The Welsh Uplands – Death or Resurrection?

Agricultural policy reform has not released the pressure which has been driving nature from the hills, as a recent survey illustrates. Mick Green argues that a more radical approach is now needed

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As I write this I have just returned from the Pyrenees. We were walking through high alpine meadows that were full of wildflowers. The meadows were alive with insects – butterflies including skippers, fritillaries, arguses, ringlets, blues and many others. Bees were buzzing and several species of grasshopper giving a constant background soundtrack. Overhead were flocks of alpine chough, griffon vultures and the occasional lammergeyer. At one site we were lucky enough to see a wallcreeper – a first for me, despite many times searching for them. In a nearby valley lives a small population of re-introduced brown bears. Alongside this bountiful nature is a farming community, with flocks of sheep and cows in many areas, their bells adding to the soundtrack of the hills. The area also has a thriving tourist industry with large numbers of walkers enjoying the many marked trails and staying at the numerous mountain huts (a cold beer at 8000 feet is very welcome after a steep climb!).

I’m back now in my home patch of mid Wales. The contrast is both spectacular and depressing. As I walk across our sheepwrecked [1]’ hills I see almost no flowers. There are no bees buzzing, grasshoppers chirruping or butterflies flying and the silence is eerie. Very few flowering plants are evident and the hill has an overall greyish green hue. And this is in a supposed protected Site of Special Scientific Interest’.I have surveyed and studied these hills for the last 30 years of so but I hadn’t really realised the extent of our losses until we carried out a systematic survey a couple of years ago.

The site was surveyed in 1984 as part of a UK wide upland bird survey programme. The area was walked by transect and all birds were recorded. In 2011, as part of a wider PhD study of upland changes, the whole of the area was re-surveyed using the same transect methods [2]. The results were shocking – 12 species had become extinct across the site, with only three new species recorded. Of the remaining species there were declines in all counts.

Species1984 count 2011 count % change
Teal50- 100
Canada goose01+100
Mallard10- 100
Hen Harrier01+100
Kestrel10- 100
Red Grouse2714- 48
Coot10- 100
Golden Plover131- 92
Curlew20- 100
Common Sandpiper101- 90
Black-headed Gull650- 100
Cuckoo80- 100
Skylark287134- 53
Tree Pipit23+ 50
Grey Wagtail41- 75
Pied Wagtail81- 88
Wren53- 40
Redstart30- 100
Whinchat214- 81
Stonechat10- 100
Wheatear4916- 67
Ring Ouzel70- 100
Mistle Thrush10- 100
Willow Warbler21- 50
Chaffinch20- 100
Reed Bunting01+ 100

It is not just in my patch where this is occurring – across the Welsh uplands many species are in serious decline. Birds are the most well documented, but there are very few patches in Wales that can get close to the diversity of plants and insects that we found in the Pyrenean pastures. The few better pockets tend to be nature reserves that are being managed, though management is generally aimed at a few species rather than trying to create self-sustaining ecosystems.

Causes and effects

The situation in the Pyrenees is not all rosy of course – we saw areas of overgrazed land, conifer plantations and the like, but even in intensively grazed pastures with few flowers visible there was still reasonably abundant insect life (and quails calling). The reasons for the drastic collapse of our upland ecosystems – for that’s what it is – is unclear, and, like all things ecological, is probably a combination of factors. The bird surveys show that many of the species that have declined are insect eaters. Several black headed gull colonies around the periphery of the site have also completely gone indicating that invertebrate food supply may be an issue. The PhD study, of which the above surveys were a part, was also looking at broad scale vegetation changes over the site since 1984. The results show that there have been no major changes, although the data available meant that exact species composition could not be looked at. Overgrazing has long been a bugbear for conservation. Despite reductions in sheep numbers the lack of flowering plants is evident. (If you look closely then some of the species are still present in the sward, but there are no flowerheads). We are still not doing enough to allow recovery.

Other issues such as acidification and climate change are also candidates for blame: with an already heavily damaged ecosystem their effects may be greater than they would be on a more resilient ecosystem. Unfortunately, for many species groups such as insects we can’t conduct the type of repeat surveys undertaken for birds as we have no baseline and are unlikely to get any new baseline surveys against which to judge future changes. Ecological survey seems to have gone out of fashion with Welsh Government despite the vital importance of long term ecological data sets to tell us of the reality or otherwise of perceived changes in populations.

Wales’ upland habitats are internationally important and include upland grasslands, heathlands, woodlands and bogs. Currently approximately 60% of upland habitats are in unfavourable condition, with blanket bog and heath failing at a high percentage of sites. [3] There are also indications that climate change may have caused many upland peatlands to be close to the tipping point between carbon sink and carbon source.

Hope for the future

So what are we going to do? Whilst our designated upland sites all have management plans, and a large number of them are under agri-environment agreements, it is clear, and has been for a long time, that these are not working. The land needs a different approach to help it recover and be more productive and resilient.

There are a few corners showing some hope. I can take you to places across Wales where grazing, especially sheep grazing, no longer occurs for a variety of reasons. Without exception these ungrazed or lightly grazed areas have improved beyond all hope. The structure and diversity of the communities have developed and more species are present. As George Monbiot states [4], why should be expect our ecosystems to thrive when eaten to death by Mesopotamian ruminants’!

I can take you to a hill grazed by a small flock of ponies, where trees have grown up on the Ffridd’ slopes (the often bracken-dominated land between enclosed farmland and mountain) and in areas that were mainly dominated by purple moor-grass, bilberry is now establishing itself in the tussocks and is out-competing the unpalatable grass. Overall the wildlife is thriving compared with the sheepwrecked’ hill next door. The Ffridd is full of tree pipits, willow warblers, redstart and the like. On the blanket bog, plant communities are thriving and a hen harrier was seen recently.

On another site, where there appears to be no grazing, vegetation has been quick to re-establish itself, despite the slow nature of change in the uplands. I can now walk through the site and see plants in flower – a rare sight a few years ago. Alpines not recorded in places for years have suddenly re-appeared – presumably repressed by grazing though hanging on out of sight under other vegetation. Evidence of small mammals is everywhere and bumblebees are feeding on the blossoms.

Hidden within forestry plantations there are bogs that haven’t been managed or grazed for decades. These are some of the best, most diverse-looking bogs I can find – heather and bilberry are allowed to flower, cranberry is common and sundew thrives in the wetter areas. These and other examples show that conservation grazing’ can be a contradiction in terms and that communities can thrive outside of human (and especially agricultural) control.

This move to allow ecosystems to manage themselves is an approach that is now gaining momentum – it is known as rewilding’. It is all about stepping back and letting nature recover. The key aims are:

  • Reverse the loss of biodiversity in large core areas of land and sea
  • Restore ecosystems to a functional and resilient state
  • Where appropriate, reintroduce key missing species, including the lynx and wolf
  • Reignite people’s passion for the natural world
  • Revitalise local economies in ways that work ecologically
  • Reintegrate nature and society for the benefit of both

Large-scale restoration of natural processes is not a threat to wildlife, nor agricultural interests, local communities or economies. It cannot be forced – it will only take place under sympathetic ownership, but there must be a move in subsidies to enable it to happen where it is wanted.There are many areas of Britain, especially in the uplands, where farming is, and is likely to continue to be, uneconomic. It is only maintained by subsidy. Why should that subsidy not be directed to restoring more natural ecosystems where landowners want to go down this path?This would require changes in the European Common Agricultural Policy rules in the long term, but much can be achieved if the Welsh government made changes in how they use monies in schemes such as Glastir, where they have some flexibility, which would help them deliver the aims of the recent Well Being of Future Generations Act in creating resilient ecosystems.

There will always be cultural habitats, such as hay meadows, Rhos pasture or coppice woodland, that are both valuable for their diverse wildlife as well as for their human connections. Nobody is asking to abandon’ these, or other valued pockets, but isn’t it time we at least tried to let Nature have the upper hand where we can. We should stop trying to restore’ some artificial version of nature but instead try and let nature establish sustainable areas of resilient ecosystems. Yes, relative abundance of species will change but you cannot freeze nature, especially in its current very impoverished state. We need to move from the command and control model and give nature some space.

Mick Green is an independent ecologist and a Trustee of Rewilding Britain’. This article was first published in Natur Cymru — http://​www​.naturcym​ru​.org​.uk/.

[1] See Feral’ by George Monbiot

[2] Crump H and Green M. 2012. Changes in breeding bird abundances in the Plynlimon SSSI 19842011. Birds in Wales 91

[3] UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011)

[4] From Feral’ by George Monbiot