Wildlife found lurking behind Wales's historic walls

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Custodians of some of Wales's most-loved monuments share their tales of the diverse wildlife that can be found tucked away amongst the stones of Cadw's 129 historic sites.

Wildlife found lurking behind Wales's historic walls

Wildlife found lurking behind Wales's historic walls

Welsh castles might typically be revered for qualities such as their impressive architectural superiority and years of history, but, for all their man-made might, many of Wales’s castles and historic sites harbour a secret that is a little more in tune with the natural areas surrounding them.

With a series of turrets, towers, moats, nooks and crannies, these monuments offer the perfect hiding places for a host of captivating wildlife — from owls and otters, to hedgehogs, birds and bats.

Looking out over the steep wooded gorge of the River Teifi, Cilgerran Castle is ideally placed to attract a wide variety of wildlife. Whether it’s the flash of turquoise as a kingfisher darts above the water, or the telltale ripples of an otter and family, it's apparent that the surrounding grounds of Cilgerran are full of life.

Catherine Collins, custodian at Cilgerran Castle, said: 'Up in the castle itself one of the most memorable sights was that of a fox curled up in a little spot of sun, fast asleep by the curtain wall. There are salmon and sea trout in the river below and birds of prey have been spotted flying around. We've even had sightings of ravens, and red kites have been found nesting in the trees raising their young.'

A path runs from the castle to the nearby Welsh Wildlife Centre, headquarters of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, ideally situated for visitors to explore the wildlife at both sites on their trip.

Cilgerran is a fantastic example of Wales's diverse heritage, from its landscapes and wildlife to its ancient monuments and dramatic stories. While Cadw cares for the castle itself, the National Trust owns the site, and both organisations work together to look after the built history and biodiversity of Cilgerran.

The peaceful surroundings are why the bats have made the castle their home, roosting in the nooks and crannies and flying around at night. The gardens show how sites can be managed to encourage nature to flourish, with two new herb and vegetable gardens attracting bees and butterflies, from ringlets, brimstones and red admirals to peacocks, tortoiseshells and two types of cabbage white.

Many of Cadw's sites provide ideal opportunities for wildlife spotting. The locations that first attracted their builders many centuries ago are often isolated and quiet. Castles like Dryslwyn, perched on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the Tywi Valley, are great places to watch for red kites and birds of prey.

Flint Castle, which overlooks the mudflats of the Dee Estuary, is considered to be a fine place to twitch for wildfowl and waders, not to mention its own breeding ravens.

Newport Castle, situated on the banks of the river Usk, is another popular place where otters are often seen. Moats and ditches can offer a sanctuary for reptiles and amphibians whilst long grass can harbour snakes.

One of the luckiest finds was at Raglan Castle when pest officers were called in to get rid of an infestation of 'rats' that turned out to be rare water voles which are treasured, not hunted.  

Sonja Brown is currently head custodian at Kidwelly Castle, but spent 16 years keeping the keys of nearby Laugharne Castle — the magnificent medieval stronghold turned Tudor mansion that later became the muse and preferred writing spot of acclaimed poet Dylan Thomas.

Thomas famously wrote that Laugharne Castle appeared 'brown as owls'. This is not the only time the castle has been associated with the magnificent creatures — Sonja happily recalls memories of brown owls nesting in the north west tower at Laugharne during the winter months.

She said: 'They would travel in pairs. As a species, they truly are fascinating. Grand and mighty, but at the same time, delicate; they won’t hunt when it's wet because of the damage the conditions might cause to their intricate feathers.'

And it's not just Sonja who appreciates the resident wildlife of Cadw sites. In Sonja's experience, children are often hugely receptive to the presence of wildlife at Cadw sites: 'I make sure I point out the tracks and droppings of nearby wildlife to any visiting children as evidence of the different species that live in around the castle sites. They think it’s great; spotting clues as to which animals have recently visited is a real thrill, and is educational too.'

John Griffiths, Minister for Culture and Sport, added: 'The wildlife at historic monuments turn these ancient ruins into living places, and bring a new purpose and life to the sites. Preserving the natural habitats and local wildlife is a key consideration whenever conservation work is planned at any historic monument.  

'Cadw custodians are passionate about the resident wildlife at their monument, and it brings an added value to the visitor experience when they share their knowledge and enthusiasm with visitors, educating them about both their local history and wildlife.'  

Cadw has commissioned studies to predict the kind of animals, plants and birds that might be found at Cadw sites. Taking the process one step further, it will be possible in the future to manage sites in ways that actually encourage wildlife. This work has already started at Llanmelin Hillfort, where Cadw is currently working with the Gwent Wildlife Trust on a project to protect the wildlife on site.

The Trust conducted a survey on the hillfort, which is in Cadw’s care, and discovered that the site is both ecologically interesting and important. Various species of important moths have been found, including the largest known colony in Wales of the Drab Looper moth, as well as the discovery that the hillfort is the last site in Monmouthshire that is home to wild liquorice.

By working with wildlife trusts, Cadw hopes to develop a holistic management regime for its monuments, giving the historic and natural environment equal importance, and establishing the ecological value of the monument. This will also be taken a step further through the enhancement of the interpretation at Cadw sites to include information about the local wildlife.