Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Rediscovering Pembrokeshire's hidden wildlife paradise

Freshwater West and Castlemartin Corse.  Photo courtesy of Richard Ellis
With the first of the winter’s storms beating against my office window, I’ve been reflecting on the places I’ve visited on my travels around the Welsh coast through this year’s late chilly spring and long warm summer. 

A couple of contrasting visits to one particular place stand out. The first visit took place during one of winter’s cruel last gasps; the second was during spring’s first flush of lush growth. But it was the contrasting nature of what I saw during these visits that that comes to mind, rather than the weather. 

Hidden Treasure 

You probably haven’t heard of Gupton Farm, on Pembrokeshire’s south coast. It’s just one of those English-sounding farms that nestle in the folds of ‘little England beyond Wales’: that verdant tapestry of rolling farmland south of Pembroke, which is dotted with the curiously un-Welsh square castellated towers of a score of fine Norman churches.

But you are more likely to have heard of one of this area’s finest beaches, Freshwater West: a surfers’ paradise near the huge military range at Castlemartin. The name of this popular beach hints at a hidden treasure that the beachgoers seldom notice – tucked behind the range of dunes that borders the beach. That is the wildlife haven of Castlemartin Corse. This 2.5 km long marshy floodplain (the name includes the fossilised Welsh word for marsh: cors) is a relic of a once great wetland. The Corse – together with about a hundred acres of arable fields and pasture – make up the tenancy of Gupton Farm.

Future vision 

My first visit to Gupton Farm was made during the last days of this tenancy, when the retiring farmers were about to leave and we were seeking the advice of a group of conservation experts on a future vision for the farm. The second, springtime visit was after the 500 or so overwintering cattle had left and the bare brown soil of my previous visit was starting to green-over with a carpet of grasses and wildflowers. The farm’s conservation vision was beginning to become a rather scary reality. 

I say scary because the process of converting from a commercial to a conservation style of farming isn’t as simple as you might think. The heavy trampling by cattle and frequent ploughing of what was once pristine flower-and-insect-rich dune grassland has unexpectedly resulted in an exceptional number of different, arable, wildflowers in the sandy soil and this in turn attracts huge flocks of overwintering farmland birds and, in summer a wealth of butterflies, bees and other invertebrates. To bring back the highly desired dune grassland would risk losing all this farmland wildlife, some of our advisors warned. I began to feel sorry for my colleagues, who risk upsetting at least one set of wildlife experts as they decide which group of flora and fauna should be favoured by the future farmer. 

 A new chapter 
Happily, as I read up the results of a season’s monitoring in my rain-bound office, it seems that the farm is large enough to realise a vision that can encompass the restoration of all of the farm’s habitats: an exceptional combination of dune grassland, traditional farmland, wetland meadow and marsh. 

Looking back, I’m pleased that I witnessed the start of a new chapter in the history of Gupton Farm; the beginning of a process that will lead to future generations of nature-lovers enjoying the best of all worlds at this outstanding Welsh coastal wildlife site. 

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