Walk the Wye: from source to sea

There are many ways to explore the Wye Valley. James Fair follows the river from source to mouth to discover the wildlife living on and around this famous stretch of water.

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I reached Whitney-on-Wye that afternoon and took a three-hour walk on the south side of the river. I found pied and yellow wagtails and bramblings feeding in the ploughed fields, and rabbits by the score, scampering in and out of the fieldside hedges and copses as if on an awayday from Watership Down.
 
The following morning I continued on my journey, with goosanders, kingfishers and the odd sandpiper, ringed plover and yellowhammer among my sightings.
 
Back at Hay-on-Wye (to pick up the car), I paid an afternoon visit to Cwm Byddog Nature Reserve, a small oak woodland with wild daffodils, early purple orchids and wood anemones adding a dash of exhibitionism to this unobtrusive corner of the Wye Valley.
 
The pollarded oaks here – some of which are believed to be 450 years old, with the biggest carrying a girth of 6.3 metres – wouldn’t have looked out of place in Sleepy Hollow. I half-expected a headless horseman to leap out of their roots, waving a sword maniacally above his head.
 
On the hunt
 
The final leg of the trip took in Symonds Yat, where my target species was to be found high on the dramatic limestone cliffs that make this such a popular spot. It is these cliffs and their abundant pigeon population that make the area, according to the RSPB’s Denis Jackson, “the SW1 of peregrine habitats” and one of the most popular raptor-watching sites in Britain. Denis runs the project with the help of a plethora of enthusiastic volunteers.
 
When I arrived, the peregrine pair had been sitting on their eggs for 18 days, just over half the usual incubation period. The female was hidden in the nest crevice, while the male was perched on the branch of a tree growing out of the cliff-face. A few feet away, on the same branch, sat a wood pigeon – usually prey, but the peregrine carried on preening as if food was the last thing on his mind.
 
“He’s a useless hunter,” Gavin, one of the volunteers, volunteered. “He looks good,” I responded, feeling oddly compelled to defend the maligned bird. “That’s the only reason she likes him,” Gavin retorted.
 
After 10 minutes, the male went to take his turn on the eggs and the female emerged and flew off, circling over the river before disappearing into the woodland.
 
All change
 
I returned to the Wye a few more times in the year, once to look at Lancaut Nature Reserve, located beneath the huge cliffs of Wintour’s Leap, a few miles upstream from Chepstow. It was only a short distance from here that William Wordsworth wrote one of his most famous poems, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, a classic of English literature about the redemptive power of nature.
 
From Lancaut, the river runs smoothly, the colour of milky coffee, down Longhope Reach until it reaches Chepstow. It slowly broadens, and after passing under the original Severn Bridge, pours its sediment-rich waters into the River Severn itself.
 
From the thickly-forested, primeval banks of the Wye’s lower reaches, you are suddenly thrust into an estuary where, even on cloudy days, the light has a luminosity that makes you squint, as if you have just emerged from a dark tunnel. Hundreds of miles from the source, the water and land have changed, not quite out of all recognition but sufficiently so to make me wonder, “How – and when – did that happen?” 

 

JAMES' TOP FIVE SPECIES TO SEE
 
Peregrine falcon
  • Where: The easiest place is Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley AONB. Peregrines have nested here every year since 1983 and can be clearly seen from Yat Rock. There are an estimated
  • 7-9 breeding pairs in the Lower Wye between Chepstow and Ross-on-Wye, but the species is ubiquitous throughout the whole Wye Valley.
  • When: A good time is when the fledglings are being trained to hunt by their parents, which is June and July, but they nest between April and September.
  • How: Visit Symonds Yat any time during the breeding season – the RSPB provides spotting scopes and binoculars for people to use for free.
Otter
  • Where: Otters can generally be found anywhere along the River Wye, apart from its very upper reaches. In autumn and winter, they may be seen taking advantage of the salmon runs near waterfalls on tributaries such as the Ithon, Sgithwen and Marteg.
  • When: They can be seen at any time of year, but keep your eyes peeled near the tributary waterfalls in autumn.
  • How: Luck is going to be your most important asset if you are going to see an otter on the Wye (or any river in Britain). They are most active at dawn or dusk, so try and get out to a likely spot at those times of day.
 Sand martin
  • Where: The Wye’s sandy riverbanks in its middle reaches – anywhere roughly between Builth Wells and Ross-on-Wye – are perfect for sand martins to use as breeding holes. As with other members of the swallow family, they nest colonially.
  • When: Sand martins arrive from their winter home of the Sahel region of Africa in mid-March and usually stay until October (though some stragglers remain until November).
  • How: Best seen on the river, from where you can appreciate the aerial agility of these tiny birds. They are active from early morning until dusk.
 
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