It is pushing thirty degrees and ominously there doesn’t appear to be any prospect of shade in this rocky cauldron. I am standing at the edge of the lake in Cwm Idwal looking up at the majestic thousand-foot rock wall that wraps around its upper end. This is what geographers call a hanging valley, a colossal scoop of rock that was gauged out by glaciers millions of years ago leaving a classic cirque cradling a lake. The complex geology was folded under immense pressure into strata that are writ large across the towering headwall. This has to be one of the most spectacular places in Wales.
photo: Owen Elias
About forty years ago I stood with a group of botanists high up on these cliffs in a place known as the Devils Kitchen. Our guide, the then warden of this National Nature Reserve, was Iorrie Ellis Williams and I remember how he stuck his stick in the ground, spread his arms wide to the stupendous view and declaimed, “This is God’s own country”. On reflection I don’t think he meant just that it was beautiful and rich in rare arctic alpine plants, both of which mattered to him, but that it was also a place that represented Welsh culture, language and way of life. Cwm Idwal has a particular place in Welsh imagination as many of its special plants, such as moss campion, various saxifrages and the Snowdon lily, were first documented here by Evan Roberts, a quarryman and self taught botanist from nearby Capel Curig who established an international reputation for his knowledge of mountain plants. Cwm Idwal has been, like most of upland Wales, significantly influenced by farming; hundreds of years of sheep and cattle grazing have drastically modified the vegetation here. It is also a place much loved by hill walkers and climbers – many famous names have cut their teeth on the Idwal Slabs. On top of that tens of thousands of ‘ordinary’ folk come here every year just to soak up the splendour. That is how it is with wild places like this, everybody thinks its ‘theirs’ and so inevitably view it from different perspectives, some of which conflict.
photo: Gethin Elias
Tugging my hat down against the heat I take the path that runs above the eastern shore of the lake, which is paved with rocks artfully levered into place by a gang of local men who’s speciality is repairing mountain paths. Working with stone is an indigenous skill here. Without this work a combination of trampling feet and falling rain would reduce these paths to eroded gullies. The slopes above and below are cushioned with heather and bilberry interspersed with tall grasses and patches of heath rush – much like any other lightly grazed bit of moorland, but it was this I had come to see. Until recently these slopes were grazed down to contouring hugging lawns embedded with vestigial, barely surviving, heather and bilberry plants. Then twenty years ago the grazing tenant retired and Barbara Jones, the upland ecologist for the Countryside Council for Wales, persuaded her employers to buy the tenancy and let the National Trust, who own Cwm Idwal, take it ‘in hand’. Barbara’s reasoning was that the arctic alpine plants that are so special here were not doing that well perhaps because, being at the southern limit of their range, they were beginning to feel the impact of a warming climate. The other major stressor on these plants was grazing from sheep and feral goats. Now there was an opportunity to discover if removing that pressure would enable the plants to thrive even in the face of climate change. So it was arranged that there would be no further grazing in Cwm Idwal for the foreseeable future and that natural processes would be allowed to take their course. Barbara calls this “a hundred year experiment” – which is probably as realistic as it is ambitious. A neighbouring farmer is paid to shepherd out any sheep that trespass via the higher slopes, which are impossible to fence. At present the rare plants mostly grow in difficult to reach ledges and crevices, perhaps as a last refuge from hard years of grazing, but unfortunately the ‘wild’ goats (which are very popular with visitors) are good at clambering to such places. So now, if their numbers build up in the cwm, they are discretely culled to more acceptable numbers.
By the time I get to the head of the lake I am frying but the only patch of shade I can find, in the overhang of a huge boulder, is already crammed with five other people, so I have to put up with the heat. In places the flowers are conspicuous: thyme, bog asphodel and butterwort are flowering profusely, where previously they would have been grazed off. But what really takes my eye is the burgeoning heather and bilberry, which are beginning to close over these previously grassy slopes. Here and there whippy rowan saplings have taken root; the berries dropped by birds now have a better chance of reaching the soil and germinating in the more open sward of these dwarf shrubs.
Having started up along the steep path to the Devils Kitchen I take a break to recover my breath. Sitting beside the path the shouts of encouragement and clink of the gear from a group of climbers on the Slabs seems quietly reassuring in the hot, still air. The whole cwm feels rested,as if convalescing after the hard years of grazing. Every few years I have come to see how this experiment is progressing and what is striking is how slowly it has changed; harsh climate, altitude and poor soils mean these upland ecosystems move slowly. Barbara tells me that, mossy saxifrage excepted, there has been little or no visible effect on the arctic alpine plants after twenty years; they grow so slowly it might be thirty to fifty years before any change is visible. Apparently when the scheme was first mooted there was some concern from the public that ‘the place would become a jungle’ but the changes to the vegetation have been so gradual that hardly anyone has noticed.
The path down from the Devil’s Kitchen is more like a staircase for giants, each step needs negotiating. This would not be a good place to fall. Beside the path mountain sorrel, beech fern and starry saxifrage sweeten the effort. At a place where a trickle of water flows over a rock I startle a pair of twite who had come to drink. They fly off uttering hard metallic calls, which echo around the rocks. I am pleased to see them, as this is the only area in Wales now where you can find these upland finches. Making my way along the west side of the lake I come across a slope that is thigh deep with inpenetratable gorse and heather, a vivid illustration of why the local farming community objected to this scheme. They thought it a ‘waste of land’ and that furthermore it would be impossible to reintroduce sheep in due course. From their point of view mountain land doesn’t look right without sheep or cattle. This was dereliction. Perhaps they also feared it was the thin end of the wedge for farming in Snowdonia.
A cheerful group of people, eastern European by the sound of them, are picnicking on the lakeshore and frolicking in the water. A bit further on, posing (no other word will do) on the top of a rock, a young scantily clad and heavily tattooed couple are in a passionate embrace. I reflect wryly that despite this being a National Nature Reserve not everyone is here to wonder about vegetation succession and the like. It’s a beach, romantic walk, climber’s training ground, abandoned (stolen) farmland, naturalist’s treasure house and no doubt more. So where is this experiment heading? As far as the arctic alpine plants are concerned nobody knows. For the rest probably continued slow development to heathland with scattered trees or even light woodland – and perhaps nobody much will notice. From the traditional farming perspective it will look like derelict land, but perhaps that point of view will begin to soften if the post Brexit policy of ‘public goods for public money’ for farming support becomes a reality. It seems to me that we need bold experiments like this one to help us understand and be flexible in the face of a changing and globalised world. I hope all concerned in Cwm Idwal can hold their nerve – and report back in eighty years time!