There are many ways to explore the Wye Valley. James Fair follows the river from source to mouth to discover the wildlife living on and around this famous stretch of water.
There’s something undeniably exciting about setting out to find a river’s source. A river is a remarkable natural phenomenon – a body of water that starts from nothing, grows into a powerful torrent that can knock you off your feet and even sweep you to your death, then matures into a grand, sweeping beast and finally disgorges its contents into the sea.
It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, a river follows the same pattern. And to be there at its birth, where it all starts, is like going back in time. It’s not hard to see why Livingstone got carried away out in deepest, darkest Africa on that fruitless Nile escapade of his.
Still, I didn’t go anywhere near deepest, darkest Africa, nor even to the foothills of the Andes for this particular source. Just as far as mid-north Wales and the flat-topped peak of Plynlimon.
Up and away
There are various routes up to Plynlimon, but one of the quickest is from the Eisteddfa Gurig car park on the A44. I had to pay £3 to park there, but the trail was easy to follow and the ascent gradual and undemanding. Within two to three hours, I had reached the broad, almost plateau-like summit.
In the tepid April sunshine, the views over the Nant-y-moch reservoir to the west and as far as the sea made up for the relative blandness of the scenery. Wildlife was scarce – just a few circling buzzards and an early male wheatear declaring his territory on the boulder rubble near the trig point.
From there, I had to follow a compass bearing east to find the source of the Wye. The route took me over a saddle, up a slight rise and then steeply down into the headwaters of the river. The rivulets at the top were dry, but after 50 metres or so, water appeared as if from nowhere – the Wye had begun.
Following the river back to the A44 wasn’t easy, with solid terrain frequently giving way to swampy marshland. Skylarks and red kites kept me company on the five-hour walk, with the day ending hot and sunny, redolent with promise of the baking summer to come.
My next stop was the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust-owned reserve of Gilfach Farm. Here I had arranged to meet the warden, Pip Amos, for a lengthy tour of the reserve, which is a haven for otters, Natterer’s bats, salmon, redstarts and pied flycatchers – though we saw only finches, tits and thrushes and heard the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker.
The chilly spring had delayed the arrival of migrant songbirds, which can normally be seen in good numbers breeding in the gnarly oak wood that has regrown since it was felled to supply timbers for the trenches in the First World War.
Of otters, we did at least see tracks and spraints on a sandy area beside the River Marteg, a small tributary of the Wye that flows through Gilfach Farm.
Further down, Pip pointed out the places where he sees salmon leap in November and December, and those calm pools amid the torrent that the fish use as resting points on their way upriver to spawn. Now and then, he sees old-timers standing and watching by the falls, and he’s fairly sure they’re there to gaff the salmon (catch with a hooked stick) in the safe havens.
“I wander over and say, ‘I’m supposed to be looking for poachers, but I never see any around here.’ After half an hour, they just head off,” said Pip.
Back at the reserve centre, where you can get a cup of tea and cake if you need sustenance, a visitor asked Pip if the redstarts and ‘pied flies’ had arrived yet. “Often, the birders will see them before I’ve even thought about it,” he reflected, a trifle glum.
Row your boat
My next trip was to take me onto the River Wye for the first time – in a canoe. I had arranged to hire one at Glasbury (close to Hay-on-Wye, the world-renowned ‘town of books’), with the aim of travelling as far downriver as I wanted over the course of the next two days.
Here, the Wye is broad and slow-moving in most places, but thanks to heavy rainfall in the winter, the river had dramatically changed course and ‘punched’ its way through a loop, leaving a nascent oxbow lake where it had once flowed freely.
Now that I was on the river, I started to see wildlife straightaway. A pair of mute swans building a nest on a small island eyed me suspiciously as I rippled by, while large groups of sand martins skimmed low over the water as they hawked for insects. I hadn’t expected to find this so unusual, but it was – normally, you watch these birds from 20 or 30 metres below, but for once I was on their level as they dodged this way and that like bumper cars at a fairground.
I passed Hay-on-Wye, hidden from view (apart from the castle turret on the outskirts) by the steep riverbank and line of trees. Soon after Hay, a large, dark shape in the water could have been an otter – but this animal, with its head high out of the water and cumbersome swimming style, was not the wholly aquatic creature that Lutra lutra is.
It was a mink and it crossed close behind me, seemingly unfazed by my presence, and slipped into the vegetation on the opposite bank. Mink may be aliens and they may impact on native species, but I can’t help liking them.