Gwent Wildlife Trust, Magor Marsh, Monmouthshire, scarlet elf cap, shrill carder bee, water voles
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.
Your blog left me with a false sense of security, lulled into the peace and serenity of the Levels.. Then wham! A load of motorway traffic hurtled in! How sad.
Perhaps the start of the post should have come with a warning. 😉 Yes, it is sad. It might not be the most spectacular of places, but it still has so much to offer. I struggle to see how £1 billion spent on yet another road is the way forward.
I was just thinking how wonderful it all sounded, and then I read about the motorway. How utterly stupid, and short-sighted.
Hi Tracey, Isn’t it? That seems to be the way when it comes to choices which will make a lasting impact.
New Moons For Old said:
What a beautiful piece, with such a bitter twist at the end. It’s hard to believe the short-sightedness of planners, who disregard not just the rules that are supposed to guide them but also the evidence of their own eyes and the balance of a wonderful water-management and eco-system. I have never heard of the Gwent Levels before – so much less well-known than the Somerset Levels – and am horrified to think that this little-known area is facing such devastating change.
Thank you. I wish it hadn’t had the ‘bitter twist’. It’s always frustrated and angered me that protections are put in place but when government wants to do something it can come along and move the goal posts. I hadn’t heard of them until we moved here. It’s a much smaller area than other wetlands, but it’s a vital source of nature in an increasingly built up area.
Laura Bloomsbury said:
such a calamity for wildllife – so well written – had to RT –
Thank you Laura, and thanks for the RT. I don’t know how much countryside we’ll have left in some parts of the country over the coming decades if even protected land is open to be concreted over.
Laura Bloomsbury said:
there is the ever ready the threat of HS2 – and every time they mention building millions more homes I cringe – this sceptred isle is heading for septic
Louise, I was really enjoying your tale and thinking how wonderful that the numbers of water voles was increasing, then wham! How awful that the powers that be think they have the right to destroy such a valuable habitat, when will they learn!
Hi Pauline, Ooo! I feel a bit bad now. Perhaps I should have had a warning at the start. I just don’t understand how land can be protected one minute and then not the next. It’s a very confusing message. It really says those in power can do want they want. Hopefully the voles at Magor Marsh will continue to thrive. Fingers crossed!
This is a lovely post. Landscape doesn’t have to be dramatic, something soft and gentle can have so much to offer you just have to be quiet, patient and look carefully. I know the Gwent Levels from long ago and I’m saddened to think that after all the hard restoration work that a motorway can be carved through its heart. So much for environmental designation, alas not worth the paper its written on!
Thank you! It’s these less dramatic, but no less vital or beautiful spots of countryside that most of us have access to, but it seems that these are the ones under most threat. I’m really not sure why they bother with environmental protection as it seems to be meaningless in the face of government plans.
Diana Studer said:
Is there a petition to sign?
Unfortunately it’s too late now. Lots of various bodies campaigned against it. In fact, there were more against it than for, but in the end the government made its choice…
I am so sad to read your post – I drive to Cardiff quite frequently as my parents are there – as you rightly point out, once the M4 goes through there’s no going back – is there no legal challenge that can be made to such a proposal??? Or is it beyond that? I would support a petition to stop it – thanks for raising the issue on your beautiful blog
There was a legal challenge by Friends of the Earth. It went to judicial review but the judge found in favour of the Welsh government and contracts have already been awarded to the builders. There was a lot of opposition, but it wasn’t enough. It rarely is in these cases. it’s very sad but it’s happening all over, with projects such as HS2. Thank you for your lovely comment about my blog. 🙂
Thank you for updating me – agree it is very sad – I hope that judge can look themselves in the eye- yes we have HS2 quite close to us in Cheshire- look forward to your next post k
A brilliant post, Louise, thank you for addressing the issues of the M4 upgrade through such a fragile ‘protected’ environment so eloquently. Lovely pics too, Ian.
Hi Kate, Thank you! Perhaps it won’t come off – I can’t imagine where they’re going to find £1 billion from. They have awarded the first contracts though, so that’s probably false hope. Aw! Ian will be chuffed with that compliment. 🙂
What a wonderful post, the land here is glorious isn’t it. I’m horrified that there are plans to put a motorway through it. When will this sort of destruction stop? I often visit the Severn Estuary on the English side and there is always an amazing array of wildlife. It really is such a special place. It is utterly heartbreaking to see it gradually destroyed, piece by piece. CJ xx
Thank you CJ. I’m not sure it ever will – HS2, another runway at Heathrow etc. It is a special place. Lou xx
A most interesting, and informative, post and good pictures.
Sadly politicians are all too often short-sighted in the decisions that they make about such places. xx
Thanks Flighty. We need politicians and voters to think like tree planters. If you plant a tree you’re not doing it for yourself, it’s for future generations. If only we could think like that about other aspects of life…
Hope you have a lovely week. Looks like it might finally start to feel like spring by the end of the week. 🙂 xx
You evoke this place so beautifully and then hit with the M$ extension. I must have seen reporting of the changes to the M4 on the news without realising that it would damage the Gwent levels to this extent. It makes me so angry that wildlife apparently matters not at all when it is so often the measure of whether a place is healthy or not.
Thank you! There’s so much news nowadays I think it’s hard to get noticed when you have a situation like this one. There were other options but it’s not clear why they were dismissed.
It really is the same story all over again. Whether it’s from this that or the other country. Protection of nature, not only for our sake to enjoy, but just for its own sake, that it gets to be there without having to serve a purpose just doesn’t seem to be important to most people let alone any politician I can think of. What a sad prospect for this lovely-sounding area. What a sad state of affairs, it’s a bit difficult sometimes not to feel despondent. You do write beautifully about this area.
Hi Helle, I know. We have other large scale projects in the UK like the HS2 rail link to Birmingham, which has dubious reasoning and another runway at Heathrow. It’s always about constant growth, being economic powerhouses, an important airport hub etc. But it will have to stop somewhere. It’s so frustrating.
Thank you for your lovely compliment. I just wish they’re been a happier ending. I think I’ll have to write about something more positive for my next post. 😉
Yes, your post should definitely have begun with a warning! There I was, basking in the beauty of your photos and getting all nostalgic about watching voles on canal walks as a child when wham! Is the road scheme a certainty then? I’m appalled. This government appears to have no respect for the value and importance of SSSIs. Am very cross now.
Hi Janet. I’m sorry! It looks like the road is going ahead. Friends of the Earth took the Welsh government to court and there was a judicial review, but it found in favour of the government. The first contractors have been chosen too. I suppose the only hope is they can’t find the £1 billion they’ve estimated it’ll cost. I have never understand why you protect somewhere but then disregard it – it’s the height of arrogance. It’s either important or not. But it’s happening elsewhere, look at HS2 and Heathrow.
There’s no joined up thinking. Ian and his colleagues now have to travel further to work as the company has moved the office and public transport isn’t an option. House prices are so expensive that when they’ve closed an office and moved elsewhere people can’t afford to move. So you end up with people travelling long distances just to get to work. Then more roads need to be built.
I’ll try and write something with a happier ending next time. 😉
Grr, yes, the lack of anybody stepping back and looking at the big picture is truly depressing. It all seems to be about apparent short term gain, the bottom line, keeping shareholders happy or trying to make sure you get voted in again. Grr…
Anne Wareham (@AnneWareham) said:
Truth telling IS painful sometimes, but don’t stop!
There may just be a sliver lining to this if it really does happen (there still seem to be rumblings about it and there are elections soon). The road building should turn up some fascinating archaeology.
Oh Louise what a thoughtful, well-written post and heartbreaking at the end, such a crying shame and so short-sighted. I fear there will be many tales like these to come in the future too. What a treat you had to see the watervoles. I’ve seen one once and was so excited I felt so happy to see what is now such an endangered creature. The otter’s recovery in many places has been a modest success story I wonder if we can do the same for little ratty, but also all the other creatures that live in these unique habitats. Though this is a real set-back.
Ellie Holmes said:
Thank you for a wonderful post. You paint the scene so vividly and evocatively I could imagine myself there looking at it through your eyes. There are so few places left where life is much as it might have been hundreds of years ago, and whilst we cannot hold on to the past at all costs, with places like this it is not only part of their magic but the key to their survival too. Your insertion of the plans for the motorway at the end of your piece was jarring and alarming and was very well done, as it gave us a sense of how the motorway would slam into this beautiful landscape in the same way the end of your post knocked us from the idyll you had shown us. Trying to find something positive I would hope that after the scars of the road creation have healed it is possible the land and wildlife will adapt to their albeit unwanted neighbour. Let’s hope so. Great post!
Just to point out: It is not yet too late influence the M4 construction plans! Everyone can respond to the public Welsh Government consultation until the 4th of May and, depending on the responses received, there may be a public local enquiry.