The Gwent Levels near my home in Monmouthshire are entirely man-made. Skirting the northern edge of the Severn Estuary they are one of the largest surviving areas of ancient, grazed wetlands left in Britain. It’s an area where humans have worked with nature and water to create a sustainable place in which they could live. The Romans first reclaimed this land by building sea defences. It’s believed horses from the nearby Roman fortress of Caerleon grazed on fields reclaimed from the sea. After the Romans left, the sea reclaimed the land. The landscape you can see now dates back to the medieval period, although it’s believed many of the drainage systems follow those built by the Romans. And it’s the intricate drainage network which manages rainfall that makes this such an incredible place.
I’ll admit when we first visited one of the reserves on the Gwent Levels just after we had moved to the area I was a little underwhelmed. At first glance the landscape can appear unremarkable. It has none of the drama of the Cornish coast, Snowdonia or the Lake District, none of the classic beauty of the Cotswolds or the Yorkshire Dales. But it didn’t take long for me to discover that I just needed to look a bit closer to discover the delights of this watery world.
Rich in a variety of habitats – coastal and floodplain grazing marsh, wet meadows, reedbeds and saline lagoon – this is fertile land that is criss-crossed with a series of drainage channels. Water is held in the ditches from spring to autumn to provide water for agriculture. These high levels of water also provide the perfect conditions for plants and animals. In winter, pens (wooden planks) are lifted causing the water levels to drop allowing the ditches to be flushed and controlling winter flood water. Ridge and furrow ploughing was practiced on these fields as it would have been across the UK during the Middle Ages – the raised ridges encouraged better drainage than a flat field. Water would run off the fields into gullies known as gripes, then into a series of field drainage ditches and finally into more substantial watercourses known as reens, from the Welsh rhewyn. Pollarded willows were often grown along reens to strengthen the banks and you can still see these oddly shaped trees at Magor Marsh.
Magor Marsh is a reserve on the Levels managed by Gwent Wildlife Trust with boardwalks taking visitors through the landscape. It’s also home to a thriving population of water voles following a reintroduction programme in 2012. For nine years prior to this, this once common species had been absent from the Levels. One of our cutest creatures it also has the less envious title of the nation’s fastest declining wild mammal, according to the Wildlife Trusts. It’s always been a creature I’ve wanted to see in the wild, but a sighting had so far eluded us, that is until last spring. We’d heard they were there, but our previous visits had been like those at the zoo when you stand at the enclosure searching high and low for the creature that is meant to reside there but to no avail. So we couldn’t believe our luck when we heard the distinctive plop as one left the bank to swim across the reen. Then there was another and another. Our best count so far is ten in one day. This isn’t a place you need to trek to for hours. They’re right by the car park. This fabulous little reserve means we’ve seen young and old, the fit and those less able watching these delightful wild animals. All walk away with a grin on their face.
The reens teem with life, whether it’s the great silver water beetle, the musk beetle, the flowering rush, or a whole host of rare aquatic plant species. In winter, it’s a bleak landscape open to the large skies above, with willows silhouetted against the low winter sun and the wind whistling through this flat land. The silvery, fat, furry buds of willow appear as warmth creeps back into the sun and green shoots start to emerge. This is the best time to catch a glimpse of the water voles, before the reeds take over the reen banks. Wander through the boardwalks in May to the wetland meadow and you’ll see one of the most magical sights – a whole field of ragged robin. Hidden among the willows and alder you can come across scarlet elf caps, a name which sounds like it was conjured up by Enid Blyton. The reeds grow at an incredible rate in summer making it tricky to see the water voles scurrying into their burrows. Brown hares, otters and lapwings live here too, along with a good population of farmland birds whose habitat is threatened in many parts of the country. The unimproved grasslands are also home to the shrill carder bee, one of the UK’s rarest bumblebees.
The Levels would be an area under water if they weren’t managed correctly. Flora and fauna thrive, as do the villages, as long as everyone plays their part. The landowners, farmers, drainage boards, councils and wildlife charities all have to come together if the drainage channels are to work effectively. If the Levels work as they should the flood plains of the River Usk, absorbing excess rainwater coming downstream and from the surrounding hillsides, can work properly too.
Despite the Gwent Levels being home to nationally important wildlife this appears to not matter as an extension to the M4 motorway will cut through a section of the Levels. The idea is to relieve congestion where the current motorway is squeezed from three lanes down to two at the Brynglas Tunnels, a well-known, local bottleneck. This ancient landscape will have a whopping great big motorway carved through it. This road would pass through four Sites of Special Scientific Interest and very close to Magor Marsh, also a SSSI, thereby disregarding all those studies which show wildlife needs to be able to move and spread out in order to thrive. Much has been done across the country to create wildlife corridors; here it will be a corridor of concrete and tarmac. And, in light of this winter’s flooding, is it really a wise move to build in an area prone to high water levels? With traffic jams that can stretch from Newport to Bristol on a Friday evening a solution is needed, but there were other options, ones which would have protected the Levels and cost significantly less money. What the Gwent Levels show is the willingness of politicians to disregard the protections they came up with in the first place, rendering them meaningless. It also shows that politicians invariably choose the most obvious, but not always the most effective, solution to a problem.
It’s sad to think that the hard work done to re-establish water voles could all be for nothing and that this ancient, beautiful landscape will, over the coming years, change forever.