The “door remains open” on a campaign group’s bid to designate one of mid Wales’ treasured landscapes as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but there is still a “fairly long road”, with no designation likely for at least another three years.
A petition calling for the Cambrian Mountains to be protected as an AONB collected more than 20,000 signatures last year, leading to a debate in the Senedd on the future of the landscape.
As the area gets sets to celebrate the second annual Cambrian Mountains Day on 28 February, the Cambrian Mountains Society (CMS) – the group behind the ambitious bid to get the AONB designation – told the Cambrian News that work continues to bring the title to the area.
Lorna Brazell, secretary of the CMS, said the group had “a very constructive meeting” after the Senedd debate with Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths’ team, and also the Designated Landscapes and Operations teams from Natural Resources Wales, but that any decision will not be taken soon.
The Senedd debate saw the bid gain the backing of three quarters of the MSs in the plenary session, others rejected the idea, including Dwyfor Meirionnydd MS Mabon ap Gwynfor who told the meeting that “setting a designation such as AONB is not going to benefit this area”, and would put “additional financial pressures on Ceredigion, Powys and Carmarthenshire, and these counties are already facing grim financial times”.
Of the nearly 21,000 final signatures on the petition, around 6,560 of them were from Ceredigion, which “demonstrates the strength of local people’s support for AONB status”, the CMS said.
The Cambrian Mountains are clearly an area of great beauty and tranquillity, as well as being of great importance for the Welsh language and for farming. The petition articulately sets out some of the qualities of this landscape, and I welcome this debate on its future.
Lesley Griffiths, Rural Affairs Minister
Now debates have begun at Senedd level, the group is optimistic that the bid will move forward but admit that issues need to be resolved – hurdles that will not be overcome during the current Senedd, which runs until 2026.
Ms Brazell said: “The upshot is that there isn’t going to be time in this Senedd to make a designation order.
“NRW’s team have their hands full with the proposed Clwydian Range and Dee Valley National Park, which they are doing their utmost to bring into being before the end of the current Senedd.
“But they confirmed ‘the door is open’ for the next Senedd.
“So we are now working to put some more detail on what a Cambrian Mountains AONB could look like.
“There are obvious issues that have to be addressed, for example access.
“The roads that actually cross the uplands are few and small, so park and ride arrangements (such as are now operating in Snowdonia and Gower) will be important as well as potential income generators to support additional visitor facilities, especially in and around the ‘necklace towns’ which would be the communities most immediately affected.
“We’re also looking to talk to the individual farmers and other landholders within the uplands, to make sure the AONB is framed to support their interests - that’s the core difference between an AONB and a National Park.
“A National Park is for visitors but an AONB is meant to be about helping develop a sustainable long-term local economy.
“So, it is still a fairly long road ahead but we’re really pleased with how much public support the campaign has had so far.
“We estimate just over 10 per cent of the Ceredigion electorate signed the petition, which is amazing, and the support in Carmarthenshire was nearly as strong.
“We’re optimistic we can get the balance right.”
Speaking at the meeting, Ms Griffiths said: “The Cambrian Mountains of mid Wales are clearly an area of great beauty and tranquillity, as well as being of great importance for the Welsh language and for farming.
“The petition articulately sets out some of the qualities of this landscape, and I welcome this debate on its future.
“It would not be appropriate for me to agree to designate a new AONB here and now, but I’m open to a dialogue as we explore what we need and want from our landscapes.”
The Cambrian uplands spread across Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Powys, and includes exceptional glaciated plateaux, lakes, mountain rivers and valleys and host a wide range of threatened plants and animals – yet are the only area in Wales to have no formal protection whatsoever.
The Mountains form the ‘backbone’ of Wales, and run from historic Pumlumon in the north, to Rhandirmwyn in the south.
The campaign for AONB status has been backed by numerous high-profile supporters including Iolo Williams, TV naturalist, who is the Cambrian Mountains Society’s president; Sir Simon Jenkins, former Times editor, current Guardian columnist, and former chair of the National Trust; celebrated author and award-winning journalist, Neil Ansell; and BBC broadcaster and writer, Mary Colwell.
Sir Jenkins said it was a “tragic mistake”, that a plan to make the area a National Park back in the 1970s did not go through, leading to the “gradual erosion of the visual beauty of central Wales”.
Mr Ansell, whose book Deep Country describes his five years living in the area, describes the Cambrian Mountains as the “most under-appreciated area in Wales”.
Mr Williams describes the area as “Wales’ last true wilderness, a place where you can lose yourself in nature”.
The long-running campaign – first mooted several years ago – has been reported on by the Cambrian News for the past 18 months as moves continue in a bid to force politicians to look at granting the coveted status.
The petition says: “AONB designation would bring balance between development, local communities’ needs and people’s need for green space.”
“Conservation of these uplands gets little attention,” the petition said.
“Farms are bought up for conifer planting or for large wind farms despite the lack of infrastructure.
“So beautiful a region needs protection and longer term rural employment.”
On 28 February, the second Cambrian Mountains Day will be held, following on from the success of the first in 2022 where the Cambrian Mountains: Area of Astounding Natural Beauty brand was launched with a new-look website.
Dafydd Wyn Morgan, projects manager for the Cambrian Mountains Initiative, said of this year’s efforts: “We are encouraging as many Cambrian Mountains supporters to fly the flag on social media this year by sharing their favourite image, experience or place and by using #cambrianmountainsday and #cambrianmountains in their messages.”
“Cambrian Mountains communities need support now more than ever with the rural economy continuing to be as resilient as ever despite increasing challenges and hardships.”
He added: “Specifically, but not exclusively, there are some amazing local producers in the Cambrian Mountains working as a network to create incredible produce – many carrying the Cambrian Mountains brand logo – as well as those local produce ‘champions’ who offer significant shelf space to promote and sell local produce across the area.
“Similarly, consider all the hard-working holiday accommodation owners who work all hours to ensure that visitors get the best holiday experience by preparing properties meticulously, as well as signposting guests to places to eat and drink, attractions to visit and activities to try.
“By raising the profile of the Cambrian Mountains on 28 February we can all play a very small part in ensuring that the people, communities and businesses of the region have a brighter future.
“They will also appreciate the fact that we have them in our minds on this day.”