Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Welsh Coast's Woodland Wonders

Wind-pruned tree at Gallt y Bwlch. Ancient woods like these are the wildlife 'crown jewels' of Wales.  Print by friend and relative, Tina Neale

What do you see when you think of the Welsh coast?

I bet the first image that comes to your mind is a sandy beach or a bare windswept rocky headland.  These are the places that have the strongest attraction for most of us, with their powerful sense of airy openness and boundless freedom.  

            But I was reminded the other day of the importance of our coastal woods;
often tucked into the sheltered, shady nooks and crannies of our coastline.  I was listening to a talk about how rare, rich and often unjustly overlooked this is as a wildlife habitat. I learnt that the special combination of a mild moist microclimate and reflected light from the nearby expanse of water creates communities of plants and animals which are subtly different from ones you find inland.  I noted with some pride that several of these distinctly maritime woodlands are in the care of the National Trust, including the wooded fringes of the Menai Strait, the hanging oak woods of Snowdonia’s Glaslyn and Maentwrog valleys; Ceredigion’s Cwm Soden woods, Pembrokeshire’s Stackpole and Cleddau woodlands to name just a few.

The speaker then mentioned a particularly special wood – adjacent to the National Trust land at Pistyll on the north coast of the Llŷn peninsula – known as Gallt y Bwlch.  He explained that this mysterious wood, unusually rich in hazel, may be a tiny fragment of a sort of Celtic fringe of woodland that clothed the coastal slopes of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall in prehistoric times.  As he put it, “in its structure and species composition Gallt y Bwlch has an affinity with remote woods found on Scotland’s west coast”.  

I was fascinated to hear this, as Gallt y Bwlch, with its tangle of gnarled wind-pruned trees, is one of my favourite places, They’re so bonsai-like that you can sometimes pop your head above the canopy and imagine yourself a giant.  But it’s the fact that this wood features in a family story passed down from my father that makes it doubly special to me.  My great grandfather, Robert Baum used to visit this wood each autumn in the 1940s, after he retired as a foreman at the nearby granite quarry.  The purpose of the visit was to pick hazelnuts to be boxed up and sent to his daughter, my Nain, and her family in Nuneaton.  Into the box he put a nut-cracker, which he had carved in the wood with a penknife.  I imagine that my Nain would feel a stir of hiraeth, as she opened this little reminder of her birthplace in the far west.
My great grandfather, Robert Baum, is in the front row,  3rd from the right.  He used to collect hazelnuts in Gallt y Bwlch, to send to my Nain in Nuneaton
The speaker bought me back with a jolt as he mentioned the need to better protect all our coastal woods.  It seems they are suffering from the same harmful effects as inland native woods.  They are too fragmented, plagued by introduced invasive species and are harmed by nutrient run-off from intensively-farmed land.  We must do more to protect, extend and join up these priceless fragments.  Many of them have survived for at least 400 years, meaning that they are classed as ancient woodlands, the ‘crown jewels’ of our countryside.  This is potentially the richest habitat on land and deserves to make up more of Wales than the current paltry level of just under five per cent.   

The talk has inspired me to pay homage to our coastal woods, and to follow in my great grandfather’s footsteps to Gallt y Bwlch next autumn, making sure that I take my penknife with me.

[Article first appeared in Welsh Coastal Life Magazine.]

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