Venturing into the Cambrian Desert

Posted on December 16, 2016 · Posted in News

It was almost the end of November and the morning was sunny, crisp and clear. The hills were calling and a chilly east wind was not enough to put us off. From Bron y Llys we followed Glyndwr’s Way heading west, the cold wind on our backs. Beyond the wooden footbridge that crosses Nant Goch the vista became huge, Pumlumon rising from its high plateau to our left, Cadair Idris to the right, its slopes scattered with ‘snow bones’, the waters of Glaslyn gleaming ahead of us.

Maya saw it first – I had mistaken it for a white cloud: visible through the deep saddle at the eastern end of the Cadair Idris range stood Yr Wyddfa, Snowdon’s summit, capped with snow. The mountain is sixty kilometres distant, but on sharp, pellucid days in spring and autumn its peak can be seen clearly from this stretch of Glyndwr’s Way. And this was one of those days, with a low, bright autumn sun emphasizing every fold and contour of the distant hills.

The spaciousness and beauty of the landscape at this time of year compensate for its relative lack of wildlife. By now most of the small birds that breed on these high moors have moved down to lower ground or have left the UK altogether. The hen harriers and merlins that prey on them have also departed in search of richer pickings along valleys and coasts. The more generalist predators and scavengers – buzzards, red kites and ravens – still manage to make a living here. Where heather or rushes provide good shelter some of the smaller birds will stay throughout the winter, and on our walk we saw one of the few remaining skylarks, a couple of meadow pipits and a stonechat.

That evening as I wrote up my nature diary, I couldn’t help contrasting our experience with the relentlessly miserable one narrated by George Monbiot in his book Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding (2013). In a chapter called ‘Greening the Desert’ Monbiot describes an autumn walk in the Cambrian Mountains a few miles west of Pumlumon. He describes how he left the path and ‘stepped up into the last scrap of woodland before the desert began’. From this point on his account becomes a lament for the absence of trees, ‘apart from distant plantations of Sitka spruce and an occasional scrubby hawthorn or oak clinging to a steep valley…. The land had been flayed.’ Some people, Monbiot admits with evident bafflement, ‘claim to love this landscape’, but he plainly isn’t one of them. ‘I find it dismal, dismaying. I spun round, trying to find a place that would draw me, feeling as a cat would feel here, exposed, sat upon by wind and sky, craving a sheltered spot.’ Later, sitting on a rock overlooking the small reservoir, he finds himself ‘slumping into depression’; eventually, on returning to the wood where he started, he ‘almost wept with relief’.

So begins Monbiot’s sustained whinge about the barrenness (as he sees it) of the Cambrian Mountains, a key part of his argument for ‘rewilding’ them. By this he means covering them with a blanket of native woodland and leaving nature to take its course. But his complaint is not simply that the Cambrians are short of trees; he writes of their ‘paucity of birds and other wildlife’. During his walk, ‘No bird started up – not even a crow or a pipit. There were neither fieldfares nor redwings, larks nor lapwings.’

Dismal indeed! But Monbiot’s lyrical prose and well-honed rhetoric presents an extremely distorted portrait of these uplands. The date of the walk he describes is the last day of October. By then most of the meadow pipits and skylarks – common birds in summer – have already left the hills. Large flocks of fieldfares and redwings usually arrive in October (this year I saw my first redwings on 16th, my first fieldfares on 17th), but these flocks roam widely in search of food and soon descend into the valleys where there are more rowans and hawthorns; only when they’ve raided all the berries – usually weeks later – do they reappear on the hills in search of worms and other invertebrates (there were fieldfares at Bron y Llys again on 15th December). Lapwings used to breed around here but in recent decades numbers have declined dramatically throughout England and Wales (and most of Western Europe) and they have vanished from this area. But even when they were more numerous they would have left their upland breeding grounds long before the end of October. Does Monbiot not know any of this? The absence of crows is surprising (in my view there are too many of them!) but Monbiot does say there was ‘a cutting, damp wind’ on the hills, and in such a wind even crows keep a low profile.

It’s hard to believe George Monbiot was unaware of how little he was likely to see at the end of October. He lived in the area and ‘walked these mountains for five years’. If he had deliberately set out to avoid seeing wildlife, he could hardly have chosen a better time of year! I therefore suspect he chose the date to furnish himself with persuasive ‘rewilding’ arguments.

A typical walk in spring or summer would give a very different impression of the Cambrian Mountains. Then there are skylarks, meadow pipits, pied and grey wagtails, stonechats, whinchats, wheatears, red grouse, peregrines, buzzards, red kites, hen harriers, merlins, ravens – and of course those crows. In addition to the birdlife there are stoats, weasels and brown hares (admittedly all secretive and rarely seen), common lizards, newts, frogs and toads. I won’t start on flowers and insects (chiefly because I know so few of them!).

But even in autumn and winter there is wildlife around if you have the patience to look for it. In addition to the few meadow pipits and skylarks that somehow manage to eke out a living, snipe start arriving in September, surprising the off-piste walker by erupting from a clump of rushes with a rasping call and zig-zagging skywards. At the start of December we flushed our first woodcock of the winter, a bird that’s even harder to see, being mostly nocturnal. We have also seen weasel and stoat at this time of year, the latter wearing its white winter coat.

Of the summer birds I mentioned earlier, the majority are upland species that would lose their breeding habitat if the moors were transformed into forest. And current efforts to reverse the decline of lapwing, curlew and golden plover in Mid-Wales would be undermined. The curlew, for example, prefers wide, unbroken visibility for its breeding grounds.

Don’t get me wrong – a member of the Woodland Trust for some thirty years, I love trees. But in my view to replace these moors with woodland would be a big mistake. Along with much of the wildlife, the long views and wide vistas would be lost. I’ve walked for hours in the mixed woodland (mostly oak and beech) of the French Pyrenees, with no views of the mountains and only a few glimpses of sky through the dense green canopy.

‘Whenever I venture into the Cambrian Desert I almost lose the will to live’, writes George Monbiot. (He’s rather fond of the term ‘Cambrian Desert’, using it to evoke an image of lifeless wasteland, but it actually refers to the scarcity of human inhabitants.)

Unlike Monbiot, we – and, I suspect, all of our guests at Bron y Llys B&B – find this ‘desert’ uplifting at any time of year. Writing of the Cambrian Mountains in the July 2016 edition of Country Walking, Jenny Walters says: ‘The magic of this place isn’t just in looking at its natural beauty, but in how it feels to walk here. There’s a remoteness, a space to the open views, that soothes and inspires; few places feel as far from the daily hustle.’ I couldn’t agree more.