Guest blog from Jon Cryer, Policy Officer for RSPB Cymru

The Gwent Levels in South East Wales is one of the largest areas of reclaimed grassland in the UK and the largest in Wales. The creation and management of this landscape over hundreds of years has resulted in a unique landscape where nature has thrived alongside a variety of land uses, including farming. This landscape is important for biodiversity, recreation, ecosystem services such as flood alleviation and carbon storage, food production and culturally in its historic importance and the communities it supports. 

In order to utilise the land for food production a series of reens and ditches were created to control the movement of water and to drain water from the land. It is these reens and ditches, and the traditional management used to maintain them, that created a network of habitat rich in species. This network of watery habitat has led to the designation of 6 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) covering roughly one third of the wet grassland and reen systems.

The traditional methods used to drain the land for agriculture were a combination of farmers managing in-field ditches and the local drainage board managing the larger reens. This was achieved through a regular rotation of ditch/reen clearance, which prevented silting up and kept ditches clear of vegetation. In recent years changes in farming practice have led to a decline in management of the in-field ditches, with the result that many have been in-filled, overgrown or silted up, and this has impacted on the quality of the habitat and the species diversity which in turn impacts on the status of the SSSI network.

RSPB is leading a partnership where we are working with a group of farmers to re-establish management of the ditches as part of a sustainable farming system, that as well as supporting farming businesses also protects water quality and soil health, restores habitats and protects wildlife, secures designated sites and enhances the landscape for recreation and tourism. The project will also provide demonstration sites to inform the wider farming community, as well as policy and decision makers, of the benefits and challenges of implementing a sustainable land management system. At the same time, the project will work to ensure local communities have improved knowledge of the various benefits sustainable farming can provide.

Work is already underway with restoration of designated ditch features, led by Gwent Wildlife Trust, having taken place on a number of farms including scrub clearance and re-profiling of ditches. Orchard restoration has also begun with one orchard having been cleared of scrub and replacement fruit trees of local provenance having been obtained. Future work includes pollarding willows, assessing farms for potential improvements in water and nutrient management and identifying opportunities for creation of pollinator habitat. Alongside the practical work we will be gathering information on the impact changes have on farm businesses, how much expert advice and guidance is required to deliver positive outcomes, how the implemented changes affect habitats and species and what the cost would be of delivering the approach on participating farms.

The project is part of a wider scheme looking to achieve positive outcomes for natural heritage, culture, local communities and businesses on the Gwent Levels. Funding has already been secured from a number of sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund and additional resources are currently being sought from Welsh Government.

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