We often sit at the end of a lonely track overlooking the Burry estuary; there’s peace here, few people pass, and the view out across the marsh is tranquil. After refreshing rain, swallows skim the ground, and there are blackbirds and chiffchaffs singing in the wood on the escarpment behind. But that’s about all. Although the marsh is protected as part of the Burry Estuary Ramsar site, the wood is not. Owned by a local farmer, the mature trees serve as perfect shelter for his sheep, which graze freely on the salt marsh. The effect of years of constant sheep damage is dramatic. Apart from an occasional bramble patch, the woodland floor is devoid of regeneration, and only dead ivy-covered branches litter the ground.
Part of a series of nature reserves running along the edge of the estuary, Cwm Ivy Wood, a similar escarpment woodland a little way to the west is owned and managed by the Wildlife Trust and could hardly be more different. The rich understory, coppiced in places, provides an environment diverse in plants, birds and insects, and there is life everywhere. Chiffchaffs, willow warblers, blackcaps and a full suite of common resident birds sing, and I watch long-tailed tits adding feathers to a delicate nest in flowering blackthorn. Spring flowers are abundant too; celandines, wood anemones, primroses, violets and bluebells are beginning to show, a promise of what’s to come.
A recent study in Suffolk has demonstrated the devastating effects increasing deer populations can have on the numbers of breeding nightingales and other woodland species. It’s not rocket science, and some would say the results are blindingly obvious, but these surveys need to be done. Sheep are easier to fence out, and we have known the adverse effects of ‘woolly maggots’ in Wales for generations. The hope is that deer populations won’t explode here as well.