About NTBreconBeacons

We are the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire National Trust team that covers mid and south east Wales, looking after over 30,000 acres of upland common land and woodlands, waterfalls, hay meadows, and even a naval temple at the Kymin. We have many places to look after from Abergwesyn Commons in the north, to the Kymin in the east, Henrhyd Falls in the west and Lanlay Meadows in the south near Cardiff. Our most visited place is the central Brecon Beacons, home of southern Britain’s highest mountain Pen y Fan with over 250,000 visitors a year.

Elm, creating a future from the past

Once a commonplace tree, elm was favoured for furniture making and wheel building for its dense grain and strength as well as its use with water, for bridges and even pipes, due to its durability.  These days however elm is rather absent from the landscape particularly in its larger, older forms.  The majority succumbed to a fungus spread by beetles best known as Dutch elm disease that saw a rapid drop in elm numbers since the 1960’s.

The Dutch part of its name comes from much of the early study of the disease being conducted in the Netherlands.  Beetle larvae hatch and grow from dead elm, picking up spores from the fungus as they grow.  When they become beetles they fly off in search of fresh elm bark to feed on, at which point they introduce the fungus to a new tree and the cycle starts again.  The beetles favour trees over 20 years old and few elms make it beyond 30 years.  Even their regeneration is thwarted by the fungus.

The Conservation Foundation has set up The Great British Elm Project to try and bring this once common tree back to our landscape.  On a positive note not all elms have succumbed to the disease.  This could be through isolation or, as the project hopes to find and benefit from, a natural borne resistance to the disease.  Cuttings have been taken from a selection of these survivors that have lived through the last 60 years and continue to thrive.  The project has distributed these now saplings around the country where they are to be grown on and monitored to see if the survivors hold the key to the future.

Having seen the effect of the disease and its ongoing breakdown of trees, just as they seem to be getting into their stride, to come across this project towards the end of last year certainly got our attention.  Our five trees arrived in March which was getting close to the end of the planting season as sap was starting to rise, so we decided not to plant them out this year.  For now they have been potted up into bigger pots of compost and placed in our tree nursery.  This will give us the chance to plant them at a better time of year as well as giving them time to become slightly more hardy trees.

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More preparation work

This project comes at a good time.  With the threat of Chalara fraxinea, there is the risk of a disease that could seriously reduce our woodland cover as it threatens one of our most prolific trees, the ash.  Ash and elm favour a lot of similar conditions, so if ash were to be seriously affected, it would be great to have a viable elm population that could help fill the gap.

We have a few thoughts on where to plant them out, certainly at Clytha in Monmouthshire where we see existing elms getting knocked back each time.  We will probably also add some to the new planting at the Skirrid car park, near Abergavenny, where they will be visible below the ancient woodland that covers the southern slopes.  As for the remaining one or two, we still have a few months to decide, so will be keeping an eye out for suitable spots across our sites.

Tim – Woodland Ranger

Combating erosion, a constant battle

Easter is always a busy time of year for the National Trust and this was no exception for us with 30,000 visitors through the gates at Pont ar Daf and Storey Arms during the month of April.  Sadly the visitors to the central Brecon Beacons did leave evidence of their trip by scattering lots of rubbish including 239 bags of dog poo, 109 empty plastic water bottles as well as an empty bottle of champagne and drinking glasses.  Over the Easter break, National Trust staff and volunteers picked up 11 full sacks of rubbish from the slopes alone.  We’re also very grateful to those nameless walkers who continue to pick up rubbish when they are out and about.

Visitor numbers to the central Brecon Beacons continue to grow every year and 2016 saw an increase of over 30,000 people through the gate at Pont ar Daf, the most popular access route to Pen y Fan, compared to the previous year.  And these busy periods are not just restricted to holidays such as Easter.  Each winter, once the snow has fallen, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwalkers avoid the slippery compacted ice on the footpaths and spread out looking for better grip, thus stripping the once vegetated areas below and creating wide, bare scars.  As the snow melts and the rain falls, the soil is then washed away leaving behind ruts which fill with rain water, eventually creating gullies.  During the thawing of the paths, loosened soil gets picked up by walkers on their footwear and when combined with rainfall the soil loss on the footpaths can be over 5cm deep in winter.  The lost soil takes hundreds of years to be replaced naturally; we cannot replace it as the whole area has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, so we can only use what is in keeping with the area, and in this case sandstone.

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University of Bath students getting stuck in

Every spring and early summer we need to landscape and revegetate the areas surrounding the footpaths to try and prevent further loss of soil, in order to achieve this we rely on the help of volunteers.  In March and April we welcomed students from Strode College, Somerset and University of Bath who assisted in opening up some of the cross and side ditches.  These ditches were trampled during the winter period and this conservation work will allow the water to run away from the footpaths once again.  We have many more volunteer groups booked in for the summer period to help us with vital erosion control work.

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Strode College students working hard

The footpaths continue to erode as they are mainly subsoil paths so we need to put a harder wearing surface on top.  This summer we are hoping to airlift 200 tonnes of sandstone scalpings onto sections of the Storey Arms and Pont ar Daf footpaths.  All this work costs money and at present only money received from National Trust member subscriptions are paying for it.  Looking ahead, the income that will be generated from the new proposed car park at Pont ar Daf will assist towards the future financial costs of combating erosion, such an essential part of my role as lead ranger for the central Brecon Beacons.

Rob Reith
Lead Ranger

My volunteer story

Hello, my name is Lewis Robertson and I’ve been a Full Time Volunteer Uplands Ranger with the National Trust Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire team for 12 months now and I wanted to share my experiences with you.  If you’ve been up Pen y Fan in the last year, you may have seen me working on the footpaths with the uplands team.

I originally come from the North East of Scotland and moved here to work as a volunteer after finishing my degree in Environmental Science as I wanted to gain the experience and skills necessary for a career in conservation.

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Preparing the ground ready for grass seeding & fertilising

The majority of my time has been spent working on the footpaths of the central Brecon Beacons helping to control erosion.  With hundreds of thousands of people walking the Beacons each year, it is a constant challenge to not only maintain the footpaths but also minimise the erosion to the path edges.  I’ve heard it being compared to painting the Forth Rail Bridge by visitors and that sounds about right.

 

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Clearing out culverts by hand on Bwlch Duwynt

 

Building drainage features and widening or replacing path sections are very time consuming because almost all the work is done by hand.  When stone pitching, each stone has to be carefully dug deep into the ground and set at the correct angle to match the stones around it.  It sounds simple in theory but it takes a lot of practice and skill to do it quickly.  It’s a very old technique for building a path and predates the Romans but if done well it blends into the landscape and lasts a long time.

Working on the footpaths has given me some fantastic experiences.  Most notably assisting with last year’s helicopter airlift where we moved bags of crushed sandstone (scalpings) to damaged areas of the Storey Arms path.  Not only did I get to work as part of the team on the ground but I also got to ride in the helicopter, twice! It was an amazing experience and I’ll never forget it.

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We need a lot of kit for maintenance work!

Maintaining footpaths in the uplands is very hard and physical work.  It was a little shock to the system when I first started but I soon got used to it.  I enjoy practical work and there’s a real sense of achievement to be gained from constructing stone drainage features and paths.  I myself am a keen hill walker and I really enjoy giving something back to the hills by helping to protect them.

Naturally working in the hills means enduring all weather conditions and the Brecon Beacons certainly hasn’t disappointed.  There have been times where my coffee has been ripped out of my cup by the wind and then continuously refilled by the rain but you soon forget about that on a nice sunny day.

Working in the Brecon Beacons has been an amazing experience, I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed every minute of it.  I’ve worked with some wonderful people in an iconic location and I’ll never forget my time here – highly recommended.

Thanks
Lewis

It’s good to get together!

One of the greatest strengths the National Trust has is the depth of knowledge and experiences its staff and volunteers possess. Whether it be curators or room stewards looking after stately homes, gardeners or groundsmen and women looking after estates or in our case rangers looking after tenanted buildings and open countryside.

Finding the time to get together with colleagues from other places can be a challenge. Last February, along with some rangers from the Gower, we took a couple of days out to visit The Lizard in Cornwall. The idea was to meet up with some like-minded people who face similar challenges to us, share our experiences and techniques used for the conservation work we carry out and to see if we could come up with better ways of working. We spent the first day clearing laurel (an invasive species) from woodland at Penrose near The Lizard. This type of task is so much easier with a big group of you, hence the term ‘many hands make light work’! After an evening spent socialising and networking in the local pub the second day was a bit quieter. We spent time walking around The Lizard and Penrose as well as talking to staff and volunteers about the work they were doing. We also marvelled over the amazing lunch they put on for us in the woods; fresh fish cooked on an open fire amongst other delights.01212741952_1137973399546548_7332720623809439902_n

The Cornwall Rangers accepted an invitation to come to Wales this year, so again the Brecon Beacons team piled into the minibus and headed off to meet them, this time on the Gower. On a very wet and windy day at Rhossili we all mucked in to clear gorse from the cliff top. The weather conditions meant the Gower rangers couldn’t put on a similar spread for lunch although the Storm Kettle was put to good use, boiling water for a hot cup of tea in the fresh air. At low tide we battled the elements to walk out to the end of Worms Head and then retired to a local pub for an evening meal and to dry out.

Apart from the obvious benefits of getting away for a few days there is a huge amount to be gained by sharing the wealth of knowledge and experience rangers at different places have built up over the years. You can also look at the negatives and learn from each other’s mistakes as well as being able to share equipment and kit when possible.

A whole host of reasons why it’s good to get together!

Cheers
Simon Rose, Area Ranger

New Beginnings

This winter we have planted 1450 trees across the sites we look after.  Some are direct replacements for felled trees, whilst others have supplemented existing planting or were entirely new.  We plant over winter as the trees are in a dormant state whilst they wait for the warmth of spring and longer days before pushing their sap up and forming buds that will be that year’s leaves.

On the Skirrid we have completed planting of the hedge banks around the new car park.  It

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Hedge planting at the Skirrid

was mostly planted in the first winter after construction, but there were some gaps at the ends where we had run out of trees.  Now the whole bank is planted and we have had a chance to replace any failed trees from the first year, a process known as ‘beating up’.
We have also been making plans to trial some elm trees that have been bred to be resistant to Dutch Elm disease.  We are just waiting for the nursery to be happy with them before planting.  We will be able to plant these later in the year as they will be bigger pot grown plants with a more developed root structure.

Jess has also planted some trees down at Lanlay Meadows following on from some hedge laying she has been doing.  In places the hedge was a little thin, so some new saplings will help to add a bit of thickness and continuity to the hedge.  Hedges are a good food source and provide features that help all sorts of wildlife travel across what would otherwise be open ground.

We have also been continuing to plant at Pont ar Daf as part of our ongoing work up there.  In the clear felled areas we have been planting a mixed upland broadleaf selection to help increase the nature value of the woods and soften its appearance in the landscape. Predominantly made up of birch, rowan and oak.  In the damper spots and along the stream edges we have been planting alder as it is very tolerant of wet ground, in fact, it rather thrives in it.  The last lot of planting has just been finished with the help from Gower National Trust Thursday Group Volunteers who also did some burning to help clear the ground for planting.

Tim – Woodland Ranger

 

Wildlife isn’t just for Christmas

So Christmas is finally upon us and it looks set to be a bit of a stormy one. Luckily our pic-1winter so far has been rather dry and mild. But our staff and volunteers will be out in all weather, rain or shine, to make sure our sites are maintained and managed properly. Some of the work I have been undertaking this winter has involved path and countryside infrastructure maintenance from revamping signs and re-wiring boardwalks to replacing steps, see the pic of Full Time Volunteer Ellie helping to put in some new steps.

To acknowledge all the good work done this year, and of course to celebrate Christmas, we held our annual staff and volunteer Christmas meal last week. Unfortunately I was unable to attend but I have been assured that a good time was had by all! The weather held long enough for everyone to enjoy a brisk walk in the Brecon Beacons before settling down to a lovely home cooked Christmas dinner prepared by our very own Joe and Stuart. So just to reiterate – a big thank you to all our volunteers for all the hard work you have put in this year!

Other festive events have been going on around our properties too – this week in Coelbren we had a crafty afternoon of making natural tree decorations, soil printing and bird feeder wreaths. Why not try using some natural materials yourself this Christmas? It’s a fun family activity to enjoy together and you will probably find most of the materials on or near your doorstep!

Winter can be hard for wildlife – food is in short supply and finding enough to sustain them through the winter can be difficult. It can also be a good time for you to spot wildlife; leaves have fallen from trees and hedges and birds are preoccupied with their hunt for food.

Try putting out some bird feed and water in your garden and sit back and watch from the comfort of a warm house, safe in the knowledge you are doing your part to help them get through this tough period. Take the time to enjoy nature – take a stroll and listen out for the pic-7drum of Greater Spotted woodpeckers as they start their courtship displays in January.

Over the past 50 years we have seen a decline in two thirds of the UK’s plant and animal species, including some of our once common garden species. There are estimated to be over 15 million gardens in Britain, so managing them for wildlife could be vital for the success of a species. One such species is the hedgehog which appears to have lost 30% of its total population since 2002, and is now thought to be declining at 5% per year. See the pic of a little guy I found in the middle of the road last autumn before going off to hibernate.

Go wild in your garden. One small step can make a big difference!

Something as simple as making a small hole in the bottom of your fence can help wildlife like hedgehogs; this joins up fragmented habitats that are vital for their survival. Or leaving a boarder or corner of your lawn to grow long during the summer will attract more insects which in turn is good for hedgehogs and other wildlife such as birds.

Wildlife isn’t just for Christmas, there are many ways to help them in your garden so don’t be complacent and start thinking ahead now!

Jess, Conservation and Engagement Ranger

Wild Wednesday, Ponds & Footpaths

I came to the Brecon Beacons in March to start a new role as ranger for the Sugar Loaf, Skirrid and the Begwns. There was a short period of getting to know my sites, which involved me in a Land Rover with a map trying to figure out where the heck I was. After getting to grips with the layout of the land it was headfirst into a busy summer.

The National Trust protects special places for everyone, so during the summer months a lot of energy and time is poured into getting people onto our sites and caring for and enjoying the countryside. Over the summer I’ve had a lot of fun organising the family activity days we run on the Sugar Loaf, the aptly named Wild Wednesdays, which are part of the National Trust’s 50 things to do before you’re 11 3/4 campaign to reconnect children with nature. Children are able to build dens, climb trees and hunt for creepy crawlies in the stream; it is amazing to turn over a rock and find a huge Stonefly or Caddisfly nymph and receive appreciative squeals of delight (and sometimes horror). It’s so rewarding to get families outside, interacting with their surroundings and learning something new.

The Begwns, a grazing common between the villages of Painscastle and Clyro is another one of my sites. I first visited on a cold and blustery March morning and was greeted with coldly stark yet awe-inspiring views of the Brecon Beacons, but I didn’t fully realise how exceptional this piece of common land was. My second visit was at night, wearing a fetching head torch and marching out with the local Ponds Group; led by the knowledgeable Hannah Shaw of the Freshwater Habitats Trust. We visited one pond and honestly it was like an aquatic metropolis; Smooth, Palmate and Great Crested newts marched towards the pond for their nightly activities and toads blinked at us from under the vegetation at the water’s surface. The ponds on the Begwns are veritable havens for wildlife, in fact they are so exceptional they have been made a Flagship Site for Wales by the Freshwater Habitats Trust. It is part of my job now to work alongside Hannah to monitor and protect these wonderful habitats.

Something I would never have predicted I would do over the summer is fly over the Beacons in a helicopter, it was during the airlift of stone to the Storey Arms footpath that leads to Pen y Fan. Thousands of people march up the hill every year and they all take their toll on the path. The upland team spend hours stone-pitching the paths and sowing grass seed on the eroded edges. As you can imagine the effect of thousands of people requires a lot of stone, which is where the helicopter comes in. Over the course of three days, over a hundred tonnes of stone was flown up the path. Since then staff and volunteers have worked hard using that material to make the path level and comfortable to walk on to deter people from veering to the edge. Go take a look, but do stick to the path.

It has been a busy, varied and wonderful year. For now there are parts of my sites that I am still yet to explore, gates to replace, events to organise, litter to pick and wildlife to be spied.

Kate
Commons Link Ranger