Cambrian Mountains – the way ahead?

When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” – from A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, 1948.

Members may be aware of the latest debate sweeping through Mid Wales (and even further afield) concerning the plight of the Cambrian Mountains landscape. The environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot has recently published his book Feral in which he promotes his thoughts on “re-wilding”. As he is a sometime resident of Machynlleth, many of his ideas relate to the neighbouring “Cambrians”. Monbiot’s vision is to return the hills to a mixed deciduous woodland ecosystem; complete – of course – with large carnivores. To promote his case (and the book) he has been a guest on several radio and television programmes over the last month including Ramblings on Radio 4 with Claire Balding, and Newsnight on BBC2.

You can read a Daily Telegraph review of Feral, or a more expansive Guardian review.

Inevitably, since Monbiot details his hatred of sheep, he has attracted the attention of the upland farming community, and their unions. They see no case for their hills being returned to woodland, with lynx, bear and wolf occupying the top carnivore niches. At about the same time as Feral came onto the shelves, Dr. Ieuan Joyce, commissioned by the Farmers Union of Wales, published a report: “The Role of Grazing Animals and Agriculture in the Cambrian Mountains”.

In this report Dr. Joyce puts forward the argument that it is probably the explosion of purple moor grass, Molinia caerula, over the Cambrians that has resulted in the notable loss of biodiversity, including the decline in ground nesting birds. He goes on to suggest that it may be the reduction in sheep numbers on the hills (page 21 of the report) that has caused the spread of this rather pernicious grass. In the concluding Executive Summary of the report he states that “Extensive livestock production has proved its value as a sustainable system for managing the Cambrian Mountains over the long term and is a good template for managing the area in the future”.

So we have two diametrically opposed views for the future of the Cambrians which the local press have revelled in, with predictable headlines such as “Howls of protest at call to re-wild the Welsh mountains”. But can we reconcile these two views? The CMS vision for the hills lies in sustaining and enhancing the natural beauty of the area, including its biodiversity. We appreciate, however, that much of the Cambrian Mountains landscape has been at least partially shaped by man. From the Bronze Age round cairns on Pumlumon’s high ridges, through monastic sheep walks above Strata Florida, to the Hafod Estate laid out in the picturesque style, we can see man’s impact. We also recognise that our present day farming community plays an important role in nurturing the landscape we love so much. So the Society’s preferred option for bringing about long term protection for the Cambrians is to see the area protected as a living and working landscape designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in the heart of Wales. Our vision fits in well with the AONB family ethos. On its website the National Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (NAAONB) suggests the following descriptor of AONBs: “….. in the hands of farmers and landowners who, over the generations have shaped its rich and familiar patterns. Most AONBs continue to function as traditional but well farmed landscapes – it is accepted that the countryside is not a museum and supports a distinct and traditional rural way of life”.

But is there not a place for re-wilding? I see, as part of the rich tapestry that makes up the Cambrians, some scope for what I will call “managed wilderness”. Let us continue to maintain, even grow, our system of biological conservation sites, perhaps even linking them with wildlife corridors to help biodiversity’s resilience in these days of climate change. Let us celebrate our Atlantic oak woodland, blanket bog, and heather moorland, but I am not convinced that any are large enough to carry the full cohort of large carnivores Mr. Monbiot would like to see roaming through them.

Now let me bring in the Pumlumon Project, led by Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust (MWT), which favours the landscape or ecosystem approach to biological conservation. This approach has its origins in the 1990s, when the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) saw protecting whole landscapes or ecosystems as a means of reversing biodiversity losses. More traditional systems are based on the conservation of small groups of species, or at the extreme just one species. Supporters of the ecosystem approach suggest that the more traditional approach is failing to halt species loss. Naturally when you start conserving the biological richness of a whole landscape then there are likely to be beneficial spin-offs and these have become known as Ecosystem Services. These diverse services range through soil health, pollination, water regulation, carbon sequestration, recreation, and a host of other valuable resources all provided by a healthy ecosystem. In my opinion the ecosystem approach has at its very heart conserving biodiversity and I wish MWT every success as it strives for this over a large area of the northern Cambrians. The approach should not be driven by the ecosystem services it provides, but they can support the case for it.

The Welsh Government, and the newly created body, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has certainly latched on to the benefits of the new approach, and it is expected that the forthcoming Environment Bill will have its foundations in maintaining whole ecosystems. Is this because the administration failed to meet its last targets in slowing biodiversity losses, or are they tempted by those attractive ecosystem services like flood alleviation, and locking up carbon? Perhaps it does not matter what their motivation is, provided they are doing their best to sustain the nation’s rich mix of living landscapes.

The trustees of CMS have recently met with senior officials of both Welsh Government and the former Countryside Council for Wales to persuade them that the Cambrian Mountains, designated as an AONB, would be a very fitting landscape to trial their new ideas on sustaining a Living Wales. Have I managed to reconcile the opposing views of the two protagonists mentioned earlier? In my opinion, even though it will not reintroduce the wolf, protected status would foster a landscape with a rich flora and fauna in which the hill farming, artisan, and tourist industries should flourish. The CMS campaign continues this month, when a group of its trustees meets Professor Peter Matthews, the new Chairman of NRW, hoping to persuade him that the Cambrian Mountains should be the next member of the AONB family in Wales.

Peter Foulkes, CMS trustee, and chair of its designation subcommittee.

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of the Cambrian Mountains Society.

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