The Wye Valley contains wonderful habitats for wildlife, they provide feeding and nesting places for birds and contain a rich variety of plants and insects. The area is particularly important for these habitats, and contains many protected sites, which are both nationally and internationally recognised.
Forestry and woodland makes up 27% of the AONB and the majority of the woodland is ancient, of high conservation value, and irreplaceable. Most of the woodlands are no longer actively managed for their timber, due to a collapse in prices. This made harvesting the relatively low-grade hardwoods on the steep slopes of the Wye Valley particularly unprofitable. As a result many of the woodlands are becoming neglected. Those still managed productively are mostly in the ownership of the Forestry Commission.
Some local people, from foresters and coppice workers to carpenters and wood turners, still make a living from the woodlands. The other economic impact of the woodland is its popularity for recreation and tourism. The Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust woodlands are open to the public and are popular with walkers, horse riders and cyclists.
The AONB encourages the sustainable management of the woodland throughout the AONB, the creation of new markets for local timber and woodland produce and the development of woodland management skills. The Wye Valley AONB Woodland Management Guidelines outline its approach.
Britain has a wealth of ancient trees - it has been estimated that 80% of all veteran trees in Europe are found here. They are particularly important in the AONB, as Herefordshire is noted as having one of the largest concentrations. Find out more and about Veteran Tree Management here
Much of the accessible woodland is managed by Forest Enterprise, with some significant sites owned and managed by the Woodland Trust. Here's a selection of favourites.
Coppice Mawr Wood
A broadleaf woodland, rich in wildlife, and important as a feeding area for Greater Horseshoe Bats. Coppice Mawr Wood, owned by Forest Enterprise. Accessible from the car park on the B4235 3km west of Chepstow.
These woods are above Monmouth. Several public and permissive footpaths cross Beaulieu Wood which is accessible from The Kymin and the Offa's Dyke National Trail Path which runs along the south-western margin of the wood.
Between Redbrook and Bigsweir bridge, alongside the A466 from Monmouth to Chepstow. A number of public paths cut through the woods and the Offa's Dyke path runs through and along its edge. Also known as Bigweir Woods and owned by The Woodland Trust (see Nature Reserves).
A large area of ancient woodland near Woolhope in the north of the Wye Valley AONB, A Site of Special Scientific Interest, nationally important for butterflies and moths. There are two butterfly trails through the woods.
Little Doward Woods
Between Whitchurch and Wyastone Leys and owned by the Woodland Trust. The Wye Valley Walk leads through the woods, and there is an extensive network of rides and pathways, but it's quite a maze so take a good map (OS Explorer Series OL14 Wye Valley & Forest of Dean). This site is a real treasure trove, important for its flora and fauna, geology, archaeology and industrial history. A large part of it is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. A large Bronze Age Hill Fort at the top of the hill offers spectacular views across the Wye Valley. Caves provide archaeological interest and roosting sites for greater and lesser horseshoe bats. Evidence of past use includes limestone workings and a well-preserved double limestone kiln.
Near Monmouth, can be accessed from a small lay by along Hadnock Road. There's a special way-marked trail through the woodland, which takes about an hour to complete.
Flower-rich grasslands are among the most treasured habitats of the Wye Valley. Wonderful habitats for wildlife, they provide feeding and nesting places for birds and contain a rich variety of plants and insects.
As farming has become more intensive, many have been ploughed or ‘improved' by reseeding or treating with fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. Meanwhile others have been lost through neglect. The 'Hudnalls' area, formerly a large common for the settlements of Brockweir, Hewelsfield and St Briavels, is characterised by patchworks of small grass fields and pastures. In the 1800s this area became divided into numerous smallholdings as local people encroached on the common. Due to the small field size, much of the grassland remains semi-natural and unimproved agriculturally. Today's residents often keep horses or sheep, or let their pasture. A Parish Grasslands Project covering this area has brought together local people who own, manage and maintain their flowery fields.
On the other side of the Wye from the Parish Grasslands Project, the Monmouthshire Meadows Group has a similar role in managing and conserving small pieces of grassland.
Meanwhile in Herefordshire, the landscape of woods, hedges, unspoilt streams, and traditional orchards includes grassland abundant with wild flowers.
The AONB contains very little dwarf-shrub (such as heather) heathland. Coppett Hill to the north-east of Symonds Yat seems to support mostly bracken, as do small former heaths near Trellech village. Heathland in Trellech Common, once extensive, is now reduced to fragments in woodland plantation rides and tracks and on the fringes of Cleddon Bog (west of Llandogo). Work is currently being carried out by the Forestry Commission and Forestry Commission Wales to restore heathland at three sites within the AONB - Broad Meend and Beaon Hill in Monmouthshire and The Park in Tidenham, Gloucestershire. All three sites are now being grazed by Exmoor ponies, several bought using grant aid from the AONB's Sustainable Development Fund (SDF).
Two examples exist in the Wye Valley. Cleddon Bog seems to be a remnant of Trellech Common, which was never enclosed. Whitelye Common (to the south-east) is a small bog which until recently was almost overgrown with invading birch. Wye Valley AONB volunteers have been carrying out work to remove birch trees and conserve the sphagnum moss.
In terms of its usefulness for wildlife, farmed land can be divided into two broad types:
1. Arable and leys
Ground used to grow crops and sown grassland forms the core of functional farmland. Arable and leys occupy most of the Herefordshire part of the AONB and a large proportion of the Trellech and Dean plateaux either side of the Wye gorge in the southern half of the AONB They have limited value for wildlife, but do have important roles for maintaining biodiversity, for example, arable weeds and farmland birds.
2. Semi-natural habitats
Traditional farming techniques have created permanent grassland (grassland that has been uncultivated for a decade or more) and heathland. Where they remain, they are rich in plant and animal species and are distinctive wildlife habitats. Nature conservation work on farmland therefore largely revolves around the need to maintain these pockets of biodiversity, which are described in further depth in the Grassland and Heathland section. Farmland also contains habitats such as ponds, orchards and parkland that can be important for wildlife.
Small ponds, at one time required in almost all fields used for grazing, have declined steadily in number over the last century. Many that have survived have been neglected or misused. Extremely diverse in themselves, they also create a different habitat and diversity within the farm environment in general.
There are many small orchards in residential areas and these often include old fruit trees, which attract woodpeckers. The grassland in old orchards has often remained unploughed and unfertilised, and for this reason they are often rich in plant biodiversity. The many commercial orchards in Herefordshire are unlikely to contain a rich diversity of plants and animal species but several are making a sustained effort to encourage bio-diversity.
This type of land describes fields with trees in them. Many of the trees originated from hedges or individual trees grown to shelter grazing animals. Others were planted to form a formal avenue or create a certain landscape. Many of these trees are home to their own plants, animals and smaller organisms such as fungi.
Hedges support a variety of woodland animal and plant species. Indeed many hedges represent the remnants of ancient woodlands, which were originally cleared for agricultural purposes. Many hedges have disappeared over the last 50 years due to field expansion and increasingly intensive agriculture.
Ditches provide important wetland habitats for a diversity of wildlife including important plant and animal species like arrowhead and the nationally protected water vole. Like hedges, ditches are threatened and frequently lost due to the pressures for field expansion.
The Lower Wye Valley could lay claim to the greatest density of drystone walls in any UK protected landscape. Many are found at Hewelsfield and St Briavels Common in the Gloucestershire part of the Wye Valley AONB. Here, an intricate mix of very small fields containing pastures, orchards, houses and paddocks is the result of the invasion and settlement of common land in the early 19th century.
At first sight, a lot of the field boundaries look like hedges and mature trees, interspersed with drystone walls. But at close range, many of the hedges turn out to be badly neglected and overgrown walls.
Many of the walls were built around existing trees, and are therefore estimated to be about 200 years old. There are massive butts of lime, beech and oak in them that must be relics of the pre-19th century wooded commons.
Local rumour has it that Napoleonic prisoners of war built a lot of the walls. What is certain is that many have persisted in this area, where in other parts of the country they were lost to field expansion. This is probably due to the multitude of small plots in separate ownership.
The drystone walls of the Lower Wye Valley are unique in design, and form an important landscape feature, as well as having immense value both historically and for wildlife. Many species of amphibians, reptiles and birds use the habitats provided by drystone walls for food, shelter and breeding purposes. Species of plant like wall pennywort, normally restricted to cliff and quarry face habitats, are abundant on drystone walls.
If you are 14-18 years old and love exploring the countryside of the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean, then the Wye Valley AONB Youth Ranger programme is looking for you! Come along to our Taster Day on September 30th.
The provisional programme for the mindSCAPE conference is here. Book now to save your place