BY RUTH SLAVID, Editor
A project to enhance understanding and use of a special landscape in North Wales has been made particularly successful through the way that it has worked with farmers on the common land to involve them in improvement of the landscape in which they work.
The Heather and Hillforts project deals with a special area of North Wales, much of it an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which, although cherished locally and by the cognoscenti, does not rank terribly highly in public awareness.
Recently completed, it was a Heritage Lottery Funded Landscape Partnership Scheme which addressed some issues that were both particular to this project and have wider resonance. When partially complete, it won the Welsh round of the 2010 UK Landscape Award in recognition of the thorough work that had been done to manage the moorland and hill fort sites and, crucially, to communicate what was being done. And there are many lessons, believes Nick Critchley, moorland field officer for the project, that could be applied elsewhere. ‘Generally we don’t think what we have here is that unusual,’ he says. ‘Every landscape is about people, communities and how they have used the landscape over time. What we have here which is more unique is the combination of Iron Age hill forts and the heathland habitat.’
When it won the award in 2010, Rod Williams, chair of the Heather and Hillforts Partnership Board, said, ‘To me the most satisfying aspect of the Heather and Hillforts Project has been the way that people with differing interests have been able to work together to provide long term benefits for the heritage of the Clwydian Range and Llantysilio Mountains. It has been a joint effort.’
This joint effort has involved dealing with a range of issues. The project covers an area set within the Clwydian Range and Llantysilio Mountains of north-east Wales. In addition to it being in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, much of it forms part of a Landscape of Outstanding Historic Importance. The heather moorland landscape includes six hillforts: Penycloddiau, Moel Arthur, Moel y Gaer (Llanbedr),Moel Fenlli, Moel y Gaer (Llantysilio) and Caer Drewyn. Denbighshire County Council Countryside Service and Clywdian Range AONB staff set up the project in response to the problems of maintaining the heather moorland and protecting the forts, some of which were suffering from erosion. Heather moorland is special, beautiful and difficult to deal with because it is a semi-natural habitat, which has to be managed in the correct way if it is not to deteriorate.
Although it is semi natural, heather moorland is of international importance, as around half of the world’s total area is believed to be in the UK. Wales has lost about 40 per cent of its heather moorland since World War Two, mainly to forest plantations and agricultural improvement (ploughing and seeding with grass). Because of the lack of management, about two thirds of the remaining moorland is in poor condition.
The problem is that maintaining moorland requires two elements — sheep and fire. Sheep graze young trees, stopping them growing, and maintaining the character of the moorland. They enjoy the rough grasses, heather, bilberry and gorse found in the area, but not when they get too dense or old.
Much of this remaining moorland is common land, with a register of common rights holders and an allocation of the number of sheep they can put on the common. But with fewer people farming and fewer farm labourers there has been a double problem. The reduction in workforce has made management by cutting and burning more difficult to do. As a result, the habitat had deteriorated, and become less attractive for keeping sheep on, and without the sheep performing their management role, the habitat deteriorated further.
As part of this project, the team has taken a different approach to the one more commonly used for managing moorland. Critchley explained: ‘Over recent years moorland management has been seen as something undertaken by conservation organisations for the benefit of wildlife. Whilst the management work has been excellent, it has unfortunately alienated the graziers (farmers) a bit.
‘What we have been doing is to encourage farmers to keep farming the moorlands, and to carry out management. The benefit to them has been that it will provide better grazing for their sheep, which will mean they come off the mountain in better condition. The management will also sustain the moorland and improve the habitat for upland species. By managing the vegetation, making the condition of the moorland better and improving the grazing, farming the uplands is made more economically viable.’
Critchley explained the management in more detail: ‘The best way to manage heather moorland is to burn it,’ he said. ‘Each site in our project area has a management plan. These cover 4,828 acres of land. The sites have been divided up into areas of bracken where burning is inappropriate, gorse which is best managed by cutting, and heather and bilberry which is best managed by burning. We are working to a 15 year rotation plan, so each year we would aim to cut or burn one fifteenth of the heather and bilberry areas. This will mean that there is a structure to the age of the vegetation, that there is young vegetation for grazing and older, deeper vegetation for groundnesting birds. Too much young vegetation would be detrimental to the bird species, just as too much old vegetation would. Healthy moorland should have a variety of ages of vegetation.
‘Heather seed lies dormant in the soil for many years. When heather is burnt the heat helps germinate the dormant seeds and the heather grows back. There are strict guidelines around heather burning; it can only be carried out between 1 October and 31 March and there are guidelines set out in the Heather and Grass burning code. We have provided farmers and graziers with some kit to help them burn, such as fire beaters and visors. We have also bought two fire foggers to help and to give us a chance of controlling any out of control or unseasonable burns. We offer help to anyone who wants to burn and have an excellent relationship with the local agricultural college (Llysfasi College) who are able to come and help out as well. The land that is burnt is all open access and it is not closed for burning. Instead, with careful management and the use of enough people, the land remains open and this is used as an educational opportunity to explain to the public that burning, which can look brutal, is important for maintenance.
Critchley defines the success by saying: ‘Over the last four years we have gone from about 25 acres of heather management in a year, 80 per cent of which was undertaken by the Countryside Service, to about 75 acres of management with about 70 per cent undertaken either entirely by farmers, or by farmers with Countryside Service assistance.’
The cutting of old gorse by farmers has also increased, and the organisation has put a great deal of effort into dealing with bracken, which is invasive. There has been a combination of spraying by the project, and encouraging farmers to deal with the return of bracken by cutting or crushing. Again, the more sheep there are, the easier it will be to keep the bracken down.
Another success has been the return of the black grouse population, of which there are only about 350 males left in Wales, with 25 of them in the Clwydian Range, mainly on Moel Famau, and fewer than 10 on the Llantysilio mountains. Black grouse like the transition between woodland and heather moorland, displaying and feeding in the cut and burnt areas of heather, and nesting and sheltering in the deeper vegetation. Small cut areas were created which allow the grouse to feel safe because they are never far from deep heather if they need to get away from predators. Critchley said, ‘We do suggest to farmers that they cut or burn larger areas than this, as these small patches take longer to do and are sometimes harder for sheep to find — we want farmers to be managing for the sake of agriculture rather than conservation. If the agricultural management is right then the conservation aims will naturally follow.’
In terms of erosion, the most difficult issue facing the project team was the illegal use of off-road vehicles on the Llantysilio mountains. An additional problem was that this affected farming, as noisy bikes and 4 by 4s tended to ‘herd’ sheep around the mountains. Having worked with the police and other organisations successfully to reduce the level of illegal usage, the Heather and Hillforts team then restored 7.5 acres of heather moorland, which are making a good recovery. In addition there is one stretch of footpath that is suffering from erosion through footfall, on Moel Famau, where it forms part of the Offa’s Dyke national trail. Work is being done to return the width of the path to its original size.
The hill forts themselves are also particularly vulnerable. One was suffering problems caused by motorbikes (which should not have been there) and two others from walkers (who should). The Heather and Hillforts team adopted an approach used on a fourth hill fort, installing ‘floating paths’. These consist of wood frames which have pitched stone paths and steps set inside them. Joiners have cut them to size in situ so that they follow the contours of the ramparts rather than needing to be fixed into the ground by posts. This means there is no interference with the archaeology.
While local people were found generally to be aware of the area and its heritage, the team identified nine specific groups that it felt were under-represented in their engagement of the landscape, and set out to remedy the situation. They ranged from disabled people to the young to those dependent on public transport, as well as the graziers and landowners who were brought on board by the heather-management programme. Specific projects were set up for these groups, and in addition there was a programme to raise understanding generally, ranging from audio heritage trails to volunteer days in which to learn about dry stone walling and moorland management.
Critchley says: ‘The biggest achievement hasn’t necessarily been work which is visible on the ground or measurable. It is the change in people’s attitude to moorland management. There are farmers and graziers who at the beginning of the project weren’t interested in doing heathland management but are now carrying out their own management and seeing the benefit in their stock. There are farmers who had never done moorland management; they could remember their grandfathers burning but hadn’t done anything themselves. These farmers are now doing the work themselves.’
With the project now complete, £45,000 has been allocated for future maintenance. The project has won a number of local awards in addition to the Welsh round of the UK Landscape Award. On their own, they may mean little, but they are an indication of a landscape that is now better understood, appreciated, maintained and, crucially, worked.
The key dates for the project are...
2000 Project planning begins, HLF contacted and consulted
2004 Project officer appointed to further develop proposals
2004 – 05 Project planning phase
2006 Development phase
2007 Approval received from HLF
2008 Project delivery starts
2010 2 year extension granted and started
2012 (Dec.) Project finishes