“They always say the best way to see the Gwent Levels is with a microscope or a helicopter.” I was walking through the stunning June meadows and dense willow copses of Magor Marsh Nature Reserve with Sorrel Jones, a conservation officer for the Gwent Wildlife Trust. The last relic fenland in south-east Wales, Magor Marsh was my first port of call on the protected Levels, and it hadn’t taken long to understand its significance – the place thrummed and buzzed with summer life. “You’ve either got to get right in and go, Look, this is amazing down here, or you’ve got to get up high and see this vast, extraordinary landscape from above,” said Sorrel, carrying her young son on her back as we walked, who kept irrepressibly pointing out cygnets and baby mallards in the water at the edge of the meadows. As much as the thought of experiencing the Levels from on high appealed to me, seeing them as a buzzard or a peregrine might, an ancient, hand-crafted mosaic of fields, villages and grazing marsh riddled by narrow waterways that has been reclaimed from tidal saltmarsh since Roman times, I was fairly sure that my debit card wouldn’t stretch to a twirl in the sky and decided that getting as near as I could was the best way of coming to know this place.
Besides, that practice of looking attentively and up close at things, whether through the lens of a microscope or simply by getting your hands dirty in search of the rich particularities of a place, has the weight of successful precedence behind it. It’s enabled scientists to establish the extraordinary ecological diversity and vitality of the Gwent Levels, home to an enviable range of species from the totemic otter to the rootless duckweed, Wolffia arrhizal, the world’s smallest flowering plant that’s found nowhere else in Wales, so tiny that you could hold thousands of them in your cupped hands. And it’s a technique that’s allowed archaeologists to painstakingly sift through alluvial silt to reveal boats from the Roman period buried miles inland or the astonishingly preserved Mesolithic footprints of the intertidal zone, the 7,500 year-old steps of adults and children off the coast, as well as those of various wild animals, including the common crane, a bird that until quite recently had been extinct as a breeding species in Britain for over 400 years. It’s a place that comes into clearer focus as you near.
But even at a distance the Levels are mesmeric, beguiling beneath wide, estuary skies. They shape-shift with the weather as you walk them, borrowing the magical sea-light of the Severn Estuary when it’s struck by sun, or turning as dark and dramatic as a storm-tide. By a set of lagoons near the coast, I watched a pair of those magical, rare cranes drop slowly through a bloom of late afternoon sunlight, lowering on vast open wings like they were descending by parachute, the glint of a scarlet crown on each of their graceful heads. For the past year this pair of cranes has been regularly crossing the Severn Estuary from a reintroduction project on the Somerset Levels, restoring the tie of antiquity between their species and the Levels landscape that’s been memorialised by those relic steps beneath the tide. There’s hope that in the future cranes will breed there again, and if they did they would join some of the other charismatic species that dwell on the Levels, such as avocets, little egrets and water voles. The water vole occupies an unenviable position in modern Britain; it’s the nation’s fastest declining wild mammal, its population having nose-dived by as much as 90% since the 1970s. For a period of nine whole years it had gone unseen on the Gwent Levels until a successful reintroduction scheme returned the mammal to its native home in 2012. From those small beginnings at Magor Marsh the water vole has spread over three miles on its own, journeying outwards across its former habitat by reen, like the ripples from a stone dropped suddenly into still water.
Reen, from the Welsh rhewyn, is the local word for the watery ditches that criss-cross the landscape like arteries, the primary feature of a complex drainage system that was dug over many centuries, and which included a subtle variety of components, from parallel field depressions known as ridge and furrow to shallow surface grooves called grips. On a map of the region the reens appear in bewildering blue numbers, like a dense grid of city streets, carrying water from the uplands and local springs safely out to sea in order to protect the reclaimed land from flooding. And it’s these earthen-banked ducts that set the Gwent Levels apart, making them both culturally and ecologically unique. Sculpted on top of an older Roman landscape of reclamation which was buried by alluvium some 1500 years ago after sea defences failed, the Levels reflect the long and evolving relationship between coastal people and the sea. Most of the present-day reens are medieval in origin, some of them the work of monks who lived and worshipped on the Levels. Such is the uniqueness of the historic, human-shaped landscape, including an evocative line of majestic old sallow trees that are believed to have sprouted from the willow mats laid down by monks attached to Tintern Abbey when crossing a particularly wet field to reach their grange farm near Magor Marsh, that the Gwent Levels are a designated cultural monument in Wales, a Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest. And like those woven wands of willow that have sprouted into trees, culture and nature are deeply entwined across the landscape, giving rise to the wild diversity of the reens.
I sat in on a reen-dipping session with a class of schoolkids at Magor Marsh run by Kathy Barclay, an inspiring community education officer for the Gwent Wildlife Trust. It’s not only scientists and archaeologists who get up close to things, for it’s also the native and intuitive approach that children take to the natural world when given the opportunity. It’s how they’re able to engage with it so richly and perceptively, responding to creatures and sensations of all shapes and sizes with an equal degree of interest. I watched as the 9 and 10 year-olds scooped water, weeds and a wealth of aquatic creatures from the reen with enviable delight, scrutinising the plastic tubs where they’d sloshed the contents of their nets with rapt fascination. They pored over delicate ramshorn snails, tiny, flickering bloodworms, and the startlingly large beasts that are dragonfly nymphs. Racing back and forth with their dripping nets, hollering to each other about a particular discovery or laughing when someone returned with an arm wreathed in weeds, that small reen of their fascination and focus was nothing less than a world to them, which happens to be scientifically as well as imaginatively true.
“We have 144 Red Data Book aquatic invertebrate species across the Levels,” Sorrel had said when she handed me a net a couple of days earlier, encouraging me to go dipping for the first time since I was a child. “That’s the diversity and rarity that you’re looking at here, because each reen is subtly different. You get fast ones, slow ones, shaded ones, not so shaded ones, so you have this massive variety of reens which suits a massive variety of invertebrates.” Once I got started, I found it hard to stop, twirling my net through the water in a figure eight as Sorrel had suggested, peering into the tub at the treasure I’d hauled up. Looking closely at them, every single one of those myriad blue lines on the map is wholly unique, supporting a singular cast of aquatic organisms according to the reen’s physical characteristics, as if each waterway were a stage for a different play.
In hindsight, though, I wish I could have taken that helicopter ride after all, because there’s no better way of appreciating scale than from height. In recognition of the remarkable ecological richness of those reens, the Gwent Levels are listed as a suite of eight adjoining Sites of Special Scientific Interest, encompassing most of that beautiful, ancient place and supposedly safeguarding it against development. From above I’d have been able to see how that nearly seamless stretch of protected land on both sides of the River Usk reaches all the way to the estuary, a glittering green sweep threaded by living waterways and studded with church spires. And while I was up there, I’d have had a clear view of what 14 miles of motorway would look like when driven like a stake through its secluded heart.
Despite the protective measures in place to preserve them, the Welsh Labour government intends to lay six lanes of concrete and asphalt over the Gwent Levels, building a new section of the M4 to ease rush hour bottlenecks where the current motorway is pinched from three lanes to two in the Brynglass Tunnels north of Newport. Their chosen route -named the Black Route in proposals- would carve open four of those SSSIs and the Special Protection Area of the River Usk, as well as fragmenting the Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest at a cost of at least one billion pounds to the taxpayer. The M4 relief road would irrevocably alter the unique character and integrity of the Levels, something that even the great flood of the Bristol Channel in 1607 (1606 in the Old Calendar), movingly commemorated by a high-water mark chiselled into the outer wall of the Church of St Thomas the Apostle in the village of Redwick, couldn’t manage, despite the terrible tally of death and destruction that those rising waters wrought.
The motorway would spell the end of the Levels as an intact repository of cultural and natural wealth. As the study for the characterisation of the Gwent Levels as a historic landscape makes clear, “the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of each part.” Along with the direct loss of habitat beneath the concrete footprint of the motorway, one of the largest single losses of SSSI land anywhere in the UK, the M4 bypass would rupture the essential cohesion of the place, acting as an impermeable barrier to all flightless wildlife, snapping protected habitat like a cracker in two, and isolating wild animal populations on either side of the divide. “It seems ironic,” said Kathy Barclay, “that we’re reintroducing water voles and re-establishing a population that’s going to be cut in half. Nothing’s going to go beyond the motorway.” While little wildlife will travel beyond the looming barrier once construction has begun, it’s likely that the effects of the motorway will seep everywhere, as each of the unique reens is coupled to another, linking up in a vast, interconnected drainage system that takes water southwards to the estuary. Any pollution from the motorway that enters one of the reens –whether from noxious fumes or a hazardous spill- would likely enter them all, carried along like disease in a bloodstream, fouling each of those singular, underwater worlds that the extraordinarily sensitive invertebrates are entirely dependent upon.
The Welsh government’s own website admits that during its consultation process it received more comments against the motorway proposal than for it, but dismisses them without a trace of irony as possibly being “the result of interest groups’ initiatives” while simultaneously championing the support they’ve received from corporate business. Even the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales has come out against the project, arguing that there are far better ways of spending such a colossal amount of money to develop the economy of south-east Wales. And despite its so-called need, no one I spoke to was in favour of a motorway across the Levels. Not bikers or birdwatchers, publicans or soldiers. Not even the taxi driver from Newport or the lorry driver from Port Talbot that I imagined might have more sympathy for the development in light of their working lives. Regardless of whether the people I spoke to lived on the Levels or elsewhere in Wales -and many of them regularly used the notorious M4 tunnels- they all articulated the same point of view, a deep concern about the project’s vast cost at a time when local services were being cut and a passionate belief that the place should be preserved as it is, just like it was meant to be, for its wildlife, historical importance and open character.
“It’s hard to believe what these fields once were, and what they still are. When the tide comes in you get a real sense of their history.” I’d stopped for a coffee one afternoon at a café near the village of Goldcliff after seeing Wayne Mumford, the owner, standing on a picnic table while trying to photograph baby starlings in the eaves. “When I think that the Romans and the monks built this area where there’s so much history, and all the life that lives in the reens, I can’t understand why anyone would want to build a motorway through the Levels.” Wayne had shaken his head in the same dismayed way that Lisa Morgan had inside Donnie’s Coffee Shop in Magor where she’d been helping out the day before, though her voice was sharpened with anger and frustration: “I have to drive into Newport about five times a week and does the current motorway bother me? No. If I have to wait a little longer does it bother me? No.” She went back to wiping the countertop before continuing. “The sad thing is that politicians think they can ride roughshod over people and if they take a little bit, generally they’ll take a little bit more and the core of the place will have already been eaten into. And once it’s gone, we can never have it back again.”
What’s at stake with the Welsh government’s plan is not solely the unique and irreplaceable environment of the Gwent Levels, but the kind of future we wish to leave as our legacy. Do we honour protective measures for the purpose they were intended, leaving intact those places of natural and cultural significance, places that are necessary for both wildlife and our own well-being, or do we dismiss them as irrelevant, narrowing our focus until it excludes all but a relentless fixation on development at any cost, corroding the wider duty of care we’ve been entrusted with? In 2015 the Welsh government passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act, a bill that explicitly highlights sustainable development as the key to “improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.” When such gems as the Gwent Levels can be sacrificed for the sake of development, it reveals just how empty of meaning the concept of sustainability can be. “We have to think outside the box as it were,” said Kathy Barclay as we sat in the nature reserve office. “We need to think of different solutions. The history of this place, and the cultural aspects of it are irreplaceable, so once you’ve wrecked it it’s gone. It’s absolutely gone.”
The Future Generations Act also obliges public bodies “to make sure that when making their decisions they take into account the impact they could have on people living their lives in Wales in the future.” After the schoolkids had finished reen-dipping, I walked back through the meadows towards the classroom with them. They carried a small selection of creatures in glass jars to look at under the microscope, to bring that captivating world beneath the surface of the water into even greater focus. As swallows curled through the dry summer air and dragonflies glittered over the meadow grasses, I asked a number of them what it was that they enjoyed about coming to Magor Marsh and the Gwent Levels. Each and every one of them, spoken to individually, gave me the same two reasons, as though they weren’t answering a question, with a range and diversity of possible responses, but had instead drawn on a well of common sense in kids. Firstly, they adored the wildlife – all the myriad bugs and birds and butterflies that they got close to on each visit, the very things that accord the Levels their celebrated, scientific designations. But secondly, and of greater surprise to me, they all said they loved the peace and quiet there, the silence away from home and school. That silence must be a strange and phantom thing for them: having already recognised its importance in their young lives, they’re witnessing its increasing disappearance from their experience, the same silence that would be lost alongside the wildlife they loved from large parts of the Levels with six lanes of cars, coaches and lorries roaring through it. Another piece of the place chipped away, leaving a lesser sum in its stead.
In many respects the children that morning had been much like I’d imagined, a group of ordinary boys and girls who were simultaneously excited, noisy, curious, polite, pushing and laughing, and it was clear that this future generation already had an important stake in this present place, a set of emotional and imaginative connections that immeasurably enriched their lives, highlighting the enlightened reasons why landscapes like the Gwent Levels were originally protected. These were the citizens the well-being act was intended for, those who would inherit our decisions, who would grow up in a world diminished by the loss of unique places if we’re to sanction their destruction. As we crossed a bridge over the last reen before reaching the nature reserve classroom, the kids abruptly stopped talking and watched the water instead. That sudden, overwhelming hush of wonder when they saw a water vole swim across the reen could yet be the sound of nature’s future, and hopefully an enduring element of their own.
This is an early version of a chapter on the Gwent Levels that features in my new book, Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save our Wild Places.