Misty bogs and stretching fens, sand-streaked estuaries and river deltas, patchwork saltmarshes and glistening mudflats, wetlands are themselves as diverse as the wildlife they sustain. Once, 25% of the British landscape was made up of wetland, but by 1980, this had dwindled to 5%, a lowly number for a country so, well, wet. Wales has lost many of its wetland areas, resulting in huge declines of much of the charismatic wildlife that lives there, including redshanks, snipe and water voles.
A wetland is an area of land that is covered with water- fresh, salt or brackish, with a water table near enough to the land surface to sustain aquatic plants. Wetlands are not necessarily submerged in water constantly. They are unique habitats, the most biologically diverse of ecosystems and support a wealth of flora and fauna, with more than 100,000 species relying on freshwater wetlands alone. Fish heavily depend on wetlands, with many species sustained solely on estuaries and the rich food source they provide.
The unique plants that wetlands sustain provide both food and habitat for an enormous number of animal species. Wetland areas are hugely instrumental in filtering water, removing heavy metals, impurities and nitrogen. Globally, wetland soils store around a third of the world’s carbon, more than the world’s rainforests.
Aside from the plethora of wildlife species they sustain, wetlands are the silent guardians of our riverbanks and shorelines. They store huge amounts water during heavy rainfall, preventing flooding in nearby areas, and provide a buffer between the land and the sea, protecting us from the extreme elements coastal regions experience.
In Cardigan Bay, legend tells of Centre’r Gwaelod, or the Lowland Hundred. A green and fertile land called Maes Gwyddno once lay just off the coast of west Wales in an area now submerged in water. The land was protected from the tides by dykes and sluice gates which were sometimes, unwisely it would seem, left in charge of a watchman called Seithennin. Seithennin earned the somewhat dubious accolade of being one of the Three Immortal Drunks of the Isle of Britain, becoming legendary for the fate he brought upon his kingdom when he cast off his duties in favour of the bottle. Roaring drunk one night, he failed to close the sluice gates allowing the whole kingdom of Maes Gwyddno to become flooded, lost in the next high tide. Stand on the coast of west Wales today, and some say you can still hear the bells of the church ringing deep within the waves.
Creedence is lent to this myth when low tides reveal a petrified forest on Borth beach, the 5000-year-old remains of an ancient forest of oak, willow, hazel, pine and birch; the wild greenwood of the Lowland Hundred?
Watery tales pervade in Welsh legend: the Legend of Llyn Y Fan Fach, Plant Rhys Ddwfn, the afanc. There is something magical, restorative, about being near water and it is not surprising so many myths rise from its depths. Modern research suggests that well-being and recovery are enhanced when people have access to natural bodies of water. Cambrian Wildwood will allow wetland to regenerate on our land, a habitat that is historically, biologically and spiritually enriching.