This weekend, while much of the UK was suffering under some of the worst rainfall on record, members of The Grasslands Trust Conservation Committee and Grasslands Trust Staff were basking in sunshine at Carmel National Nature Reserve in Carmarthenshire. I was delighted to have been invited to join in and had the most wonderful time. Emails were flowing on Friday night as to whether we could make it through the rain and floods but the concensus was we should try. We were more than rewarded when passing Swansea on the Saturday morning the skies cleared and we headed for the sun.
Carmel is an absolute jewel of a place. Situated on a limestone ridge, the area is dotted with lime kilns and quarries; once a heartland for providing lime for industrial and agricultural development. In biodiversity terms, it is one of the UK’s richest wildlife areas and a Site of Scientific Special Interest (SSSI). Its range of habitats includes ancient woodland, heathland, and species-rich grassland which support some of the UK’s rarest plant and animal species. Created a National Nature Reserve in 1999, and predominately owned by Tarmac, the site is managed is managed by the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) and The Grassland Trust.
The Grassland Trust’s involvement began in 2006 when it took over management of a greater part of the Reserve to restore grasslands that had been damaged through intensive agriculture back to flower-rich meadows and pastures. The Trust owns two sites: Pant y Castell and Stag and Pheasant and leases three more: Garn South, Garn North and Pwll Edrychiad. Our visit centred on the last three in particular as well as a visit to the Carmel Woods visiting the quarry, woodlands and the only turlough (seasonal lake) in Britain.
The mosaic of grasslands, woodlands and heath were beautiful to see and I had the great pleasure of being in the knowledgeable company of Andy Barker, James Robertson, Stephen Ward and Corinna Woodall together with Miles King and Deborah Sazer from the Trust. Going through a fairly boggy Garn South, we met our two Carneddau-type Welsh mountain ponies who arrived at Carmel at the end of April to help with vital vegetation management here, trampling down the invasive bracken and scrub.
Crossing the road to Garn North, we were able to see the really wonderful improvement work that has taken place to restore the grasslands here. Standing in these beautiful meadows, with swallows (Hirundo rustica) flying overhead and dragonflies whirring in the grasses, Miles showed us old photographic maps of the area, sourced from the Archives of the National Museum of Wales, describing the history of the fields and the area. We wandered through Garn North’s meadows and glades for the rest of the afternoon, identifying plants and butterflies, and discussing the management techniques that have been used to restore these beautiful species-rich meadows. Over the two days I learned a tremendous amount about the native grassland plants and their relationship with the numerous species they support. They have magical names: Sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) which gives the sweet vanilla scent to new mown hay; Meadowsweet or Queen of the Meadow (Filipendula ulmaria) with its fluffy heads; the exquisite little Eyebright (Euphrasia sp.) which has little whorls of tiny white flowers; and the Enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea sp.).
Our day ended visiting one of the disused limestone quarries and kilns. These quarry sites are not only important in the landscape as tangible remains of Welsh industries that fed and fuelled the nation, but as sites that support a number of species. Growing on the little patches of limestone grassland we saw a little creeping thyme (Thymus sp.), quaking grass (Briza sp.), Fairy flax (Linum catharticum), the cheery Ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and yellow Agrimony (Agrimonia sp.). We didn’t see the rare Brown-banded carder bee that created such a buzz of excitement last month but we heard from Deborah about how popular the bee-identification training sessions have become in the community, with one held the day previously.
Sunday we woke up to another glorious day and spent the morning clambering around, up, and through the beautiful Carmel Woods. We were led by Jamie Bevan, Senior Reserves Manager, CCW, past a towering limstone cliff last worked in the 1980’s, where we were joined by Ray Woods, and up into the mixed ash woodland. Walking through, we listened to the Green woodpecker (Picus viridis), Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) and the Chiffchaff. Reemerging at the top of the quarry, we were rewarded by wonderful views of the Brecon Beacons, from where we walked down to see the Turlough, a unique feature of limestone.
The afternoon was spent back in meadows on The Grasslands Trust site of Pwll Edrychiad visiting first the restored meadows and then moving into the semi-improved areas. It’s a beautiful site and the meadows were full of Yellow rattle or Cockscomb (Rhinanthus minor) and orchids including the Greater Butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) and the Common Spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii).
Moving into the damper, semi-improved area, we also saw a charming, dainty umbellifer, Whorled Caraway (Carum verticillatum). Wending our way up the last hill we viewed the Slowworm (Anguis fragilis) refuges tucked into the field-margins. It was the end of a really lovely weekend spent looking at not only has been achieved by knowledge and hard work over the last few years but looking at future opportunities for further restoration and improvement of these beautiful and important sites. We are all collating our photographs and I can share some with you over the coming weeks so you can enjoy the views and grassland species. If you have a chance, visit these lovely and inspirational sites. Lucky me – I am going again at the end of the month to see our other Grassland Trust reserves of Pant y Castell and Stag and Pheasant. I can’t wait!
Elaine Shaughnessy, Director of Communications, The Grasslands Trust