hills have the greatest geological variety of any comparable sized area in the UK, or indeed the world. Bedrock dates from the Precambrian almost continuously through to just into the Permian, and the influence of different rock types and structure on the landscape are clearly visible. There is a widespread mantle of more recent Quaternary deposits, and along with landforms on the lower ground these reflect the complex geological history of the last ‘Ice Age’. The area is important in the history of geological science – Murchison’s study of the Silurian (including the Wenlock limestone) and its fossils being notable. The Ercall has a good example of the sudden transition from metamorphosed and barren rocks to sediments containing the earliest known hard-shelled fossils in the Cambrian period. For further information see our geology page.
The valuable habitats of the AONB, especially heathland, grassland, woodland and rivers are linked to a long history of relatively sympathetic land management. Due to their transitional position, the Shropshire Hills have an unusual mix of species associated with both upland and lowland, eg. Red Grouse and Dormice. The area holds some national rarities and is very significant in a regional and county context for upland plant and animal species such as Merlin, Snipe, Curlew, Whinchat, Dipper, Emperor moth, Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary and Grayling butterfly. It is also something of a stronghold for species which were formerly more common or widespread, such as Skylark, Tree Pipit, Black Poplar and Great Crested Newt. For further information see our wildlife page.
Many ancient features survive in a landscape which has seen much less change than many parts of the country. Defences such as Offa’s Dyke, Iron Age hillforts such as at Caer Caradoc and Bury Ditches, and medieval castles and fortified houses such as Clun and Stokesay tell of centuries of turbulent Marches history. The Shropshire Hills has the greatest concentration of medieval castle earthworks anywhere in Britain. Much of the field and settlement pattern is very ancient, with tiny lanes, villages and scattered hamlets and farms. There are also estates, parkland, planted settlements and abandoned medieval villages, along with areas of later, more regular Parliamentary enclosure. Stone and timber-framed buildings in a variety of styles reflect the diversity of materials available. Parts of the area have seen periods of thriving industry, from charcoal burning to lead mining and stone quarrying, often accompanied by haphazard ‘squatter’ settlement. For further information see our heritage page.
Scenic and Environmental Quality
Panoramic views can be had across and beyond the AONB, and both wide open spaces and intimate corners are found. There are contrasts from relatively wild hills and valleys to softer, settled landscapes, as well as between varying seasonal colours of heather, grass, bracken and broadleaved trees. Clean air and water are accompanied by valuable ecological functions including growing of food and fibre, and regulation of water run-off.
Off the beaten track and remote in the context of the West Midlands, the Shropshire Hills are a haven of tranquillity – peace and quiet, dark skies and unspoilt views. Relatively low levels of noise and inappropriate development combine with modest visitor numbers to create an unspoilt quality that is greatly valued throughout the area.
Culture and Opportunities for Enjoyment
The Shropshire Hills span a wide spectrum of cultural setting from the fringes of Telford and Ironbridge through the rural hinterlands of market towns such as Ludlow, Craven Arms and Much Wenlock, to some of the sparsest areas of population in England along the Welsh border. Church Stretton, the only town within the AONB, has a unique location in the heart of the hills and a strong Edwardian character. The Shropshire Hills have been a cultural inspiration for writers such as A E Housman, Mary Webb and Malcolm Saville. Opportunities for enjoyment and well-being are open to both locals and visitors through walks and outdoor activities which respect the area’s qualities. The area has some of the best rights of way networks in Shropshire, most of its open access land, and a wide variety of sites, features and promoted routes.