In March 2020, Wales was plunged into its first lockdown as part of the Welsh Government’s approach to tackling the ever-concerning COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented decision changed the lives of everyone in Wales overnight as the public was asked to stay at home—leaving only for essential trips such as shopping and exercise.
As a result, parts of the National Park were closed to the public for the first time since its designation, leaving its landscape and wildlife practically undisturbed.
Wildlife in Lockdown Survey
In 2020, Natural Resources Wales, Snowdonia National Park Authority and the National Trust commissioned the naturalist, Ben Porter to undertake wildlife surveys looking at the effects on wildlife in north-west Wales during the lockdown.
The report took a handful of sites across north-west Wales into consideration, including:
- Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon)
- Cader Idris
- Carneddau and Cwm Idwal
- Lowland areas of Coed y Brenin
- Ceunant Llennyrch
- Llanddwyn (Newborough)
The survey was conducted in two parts—an initial assessment in June 2020 and a further assessment during the busy tourist season in June 2021.
The original lockdown survey revealed that some bird and plant life responded positively to the reduced disturbance. Levels of littering were also significantly reduced.
The second survey in 2021 found the opposite. Less abundance and diversity of birdlife was recorded, along with more litter and more footpath erosion.
Fewer bird species were recorded after lockdown compared with during lockdown – 65 bird species across the upland sites in 2020, compared to 50 in 2021.
In 2020, many bird species, including Meadow pipits, Wheatears and even Ring Ouzels, were breeding close to the usually popular pathways, especially in upland areas. Unsurprisingly, this was not the case in 2021, with few birds nesting close to paths.
On Ynys Llanddwyn, there was no sign of Ringed Plovers which were recorded nesting on the small beach near Twr Mawr in 2020. A species very sensitive to disturbance, the absence of Ringed Plovers could well be attributed to increased disturbance from visitors during 2021. Similarly, just a single pair of Oystercatchers were seen around Ynys Llanddwyn in 2021, where seven pairs were recorded breeding in 2020 – another difference potentially attributed to a return to high visitor numbers during the breeding season.
There were other factors at play during the survey that likely played a big part in these differences too, especially in the upland areas. There was a stark contrast in the two seasons’ weather conditions, with a very cold spring in 2021 delaying breeding seasons for many bird species in the upland areas, leading to fewer fledgling birds recorded at the time of the survey in 2021.
Nevertheless, the role of increased disturbance from the return of high visitor numbers in some areas is a key factor that has played a part in the differences between 2020 and 2021.
One clear yet disheartening contrast between 2020 and 2021 was the amount of litter and waste recorded. The survey recorded 418 pieces of litter in upland areas in 2021 compared to 93 items in 2020. The worst-affected areas in terms of litter were Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and the Ogwen valley. Newborough was the most impacted lowland site.
The issue of fly camping was observed during the study – a significant problem since the re-opening, post-lockdown, with large numbers of people camping unlawfully around popular sites, often leaving large amounts of litter, waste, and toiletries.
Popular footpaths were showing signs of widening and erosion as visitors returned. For example, the main footpath ascending Y Garn from Twll Du (Cwm Idwal) is in danger of widening further and impacting the sensitive communities of Dwarf Willow. In Ceunant Llennyrch and on the Watkin Path to Yr Wyddfa, footpaths are impacting on important communities of ferns and mosses in some areas.
Using the survey findings
Reflecting on the surveys, Ben Porter said: “Whilst we know that longer-term data are needed for more reliable comparisons to the exceptional period of 2020 lockdown, there are clear signs here about our impact on the natural world.”
Whilst just a snapshot, some interesting observations can be considered to manage tourism sustainably as part of Wales’ green recovery from the pandemic. It shows we all have a role to play in helping to tackle the Nature Emergency.