The wild landscapes of West Wales, by Dr Lizzie Wilberforce of South & West Wales Wildlife Trust.
May’s talk came from Dr Lizzie Wilberforce of the South & West Wales Wildlife Trust. Wales has an incredibly varied mosaic of habitats, all of which the Wildlife Trust are involved in the care of. The Wildlife Trusts are a national network of independent charities whose function is the conservation and protection of the local environment flora and fauna. Local Trusts both fund raise and spend locally, meaning they are more able to respond to local need and the unique habitats they support.
Whilst it may seem that Wales has plenty of forests and Woodlands, this is not the case. Late in the 19th Century, Wales only had 3% of woodland cover. Since then, this has risen gradually to 14%, in part at least to the Welsh government’s recovery plan, but this is still a low figure; as a comparison, 70% of Scandinavia is covered by forest. Many of our trees were felled during the world wars to provide for the mines, they were replanted as their importance was recognised, however this has resulted in woodland with trees all of a similar age., rather than a natural range to support a greater diversity of wildlife.
Whilst Wales doesn’t have a great deal of woodland, the woodland it does have is very important. 31% of all Wales’ woods are ancient woodland. This means that the area has been continuously wooded for at least 400 years. Dinefwr is home to trees over 600 years old! Other woodlands particularly important in Wales are upland Oak woodland, and upland Ash woodland. Many of our scarce wildlife species depend on ancient woodland, they have poor mobility, so face a special threat through deforestation. Even if woodlands are re-planted such species will be lost from that area, and are slow to return. There is a different value for new vs ancient woodland.
The plants and trees tell a story of the landscape, not only the rock formation, mineral quantity or soil quality, but also the history of agriculture and land use. Ash is often found where the soil is rich In iron. Undergrowth of bilberry or heather reflect a history of sheep grazing in the area. Steep land typically has think, poor soil meaning it is not useful as farming land, so Upland Oak woodland is often found in these areas.
Although the percentage of woodland in Wales is increasing there are serious threats to our trees. As well as diseases which have been around for many years such as Dutch Elm Disease, newer diseases have been making the news recently, such as Ash die-back, and Sudden Oak Death. These diseases show the importance of maintaining the biodiversity in our woods. Lizzie explained that they are not encouraging people to clear out ash trees, as it is recognised that Ash die-back is present in the UK, and removing them may prevent the development of natural resistance. There is a restriction on moving ash trees or wood. An increased genetic diversity will increase a species resilience to disease.
Castle Wood a reserve owned by the Trust was badly affected by Dutch Elm disease, however 30 years on there is regeneration. Sycamore has grown up in many of the elm’s place, many species dependant on elm have switched to live on the sycamore as the bark chemistry is similar. We were all please to hear that sycamore has its uses! Whilst sycamore doesn’t host the greatest number of species (oak does) it does host the highest biomass; it’s great for aphids, which is a favourite of the dormouse (one of our favourites!) Coniferous woodland have an important role for protecting red squirrels who find it easier to not be out-competed in such woodland. The Red Squirrel Project was started in 2002, and a Red Squirrel Officer has recently been appointed to support landowners to improve the chances of this pretty native mammal.
Grassland is probably our most abundant habitat, but unfortunately in many cases the green fields that surround us are not the most diverse. Animals need good grass to grow successfully, and these dominant grasses tend to out-compete other species. Similar spraying to remove pest or invasive weeds will tend to cause significant damage to wildlife.
There are other grassland habitats which are very valuable to wildlife such as marshy grassland, and upland calcareous grassland. Unfortunately these are under-threat due to our ever-increasing demand for grazing. The Wildlife Trust supports a number of unique sites with lowland acidic soil, or calcareous (limestone) soil which host a range of rare species including bee orchids, and marsh fritillary butterflies. The Wildlife Trust are using highland cattle to graze for marsh orchids.
The pressures on our countryside to be productive are huge, this makes the work of the wildlife even more important.
She encouraged us to visit the sites, or find out more on www.welshwildlife.org