A Journey Through Central Wales – The Cambrian Mountains

David Beeson, late September 2021

Central Wales is probably less visited than the north and south coasts, yet for wildlife it offers some gems. It is a largely remote area of high hills, although some people feel they are mountains. Sheep dominate the lower elevations, and their winter pastures are so improved that only grass seems to grow, so, like many parts of our small island, one has to search out wildlife locations.

On the A470, just north of Rhayader is Gilfach, a 166 hectare Radnorshire Wildlife Trust reserve. For centuries Gilfach was a working hill farm, yet its owners did not follow the trend to adopt new agricultural techniques – their winter pastures were neither ploughed, reseeded, nor chemically treated. As a result, it has kept its floral diversity and the resulting food chains. It is a place with multiple habitats, from high open land down to marshy meadows and a salmon river … and a diversity of wildlife (55 species of breeding birds, 6 bats and 413 lichens).

Restored longhouse.

The reserve is adjacent to the A470, with all-weather seating, good car parking and picnic spots. Even folks with limited mobility can access many locations, with a small road giving good routes. Paths, varying from easy to demanding, so encourage walkers to explore the farm.

The human centre of the hill farm was a 1600s longhouse that gave human accommodation with the animal sheds attached. Nearby is a dipper-watching hide.

Bell heather, common heather and gorse bring a blaze of colour to the hillside in late summer. Their nectar-rich flowers attract insects like the mountain bumble bee (Bombus monticola) and fox moth.

Marteg river has otters and leaping salmon (November)

Butterflies love the wildflowers and grasses with the small pearl-bordered fritillary, common blue and green hairstreak to name but a few found here.  Over seventy different types of bird have been recorded with over two thirds choosing to breed here.  Redpoll, yellowhammer, whinchat, linnet, red kite, spotted and pied flycatcher and cuckoo all spend time at Gilfach.

The Marteg river runs through the reserve, with occasional visits from otters and a winter run of salmon joining the brown trout and bullhead fish.

Our visit was in late September, so much of the flora was past its best, yet the diversity was clear and a spring trip to see its oak woodlands filled with bluebells and stitchwort would be wonderful. Then too the insect diversity would be driving the insectivorous food chain.


Sessile oak woodland, with an adjacent badger set.

Combining Gilfach with the Elan Valley, with its RSPB reserve, would be a good contrast.

Not too distant to Gilfach is the 200 hectare Hafod Estate, with excellent public access. It is a few miles south and east of Devil’s Bridge – near Cwmystwyth / Pontrhydygroes. It is signposted from Devil’s Bridge.

A large car park with limited picnic tables and toilets is provided. Disabled access would be demanding. This is a remote location.

If you are a mammal person this could be the spot for you. There are pine martens, otters, badgers and many other species … and a remote cottage to hire. Or stay at Devil’s Bridge and enjoy the steam mountain railway.

Extreme telephoto of the Vale of Rheidol Mountain Railway as Number 7 climbs the gradient.

Hafod has a great range of walks, often following the Ystwyth River that finally enters the Irish Sea / Cardigan Bay at Aberystwyth. Being high-hill-country the slopes are clothed in commercial conifers, plus sessile oaks and rowan.

An open area of Hafod.
Ystwyth River
Hafod – reintroduced martens live here and have spread to the coast.

Just north of Aberystwyth is the coastal village of Borth. Adjacent are Ynyslas and Cors Fochno (Borth Bog), both part of the Dyfi National Nature Reserve and places I have visited for over 50 years.

The prevailing winds have, over hundreds of years, have whipped up the beach sand and deposited it on Ynyslas – it is now a calcareous dune system.

Spurges are, here, the first colonisers of the beach sand. Marram grass will then send its roots deep into the sand to establish the dunes.
Human traffic is destroying some parts of the dunes.
Calcarious grasslands are maintained by rabbits, but they become very wet in winter…. hence the marsh helleborines and marsh orchids.
Rabbits everywhere! But they provide food for others in the food chain – polecats and foxes.

Parking is available, and there is a visitor centre with loos. The downside being the dogs. How a NNR can allow itself to become a dog walking / running area is beyond me. It is a disgrace. Nature reserves are few in number and should be reserved for nature, with even much restricted human access and no dogs. The RSPB generally gets this right.

As at Studland (Dorset) the sand dunes show succession from pure sand hills adjacent to the beach through to mature dunes stabilized by grasses. With the calcium carbonated seashells incorporated into the thin soil it is akin to a chalk downland in its mature flora.

Summer brings a varied display of flowers to the reserve.  Marsh and bee orchids appear in the early summer in the dune slacks (the wet areas of the dunes) followed by pyramidal orchids. There are also colourful saltmarsh flowers, sea pink, sea aster, sea spurrey. Butterflies and day-flying moths fill the air, while dragonflies dart around the raised bog. You might spot wildlife like osprey and otter on the estuary.

Seedheads of the marsh helleborine orchids

For me the special plant is the late-flowering marsh helleborine orchid. This is generally uncommon but flowers in profusion here. Animals include adders, grass snake, sand and common lizards, myriads of rabbits and night-hunting polecats. The Welsh vernal mining bee is active during the spring. Nightjars can be heard in the summer.

With up to 8 metres of peat beneath the surface the raised bog of Cors Fochno is a huge carbon store. At one time the site was destined to become a potato farm, yet it was rightly saved.

Borth village spreads along the coastline with Borth Bog behind.

The waterlogged bog surface is a hostile place for most plants, and those that thrive here, like bog cotton, bog asphodel and bog myrtle, all have special adaptations.

Carnivorous plants also come into their own here including all three native species of sundews.

You’ll have to work hard to find access to the bog. Adjacent to the Ynyslas to Tre-Taliesin (B4353) road is a miniscule car park set down from the road. Pull in here and open the gate, ignoring warnings! Drive down the track to a car park and one can access the boardwalk from here.

The acidic, wet conditions encourage mosses. The most important bog specialist plants (and the main peat-formers), are the sphagnums, which form colourful carpets on the open bog and raise its surface into a shallow dome as their remains accumulate. Fifteen species of bog moss occur here including three national rarities.

Heathers are common here, together with myrtles and bog rosemary. Reptiles and amphibians enjoy the location.

Monitoring Borth Bog
Bog heathers

RSPB’s 800 hectare Ynys-hir is just a few miles towards Machynlleth. It has a difficult access, but it is well worth it. There is a visitor centre, car park and four diverse habitats: wet land, woodland, hillside and estuary marshes.

Spring Watch featured the reserve a few years back and showed snakes being predated by buzzards, and then fed to their young. Not so now. On talking to a warden, we learned that a nearby estate had started releasing thousands of non-native pheasants; they have spread and eaten out the reserve’s reptiles. All so idiots can shoot at such slow-moving birds that it are difficult to miss. Breeding and releasing non-native birds should be banned. If people want to eat them, keep them like chickens.

Salt marsh with an otter playpool.

The RSPB says of its reserve: There are an exciting mixture of habitats to be explored at Ynys-hir. Stunning Welsh oak woodland which in spring has breeding pied flycatcher, redstart, wood warbler and lesser spotted woodpecker as well as the early spring flowers such as bluebells. The estuary saltmarsh and lowland wet grasslands support breeding lapwing and redshank. During the autumn and winter months this habitat is important for Greenland white-fronted geese, golden plover, lapwing, wigeon and barnacle geese. Other areas to explore include freshwater pools, reedbeds and peat bog. Birds to be seen here include grasshopper warblers, water rail with hen harrier in the winter. There are many species of dragonfly and butterflies including small red dragonfly and brimstone butterflies, otters, common lizard, slow worms and grass snakes.


Finally, Hafren Forest. This is located near Llyn Clywedog, a lake / dam that attempts to control some of the flow down the River Severn – that starts here.

River Severn at Hafren
Insectivorous butterworts
The Cambrian Mountains are often carpeted with mosses. Here you can see both generations – the gametophyte is the green plant while the sporophyte is the brown capsule. For more information see the full article on mosses.

Hafren is a huge forestry site, with car park, picnic tables and toilets. Plenty of signed walks can be taken that mostly wander along the river valleys. We encountered an uncommon carnivorous plant on our rambles – butterworts. It was just a single colony, but possibly 100 plants on a steep wet slope.


You will be able to spot ospreys on the lake and explore lead mines alongside the dam wall.

Dam wall and 1860s lead mine.

We spent a glorious two-week on tour through Central Wales. One hotel will soon be quite exceptional: The Black Mountain Lodge near Glasbury-on-Wye. The current owners only took over the place in May 2021 and, given six months, the few early snags will be sorted. The food was exceptional. Great location for walking the Wye Valley and the Black Mountains of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

www.nwhwildlife.org – go here, and scroll down, for 120+ ad-free wildlife articles.

Most fields have been improved. This is near Van / Fan.
Lichen on a tree.

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