The loss of walls and banks
Walls are left derelict or pulled down for many of the same reasons that have contributed to the demise of hedgerows. These include the mechanisation of agriculture, the decline of the rural work force and rising wages. Farming patterns have changed, so that many fields once under permanent pasture have been cultivated. Many walls are no longer required for stock control, and even where they are needed for this purpose, can be replaced more cheaply by fences. Other walls have been lost to urban development and other non-agricultural uses. It’s estimated that 4,500 miles (7,000km) of walls disappeared between 1947 and 1985.
It is the farmer who has the greatest burden of wall maintenance, but local authorities also have responsibility for many roadside walls.
The condition of walls
In 1994, the Countryside Commission (now the Natural England) contracted the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service to survey the condition of dry stone walls in England. The details below are from the outline report of the survey The condition of England’s dry stone walls, CCP 482, (Countryside Commission 1996).
As most dry stone walling is in upland areas, the survey considered only land more than 100 metres above sea level. From this, 700 one-kilometre National Grid Squares were randomly selected for surveying.
All the walls in each sample square were individually examined, and assessed as being in one of six condition categories, which were devised for the survey in conjunction with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain. The survey also recorded predominant land use and the frequency and condition of footpath crossings through and over walls.
The survey found that overall, the condition of walls is generally poor, with about half falling in the bottom three categories, and over one third in category C, with ‘major signs of advancing or potential deterioration’. Only 13% are in good condition.
Walls associated with woodland tend to be in the poorest condition, presumably because they are associated with a land use of a century or more earlier, and there is little need to repair them. There is little difference in quality between the walls in grassland and walls in arable land.
Less Favoured Areas (LFAs) have been designated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) as hill and upland areas of relatively poor agricultural potential. Within LFAs, the network of walls is estimated to be three times that of other upland areas, but the condition of walls is similar to that outside LFAs. Farmers in Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs), are offered annual payments to enter into 10 year agreements to conserve the character of the area, which can include work on dry stone walls. At the time of the survey, there was no noticeable difference in wall condition between LFAs, ESAs and other areas, although this was early days in the ESA scheme. The survey also indicated that there was no difference between the quality of walls within and outside National Parks.
The survey estimated the total length of walls in England to be 68,204 miles (109,830 km), which is about 26% greater than previously estimated. Four counties, North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Cornwall and Derbyshire, account for over half of England’s walls. Those in County Durham appear to be in the best condition, while counties with a low total length and density tend to have the worst condition walls.
As a theoretical exercise, ADAS drew up estimates for the total cost of restoring to category A, all walls in category B to F. With costs of restoring walls (1996 prices) varying from £16 per metre in Northumberland, to £35 per metre in Somerset, a total of £3,000 million was estimated! This gives an indication of the scale of the problem which remains to be tackled, if the walled landscape is to be conserved.