Neil Ansell spent five years living off-grid and without transport in a dilapidated cottage on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains, and turned his experience into the wonderful memoir Deep Country. The Society asked him to support our campaign, and he gives his reflections below.
I recall George Monbiot first expressing his view that the area had been ‘sheepwrecked’ in his book Feral, and that this perspective caused some friction with hill farmers who inevitably took his views rather personally. It is true that the area has suffered from historical overgrazing, which has resulted in very little natural regeneration of woodland, and that the area would benefit from greater woodland cover. Much of the area’s biological diversity resides in the remaining oak woods on the steeper slopes and river valleys, but it is worth noting that part of the specific character of these lovely woodlands is itself dependent on a level of grazing, giving them an open aspect that benefits ground flora and key bird species such as pied flycatcher, wood warbler, and redstart, in populations greater than those found almost anywhere else.
While I agree that the uplands would benefit from having areas set aside for woodland regeneration, either naturally or given a boost by replanting due to the shortages of seed stock, I would argue for balance; a range of habitats will always suit wildlife better than a single habitat, be it grass moorland or forest cover. The uplands may not support a huge range of species, but are of value to a number of specialist species, some of which are in jeopardy. These uplands include extensive areas of peat bog, itself a threatened habitat, which as well as being an even better carbon sink than woodland, have their own range of specialist plant and insect species, as well as being a valuable home to our declining breeding waders such as curlew, golden plover, and snipe. The area is also home to perhaps a greater range of birds of prey than anywhere else in Britain; perhaps the highest population density of ravens and buzzards, good numbers of peregrines and merlin, and more. And, of course, it is the remoteness of the area that preserved the red kite from being persecuted into extinction, and enabled it to be brought back from the brink.
The area has an austere beauty; with a very low human population you can walk for hours alone through a landscape with open access and no fences or keep out signs, listening to the calls of the curlews and skylarks, before dropping into a valley filled with relic woodland and thick with life. The area, I think, deserves both protection and restoration, and there may be compromises needed.