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Military ordnance seeds a wonderful new woodland; Regular contributor David Elias writes for the latest Natur Cymru edition.

Byline: DAVID ELIAS Nature and wildlife writer www.dispatchesfromtheundergrowth.com

IF you take the mountain road from Llanuwchllyn to Trawsfynydd and look down into the catchment of the Afon Gain, you will see something remarkable: a wood is growing up.

I don't mean a bit of scrub in the valley bottom but a 1,000-acre broadleaved woodland. True it is still at the thicket stage and studded with patches of Sitka spruce, but where else in Wales can you see a 400ha, freely regenerating woodland at 500m? Known locally as "the Ranges", the history of this place is fascinating.

From 1903-1965 a large area of these hills was used by the MOD as a firing range. In the mid 1960s shelling was discontinued and the core area handed over to the Forestry Commission (FC); something of a poisoned chalice since the ground was full of unexploded ordnance.

Three brave drivers in armourplated caterpillar tractors ploughed it ready for planting. Gangs of local men, reputedly on "danger money", and with a lucrative sideline in brass scrap from shell casings, then planted it with Sitka spruce.

By the turn of the millennium it was ready for felling and the timber was extracted in 2001-03.

This time a man with a metal detector walked ahead of a mechanical harvester, which had a long reach and bullet proof windows.

The FC now had a 400ha clear-fell full of unexploded ordnance - still a hazardous place to work.

The decision was taken to allow an upland broadleaved woodland to establish - perhaps the largest in Wales.

Here and there birch branches, laden with seed, were stuck in the ground to encourage regeneration; otherwise nature was just allowed to get on with it.

The view westward from the top of the pass is impressive: the jagged frieze of the Rhinogydd frames a great bowl of land chewed into shape by generations of sheep.

In the centre is a big spread of seemingly random patches of scrubby birch, sallow and Sitka spruce linked with open patches, often dominated by heather.

In stark contrast to the urrounding bald and bitten hills he vegetation between the young rees is luxuriant. It overflows with bilberry, crowberry, bell eather, tormentil, heath milkwort, various sedges and a rofusion of lichens.

The bird life is equally rich with hort-eared owl, hen harrier, lack grouse and cuckoo all egularly recorded, as well asserines such as whinchat, tonechat and grasshopper warbler.

A high vole population, which s characteristic of these conditions, no doubt draws in the raptors.

If you drive over at night thousands of moths can sometimes be seen in the headlights; surely just a hint of the vast supply of invertebrates emerging in this young woodland.

All of this has been achieved by doing nothing since the trees were felled, except maintaining the boundary fence to keep the sheep out.

Of course this wood is only 15 years old and changing rapidly. Over time some of those species will be lost and other will arrive.

My conservationist's instincts are to cut out the conifers and keep the heathland and boggy areas free of trees.

However, as it would be hugely costly to make the Ranges safe enough to work in, perhaps NRW could make a virtue out of necessity.

We don't know exactly how this wood will shape and evolve left to its own devices. It would be interesting to find out.

After all, if spontaneous re-afforestation is encouraged in the future - for flood prevention, carbon sequestration or re-wilding - then it is this kind of mixed woodland that will likely arise in the Welsh uplands.

Looked at this way the Ranges seem like an asset and a wonderful opportunity for NRW to demonstrate the wider benefits of our public forests.

If you want to see the Ranges for yourself, the mountain road goes right through the middle of it - but please keep to the roadside as the site remains dangerous for walkers.

David Elias publishes the online nature blog, Dispatches From The Undergrowth.

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The Ranges, a former MOD firing range, has been transformed by nature - but it remains a dangerous place PICTURE: DAVID ELIAS
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Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Date:Apr 28, 2016
Words:691
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