Margam Country Park Iolo's Great Welsh Parks


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Margam Country Park

Iolo Williams explores the Margam Country Park on the outskirts of Port Talbot, which features beautiful parkland, lakes and mature woodland with many wildlife species.


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There are over 30 country parks in Wales.

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Thousands of people visit them every year.

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Some are old estates of wealthy landlords.

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Some are old industrial sites.

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The parks are usually close to towns

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and that's because they've been set aside

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for us to enjoy on our doorstep.

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But what I like about them most is that they're great places for wildlife.

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If you keep your eyes open, you'll see some great sights.

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Behind me is Margam Castle and it's a stunning building.

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It's the centrepoint of a fantastic estate right on the outskirts of

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Port Talbot in South Wales.

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Margam Country Park is set in an estate once owned by the Talbot family,

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who were, during the 19th century,

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one of the richest families in South Wales.

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It was this wealth that enabled the family to develop the ironworks in

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Margam and create a new harbour

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in nearby Aberavon and name it Port Talbot.

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At one time, the estate was huge -

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nearly 19,000 acres.

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Today, the country park is owned by Neath Port Talbot Council and is a

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fraction of the size.

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But it's still large enough for some stunning parkland, lakes and woodland.

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It's a beautiful place to visit with magnificent old buildings and great walks.

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And, of course, the park has some good wildlife and I like looking for

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it early in the morning when there are fewer people around.

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I've been taken to the hills above the castle by one of the park's wardens.

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Margam is very well-known for its deer,

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probably more than anything else, really.

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And there's three different types here,

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you've got red deer and you've got fallow deer and you've also got a

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rare and very exotic deer called the Pere David's deer.

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And I've come up with Jonathan this morning, upon the high ground, here,

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where you've got all of this bracken to look for the deer with their fawns.

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There's quite a few around, too.

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Fallow deer are variable in colour and not always easy to identify.

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Most are a pale gingery brown colour with white spots on the back.

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They also have a characteristic black and white tail and a white

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rump with a black outline.

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It's the first day of July and the fallow does have given birth in the

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bracken during the past month.

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We've come down into one of the valleys now and come across a herd of red deer.

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Whereas the fallow tend to be right up on top in all that bracken,

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the red deer are bigger and are more confident as well.

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And you can see that these have got fawns, I think I counted nine,

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there's another one come across now, that's ten fawns now.

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They're still giving birth too.

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What's interesting is you look at the adults,

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they're that lovely rusty red colour, but the fawns are mottled.

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They look like a large fallow deer,

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sort of brownish with cream spots on them.

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That's all part of their camouflage really, so when they're lying up,

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they blend in a lot better with the background,

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whether it's the bracken or whether it's some bushes, wherever it is.

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While the red and fallow deer have just given birth,

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the park's other deer species, the Pere David,

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are well into their rutting season.

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Pere David deer originally come from China

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and they nearly became extinct during the 19th century.

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Their perilous state was noticed by a Father David,

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a French missionary working in China at the time and the deer are named after him.

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During Midsummer, the stags compete for females.

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STAG BELLOWS

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A young stag has just come down from the distance over there and he's got

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perilously close to all the hinds, so the alpha male,

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the big alpha stag has come down, he's going to see him off, I think.

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He's been thrashing through the bracken, making a lot of noise.

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And, of course, they don't really want to fight.

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They want to scare the opposition away without fighting,

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if at all possible.

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You see the resident stag is not happy at all,

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he really isn't happy at all.

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Look at him.

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Hello...

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STAG GRUNTS

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That's interesting.

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No fighting at all.

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Threats, bellowing...

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This one's probably quick because there is another stag just up there

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around the corner. He's just seen him off and he's seen this one down

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here, so he's come after this one and he's probably quite concerned

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that he's left all of his hinds up there.

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And the young male has actually gone now.

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He obviously got a little bit too close to the hind.

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He's turned and he's gone after him and chased off over there.

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But it is never-ending.

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It's absolutely never-ending for them, for a period of weeks.

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Can you imagine how tired you'd be at the end of all that?

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Not only do you have to see to all the females,

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but you've got to fight off allcomers as well.

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And by the end, they just lie down, just shattered, I think.

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Yeah, back he comes. He's coming back now.

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There we are.

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Well, he's won the day today, anyway.

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The most outstanding feature in Margam Country Park is the castle,

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which was built during the early 19th century and is the last of a

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succession of houses built on the site.

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700 years before the castle was built, the estate was run by

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Cistercian monks and parts of the monastery still remain.

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Margam Abbey monastery was built by skilled stonemasons and they left

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their signatures on their work.

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Here's one.

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There's another one. And see, they were covered in lime wash.

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Another one here. Here.

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Local historian, John Adams, is helping me find them.

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And here as well. And there.

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And on that one on that one. This looks like a bed, almost.

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So what are these then, John?

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Well, they're basically the mark of individual masons.

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When they started building an abbey like this, they appointed a master

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mason and then he appointed masons and when they

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finished training, they were given a mark.

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So this is the mark of one individual mason.

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What's interesting about this building is this occurs almost anywhere.

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So it's more or less, there's a lot of work from one man.

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So, why would he have put them marks?

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I'd have thought, you know, the monks coming in,

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wouldn't have wanted to see these marks everywhere.

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Well, one, they were covered over, but of course the other thing was

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you could use them for quality control.

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There would've been a roof on this, would there?

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-A stone roof.

-There was marvellous rib vaulting coming across but the

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sad thing was when the monastery was closed,

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a man called Sir Rice Mansel bought it.

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Now, they needed a coal house, so at some point in time,

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they basically used this for storing coal.

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-You're joking.

-No, I'm not joking.

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And then in the vestibule, they used that for brewing beer and

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basically they took the lead off the roof, lined it with oil cask paper

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and eventually what happened was the water seeped through.

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The pillar went out of vertical and it collapsed.

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I'm pleased to say that the Abbey

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is treated with a little more respect these days.

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During early spring, any masonry or stone wall in

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Margam Park is a potential nesting site for birds.

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Walking across through the gardens from the Abbey now and there's a

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pine tree, I think it's Scots pine over there,

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and there was a coal tit digging away at the moss.

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A beak full of moss, obviously building a nest,

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and then he came over here and what it's doing,

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there's a slit low down in the wall over there and it's diving in there

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and taking moss, both birds, and every now and again,

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they'll perch up on this branch over here with a beak full of moss.

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And dashing in... It's the perfect place.

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They're funny birds, coal tits, whereas you find blue tits,

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great tits will use nest boxes, holes in trees, holes in walls,

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quite high up, these will nest low down, often in old mouse holes.

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And this is perfect because it's dry in there, it's out of the way,

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it's safe, no cats, no dog, anything can get in anywhere near that nest.

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And they're cracking little birds.

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They dive in like little mice diving out of the way.

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Of course, at the moment, because they're getting moss,

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they're just building the base of that nest.

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Once they've finished that base, they then go off looking for wool

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or maybe deer hair and they'll do the fine lining and that's when

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she'll eventually lay the eggs.

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Oh, here we are, look.

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Here we are. One's just landed on a branch here and in he goes.

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Like a mouse, into the wall. Cracking little birds.

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Most of the visitors that come to the park live locally and sunny days

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draw literally thousands.

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Margam has a group of friends of the park.

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These are volunteers who help to look after the park and keep it tidy.

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I'm meeting Doreen Nash at another great ancient building on a hill

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above the castle.

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-Hello there.

-Hello.

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-How are you? All right?

-Fine, pleased to meet you.

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-Nice to see you.

-Thank you, thank you.

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-Thank you.

-Litter picking.

-Yes, I'm afraid so.

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We usually get quite a bit around here because they come of a night

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and they have barbecues and they have drinks and you know...

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-So it'll be kids mainly, is it?

-I would say teenagers.

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So, there's a gang of you.

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There's you... I saw a couple of people... I can see them all now.

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There's a gang of you, come out...

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Yes, there's between four and five come up.

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-Shall we go in and have a look?

-Yes.

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It looks like there have been barbecues lit here fairly recently.

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-Yes, there have, yes.

-Something is over here, look.

-Of course they have.

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-And this building now, is it a chapel?

-Old Chapel, built in 1470.

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It was built for the farmers and the peasants to come up to worship

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because they weren't allowed in the Abbey Church

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because they were only for the rich and for the monks.

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So it was for the peasants, not the bigwigs, sort of thing.

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Definitely not the bigwigs.

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Definitely not them. And we do have a mass here once a year.

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-Do you?

-In July. Yes, yes, yes.

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I bet you're all praying it doesn't rain for that?

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It has been raining, but it still goes on.

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-Does it?

-Still goes on, yes.

-That's fabulous.

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-That's brilliant.

-I can see what you mean now.

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There a barbecue here and behind me over there.

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Yes, it's a shame. And what's happening is, doing the barbecues

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-against the stone, you know...

-It ruins it, doesn't it?

-It's going to ruin it.

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-And this has all just been done...

-This is a shame.

-..this part.

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And the same as the litter in the park.

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We pick up plastic bags, or numerous things, but what people don't

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realise that the animals are in danger through the

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litter in the park. I mean, it's a fact that five deer die in every

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-park every year.

-Honestly?

-Yes, through litter.

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-So, what is that, from plastic...?

-Yes, plastic bags from dog bags.

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They think it's food.

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-Well, well.

-You know, visitors come in, they throw litter everywhere,

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they don't realise that they are killing our wild animals.

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The park is now closed and the people have gone home.

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And one thing I really wasn't expecting to see right in front of

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the big house is a hare.

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But a hare has come from the top fields down here...

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..and it's feeding, I think, on the young grass and of course,

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this is mown, so you get young, fresh, succulent growth and that's

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why the hare has been attracted down here.

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She's happy enough. There she is, just going right across in front of the big house.

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Wow!

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Well, that was unexpected.

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That really was unexpected.

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It just goes to show what's around once everybody's gone home.

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In addition to parkland and gardens, Margam Country Park also has

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woodlands and they are particularly stunning

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and busy with birdlife at dawn during spring.

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This is my favourite part of Margam Park.

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It's an old woodland, ancient woodland and it's pretty unique,

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I think. I don't know of another woodland like this anywhere in

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Wales, at least. These are old sweet chestnuts,

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hundreds of years old and they're all twisted and gnarled,

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they're full of holes and because of that, they're fantastic for all

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nesting birds, of course, and I bet there are all

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kinds of invertebrates, bats in there as well.

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And of course, the backdrop of Margam Castle, here,

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it's just a stunning place and I know that there's no-one else here, just me.

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I've come round now to the other end of this

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sweet chestnut woodland here.

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I've heard a woodpecker. There's been a great spotted woodpecker been calling

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and drumming as well and it's all come from this area here,

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so I reckon there's got to be a nest here somewhere.

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I've found the nest. This is the tree, here.

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It's a dead sweet chestnut and the nest is maybe what, five,

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six metres up? Around the other side, facing down that way.

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And what's odd is that it's the male who's in there.

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He's gone in. I saw him go in. I suspect what he's doing,

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because it's early May now and they don't usually lay their eggs

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until middle of May, maybe even towards the end of May.

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I suspect what he's doing is he's finishing off the nest chamber.

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What you've got, you've got hardwood on the outside,

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it'll be soft on the inside.

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So they'll dig through the hardwood and then they'll go down about a

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foot and that'll be the nest chamber.

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They won't take grass or anything like that.

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You've got bits of wood in there.

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So she's gone off to feed and she'll fatten up

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in order to make some eggs.

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Look at this lovely building, this is the Orangery.

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It's one of the oldest buildings here.

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This dates back to the late 18th-century and just look at the

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intricate carvings on the wall there.

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Amazing place. And this was so that they could have their own citrus trees.

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Isn't that amazing?

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They could have their own citrus trees over 200 years ago and they

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were kept in here, in the winter, and there was a coal fire right at

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the back just to keep it warm and then what they would do,

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is they would bring them outside between about May and October,

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just to make the best of the sunshine.

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Isn't that amazing? They'd cart them out, leave them here,

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then come October when it got cold again, take them back in,

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light up the coal fire,

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so that it was warm enough to keep these trees alive.

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And now, it's hugely popular.

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You can have weddings here, you can have functions here,

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so it's still used, not for the same thing, but it's still used and still

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very busy.

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Many of the old buildings in the country park are used for functions

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and one of the original buildings is even let for holiday accommodation.

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This odd-looking cottage was built because the Talbot family wanted to

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retain this beautiful facade designed by the famous 17th-century

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architect, Inigo Jones.

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The facade was relocated here in 1837 from an old banqueting hall

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that used to be close to the castle.

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A lean-to was built against the facade

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to form a cottage for workers.

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Peter Nash used to live in the cottage as a child and belonged to

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the last family to live in the house as estate workers.

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Did your family work for the big house, then?

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Yes, my mother was a maid for four years.

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My father worked in the sawmills on the estate.

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My grandfather and great-grandfather

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worked on the estate, on maintenance,

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repairing fences you know, various jobs, like, you know.

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It would've been a busy place, I would imagine.

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-Dozens of people working for them.

-There were dozens.

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You had valets, you had grooms with the horses, you had stable lads,

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dozens of maids.

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-I think they had 41 bedrooms.

-41 bedrooms?

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It was quite a big place.

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And what's it like for you now?

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Because I know you lead walks around here.

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Is it nice to be able to share all these memories and stories with

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-people in the park?

-Absolute...

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Some people can't believe you actually live there.

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There's certain things you do remember, like on a hot evening,

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my bedroom window would be this one on the left and you'd have the sash

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down and you go to bed with a candle.

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And you'd have a little orange lamp, didn't give much light,

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but it would attract bats.

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And the bats then...

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..they'd come around and my mother'd be terrified.

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But we never thought anything of it, like, you know.

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They'd just come around, go back out. Come around, go back out.

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The bats are still around.

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And on a summer's night, hundreds come out to feed.

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It's about 10.30 now, finally getting dark,

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and all the bats have suddenly come out.

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There are lots of different species around the trees, but the ones I'm

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really interested in are these, down by the water here,

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they are Daubenton's bats, real water specialists.

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They'll skim over the surface, back and forth, feeding on midges,

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on caddisflys, on any water insects.

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And really, they'll not just eat them with their mouths,

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but they'll take them out to the water sometimes, as well,

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with their feet or even with their tail, they can scoop them out with their tail.

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They're fantastic bats.

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And there are lots of them, so many of them, all gathered around here.

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Margam Country Park is one of the best bat sites in Wales.

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11 of the 18 species of bat living in the UK can be found here.

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Without a bat detector, it's difficult to identify the different species.

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The best time to view them is on a clear, still, dry night.

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Sensibly, they tend not to come out when it's wet and if you see big

0:21:130:21:17

bats behaving like this above water, they're pretty certain to be

0:21:170:21:21

Daubenton's bats.

0:21:210:21:23

Margam Country Park has a number of man-made ponds and this one in front

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of the castle is the biggest.

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It was created by the family during the 1920s to help relieve

0:21:410:21:44

unemployment in the area at the time.

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I've no doubt that the project also improved the view from the mansion.

0:21:480:21:52

The pond has matured into an excellent wildlife habitat,

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but most of its wealth is hidden in the water.

0:21:580:22:01

Hannah Shaw works for the Freshwater Habitats Trust on a

0:22:030:22:08

national project that helps to protect freshwater wildlife.

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She's creating a database of pond species throughout Wales.

0:22:120:22:15

Hello, Hannah. Have you got much?

0:22:170:22:19

Hi, Iolo. Yes, I've got a few things, I think.

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Oh, I love pond dipping.

0:22:230:22:24

Just have to have a look through.

0:22:240:22:26

It's a bit like Christmas, you never know what you're going to get.

0:22:260:22:30

Look at that, look at that.

0:22:300:22:32

That's a water scorpion.

0:22:320:22:34

Wow! Aren't they cool things?

0:22:340:22:36

With that siphon on its tail.

0:22:360:22:38

Does it breathe through that?

0:22:380:22:39

-Yes.

-So it sticks that up above the water and then goes down and hunts

0:22:390:22:44

-under water.

-Yeah.

0:22:440:22:46

They're cool things, aren't they?

0:22:460:22:47

And a snail. Look at the size of that snail.

0:22:470:22:49

-That's a ram's horn snail.

-A ram's horn.

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I can see why it gets that name, yeah. That is nice.

0:22:510:22:54

That is nice, OK.

0:22:540:22:55

And this has all just come out of the edge of this pond here, has it?

0:22:550:22:58

Yes, just through the reeds, yes.

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In a pond, most of the wildlife is in that first metre of the

0:23:010:23:05

vegetation around the edge of the pond.

0:23:050:23:07

Wow! Is that a leech?

0:23:070:23:09

Is it a leech on there on the side?

0:23:090:23:11

Yes, that's a duck leech.

0:23:110:23:12

A duck leech.

0:23:120:23:14

-Mm.

-As opposed to what?

0:23:140:23:15

Well, you can get fish leeches and there's other types of leeches that

0:23:150:23:20

eat small invertebrates, but these actually parasitise ducks.

0:23:200:23:24

Do they? As in, hang on the feet of ducks or what?

0:23:240:23:27

No, they go in their nasal cavity, in their beak.

0:23:270:23:32

Oh, do they? Wow!

0:23:320:23:33

-I've never heard of a duck leech.

-But they are really good parents.

0:23:350:23:38

I'm sure they are(!)

0:23:380:23:40

There's a stickleback as well, look, a little stickleback.

0:23:400:23:43

Probably three-spine stickleback, is it?

0:23:430:23:45

-Is it that one probably?

-Yes, it is.

0:23:450:23:47

Do you know, the amazing thing is, you walk past here,

0:23:470:23:50

you wouldn't think that you'd find any of this in there.

0:23:500:23:54

And if it wasn't for the fact that you were going in with a net and

0:23:540:23:57

bringing them out, I'd have no idea.

0:23:570:23:59

Wow! Look, we've got a water stick insect here as well.

0:23:590:24:02

Look at that.

0:24:020:24:03

Wow! That's a water stick insect.

0:24:050:24:07

Yes, it's a bug, the same as the water scorpion is a bug.

0:24:070:24:11

-He's gone back in.

-And a back swimmer. So it's one of the bugs.

0:24:110:24:15

That is very, very odd.

0:24:150:24:17

And is this common in our pools?

0:24:170:24:21

They're quite widespread, but not common.

0:24:210:24:24

Do you know what? I think that's only the second one I've ever seen.

0:24:240:24:28

That is amazing. I would have missed that, see?

0:24:290:24:31

I really would have missed that. What a weird looking thing.

0:24:310:24:34

I think they're really under recorded in Wales.

0:24:340:24:36

I'm not surprised. You can't find them. Look at that.

0:24:360:24:39

Wow! And this one again uses that siphon on the tail,

0:24:390:24:43

it sticks out above the water to breathe.

0:24:430:24:45

-Mm-hm.

-I find it really weird that they breathe through their bums,

0:24:450:24:48

basically, don't they?

0:24:480:24:50

-They do.

-Isn't that odd?

0:24:500:24:52

Wow! So, how does this pond then rate?

0:24:520:24:55

-Is it a good pond?

-It's a pretty good pond, yes.

0:24:550:24:57

And that again is because of the variety of wildlife in it.

0:24:570:25:01

Yes, yeah.

0:25:010:25:02

One of many lovely landscapes in the park is Cwm Phillip, a quiet,

0:25:090:25:13

sheltered valley, situated behind the castle.

0:25:130:25:16

It's particularly beautiful during early autumn

0:25:200:25:24

and it's perfect territory for adders.

0:25:240:25:26

Almost every encounter I've ever had with an adder has involved one or

0:25:380:25:44

the other of us being startled and often the adder just making their

0:25:440:25:49

way off, which is a shame.

0:25:490:25:51

But there's one on the edge of this old path here,

0:25:510:25:54

it's overgrown, she's right in the vegetation.

0:25:540:25:58

She's curled up and the head is just lying there,

0:25:580:26:01

looking straight out at us.

0:26:010:26:03

It's a perfect spot for adders.

0:26:030:26:05

We've got the bracken here, you've got some gorse,

0:26:050:26:08

you've got some vegetation, and open areas where they can sunbathe,

0:26:080:26:11

plenty of mice and voles and lizards for them to eat.

0:26:110:26:14

September is a real critical time for adders because it's when they

0:26:150:26:19

give birth, they give birth to live young, of course.

0:26:190:26:22

And, of course, they're going to be thinking about what they call brumation.

0:26:220:26:26

They don't hibernate, they go underground and they do move

0:26:260:26:28

and they will come out as well on a warm winter's day,

0:26:280:26:31

but they brumate, which means that they slow down.

0:26:310:26:34

And what they will do, they'll feed now but before going into brumation,

0:26:340:26:37

they'll empty their stomach out because what they don't want, of course,

0:26:370:26:42

if there's a mouse or a vole in there,

0:26:420:26:44

they don't want that to rot away

0:26:440:26:45

inside and it's not the best view I've ever had of an adder.

0:26:450:26:48

But I always think an encounter with an adder is a good one.

0:26:480:26:52

If I can find the animal, I can watch the animal,

0:26:520:26:55

I can film the animal if I want to, and when I leave,

0:26:550:26:58

the animal is still there. It's not been disturbed.

0:26:580:27:01

And that's exactly what I'm going to do now.

0:27:020:27:04

I'll let it be, I think.

0:27:040:27:06

Margam Country Park is mostly known for its beautiful buildings and its deer.

0:27:180:27:24

There are not many parks in Wales where you'll see three species of

0:27:240:27:28

deer and so easily.

0:27:280:27:29

Like many other country parks, there's also plenty of other less

0:27:310:27:35

obvious wildlife which takes a bit more effort to find.

0:27:350:27:38

And that's the real fun of wildlife watching.

0:27:380:27:42

The deer have all come together up on the hill now, the red and the fallow.

0:27:430:27:47

And then you come down to Cwm Phillip,

0:27:490:27:51

now in its autumn colours, absolutely stunning.

0:27:510:27:55

Of course, that's where we saw the adder and it gives you some idea of

0:27:550:27:58

the size of the park.

0:27:580:28:00

It is huge and of course, this is only the back bit.

0:28:000:28:02

You've also got the front bit over there, as well.

0:28:020:28:05

And this is nothing compared to the size of it 150 years ago.

0:28:050:28:10

It was huge.

0:28:100:28:11

That gives you some indication of the wealth of the people involved.

0:28:110:28:15

A fantastic place.

0:28:190:28:20

Nature expert Iolo Williams explores the fantastic Margam Country Park on the outskirts of Port Talbot. Once owned by one of the richest families in south Wales, it features beautiful parkland, lakes and mature woodland with three species of deer, eleven species of bats and other hidden gems.