“ RSPB Nature reserve on the Isle of Anglesey „
The Isle of Anglesey is an island of contrasts. Rugged coastlines, extensive marshes, huge wetlands, and vast expanses of woodland, give a real air of wildness and remoteness. Yet, due to the island's small size, one is never too far away from civilisation.
Few places on the island show this contrast better than the RSPB reserve at Valley Wetlands. Finding the reserve is easy: leave the A55 at Junction 4, head through the village of Llanfihangel yn Nhywyn and within a couple of minutes, a small RSPB sign on the right hand side of the road shows the way to the car park.
At this point, visitors may be wondering what they've let themselves in for. The reserve is on the very edge of the village, yards away from shops, houses, and businesses. A less likely place for a nature reserve seems hard to imagine. It's worth carrying on, however, and visiting the reserve, as Valley Wetlands holds some real surprises.
Once through the trees at the rear of the car park, walkers enter what seems like another world. The landscape at Valley Wetlands is incredibly varied, but always rugged, wild looking, yet starkly beautiful. The site is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its unspoilt nature and rare plant life. Once on the reserve, few signs of civilisation remain and the sounds of human activity fade into the distance as natural sounds take over.
The RSPB have adapted the site for visitors with real sensitivity; minimum amount of disturbance to the trails, few bridges, and no hides or benches means that this site appears almost as it would have done during its creation thousands of years ago.
One problem with this approach is that the unimproved paths are often soggy and even waterlogged (well, it is a wetland!). Strong, waterproof boots or even wellies are recommended to avoid soaked feet. Another problem is that this site has very poor accessibility for the disabled.
This is a large reserve, but the geography of the site, with its tall vegetation, limestone outcrops and small hillocks, means that visibility is often only fifty yards or so: the visitor is always rounding a corner to find something new to look at. Due to its size, and the winding nature of the paths, it is possible to start to wonder if one is lost, just before relief hits after spotting a familiar landmark.
Valley Wetlands is dominated by two large lakes, Llyn Penrhyn and Llyn Dinam. These are clean and pure, and fringed with reeds and rushes. Several high vantage points allow a view down onto the lakes, whilst the paths take the visitor right into the reeds that border the shores.
The reserve has a wild beauty that belies its village location. The ground is covered with lush green wetland plant species. Isolated stands of gorse are dotted around the reserve give a dazzling yellow display through most months of the year. In spring and summer, however, the reserve comes into its own. This is a haven for wetland wildflowers, some of the rarest and most beautiful in the UK. Greater spearwort, water avens, eight stamened waterwort, common spotted orchid, and flowering rush are all found here. These flowers are less showy than cultivated varieties, but to my eyes, their natural, delicate beauty is superior to artificial blooms. Visitors interested in this natural beauty will come across new delights almost every minute of the walk.
As well as the beautiful plant life, Valley Wetlands is home to a diverse range of birds and animals. Water voles thrive here and otters, too. A visit in summer will be a noisy affair - due to the birds. The resident ducks (pochard, gadwall, and shoveler), squabble on the lakes as they settle down to breed. The visiting warblers, as their name suggests, fill the air with wonderful birdsong. Rarest of the warblers is the Cetti's warbler, this reserve is one of only a few places in Wales that they breed. Commoner are the reed, sedge, and willow warblers who will be singing their hearts out trying to guard a territory and attract a mate. Butterflies and dragonflies find this wetland to their liking, too. On a nice day in summer, the air around the lakes is full of these colourful insects.
Outside of the summer months, the bird life at Valley Wetlands becomes even more interesting. Bitterns, marsh harriers, and water rails all spend the winter here, with the reserve offering a good chance of seeing these elusive, rare creatures. Thousands of ducks spend the winter here too: the lakes can appear full to bursting with many different species of wildfowl that find the mild Anglesey climate much preferable to their northerly breeding grounds.
The trails cover over two miles, snaking through the reserve, and allowing visits to all of the diverse habitats that Valley Wetlands has to offer. This is not a well visited reserve and an early morning walker could have the whole reserve to him or herself. This time in the morning, much of the wildlife is still waking up, unexpectant of human disturbance, giving the chance of a wonderful encounter. Passing over a stream connecting two ponds may disturb a shoal of large roach, peacefully feeding in the shallows. Herons may be fishing in the shallows; flying up with an indignant call as they spot the intruding person, or a buzzard may be relaxing in a bush only to panic and fly off once it realises that it is not alone. Busier places have less chance of such encounters simply because the wildlife is already wary and remote.
This is a peaceful and tranquil place to spend time and a great place to walk and relax. That is, of course, as long as one visits of a weekend. The south of the reserve borders RAF Valley: the training ground for air force pilots. During the week, regular flights of the BAE Hawks drown out the natural sounds of the reserve as these powerful jets take off and land only yards away. This can be disturbing, but I found it exhilarating. One of the reserve hills gives a superb view over the runway. I got even better views and photographs than observers stood next to the airfield fence.
Valley Wetlands is a great place to visit at any time of the year. Free to enter, and as long as the visitor is prepared for the wet trails, a visit here can be a great way to 'get away from it all' whilst being only a few yards from the rest of humanity. The lack of facilities on the site (there are no toilets, for example) is not such an issue since the town of Holyhead is only a couple of miles away. Lovers of natural scenery and wildlife should put Valley Wetlands on their itinerary for any trip to Anglesey.