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New battle to save unique Gwent Levels from development

26 Aug 2023 5 minute read
Gwent Levels. Photo Neil Aldridge

Martin Shipton

A countryside charity that fought off a proposal to build a motorway through a unique wetland area is having to defend the same landscape against new encroachment.

Having helped persuade First Minister Mark Drakeford to reject the M4 relief road that would have split the Gwent Levels in two, the Gwent Wildlife Trust has now launched a Senedd petition calling for a halt to significant development on this nationally important site.

Adam Taylor, the Trust’s chief executive officer, said: “The Gwent Levels are an ancient landscape, rich in culture and important for biodiversity, recreation, flood alleviation, carbon storage and food production.

“It is now facing multiple, adjacent, enormous solar proposals and business parks as well as other development projects.

“The Welsh planning system in its present form is unable to control such development, and the destruction which these would cause under present arrangements would mean the end of this beautiful, fragile and complex wetland. So we are calling for a halt to significant development and for a coherent, legally binding plan to be put in place for the protection of this irreplaceable wetland and the wildlife it supports.”

Mr Taylor added: “We need to stress that we are not opposed to solar energy, simply that such developments need to be located on land where they will not irretrievably damage a nationally important and designated landscape, teeming with wildlife.

“We have already seen the damage caused by the existing solar plant on the Gwent Levels, where a hugely important lapwing breeding site was destroyed. This exquisitely beautiful bird was once a common sight in our skies but is now a conservation red-listed species due to plummeting numbers.”

Gwent Wildlife Trust owns reserves throughout the county, and includes meadows, ancient woodland in the Wye Valley, and unspoilt upland tracts of habitat. One of the trust’s flagship reserves is Magor Marsh on the Gwent Levels.

Fenland

Magor Marsh is one of the last remaining pieces of natural fenland that once covered the Levels. Wetlands like this were once commonplace across Britain but they are now one of the UK’s most threatened habitats. It was the threat of losing this important place in the 1960s that brought local naturalists together to fight for its survival, banding together to form what is now known as the Gwent Wildlife Trust.

More recently, Barecroft Common was added to the reserve along with neighbouring Bridewell Common, extending this important habitat for the benefit of the natural world.

Managing water levels is an essential part of the Trust’s work to keep the different habitats, and their wildlife, thriving. The reserve is fed by underground springs and, using a system of sluices in the reens and ditches, we are able to move water around the reserve to create the perfect conditions.

The Trust has built a kingfisher and sand martin bank on the reserve to provide nesting sites for these species and in 2011 embarked on an exciting project to return water voles, one of Britain’s fastest-declining mammals, to Magor Marsh. All the signs suggest they are doing well and are now spreading out across the Gwent Levels.

The Gwent Levels are one of the largest surviving areas of ancient grazing marsh and reen (drainage ditch) systems in Britain and is the largest of its kind in Wales. Thanks to several nationally significant archaeological finds, the Gwent Levels has been designated a ‘Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest’. Its biodiversity significance is recognised both nationally and internationally.

This ancient landscape has been carefully and purposefully managed by man for thousands of years. Prehistoric footprints preserved in the mud of the nearby estuary shows this was a hunting ground for early man. The man-made reens that criss-cross the area are thought to date back to Roman times.

Mosaic

The Gwent Levels provide a mosaic of habitats that nurture a rich diversity of wildlife throughout the year. The distinctive, familiar but increasingly rare sound of cuckoo calling heralds the fact that spring is in full swing, while the reeds and scrub house the elusive Cetti’s Warbler, its wonderful call piercing the air. In summer, wildflowers carpet the meadows, and the air is full of insects as they feed on the nectar-rich flowers.

As autumn approaches, it’s the best time to see a brilliant flash of colour as kingfishers dart along the waterways. Flocks of teal and shoveler make the ponds their winter home. Throughout the year, the waterways known as reens are frequented by water voles – one of the UK’s fastest declining mammals – and otters.

Gwent Wildlife Trust is asking everyone who loves the Gwent Levels and the area’s rich biodiversity to sign a petition to the Welsh government. It can be signed and shared via this link.

Alongside this longer-running e-action, the Trust has the same petition live with the Senedd, which will run for six months only. Please also add your name to the Senedd petition, by clicking here. 

A Welsh Government spokesman said: “We have declared both a nature and climate emergency and have set targets for the deployment of renewable energy.

“We must also protect our precious environmental and ecological assets and have recently consulted on updating planning policy on ecological resilience.

“The results of the consultation are being analysed and we will update in due course.”


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Owain
Owain
7 months ago

Absolutely shocking! Yes solar panels are important but there are so many better places we can build them without hurting what little wildlife we have left in Wales!

Bethan
Bethan
7 months ago
Reply to  Owain

Agreed. To consciously select SSSIs or any other environmentally protected zone just signifies that policy makers don’t understand the environmental problems we are experiencing and are not using joined-up thinking. More solarcells and wind turbines are important but SSSIs should be the last choice of location. The UK really is governed by a bunch of swindling cowboys. One word- AGRIVOLTAICS. That where it’s happening. The rest of the world is so much more inspiring. Yes other countries have corruption and greed like us, but when they set to work on being sustainable they do it with finesse! What has the… Read more »

Bethan
Bethan
7 months ago

Nation.cymru there are two links to petitions in this article. One of the links works but the other in the paragraph above it appears broken. Is there anyway you could fix it? Thanks.

Sarah
Admin
7 months ago
Reply to  Bethan

Hi Bethan, thanks for pointing that out. They should now both work

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