21st – 23rd April
The Elenydd mountains are an empty landscape of soft grassland plateaus cut by deep, bracken-clad valleys; the myriad small streams feed the Cothi, Elan, Teifi, Tywi and Ystwyth rivers. The highest plateaus are capped with blanket bog and mires full of sedge, cotton grass and Sphagnum fill the shallow depressions.
These uplands are not a wilderness; they have been cleared of woodland and grazed for more than 5,000 years. Silver, lead, zinc have been mined for at least two thousand years on the Ystwyth and gold on the Cothi sine Roman times. From the 12th Century until the Dissolution, the Cistercian Abbey at Strata Florida brought significant improvements to industry and agriculture and established trade routes to the east, the drovers’ roads. In the last 200 years the human footprint has become heavier; in the 1890s, great reservoirs filled the Elan and Claerwen catchments to provide Birmingham with a water supply. Lynn Brianne was constructed on the Tywi in the 1960s to supply much of South Wales. The Elenydd was first declared a protected area in 1954 to maintain its habitat and bird features, but this did not stop forests of non-native Sitka spruce being planted over great swathes of it. In the last 20 years, increased legal protection derived from European Directives has kept a rash of new wind farms to the edges.
After the Second World War, the experimental husbandry farm at Pwllpeiran in Cwmystwyth pioneered a further wave of improvement of upland livestock production. An extract from a potted history of the farm gives an idea of how the inbye land was transformed into bright green fields in the pursuit of better lamb production: The land was slagged and limed, sown with rape and ryegrass for speedy grazing by sheep, before being harrowed and resown with ryegrass, white clover and timothy as the foundation of a new sward. This was kept productive by regular fertilising and controlled grazing.
With ever improving technology, hawthorn, gorse and bracken (ffridd) on increasingly steeper slopes and the moors themselves were improved (ploughed, re-seeded and fertilised) wherever possible; new farm roads were cut into hillsides; and the advent of ‘big bale’ silage enabled farmers to take winter food up to the moors and so improve the condition of ewes. The high densities of sheep, perhaps coupled with increasing rates of nitrogen deposition, steadily destroyed the mires and heaths and grass moors expanded. The 20th Century was thus a period of significant habitat impoverishment; it was against this backdrop that upland restoration of the Elenydd commenced in the 1990s and sheep numbers have been significantly reduced, principally through compensatory payments to farmers.
So much for habitats; whilst the cessation of persecution and long-term conservation action has seen the red kite population expand across the Principality and into the Marches from a last stronghold in the upper Tywi valleys, ground nesting waders such as lapwing, redshank, curlew, dunlin and golden plover as well as other upland species such as black grouse and ring ouzel have all but disappeared. Wheatears now appear less common on the hillsides, perhaps because they favour heavily grazed grasslands.
The Elenydd mountains are a long essay in the waxing and waning of upland habitats, land use and livestock, and the varied consequences for birds and other wildlife. If farm subsidies were to go and eating red meat continues to be less popular, would sheep rearing become unprofitable and broadleaved forests re-cover the plateaus and valleys after an absence of millennia or would exotic conifers and other novel land uses proliferate?
To the north of the Ystwyth valley near Cymystwyth, on a grey morning looking south from Bryn Garw, the deep heather and crowberry cushion the shallow valleys and low ridges. There are no longer any sheep on these hills nor patches of bright green grassland. The heather has returned in part due to the mitigation provided for the Cefn Croes windfarm, first operational in 2005.
The black grouse lek at Banc Mawr and ring ouzels in the Rhuddnant are long gone but there is also not much sign of a carrion crow or a raven, just a few pipits, some red grouse droppings and an early cuckoo. There is a high density of fox scats across the moor which suggests that vole numbers are high. But there is no sign or sight of a merlin in the small conifer plantation where they have nested before, but there are so many conifer edges hereabouts that locating the pair is always hard.
At Blaen Marchant near Ffair Rhos, the raven nest in the copse of tall trees has failed, but a male hen harrier briefly brightens the rain-soaked day. Both occurrences would have been close to impossible 30 years ago.
Around the small chapel at Soar y Mynydd, the great Sitka plantations that form the Tywi Forest are being felled on their first rotation and the result is a complex patchwork. Siskins, crossbills are occasional, chaffinches and willow warblers are singing everywhere. Mistle thrushes still breed on the conifer edges and jays seem more numerous. Cuckoos are arriving in the clear fells and over two days, three are caught at separate locations in a mist net with a tape lure (under special licence) by Tony Cross. These have been subject to a satellite-tagging programme to establish their migration routes and try to understand why the birds are in such steep decline in the lowlands; these extraordinary birds were probably wintering in the rainforests of Gabon a few months ago.
Red kites and buzzards are ubiquitous; there are no kestrel sightings and having checked half a dozen traditional sites only a single pair of merlins is located. 30 years ago there were a dozen pairs in the conifer plantations high on the edge of the moorland and they were a key feature of the protected area. However, pairs often seem to disappear in April only to reappear with nests in May so another slog round the plantation edges is warranted.
There are ravens at perhaps a quarter of the traditional sites; this is almost certainly correlated with the recent reduction in sheep numbers. The lack of carrion crows on the plantation edges may reduce the number of nest sites for merlins; so perhaps there is a need to count the crows? Goshawks, which are today widespread in the larger conifer forests are an effective predator of small falcons, so they, and their prey remains, also need checking.
The ancient oak woodlands that dress the Irfon valley are still bare and the pied flycatchers and redstarts keep low and forage on the forest floor. A pair of stock doves chase through the branches, the male pursuing the female in a frenzied courtship. The rhythms of these woodlands are perhaps little changed in centuries. The early morning sunshine is replaced by a cool wind and grey cloud and the spring song subsides.