Support our Nation today - please donate here

We don’t know what we’ve lost ‘til it’s gone

14 Mar 2024 4 minute read
Magor Marsh at sunset. Photo Lowri Watkins

Mike Webb, planning manager, Gwent Wildlife Trust

Despite having spent many years opposing development on the Gwent Levels, it came as a shock to me recently to realise that the Levels are a shadow of their former selves.

Until relatively recently, the Levels were very much larger, and richer than they are now. On top of this sobering loss to the size of the Levels in a very short time span, we have also seen a tragic thinning out of Levels wildlife.

In spite of years of sterling effort by Gwent Wildlife Trust and others, this decline is accelerating for many species. A 1980s breeding wader survey makes heart-breaking reading. Flipping through the maps of the breeding locations of curlews, lapwings, snipe and redshank, for example, gives one a real and melancholy sense of lights going out, one by one.

Joni Mitchell famously sang “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”, but in a way, it’s worse than that. We don’t know what we’ve lost ‘til it’s gone, but we also don’t know what we don’t know –that is, what we had before.


The Shifting Baseline concept is an attempt to elucidate this concept – that behind our backs, before our time, while we were looking the other way, while we were too busy, development has slowly chipped away at our Levels, in a process of quiet erosion.

In the same way, the Levels’ wildlife has undergone a gradual and subtle impoverishment, largely unnoticed by the lay person and those without long memories, and completely unknown to those born more recently, who never knew the air alive with bird calls and the buzz of insects.

In our work calling for a halt to significant new development on the Levels, we need not only to celebrate the Levels’ beauty and wildness, but also to sound the alarm over the quietly sinking baselines against which we measure threats in the here and now. It’s not enough to campaign against threats to the Levels as they are – we must also acknowledge what we’ve lost, in extent and richness, and fight to restore the Levels to their former glory.


This “Restore” agenda is central to our campaign to halt development, because in addition to the damaging effects of developments, the sheer physical presence of large areas of built development on the Levels SSSI would frustrate our and others’ ambitions to restore the Levels, by sterilising the landscape.

If we fail, in 15 or 20 years’ time, people will be trying to defend a small rump of the remaining Levels, and developers will still come along saying “my little development can’t do any harm”

The Gwent Levels SSSI is unique in Wales, yet it is probably the most under-valued. It is also one which has been subject to the most sustained attacks by development of any SSSI in Wales.

Every man and his dog seems to want a piece of the SSSI, from a motorway in the 1980s and 1990s, and again in the 2000s and yet again in the 2010s to incinerators, solar power stations, factories, car parks and supermarkets.

GWT has opposed them all over the decades, with greater or lesser degrees of success, and it is with a sinking heart that in the 2020s we face yet another wave of threats. We’ve been here before, and before that, and before that again, in a seemingly endless cycle.

If we don’t have a definitive set of planning policies in place to protect this irreplaceable landscape and the wildlife that calls it home, we will lose it forever.

The Levels have been eroded, yes, but that makes what remains more precious than ever.

Support our Nation today

For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
4 months ago

Joni’s popular…

Herein lies the question to ask of Gwyn A. Williams, whose ‘Wales’ is it ?

The council’s to sell off…Welsh Labour’s to give away…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
4 months ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

On the level now, has anybody seen any evidence of leveling up in Cymru, where has all that money gone?

The people of the UK should begin a class action against Rishi and his gang of thieves, take the government to court for Grand Larceny…

Our Supporters

All information provided to Nation.Cymru will be handled sensitively and within the boundaries of the Data Protection Act 2018.