Caves, mines and bats and plans – an update from Ewart and Nancy
Coed y Tor woodland, is the stretch of woodland on the left hand of the road as you walk out of the village downhill towards New Beaupre. It’s in the shape of a bent arm with the elbow being the rocky outcrop that overlooks New Beaupre. This is the Tor. The wood is classed as a PAWS - Plantation on Ancient Woodland Site. Originally, it was an ancient woodland and there are remains of large oak stumps dotted around, but those trees were removed and, possibly later, a larch crop was planted with ash naturally self-seeding. The ground flora indicates that the woodland floor is over 200 years old – the larch is about 50 years old.
Caves and mines [note: the mines are unsafe]
The wood is known for its caves and there are a few stories about them, such as the drunken airmen getting stuck in one during the war, a highway man taking refuge in one of the caves etc. I’ve heard and read other stories.
During Roman and late Victorian times the woodland was mined. Little of the woodland existed at either of those times – either cleared to make way for the mining or it didn’t exist in the Roman times. We’re not sure, though we have trolled through lots of records and maps, had expert advice, etc.
The mines are horizontal workings with some shafts, the biggest being Ianto’s cave. There are other workings in the wood that aren’t mining remains.
It’s an interesting woodland. I’ve abseiled into all the mines with a bat expert in order to ascertain what’s there. No lost treasure, no safe as per another story, just lots of animal skulls!
The mines have collapsed in places and some are quite large. We’re certain they were lead but one may have been quartz as there are some other quartz seams in the area. There’s an impressive quartz seam in Penllyn below the castle with a mine. The driveway to Penllyn Castle was laid with the quartz from the local mines for Mrs Clay’s (Granny Clay) wedding.
The mines are unsafe – keep well away. We are in the process of fencing them off properly. They are also used by nesting birds and roosting bats so they mustn't be disturbed.
With the caves come the bats. When we took the woods on it was, and still is, important to know what you have and, luckily, a prominent bat expert who is currently collecting data on bats in South Wales contacted us.
Over the last two years a huge amount of information has been collected on which bats use the site for hibernation, roosting, feeding, etc. It’s probably one of the most accurate surveys of bats in a woodland in South Wales. And it’s on going. We’ve been very lucky. We can’t legally handle them, but we’ve had the opportunity to see some of the bats really close. They are the most amazing creatures; incredibly delicate and fragile. You may have seen us late at night around the fire down there. We’ve been watching the experts catching and identifying the bats. All legal and licensed in case anyone has concerns. Ultimately this helps us to plan how to manage the woodlands.
The current position: diversity and disease and plans
The wood is currently made up of larch, ash and elm with a sparse spattering of juvenile beech, elder and sycamore. And a small patch of rhododendron.
A risky purchase at the time some might say, considering larch phyophera, ash dieback and Dutch elm disease, which are all now prevalent in the Vale! But you have to jump in sometimes and take a risk. So, coming up with a management plan and a plan of action on an unmanaged piece of woodland has been a challenge. We could just ignore it all and do nothing, but managed woodlands are more productive, more diverse and more varied in their wildlife. This is what we’ve always wanted.
Our goal is to create diversity. One reason why we have issues with disease in woodlands / forests is lack of diversity. Unfortunately, diversity costs more and is less productive. Hence great swathes of larch and Sitka spruce up in the valleys. We also have great swathes of dead larch and dead spruce!
The woodland has a larch crop, it wasn’t planted for the long term or to be visually pleasing, it was planted to clear-fell and sell. A simple long term investment. Maybe 40 to 60 years depending on the market.
Unfortunately, larch phytophera has come along and all but wiped out all larch plantations in South Wales. Coed hills and Coed y Tor are the last two in this area. The others (Hensol predominately) have been felled.
We thought that the larch had the disease last year, but we had it checked by NRW (Natural Resources Wales) who gave it the all clear. It’s still a high possibility but fingers crossed. If the disease was present, we would have been issued with a Statutory Plant Health Notification and we would have had three months to clear-fell the site. With today’s machinery, it would been done in a month and would have looked like a bomb site. This we don’t want. It has never been our intention to clear-fell; larch are beautiful trees and we love the mixture of larch and ferns. NRW did issue us with a clear-fell license giving us that option and we do have a thinning license as well. So, all the work we’re doing is legal. It’s done through NRW, not the Vale Council Planning Department.
To create diversity it is necessary to introduce and help other varieties to come through. This explains our current work. We are trying to thin the larch out in order to create planting pockets for more oak, and to introduce sweet chestnut which will then have to have space to grow.
The larch that is coming out is classed as oversize. Its growing and yield potential has passed. Time becomes a bigger factor than value or growth. It is not going to increase in value much more – oversize larch tends to have less value, mainly due to smaller sawmills. With the demise of our forestry sector, sawmills have also closed. There are a handful in Wales and England, and they are only interested in smaller diameter timbers that are more cost effective to mill. So we are slowly felling the oversize trees to create planting space and to probably mill ourselves or sell onto the limited market at some point. The forestry industry is still going, there’s loo roll to produce. Larch is brilliantly durable and needs no after care as cladding or fencing.
If anyone would like any, just let us know. We are strong believers in locally sourced material (though it has limitations) but we have the material and some of you may have the need.
Some may think it’s a bit messy in there, and we totally agree, but we’re trying to do this ourselves to keep costs down. Thinning a woodland is the most expensive forestry / woodland operation that can be done. That’s why so much is clear-felled. It is cheaper and faster and it gets the money in. This helps to explains why 50% of welsh woodlands are unmanaged, it’s too expensive and the imports are cheaper. So please bear with us, it’s a long process.
As well as thinning the wood, we’d love to allow the village to walk through it as it is really interesting. Pick the wild garlic, enjoy the bluebells, see the badger sets. You might also see the woodpecker (they’re very shy) and see part of the village from another angle.
However, we can’t allow that at the moment because of the forestry work and open mine shafts but do watch this space.
We can continue working in the woodlands in the current situation, so you may see us down there. Hopefully, we can open it up to you soon, but we need to make it safe. Remember the airmen who needed rescuing.
In the meantime, stay safe and well.
Ewart and Nancy