Fersiwn Gymraeg ar gael yma

The Welsh uplands offer more than just dramatic landscapes and pretty views. Here, we take a look at why the uplands are important, and why we must do everything we can to protect it.

A typical map of Wales, the ones you’ll find pinned up on a classroom wall, is usually coloured in three different colours. Anglesey, Pembrokeshire and areas adjacent to the coastline will be green, while most of the interior is either yellow or brown.

What does this show us? The yellow and brown shades indicate areas of high elevation, or in other words, the uplands. Wales is a mountainous country, and the majestic peaks of Snowdonia and the high plateaus of the Brecon Beacons have inspired many generations.

The uplands are places we go to escape from our busy daily lives. These places are also important for wildlife and provide us with essential services (also called public goods) like clean air and water, flood protection and healthy soils, to name a few. They’re also fragile, and the way we interact and manage the uplands has an effect on us all.

The magical qualities of peat

A large portion of our uplands are made up of peat - a soil-like substance that form when plants like sphagnum mosses cannot decompose because it’s too wet. The layers of organic matter build-up over thousands of years, creating thick layers of peat. This process is handy for several reasons.

Peatlands are carbon sinks, which means that they absorb carbon from the atmosphere and lock it in the ground. We have several areas of peatlands in Wales, from the Migneint in Snowdonia to the blanket bogs of RSPB Lake Vyrnwy on the Berwyn.  

Not only does peatland lock-up carbon and helps us fight climate change - it also stores water. When the typical Welsh climate hurls torrential rain on our mountains and hillsides, a large quantity of the water is absorbed by peatlands. The landscape acts like a sponge, holding the water back and slowing its journey down to the river valleys below. Because the water is released in drips and drabs, it helps to reduce the severity of floods, as riverbanks are less likely to be overwhelmed. This process also cleans the water, as peat is a very effective filter that stops pollutants and silt from entering rivers.

Rich habitats

The Welsh uplands are important places for wildlife, and you’ll find different habitats that supports different types of plants, animals and birds. For instance, blanket bogs are home to a rich diversity of plants and mosses, which supports communities of insects. These attract birds like curlews, golden plovers and lapwings. If you’re lucky enough, you might also see hen harriers soaring high above.  

The Ffridd habitat (found in the margins between lowlands and the uplands and defined by a patchwork of heath, grass, bracken, gorse and trees) is also important for wildlife. Because of the mosaic nature of this habitat, it supports a wide variety of plants, insect and bird species. You can find birds like whinchats, ring ouzels, tree pipits and merlins here, as well as fritillary butterflies and a whole host of beetles and other insects.

Mind and body

We’ve seen that uplands can help us fight climate change, prevent serious floods and provide a home for wildlife. The uplands also play a big part in our personal lives. Many of us enjoy spending time in the mountains. It’s a place we go to find solace and peace. It’s a refuge from our busy daily lives, and it’s a vital dose of wildlife and nature for many people living in towns and cities. This is important, as spending time in nature is beneficial for all sorts of reasons, from keeping fit, mentally and physically, to creativity and inspiration.

This landscape is important for wildlife, and it helps to provide our communities with vital services. However, in the past, unsustainable land management has led to parts of our uplands being damaged and eroded. One example is when peat bogs are drained to make way for forestry and grazing. This has a knock-on effect for everything else that depend on it. Habitats and wildlife are lost, and the land no longer stores carbon and water. But, as we’re learning more about the importance of the uplands, we’re doing more to protect this fragile landscape. We’re working with farmers to re-drain the peat bogs, and there are big changes ahead for future land management policies as well, where we’ll hopefully move to a system that rewards land managers for supplying us with public goods.

We need the uplands, so we must do all we can to keep it healthy for future generations.

The RSPB is working on uplands restoration projects across the UK.