The delicate balance between conservation and tourism in the Brecon Beacons

December 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Brecon Beacons is branded as ‘one of Britain’s breathing spaces’. As the Park Authority releases its new plan to promote the sustainable management of resources over the next 20 years, The Girl Outdoors looks at how the Park, which relies on visitors for much of its income, keeps a good balance between conservation and consumerism.

The Brecon Beacons in an iconic landscape – mountainous without being barren, rich and varied, accessible and beautiful. It is a jewel in Wales’ crown – The Visit Wales Visitor Survey of 2006 listed it as a key reason visitors travel to the country. But how is the Park accommodate these visitors whilst working towards a sustainable future?

Chief Executive, John Cook, says “We can and must plan for the long term when it comes to conserving and protecting the wider National Park environment. With this new Management Plan in place, we are setting new standards while supporting sustainable innovative development and renewable energy potential,”.

Nick Stewart, Sustainable Tourism Officer

Nick Stewart, Sustainable Tourism Officer for the National Park, has a clear aim – to achieve a healthy balance between conservation and tourism. Not an easy task, especially when you consider that annually, the Park is visited by 3.8 million people, who spend £130 million in the local community over a total of 4.2 million days. That’s a lot of people walking the same footpaths, parking in the same car parks and frequenting the same little villages.

“Parks have two statutory duties. One is to conserve and enhance the landscape, the second is to enable enjoyment and understanding of the park’s special qualities. These are underpinned by a duty to look after the social and economic wellbeing of communities in and around the Park. As an authority, we have to balance those three elements,” says Nick.


Financially, the local community relies heavily on visitors. STEAM figures indicate that tourism is worth £4000 a year to everyone who lives in the Park, and it is true that it has many benefits, including helping to maintain and create jobs, stimulating investment and sustaining services and facilities.

For this reason, the National Park Authority works to ensure that tourism brings as many positive aspects to the community as possible, whilst managing the impact of visitors.

A big part of Nick’s job is working on green tourist business schemes such as Collabor8, a project that works to develop and support sustainable green businesses. Local people are being encouraged to help make the Brecon Beacons a better place for people to visit and live in by developing new products and services and achieving a green-grading which guarantees they are environmentally responsible.

a balance is needed between visitors and park protection

Nick’s aim is to help businesses achieve a green award and then employ this as a marketing tool, using their new green credentials to attract eco-conscious visitors. 21 businesses in the area are now graded by the green tourism scheme, on factors such as use of local food, waste management, energy and fair trade purchasing.


The Park must also consider what major factors are impacting on the environment, and take action to control them. One plan being put in place is to monitor 15 different sustainable tourism indicators year on year to see if the park is having a negative impact on, for example, footpaths or ecologically sensitive areas.

An example of an area the Park keeps an eye on are the stunning waterfalls at Ystradfellte, ecologically at risk, but also very popular with gorge walkers. The nature of gorge walking is potentially conflictive with ecological priorities, but now the Park has created a gorge-walking code of conduct. Nick says the code “has been received very positively by visitors, who realise that the Beacons’ unspoilt environment is the reason people come in the first place, and thus needs protecting,”

Another major problem is traffic. 90% of visitors to the Park come by car, and equally, 90% of the environmental impact of tourism on the area stems from travel. Listen to Nick discuss how the Park combats traffic problems here:

So how to locals feel about visitors descending on the beautiful place in which they live?

James Gerard, who lives in Ystradfellte, says “The Authority does a good job, and it’s rare that we feel like there are too many tourists in the area. In winter you can walk for miles without seeing anyone. You do get the occasional lout dropping litter, but most visitors are dedicated walkers who are serious about protecting such a special place,”

The current sustainability plan states that by 2020 the area will be an exemplar of sustainable tourism development in protected areas, building on a strong sense of place, the natural and cultural heritage of the Brecon Beacons, and a reputation for quality.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Park can continue keeping the delicate balance between people and nature right, but for now, it looks as if the Park Authority is taking the great responsibility it has to protect one of the UK’s most beautiful areas seriously.


Have your say on future development in the National Park
Read about local businesses winning gold awards for tourism
Find out more about sustainable tourism indicators

The Girl Outdoors asked Facebook if they had visited the Brecon Beacons, and how busy they had found it. Here’s what they said.


LOCATION GUIDE: Brecon Beacons – Walking with waterfalls

December 16, 2010 § 2 Comments

The first in a series of posts on the beautiful Brecon Beacons, here’s Countryfile’s fantastic guide to the stunning waterfalls at Ystradfellte. My friends and I walked them all last month – a perfect Sunday trek through mossy woods and past indifferent sheep. We only saw four or five other walkers during the day. Take waterproofs if you want to walk directly under the falls (an amazing experience!).

START Park at the lay-by near to Clyn Gwyn Bunkhouse and walk down a bridleway. Turn right (signed waterfall walk) and follow a wide path. After 500m turn right to a viewing platform over the impressive Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn. Retrace your steps then turn right and walk through woodlands until you see the Sywd Clun Gwyn. Continue on the high path then turn right to the falls. If the water level is low you can explore the moss-covered rocks and even clamber down to the shelf to watch the water cascade into the valley.

Back on the path, take the peaceful route alongside the river. Cross a wooden bridge by a pebbled bank and turn right onto a rocky path. Keep right and walk along the ancient riverbed, evidence of the river’s course before it cut further into the limestone. Follow the path right to a viewpoint overlooking Sgwd Clun Gwyn.

1 MILE Walk left on a narrow path that weaves over tree roots. Be careful of your step and keep an eye on children near the edge. Descend with the path down to the river, bearing right to look at Sgwd Isaf Clun Gwyn, a long curved waterfall dripping with mosses.

Pick your way carefully downstream to a deep pool and a peaceful spot beneath a three-tiered fall that makes for a beautifully composed photo. Amble further downstream to Sgwd y Pannwr as the river turns sharply and tumbles into a deep pool surrounded by overhanging trees.

1.5 MILES Turn back on yourself and take the path right, then turn off immediately right to follow an unclear rocky path. Take a left steeply uphill and climb out of the valley, then follow the path right. Bear left through lush woodland and dappled sunlight. Turn right and head steeply downhill to a grassy bank, then turn left and follow the river to a two-tiered waterfall in a delightfully peaceful spot.

Head back the way you came and rejoin the path, turning right. When the path drops down to the riverside you can walk alongside the river to Wales’ best-known waterfall, Sgwd yr Eira. Until recently you could walk behind the falls but the path is now closed due to unstable rocks.

2 MILES Turn back and walk up steps. Turn left then take the top route and continue above the tree line. Carry straight on at a junction, then stick to the upper path, bearing right, and turn right to return to the viewing platform at Sgwd Clun Gwyn. Walk uphill, turn left at the top and follow the path back to the bridge.

Carry straight on alongside the river bank until you reach Cwm Porth, an eco-friendly information centre, with picnic and toilet facilities. Walk down from the car park to explore Porth Yr Ogof, one of the largest cave entrances in Wales. At 20m wide and 3m high you can safely explore the opening of the cave (don’t forget your torch). Look out for calcite streaks on the back wall that resemble a white horse, giving the cave its name.

4 MILES Walk back to Cwm Porth, cross the road and retrace your steps. For an interesting detour, turn right through a gate, signed Access for Cavers, and walk over the ancient water-worn riverbed to the resurgence pool where the River Mellte gushes out from its underwater course.

Back on the path, turn right then left to rejoin the main path. Cross the bridge and follow the path back to the bunkhouse car park.


Terrain: Steep and rocky paths, challenging in places with some scrambles, steps or tree routes to negotiate. Extreme care should be taken when exploring the opening of Porth yr Ogof. Many people have drowned in these caves and further exploration should only be attempted by well-equipped experienced cavers or under the close supervision of a qualified instructor with excellent local knowledge.
Car: Leave the M4 at J32 and take the A470 for 14 miles towards Merthyr Tydfil, then the A465 towards Neath and take the exit for A4109 (signed for caves) to Pontneddfechan. Head north on the B4242 to Ystradfellte and the bunkhouse and car park is on this road.
Public Transport: Aberdare is served by direct trains from Cardiff.

Westonbirt Arboretum – Native English Trees

December 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

Westonbirt, by Mark Bolton

Absolutely beautiful video of the Westonbirt Arboretum by The Guardian featuring my hero Alys Fowler that makes me desperate for a walk! A fantastic guide to spotting trees native to the United Kingdom.

Native Trees

HOW TO: Make an awesome igloo

December 12, 2010 § 1 Comment

The snow is abating round these parts, but if you are up north or dreaming of the next snow day I suggest you take my crash course in igloo-building.

Igloo in Banff Lake, Canada

Igloo in Banff Lake, Canada

1. Find a large, rectangular plastic box suitable for making bricks.

2. Clear a flat space in the snow on the ground and mark out a circle shape, trying to keep it as perfectly round as possible.

3. Make snow blocks by tightly pack snow into your box. Sprinkle a little water on the snow to make it easier to pack it together tightly. Hold the mould and tap the top or sides of it sharply to release the snow block.

4. Form a row of the large blocks around your circle. Make the joints smooth and even. If necessary, force loose snow in to fill up the cracks and crevices as the igloo is built.

5. Form a second layer of the large blocks on top of the first, laying each block above of the joint of the ones underneath, thus staggering the blocks.

6. Stack additional layers on top, each time moving the bricks in slightly so that the walls will dome inward. The first course of the snow blocks should be thicker than the others, and the thickness of the walls gradually decreases toward the top.

7. Cut a cap brick that is close in size, but definitely larger than the hole on top of your igloo.

8. Two people should lift the brick up and set it on top of the igloo.

9. One person should get inside the igloo and trim the cap as needed until it fits snugly into the hole.

10. Fill in the cracks and holes with snow and pack it in as tightly as possible. Smooth out the inner dome walls as much as possible and carve longitudinal grooves inside to allow the melting snow to flow outside without dripping on you.

11. Dig down to make an entrance to the igloo. If you build it on a gentle slope, then the entrance hole can ramp up slightly into the cave. This will allow the cool air to ‘fall out’ through the entrance and the warmer air to stay inside.

12. Strengthen the structure. Drip water over the top of the igloo at night before going to sleep. This will allow the water to freeze and will make the walls stronger. Poke a small hole near the top, and then light a candle inside the igloo and let it burn. The heat from the candle will partially melt the inside of the igloo, and then it will refreeze into ice, making your igloo stronger.

Now the obligatory safety bit!
-It’s best to attempt this with two people, as snow can be heavy.
-Never build a fire inside, unless it is very small, as it is very dangerous due to smoke inhalation and rapidly melting snow. Body heat and adequate clothing will keep you nice and warm inside without a fire. A candle is safer to use.
-Be careful about the air’s oxygen level as most igloos provide poor ventilation.

Here’s one we attempted earlier (notice we are rubbish and didn’t grade the blocks, therefore making more of a… igwall).
Igloo making

HOW TO: Survive in the wilderness

December 6, 2010 § 1 Comment

You know the deal: the apocalypse has been and gone, the population has been decimated and now you must survive off grubs and the occasional squirrel in the woods. This is when hours watching Ray Mears and endless episodes of Lost pays off big time.

One of my favourite writers, the hilarious Tanya Gold, would not do well left to forage for herself – Bear Grylls she ain’t. Watch this video for The Guardian as a guide on how not to attempt to live off the land (although there is a half-decent explanation of how to skin a pheasant) and also because it is funny in a car crash kind of way.

HOW TO: Survive a snow day

December 1, 2010 § 3 Comments

Things are going well in the land of Girl Outdoors – we just launched a brand new domain name: I have also been asked by the fabulous people over at Webtogs to blog on all matters adventurous – watch out for new posts and gear reviews over the next few months.

And now to the beautiful and relentless icy enveloping the British Isles. The Met Office has issued severe weather warnings across most of the country, and news is pouring in of closed airports, stranded motorists, temperatures as low as -20 in Altnaharra, Scotland, closed schools and worried farmers.

It is, however, hard to be too sad when the world looks like this.

Great Britain covered in Snow

I have devised a 3-step plan to making it through the chill because I don’t want you to get frostbite.

1. Keep up to date.
Find out what parts of the UK have been worst affected with this Guardian guide . The BBC has regularly updated weather news on the ‘chaos’ gripping the island. The Met Office is the most reliable source of weather forecasts and also has articles explaining the science behind the snowflakes. If you must drive, check out the Highways website for closures and car advice. The only websites I’d suggest not relying on are National Rail and other train services – call stations instead for up-to-date information on trains.

2. Wrap up and stay safe After reports last week of ‘Alaskan’ conditions in the Brecon Beacons leading to a helicopter struggling to save a man stranded with hypothermia on a mountain after the mountain rescuer sent out to help him was also injured we’ve put together a guide to surviving the snow.

If you’re like me, then the wintery conditions will make you want to rush out and trek through the snowflakes, but even experienced walkers with shiny all-weather gear can get into difficulties in treacherous weather. Hypothermia and frostbite are real risks that don’t always just affect the inexperienced. Some of this advice may sound a little obvious, but it makes sense to know the risks and the precautions you should take before you set off into a blizzard, or if you need to help someone less prepared than you.

-Wear several layers of clothing, and keep dry to prevent loss of body heat – a fall into cold water is the main cause of hypothermia when outdoors.
-Watch out for symptoms of hypothermia. These include uncontrollable shivering, slurred speech, slow breathing, a weak pulse, memory lapse, drowsiness and loss of feeling in and pale appearance of extremities.
-Keep moving your arms and legs to help the blood circulate. If you notice these symptoms, get inside as soon as possible and replace wet clothing with warm, dry garments. Hot, sweet drinks and energy bars are a good way to get heat back into the body slowly without shocking the system. In severe cases hypothermia can lead to unconsciousness – call for medical aid.
-Never go hiking after drinking alcohol – as well as impairing your judgement, you’ll lose vital body heat a lot faster. Never ignore shivering – it’s a sign that you need to warm up fast.
-If extremities appear frostbitten (white or grey in colour, and numb), a condition which often goes hand in hand with hypothermia, get indoors fast and immerse fingers and toes in warm water. Avoid very hot water, fires or radiators as numb extremities can be burned without the patient noticing. If you’re far from home, body heat such as your armpits work well too.

3. Look the part
If the idea of huge parkas and snowboots fills you with sartorial terror, check out the Telegraph guide “How to dress in the snow”. Who said cold ain’t chic?

4. Go out and enjoy it!
I try to take things like this seriously, but snow days only fill me with joy. I know it’s cold and inconvenient but it is also beautiful, peaceful and a fantastic excuse to sack off work, go sledding, make a snowman and have a pint in a warm pub. I recommend that, unless you find yourself in mortal peril, you take advantage of the beauty and peace of snow – trek to the nearest coop, stock up on hot chocolate ingredients and then do as below.

xx Sian

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