Eric and I are attending the Society of American Travel Writer’s annual convention, in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. The annual five-day event introduces members to different countries of the world and conference organizers always arrange a series of pre- and post-trips of several days duration. These four-day events focus on a particular aspect of the country.
We enjoyed a pre-conference trip called “Take a Hike,” which saw us hiking and horseback riding through some of the most attractive Welsh farm and park lands you could imagine.
Our guide, Alun Price, works for the Community Lands Association of Wales. Dedicated to the conservation of wild lands in this country, a large part of Alun’s work is to negotiate deals with farmers to ensure that wild habitats are preserved.
It is through such negotiations that “exclosures” have been erected on the otherwise barren-looking landscape surrounding Wales’ highest peak, Snowdon (1,085 m elevation). Despite the mountain being the epicentre of Snowdonia, the 2,171 square-kilometre National Park, its slopes are grazed by hundreds (if not thousands) of sheep.
They are everywhere: the fluffy white creatures remain a mainstay of this country’s economy, and, unlike Canadian national parks, Welsh park lands are still mostly owned by private landowners. Parks exist, but the interests of the landowners seem to have prevailed here: grazing rights allow sheep, for instance, to range freely over Snowdonia’s mountains and valleys. As cute and picturesque as they are, the result is that the hills and valleys of this beautiful park are denuded of anything like “natural” habitat.
There are no shrubs, very little heather: instead, the visitor sees a hilly landscape of grasses, punctuated by fluffy white dots… sheep.
This reality means that park rangers must have excellent negotiating skills, for if wildlife such as the red-tailed kite (a hawk-like bird that was almost wiped out a few years ago) are to have any future at all, vegetation must be allowed to re-establish itself.
Park Ranger Hywel Roberts pointed to a few “exclosures,” fenced-off plots that represent tiny victories. Each small patch is protected from sheep by the fence, so that biologists can observe what types of plants start to grow once the land is protected from grazing.
“Why are the plots so small?,” asked one of my writer-colleagues. Our guide responded that their size and small number indicate the challenges that parks people face while dealing with the landowners. When sheep are their economic livelihood, farmers don’t easily relinquish their grazing rights.
And this is understandable, isn’t it? We face the same types of dilemmas of habitat loss in Canada, for as urban expansion continues, agriculture is squeezed and, as we know all too well, habitat for wild creatures and vegetation is the first to suffer.
Another loss to the landscape happened perhaps thousands of years ago, as the ancient peoples here cleared hilltops for their forts. The valleys, say Mr. Price, were too densely wooded and wild, so it was the tops of hills where the first peoples, 4,000 years ago, started building their villages and forts.
Today, the woods here in Wales are all managed. In fact, there’s not really much – if any – technically “natural” landscape that exists here. All has been deeply affected by people over thousands of years.
The picturesque wide valleys where tidy-looking fields are defined by wide hedges or stone fences don’t reflect anything close to a “pristine, natural” aspect.
Instead, the landscape reflects agrarian and industrial activity that has taken place over thousands of years.
Take the hedgerows for example. These are signatures of the countryside of the United Kingdom, being a type of “natural” fencing that has been used effectively for hundreds and hundreds of years.
But in the late 1960s through 1970s, many hedges were torn out and burned. Why? Because of mechanization and “economies of scale” in farming. In order to work the land economically, farmers had to get their new, big machines onto their plots… and rid themselves of the common 3-4 acre plots that hitherto had been ploughed by horses.
So they ripped out the hedges.
In so doing, they eliminated the habitat of many of Britain’s wild creatures. Insects, birds, animals all suffered and started declining in alarming numbers.
And we’re not just talking about a tiny little hedge. Hedges here in Wales are sometimes almost two metres wide, with ancient-looking, gnarled “trees” such as holly and hawthorne whose trunks have been “plaithed” for hundreds of years.
What is plaithing? It’s a process whereby a tree’s trunk is systematically split and trained to grow in two or more directions. As we rode horses through the country lanes, we had an excellent opportunity to observe plaithing up close: the dense hedges were well over a metre in width and the base of the shrubby trees were thick, all bent in a symmetrical fashion rather like espalier trees.
Mr. Price had told us that the hedgerows were avenues for wildlife, but I was surprised to see how active an “animal highway” was hidden in the hedgerows. There were burrows, too, perhaps of rabbits, or possibly of badgers.
And everywhere, as we strolled or rode our horses alongside hedgerows, birdsong filled the air.
Throughout Britain, there has been a national campaign to replant hedgerows. Happily, farmers have responded to the call and this type of wildlife habitat is being restored.
As our “Take a Hike” pre-trip tour came to a close, we were heading towards Cardiff from the southwest seaside: this, Mr. Price told us, is the red-tailed kite’s habitat. “Keep your eyes peeled for a hawk-like bird with its characteristically V-shaped tail.”
“There’s one!,” exclaimed Eric.
The kite swept past our bus, giving us a glorious glimpse of how conservation and restoration of wild habitat can allow species to share our world.
>Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based near Quyon. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org