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RSPB organic farm at Lake Vyrnwy


From the return of some rare species to efforts to engage people with Welsh wildlife, we’ve had an eventful year, writes Katie-Jo Luxton, Director of RSPB Cymru.

State of Nature 2016: Wales

While there is much to celebrate, sadly the findings from the State of Nature 2016: Wales report leave no room for complacency.

The State of Nature 2016: Wales report is a stock-take of wildlife in Wales put together by more than 50 conservation bodies, including the RSPB. Devastatingly, it found that one in 14 species in Wales is extinct or heading towards extinction.

Despite this bleak message, we made the report's launch one of the most colourful events of the year and used poetry, spoken word, beat-boxing, rapping, graffiti, music and eight-foot high choughs (costumed performers on stilts) to take the report to the streets of Cardiff.

By launching the report in such a public way, we hope to have reached more people than we did with the previous report. Particularly touching was the public's response to the question of what nature meant to them. "Without them (wildlife), there's no us," read one heartfelt comment.

It's a sentiment that cuts right to the heart of another of this year's highlights – the enshrinement of biodiversity in Welsh law.

Commitment to biodiversity

This year saw the implementation of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act getting underway. The Act puts a commitment to "sustainable development" at the heart of all actions by Welsh public bodies and sets out seven broad well-being goals for Wales.

These include, crucially, a call for a resilient Wales that "maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems".

Another vital piece of legislation in the early stages of implementation is the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, which sets out the Welsh Government's plans to manage Wales' natural resources and tackle climate change. RSPB Cymru staff were instrumental in informing and influencing key aspects of both Acts.

Together, these pieces of legislation provide a framework for sustainable development and environmental management that includes a clear commitment to enhance biodiversity.

This framework will set the backdrop for land and marine management policies in Wales following Brexit. With sustainable development and biodiversity at the core of these two acts, we can be more hopeful that they remain central to any future policies.

As such, they offer a great opportunity, but we know there is some way to go. We still need to see how things change "on the ground" and we're continuing to work with our partners to make sure the framework will deliver on its ambitions for the environment.

European otter Lutra lutra, swimming alongside river bank, Norfolk, England

Campaign update

The biodiversity and sustainable development duties included in these Acts have added further impetus to our opposition to the proposed M4 "relief road" around Newport.

The Welsh Government's proposed route runs through the Gwent Levels, cutting through four Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Wales' largest coastal floodplain grazing marsh. It is likely to have a devastating impact on wildlife including water voles, bats and shrill carder bees. 

Perhaps the potential of the habitat under threat is best represented by the fact that last year common cranes bred there – the first time cranes have bred in Wales for around 400 years. 

We believe the proposals go against the aims of the Well-being of Future Generations Act and directly contradict the duty to biodiversity set out in the Environment Act. The Welsh Government has a responsibility to maintain and enhance biodiversity and take account of any priority species, and the proposals as they stand run counter to this.

We have made this case in our written evidence to the ongoing local public inquiry on the scheme and are expecting a final decision in 2018.

While we completely oppose the scheme and hope the road won’t be built, we're not taking any chances and are currently working hard to make sure that, should the road be given the go-ahead, there will be adequate measures taken to compensate for the habitat lost.

Aerial view of Newport Wetlands
View looking over estuary with Snowdonia in the distance, Conwy RSPB Reserve

Shaping the Welsh uplands

Moving on from lowland wetlands now to the future of the Welsh uplands, which are made up of a range of internationally important habitats and provide homes for iconic species, such as the hen harrier, curlew and black grouse.

Sadly, many of these habitats are in a poor state and a worrying number of upland birds appear on the Red List of high conservation concern. While Britain's upcoming withdrawal from the EU presents a variety of challenges, it is also an opportunity for upland farming to realign with sustainable land management policies that will benefit these threatened species and habitats.

In March 2017 we held a conference with Bangor University and Cynidr Consulting on the future of upland farming post-Brexit. Many farmers and other rural stakeholders attended and we were able to share our own experience of managing an organic farm on the Vyrnwy estate.

Not only is Tŷ Llwyd Farm a profitable business, it is a clear example of how sensitive management can deliver a host of other benefits, including enhanced water quality and a landscape in which wildlife can thrive.

The conference was a wonderful opportunity to discuss upland management with a cross section of rural stakeholders and, following on from the event, we presented a report to the Welsh Government detailing the policy priorities put forward by delegates. The call for a clear vision for the Welsh uplands was unambiguous, and we'll continue to work to ensure that biodiversity and sustainability are at its heart.

View looking across Ynys-hir to mountains

Roseate terns on the Skerries

One encouraging news story from 2016 is the first breeding attempt in 10 years of a pair of roseate terns on the Skerries, a group of rocky islets off Anglesey.

Warden Ian Sims explains: 

"We're very excited about having roseate terns breeding again although, sadly, the pair's chick did not survive. It hatched very late in the season and was always unlikely to make it."

The breeding attempt is particularly significant having happened in a year when the tern population was reduced by at least 10% due to an, as yet unidentified, source of botulism. "So far, so good," Ian says nervously when asked about his hopes for the coming year. 

"We're all keeping our fingers crossed that they'll return to breed here every year."

 Roseate tern on nest amongst lichen covered rocks

Return of the Welsh rarities

The last year also saw the exciting return of breeding bitterns to Cors Ddyga (formerly called Malltraeth Marsh) on Anglesey. Bitterns last bred in Wales at the nearby Valley Wetlands reserve in 1984. However last year a nest was discovered late on in June at Cors Ddyga and Site Manager Ian Hawkins says he's confident that two young fledged.

We bought Cors Ddyga in 1994, specifically with the aim of providing habitat for bitterns, and are delighted that our work is finally paying off.

We have also been celebrating the return of the marsh harrier – a bird that last bred in Wales in 1946 – and the fledging of four chicks from Cors Ddyga last year. "It’s brilliant to have marsh harriers in Wales," says Ian. "We've made a lot of efforts to improve wetlands in suitable areas, both on Anglesey and also in South Wales. It really is giving nature a home. We have lots of habitat opening and maturing, and ready for nature to utilise.

Marsh harrier, female in flight, Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk

Half a million pounds for nature in Cardiff

As well as achieving some real milestones in terms of giving nature a home, we can also proudly say we've been able to make further progress in our ambition to engage the Welsh people.

Our Giving Nature a Home in Cardiff project, in partnership with the City of Cardiff Council and Buglife Cymru, has benefitted from £500,000 from the Big Lottery Fund.

Since the project began in 2014, we've engaged over 20,000 children with nature in Cardiff, through our work in schools, parks and open spaces. This fantastic new funding means we'll be able to inspire even more young people, as well as their families and communities, to enjoy and engage with Cardiff's wildlife for another five years.

A girl from Cardiff showing off her re-wilded welly.

Reasons to be cheerful

Looking back on last year, I'm struck by how many of our success stories show the long-term nature of our work and the need for ongoing effort. The return of roseate terns and bitterns, for example, are the results of many years' work developing habitat.

Similarly, the passing of legislation that seeks to place biodiversity at the heart of public policy decision making in Wales is a result of continued efforts to engage and persuade.

While our successes are clear reasons to be cheerful, the finding that one in 14 Welsh species are extinct or at risk of extinction, strengthens our resolve to continue to save nature in Wales.

 Bittern, feeding in reeds