It's only natural; FEATURE Nature's all around us... but do we really notice it in our busy lives? Nathan Bevan discovers Gwent's finest - and most unexpected - nature reserves.
LAs a result many can end up oblivious to the huge swathes of beautiful countryside which are all round us.
But Gwent Wildlife Trust want to change all that - so they've produced a new reserves guide featuring 23 of the stunning idylls in their care which you may have never known were right on your doorstep.
Here's a taster of some them: ROGIET POORLAND 1.5 hectres A charming reserve on the edge of the Gwent Levels, Rogiet Poorland sits on an area of elevated ground between Caldicot and Magor.
Hosting areas of woodland and scrub, as well as a small remnant of limestone grassland, it's so-named because it was set aside in 1855 for the local labouring poor who were without access to the neighbouring vast and enclosed Tredegar Estate.
Full of arching trees, draped in ivy and clad with spongy green mosses, Hart's-Tongue ferns erupt sporadically, while patches of lush, leafy Dog's Mercury lurk between the tree trunks, dappled in light.
Full of fascinating wildflowers, like Wild Marjoram, Common Centaury and Eyebright, it's a magnet for foraging insects such as the Brown Argus butterfly.
By car From the B4245 in Rogiet, turn into Minnetts Lane, opposite Station Road (signposted Severn Tunnel Junction railway station). Pass under the motorway and keep left continuing along Minnetts Lane. The reserve entrance is another 1km on the right. There is limited parking for one or two cars at the reserve entrance.
LOWER MINNETTS FIELD 1 hectare This small grassland reserve is an open oasis among the dark, dense woodlands that border it, with over 60 species of plants like bright white Oxeye Daisies, rich yellow Agrimony, Cowslip and Lady's Bedstraw.
When the reserve is at its peak flowering in summer, the meadow pulsates with the rhythmic fluttering of butterflies and moths such as Marbled White, Small Skipper and the stunning Narrow-Bordered Five-Spot Burnet, along with birds such as Hawfinch, Crossbill and Spotted Flycatcher.
By car From the B4245 in Rogiet, turn into Minnetts Lane. Pass under the motorway and keep left until you see the signed entrance to Lower Minnetts Field on your left. Continue on for just over 100m until you reach the car park.
HENLLYS BOG 1 hectare Brimming with scarce and beautiful plants, this is a must-visit site for any botany enthusiast.
Considered one of the finest examples of valley mire habitat in south Wales, with populations of both Fragrant orchid and Broad-Leaved cottongrass, Henllys Bog has earned its status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
It's also home to the stunning Marsh Helleborine orchid - found in only a handful of sites in the county, as well as the bizarre-looking carnivorous Round-Leaved Sundew.
In the middle of summer the open ferns chirp with the sound of grasshoppers and crickets, while Marbled White, Common Blue and Small Skipper butterflies flutter among the dense, damp vegetation seeking out nectar-rich flowers.
Common frogs lurk while Golden-Ringed dragonflies and chalky-blue Broad-Bodied Chasers zip about.
By car Set the satnav for Pandy Mawr Farm NP44 6HU, take the right fork and park up on the rough ground before the farm buildings. Walk through the metal field gate and follow the green signs along the field edge. Go through the second gate and turn left down the slope.
NEW GROVE MEADOWS 5 hectares Atop the Trellech plateau, New Grove Meadows gazes out over vast lowlands to the west and far beyond to the looming peaks of Skirrid Fawr and Sugar Loaf.
In summer, its gently sloping fields are blanketed with the colourful spikes of thousands of orchids, five species of which pepper the fields.
The reserve nurtures many weird and wonderful fungi, but the Waxcaps are the real treat, with as many as 15 different types recorded here.
After a late summer hay-cut, a resident flock of Hebridian sheep descend on New Grove Meadows to spend autumn and winter grazing.
By car From Monmouth, go south on the B4293 - signposted Trellech and Mitchel Troy. About 1.5km from Monmouth, take the left fork, signposted Trellech and Chepstow. Continue along the B4293 uphill, pass the turn-off to The Narth and Whitebrook, turn right when you see the sign for Wet Meadow.
PRISK WOOD 6 hectares High above the western bank of the River Wye sits this beautiful, ancient and atmospheric woodland. The perfect spot for a tranquil summer walk, visitors are treated to breathtaking blankets of wildflowers and lush green foliage.
The forest floor is carpeted in leafy Dog's Mercury, Herb-Paris and Enchanter's Nightshade, with endless swathes of bluebells and ramsons, not to mention Common Dog-Violet, with its delicate pansy-like flowers and heart-shaped leaves.
Great Spotted woodpeckers are a common sight, bobbing between trees and drumming at the incredible rate of eight to 10 pecks a second. By car From Monmouth, take the B4293 south, take the turning that forks left for Penallt, Trellech and Chepstow. Continuing on for about 3km, take the first left signposted Penallt and, at the crossroads in Penallt village, go straight on down Lone Lane. Park up at the roadside (space is very limited, so Pentwyn Farm a little further back is probably a better parking option) before entering the woods via the path to reach the reserve entrance.
STRAWBERRY COTTAGE WOOD 6 hectares Climbing the eastern slopes of the Honddu Valley sits Strawberry Cottage Wood, a tranquil and secluded ancient woodland set within the far south-eastern reaches of the Brecon Beacons.
Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, it's a haven for wildlife, woodland wildflowers and specimens of scarce trees.
Woodland birds flit among the dense, dappled canopy, including tuneful Blackcap, both Spotted and Pied Flycatcher (which breed here), and Redstart. Buzzards are a common sight, sparrowhawk are occasional guests and wary woodcock appear in the winter. The site also attracts the trio of British woodpeckers - Green, Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted.
Dominated by mature Sessile oak and ash and featuring an understorey of coppiced hazel and climbing honeysuckle, Strawberry Cottage Wood is perfect habitat for the elusive hazel dormouse.
Colourful kingfishers are always about and white-chested dippers are a common sight downriver.
By car From Abergavenny, head north on the A465, turning left for Llanthony Priory/Llanvihangel Crucorney/Skirrid Inn. Continue on this road until you reach Skirrid Inn, turning left - signposted Cwmyoy/Llanthony immediately afterwards. Pass two left turns until you reach a layby on the right-hand. Park up and follow the footpath sign and look out for a footbridge crossing the River Honddu.
SILENT VALLEY 50 hectares Boasting the highest ancient beech woodland in Britain and designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1984, Silent Valley is a truly magical place to visit.
The Nant Merddog stream, a tributary of the River Ebbw, tumbles down through the lower southern woodland, while its upper slopes are blanketed in bluebells and coarse heather, affording visitors an impressive panorama of the stark Ebbw Valley beyond.
With woodland, wetland, heathland and pockets of grassland, the reserve nurtures a rich plant-life and draws an impressive mix of species throughout the year, including an interesting assemblage of slugs, snails and molluscs, such as Britain's largest slug - the Ash Black - which can grow up to 25cm long.
By car From Ebbw Vale, take the A4046 south towards Newport for about 3km towards the village of Cwm. Following the brown nature reserve sign into Cendl Terrace, at the top of which lies the nature reserve's car park. Walk northwards along a rough track through a flat grassy area to get to the reserve entrance. It can also be easily reached from Newport by following the signs for the Festival Park Shopping Centre.
WYESWOOD COMMON 42 hectares Set within the picturesque Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Wyeswood Common's gently sloping fields have so much to offer - stunning views, scenic walks and bags of wildlife. Since acquiring it in 2007, Gwent Wildlife Trust have been working on their far-reaching vision to restore and transform this vast reserve - formerly the site of an intensive dairy farm - into an intricate mosaic of habitats, rich in biodiversity.
Its meadows are chock full of tall grasses and wildflowers in the height of summer, while livestock - which still roams here - is crucial for managing its grasslands.
Look up and you'll see red kites soar high and barn owls, which come to life as the sun sets. By car Head for the village of Penallt, turn off at the war memorial and go straight, past a large industrial barn building and all the way to the end.
| Go to www.gwentwildlife.org for information on how to become a member and get your copy of GWT's nature reserves guide
Out and about... Prisk Wood and, right, Wyeswood Common Pictures: Gemma Bode/Lauri Maclean/Amy Lewis/Andy Karran