Thursday, 23 October 2014

Heathlands – walking the talk

During the morning of 8th October, in a jam-packed Rhiw Village Hall, we heard lots about heathlands, as you’d expect in a seminar titled ‘Heathlands for the Future’. Then in the afternoon and the following morning we got to walk the talk; seeing and experiencing some of the work underway to restore 5 coastal heathland sites in Llŷn. This is part of 26 projects within the much larger HLF Llŷn Landscape Partnership (Partneriaeth Tirlun Llŷn). 

Euros Jones of NRW and Arwel Jones, the project manager for Partneriaeth Tirlun Llŷn, explained that what started off 10 years ago as a conservation project has now taken on a community and economic dimension with a diverse range of partners. The initial funding of £500K from 2004-09 was followed by £1.7m from 2009-15 and hopefully there will be more beyond. Listening to the speakers it sounds as though Llŷn, the triangle from Nefyn to Pwllheli to Bardsey, is ahead of the game in ‘integrated natural resource management’, the new wave of conservation strategy. The partners are pursuing an ecosystem approach and have demonstrated great achievements; but ecosystems need long-term nurturing and now is the time to drive on with it. You can get a flavour of the diverse range of projects from the Llŷn AONB website.

Jan Sherry, heathland ecologist for NRW, and Hilary Kehoe, the heathland project co-ordinator, set the heathland scene. Coastal heathlands, and their dependent species, are in decline due to changes in land use and farm economics. What’s left on Llŷn is a narrow strip of varying quality constricted by improved land; but things here are getting better. 522 Hectares of land have been embraced by the project achieving improvements in vegetation structure through cutting and grazing. Instead of a dense mass of leggy heather and gorse there is now a varied structure which not only looks good but benefits prized species such as chough, linnet and the adder. 

Burning the heath was investigated as a possibility but the conclusion was that the gorse returned rapidly at the expense of heather and other vegetation. Cutting with a flail was better and even more so after a low cut when the cuttings were removed.

Seedbanks varied from site to site; whereas Mynydd Tir Cwmwd had lots of heather seeds Mynydd Bychestyn had barely any. Seeds were collected and spread with the help of local schoolchildren – what looked like a Somme battlefield two years ago has regenerated with masses of heather and minimal gorse. As if to prove a point an accidental fire on a nearby patch had the opposite effect and has seen a resurgence of gorse.

3 year old heathland bedding
As well as agreeing plans for reduced burning and more grazing, which benefit nature, there has been a lot of work to investigate how to improve the economy of the farms. To add local value 19 farmers undertook training in food hygiene and butchery and 5 of these have gone on to process and market their own produce. By-products from the heathland management include heathland bedding which saves time and money and you can read more about this here.

After the tea break Sharon Parr wowed us with what’s going on in the Burren LIFE Project on the west coast of Ireland. There are many parallels with the work here on Llŷn with lots of common sense ideas for making things work on the ground - you can read more about this here.

Fortified with sandwiches and cakes galore we heard a short presentation from Reg at the RSPB about the UK chough survey and the importance of Llŷn which is home to 14% of the UK population. Llŷn chough do not exist in isolation and their destiny is inextricably linked to the populations in Snowdonia and Ynys Môn. The extent of the research and conservation work is immense – this is truly a landscape scale species. You can read more about this here.

Lichenologists don't mind a drop of rain
As the storm clouds gathered we wrapped up in waterproofs and headed across the road to Mynydd y Graig and Penarfynydd Farm. Unfortunately Thomas Jones the farmer was unable to show us around and by the time we reached the trig point on Penarfynydd the lightning was all around with heavy horizontal rain lashing us. Some descended quickly back whilst others plodded on to see the Golden Hair Lichen. The large rocks on which it grows have been fenced in to prevent the ponies getting too close and in particular to stop them scratching their flanks on the extremely rare Lobaria Amplissima.

It wasn’t quite the dream day to visit this stunning farm but you can learn more about it here and see a film of Thomas Jones talking about different aspects of the farm.

Before dinner we all had a chance to look around the excellent £1m Porth y Swnt visitor centre which opened last June and is home to the 2 tonne optic recently removed from Bardsey Lighthouse. Dinner in Tŷ Newydd was complete with ‘son et lumière’ as the thunderstorm continued and high tide waves rolled up to the hotel.

Tim Jones from NRW had the challenging task of talking to us after the feast of local produce. Key points he made were the need to get community and economy into environmental projects and this was clearly the case on Llŷn. Instead of looking at sites in isolation we need to look at and work on whole landscapes and the newly announced ‘area natural resource management trials’ at Dyfi, Tawe and Rhondda were looking to learn from Llŷn.

Some hours later we were back in the same restaurant for breakfast and once more the tide was up, with big waves rolling in. No surfers but a seal, treading water, bobbing up and down whilst looking into the hotel, just metres away. Earlier some guests had seen a baby seal on the slipway – presumably the only safe place to be parked while mum got on with the fishing.

We took the O Ddrws i Ddrws Llŷn Coastal minibus to Bryn Poeth where Kevin Roberts talked to us about heathland bedding and then walked around the coastline to see the Ryetec flail collector in action. Along the way we saw areas where the heath had been improved, areas where bracken used to be rampant and which were now clear of it thanks to initial spraying and subsequent grazing by cattle. There was a marked difference between the two sides of the fence where cattle can and can’t graze – the side without the cattle was a dense mat of vegetation, several inches deep and not receptive to seeds. As we walked into another field it was explained how this used to be heathland up until the 1970s but that it had been ploughed up just days before being designated as an ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) – ironic that legislation to protect should be a catalyst for damage.

Compared to the Pembrokeshire heathlands, Llŷn has few plants that are given the chance to flower, due to the uniform grazing of sheep, but there had been a big increase at Bychestyn this summer through grazing with cattle. It was great to see the Welsh Blacks on the edge of the coast with the wild sea and Bardsey beyond. Obviously it was the wrong time of year for us to see flowers but we did get to see Prostrate Broom on the edge of the windswept cliff at Pen y Cil.

Our walk ended on Mynydd y Gwyddel which is farmed by John Williams. The top of the mountain is popular with people coming from the nearby car park to enjoy the view and maybe have a picnic. It’s also where you can see the Spotted Rock Rose, very rare, found just here and on Anglesey. The mountain is grazed only by sheep at present but if the fencing and water supply was improved, then John would graze it with cattle from October to July taking them off for calving and bulling during the busiest time for visitors.

John explained that he would not be going into Glastir as the rules prescribe just 37 sheep during the winter whereas he has a flock of over 150; at this stocking level the unit would not be viable and the site would become overgrown. 37 might be an appropriate stocking level for inland, mountainous areas, but Llŷn has its own climate with resultant vegetation growth; what we need is an area-based approach as opposed to a ‘one size fits all’. The intention of Glastir is to improve the landscape but if John followed the rules he would be rewarded for damaging it! This is one of those situations, as in The Burren, where farmers need to make the decisions and be rewarded if and when they deliver a positive outcome such as species rich grassland. An arbitrary number at an arbitrary date makes no sense in this situation. This site would benefit from a higher level scheme that would reward positive management, such as the scheme in place on Penarfynydd.

Putting structural diversity into the heath
Back at Aberdaron, after sandwiches and soup, we wrapped up the seminar with a discussion. 64 people had signed up for the seminar and most of them had been able to attend at least part which goes to show that ‘heathlands for the future’ is a popular topic. Jon Hudson from NRW said that he had plenty of ideas that he wanted to take back to Pembrokeshire.

Glastir was discussed and we agreed that we needed to lobby for positive change through farmers and if possible take a roadshow to Cardiff. Having said that we felt it would be a good idea to get Carl Sargeant to visit while he is new in post. There was agreement that the partnership should be using the work as a case study to show to politicians and to help shape and influence future environmental schemes.

Ongoing funding for Llŷn was discussed. The ecosystem approach has been trialled and now we need a long term project to drive this agenda forward. Landscape management is not only good for nature, it can also help develop the tourism offer and contribute to maintenance issues around the coastal path. What we’ve got is ‘ready to go’, a solution and not a pipedream.

There had been promising words from the Fund for Nature but nothing concrete yet. LIFE funding had been considered and this may be a sensible route for future funding. Interreg was discussed without much enthusiasm – it’s a shame that The Burren is not on the east coast.

It was felt that Llŷn should aspire to having a Pembrokeshire level of branding; this is slowly happening through the #Ecomuseum brand. See also

All in all an excellent seminar, a catalyst for networking bringing many parties together, well organised by Hilary Kehoe and members of Partneriaeth Tirlun Llŷn (Llŷn landscape partnership).

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