I visited two very different commons in Bridgend borough this week, at the request of staff from the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) who wanted to show me, and get my thoughts on, what was happening there.
Kenfig Common lies on the coast between Porthcawl and Port Talbot. It is part of a huge dune system which once stretched along the coast from the River Ogmore to the Gower peninsula. Kenfig and Merthyr Mawr are the largest remaining areas and are well designated – as national nature reserve, site of special scientific interest and special area for conservation. Kenfig Pool, with its amazingly clear water, is an important feature of the reserve – for wildlife and people. It boasts a bittern, due back any time now.
Kenfig Common is owned by the Kenfig Corporation Trust which fought a long and bitter battle against the Margam Estate, culminating in the high court in 1971, to establish ownership. The site is managed by Bridgend County Borough Council on behalf of CCW; it provides the visitor centre and two wardens.
I went round the site with the warden Dave Carrington, and Scott Hand and Nick Sharp from CCW. They want to graze the site because the dunes are disappearing under scrub; there is very little bare sand left.
To get things going CCW sent in a JCB earlier this year to remove the vegetation on one part of the reserve and loosen the sand so that it will blow into dunes. Now it needs to be grazed to keep it that way. So we talked about how to achieve this over the whole site.
The new Wales Coast Path runs along the west side of the reserve, using the old haul road built in the 1950s to take limestone from Cornelly to the Margam steelworks. At the northern end a fine new footbridge has been built over the River Kenfig, leading to the Tata steelworks.
You can climb onto the footbridge but then can go no further, the gate is padlocked pending an access agreement to take the path over Tata land.
This is dependent on a path diversion which the Open Spaces Society, Save Morfa Beach and others are opposing because it will take the path away from the beach. It could be some time before this is resolved and meanwhile there is an alternative, permissive route for the coastal path.
Unfortunately Bridgend is planning to reduce the opening hours of the visitor centre – only five years after the refurbished centre was opened in a blaze of publicity by Iolo Williams, broadcaster and naturalist.
It clearly serves a valuable educational function and it would be tragic if it were no longer to do so.
The second, very different, common was Blackmill Woodlands, which is in two blocks on either side of the Afon Ogwr Valley, four miles north of Bridgend. This is sessile oakwood (Quercus petraea), where commoners have exercised their rights since the middle ages, in particular lopping branches off the trees. Now they have a strangely gnarled, Tolkein-like appearance.
The wood on the eastern side, Alt y Rhiw, has been fenced for the last ten years so it is no longer grazed, the Coity Wallia commoners having co-operated. The ground flora consists largely of bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and where the light gets in, new oaks can regenerate without being eaten.
On the other side, Craig Tal-y-Fan, the Llangeinor commoners have not removed their sheep, and there is little if any regeneration. The ground flora is largely bracken.
The future of this part of the common depends on reaching agreement with the commoners on the grazing regime. Will this ever happen?
With CCW to be engulfed into the new single environment body (still unnamed) from 1 April next year, along with the much larger Environment Agency and Forestry Commission, the future of common land in Wales faces some uncertainty. Commons make up one-eighth of the land area of Wales and it is vital that they feature strongly in the work of the new agency, given their importance for the landscape, nature conservation and public enjoyment of Wales.