Our featured reserve in the Summer issue of Nature's Home took a behind the scenes look at one of our most-loved reserves situated in the heart of Wales - Ynys-hir. The article proved to be a big hit with our readers, so we asked Site Manager, David Anning to delve deeper into the history of the reserve and bring you a first-hand account of what it's really like to work here 50 years on...
It’s early May, the first rays of the morning’s sun are burning off the mist. The air is heavy with the scent of bluebells and the rapid tinkling of a wood warblers song cuts through the twisted oak trees. In the distance a grasshopper warbler is reeling from the bog and the distant calls of redshanks and lapwings hint at the wetlands and estuary in the distance.
There are few places where you can sense all this by standing in one spot and RSPB Ynys-hir is one of those places.
Ynys-hir has captured the imagination of many and its history is as much about the people who have worked, volunteered and visited here as it is about its wildlife. This is particularly true at the moment. Covid-19 has shut the reserve, but when we do our checks on the reserve something is clearly missing and it takes a few moments to work out what, eventually you realise that not having people on the reserve enjoying nature detracts from the whole experience.
Of course, when the reserve first opened in 1970 things were very different. The reserve was open one day a week and you had to book in advance and obtain a permit to visit. Once you arrived you would be accompanied by the warden, who at that time was Bill Condry.
Bill was a famous natural history writer, whose column in the Guardian was incredibly popular. He had lived at Ynys-hir before the RSPB bought it and was key to the RSPB purchasing it. Before Bill became the RSPB’s first warden, Bill’s landlord was Hubert Mappin. Hubert owned Ynys-hir hall and the surrounding estate. Bill, Hubert Mappin and the village vicar, the famous poet R.S. Thomas, were good friends and together they planned to turn Ynys-hir into a nature reserve. However, Hubert Mappin died suddenly, and his estate went to his wife. She understood what her husband had wanted, but she was unsure, she needed time to think.
Months later there was a knock on Bill’s door one evening. Bill was surprised to find Mrs Mappin holding a large picture. She showed the picture to Bill. It was a water colour of a view of Ynys-hir with woods, pools and the saltmarsh stretching beyond. She asked, is this what the nature reserve will look like? Bill answered ‘yes’, and the rest is history. The RSPB took on Ynys-hir.
Since 1970 we have purchased even more land and one of our biggest projects has been extending the reserve westward to include more lowland wet grassland for breeding waders. We now have one of Wales’ most important breeding wader populations and much of the land is used by England and Wales’ only regular wintering flock of Greenland white-fronted geese.
At first, these fields were intensively farmed for dairy and beef cattle. Over time we reduced intensification, changed the steep-sided drainage ditches into wider water features, increased water levels and took down many of the fences that criss-crossed the land. Initially the effects of this work were dramatic. Lapwing and redshank numbers increased rapidly, however, over time wader numbers have declined.
This pattern of events is common on wetland sites as waders such as lapwings respond to sudden changes in conditions before numbers fall to a lower level as conditions stabilise. Our next phase of work here is to create a more dynamic wetland where we flood some areas and dry others from one year to the next so that there are always new areas for the lapwings to take advantage of. This has seen a huge investment in replacement sluices and a new electric fence to keep foxes out of our best wader fields. Now we are about to start a new programme of work to dig a network of shallow ‘foot-drains’ across the site. This will create more wet edges for waders to feed. We also want to get better control of our water so that we can move water around the reserve between years so that we are constantly creating new areas for the birds to nest.
When we look at the reserve over the past 50 years it is fascinating as to what has changed and what has remained the same. Ynys-hir is still as enchanting as ever, however, I think Bill would be amazed as to how the reserve has progressed over the years and how big the reserve has become!
For more information on Ynys-hir, visit our Reserves A-Z - we look forward to welcoming back visitors in due course. For our latest update on coronavirus, please see the recent statement from RSPB Chief Executive, Beccy Speight.
And keep your eyes peeled for news on our next big event on 23 May, as we bring you Big Wild Sleepout: The Lockdown Edition - you won't want to miss this!
Images: 1) Looking across Ynys-hir nature reserve_Jenny Hibbert (rspb-images.com). 2) View of pool from Ynys Eidiol hide_Andy Hay (rspb-images.com). 3) Greenland white-fronted goose_Andy Hay (rspb-images.com). 4) View from the woodland trail_Jenny Hibbert (rspb-images.com). 5) Taken from the RSPB Love Nature 'Big Wild Sleepout' Facebook live event.
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