We've been making great strides in our efforts to save nature in Wales this year, explains Katie-jo Luxton, Director of RSPB Cymru.
A good year
It's been a good year and I'm pleased to report on some of our notable successes and conservation projects.
Looking back, I've been struck by the variety of our work, from large-scale conservation in the Gwent Levels, to the very focused fight for twites in Snowdonia, as well as projects that consolidate our role in saving nature in Wales and those that engage future generations with our natural world.
Safeguarding the future
Last year we announced a landmark agreement that secures the future of our tenancy at the Lake Vyrnwy estate farm in Powys. A year on and we're really feeling the benefits of a 30-year tenancy.
The farm sits within a 10,000 hectare national nature reserve that welcomes over 200,000 visitors a year. It's also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area, a Special Area of Conservation and the largest area of heather moorland in single ownership in Wales. The area includes blanket bog, moor and woodland and is home to hen harriers, merlins, red grouse, and very special plants and insects.
The tenancy provides us with long-term control over the habitat, key to the conservation of this very special environment. We've already started on a huge programme to repair many miles of fencing, and we're building a muck store. It doesn't sound pretty, but we need the manure to grow crops to feed the animals in the winter, and the store will enable us to make a highly nutrient-rich fertiliser in a more time-efficient and cost-effective way.
Farming for wildlife
We've also been looking at our grazing techniques. As well as Welsh mountain sheep and Welsh mountain ponies, we have Welsh black cattle. Recently we've been grazing them on the mountains in summer. They graze differently to the sheep, creating a mosaic of different habitats. We've seen violets come up, which are popular with fritillary butterflies. There's also evidence that meadow pipits produce bigger eggs in areas where cattle have grazed moorland. The rich dung supports insects, which are eaten by meadow pipits, which in turn provides food for merlins.
It's a great demonstration of how we're running the farm both commercially and for nature. The farm has always been run to be economically viable and this is a way of managing the farm for wildlife, while also farming in the "real world."
A more sustainable Wales
RSPB Cymru's policy team worked hard with Welsh Assembly members and officials to inform new environmental legislation in Wales. I was especially pleased with our input into a new Environment (Wales) Act which received Royal Assent in March 2016.
With the backing of our campaigning supporters and working with partners, we helped ensure that the new legislation included a commitment to ensure Wales manages its natural resources in a more sustainable way, and recognises the value and benefits of healthy ecosystems.
The implementation of the Act will be key and we are now busy helping to inform the development of the policies and reports which are now being produced in compliance with the Act. We will continue to make nature's voice heard and advocate for truly sustainable policies which work for nature and people.
Protecting our natural heritage
I'm delighted to announce another large-scale project, albeit of a very different nature − the Gwent Living Levels Landscape Partnership.
The Gwent Levels are a patchwork of diverse wildlife havens, sweeping the Severn Estuary coastline from Cardiff to the Severn Bridge and beyond. It's home to a wealth of charismatic and threatened species including lapwings, otters, water voles, the great silver water beetle and one of the UK's rarest bumblebees, the shrill carder bee. The area also hosts a number of specialist plants including frogbit, arrowhead and Wolffia – the smallest flowering plant in the world.
Achieving more through partnerships
At the end of last year RSPB Cymru, in partnership with 11 other organisations and local authorities in Wales, was awarded an £2.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore and protect the natural heritage of the Gwent Levels, reconnecting the community to the landscape to create a sustainable future for this fascinating part of the country.
We're currently engaged in the development stage: together with our partners, we are working on a programme of activities which will be implemented from September 2017 to the end of 2020.
Community engagement is at the heart of the project to ensure the views and wishes of local people shape the project. We are very proud of our involvement in this: by working with partners and the community on landscape scale projects like this, we can achieve and do more for nature.
Inspiring a love of nature
Our work to give nature a home in Cardiff took a dramatic twist last year when we worked in partnership with North Wales arts organisation Migrations and the City of Cardiff Council to produce TAPE, an art installation that caught the imagination of thousands of people from the city and beyond.
Nestled in a tree in Cardiff's Bute Park, TAPE was a cocoon-like structure of fantastical proportions big enough to fit a whole family. A key element of our Giving Nature a Home strategy is to engage children and their families with nature and this certainly delivered. Around 74,000 people came to see it in August: around 10,000 climbed inside TAPE, while others came to admire it, take a selfie with it, picnic by it, or just have a jolly good look.
Alongside this we ran more traditional nature-related activities for children – successfully engaging 1,000 children. A big thank you to our volunteers who gave 700 hours to help build TAPE, run events and engage with people.
We're really pleased with how it went and Migrations are too. In fact, we ran another event together in July 2016 called In the Eyes of the Animal. More about this in next year's Annual Review!
Collaborations like this are important. It's about pushing the boundaries, being innovative, taking risks and extending our reach to people that don't already engage with us. Nature and art go very well together and it puts us in a new light that gets people talking.
The fight for twites
From the dramatic to the diminutive. Twites are humble-looking brown finches that seriously need our help. Once relatively widespread in the uplands of North Wales, twites are now restricted to two areas of Snowdonia, with a 2008 survey estimating only 14-17 pairs.
Twites only eat seeds and rear their young on seed alone. This makes farmland vitally important to their survival, and we've been working with farmers for a number of years to underline this: some farmers already boost the birds' natural menu by feeding them nyjer seed.
Last year we ramped up our efforts, and we now have four farms that take "grazing breaks" in which the animals are removed for 8 to 10 weeks to allow the grasses and flowers to go to seed and crucially provide food for twites. The fields are then grazed as normal.
The goal is to eventually remove the need to provide nyjer seed, and we're monitoring the grazing breaks to see how much the twites use them as a seed source. The British Trust for Ornithology are working closely with us on this project, carrying out ringing at the feeding stations and the birds' wintering grounds on the Dee Estuary.
But it's the community of farmers within Snowdonia who are making a real difference to this delicate brown bird. By changing some of their farming practices, they're playing a vital role in securing a better future for twites.
Saving nature together
There remain huge challenges for wildlife in Wales: habitat loss, species decline and climate change among others. However a look back over our achievements this year provides plenty of reason for optimism. Not least our efforts to work in partnership; by working together, I am hopeful we can save nature.