LARGE areas of Gower are becoming increasingly susceptible to wildfires because the land is not being managed properly, according to a long-serving commoner.
Robert Griffiths said commoners should be allowed more flexibility to carry out controlled burns to remove dead scrub and vegetation from the thousands of acres of heathland in the peninsula’s 17 commons.
These commons in Gower cover nearly half its area and, like the rest of South Wales, could do with a drop of rain at present.
So has it been unusually dry this year?
According to the Met Office, just under 21 inches of rain has fallen in what it refers to as Glamorganshire from January 1 to May 19.
Given that the long-term average annual rainfall in Glamorganshire is 62 inches, we really are due some rainfall.
May has been particularly parched, with just over one inch of rain until May 19.
It is a similar picture in West Wales, with the area referred to as Cardiganshire seeing 20 inches of rain.
Denbighshire in North Wales has only had 17 inches of rain, but its annual rainfall average is 45 inches – lower than Cardiganshire and Glamorganshire.
Last year will be remembered by many for the long summer heat wave, but the Met Office said Wales as a whole had 57 inches of rain in 2018, which was 99% of the annual average.
Mr Griffiths said: “Homes on the periphery of commons are in danger where there is a mass of fire load.”
Houses on the southern flank of Fairwood Common, he claimed, “have not got a hope in hell” if a serious blaze took hold.
Mr Griffiths was dismayed by a spree of uncontrolled, illegal fires which incinerated parts of common land over Easter, and agrees with the suggestion that dry spells of weather seem to be becoming more prolonged.
The 72-year-old has also called on visitors to Gower to act responsibly.
Common land in Gower has been managed for centuries by commoners and farmers, whose livestock help keep vegetation down and create conditions for diverse wildlife.
But, like other areas in the UK, changing economics of farming and restrictions in livestock movements due to bovine tuberculosis (TB) has led to under-grazing.
Mr Griffiths, secretary of the Cefn Bryn Commoners and treasurer of the Gower Commons Association, said: “We are the conservationists. It’s a balance that we are looking for.”
At more than 2,000 acres, Cefn Bryn Common is Gower’s largest – and the first to be awarded special site of scientific interest (SSSI) status.
“What made it an SSSI?” said Mr Griffiths “The graziers. The way we managed the commons. It was the jewel in the crown. Now it’s a disaster.”
He said controlled burns used to take place in the October to March burning season prior to 2008, when he said environment body Natural Resources Wales (NRW) stopped them for 10 years.
Mr Griffiths said bracken, gorse and western gorse – which he likened to a blanket – began to spread, creating a greater fire load.
He said NRW agreed a five-year burning plan in 2018, but only for pre-selected areas on the common – and a smaller total area than pre-2008.
But it was, he conceded, better than nothing.
When the Cefn Bryn Commoners were part of a particular Wales-wide agri-environmental scheme, a contractor was hired to cut dead vegetation and scrub, but Mr Griffiths said it was an expensive process.
Another issue at Cefn Bryn, he said, was the number of grazing animals that were killed by motorists.
He claimed that the latest agri-environmental scheme operating in Wales rewarded farmers and graziers for keeping cattle off the common.
And, in his view, there seemed to be inconsistency in NRW priorities and a lack of emphasis on agriculture.
“The commons are dying because of a lack of grants and because of restrictions,” said Mr Griffiths, who lives near Cilibion, Gower.
“Cefn Bryn Common is covered in ticks. The skylarks, curlews and hares have gone.”
The numbers of graziers was down, he said, with fewer and fewer livestock turned out to graze.
“When more stock was out on the commons, they were teeming with grass,” he said.
Mr Griffiths said commoners did not own the land, but were responsible for the top six inches of the ground.
He urged people not to leave litter on Cefn Bryn Common, especially barbecues or broken glass.
“We want the countryside to be a litter-free zone and for people to be proud of their heritage,” said the former headteacher.
He added: “The roads on the common are part of the common. The animals don’t know the highway code – I hope motorists do.”
NRW described Cefn Bryn Common as an excellent example of a lowland heath, with a diversity of habitats and species such as the southern damselfly – now extremely rare in Wales.
Asked if NRW felt the fire load was reaching a dangerous level, a spokeswoman said: “We are aware that the vegetation/fire load on certain parts of Cefn Bryn is building up due to a reduction in grazing or other management.
“The situation is similar and sometimes more pronounced on other commons in Swansea, such as Fairwood.”
NRW said the commons on Gower provided many benefits: grazing and recreational areas, an important part of Wales’ protected landscape, and land which could sequester carbon.
It said it was concerned at their deterioration, and was determined to try to reverse the decline.
Burning needed to be managed carefully, it said, and actively grazed afterwards to avoid the accelerated return of scrub.
NRW said it has convened a group called the Gower Commons Initiative – comprising Mid and West Wales Fire Service , landowners, Swansea Council, commoners and conservation groups – and that an updated management plan was in the pipeline.
NRW team leader Hamish Osborn said: “Burns are part of the armoury. But some habitats, like marshy grassland, are not suitable.”
Burns that went too deep, he said, risked damaging peat and worsening the soil’s fertility.
“Some (commons) have suffered so badly because of burns that they’ve lost their conservation value,” said Mr Osborn.
“There is a happy medium to be struck.”
He added that cattle promoted biodiversity better than sheep because they didn’t graze too close to the soil and were more effective in trampling bracken and gorse.
Going back in time, he said the landscape was shaped by aurochs – the predecessors of cattle – rather than sheep, which arrived on our shores from the Middle East.
Mr Osborn said he would like to see more cattle munching away.
“The commons are very important to Gower,” he said. “Everyone wants to see them succeed.”
Emma Douglas is part of a small club which grazes three steers – castrated young male cattle – on land in Bishopston.
The land is leased by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales.
“It’s very exciting,” said Miss Douglas, of Penmaen. “It’s a solution for that land.”
She said cattle also helped tread seeds into the ground, and that their dung provided food for insects and, in turn, birds.
Miss Douglas said bovine TB, which cattle could have for years without showing symptoms, and the resulting movement restrictions were hugely problematic.
“It’s multi-faceted, and so difficult to manage,” she said. “Farmers are reluctant to send cattle out to graze.
“The loss of grazing on the commons is absolutely catastrophic. Once you’ve lost it (the habitat), it’s incredibly hard to get it back. It’s really important to find all the tools we can.”
Miss Douglas – a project officer for a not-for-profit grazing organisation called Pont – said a public cow-share scheme was now being considered for Fairwood Common, but she didn’t want to go into further details at this stage.
She said the commoners and the fire service wanted to get on top of the fire risk present.
“We’ve had a really bad experience this year at Fairwood,” she said.
The National Trust owns or part-owns nine of Gower’s commons.
Alan Kearsley-Evans, the trust’s countryside manager for Gower, said it was keen to continue working with the commoners and NRW.
His preference for managing commons was grazing cattle, but he echoed the challenges expressed by Miss Douglas and others.
“It’s not particularly straightfoward,” he said. “To make a difference you are talking about hundreds of cattle.
“On Rhossili Down, there are hardly any animals – Welshmoor is one of the last with a decent-sized herd.
“If you could get a way around bovine TB, the problem would be solved.”
Mr Kearsley-Evans also said cutting vegetation was time-consuming and expensive.
“You can’t expect commoners to cut commons,” he said. “I can see where they are coming from.”
He said said the commons’ heathland was rich in wildlife, and would be hard to recreate if lost.
“I think people assume they (commons) just look like that,” he said.
“But it’s a landscape managed by commoners and farmers. What we have, we’ve got got to hold onto.”