Businessman Must Restore Important Conservation Area
Businessman Andrew Thomas of Blaenpant Farm, Maesybont, constructed a road across his land without applying for planning permission. He has now applied for permission retrospectively (E/32817), and the application form states that the road is not on a designated site or important habitat, or close to features of geological conservation importance.
Contrary to these statements, the road crosses a 35-acre field in a protected area of European importance, which is supposed to be subject to the highest levels of protection. Special Areas of Conservation, a result of the European Union’s Habitats Directive, adopted in May 1992, protect 220 endangered habitats and about 1,000 plant and animal species across the continent.
The protected area which includes Blaenpant is the Special Area of Conservation (SAC) Cernydd Carmel, one of just over 650 such areas in the whole of the United Kingdom. The SAC extends along a west-to-east limestone band, from north of Llyn Llech Owain near Gorslas towards Llandybie.
Cernydd Carmel SAC is notable[i] for active raised bogs covering a total of 36 acres, ‘Tilio-Acerion’[ii] forests of slopes, screes and ravines (109 acres), north Atlantic wet heaths with Erica tetralix (32 acres), European dry heaths (28 acres) and caves (9 acres). Even more unusual is a turlough, a seasonal lake on limestone, the only one in Britain. The turlough, at Pantyllyn, is some 175 yards long, 55 yards wide and up to 10 feet deep. Typically it is present in winter and absent in summer.
The planning application E/32817 denies its location in the SAC, but a document accompanying the application states on the title page ‘Restoration Plan for land at Blaenpant, Maesybont, Carmarthenshire – Part of Cernydd Carmel SAC’!
This document has been prepared by Amber Environmental Consultancy of Pennard, Gower, for Mr Thomas’s agents JCR Planning. The summary says:
“A Restoration Plan has been requested by Natural Resources Wales in order to put in place a mechanism to restore the priority features of Cernydd Carmel SAC/SSSI[iii] which had been lost to agricultural improvements.
“This report sets out management actions to be undertaken in order to allow the restoration of vegetation and habitats previously found on the site, and a monitoring plan which will track progress and allow for adjustments to the management regime.”
The words ‘agricultural improvements’ are perhaps a kind way to say ‘unauthorised changes’.
Mr Thomas arrived at Blaenpant in 2001. Before that, in the mid-1990s, the habitats were mapped. The main vegetation types on the land crossed by the new road were wet heath, dry heath, and others including dense scrub, bracken and improved grassland. By 2015, ‘improved’ grassland was all that was left, apart from a small number of wet flushes.
The report is critical of the changes which have badly damaged the SAC. Accepting that a precursor of Natural Resources Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales, had allowed some scrub removal, the document says:
“…..with long term high density grazing and other agricultural activities, many of the features on the site that contributed towards designation as SSSI and therefore SAC have been lost. Stone has also been extracted on the site and some of the land reprofiled, which may have altered the hydrology of the site. A track has been upgraded and extended[iv] through the site using imported crushed waste which may have altered the pH levels of the surrounding soil.”
All without permission.
Natural Resources Wales is insisting on a land restoration plan over the next ten years, with progress to be monitored three times a year in April, July and September. The scheme has been agreed in principle with the planning authority — Carmarthenshire County Council — and with Mr Thomas, and aims to restore both wet and dry heaths, and natural grassland species.
The plan imposes strict limitations. They include a ban on vehicles leaving the new road[v] through the site, a reduction in the number of grazing livestock to a maximum of 10 horses, or an equivalent number of cattle, and then only between March 1st and August 31st, and freedom of access at any time for staff of Natural Resources Wales and Carmarthenshire County Council to monitor stock numbers and the progress of the land restoration plan. Any departure from a long list of requirements must be agreed in writing, in advance, with the two monitoring authorities.
Early in October 2015 – more than a month after the end of August — the number of horses grazing on the field seemed to total many more than ten, so it appears that Mr Thomas is not starting the restoration work until the law forces him to do so.
The amount of land restitution demanded by Natural Resources Wales, and the expected time span of ten years, does raise the issue of why the authorities allowed so much damage to be done to a conservation area of European significance.
Could it be that, among the people who flagged up concerns about damage to protected habitats, were Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts, whose cottage is surrounded by Blaenpant land, and whom Carmarthenshire County Council tried to ignore by branding them as persistent complainants?
[i] Information from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
[ii] Tilio-Acerion forest includes ash, wych elm and lime trees, with ground level vegetation of ferns, ramsons, dog’s mercury, enchanter’s nightshade and more.
[iii] SSSI – Site of Special Scientific Interest.
[iv] The new road does not follow the line of an existing right of way, but is approximately at right angles to it.
[v] This ban on vehicles leaving it does rather give the impression that the new road is expected to receive retrospective planning permission.