Allt Rhyd y Groes revisited

I first visited this wood in mid-Wales 42 yrs ago. Two things stuck in my mind particularly then: it was in the heart of the kite country when the GB population was only a few tens of birds; and a sheep-fenced exclosure showed good regeneration, not of oak but of rowan.

Fence line effects from 1980 and 1985; and a general view of the grazed woodland in 1980

I visited the wood a couple more times in the subsequent decades, but the last time was in 1997. Now kites are commoner than buzzards across much of the country but how had the wood fared? A visit in April 2022 provided a chance to find out.

It lies on steep slopes in a narrow valley, accessed by a dead-end road. The approach was made more dramatic by the dark crag opposite, showing the remnants of a recent hill fire. The main block is an oakwood but there were several blocks of slope alderwood which seems to be a common component of British uplands: perhaps the expansion of alder in prehistory seen in the pollen record also involved alder spread away from the riversides with which it is usually associated.

I couldn’t remember exactly where the original exclosure was, but fortunately there are sheep fences round most of the main block now. These are not completely sheep-proof – perhaps they are not meant to be, in that low levels of grazing may help to maintain the mossy appearance of the wood and stop the bramble becoming rampant. That just a sheep-fence made quite a difference is an indication that deer may still be scarce here, although I had noticed one or two casualties on the drive along the A40 through south Wales, so they cannot be far away.

Exclosure showing fenceline effect in 2022; a trespassing sheep disappearing up the hill

A few mature oak trees had blown over in last winter’s storms, but there were also a lot of old-fallen oaks from, I guessed about 30 years ago. Slides from the 1997 visit (unfortunately some very dark) show relatively recent blown trees, so probably the Burns Night storm of 1990 was responsible.Associated with some of these blowdown gaps were distinct clumps of birch.

Long-fallen trees in 2022; probably from the same event that had caused windthrow seen in 1997.

Towards the bottom of the slope where there were some larger bracken glades there were a few young oaks. The glade was only about 20 m across and the trees were just under the edge of the canopy, perhaps where the shade reduced the competition from the bracken. Further along the understorey largely consisted of rowans about 5-10 cm diameter, perhaps the site of the exclosure seen 40 yrs ago.

Young oak established on edge of bracken glade; rowan understorey (site of 1980 exclosure?)

The lower slopes would be expected to be more grassy as there is deeper and probably richer soil than further up the slope, but at least in places the expected moss carpets were still present and there were microsites such as damp rock faces by streams with good bryophyte cover. An indication that some grazing is still occurring comes from the much better growth of bilberry, ivy and honeysuckle on the top of large boulders which act as refugia.

So on the whole I think the wood has done pretty well, in fact it has probably aged better than I have!

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