Heroes and Villains

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Marine Conservation Society and the National Trust, Pembrokeshire

Scotland and Wales

Last updated 28th June 2007

It is the nature of personal websites to eschew impartiality and reflect the particular amities and hostilities of the author. When it comes to wildland, there are certainly heroes and villains although it can seem that in Britain, in contrast to much of the rest of the world, that it is full of only the latter.

In an effort to bring in some of nature's balance, this is an occasional series of pairings that will illustrate the often heroic, but sometimes also villainous regard in which wild nature is held.


The villainy side of this pairing takes less words to explain, and is a case of disappointment with a foolheaded approach to conservation that is proving more than just worthless. St David's Head is an area of rocky coastal cliffs and a hill that is described in Coast to Coast 2007, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority magazine, as an area of the National Park least affected by agriculture. To a large extent, this is true since there is little evidence of improvement into modern times of this headland, covered as it is for the most part by gorse and heather, and a few willows in a low-lying wet area.

The floral interest of the headland is immense, the richest areas coinciding with where the exposed climatic conditions disfavour tall shrubbery. Thus the cliff edges are grassland with cascades of squill, cowslip, primrose, bluebell, and sea pink, edging away into the low shrubbery of heather and petty whin, a few dwarf willow in seepages, and with masses of orchids, lousewort, milkwort, yellow rattle, cinqefoil and goldenrod. The relatively calmer hinterland is a gorse and heather shrubland with some bramble, but the gorse and bramble recede as the land sweeps up to Carn Llidi, a the rocky outcrop that is the summit to St Davids Head.

The National Trust own the headland and in recent years have maintained a small herd of mountain ponies, initially restricting their grazing to specific areas. The problem is that the long term effect of the ponies has been to trash a wet flush that had good ferns, and open up a susbstantial area of the shrubland, leaving it prey to disturbed ground species (ironically, a lot of ragweed that is poisonous to ponies) and promoting the incipient spread of bracken. Not content with that, they seem to have brought in a scrub clearer earlier in the year to shave linear swathes into the gorse. My first objection to the gorse clearance is the disfiguring tracks as the ground must have been too wet to support any vehicle, and my second would be that the net return from this effort has been willow herb, a flush of bugle that doesn't make sense in open ground, a couple of flushes of orchids that only add a squirt compared to the thousands elsewhere, and much more area for the bracken to move into.

The excessive grazing and now shrub clearance are a management nonsense. The gorse shrubbery is the most natural coverage of this hinterland, excluding as it does the incursion of the pernicious perennials that disfigure a natural landscape and which are always the result of the farmification of land. My 20 years of walking this headland is now to be crowned by the bracken spreading downwards towards the cliff edges and where the flora is increasingly at risk. Good job, National Trust.

Going south from St Davids Head and fully across St Brides Bay brings you to the Marloes peninsula. Wooltack Point at the end of the Deer Park on the peninsula, overlooks the tidal race in Jack Sound that lies between the mainland, Middleholm and Skomer Island. We recently watched razor bills and guillemots feeding there, and three porpoise arched gracefully over. Sometimes you see gannets diving along with the porpoise, but not that day.

The sea around Skomer is an Marine Nature Reserve (MNR), but few people probably realise that the MNR boundary comes across to the mainland, reaching around Gateholm to the south and stretches about 2 kms along the north coast of the Marloes peninsula, thus including much of the coastline of the penninsula, and linking the mainland with the marine reserve.

Most of the sea bird nesting takes place on the cliffs of Skomer Island, but fulmars and kittiwakes do nest on the rocky cliffs of the mainland coast. In a recent Natural World program on BBC2, Roy Dennis made the connection between terrestrial cliff habitats and the marine habitat - his specific link being the availability of sand eels to bird breeding populations on coastal cliffs, and the need for regulation of the exploitation of waters off cliff breeding areas. Roy hoped that the proposed Marine Bill would recognise this in the placement of the new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ).

The Skomer MNR already provides layers of protection to the marine habitat. A Zone Map exists for the MNR which shows a General Protection Zone (GPZ) that covers the whole of the MNR area. A Nearshore Protection Zone (NPZ) of about 200m width covers all of the coast around the Marloes Peninsula. A third zone, the Inshore Protection Zone (IPZ) of about 100m width surrounds all of Skomer, but not Middleholm nor the peninsula. Layered onto the IPZ around Skomer is a band of NPZ (100m) but again not around Middleholm. In reality, the only difference between the zones is that potting is disallowed in the IPZ but allowed in the other two, and a speed limit of 5 knots exists in the NPZ and IPZ. Overall in the MNR, there are exclusions across all the zones such as scallop collecting/fishing, crustacean fishing, speed boating, spear fishing, dredging, trawling, netting etc. Is this enough? Is there a great deal of worth in these thin ribbons of zones if they have little difference?

I have written previously about no take zones (NTZ) and how in 2005 the South Wales Fishery Committee voted down an NTZ that would have covered most of the area of the Skomer MNR (see No take Zones - a maritime rewilding, Oct 2006). Thus I was very pleased to find that the Marine Conservation Society had instituted a local petition for the Skomer MNR to be turned into a Highly Protected Marine Reserve (HPMR), the name given to NTZs in the proposed Marine Bill. We found the petition in the exhibition room of the Skomer MNR office at Martins Haven at the edge of the deer park [see ADDENDUM below]. Displayed in there were delightful underwater photographs of the reserve and with explanatory text, which you can also take away in a free colour brochure. I don't have to see these things underwater myself, it is enough for me to know that there is this fabulous underwater "forest" being protected.

MNRs are to disappear in the Marine Bill and be replaced by MCZs. The intent is that there will also be HPMR that offer a greater protection than the MCZ, but little profile is given to HPMRs in the Bill (it is only mentioned once). Thus full marks again to the Marine Conservation Society who set up a national online petition to convince the Government that marine conservation must be at the core of the Marine Bill. They ask us to have our say in how our seas are managed and protected by adding our name in support of HPMR (see www.marinereservesnow.org.uk).

If an HPMR does eventually cover the whole of the Skomer MNR, then it would do away with the ineffectual narrow zone bands of the current IPZ and NPZ. But there should be more. On the day that we were at Wooltack Point, there were five tankers at anchor in St Brides Bay, the nearest perhaps only a few hundred metres from the MNR boundary. Although they were empty (they sat high in the water) they increase the risk of interference in the MNR - the HPMR that could be. There needs to be a buffer zone around the HPMR, and thus I would put a wide area MCZ around the Skomer HPMR. It should certainly include Skokholm Island, go out far enough to include Grassholm and the Smalls, making landfall at say St Anns Head in the south, and should encompass the whole of St Brides Bay before making landfall to the north somewhere along the coast past St Davids Head, the other place we often see porpoise.

In fact that larger zone of the MCZ that I have described is only just slightly smaller than the current Pembrokeshire Coast Special Area of Conservation (SAC) which also takes in Milford Haven as it makes landfall near Freshwater West. There will be an outcry if this MCZ attempts to curtail fishery and tanker activities. But you only have to look at the ship and boat derived rubbish on the beach at say Freshwater West to see the most obvious menace of these activities, and we must get serious about shifting the balance towards marine conservation in important locations.

Mark Fisher 4 June 2007

ADDENDUM 28th June 2007

I was contacted by Blaise Bullimore of the Pembrokeshire local group of the Marine Conservation Society, who organised the petition for the HPMR at the Skomer MNR office at St Martins Haven. He let me know of the website of West Wales Marine Conservation, which is a collaboration between the Pembrokeshire local group of the MCS, the sports diving organisation South and West Wales Seasearch, and active supporters of the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve. The website has good information on the benefits of no-take zones, and why the Skomer MNR should be turned into a Highly Protected Marine Reserve in the new Marine Bill. There is also an online version of the petition for the HPMR that I signed in the Skomer MNR office.


This is a pairing of two countries by virtue of the recent meetings held in each on wildland, but which had different motivations born out of the characteristics of the organisations and the people involved in the discussions about land use and wild nature.

Scotland can be viewed as fertile ground for wildland, what with its vast expanse of semi-natural landscapes, but also the vision of some of its people, and the organisations that respond to the challenge of understanding the value of wildland and defining its nature. Thus wildland has a definition in their national planning policy (NPPG14), and there are statements and policies on wildland from Scottish Natural Heritage, the National Trust for Scotland, the Highland Council in their Highland Structure Plan, and from the John Muir Trust. Couple that with organisations like the Scottish Wildland Group, Trees for Life, Borders Forest Trust, and Reforesting Scotland plus many more, and there is an energy and interest to keep looking at the place of wildland in Scotland.

I jumped at the chance to go to a meeting in Glen Coe - WILD LAND OR REWILDING? held on 21st March 2007, and supported by the National Trust for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage. It had important aims and an excellent panel of speakers, and I was made welcome there. My report of this meeting can be read here.

While Wales can also boast a significant area of semi-natural landscapes, there have been few stirrings towards wildland, and not much discussion going on about its potential in Wales.  By way of addressing this, the Wildland Network (WN) held a meeting in Wales in April 2006, only to `find it being boycotted by the Wildlife Trusts for Wales (WTW) and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW). (You can read my report of that WN meeting here.)

Perhaps spurred into action by the WN meeting, CCW and WTW subsequently supported a meeting, hosted by PONT in November 2006 entitled HOW WILD SHOULD WALES BE? From the tenor and content of that meeting, it has become abundantly clear why the welsh conservation organisations boycotted the WN meeting. While I was not at the PONT meeting, I have talked to people who were there, and I have seen the presentations in which I find that the ideas and opinions I express on self-willed land were misconstrued to suit a particular purpose. I am told that in the meeting "the knives were out for 'self-willed land' as if it harboured the devil himself!" If the execrable statement on ‘Rewilding’ and Wilderness in Wales that has since arisen from PONT, supposedly as an outcome from the meeting, is the apex of their aspiration, then wild nature and its place in the Principality are doomed.

You can read about these sorry events in Wales, including the boycott of the WN meeting, a critique of the PONT meeting and of the key WTW project that was showcased, and the PONT statement here.

Mark Fisher 8 April 2007

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk