A LANDSCAPE torn apart and scarred by the effects of the industrial revolution has been reclaimed by nature, making the Silent Valley Nature Reserve one of the most beautiful and peaceful places in Gwent.
Once a farm with meadows and an old coal pit, this reserve, near Ebbw Vale, is now the highest and most-westerly beech wood in Britain.
The reserve, managed jointly by Gwent Wildlife Trust (GWT) and Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, contains beech and alder woodland.
The trust owns the lower part while the council owns the upper, but the trust manages the whole site.
The open spaces and meadows in the south of the reserve contain yellow anthills, which green woodpeckers and even foxes occasionally feed on.
Lichens and mosses are reclaiming the old coal pit, while many birds are attracted by the beech nuts in the autumn.
Some of the reserve has even been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest – meaning it is a hugely important part of Wales’ natural heritage.
These tranquil woods are in stark contrast to their surroundings – just a few hundred metres from the busy section of the A4046 going through Cwm on the way to Ebbw Vale. Despite this, it is not visited with the same volume as other reserves in Gwent. But GWT is working to change that.
The trust’s People and Wildlife project works to engage local people with their environment and already almost 50 per cent of people in Ebbw Vale have come into contact with the project.
In addition to their work with schools, they run hundreds of courses, events and activities each year to help children and adults experience the natural world around them.
Silent Valley Reserve Officer Tom Eyles has been in the job three years.
He said: “This really is an outstanding area. In some ways it is sad, because it gets very few visitors – you can go days without seeing people – but on the other hand it makes you feel very lucky to have the place to yourself.“Through our engagement programme we have schools and groups come in and we run all sorts of activities, and as we are lottery-funded we try to keep everything as cost-free as possible.”
“We are really reliant on volunteers and are always looking for more to help out in the maintenance and day-to-day running of the site, and regardless of age or background, everyone is welcome.”
“We provide training to all our volunteers and even if they initially volunteer for a specific task, you tend to find they keep volunteering with us. Even just since i’ve been here i think about five have gone into employment in the conservation and land management sectors.
“Sometimes our volunteers come from engagement groups or pupil referral units, but they all seem to like this kind of outdoor, sometimes quite physical,work.”
The beginning of iron production in the 1790s brought the Industrial Revolution to Silent Valley. Coal outcropped on the surface along this level and was mined from shallow pits and drift mines. It was then taken along a path by a pony pulling a dram, which is now part of a public footpath.
Waste shale dug up with the coal was dumped into the valley forming massive mounds. However, nature is reclaiming the slopes of these waste tips with heather, grasses, mosses and lichens. Hawthorns and other young trees are also establishing themselves.
The site boasts beech, birch, ash, holly, hawthorn, crab apple, and alder in the wetter areas and hazel which is uncommon at such high altitude.
In the lower section of the Valley, Cwm Merddog, there are yellow meadow anthills. While the anthills are kept neatly trimmed by the grazing badger-faced seep, the ants are eaten by Green Woodpeckers, which can be heard giving loud alarm calls and sometimes seen swooping away.
There are also grasshoppers including the mottled, field and meadow varieties, kestrels, buzzards, cuckoos and ravens.
There were once three huge, cone shaped dumps as high as the surrounding hills, but from the 1960s to 1980s the tops of these were reclaimed for metal recovery, for material for the construction industry and for use as fertiliser.
In 1981 the landfill site was licensed to accept domestic refuse. As the site is filled, the area is being landscaped. The nearest slopes were earthed over and grassed in 2001 and will eventually become part of the nature reserve.
The two ancient semi-natural beech woods of Cwm Merddog, owned by GWT, and Coed-yn-y-Gelli, owned by Blaenau Gwent Council, became Sites of Special Scientific Interest in 1984.
In 1998 the area became the Silent Valley Local Nature Reserve.
As well as the beech woods where some of the trees are over 300 years old, the reserve also contains mixed woodland interspersed with wet flushes and open areas that were once meadows belonging to at least three medieval farms. Since 1983 when gazing sheep and horses was stopped, tree seedlings have been able to grow in the woods to replace the old trees as they die.
The Nant Merddog stream in the valley bottom is a tributary of the River Ebbw and the original stepping stones have been replaced with small bridges.
WalkingAs you walk around the reserve there are constant reminders of the damagechanges wreaked on the valley by the coal mining and steel industries – now however, nature is claiming the land back, and with the help of GWT, succeeding.
Bearded lichens which show the air is clean, have recently started regrowing there.
There are footpaths throughout the reserve, including two public walks. While some of the paths are steep and narrow in places, Tom says there is something for every ability, although they do not have disabled access yet.
The trust recently invested in 11 hardy, badger-face Welsh mountain sheep to keep the lower level of the reserve in order.
“They live a lovely life,” Tom said.
“They are basically fluffy lawnmowers. They will never go to an abattoir, they don’t even need to be shorn. We have trained some of our volunteers up to help look after them learn how to herd, that sort of thing.”
Another part of the job is holding forest class groups with children from local schools.
“It’s massively varied,” he added. “I try to have one week in the office to catch up on paper work and the rest I’m out and about on the reserve.”
Through the surveys carried out by Tom and groups of volunteers, bumblebees, rare butterflies, birds and even common lizards have all been recorded.
Tom said: “Basically, we have two jobsOne, keeping the reserve nice and in good order for people to come and visit and secondly making sure it’s doing what it should as a natural space.
“If anyone is planning a visit I would tell them to come in the next couple of months, when the bluebells come out and the reserve is just carpeted in them. It’s amazing.”
To encourage visitors to the reserve, in October GWT is planning a 10k off road run around the reserve.
For more information visit gwentwildlife.org/reserves/silent-valley-local-nature-reserve-sssi