In my garden I have a beautiful, old oak tree. I have rescued more than one of my cats from it over the years and it is the daily look out post for numerous crows, jackdaws and starlings. I suppose that technically we ‘own’ the tree but that seems ridiculous, I feel a great sense of responsibility towards it and all the life that it supports and I’ve been on tenterhooks in this stormy weather in case it gets damaged or loses a branch over our neighbour’s fence or onto a car parked under it on the roadside near our hedge.
I am not worried about it falling over though. The root system must be huge and it has stood solid through many storms over the years but none so wild as these past couple of weeks. I like to think that it plays an important role in our community – it could be consuming anything upwards of 50 gallons of water a day. I’ve struggled to find accurate figures and of course the tree’s size and the time of year will have an effect on water consumption, but it is likely that this individual tree could drink a similar volume of water to Carmarthen leisure centre’s swimming pool every three years.
Trees can play a vital role in flood prevention. Man-made flood defences such as flood walls are an essential part of the fight against flooding. Locally to me in Abergwili, the flood gates have been closed and have effectively kept the water out, despite it rising towards the top of the gates. Trees can add value to these man-made defences and are very low maintenance and low cost, as well as providing other environmental, economic and wellbeing benefits. Planting trees can be effective in reducing and slowing runoff on farmland – water infiltration can be 60 times higher within tree shelterbelts than adjoining farmland. Woodland located on flood plains can absorb and delay the flood water before it progresses further downstream.
I went down to my local wildlife watching spot this morning to see how the storms had affected the valley. I’ve stood on that bridge hundreds of times before but I have never seen flooding like this. My son asked me “what about your fox and otter?”. We looked over both sides of the bridge as far as the eye could see and there was hardly a creature in sight. I told him that they would be tucked away somewhere safe. The cormorant that I usually see flew overhead and a small skein of geese honked their way noisily upstream. Some swans were in the distance – probably the whoopers that overwinter here and a large flock of gulls was messily blown about by the wind. The only sounds were the howling wind, and the geese, and a single blue tit in a tree in the car park. When the valley floods, which it does fairly frequently, the acoustics change and the mass of water softens the noises and creates a weird sort of silence that is very different to when the fields are dry and empty.
The Towy valley is a fertile floodplain and has been an important transport route since prehistoric times. Archaeological excavations have discovered that the route of the river has been fairly stable since Bronze age times and there are three round barrows from that time near White Mill as well as several hill forts along the valley. The river, which is the longest river entirely in Wales, has some fine examples of oxbow lakes like the Bishop’s Pond in Carmarthen that is a now a nature reserve and there are a range of fluvial features including numerous meander loops, abandoned channels, terraces and gravel bars – you could deliver a whole geography lesson on rivers looking out from Paxton’s Tower! The route is still important for transport but of course it now uses the A40, which more or less follows the old Roman road that went from Llandovery to Carmarthen. This Roman history is seen in the forts at Llandovery, Llandeilo and Carmarthen and there is a wealth of history nearby at Dolaucothi where I had my first job in Wales as a tour guide at the gold mines. Later on, the famous castles at Dinefwr and Dryslywn were built and these command prominent positions high up above the flood plains.
The geology of the Towy valley and the fertile alluvial deposits have created wonderful silty and loamy soils that have fed rich pastures for sheep and dairy cattle to graze on. The valley is also home to a diverse range of wildlife and thousands of waterfowl overwinter here each year, many of which also enjoy the lush meadows. In the 1970s and 80s, the Siberian white fronted goose was a regular visitor, with the Tywi near Dryslwyn being one of the top three British overwintering sites with over 10% of the population staying here. Sadly I have never seen one since starting to record birds from the castle carpark and bridge in the late 90’s. I do regularly see Canada geese, Greylags and an occasional escapee like the pair of bar headed geese or the snow goose that had tagged along to the Canada geese one winter.
Looking back through my photos this afternoon of the floods today and in past years, I can see how they are becoming more extreme and not just part of the valley’s historic cycle of floods that have taken place annually for centuries. The climate crisis is often talked about and I have little to add to others’ voices. I feel worried for the future of all nature and wildlife, including humans; and arguments about what has caused the crisis or whether it is really happening or not are irrelevant in some ways.
I look up at our oak tree and think about what it has lived through. I estimate it is nearly 200 years old – I’ve hugged it – not out of some sort of hippie or druid fantasy, but to tell its age. If an adult with an average arm span can reach round an oak tree, its about 75 years old. It is certainly on the OS maps of the village from the mid 1800s. This spring I am going to count the number of species that depend on this tree – everything from the tawny owl that hoots from its high branches on a full moon to the tree creepers that nest in the ivy and all the tiny insects. I can do little about the state of the world but I can remind people that humans depend on trees too and in these days of fierce storms and floods and overpopulation and the need for somewhere for everyone to live, lets make sure we get some trees planted too. Not just for the environmental benefits but because they are so important for our whole wellbeing.