About three quarters of the proposed scheme area is in the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), designated in 1958 for the high quality of the landscape. The Shropshire Hills provide a dramatic link between the English Midlands plains and the Welsh mountains. The part of the Landscape Partnership Scheme area outside the AONB is geologically part of the same hill range, with equally important heritage, but much of it is artificially separated by the Welsh- English border. The part of the area that is in Wales is referred to as “Shropshire Hills (part)” in the National Landscape Character Assessment of Wales and is described as;
“This is a small area on the eastern border of Wales sharing physical and visual characteristics with the Shropshire Hills (English Joint Character Area 65).”
Centuries of mining, quarrying and farming have shaped the landscape. 70% of the AONB is grazing land, and below the moorland and rough grass hilltops and commons lie a patchwork of fields rich in hedgerows and veteran trees. Ancient woodlands, wildflower meadows and ffridd, areas of rough ground that edge the moors, also survive, with their characteristic wildlife, plants and invertebrates. Spoil heaps from now disused mines have their own special fauna and flora and many rare butterflies and bats thrive as a result of the mining heritage.
The area is a priority in Shropshire and Powys Biodiversity Action Plans (BAP). Priority BAP habitats include:
Montane Heath, Lowland Dry Acid Grassland and Rock Outcrop and Mine Soil Rich in Heavy Metals on Corndon, Llan Fawr, Roundton and Todleth Hills and Ancient and/or Species Rich Hedgerows in the valleys.
These habitats support a wide variety of species including some BAP priorities such as lesser horseshoe bat, curlew, lapwing, snipe, skylark, dormouse, otter, mountain pansy, harebells, red grouse and a number of butterfly species. Spreading bellflower, a species rare in Europe and a high priority for conservation, has been identified at a site near Hyssington and there are two nationally rare species of moss occur on and around Corndon.
The area is a real hotspot for lesser horseshoe bat, which is associated with the mining adits and remains. An old mining building has been converted into a maternity roost at the Huglith Mine site for this species by the Vincent Wildlife Trust. Again associated with the mining, grayling and dingy skipper butterflies are found on rare sites and the small pearl-bordered and dark green fritillary butterflies are also found in the area. The woodland in Hope Valley is locally important for dormice.
Curlew and lapwing have been monitored across the Upper Onny since 2002 and there has been some success in improving habitat but more needs to be done.
The high quality environment has been reflected by policy in England, with the area in Shropshire identified for an Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme and now being a target area for Higher Level Schemes. The area in Wales has not, however, been given special status or been able to benefit from the English schemes.
The two largest areas of heathland in the West Midlands are in conservation ownership – the Long Mynd is owned by the National Trust, the Stiperstones National Nature Reserve (NNR) by Natural England. The Stiperstones NNR is an unusual lowland/upland heath with red grouse. Roundton Hill is a Welsh National Nature Reserve owned by the Montgomery Wildlife Trust, while the Shropshire Wildlife Trust owns nature reserves at the Hollies (an ancient holly parkland), Brook Vessons (with the oldest rowan trees in the country), Nipstone Rock, Hope Valley and Earl’s Hill. There are many County Wildlife Sites defined on privately owned land. Around half of Corndon Hill and Stapeley Common are owned or held in trust by Powis Estate, and Linley Hill is still owned by the Linley Estate. All of these include priority habitats and need specialist management. The land in private ownership between the hills is also important and offering refuge to key species by enlarging and developing links to the designated sites will be essential to help the area adapt to changes in climate.
The Rivers East and West Onny run through the parallel valleys between the main hill ranges, flanked by alders and willows, historically coppiced and pollarded but often now overgrown, diseased and in need of management.