Visiting North Wales is always special, and yesterday I enjoyed it in the company of colleagues from organisations with whom we have big plans to restore nature. If I'd been on the right train to Bangor I might have had sunset views of the rugged coast that is so special for seabirds and choughs, and a glimpse into the mountains where ring ouzels are preparing for departure to North Africa. Alas previous events in Parliament meant that I had to catch a later train.
But my destination was farther south, deep in Meirionnydd, in the old kingdom of Gwynedd which I now know was founded by Meirion in the fifth century. I was there to help launch an exciting partnership project: Celtic Rainforests Wales, and as we walked through a wood that will benefit from the scheme, I could almost feel that we walked in the footsteps of Meirion and his descendants. In this part of Wales, nature and history are intertwined.
Our islands’ temperate woodlands are known as Celtic Rainforests because they are typically wet, mild and humid – though thankfully not yesterday. Sessile oaks predominate, sturdy trees that grow up to 40 metres and provide a home for a fabulous diversity of wildlife. Birders know these Western Atlantic Oakwoods as the place to find the classic trio of pied flycatcher, redstart and wood warbler, already on their way to Africa for the winter. But these woodlands are also incredibly important the so-called lower plants - lichens and bryophytes - and rightly designated as Important Plant Areas by my former employer Plantlife.
Looking after these lichens is a priority for the RSPB in Wales, including a vibrant green, leafy species called tree lungwort. Its very name encapsulates the valuable role that woods play in improving air quality as well as providing a home for nature.
Wales holds half the world’s total area of these oakwoods, but it’s neither as extensive nor in as good a condition as it should be. Decades of invasion by non-native species, such as Rhododendron ponticum, inappropriate levels of grazing and woodland management, and conifer planting were problems common to many of these woods. So, together with other owners, we came up with a plan, and thanks to funding by the EU-LIFE fund and Welsh Government, a €9.5 million project will restore these special places over the next seven years.
Baseline surveys are being completed this year so we can measure the changes achieved, and over the winter, habitat management will get underway, including the introduction of grazing to some of the under-managed woods. Snowdonia National Park Authority will deliver a complex programme of rhododendron removal within the Park, as this is where the plant is most established and poses the greatest threat. The flowers may look pretty but its prolific growth outcompetes the native plants within the woods.
RSPB Cymru is delivering the project in mid Wales outside Snowdonia National Park. Here, we are removing non-native invasive plants, undertaking woodland management, such as thinning of trees, and introducing grazing on a number of sites, including our reserves in the Mawddach Valley which I also visited yesterday and at Gwenffrwd Dinas.
It’s an exciting, long-term initiative that, crucially, involves local people as contractors, volunteers and visitors to the woods. It’s precisely the sort of project that we need to restore nature in the UK on a landscape-scale and I hope that it joins the list of ground-breaking conservation projects such as the restoration of the Flow Country or recovery of the bittern which have all benefited from EU-LIFE funding.
We live at a time when the political rhetoric about restoring nature has escalated yet this has yet to be matched by adequate resourcing. EU-LIFE funding has been an essential stimulus that will not be available once the UK leaves the European Union which is why it will be essential that beyond Brexit (if such a thing exists), there must be replacement funding to transform more landscapes for people and wildlife .
Celtic Rainforests Wales is a partnership of Snowdonia National Park Authority, RSPB Cymru, Natural Resources Wales, Woodland Trust and Welsh Water. You can find out more about the project at celticrainforests.wales.
Be grateful that you do not live in Dyffryn Nantlle (especially the lower Nantlle valley), where Gwynedd LPA (Local Planning Authority) in conjunction with local quarrying interests, landowners, and farmers are openly destroying protected wildlife habitats and using General Development Permitted Order (GDPO) loopholes to push through the removal of old slate tip habitats (also complete with protected wildlife) to meet mineral quotas and make-up shortfall quotas for areas like Yns Môn (Anglesey).
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