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  • Julie Muller

ELAN VALLEY - birds, bouncing bombs and so many sheep!!

(nearest post code - LD6 5HP)

A black and white sheepdog sits on a rock with the Elan Valley reservoir in the background
Shep sits and relaxes by the Elan Valley reservoir in Powys, Wales

May 12th was Julie’s birthday and this year our humans decided to take us on a walk at the Elan Valley, near Rhayader in Powys, Wales.

It was quite a long car journey and so we were particularly excited and eager to explore when we arrived. Although the sun was trying to break through the clouds there was a cool breeze and all of us, humans included, were eager to get started.

The large car park was comparatively empty and various ewes, and their lambs browsed any pockets of grass that they found. Both Bruno and I felt the urge to round them up and send them back up on to the hills that towered above us.

To start our trek, we had to walk across a small bridge that spanned the river Elan which tumbled noisily over the stones and boulders beneath us. We could see snatches of the river below us as we walked . It was most disconcerting. As we crossed the river we could see a number of grey houses – these used to house the workmen who constructed the reservoirs. We left the houses behind and climbed up a steep hill through a soft green mixture of young oak and birch trees. A gentle green light seemed to surround us. We soon reached one of the feeder streams that emptied into the river Elan. Steppingstones enabled our humans to cross it, but Bruno and I enjoyed wading through. The water was deliciously cold, and it raced across the stony bed, squeezing between the rocks, and sometimes collecting in deep peaty brown plunge pools. Of course, I couldn’t resist a wallow.

The path became steeper, and we climbed up towards a road with trees on one side and a dry-stone wall on the other. The boughs of the trees were festooned with bushes of light green fruticose lichens - the types favoured by model train enthusiasts.

These tufts of lichen are made up of a fungus and a simple plant (alga) and both of these organisms benefit from their very close interaction with each other. The alga provides simple sugars for the fungus and the fungus provides shelter and minerals in return. Whereas the lichen growing on the trees was flourishing, the lichen inhabiting the stone walls looked drier and less healthy as if in need of a good shower of rain. Julie has found out that lichens actually cover more of the Earth’s surface than tropical rainforests!

As we trundled up the hill, there was a flurry of avian activity and the flash of a redstart as it whizzed between the trees in the field next to us. This summer visitor has probably recently arrived from the Sahel region of Africa (a belt of land between Senegal and Eritrea).

We heard a cuckoo calling too – another summer visitor – which has the habit of laying its eggs in the nest of the native meadow pipits and displacing the rightful chicks from the nest.

We felt so exhilarated as we trotted up the track towards the hill tops in spite of the fact that we had to remain on our leads. There seemed to be sheep everywhere!

This area is very special and comprises part of a large SSSI called Elenydd. All of the landforms that we can see have been produced as a result of glaciation. About 33,000 years ago during the last Ice Age this area was covered by a snowfield. The seasonal freezing and thawing nibbled away the rocks and scoured the landscape. As a result, there are moors, crags, streams, lakes, and cliffs and this myriad of habitats supports many different plants and animals. In places where the water table is very high, the land is wet and boggy and covered with expanses of white feathery topped cotton grass which warn travellers of the dangers lurking below. Bruno couldn’t help trying to get a closer look and was rewarded with muddy socks for his pains.

Over the years, the soft white cotton grass seed heads have had numerous uses – During WW1, they were used to treat the wounds of Scottish soldiers returning from the war and in Sussex and Suffolk these same seed heads were used to stuff pillows.

Two sheepdogs rest on National Trust farmland wearing leads to protect the local sheep
Shep and Bruno sit on farmland owned and grazed by the National Trust in the Elan Valley in Powys

When we got on to the Welsh hilltops the sun had decided to make an appearance. This was National Trust farmland. Our humans scanned the horizon for sheep but satisfied that the hillside was sheep-free we were allowed the chance to race and wrestle. I even had the chance to roll over and itch my back on the sweet-smelling grass.

That proved to be a big mistake!

With so many sheep about, it was inevitable that Bruno, and I would manage to bring some of the local wildlife back with us and indeed, a few days after our walk, Julie discovered a handful of sheep tick that had hitched a ride. These tiny stowaways had just been waiting to hitch a ride on any unsuspecting warm blood and, today it was Bruno and me!!

However, as we climbed the crest of the hill, Rose spotted some white shapes which we all thought were rocks – until they moved. “Sheep Alert! ’ and we were once again leaded up.

Even with our leads on we could not but be excited by the wild, sweeping expanse of the hills, and just below us we could see the ruins of a tiny cottage tucked into the folds of the hill.

And then as we descended further, we caught our first glimpse of the reservoirs and dams for which the Elan Valley is so famous. The waters sparkled in the afternoon sunshine and the wind blew the water in ripples to the shore. It was a chilly breeze.

Just below us, we saw the remains of the Nant Y Gro dam. This small dam was destroyed during the summer of 1942 when it was used to test the efficacy of Barnes Wallis’ famous Dam Busting bouncing bomb.

Two sheepdogs rest join their walk along a narrow path above the Elan Reservoir in Powys
Bruno and Shep walking on the narrow path above the Elan Valley reservoir, in Powys, on their way to Cnwch Wood

At this point the sheep had been left far behind us so we were once again set free. How I would have loved to go for a paddle, but the water just wasn’t accessible. Instead, we raced along the narrow path, occasionally losing our balance, and landing in the vegetation – not the softest of landings!


We soon found ourselves in Cwmch Wood which is a nature reserve comprising oak, willow and alder trees amongst others and these trees provide homes for a wealth of birdlife including the resident tits, woodpeckers, and finches. At this time of the year, the summer visitors have already arrived, and pied flycatchers, redstarts, and willow warblers have all come to stay. I think at last count, over 60 species of bird have been recorded here. The woods are such a popular destination that there is a dearth of suitable nesting sites and so, the rangers have erected bird boxes in response which are often occupied by the distinctive black and white pied flycatchers.

The woodlands provide homes for so many birds. The oaks in particular support an almost infinite number of insect larvae which provide a rich food source for so many different species but the hillsides above are even more special for the birdlife that they support- the vegetation provides forage and shelter for ground nesting birds such as whinchat and wheatear, whilst raptors including red kite, peregrine, and merlin ride the thermals in search of their next meal.

It is no wonder that this “Special Protection Area’ has been described as 'one of the most important areas of hill land in Wales for nature conservation'.

We continued walking through the wood to get back to the car. The sun had disappeared behind the clouds, and it was getting chilly.

As we reached the car park a couple of lambs were bleating to their mother who seemed to be on the other side of the gate, so our humans allowed them through, and they immediately rushed to suckle.

Meanwhile high above us, a farmer on an ATV whistled and a red Welsh sheep dog, just like Bruno came hurtling, like a missile, down the hillside and leapt high over the wire fence, landing in the car park. Bruno barked loudly in greeting, but it chased straight past us, rounded up all of the errant sheep and guided them, through a tiny gap in the fence, into a small corral where it waited for the farmer to join them and then, all of the sheep were expertly moved to safety.

I just stood open-mouthed – Bruno has got potential after all – despite, at times, being such a pain in the backside!!!

I am glad that he came to live with us!!

A red Welsh sheepdog sits on a rock with the elan Valley reservoir in the background.
Bruno sits on a rock beside the Elan Valley reservoir in Powys

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