Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Glory be to the National Trust; the more I know it, the more I love it

Mighty castles and stately homes present just one side of the National Trust in Wales but there is so much more that often goes unreported. The vast tracts of land and farms, in the uplands and along the coast, don’t just look after themselves; they need to be managed to bring out their best. They are managed for the preservation of rare plants or creatures, for sheer beauty of the landscape or to provide access so that people can get out and experience it first hand. 

Glory be to the National Trust and also to Natural Resources Wales for their support in making this happen. 

In the past year I have been lucky to see this other side through the lens of a camera and to re-live the moments as I edited the footage into films.

Tom Jones
My first assignment was at Penarfynydd Farm where I met Tom Jones the farmer. Penarfynydd is a National Trust tenanted farm 3 miles west of Aberdaron near the village of Rhiw on the Llŷn Peninsula. Twenty years ago the heathland was in poor shape with intensive sheep grazing but today it is looking good with a mixed regime which includes cattle, ponies and a specialist breed of sheep. This is a success story in which both the farm’s economy and a broad range of scarce wildlife have benefitted through multiple partners including Natural Resources Wales, working as an effective team. Penarfynydd is living proof that farming and nature conservation does not need to be a compromise. This is what Tom had to say about it:

My next assignment was to do with species rich grasslands. Since I was born 60 years ago 99% of species rich grassland in Wales has disappeared; victim of modern farming and gardening practice. But great things are happening at a dozen National Trust properties to champion these grasslands, to restore hay meadows brimming with wild flowers and to inspire people to have a go with their own pockets of land.  The result is beautiful and creates a paradise for bees, butterflies and other insects.

Dave Swanton
To raise awareness of this project, which is supported by Natural Resources Wales, I was asked to make films at three of the properties; Powis Castle, Erddig and Bodnant. It was a privilege to meet the gardeners, to see and hear how they manage their grasslands.

Steep terraces rise up from the Great Lawn to the red Powis Castle on the skyline. Giant topiaries and manicured lawns at the top, then lush herbaceous borders and, on the lowest slopes, trees and shrubs in a sea of tall grass packed full of ox-eye daisies. The wild, natural flora complements the formality and landscaping. Dave Swanton explains:

We managed to attract the attention of Country Life and had a small news item about Powis Castle and its grasslands published in a summer edition of the magazine.

I’d not been to Erddig before, really impressive but a different look and feel to Powis. Over 2,000 orchid spikes were in bloom on the canal banks near the great house  – up until the 1980s these would have been mown down the moment they lifted their heads out of the ground. Glyn Smith explains:

At Bodnant we did not go to the usual places but started in Old Park Meadow which was only recently opened to the public. Here, as at the other properties, I was introduced to the wonders of yellow rattle, a magic ingredient which reduces the vigour of the grass, creating pockets for wild flowers to colonise. Bill Warrell explains:

Suitably inspired I bought a 500g bag of yellow rattle seed and sowed it in different parts of my lawns and grass banks last autumn. It needs to be done at that time of year so that the seeds are exposed to winter chills, a prerequisite for germinating in the spring. Would putting them in the deep freeze achieve the same purpose?

Orchids at Erddig
If my lawn does indeed take off into a hay meadow it’ll need mowing in August so I joined in a scything workshop that was organised at Bodnant and learnt about snath and peen. A snath is the wooden handle of a scythe onto the end of which is fixed the razor sharp blade of a scythe, in our case an Austrian scythe. Keeping it sharp is of the essence; rubbing a wetstone repeatedly over the top of the blade, then removing the burr on the underside, every two to three minutes.

But after a day of scything, sharpening alone will not be enough, and it will be time to peen your blade. This is a cold forging of the steel; using a hammer to strike onto a peening rig, the final 4 mm of the blade is beaten outwards to give a thin profile which is then ready for sharpening.

Why does it need to be a wetstone? In sharpening, the stone is taking off dirt and metal which would gunge up the stone unless it is kept and washed in a pouch of water.

In summer 2015 I will publish an article about the Bodnant hay meadows in The Countryman magazine. You can see the art of scything at our workshop in this short film, Tai Chi with a Blade:

In late summer (2014) I started another series of films covering five very different sites and types of work. The first was Gupton Farm at Freshwater West; best known as Wales’s premier surfing beach and to some people as the film set for Harry Potter or Robin Hood. Many others know it as a beautiful beach for holidays or a great space to walk the dog. What’s not so well known is that it’s home to Gupton Farm, a 400 acre farm that’s at the forefront of pioneering work to accommodate rising sea levels and climate change.
Freshwater West

Through appropriate grazing in different seasons the National Trust’s tenant farmer, Chris James, is working in partnership with Natural Resources Wales, to help the landscape respond in a natural way. As sea levels rise and squeeze the narrow coastal strip, once arable fields are being encouraged to revert to dunes, thereby providing effective defences against flooding and extending scarce habitat.

Beyond the dunes is a rare fen meadow, a haven for all sorts of flora and fauna and a vital feeding ground for overwintering birds. Through anticipating change, this habitat will be saved and migrated inland; and it’s being done without compromising the financial viability of the farm. Jonathan Hughes, General Manager for the National Trust in Pembrokeshire, explains how it all works:  

I went back again in the winter when the land was thoroughly waterlogged and amongst other things we saw large numbers of lapwings and other species feasting on the grains from the silage and the many insects and invertebrates. Birds and cattle, farmers and ornithologists - all in harmony; perfect!

Jonathan Hughes, General Manager for the National Trust in Pembrokeshire, describes and shows what it looks like in winter:

In the Gower I made a film about Cwm Ivy. For hundreds of years there has been a sea wall at Cwm Ivy but climate change and rising sea levels mean that it is no longer a defendable position. The wall has been breached and on a regular basis salt water flows into what used to be a SSSI freshwater marsh. Whilst we have lost the freshwater marsh, we have gained valuable new saltmarsh.

The outstanding issue is that the sea wall forms part of the Wales coastal path and at present walkers are needing to take a diversionary route.

Alan Kearsley Evans explains the situation in this short film and the plans for a bridge over the breach as well as aspirations for this becoming a site for ospreys.

Wetting the Migneint. The Migneint, a vast, upland bog, between Ffestiniog and Ysbyty Ifan, is much wetter than it used to be. Over a series of years the National Trust has been working with Natural Resources  Wales and several other partners to block drainage ditches; the oldest were put in to ‘improve’ the grouse shooting for the Victorians and the more recent ones to ‘improve’ grazing and productivity.
Pete the Peat - extracting a core
Anyone who has walked in the Migneint will know the tug and squelch of the peat bogs but it’s been unnaturally dry for many years. What might at first have seemed an improvement has been an environmental ‘own goal’ resulting in the loss of thousands of tonnes of peat which is a great store for carbon. Without water, new peat can’t form and dry peat oxidises, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.

Another consequence of ditches is that rainwater rushes off the uplands contributing to floods downstream in the Conwy valley.

Andrew Roberts from the National Trust explains the finer points of building 30,000 dams and Pete Jones, the Peatland Ecologist from Natural Resources Wales, extracts 500 years of history from a core of peat.

Dolmelynllyn is for lovers of the lower plants. The ancient woodlands around Dolmelynllyn are a Mecca for lichens, liverworts and mosses; the so-called ‘lower plants’. Students travel hundreds of miles to see the rare specimens, just a few miles north of Dolgellau, many of which have disappeared elsewhere a long time ago.
Red-eyed shingle lichen

The magic formula is an abundance of rain, the temperate Celtic rainforest, fresh air and sensible management by the National Trust with help from Plantlife and Natural Resources Wales.

Rhodri Wigley, the lead ranger for the National Trust at Dolmelynllyn, and Dave Lamacraft, from Plantlife Cymru, explain what’s so special and how they care for it.

The coastal heathland of North Pembrokeshire is hardly prime agricultural land and without grazing, it would soon become overgrown; bad news for walkers, also for birds such as chough and for several rare plants.

Andrew Tuddenham
For many years the National Trust has made use of wild ponies to keep the heaths under control but now the focus has switched to grazing by Welsh Blacks. Not only do they do a better job, they also provide valuable food helping to offset the costs of conservation.

Until recently the cattle were overwintered in a number of small barns scattered across the area. But now all over-wintering has been brought under one roof at Southwood Farm; much more efficient and making it feasible to breed and build up the herd.

Traditional field walls ripped up in the drive for greater productivity are being replaced to allow greater management of grazing land, moving cattle in time to avoid turning fields into mud baths. New footpaths are being introduced connecting with the nearby coast path and there are plans to create a bunkhouse. And for bedding the cattle are enjoying the local heather and gorse harvested with a Ryetec Flail Collector to create fire breaks on the heath.

Everyone’s a winner it seems! Here’s Andrew Tuddenham explaining the background and the plans for the future:

In the Autumn I enjoyed the two day Heathlands for the Future seminar organised by the HLF Llŷn Landscape Partnership (Partneriaeth Tirlun Llŷn). There is so much being done - I wrote up the event as a series of 5 x blogposts:

There is so much material from all these stories that I am converting it into a presentation about the NTs conservation work in Wales; the first booking is with the Flintshire U3A.

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