Thursday, 10 November 2016

Come rain or shine - volunteering on Gower

Ollie and Alys - two of our Gower volunteers

 “Event cancelled due to wind and rain”. 

The sign seemed to sum up our summer in a sentence.  Facing the prospect of their Wildlife Fun Day turning into more of a no-wildlife misery day, our rangers had taken the sensible decision to call it off. 

But I wasn’t too disappointed, as I’d travelled down to Gower to join their annual volunteer end-of-summer barbeque, which was still going ahead whatever the weather.  Whiteford Burrows, on the peninsula’s remoter north coast is the venue for both these popular annual events, which are based at the Cwm Ivy Lodge bunkhouse.

So with a couple of hours to go before the volunteers were due to arrive, I headed off to indulge in a bit of wildlife fun of my own.  And you can see why this place is chosen for the annual celebration of Gower’s biodiversity.  The newly restored Cwm Ivy salt marsh felt more like the Everglades than the Loughor estuary, with tidal creeks filled with teeming small fish and scuttling crabs, and exotic-looking egrets roosting in the nearby trees.

Sea lavender, amongst creeks teeming with fish and scuttling crabs
 After strolling through verdant woodland resounding to the call of woodpeckers, I climbed the limestone outcrop of Cwm Ivy Tor and sat amongst a floral kaleidoscope of lemon-yellow common rockrose, deep-purple greater knapweed and electric-blue viper’s bugloss to take in the vast breathtaking sweep of beach, dunes and marsh.  I know of nowhere else on the Welsh coast where you can find such a diversity of well-managed top-notch habitats in such a compact area.
Cwm Ivy marsh - an amazing assemblage of wildlife habitats
Snatches of laughter and wisps of barbeque smoke drifted through the conifers that surround the Lodge as I approached, and I soon found myself amongst the forty or so jovial volunteers, busying with preparations for the evening’s repast. 

The Cwm Ivy Lodge - the ideal place for a gathering

Part of my role is to encourage more volunteering at our coastal places, so I was curious to find out what motivates this loyal and dedicated band of unpaid workers.  I found that it varied greatly from person to person.  Some, like retired academic and coastodian Gordon, are fairly independent folks driven by a desire to adopt a particular place, helping to look after it and act as our rangers’ eyes and ears. 

Others, like retired husband and wife Dave and Margaret, come for camaraderie, being long-standing members of the lively ‘Tuesday group’. Swansea University ecology master’s student, Alys, calls her volunteering ‘sanity days’, as they give her a chance to clear her head of her studies and get out of the bubble of student life.  But the one thing they all have in common is a love of Gower and a desire to put something back for the joy the area gives them.

A dozen of us stayed the night and, as we breakfasted, the forecasted storm arrived.  The wind roared in the trees; the rain rattled on the Lodge’s tin roof and streamed down the windows.  We gathered under the veranda and shivered as we watched rain squalls sweeping across the marsh.  Even the usually-abundant birdlife had deserted the site.  

Gower volunteers - in action helping to create wildlife habitats at Cwm Ivy Marsh

 But soon we saw a few figures emerging out of the gloom.  I was amazed to find that they were members of the Saturday group, ready to join the task for the day.

As I got ready to leave for the long drive north, they were donning waterproofs and were being briefed by ranger Claire before heading off into the maelstrom to clear plastic off the beach. 

I was left with a profound respect for these hardy souls.  Such people demonstrate some of humanity’s greatest virtues: love of place, respect for nature and care for our environment.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Cemlyn's Changing Coastline

Cemlyn: A place of big skies, seabirds and storms. (c) NT/Joe Cornish
Cemlyn is a place of big skies; a refuge for wildlife and a sanctuary for those wishing to escape everyday life and find solace in breathtakingly beautiful scenery. 

But we face a big challenge keeping it that way…

Climate Change: Challenge or Opportunity?

This two-mile stretch of National Trust land, half a mile from the village of Cemaes on the North Anglesey coast, is of exceptional environmental and cultural value.  It is home to an internationally important breeding colony of Sandwich terns, includes a historic mill and church and was the site of Anglesey’s first lifeboat.

The estate includes two family-run farms, two smallholdings and is a popular destination for walkers, bird-watchers and kayakers.

But Cemlyn faces an uncertain future.  Much of the estate is low-lying and is already affected by coastal flooding and erosion.  Wildlife, historic features and the farming way of life are all threatened by climate change, raising serious questions about the future of the estate. 

Sea-level rise projections require a radical re-think about land use and access routes on the estate (1m sea level rise marked in light blue).
Ordnance Survey data (c) Crown Copyright and database
The land also sits right next door to the site of the proposed Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station which, if it goes ahead, will be one of Europe’s biggest construction sites.

If ever there was a need for a clear conservation vision, this is it.

Take a look at Cemlyn’s breathtakingly beautiful coastline from the air

Storms over-top the shingle ridge, lowering its height and flooding farmland (Photo: Jane Rees)
Parking problems?  The main car park is frequently flooded by the tide, making it necessary to plan for its relocation.

Stormy Waters

Sea levels are rising.  Since records began at nearby Holyhead in 1965, there’s already been a 17.8 cm rise in mean high water.

By the end of the century, land currently being used for silage, crops and grazing at Cemlyn will be underwater at the highest tides.  The shingle ridge that protects the islands which support 20% of the UK Sandwich terns may be breached and access roads, car parks and footpaths will be unusable.

"The 12 highest recorded high tides [at nearby Holyhead] have all occurred since 1997"
 Prof. Ken Pye, Environmental Scientist and advisor to the Cemlyn vision project

Seeking a shared vision

We’ve recently started to share our ideas for Cemlyn’s future with our farming tenants, conservation partners and the local community.  This follows two years of detailed research, which has involved studies of the hydrology, geomorphology, soils and farming practices of the estate. 

A picture is emerging of threatened habitats, livelihoods and farming traditions that stretch back for generations.

Sharing our vision

We’ve taken our stand to the Anglesey Show and held a Cemlyn Open Day to share our vision and gather feedback from locals and visitors.

We are sharing what we know about the challenges of climate change with those who depend on Cemlyn for their livelihood

The North Wales Wildlife Trust has been managing the Cemlyn Lagoon, with its thriving tern colony, for over 40 years.  Their expertise has been crucial to developing the vision, and we have also been in discussion with the Isle of Anglesey County Council and the RSPB.  Thanks to Jane Rees/NWWT for this 1970s archive photo, showing volunteers repairing the damaged weir.

Our role is to defend the beauty and wildlife of this amazing stretch of coast.  If the timeless habitats and farming heritage are to survive at this special place, we must prepare now to overcome the challenges of climate change by working with our farming tenants, the community and conservation partners. 

To help visualise the likely changes we commissioned an artist's impression of how the landscape will look in our grandchildren's time

Did you know?

Cemlyn has a fascinating nature conservation history dating back nearly a century.  Download our timeline to find out more.

 We would like to hear from you

If you would like to contribute to our vision, or just want to let us know what you think, please feel free to use the comment facility on this blog, or contact me

To find out more, download our bilingual vision document

You may need to download the Dropbox app to view the above link.  Contact me if you'd like me to email you a copy.

Gwerthfawrogaf eich sylwadau ar ddyfodol Cemlyn.


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Fancy being a COASTodian?

Imagine taking a walk to your favourite place on the Welsh coast. Everyday worries fade away as you leave the road and stroll towards the shore. Your spirits lift as you take in the clean sea air and the invigorating sounds of seabirds and crashing waves. Then imagine how you’d feel when you arrive at your cherished beach to find it resembling a rubbish tip. Everywhere you look litter is scattered about; tatters of plastic festoon the gorse and thorn bushes and flap forlornly in the breeze; old campfires are surrounded by discarded empty drink cans.

Now imagine how you’d feel if you found out that this was a National Trust property. You’d probably tell all your friends about how awful it is that an organisation dedicated to public enjoyment of beautiful places hasn’t done something about it. You’d also consider bringing it to the attention of your local council. You may even write a strongly-worded letter to your local paper and MP.

Well, this is precisely what recently happened at one of our most beautiful South Wales beaches. Truth be told, with 157 miles of coast to look after, we don’t always have the resources to adequately look after all our places. In this particular case, it’s a half-day round trip for our rangers to check this beach and they were busy with a backlog of work elsewhere. Anxious to repair the rather dented relations with this community, the lead ranger phoned me up to ask if I was able to help.

COASTodian Kits - ready to go
As luck would have it, I’ve been working on an initiative which aims to remedy exactly this sort of situation. The COASTodian initiative (MORLINofalwr in Welsh) is a way for residents and visitors to get more involved with conserving beautiful places around the Welsh coast. The goal is to have a sort of human chain of Community COASTodians around our coast; each one of them dedicating some of their time to adopt a particular stretch of coast and check it regularly. As well as being our rangers’ ‘eyes and ears’ they can also carry out light maintenance tasks, make observations on wildlife sightings and help other people enjoy their visit or get involved.

Launching the COASTodian Initiative in Carmarthenshire
A few days later, I met the local ranger team at the aforementioned desecrated beach and with the help of the local Member of Parliament we removed a skip-full of rubbish, returning the beach to its pristine condition. But the challenge now is to keep it that way. So before I left, I handed over a couple of Community COASTodian kits to the rangers, who are now on the lookout for some benevolent resident to take up one of these new voluntary roles.

Peter Hill, COASTodian Number One
Buoyed up by this mini success story, I returned home and contacted one of the people who are leading the way with the initiative in North Wales. Three years ago, local resident Peter Hill noticed that we were struggling to keep up with the maintenance of Tywyn y Fach, an unspoilt stretch of sand dunes near Abersoch. Instead of complaining, he decided to do something practical. With our local rangers’ support, Peter began checking the site regularly; picking litter, inspecting the gates and signs and letting us know if he needed help with anything. As a result, he has single-handedly turned this popular location from a source of frustration to a source of pride.

The place is remarkable not only for its clean and tidy appearance, but also as a shining example of how local people can help us better care for their coast.

Click the link in the menu bar above to find out how to get involved.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Talking Trash

The residents of a terrace of cottages in Llanystymdwy can boast a right that in bygone times would have made them the envy of the village: that they could access a nearby beach to collect seaweed.  The reason for this rather outdated entitlement would have been obvious to any gardener or smallholder around the Welsh coast a few generations ago.  That is the wonderfully beneficial properties of seaweed as a soil improver and fertilizer. 
Llanystymdwy's local beach, now owned by NT, was once a source of seaweed for the community
Indeed, I can vouch for these myself, as seaweed is one of nature’s bounties that I’m in the habit of foraging.  Ever since I unwittingly introduced some residual pesticide in a load of dodgy horse-manure that caused my tomato plants to writhe and whither, seaweed is the only ingredient that I import to our compost heaps at home.

So that is why I recently found myself being buffeted by wind and chilled by spits of freezing rain on a local beach, pitching forkfuls of bladderwrack into my trailer. 

But the reason why I’m recounting this experience is not to impress you with my organic credentials or adherence to coastal traditions.  I wish to share with you my heartfelt dismay at the proliferation of another man-made pollutant that threatens to corrupt every single beach and cove in our otherwise pristine coastline: plastic. 

Try picking the seaweed out of this...
Every forkful of seaweed I lifted off the beach was entwined with multi-coloured strands of filament and rope and dotted with assorted fragments.  In fact, despite our efforts to pick this ubiquitous waste out of our compost, our soil is now speckled with these unwelcome reminders of humanity’s profligacy.

Soon after this disheartening experience, I was reminded of the scale of the problem at a Coastal Futures conference I attended in London.  Throughout a session on marine waste we learnt a succession of disturbing facts, such as the fact that over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century, and it will triple again by 2025; that a million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans and that 50 percent of the plastic we use, we use just once and throw away. 

But we also learnt that we shouldn’t blame plastic. It’s one of the mankind’s most useful inventions, having transformed our lives in countless ways, including our ability to insulate our houses and so reduce our carbon emissions. 

The problem lies with our waste management systems, or lack of them.  All over the world, organisations from the United Nations to local charities are coming together to tackle the problem.  We learnt about fishermen who have agreed to collect and recycle all the plastic that they collect in their trawl nets and about the excellent work of charities such as the Marine Conservation Society which organise events that enable us all to do our bit to clean our local beaches.

NT Visitor Services and Community Officer, Rhian Sula, with Michaela Strachan filming for Springwatch at Freshwater West
But we also learnt that we’ll never solve the problem just with beach cleans.  We must also tackle the problem at the other end: redirecting the flow of plastic waste into recycling schemes and blocking the ‘holes’ in our systems so that it doesn’t leak into the environment.

Mulling over what I’d learnt on my way back to Wales, my spirits lifted somewhat as I caught myself dreaming of a time when future generations enrich their gardens with seaweed unsullied by so much plastic, and of a time when the residents of that Llanystymdwy terrace will once again be envied by their neighbours for their right to access such a useful resource.

< To find out more about marine litter, and how to help, visit the Marine Conservation Society's excellent Beachwatch Results

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Finding beauty where you least expect it

Behind this ancient mill lies a hidden garden
One of my greatest pleasures in life is visiting gardens.

I suppose it’s something to do with that deeply satisfying combination of craft, art and nature.  Or perhaps it’s that basic human need to find meaning and order in a chaotic world.  Whatever the reason, we can count ourselves lucky that we have in Wales some of the world’s finest gardens.  And to my mind, gardens by the sea have that something extra special that is absent from their inland counterparts.

So imagine my pleasure when I was able to visit a charming garden the other day which displayed all those often conflicting qualities that make seaside gardens so special:  shelter and exposure; hardiness and tenderness; rock and water.

You’re probably thinking that since I work for a charity that’s famous for its gardens, it must be one of our own;  Plas yn Rhiw, Plas Newydd, Colby Woodland Garden perhaps?  Well, this particular garden was in fact private, sitting adjacent but inextricably linked to the National Trust countryside property of Cemlyn, on the rugged and exposed north Anglesey coast.

Cestyll Garden was created in the early 1920s by Violet Vivian, daughter of Lord Vivian of Bodmin.  She had been gifted Cestyll , a solidly-built house standing proud on this windswept coastline, by her uncle.  First she used it as a holiday cottage, but soon fell under the spell of the area’s wild beauty and moved here to live permanently. 

The Hon. Violet Vivian, in the garden she created in the 1920s

She quickly realised that a sheltered rocky ravine, through which cascaded the little Afon Gafnan on its final dash past a romantic disused mill to the sea, would make a wonderful garden.  Aided by her friend Princess Victoria, daughter of Edward VII, and contacts at Kew, she worked with the site’s unique topography and microclimate to create a hidden sanctuary planted with flowering shrubs, ornamental trees and streamside flowers.   She had bridges built over the tumbling stream and wove a circular path to reveal a series of intimate views of miniature cliffs and waterfalls ornamented with beautiful plants and all set against a backdrop of the ivy-covered mill, by now owned by the National Trust, and an astonishing framed view of the wild Irish Sea beyond.
She tended her garden until her death in 1962, and her ashes lie there, still nourishing the beauty that she created.
Glimpses of the wild Irish Sea from Cestyll Garden (
But before long, momentous changes engulfed Violet Vivian’s legacy, leading me to ponder on how fortunate it was that she never lived to see what happened next.  The neighbouring land was chosen for the Wylfa nuclear power station, which ran from 1971 to 2015, and there are plans for its successor, the much bigger Wylfa Newydd, which will occupy the land right up to the garden boundary.  Soon after her death, the garden was purchased by the Central Electricity Generating Board with a condition that they and their successors maintain it as a memorial.

As I explored the garden, which is normally opened for 3 days a year in May, I confess that the thought occurred to me whether there was any point in maintaining it, so close to what for the next decade will be one of the largest construction sites in Europe.
But then the realisation dawned, perhaps prompted by the spirit of Violet Vivian, that the reason why gardens like these are so special is that they provide an escape from the world and its tempests.  The proximity to such heavy industry make it all the more important that this hidden gem survives, if only as an opportunity for future generations to find beauty where you least expect it.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A Year to Remember

Bob Smith (drink in hand, centre) at the triumphant end of the Trident Trek, one of the events which marked the 50th anniversary of our Coastline Campaign
2015 was a big year for us.  It was the year that we put our wonderful coastline centre stage.

The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the initiative which saved hundreds of miles of our unspoilt coast, including some of Wales' best loved beaches, protected forever for future generations to enjoy. 

The initiative is the Coast Campaign, originally Enterprise Neptune, which has so far helped us protect over a hundred miles of Welsh coast - all through public donations.

Making an Impression

The year got off to a cracking start with a day's celebrations led by Springwatch star Iolo Williams.  The event was held in March, on the anniversary of the acquisition of the place where the Neptune campaign started - Whiteford Burrows on Gower.

The local team pulled out all the stops, with a fantastic programme of walks and talks to show what's been achieved since Whiteford Burrows was acquired.
Iolo Williams, launching our year of coastal celebrations at Whiteford Burrows
Our Gower volounteer team worked with sand artist Marc Treanor to create this huge map, marked with all the sites that have been saved with the Neptune campaign.

Walking and Sailing around the edge of Wales

June saw two ambitious sponsored circumnavigations of Wales - on foot and by sail.  The Trident Trek and Sails Around Wales events, both of which were covered extensively in this blog. Follow the links to enjoy tales from these two epic achievements.
The Trident Trek reaches Cardiff Bay - both trident and Welsh dragon held proudly aloft
Laura Hughes takes the helm on a 'commute of a lifetime' with Sails Around Wales skipper, John Whitley, in the Bardsey Sound.
Follow in my wake, starting on Day 1 of Sails Around Wales

A Toast to the Coast

July saw our Big Beach Picnic which gave beachgoers all over Wales a chance to get in the holiday mood and celebrate our coast with a picnic.  Hundreds of people packed their hampers, travel rugs and folding chairs and headed to on of our four events - in Llanbedrog, Marloes, Barafundle and Rhossili.

The highlight was a grand concert overlooking the beach at Rhossili beach, with the Morriston Orpheus Male Voice Choir and the Penclawdd Brass Band. 

Crowds gather in the July sunshine to listen to a programme of music at the Big Beach Picnic
Sale of the half century?

The Coast Campaign's latest acquisition, Y Parc, forms the summit plateau of the Great Orme
The cherry on the cake of this celebratory year was the purchase of Y Parc, a farm on the summit of the Great Orme headland.  The farm has been described as 'the missing piece of this internationally-important conservation jigsaw'.  We are now able to help a number of other conservation bodies, including PlantLife, Conwy Council, RSPB and Natural Resources Wales to better safeguard this important nature reserve.

Shifting Shores

The year's activities culminated with an important debate about the future of our coastline.  The 'Shifting Shores - the Next Ten Years' seminar saw policy-makers and coastal stakeholders from all over Wales meeting in Swansea to hear expert talks, to learn from case studies and to discuss priorities for working together to make our coast more resilient to climate change.
Cwm Ivy Gower - the sea wall breaches and 100 acres of farmland is flooded.  Disaster or opportunity?
A new bird hide, overlooking the new salt marsh at Cwm Ivy, funded by our Coast Campaign.  Just one of a range of exiting improvements which have come in the wake of the breaching of the sea wall.
Thank you for reading this small sample of our coastal celebrations in 2015, and I look forward to keeping you in touch with what's happening on the National Trust's Welsh coastline in 2016 and beyond.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Trident Trek Sucessfully Completed

Bob (middle) at the end of his epic 870-mile two-month trek around Wales, handing over the trident to our friends in the South-West of England - ready to continue it's journey.
 In an epic 870-mile relay like no other, the Trident Trek reached its end point at Chepstow on 5 August.

A huge thanks to the hundreds of people who took part and particularly for Bob for carrying Neptune's Trident around the entire Welsh Coast, and to George for coming up with the idea of the Trident and creating it for the Trek.

Bob has raised over £1,000 so far - every penny to go to a special project on the Welsh coast to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Neptune Coastline Campaign.  Please show your appreciation for his achievement and help the Welsh coast by making a donation here.

Whilst you decide how much to give, enjoy this slide show - featuring the entire Welsh coast in 2 minutes:

More images and the full Trident Trek story