Saturday, 1 December 2012

Abergwesyn Commons - Not such a common place

Abergwesyn Commons, owned by the National Trust, are about as close to a wilderness as you get in Wales. For the last two years Project Officer Jess Tyler has been working on management of the area, and wonders if we are taking the uplands for granted. [This article appeared in Natur Cymru Autumn 2011]

There is no place I have been quite like this part of north Breconshire, the rooftop of Wales. Lichen-covered Birmingham Corporation watershed markers indicate the 11 mile boundary between the Elan Valley to the north and Abergwesyn Commons to the south. The medieval remains of long huts, summer farm dwellings, remind us how this region would have once had so many more communities relying on a land less isolated than today. The tracks of the drovers and evidence of peat cutting reflect the activities of times gone by. Prehistoric sites scattered across the area show signs of activity from the Bronze Age and before. The quartz standing stone on the hill top of Drum Nantygorlan would have been at least 2 metres tall when upright. Now it rests on its side, pointing walkers to the isolation beyond.

Abergwesyn Commons consists of seven contiguous upland commons, and are a prime example of land affected by many external influences. For the last two years colleague Joe Daggett and I have been looking at management of the area through the Abergwesyn Commons Project. We have also worked extensively on the large areas of blanket bog that exist on the commons, carrying out restoration works.

On the westernmost Common there are large gullies that drain from an area of 5-6 acres of bare peat – at worst these are 2.5 metres deep and are down to the mineral soil. Areas of bare peat are not necessarily a bad thing. Small areas of only a few square metres seem to have shifting colonies of cotton grass; bare areas get covered up and covered areas become bare. The golden plover has adapted to using these areas and it looks very much like a natural process of this relatively liquid, unstable peatland. However, the creation of larger areas of bare peat appears to be a culmination of factors caused by people rather than being part of a natural process.

Rampant Molinia
Thousands of acres of the west side of Abergwesyn Commons are dominated by purple moor grass, Molinia caerulea, creating a huge fire hazard from the litter it leaves every year when it dies back. When fire takes a hold here, square kilometres of vegetation are burnt. Ash from the burn further encourages the Molinia, which progressively overwhelms other bog species and aids the drying of the peat. Often these fires are superficial and only the tops of the plants are lost, but if the fire gets into the peat it can burn for weeks, even months. The damage this does to the habitat is significant.

It is likely that fire damage contributed to the creation of this larger area of bare peat but, however it started, it is clear that the area is increasing in size. We decided to target one area owned by the Trust, and a series of terraces/small dams was created to slow the water flowing away from the area, catching the peat before it got washed away. Materials local to the site were used, such as peat from hags, and chunks of bare peat that had fallen from undercut banks and from lone, small hags that had been isolated through erosion. The vegetation from on top of these hags has been used to help bind the dams and stabilise them. So far these terraces seemed to have worked well.

Mowing the Molinia
Under the fire management part of the project, 40 hectares of Molinia were cut last year to reduce flammable material. Whilst these cut areas would not stop a fire, we hoped – and it was subsequently shown – that in reducing the fuel load for a fire, it would not burn so intensely. National Trust staff and some hard core volunteers filled 1,000 heli bags with 250 tons of Molinia, which were transported and spread across the bare peat to protect it from the elements and create a more stable environment for vegetation to grow. It is likely that some Molinia will grow on the mulch but, as seen through small experiments carried out elsewhere, cotton grass and bilberry should also grow. So far the work seems to be proving highly successful. 

Changes to grazing
As much as the Trust would like to carry on cutting Molinia on the commons, it is not financially sustainable. This is where grazing comes in: in the long term the right grazing will be the answer to controlling Molinia. Although the National Trust owns the Commons and may have 'owner privileges', it does not have any grazing rights, therefore cannot manage the grazing of the land directly. This job, rightly so, falls to the farmers who own or rent the grazing rights and who are often best placed and equipped to farm these hills.

The idea of Common Land comes from the time of William the Conqueror, and the Commons Registration Act was introduced in 1965. Sheep walks of the commons were officially registered as Common Land Blocks. It is known from records over the last 1,000 years that Abergwesyn Commons have been predominantly a sheep grazing area. The Cistercian Monks, based in Strata Florida, were renowned for their wool production and for centuries during the medieval period they owned Abergwesyn Commons and more. At one point in history the king granted a royal decree stating the monks did not have to pay tax on the wool they sold. Deeds dating back two or three hundred years show ownership of up to 3,000 sheep on a single farm. 

Other evidence shows there have been varying numbers of cattle, ponies and sheep on the Commons over the last thousand years, with cattle outnumbering sheep at one point but today numbers have dramatically declined. Pony numbers have decreased, from several herds of up to 50 ponies each, to barely a handful of herds of fewer than ten ponies. Currently there is no value in hill ponies; they are no longer sold for meat, which was their main worth, so it is understandable that farmers do not keep so many.

In the last century cattle numbers have dwindled to almost nothing. There is a lot of work involved to get cattle to stick to a heft, as, if they do not, there is over 100,000 acres of open access land for them to explore. Hefts are lost and, as was shown after the foot and mouth epidemic ten years ago, once lost, hefts are difficult to get back. There are also the complications and worries of TB and other diseases spreading across herds that have no fences between them, not to mention the in-by land they will need in the winter. The financial viability of small, slow maturing cattle herds on the hill is also an important factor. As well as the loss of headage payments, changes in farming practices, farms lost to forestry, and farmers giving up farming for one reason or another, have all contributed to the decline. The list of obstacles goes on.

This decline in mixed grazing, with plummeting numbers of sheep, has helped Molinia to become a dominant plant species. Yet there still seems a policy to reduce sheep numbers without enabling or supporting the increase of ponies and cattle. The number of birds recorded, such as golden plover, red grouse and curlew, has decreased over the same period that grazing patterns have changed and the numbers of livestock on the hill have fallen. Surely there is a link here?

A way forward
This is where the whole picture needs to be looked at. As part of the blanket bog restoration, 12 Welsh Blacks have been introduced on the most westerly common, working in conjunction with a grazier. A dozen cattle are not going to solve all the problems, but are giving us a good idea of the reality of having cows on the hill and how we can overcome any obstacles.

The importance of blanket bog is recognised globally for the role it plays as a carbon store. The reality is, the resources we need to turn around, long term, the decline of this habitat, are not readily available. With any resources that do exist, we must make joint decisions with the farmers to ensure we get best value and that the work done is likely to continue. For Abergwesyn Commons to become a viable farming and conservation area, we must support the graziers to graze for the habitat we want. We may be surprised to find that what is wanted, in terms of habitat, and what the farmers would like to see, may be one and the same thing.

We hold these uplands so dear to our heart yet there is so little actual support for them. This begs the question: Do we really fully comprehend the value of supporting these upland areas to breathe and adapt for the future, whatever that may bring? Or will we continue to take the uplands for granted?

In the life of this landscape we are just a blink of an eye. However, this does not lessen our responsibility towards it. Perhaps we need to listen to and support the families that have been its keepers, who have taken care of these hills for centuries, so that they will want to continue taking care of these sleeping giants for the centuries to come.

Jess Tyler is the National Trust's Abergwesyn Project Officer.

Taclo comin Abergwesyn – cam wrth gam
Sialensau cyfarwydd sy’n wynebu’r 7 darn o dir comin anferth o fewn Prosiect Tir Comin Abergwesyn. Gormod o laswellt y gweunydd, ardaloedd helaeth o fawn agored yn erydu, niferoedd stoc yn disgyn ac adar gwyllt yn prinhau…..

Nod y prosiect yw canfod atebion ymarferol i’r problemau hyn. Yn ystod y 2 flynedd ddiwethaf caewyd ffosydd a chrewyd terasau yn y darnau o fawn noeth er mwyn arafu llif y dŵr ac atal diflaniad y mawn. Torrwyd ardaloedd o laswellt y gweunydd, sy’n creu cymaint o berygl tân oherwydd y matres o ddeunydd gwyw sy’n casglu ar y ddaear oddi tanodd, a thaenwyd y torion dros y mawn agored. Bydd hyn yn gwarchod y mawn rhag tywydd garw ac yn rhoi cyfle i blu’r gweunydd a llus egino.

Mae sefydlu trefn bori addas yn her fawr. Defaid fu yma’n bennaf dros y 1,000 mlynedd ddiwethaf ac roedd mynachod Ystrad Fflur yn enwog am gynhyrchu gwlan. Bu rhywfaint o wartheg a merlod yn pori hefyd. Ond prinhau mae’r merlod oherwydd nad oes galw am y cig ac mae gwartheg wedi diflannu’n llwyr o’r ucheldir oherwydd problemau cadw stoc ar ucheldir eang a phryderon eraill, fel lledaeniad TB. Fel y mae niferoedd stoc wedi disgyn, lleihau hefyd mae poblogaethau adar fel y cwtiad aur a’r gylfinir. Cyflwynwyd 12 o wartheg duon Cymreig yn ddiweddar – cam bychan ond gwerthfawr o ran gwella’n dealltwriaeth o anawsterau ac ymarferoldeb ffermio ar yr ucheldiroedd hyn, sydd mor bwysig i ni gyd.

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