Dare Valley Country Park Iolo's Great Welsh Parks


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Dare Valley Country Park

Iolo Williams visits Dare Valley Country Park near Aberdare, where dippers, herons, cormorants and kingfishers frequent the Dare River.


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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 have been set aside for us to enjoy

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on our doorstep. But what I like about them most is that they're

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great places for wildlife.

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

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You would think I was right out in the countryside,

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in the middle of nowhere,

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maybe on the edge of a moorland, here - but you'd be wrong.

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Look again, these hills behind me - well, they're not hills,

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it's an old coal tip and now nature has taken over completely

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with the heather, the gorse and these grasses.

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And this is a really special place.

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This is the Dare Valley Country Park,

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right on the edge of the Brecon Beacons.

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Up to around 50 years ago,

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most of the South Wales Valleys, like this one near Aberdare,

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were dominated by coal mines.

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The mines have now gone,

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and here in Dare Valley, 500 acres of country park

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has been created in their place.

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It's amazing to think that things have changed so much,

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in only 50 years as well, really.

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All of these trees you see behind me, these are all new.

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Some of the older ones would have been here, maybe.

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But where I'm stood now, this was a mine.

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This was a mine site here, so all of that has been dug away,

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they've taken all the spoil away, they've re-landscaped it.

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They've created a big old weir, steps for the river,

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and that is the River Dare.

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You know, in the 1960s, that would have been toxic,

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there would have been nothing living in there.

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Now, in the river, in the lake here, you've got invertebrates,

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you've got fish, you've even got a dipper,

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a pair of dippers nesting in there.

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I just find that absolutely incredible.

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And the nest is in this culvert here,

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a perfectly safe place, cos it's deep water,

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they're up the side of a concrete wall,

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so something like mink can't get at them.

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It's the perfect place, really.

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Dare Valley Country Park opened in 1974.

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It was the first country park in Wales and the first in Britain

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to be built on reclaimed land.

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The park's warden, Wayne Jones, used to be a coal miner himself.

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I tell you what, it's a fair old climb, isn't it?

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-Yes, it is.

-I thought one of us was going to go over for a minute.

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And this, then, this must be part of the old tip.

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Yes, that's the old spoil, what was taken up from down the bottom end

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and transferred up to here.

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That's old slag, isn't it?

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-Coal slag.

-So there's a huge mound of it,

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-this one and another one over there.

-Yeah.

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-But this is all that's left, is it?

-This is all that's left.

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Altogether, then, how many mines would there have been?

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There would have been 19 mines in Dare Valley itself,

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including some drift mines.

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Do you remember this as it used to be?

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I remember seeing the buckets coming up

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and the spoil being tipped up here.

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And it looked incredible.

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That's all you could see, was black.

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It's just remarkable, I think, how everything has gone.

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All the metalwork, all the buildings, they've all gone,

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and what's wonderful, from my point of view, is the fact you see

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the gorse, the heather, the trees, nature has taken over, hasn't it?

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It has, yes, it's done a very good job of it as well.

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And this is what's left, you haven't planted anything.

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No, it's all been regenerated,

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we haven't done any planting whatsoever.

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It's all regenerated, nature has taken its course.

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As well as open land, there are pockets of woodlands in the valley.

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Some of them are quite old

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and would have been here during the mining periods.

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It's now early May and summer migrants from Africa have arrived.

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Just come out to the woodland now and there a lot of warblers,

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here's a blackcap singing,

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a chiffchaff, a willow warbler here as well. And one or two of them

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are nest-building because they've got grass and other nest material

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and so on, with a feather in its beak, so they will be nesting

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somewhere on the edge here.

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And I'll tell you what I've just seen, and it's a really good find,

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a little butterfly. It looks more like a moth,

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but it's called a dingy skipper - not a great name -

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but it describes the butterfly perfectly, really,

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because it's grey and brown.

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It's not attractive at all, but this is perfect for it.

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It looks like an old meadow - you've got meadow ants here as well -

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but it isn't, it's an old coal heap where they put some soil back,

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but it's thin soil and underneath all of this,

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you can see an ants' nest here.

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If you were to dig down underneath all of this,

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you would have all bits of coal and shale and that warms up

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very, very quickly, so it's good for invertebrates. Bear in mind,

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this is quite a scarce butterfly, cos it used to be quite widespread

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and it does well here because of all of these old coal tips.

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You haven't got tall vegetation,

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you've got a variety of plants and, as I say, it warms up quickly.

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That's nice, I've just found out

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where one of these warblers is building its nest

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and he's back and forth like a yo-yo at the moment.

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There he goes, he's just gone out again now.

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There he goes now, just in the bush.

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He's landing in these small bushes here, he's dropping onto the floor,

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he's picking up bits of moss,

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sometimes it might be a beak full of grass. Once there was a big feather,

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as well, and then he's taking all of that to the base of a big ant hill

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over there. I'll bet the nest is right at the bottom in that base,

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so he will be building that,

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he will be finished that job probably in two or three days.

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It's a great little spot for them.

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There he goes again. Off he goes into the tree now.

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They're busy, they're like yo-yos,

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they're back and forth, all the time.

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The heat of early spring sunshine always triggers activity and you can

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quite easily miss some nice views if you don't keep your eyes open.

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There's a surprising amount of wildlife

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just in a little patch like this.

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The thing is, we've got to look really, really hard for it.

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I'm looking for lizards

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and in ground like this, they like basking on grassy tumps.

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And the reason they are just on these tumps is a variety of reasons.

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First of all, they blend in quite well. These are quite young,

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probably one year old, I think.

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When they're young, they're quite dark and as they get older,

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they tend to get lighter, so they're pretty well camouflaged.

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The second reason is the old grass,

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last year's grass, stays attached, but it dies back.

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That's all the yellow stuff you see here, and that will heat up quickly.

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So these lizards have to warm up from the heat of the sun

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and on here, not just do they get the heat of the sun,

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but they get the heat of the old grass as well.

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And, of course, the last thing, really,

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is if I was to get too close, they would need to disappear

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and they can disappear right in the middle of this tump

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and once they're gone, they're gone.

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I'll never find them once they're gone.

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Dare Valley Country Park extends all the way up a glacial valley

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known locally as the Darren.

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It's great walking country.

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And there are quite a few walking groups that use the park.

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Lee and Julie organise some of the walks.

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Hello, there, are you all right?

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-Hello.

-I knew this was a busy park, I didn't realise it was this busy.

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What is this, a walking group?

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Yes, it's a local walking group. We set it up of two years ago

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and it's just grown from strength to strength, really.

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So, is this one of those Nordic walking groups?

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-Nordic walking groups, yeah, yeah, yeah.

-So you use the poles?

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Yeah, you use the poles to push yourself forward and it engages

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the upper body and all of that, you know.

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See, I've always liked having my hands free.

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-Yeah.

-So I could look at the birds or fish or flowers or lizards

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-or whatever it is.

-Yeah.

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But it's kind of an exercise in its own right.

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-So, how often do you meet, then?

-Every week we meet on a Wednesday,

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but there are other groups that meet as well, which Lee organises,

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but our group is a Wednesday one.

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-It's busy!

-It's fantastic.

-That's brilliant.

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We use the park well and we go round lots of areas in the park.

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It's one of the best kept secrets in the valley, to be honest,

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we're just on the fringes of the Beacons.

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It's a great place.

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-And I'm local, I'm bound to say that, so...

-Well, it is lovely.

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It is lovely, the variety, and on a day like this, you can't go wrong.

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-No.

-No.

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Early the next morning,

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I'm taking a walk myself to the base of the Darren.

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In particular, I'm looking for bird activity in the valley.

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So, one of the many things I love about this park

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is that the wardens have built this viewing platform up here,

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and it's in a great location, cos you're at tree level,

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right to the tops of the trees, so you can see all around you.

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And hopefully, on a spring morning like this, I can hear the birds -

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and there's a lot of birdsong - and if anything moves, I should be able

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to see it from up here.

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The loudest bird in the woodland is a wren.

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As it's small and not very colourful,

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it needs to be loud to attract a mate.

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And for a little bird,

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well, he's making the loudest noise in the valley.

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BIRD TWEETS

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High up on the Darren, another bird is calling.

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BIRD CRIES

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It's a peregrine falcon,

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one of Wales' top predators, and he's greeting his mate.

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Glacial valleys like Cwmdare are perfect places for peregrines,

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it gives them great views of any passing prey,

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and the inaccessible ledges are safe nesting sites.

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The pair's been very, very active now.

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It's the second week of May and I'd expect them to be on eggs by now.

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They should be on eggs towards the end of April,

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but they're definitely not, cos the male and the female

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have been up and about, flying around,

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calling a lot.

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And it's typical activity before she lays her eggs.

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She's now sitting up on a tree branch up there.

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She's not concerned about going back onto the nesting ledge at all,

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so my guess is she's probably just about to lay,

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probably in the next few days now.

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By mid-summer, while peregrines have finished their nesting

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on the Darren, cattle have appeared on the wet grassland.

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They're part of a grazing and fire protection project.

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Dry grasses and dense vegetation are flammable and fires can be a problem

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on the uplands of South Wales.

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Emma Douglas works with a grazing conservation organisation

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that promotes improved grazing habitats in Wales.

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-The cows are here.

-Yeah, they are.

-How many have you got in all here?

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I think there's six here altogether with the calves at foot.

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I tell you what, if these were dogs, I'd call them mongrels.

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-You'd be right!

-Are they? They are mongrels, are they?

-Yep.

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They're continental crosses, a bit of a mixture.

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So why are you using cattle to graze here, then?

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-Why not sheep?

-Well, cattle, they like to grab the vegetation

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with their tongue and they pull it up, so it's not physically possible

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for them to graze very close to the ground.

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It gives a great sward structure,

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which is beneficial to things like reptiles and invertebrates.

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And it gets rid of the more dominant vegetation, like the rushes

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and the grasses, to allow more floristic diversity.

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And also when they lie up, you know, which they do, they like to eat,

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and then they lie down and chew the cud

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and then they create these lovely flattened areas,

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again, more structure within the sward.

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I tell you what was lovely, as I walked up here, I saw Ragged-Robin,

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I saw cottongrass, I saw frogs everywhere, and pasture like this,

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I suppose at one time, would have been common all over Wales?

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Absolutely. Particularly on the South Wales coal fields,

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there would have been swathes of this grassland.

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So does that mean that even when coal mining in the Dare Valley

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was at its height, this probably wouldn't have been touched, then,

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-would it?

-It appears not, and obviously that, over time,

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decided to decrease and then we got a lot of rank grasses,

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which was routinely set fire to,

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and now that the grazing has been reintroduced here,

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it's actually reduced the fire risk,

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-there hasn't been a fire here since the grazing's been...

-Oh, fantastic.

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And this is what you would term as rhos pasture, is it?

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Yes, rhos pasture.

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-Which means what? Just wet pasture?

-Wet pasture, yeah.

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I tell you, I like cows, I really like seeing cows out on the pasture,

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out on the hill, and for me to come and see this and see all the flowers

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and everything, it's just stunning.

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The pasture is full of a variety of insects.

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It's clearly a fantastic habitat.

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As it's damp, there are plenty of toads around.

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I have to be careful where I put my hands here,

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cos there's a big cowpat.

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But this is a great time to come into the rhos pasture.

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I timed it to perfection, really.

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Because at the moment... If I can pick them up - come here, boy!

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I'll pick one up, anyway. Look at that.

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There are thousands of little toadlets. And what's happened

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is that the adult toads would have spent the winter months

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in the woodland, in the hedgerows,

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maybe even in the rhos pasture itself here,

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at the base of all these rushes,

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they made their way down to the big pond, just down below me.

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Oh, he's just jumped. Oh, he's on there, now.

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They've made their way down there.

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They've copulated and laid there,

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and then the tadpoles have changed into little toadlets

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and all at once, they've emerged. They've come out of the water,

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they've made their way back up into here,

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and the rhos pasture is perfect for them.

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It's quite damp, but it's not too wet,

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plenty of cover and there's a plethora of insects here,

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which is what they eat. So they will fatten up here now for a few years,

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they'll stay here, they'll stay in the hedgerows, in the woodland,

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before they themselves eventually will make their way back down

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and lay in that pond again. But the floor, I mean, they are everywhere,

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there are thousands of them here.

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I'll let them get on with it.

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Parts of Dare Valley Country Park are still being farmed.

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Merion Thomas has lived here

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all his life and has seen the valley transformed

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from mining to a country park.

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Hello.

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-All right, how are you?

-How are you?

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-Have you been around the sheep?

-Yes.

-Dogs look tired now, for you.

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Yes, they've to work hard.

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-So, this is your land, is it? All around here?

-Yes, all around here.

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And what have you got - just sheep, or cattle as well?

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Sheep, yes, there's cattle as well, there's horses.

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So, when you were a young lad, let's say five years old,

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standing here with me, looking this way,

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what would you have seen then?

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Oh, it's totally different.

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-There was a big massive tip here.

-So they took a lot of that away.

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They had the washery down by here

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and then they turned it into a country park.

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How did you manage to farm, then?

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You had a colliery here, a colliery there,

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you had all the spoil and everything - where did you farm?

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Well, we done the same.

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We used to have a shepherding pony.

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We would go shepherding most days around the flock.

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You'd turn the flock back onto your own ground

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and so would your neighbours do the same.

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So this would be up on the hill, not on this low ground at all?

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No. No. But what happened then,

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in the winter months, the sheep used to fall down

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for shelter in the valleys,

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and we used to feed them then on the fields.

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But the sheep were a lot hardier in them days,

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they would live on the mountain.

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And you would have seen probably hundreds of people coming into work?

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-Oh, yes, yes.

-What do you think of this?

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It's a park now.

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And seeing hundreds of people coming in and enjoying themselves,

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-would you rather have it like this?

-No.

-No?

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You'd rather have the mines back?

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Well, there was so much community spirit then,

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where everybody knew everybody.

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Nobody was depressed, because everybody knew everybody!

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And when the local colliers came up,

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you went to talk to them.

0:19:050:19:07

If it was very quiet on a Sunday, we could come down and have a shower,

0:19:070:19:11

which was fantastic!

0:19:110:19:13

Clearly, times and landscapes have changed and today the local people

0:19:220:19:27

of Aberdare come here for leisure, not work.

0:19:270:19:30

The new lakes also attract wild visitors.

0:19:420:19:45

The presence of herons and cormorants

0:19:500:19:53

indicate that this lake is full of fish.

0:19:530:19:55

The birds have become used to people.

0:20:010:20:03

In a wild location, you would never get such amazing close-up views.

0:20:060:20:11

The cormorant in particular is a stunning bird

0:20:160:20:20

with beautiful, bright green eyes.

0:20:200:20:23

This one is panting to control its temperature.

0:20:240:20:28

His feathers are not waterproof,

0:20:320:20:34

so he needs to literally hang them out to dry.

0:20:340:20:37

This dabchick, or little grebe, has caught a stickleback.

0:20:480:20:52

And the spines on the fish are causing problems.

0:20:550:20:58

The fish has to be repositioned for swallowing.

0:21:040:21:07

These man-made pools are fantastic places for wildlife,

0:21:230:21:26

all kinds of wildlife. Especially now in the autumn.

0:21:260:21:29

When you get a bit of sun like this, warm day,

0:21:290:21:31

you see dragonflies and damselflies.

0:21:310:21:34

There are fish in here as well. Small fish. I think I've seen

0:21:340:21:38

sticklebacks in here, but I think it's mainly trout, cos this used to

0:21:380:21:41

be a fishery, believe it or not. And the reason I've come in here

0:21:410:21:45

is because there is a kingfisher hanging around this far shore.

0:21:450:21:49

Now, he's got perches all over the place.

0:21:490:21:51

It's really difficult to pin him down. He was over here. He's moved

0:21:510:21:54

along a bit, but if I watch from the bank, I'm a long, long way off.

0:21:540:21:58

So I'm going to venture about halfway out,

0:21:580:22:01

see if I can get a better view of him.

0:22:010:22:02

These kingfishers, they won't nest here.

0:22:200:22:23

They'll nest elsewhere, probably on one of the major rivers further down

0:22:230:22:26

because you've got no nesting banks,

0:22:260:22:29

there is no muddy bank for them to dig this hole in.

0:22:290:22:31

But once they finish breeding, once the young have left,

0:22:310:22:33

they'll come up here because they know that there is lots of perches,

0:22:330:22:36

lots of fish here. So it's an ideal spot and, of course,

0:22:360:22:39

if you get quite a bit of rain, the rivers will be fast flowing.

0:22:390:22:43

They'll be silty.

0:22:430:22:45

Whereas this probably won't.

0:22:450:22:46

So it's a really good place for them, and even in winter,

0:22:460:22:49

and deep winter, if it gets really frosty, very icy, you get so many

0:22:490:22:54

people with dogs here and dogs coming into the water that

0:22:540:22:56

they're constantly breaking the ice, so no matter what the weather,

0:22:560:22:59

they can always fish. Great place for them.

0:22:590:23:02

There he goes, there he goes, though he goes! And back up again.

0:23:070:23:11

Oh, wow!

0:23:110:23:12

Oh, and off he goes.

0:23:140:23:15

She, I should say. Wow! I watched that all the way down,

0:23:150:23:19

right into the water and all the way back up again and then she's gone

0:23:190:23:21

off around the corner over there. I say "she" because I could see

0:23:210:23:24

a little bit of orange at the base of the bill here and...

0:23:240:23:27

Beautiful, beautiful bird.

0:23:270:23:29

And the amazing thing is, they've got this wonderful orange breast

0:23:290:23:32

and then blue, bright blue back,

0:23:320:23:34

but in the middle of the back they've got this line of

0:23:340:23:37

the brightest blue in the whole of the animal kingdom,

0:23:370:23:40

I would say. I mean, we're not in a tropical rainforest,

0:23:400:23:44

we're not in the Amazon here, we're in a country park

0:23:440:23:47

near Aberdare and there is a kingfisher here.

0:23:470:23:50

It's absolutely brilliant. Where's it gone now?

0:23:500:23:53

The Dare Valley has completely been transformed

0:24:040:24:08

from an industrial landscape to a managed wild parkland.

0:24:080:24:11

Even the few remaining visible remnants of coal mining

0:24:120:24:16

have largely been covered by plant growth.

0:24:160:24:19

I tell you, you wouldn't want to walk up here 25 years ago.

0:24:280:24:31

This would have looked...

0:24:310:24:33

very, very different then.

0:24:330:24:36

Nothing but... Well, no vegetation at all.

0:24:360:24:39

Just a big...spoil heap.

0:24:390:24:43

Bits of coal, bits of slag, just waste everywhere.

0:24:430:24:46

But look at it now. You can tell it's autumn, because the heather

0:24:460:24:49

has just gone over. Few flowers, but most of it's gone over now.

0:24:490:24:53

The bilberries - would have been full of bilberries, lovely eating,

0:24:530:24:56

of course. They've gone over.

0:24:560:24:58

And it's quiet and, on the surface at first, you might think,

0:24:580:25:01

you know what, there's not much here,

0:25:010:25:03

but it's incredible what you do find underfoot.

0:25:030:25:05

As I walk now, lots of insects coming up,

0:25:050:25:07

spiders scurrying away as well, and all of this, all the vegetation,

0:25:070:25:13

the heather, the bilberry, the grasses, the mosses,

0:25:130:25:16

all the insects, has colonised completely naturally.

0:25:160:25:20

It is covered everywhere. Just shows nature's amazing, really.

0:25:200:25:24

No matter what scars man leaves on the landscape,

0:25:240:25:27

if you leave it alone, nature will claim it back in time.

0:25:270:25:31

And, of course, if you get thousands of insects,

0:25:470:25:49

you're going to get predators and the most common ones here are

0:25:490:25:53

the spiders, and look at this one. It's one of the orb web spiders.

0:25:530:25:56

You can tell because you've only got to look at the shape of the web,

0:25:560:25:59

the anchors and this concentric webbing in the middle here.

0:25:590:26:03

And she's a female. She's a big old girl as well.

0:26:030:26:05

And she's just caught a crane fly. One of the crane flies has flown in

0:26:050:26:09

here, she's come straight out from her little den in there,

0:26:090:26:12

she's wound it up in the web.

0:26:120:26:14

She'll probably leave it there, come back and eat it later on.

0:26:140:26:17

But there will be literally thousands of them

0:26:170:26:21

up here on this coal tip,

0:26:210:26:23

just hoovering up all of these insects.

0:26:230:26:25

Little cracker, too. Look at the size on that!

0:26:250:26:28

There is a stunning view of the whole of the park

0:26:480:26:51

almost from up here, high up on the Darren.

0:26:510:26:53

And I think now in the autumn, it's at its beautiful best.

0:26:530:26:58

It's a time of change.

0:26:580:26:59

You can feel the change in the air. It's much cooler.

0:26:590:27:02

You can see the change all around you,

0:27:020:27:04

the leaves have gone beautiful reds and oranges and gold,

0:27:040:27:09

and the bracken is just russety brown all over the landscape here.

0:27:090:27:14

And, of course, this is a park that's seen huge changes from being

0:27:140:27:18

incredibly rural to industrial, the mines, the noise, the pollution...

0:27:180:27:23

It would have looked so, so different

0:27:230:27:25

and now it's back to being a natural looking park once more.

0:27:250:27:29

I tell you what's lovely, is that there is a small rowan tree

0:27:290:27:32

just about 20, 30 metres ahead of me here and it's full of berries.

0:27:320:27:37

Bright red berries. Acting like a magnet, drawing in birds.

0:27:370:27:40

I've seen song thrush feeding there,

0:27:400:27:42

there's been a small flock of fieldfares, goldfinch,

0:27:420:27:45

but best of all, and very apt, is at this moment,

0:27:450:27:49

there is a ring ouzel feeding on the berries, and I say it's apt because

0:27:490:27:53

the ring ouzel is the emblem of the park.

0:27:530:27:56

They haven't nested here for over a decade now,

0:27:560:28:00

but isn't it nice that a ring ouzel on its way from further north,

0:28:000:28:03

down to North Africa, has seen fit to call in to the park to refuel?

0:28:030:28:08

Nature expert Iolo Williams visits Dare Valley Country Park near Aberdare, right on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. It was the first country park in Wales, and the first in Britain to be built on reclaimed land. Up until the 1960s the valley had 19 coal mines and most of the landscape would have been toxic for wildlife. Today it has been completely transformed from an industrial landscape to managed wild parkland. Dippers, herons, cormorants and kingfishers frequent the Dare River and the newly constructed lakes. The thin soil over the old coal tips attracts scarce butterflies, like the dingy skipper, and the smaller insects and ants living amongst the grassy tussocks attract lizards.