JENNY STEEL  Wildlife in an Historic Garden

 

           

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PLAS TAN Y BWLCH - WILDLIFE MONITORING IN AN HISTORIC GARDEN

In 1992 a momentous meeting took place in Snowdonia between an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener from the Midlands and a Welsh-speaking tutor at Plas Tan y Bwlch, the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre in North Wales.  Both had the same objective Ė to preserve the historic beauty of the gardens of the imposing Plas Tan Y Bwlch, thirteen acres of oak woodland with wooded ornamental gardens below the house, but also to enhance the wildlife attracting potential of an already outstanding wildlife garden.  Here nightjars churr above the lawns on summer nights, attracted by the large numbers of moths, pied flycatchers nest in the boxes set high on the oak trees, and otters roam the valley below.  The passion for the local wildlife and landscape shared by Chris Hall and Twm Elias fired their plan of action which has resulted in this becoming one of the best large wildlife gardens in the U.K, whilst maintaining its undoubted historic importance.

The Vale of Ffestiniog, home to the meandering Afon Dwyryd below the terraced gardens of the Plas, is dominated by oak woodland, once an important crop for an area renowned for its slate quarries, and traversed by the famous Ffestiniog railway.  In recent times the woodlands have come under the stewardship of a variety of conservation bodies and are maintained as wildlife habitats as well as for their amenity value.  This habitat surrounds the gardens here, and when a certain amount of neglect of the Plas estate set in after the Second World War, the local wildlife began to move in and made the garden its own.

The rich variety of ornamental trees and shrubs that dominate the steeply sloping terraced garden are testament to the enthusiasm of the Oakely family, owners of the estate from 1789.  William Oakely married the Welsh heiress Margaret Griffith in 1789 and began the mammoth task of creating an ornamental garden on a grand scale.  The River Dwyryd was re-routed to provide a more pleasing view from the house and terraces, and the planting of Cedars, Rhododendrons, Magnolias and many other exotic species began.

The Oakely family continued to plant and expand the garden until the decline of the slate industry on which their wealth was based.  The estate eventually passed into the hands of the Snowdonia National Park Authority in 1968 who found a huge task before them.  There was no doubt that this historically important garden, now badly invaded with Rhododendron ponticum had to be restored to its former glory.  However, due to their far-sightedness, and the enthusiasm of Twm Elias and Chris Hall, in 1993 the decision was made to maintain the garden and its history, but also to encourage wildlife wherever possible.  This was done in a variety of ways including banning pesticides, leaving deadwood, allowing ivy to climb the magnificent trees, creating tangles of bramble and other native plants in undisturbed areas, and developing a wildflower meadow.  Under Chrisís critical eye, planting in the herbaceous borders below the huge stone walls tends towards species and varieties known to be good insect attractants, a system that has worked to the advantage of the eight species of bat recorded here, including the rare lesser horseshoe.  This internationally endangered bat has a small summer roost at the Plas, and obviously finds a more than adequate supply of moths, beetles and other insects that it depends upon, partly as a result of Chrisí careful choices.

Work well beyond the usual call of duty began by Chris and his part-time staff.  Monitoring all the wildlife in the garden started as a means of keeping the Trustees of the estate up to date on progress and hopefully convincing them that this approach worked.  After all, at this stage a huge amount of extra work was involved including the early morning bird survey and the late night moth trapping and bat detecting.  A comprehensive annual report was produced to keep track of wildlife developments and provide data for analysis.  If this method of maintaining historic gardens was effective, both in terms of cost and enjoyment for visitors, then other gardens of this type could benefit greatly from the work being carried out in North Wales.

It soon became obvious to Chris and Twm that their joint efforts were well rewarded, as the wildlife flocked to make this garden its home.  As time passed the eight species of bat were joined by 64 bird species, including nightjar, goshawk and the delightful pied flycatcher. The latter, together with blue tits and great tits, make use of the forty nest boxes around the garden, but many other species, including greater spotted woodpecker are encouraged by the policy of leaving rotten stumps or dead branches on ancient trees. Ten breeding pairs of song thrush, a bird in worrying decline, were seen in the garden in 2000.  Many species of butterfly and other insects (including a rare hoverfly) abound, and an impressive 340 species of moth have been recorded.  Mammals seen in the garden include stoat, weasel and wild polecat, and a brief but tantalising glimpse of a pine marten occurred in 1996. Otter spraints are occasionally found.  Grass snakes and slow worms are common garden inhabitants, breeding undisturbed in compost heaps and finding plenty of small frogs and toads around the ponds.

Visitors to the garden enjoyed immensely seeing both the common and the unusual wildlife as they walked around this peaceful haven with its stunning views of mountains and oak woodland.  Soon a monthly newsletter was being produced to inform visitors of what was around, and to keep them up to date with future work.  As the gardenís reputation for wildlife grew, the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre itself made full use of this new facility.  In 1995 the first professional training course on Wildlife Enhancement in Historic Gardens and Parkland was held here, and is now a well-established annual event.  This training course encourages gardeners working at all levels in nationally important gardens to make provision for wildlife Ė an approach that saves time and labour costs.  Courses on wildlife gardening for the public are now an annual part of the teaching at the Plas and many other weekend or longer courses make use of this gardenís special assets.

For some time now it has been accepted that gardens can provide an important habitat for our native wildlife, but the idea that a previously manicured park with many exotic species could be at the forefront of wildlife gardening is exciting.   Visiting large gardens is a growing national pastime and as more and more professional gardeners from large estates and National Trust properties attend courses on wildlife enhancement with Twm Elias and Chris Hall, it is not only the general public who are benefiting, but our native wildlife too.

© Copyright Jenny Steel 2017