As we twist and turn our way up the valley it seems like the narrow nameless road is as uncertain of where it’s heading as we are. We criss-cross the Dysynni river, hesitate at farm tracks that are barely distinguishable from the road we’re on, and all the while keep our fingers crossed that we don’t meet a car coming the other way. We round a bend and there, in the mist, is Craig yr Aderyn – Bird Rock. The craggy precipice emerges as violently from the valley floor as a shark from a gently lapping sea. It’s only 700 feet high but has a strong, domineering presence. It looms over the valley and I can understand why locals say that its gaze seems to follow them around. I’m expecting it to tap me on the shoulder and whisper urgently of its seismic past. The major fault-line that tore the land apart so that previously unified landscape features now lie miles apart; a glacier that dramatically scoured out the valley sides; landslides that dislocated thousands of tonnes of rocks; and volcanic lava that erupted through fault-line fissures. Bird Rock is made of rhyolitic tuff, a rock formed from volcanic ash laid down following a major eruption millions of years ago.
We are on the southern-most edge of Eryri (Snowdonia) National Park and, whilst the geology is much the same across the park, the scale of the landscape is very different here. The Dysynni is one of the shortest rivers in the UK, just sixteen miles from source to sea. For most rivers the descent to the sea involves a lengthy journey of many phases – waters rush over mountain rocks, push purposefully through upper valleys, meander through lowland meadows before finally intermingling with the sea. The waters of the Dysynni have no sooner said goodbye to the hills than they are slipping into Cardigan Bay. The short river valley creates an intimate landscape. The mountains don’t have the brutal majesty of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and the estuary lacks the scenic sweep of the Mawddach and Dyfi rivers. Viewed individually, the landscape features are not ‘best in show.’ But there’s something about being in the midst of this cut-off, close-knit landscape that casts a spell.
The first thing that people will almost inevitably tell you about Bird Rock is that it’s the most inland roosting spot for cormorants. Behind this plain front door of a fact lies a palace for the imagination. Cormorants are widely mythologised. It is a pre-historic looking bird, black as a raven with a snake-like neck, stubby wings, webbed feet and a blunt hooked bill. This odd arrangement of body parts means it has adapted to a variety of life’s challenges. It dives to depths of 100 feet to catch fish, waddles over rocky shores and scrambles up sheer cliff faces to reach its roosting spots. It has a brooding, ominous presence, especially when it sits sentinel-like at the water’s edge, wings outstretched, as motionless as a crucifix. For centuries the cormorant has been reviled, a symbol of gluttony, bad luck and evil. In Paradise Lost, Milton describes Satan as sitting cormorant-like, ‘devising death to them who lived.’ But, in other cultures the bird is revered, a good luck omen, and in China it has been man’s sacred hunting partner for many centuries. Cormorants are coastal birds but Bird Rock is several miles from the sea. Although this wasn’t always the case. Hundreds of years ago the sea lapped and dashed the base of Bird Rock. A dozen or more generations of cormorants later (the bird is long lived, sometimes surviving twenty years or more), the rock is still the birds’ ancestral home even though this loyalty means a lengthy commute to their hunting grounds.
Successive drainage schemes, culminating in one of the most highly mechanised and expensive schemes ever to be undertaken in the UK, have robbed the Dysynni valley of its estuary. In 1861, the Ynysymaengwyn estate, which owned most of the land in the river valley, commissioned leading land drainage expert J. Bailey Denton to drain almost 3,000 acres stretching from Bird Rock to the sea. A complex system of ditches, dykes and drains converted a rich biodiverse tapestry of saltmarsh, mudflats, reedbeds, pools and shingle spits into a regulated matrix of ‘productive’ fields. The scheme (costing the equivalent of around £8m at today’s prices and funded largely by new Government drainage subsidies) was heralded as a triumph of modern agricultural methods. A ‘hopeless bog and waterlogged meadows’ had been ‘broken in’, bent to the will of local landowners. Whilst for centuries the estuary had been an important provider of food (fish, shellfish and wildfowl) and fuel (peat), its unruly landscapes – the shifting sandbanks, hard to negotiate marsh lands and unpredictable water levels – offended modern progressive sensibilities. Pre-conversion therapy, the Dysynni river basin was a ‘swamp’ – a dark, dismal place and the source of ‘a kind of malarial fever that frequently occurred in its inhabitants’. Afterwards, its re-engineered landscape joined the new railway, roads and gas works as markers of the valley’s bold advance into the twentieth century.
Notwithstanding the Dysynni valley’s scenic beauty, it is as much the result of human intervention as it is natural forces. Given the long hand of landscape transformation in the UK, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Jonathan Raban argues that all British landscape is secondary rather than primary, although the British have a genius for incorporating industrial and technological change into their versions of both nature and the picturesque. Canals, viaducts, reservoirs, weirs, plantation woods…all have been happily absorbed into our flexitarian vision of the countryside. Nowhere have humans been busier with their extraction and ‘improvement’ plans than on estuaries. The aim of the land drainage scheme was to ‘confine the Dysynni to within its bed’ as if it were a recalcitrant child. But nature has its own impulses, many of which run contrary to human plans. The ‘canalisation’ of the river triggered a damaging chain reaction. Silt that would otherwise have been distributed along the meandering river was fast-forwarded to the river mouth. Silting there (exacerbated by the building of a railway bridge) shifted the river mouth several hundred metres up the coast where rock conditions reduced the depth of the river and the amount of water that could be discharged into the sea. As a consequence, inland stretches of the river became silted, reducing their capacity to carry water during periods of heavy rain. On at least an annual basis, the overburdened river ‘burst out of its bed, swerving around and carrying hundreds of tons of gravel’, turning the lowland fields into an ‘inland sea’.
Before the drainage scheme the river had flooded regularly but inundations were gradual and the waters receded just as steadily without any need for intervention. Following the scheme the waters lingered on the surface, trapped by embankments, creating ‘a stagnant and obnoxious pool for several months’ and ‘despair [was] writ large on the faces of the tenant farmers’. Optimism about how the drainage scheme would enhance the health and prosperity of the area turned to frustration over nature’s perversity. The ‘eccentric behaviour’ of the Dysynni had ‘interfered with the proper functioning of the drainage system’ whilst the sea had ‘uncooperatively’ shifted the location of the river mouth. Almost 200 years on and the Dysynni valley still frequently floods ruining crops and rendering pasture land unusable. And yet confidence in the Victorian drainage system remains unshaken. The Farmer’s Union of Wales describes the system as an ‘ingenious piece of engineering’ and blames flooding on the Government agency National Resources Wales for not properly maintaining the system.
Before the draining of the valley, the river and sea were free agents, intermingling in the river basin, swirling over low-lying land, creating a variety of liquid landscapes. The valley was an area of extensive wetlands – reed beds, saltmarshes, ponds and peat bogs – that teemed with life. Wetlands are one of the most biodiverse habitats, home to two-fifths of the world’s plants and animals, a service station for migratory birds and a provider of all kinds of niche environments. But for centuries these nature-rich wetlands have been viewed as wastelands, places to be wrested into ‘productive’ use. In the UK more than three-quarters of wetlands have been lost in the past 300 years and are one of our most threatened eco-systems. Thankfully, attitudes are on the turn and the ‘super-hero’ importance of wetlands to biodiversity and climate change mitigation is being recognised. The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world (one in seven of our native species face extinction and 40% are in decline); the preservation and restoration of wetlands is one of the most effective ways of boosting biodiversity. Peatlands also store twice as much cardon as forests making a huge contribution to the reduction of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
From the catastrophic post ‘improvement’ flooding of the Dysynni valley, we know how important it is for rivers to be connected to their flood plains. With the added pressures brought by climate change – rising sea levels, heavier rain, more frequent storms – propping up the Dysynni drainage system is as futile as King Canute ordering the tide not to turn. The forces of nature – the weather, tides, rivers and their tributaries – need the freedom to re-calibrate their relationships. The Dysynni valley must be a strong candidate for rewilding – and recent Government policies and targets could offer opportunities to achieve this. Most crucially, the Sustainable Farming Scheme, that’s being developed to replace EU farming subsidies, emphasises sustainable food production, supporting nature and lowering farming’s carbon footprint. It will also encourage farmers to work collaboratively to achieve landscape-wide improvements. There is also a Welsh Government five-year action plan for peatland restoration.
The Dysynni valley – from watery meadows to windswept hillsides – has been exploited for agriculture for over a thousand years. The dykes, drains and embankments that criss-cross the valley bottom and the stone walls that wander the remote hillsides defying the laws of gravity in order to delineate a few windswept fields, are testaments to the human drive to squeeze maximum productivity out of the land. But left to their own devices, wetlands are the most productive eco-systems in the world, nurturing thousands of species, locking in carbon and saving us from flooding and coastal erosion.
It is a sign of the cormorants’ resilience that they are still resident at Bird Rock. They have lost many of their most important habitats and (until legal protection for wild birds was introduced in the 1970s) were slaughtered in their hundreds until they were within a feather’s breadth of extinction. With sensitive environmental restoration, the cormorants’ home and hunting grounds could once again be united at Bird Rock.
Angela Evans worked in social policy research, including a stint as head of social research with the Welsh Government, before swapping the meeting room for the archives and studying for a PhD in history at Cardiff University. Her writing reflects her interests in walking and environmental history. She has had a number of academic articles published, and also a series of essays on coastal ‘edge-lands’ in the New Welsh Review, and she was ‘highly commended’ at the New Welsh Writing Awards in 2020.
The photograph at the head of this essay is by Caroline Humphreys.