Gorges - Conservation and Recreation

Posted by Jon Garside on 24/04/2008
Credit: Ray Wood

A recent seminar hosted by Plas y Brenin highlighted the ecological importance of gorges and the challenges faced in Wales when used for recreational activities.

Phill Thomas, the professional officer for the Mountain Leader Training Association and Mountain Leader Training Wales, attended the seminar and has written this report.
 
Introduction to the Seminar
Barbara Jones, Upland Ecologist, 
Countryside Council for Wales
 
Barbara previously worked as an instructor and now works for the CCW. She recognised that gorge walking was an old and well established activity, with noted that newer activities such as extreme kayaking were now taking place in some of them, including Trawsfynydd which is a Special Area of Conservation. There are also gorges in the Brecon Beacons that have the same designation. She stressed that CCW does not wish to stop access for recreation but looks to ensure that gorges are protected.
 
Gorges & Ravines, a Special Environment
Ray Woods, Plantlife
A passionate and charismatic speaker, Ray started his talk by showing a photo on one of his local valleys near Rhyadyr. After many generation of traditional agriculture he noted that most of the natural plant life no longer exists in the area.
 
Due to the degradation of so much land from agricultural practices, Ray said that gorges were especially important as they have become the last havens of many of our once common plants. He stressed the importance of many ferns and mosses that continue to inhabit these havens, but was concerned that recreational use of gorges could further endanger them.
 
Ray used the Glanllywd Valley as an example of an area that harbours a number of mosses that are not found elsewhere south of the Scottish Highlands. He showed photographs of several of the rarer species that need protection, including the Killarney Fern are frequently stolen by collectors.
 
Rather that hiding the presence of rare species, Ray was keen to enlist the help of leaders of activity groups to learn about the presence of rare species and to help protect them.
 
Ray answered a few questions at the end of his talk. Including this one on threats to gorge plant life.
Q. Which offers the greatest threat to plant life, gorge walking or global warming?
A. This is hard to quantify however as ravines are generally sheltered damp environments they will resist the effects of global warming and remain havens where many forms of plants and mosses will continue to survival the warming effects.
 
 
The Impact of Recreational Use of Gorges
Doug Oliver, Senior Reserves Manager, Countryside Council for Wales
Doug’s main area of operation is in the reserve that contains Trawsfynydd Gorge.
Doug talked initially about what is to be found in his reserve and the steep, narrow and deep nature of the main gorge.

It is a very damp & humid environment. Part of the gorge is an SSSI and a haven for trees, bats, lichens, mosses etc. Much money has been spent on Rhododendron control - £200,000 in 10 years. Large sums have also been spent on improving public access in the form of bridges and paths. Doug expressed his concern about rare species being vulnerable to the passage of gorge users.
 
Doug showed examples of vulnerable areas and where erosion and change have possibly occurred. The obligations of the CCW under European law were stressed, and Doug showed photographs of the notice boards that give visitors guidelines on visiting the reserve.
 
Prior to this seminar, Doug had made a survey of what he considered to be areas of vulnerability within his reserve, but was heartened by the fact that he could not detect any evidence that recreational use had caused any damage since his last major survey about 10 years ago. However, he had feared that organised events and greater use would increase the risk of damage.
 
Outdoor Education Use of Gorges
Karl Midlane, Sustainable Use of Snowdonia
Karl explained form an educational standpoint the reasons for and benefits of gorgewalking and how these contribute to child development in line with government strategies.
 
Karl went on to explain the role played by SUS in developing good practice guidelines and erecting notice boards in gorges to advise group leaders on good practice.

SUS had also produced a very informative waterproof booklet on the Afon Ddu gorge for group use, been involved in bank stabilisation projects and organised fund raising events to finance these developments. SUS are in addition looking for additional projects where the environment can benefit from the experienced gained by its members.
 
Commercial Use of Gorges
Rich Wyatt, Adrenalin Antics
Rich at first talked in general terms on how the commercial use of ‘Canyoning’ as a pastime started. Then he explained in greater detail what his company does within gorges, with the reasons for doing so: fun, education, personal development, skills acquisition.
 
Rick stated his belief that canyoning had already peaked as an activity. It was however beneficial to local economies and he believed a ‘carbon free’ activity.
 
Canoeing Activities in Gorges
Ashley talked about how canoeing & kayaking use of gorges had evolved and showed a short video of extreme white water paddling in a gorge. He explained how the evolution of equipments and the craft in particular had made it possible to navigate streams and rivers that were previously considered to be impassable.
 
Ashley said that of the 76 named rivers in Wales most had been explored from a canoeing standpoint and many were regularly paddled.
 
Ashley noted that gorges are paddled at high water with low voluime boats, and that commonly paddlers do not get out of their boats until at the bottom. All of these practicies result in minimal impact.
 
Discussion & Feedback  
Phil Blain suggested that education days with CCW & Plantlife staff should be set up for leaders to introduce them to the environmental issues raised at the meeting and to look as specific sections of the locally used gorges.
 
The Afon Ddu booklet was identified as a good example of a publication that could be adapted to fit other gorges in Wales.
 
It was stressed that the CCW website was a good resource for gorge leaders to access for information related to conservation measures.


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