It took nature hundreds of thousands of years to create, but now Forestry Commission Wales and its partners have drawn up a code of conduct to protect Sychryd gorge from the footsteps of modern man.
The gorge, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, is a popular destination for walkers drawn to the area by the natural beauty created by movements deep in the Earth’s crust over millions of years.
But the increasing appeal of gorge walking compelled FC Wales, along with the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority and the Countryside Council for Wales, to draft an agreement to safeguard the gorge’s fragile ecosystem.
The land managers worked closely with activity providers for two years to draw up the code of conduct, which advises groups where they can walk and gives clear guidance on environmental best practice.
The Sychryd gorge follows the line of the Dinas Fault, a major dislocation of the crust marked here by a belt of shattered limestone.
The quarry faces and rocky outcrops at Craig y Ddinas and Moel Penderyn near Pontneddfechan provide the best exposures of this important feature of the geological structure of south Wales.
The fault is part of the larger Neath Disturbance, a narrow belt which extends for dozens of miles across country from Swansea Bay north-east to Hereford and beyond.
This great weakness in the Earth’s crust, which is responsible for the origin of the Vale of Neath, was created over 400 million years ago when Wales and England crashed into Scotland and then reactivated 100 million years later when France collided with Britain.
Over millions of years, erosion of these ancient fractures in the rocks eventually created the sheltered, humid environment of the gorge that is ideal for some of our simplest and most ancient plants, but the growing popularity of the area put their future in doubt.
Paul Dann, FC Wales local area manager, said, "The rare plants that grow on river banks, rocky outcrops, boulders, trees and fallen logs throughout the gorge and river channel can’t cope with being regularly trampled or dislodged by passing feet, hands and trailing ropes.
"So-called ‘dry gorge walking’ can be particularly damaging, as walkers go from rock to rock."
Managing groups as they walked through the woodlands to get to the gorge needed to be carefully planned, he said.
"In the woodlands, pressure from gorge walking groups, as well as the general public, can damage vegetation, eventually resulting in soil erosion. If bare rock is exposed, then the woodland may lose its ability to regenerate."
He said the aim of the code of conduct was to protect the rare habitat – which is a Special Area of Conservation, Europe’s highest environmental designation – and safeguard the long term use of the gorge by outdoor activity providers.
The activity providers have set up a new group called the South Wales Outdoor Activity Provider Group to administer the concordat and provide an industry voice, training and marketing assistance.
Gary Evans, senior instructor for one of the activity groups, Hawk Associates, said, "All members are committed to maintaining access to this important site whilst working in a way that protects the site for the future."
Alan Bowring, Fforest Fawr Geopark Development Officer for the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, said, "The scenery is spectacular, the cliffs are awesome, the innards of the gorge are sometimes sombre, sometimes enchanting - enticing to some, forbidding perhaps to others. There is a drama in the rock architecture and also in the rushing water – both of which push the adrenaline button."
NOTES TO EDITORS
Forestry Commission Wales
About 14 per cent of Wales is covered by woodlands. Of this, 38% (126,000 hectares/311,000 acres) is owned by the Welsh Assembly Government.
Forestry Commission Wales is the Welsh Assembly Government’s department of forestry and manages these woodlands on its behalf.
More information on the woodlands of Wales is available on www.forestry.gov.uk/wales
Sychryd gorge is accessed from Craig y Ddinas (Dinas Rock) in the Brecon Beacons National Park.
The aim of the code of conduct for the Sychryd Gorge at Pontneddfechan is to protect the site and enable gorge walking in ways which are environmentally sustainable.
The site is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a SAC.
Among the rare species to be found in the area are Scarce Turf-moss, Tunbridge Filmy-fern, Deratocarpon Miniatum and Rock Fingerwort.
The Sychryd Cascade occupies a slot in the rock which corresponds to the Dinas Fault Zone, a band of intensely shattered rock which belies the long history of movement as the rocks on either side jostled against each other. Small movements of rocks along the fault can cause a small earthquake.
Numerous other small structures occur, including faults, fractures, veins and folds.
The straight character of the Vale of Neath owes its origin to the Neath Disturbance, which lies above an old line of weakness deep in the Earth's crust. Even today, minor movements of the rocks along this fault can produce small earthquakes.
The fjord-like Vale of Neath took shape during the last million years, when ice which accumulated on the Welsh hills to a depth of hundreds of metres made its way towards the sea.
For more information on the concordat, contact Paul Dann on 01558 690325, mobile 07789 651026.
Press office contact: Forestry Commission Wales information officer Clive Davies on 0300 068 0061, mobile 07788 190922.