I love dry stone walls. When I was a kid, I liked them because they were easy to climb and because there were lizards sunbathing on them, which I would try to catch. Now I am fascinated by them because they are witnesses of stony land difficult to farm on, of hard labour and of craftmanship enduring the centuries.
In Norway, wood is usually abundant and as a consequence, there are very few stone walls here where I live, but on vacation I often encounter them. The walls are part of many traditional farming landscapes, where there are few large trees and and rocky soil and they have been built since prehistoric times in almost every coner of the world.
Dry stone fences are far more expensive to build than ordinary fencing. Today, a simple 1,5 meter high wall will cost about 270 GBP and experienced workers can build about 2 – 4 meters a day. But when made properly, it can last for almost a century and constitute an important part of the local ecosytem.
The dry stone wall can be become populated immediately after building. Inside the wall it is warmer than in the environment and thermophilic (warmth-loving) species will move into the wall. Small mammals, amphibia and reptiles will find shelter for the winter, wild bees can make their nests. Some bird species use the walls as breeding places and lichens, mosses and plants which like a humid envrionment will settle in.
This summer, we came upon an abandoned settlement in the Aletsch area. It consisted of about twenty abandoned stone cottages in a height over 2000 meteres over sea level. Some were still standing, other only ruins, a few were being taken care of. Some were made of entirely dry stonewalls, others had mortar helping keeping the stones together.
According to the owner of the mountain shelter further down the valley, the settlement was erected at the end of the eighteenth century, when there was a plague outbreak, The inhabitants of the village down in the valley fled to the mountains with their livestock to seek protection from the contagious desease. But here was little fodder for the animals, and they returned to the valley when the danger had passed. Later the settlement was used as shelter for goat herds and their shepherds, before it was completely abandoned.We didn’t see anyone, only two marmots and some sheep.
It is possible to learn dry stone walling today, perhaps even in your immediate environment. A country where this part of cultural heritage is taken very seriously, is Great Britain. The dry stone wall association of Great Britain offers courses on a regular bases. I don’t know if it is possible to learn this skill here in Norway.
Are there dry stone walls or stone cottages where you live? Tell me about them!