For Wildlife Holidays in Rhayader and throughout Mid Wales take a look at Natural Mid Wales.
The boulder strewn River Wye tumbles and cuts its way through the Cambrian Mountains in the heart of Wales. 18 miles south from its source where the valley narrows and then meets the waters of the River Elan, lies the small market town of Rhayader, nestling amid beautiful rugged scenery.To the west of the town the mountain top plateaux is draped in a mosaic of heather and grass moorland. Gnarled woodlands of oak hang on the valley sides and high rocky outcrops and cliffs overlook small patchwork farms.
This is the area known as Kite Country. Here the British red kite survived against all the odds. Eliminated from the rest of the UK through persecution a mere handful of birds hung on here in these secluded valleys. Now saved, they have become one of the greatest bird protection stories of our time. The kite is not the only one to have found sanctuary in the hills, polecats and otters, buzzards and ravens, ancient oak and man himself found safety here. The landscape is full of history waiting to be read - 400 million year old fossils from a prehistoric sea, burial mounds of the Bronze Age, Roman forts, castles and mediaeval settlements.
The area is well recognised for its natural history interest. Designated a Special Protection Area under the EEC Bird Directive it is among the most important areas for birds in Europe. Of particular interest are the breeding birds of prey, grouse, waders, river birds and the assemblages of breeding migrants from Africa such as redstarts, pied flycatchers, wood warblers, whinchats, wheatears and ring ouzels.
Extensive tracts of countryside are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) for the richness, diversity and rarity of the wildlife. Particularly important are the habitats of the moorlands, bogs, ancient woodlands, hay meadows and river systems.
Habitats and Wildlife: Moorland
The hill tops are wide open tracts of heather and grass and rush moorland. Boggy areas with specialised plants such as sundews and bog asphodel and rocky outcrops covered in lichens add variety. Throughout the year the moorlands are hunted over by buzzards, kites and ravens whilst in amongst the heather red grouse secrete themselves. In spring these uplands are brought to life with the return of smaller birds:- meadow pipits are the most numerous breeding birds with good numbers of whinchats and wheatears and stonechats in areas of gorse. In the most remote areas a few golden plover and dunlin still breed. During the summer the diurnal emperor and northern eggar moths fly over the heather and a whole host of other moorland moths, like the true lovers knot, are attracted to the light of our moth trap. In August and September an intimate mix of bell heather, ling, cross-leaved heath and western gorse colour the landscape and scent the air.
That area of land which lies between the wild hill tops and the valley fields is called the ffridd in Welsh (pronounced freethe). These mainly bracken covered hillsides are dissected by wet flushes, springs and narrow streams, rock outcrops, cliffs and scree and are scattered with hawthorn bushes and occasional rowan trees. Here whinchats and yellowhammers nest, tree pipits too.
The rock outcrops which overhang the valleys sport a wonderful array of lichens, some rare, and are the haunt of peregrines, ravens, wheatears and ring ouzels. In places flower rich grassy swards, cropped tightly by sheep, support small heath and small copper butterflies and masses of ground dwelling beetles and cockchaffers, like brightly coloured and iridescent jewels. Turning from fresh green through yellow, orange and rich red-brown, the bracken, while not a farmer’s friend, is a very colourful feature of the hillsides, especially in autumn.
A variety of grasslands can be found among the enclosed fields on the valley sides and in the valley bottoms, the old swards being by far the most interesting:- dry, permanent
pastures on steep ground where mountain pansies, tormentil and speedwells grow; traditional hay meadows with butterfly orchids, yellow rattle, greater burnet and wood bittervetch; wet rhos pastures of rushes and sedges, devil’s bit scabious, ivy-leaved bellflower, sneezewort and ragged robin. The rhos pastures in particular team with invertebrate life in summer - grasshoppers, froghoppers and other plant bugs, spiders, marsh loving moths like the silver hook and five spot burnet, and butterflies like the small pearl-bordered fritillary, small skipper and meadow brown. These creatures in turn provide essential summer feeding for the whinchats and tree pipits fattening up prior to their migration south.The old boundary banks, stone walls, hedgerows and patches of blackthorn scrub are all important wildlife habitats between the open grasslands and woodlands. They are home to mice, shrews and voles, are used as track ways by squirrels, polecats and the occasional stoat and provide nest sites for birds such as bullfinches and long-tailed tits.
Woodlands of oak predominate, other woods being of mixed deciduous trees and a few areas of conifers. The oakwoods mainly clothe the valley sides. Some have ancient trees over 350 years old, some have been coppiced in the past and have regrown into multi-stemmed trees while on steep, boulder strewn slopes, the trees, festooned with lichens, have grown gnarled and twisted around the rocks.The mixed deciduous woods are of oak, birch, alder, ash, rowan and hazel with some hawthorn, blackthorn and holly and occasional wych elm and beech. The ground flora varies according to the type of soil, drainage and amount of grazing. Oak woods typically have a bilberry and/or grassy ground flora with woodsorrel and abundant mosses. The mixed deciduous woods are often on wetter soils and have a richer ground flora including three species of violet, several species of ferns, wood and water avens, moschatel and yellow pimpernel.
Birds resident throughout the year include six species of tits, nuthatch, treecreeper, woodpeckers, jay, tawny owl, buzzard and kite. From mid-April through to July these are augmented by the special visitors from Africa - redstart, pied flycatcher, wood warbler and tree pipit.
In some years the oak trees are almost defoliated by millions of caterpillars which are themselves an important food source for the small woodland birds. Dead wood and rotting branches provide habitats for the many beetles including several rare, ancient woodland species such as the cardinal beetle. Where brambles are allowed to grow in woodland glades silver-washed fritillary butterflies and golden ringed dragonflies patrol their territories. The presence of badgers is evident everywhere though foxes are more elusive.
Conifer woods are represented by a few small blocks of mainly larch and sitka spruce which are good for fungi in the autumn and are frequented by goshawk, sparrowhawk, goldcrests and crossbills throughout the year.
Water is very much a part of the landscape. From boggy pools on the hill top moorland it finds runnels that fall and cascade down fast flowing streams into wider rocky brooks and eventually to the boulder strewn Rivers Elan and Wye with their riffles and rapids, pools and calm, slow stretches. Beautiful at all times of year the rivers are home for otters, dippers, grey wagtails, goosanders and kingfishers, trout, grayling, lamprey and salmon.
Natural pools and lakes occur up on the tops and in one or two places in the valley bottoms, such as the lake of Gwynllyn. Black-headed gulls nest on some of these and a variety of waterfowl visit them in season – goldeneye, pochard, little grebe, mallard, teal and occasionally Bewick’s and whooper swans. The Elan Valley reservoirs are impressive and worthy of a visit but the waters support little in the way of food to attract waterfowl. The shallower margins are the places to look where water weeds and small fish congregate. A variety of dragonflies and damselflies breed in the shallow lakes, streams and pools of the area – common and southern hawkers, four-spot and broad-bodied chasers, red and black darters, and red, azure, blue and beautiful damsels.
Mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies dance over the fast flowing brooks and with their larvae, which live on the stream beds, are a principal food source for dippers and grey wagtails.