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LIVE24SEVEN // Gwent Wildlife Trust


The secrets of the Gwent Levels


Richard Bakere, Senior Reserves Officer with Gwent Wildlife Trust explains the history of the Gwent Levels and their importance to wildlife today…


In South Wales, between the Rivers Wye at Chepstow, the Rhymney at Cardiff and the surging Severn, lies a complex and hard to define mixture of land, water, wildlife and people. The Gwent Levels is an ancient landscape that is neither completely natural, nor wholly artificial. Defined at the margins by a mixture of natural geography and artificial sea walls, these same structures both protect and threaten the landscape’s existence.


Around 12,000 years ago, the ice sheet covering the hills and mountains of Wales began to retreat. What is now the Gwent Levels was flat tundra, part of a huge low-lying valley with the nearest coast over 150km to the west, beyond where Lundy Island stands today. With planetary warming, the ice melted, the sea-level started to rise, and the coastline shifted inland, beginning to form the Bristol Channel’s characteristic funnel shape.


The orientation of this vast developing channel and the shape of the adjacent tidal basin enabled the strong tidal harmonic that we have today to develop. This produces the famous tidal range of up to 14 metres, a hugely powerful surge, which carries, drops and reshapes millions of tonnes of water and sediment on every tide. Our ancestors realised the power of this water and immortalised it through the legends of Hafren (Sabrina) and Gwendolen.


Between 12,000 and 2,000 years ago, a rapidly changing complex of wetlands, including carr woodland (a type of waterlogged wooded terrain), peat fen, reed swamp, salt marsh, and foreshore, was present on both sides of the Severn Estuary, and included the areas now known as the Gwent and Somerset Levels. Man was just one of the large animals which exploited and altered the host of resources to be hunted and gathered in these wetlands.


Hunting camps from the Mesolithic period have been found around the then freshwater ‘island’ of Goldcliff. Leading to and from the island, individual lines of human footprints have been preserved under later estuarine mud since they were laid over 6,500 years ago. Some have been revealed by modern erosion. Archaeologists have also found the prints of aurochs, red deer, and crane – a bird that is once again visiting the Gwent Levels after its re-introduction in Somerset.


Throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, cattle grazed the salt marshes during the summer, brought down from the settlements and farmsteads built on the safety of the dryland margin. The Iron Age fort on Wilcrick Hill is the most prominent reminder of this period. Today, cattle still graze the saltmarsh in the Peterstone area.


This pattern of exploitation changed after the Roman conquest of Wales. Legionaries from Caerleon seem to have been responsible for constructing the first sea defences. They undertook the first reclamation and drainage of the land for agricultural use and in so doing, also created the new problem of disposing of the fresh water trapped behind the sea wall. Although some of their drainage system is still in use around Peterstone, elsewhere the sea walls were washed away, and the land was again flooded twice daily by the sea, burying the fields in up to a metre of silt.


From the 12th century, the Welsh and English lords of this part of Wales and the monasteries they helped to found, commissioned the rebuilding of the sea walls and the creation of a new drainage system. The fertile land produced was famous for its spring grass, hay and crops. The complexity and subtlety of this enduring system is inspiring. For example, the Monksditch


Lapwing ,Andy Karran


Gwent Levels landscape aerial shot Tony Pickup / 124 Broad Bodied Chaser,Andy Karran


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