by Maheen Iqbal
Photo credit: Hamish McKenzie & Maheen Iqbal
Two weeks after our exploration of the Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire, we were on our way to another eco-adventure. This time to Dale, in the Southwest of Wales, famous for being the sunniest place in Wales – emphasis on Wales. To be fair, we saw both sides of the weather stereotypes so I’m not complaining.
We were hosted by Dale Fort Field Center; a spectacular location on a small peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic ocean, from which if you were to walk straight on over the water the next land base you’d encounter would be South America. The historical setting was rather romantic for the historians amongst us as Dale Fort was built in 1856 in an attempt to deter the forces of Napoleon III from invading the west coast of Britain.
The roads get so narrow approaching the Field Center that our coach had to drop us off at the bottom of the hill, and so we approached the Fort by foot surrounded by the waters of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. But there was a glaring contradiction of this protected marine area right on the horizon: the Prembrokeshire Power Plant.
The Prembrokeshire Power Plant epitomizes the clash between infrastructural development and natural ecosystems that are disrupted by it. It isn’t just the unnatural sight of a power plant in a Nature Reserve that is problematic but the ships that cross the waters to bring in the gas from Qatar to the UK. Given that it provides 20% of the total gas supply to Britain, one can understand its importance to energy supply and the economy but what often gets disregarded is the environmental hazard it can create such as the oil spill in February 1996 from a vessel that was passing the marine reserve.
The spill was so widespread and mismanaged that the government tried to keep it away from public knowledge but a photographer captured it and sold the image to the media for 500,000 pounds, which easily took care of his 20,000 pounds fine. We learned that exposed shores self-clean, with the sheltered one taking 5-6 years to clean up itself, and the salt marshland takes about 15 years to return to a normal state.
By now the ecosystem in Dale has returned to good health, which we explored over the course of two days. Our first coastal walk was along open, hilly fields – a daring task at dusk time. We were told about the sheer power of the tides along the exposed beach, which had previously ripped apart the footbridge we crossed and had swung it across a kilometer or more of the low tide plain we stood on. The tides in the area are the second highest in the world – second only to the Bay of Fundi in Canada – rising as high as 5 or 8 meters.
The next morning we were busy playing field consultants, with a marine scoping project designed to help us decide where we would insert a power cable in this protected marine area. As we climbed down to the sheltered beach with rock pools full of diverse species, we started to get a glimpse of the biodiversity richness of the area. We studied some fascinating marine species including limpets, top shells, anemones, dog whelps and barnacles.
Mue, studying a rockpool
This landscape was juxtaposed to the salty marshland we visited on the other side of Dale. There the beach was open and flat, muddy and brackish, carrying a diversity of microscopic specimens and worms hiding under the mud that are a target of commercial bait catch. This was an issue that we widely discussed since the voluntary code has done little to prevent the over-digging of the marshlands for bait, which compromises the integrity of the soil, and flushes out many of the vulnerable specimen into the powerful ocean. The marshland itself is a rare landscape.
With those perspectives in mind, we revisited the exposed shore as our third potential site for the power cable. But here the problem was the force of the tides and a rich diversity of rock pools that would be hard to maintain during the construction phase.
And so we concluded that the sheltered beach would be the ideal location for a power cable as it was a robust site with the habitat being used to adapting and recovering from harsh conditions and disturbances.
The process of coming to this conclusion was a fun experience, especially since the sun decided to come out and make our fieldwork even more pleasant. The direct interaction with nature is valuable because it makes you internalize its importance and sheer beauty.
The following morning we visited Skomer Island to seal watch, with winds going up to 56 kph! In the gusty winds and horizontal rain, we managed to see seal mums come out of the water to ensure the safety of their pups but we couldn’t stay for long as we had to make our way back to Oxford, with fond memories of 7 hours of consecutive lectures and singing songs into the night.