The Lakes of Wales by Frank Ward (1931) – A Welsh Natural History Classic


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Ward, Frank (1931).  The Lakes of Wales – a guide for anglers and others, the fishing, scenery, legends and place names, with some mention of river fishing.   Herbert Jenkins. 

Writing a review of a book published in 1931 may seem like a strange thing to do but The Lakes of Wales by Frank Ward deserves recognition as a Welsh natural history classic.   Although written primarily as a fishing guide, this book blends together a charming combination of landscape descriptions, place names, travel information, fish and folklore. The later part of the book is a comprehensive encyclopaedia of individual entries for over 200 lakes visited by the author. It was the subject of many favourable reviews shortly after publication.

The descriptions of some of the lakes are colourful and poetic, as you might expect from a writer who was also an accomplished water colour artist.  Gloywllyn is described as “a fairy scene under blue skies”, while Llyn Glas is “a vivid emerald dropped into its grey hollow beneath the summit of Snowdon”.

Ward seemed most at home in the mountains where he recognized wild grandeur in desolate locations.  He especially loved the landscapes of Snowdonia which he considered “so unique and so accessible that its preservation is of national importance”.   This reads like his contribution to the contemporary public debate on conservation and access to the countryside.  No doubt he took satisfaction in living to see the designation of Snowdonia National Park in 1951.  In contrast he also described “the disfigurement of a large part of once beautiful South Wales, now strewn with the debris of commercialism”.

He also had an appreciation of geological features and processes.  He describes how the hydrology of Llyn Ogwen was altered to flow into the Nant Ffrancon valley following a landslide which cut off its drainage in the opposite direction towards Capel Curig.   The area and maximum depths of many of the waterbodies are cited.  I have yet to see a floating island in a Welsh lake but Ward describes legends and omens associated with them from several locations.

A modern freshwater ecologist in Wales can also appreciate the environmental significance of some of the observations made by Frank Ward.

One of the most striking observations for me was Ward’s division of Welsh lakes into two classes; “upland surface water of a high degree of purity, and very soft”; and “the second class are a number of lakes derived from their supply of water entirely or in part from limestone formations.”  This ecological division is still discernible today as the most recent scientific analysis of Welsh lakes published by the Countryside Council for Wales (2011) showed a strong altitudinal gradient, with alkalinity, conductivity, phosphorus, iron and geographic location having a strong influence.  In the book the water in some mountain lakes is described as peaty, supporting dark coloured trout populations.  These lakes continue to exist today associated with blanket bog in north and mid-Wales.

For Frank Ward catching trout was obviously the primary objective and “a Welsh lake yielding trout of an average weight of 1/4 lb. is a reasonably good one” but there was also the possibility of catching salmon, sea trout and charr.  References to coarse fishing sound secondary to this trout connoisseur.

The fish stocking history of a number of Welsh lakes is recorded with references to the introduction to mountain lakes of the “Loch Leven” strain of brown trout usually by the local land owner.  Lord Penrhyn moved trout from Llyn Ogwen, Snowdonia, to Cororion, on Anglesey.  Ward believed that “introduced” fish could not “in any way rival the native trout in beauty of form, colour or marking”.   Rainbow trout were also being used at some sites.  While in more ancient times the monks of Strata Florida favoured trout from Shropshire, with Llyn Gwyn being used to breed carp for stocking purposes.   In the early decades of the 1900’s the Anglesey Lakes were going through a transition to coarse fisheries.  Ward reports that Llyn Maelog was “an excellent trout lake, but as was the case with other good lakes in this part of Anglesey, it was unfortunately stocked with coarse fish, which multiplied greatly at the expense of the trout”.  Ward observed a common trend of progressive decline in fish size in stocked artificial lakes and he presented data for several locations.

There is an intriguing reference to brook trout, Salmo fontinalis, in a privately owned lake above the Llyfnant Valley near Machynlleth.  The gwyniad in Llyn Tegid are described as “a beautiful silvery fish, similar in habits to the char, usually swimming about in shoals”.  A keeper at the Natural History Museum in London supported the interpretation that the fish in Gwenog, near Lampeter, may once have worn gold chains.  This bling was probably a medieval form of fish tagging used on valuable Pike or Carp.

Notably some very isolated natural mountain lakes were reported as devoid of fish but containing “lizards”, presumably newts, and sometimes frogs.   Naturally fishless Scottish lakes are known to have newts as top predators in the foodweb, and Ward provides evidence that these types of lakes existed in Wales.  The descriptions of some the high altitude trout populations suggest they were struggling to survive, presumably having little to eat. For example large numbers of small dark trout with large heads and enormous eyes were present in Llyn Hywel in the Rhinog mountain range.

Descriptions of the aquatic vegetation are relatively rare and vary from Llyn Y Fan Fach in the Brecon Beacons being “bare of weeds of any kind”, to a small “peaty lake” near Conwy “quite unfishable” due to “the weeds that cover most of the surface”. Water lilies grew in one lake after St. Mary bathed in its waters!   Tecwyn Isaf is described as a small picturesque lake having many water-lilies.

Frank Ward would not have heard of “Acid Rain”, an international atmospheric pollution phenomenon derived largely from fossil-fuel combustion.  Due to local geology and land use Welsh lakes were relatively vulnerable to the acidifying effects of this largely invisible pollutant.   Scientific studies of Welsh lake sediments have shown that lakes in mid-Wales began to become more acid from around the 1870’s and this intensified in the mid-1930s when Ward published his book.  Eventually a number of trout populations failed to reproduce.  Welsh anglers reported this impact from a number of lakes.  But Ward gives little indication of concern as Llyn Hir still contains large trout but the Teifi Pools, with more peaty water, have “trout not of particularly good quality”.

However Ward did make the connection between loss of fish populations and the more direct and local effects of metal mining.  He says lakes near Bodgynydd were “poisoned by copper washings and are destitute of fish”.  The waterbodies associated with the copper mines on Parys Mountain, Anglesey, had red water and no fish.   Llydaw on Snowdon once held “many good trout but was poisoned by copper working”.  Ward also reports the lower lake at Nantlle being almost filled in with slate debris and mud.  This lake is gone today but can still be seen in the painting Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, 1765, by Richard Wilson.   Debris from a quarry was also filling up Llyn Peris at Llanberis.  In addition poaching, including the use of otter boards and nets, is implicated in the poor state of some lake trout populations.

The Lakes of Wales has a description of a pollution incident in April 1930 on the River Ely at Cardiff when large numbers of trout jumped from the river to escape the  toxic water and died on the banks of what was once considered one of the best trout streams in South Wales. Dam bursts are also recorded with the loss of fish and human lives.  From a more positive perspective fish were returning to tributaries of the Severn following recovery from lead pollution.

At this time it was evident that fishing rights were complicated and controlled by private owners, local angling associations, district councils,  Crown Estate and the Forestry Commissioners or sometimes free.

In the mid-1900’s Welsh lakes were already delivering an ecosystem service in the form of potable water to local areas and across the border into England.  For example, Bodlyn supplied water to Barmouth, while Alwen Reservoir, near Bangor, was the Birkenhead Water Supply.  A number of mountain lakes, such as Llyn Y Fan Fach in the Brecon Beacons, had been impounded.  It is acknowledged that many of the reservoirs provided excellent fishing opportunities but they needed ongoing management.  The extensive reservoir system of the Elan Valley owned by the city of Birmingham was in operation.  Ward was very impressed by beauty and grandeur of Lake Vyrnwy Reservoir which in his opinion “is excelled by few even of the natural lakes of Wales”.

There was a well developed fishing based tourist industry associated with some lakes, such as Tal-y-llyn which had railway access and an onshore hotel with boats on the lake, or the Royal Hotel on Llynnau Mymbyr with its famous views of Snowdon.  Llangorse Lake was also accessible by train and its large pike and eels were legendary.

To conclude, The Lakes of Wales represents a valuable environmental snapshot in time which will continue to be a useful reference for future freshwater ecologists seeking insights into environmental change.  I also use it as my eclectic field guide which I consult if I have an interest in a particular lake.  If I don’t learn something about the fish, I am usually entertained by poetic descriptions and tales of battles, submerged cities, witches, giants, fairies or lake monsters.

Copies of The Lakes of Wales can be purchased on Amazon. THE LAKES OF WALES: A Guide For Anglers And Others. The Fishing, Scenery, Legends and Place Names with some Mention of River Fishing

Catherine Duigan is co-author of the current British lake classification scheme published by The Joint Nature Conservation Committee.  

Coole Park – a turlough and a terrier

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View across basin of Coole Park Turlough, Co. Galway. Photo © Warren Kovach

28 July, 2014.

“Turlough” is an Irish word which has transferred into the international language of limnology.  It has been translated in various ways such as the contradictory “dry lake”, but it is generally agreed that it means a place which dries out.  In Ireland turloughs are associated with the hydrology of karstic limestone areas.

According to Micheline Sheehy Skeffington in “Secrets of the Irish Landscape – The Story of the Irish Landscape is the Story of Ireland” (2013):  “Turloughs are temporary wetlands which usually flood in late autumn to produce a lake-strewn winter landscape in and around East Galway and Mayo, where they are common.  They drain in spring, exposing wet grassland, which by summer shows little or no trace of water.  The flooding and emptying is a function of rainfall intensity so that in wet summers they can re-fill for many weeks.  Over 400 have been documented in Ireland, where they were once thought to be unique, but one has been identified in Wales and now a few in Slovenia.”

There is a distinct pleasure in revisiting places after a long absence.  Perhaps this drew me to visiting Coole Park and it’s turlough near Gort, County Galway.  The house which once stood here is well known as the former home of Lady Gregory and her literary and artistic guests, such as Augustus John, George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats.  The water body was one of my Ph.D zooplankton sampling site, when I did see the wild swans of Coole which inspired a poem by Yeats.

Today it was overcast but very mild.  The guide at the visitor centre seemed to understand why visitors might request directions to the turlough.  She gave us a map.  We needed to go along the path past the pump house where once a horse walked in circles to provide unfiltered water for Lady Gregory and her household.  Although there was consternation when leeches were found in the bath!

We were told to check out the pictures on the nearby shelter of the severe flood and freeze event in the winter of 2009-10.  Basically, high water levels in the turlough corresponded with very cold weather.  Ice formed on the water surface adhering to submerged tree branches and created a still discernible ‘snap line’ of broken branches when the water retreated.  The incorporation of recent events into site interpretation really does help engage visitors.

Potentilla

Potentilla. Photo © Warren Kovach.

It was a visual shock to emerge from the dark woodland into the open vista of the turlough.  The classic vegetation zonation first described by Robert Lloyd Praeger was laid out before us, with the species most tolerant of submersion in the bottom of the basin.  The path lead through the Potentilla zone, alongside some of the last remaining clusters of flowering Fen Violet, Viola persicifolia.  The surrounding walls demarcating the woodland were black with moss, probably Cinclidotus fontinaloides.  Alongside the river flowing into the remnant lake, cattle and horses grazed on the emerged summer pasture.  There were no swans today but there was a silhouette of a flock of ducks on the distant lake.

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Fen Violet, Viola persicifolia. Photo by © Warren Kovach.

I took an excursion into the lower part of the basin alongside the river.  Although the soil was dried out and cracked, it was still soft under foot.  The only clue to the aquatic seasonality of the turlough was the desiccated aquatic snail shells.  But this stressed environment provided ideal conditions for the mudwort, Limnosella aquatica, a plant.

Then I looked up and the little brown terrier appeared.  It sped around me in circles at high speed barely making the tight turn to pass between me and the river.  Its paws kicked up small clods of soil like a horse in the Galway Races! Turns out this little rascal was evading capture from a leash being brandished by its family, Mum and two small children.  The dog paused to catch its breathe midway between us.  It had a choice – do an encore circuit with my encouragement or return to its owners. I was not surprised it gave in to temptation but this time the dog’s brakes failed and it made an undignified dive into the river to everyone’s amusement.  It quickly scrambled out without assistance.  At least the dip washed off the turlough mud and cooled the dog’s enthusiasm.  We exchanged a few words of reassurance with the owners that the dog would probably be dry by the time it was back to the car.

TurloughTerrier

Turlough Terrier. Photo © Warren Kovach.

Then we returned along the path through the woodland. Interpretation boards reminded us we were walking through the seven woods of Coole which inspired W.B. Yeats:
“I walked among the seven woods of Coole:
Shan-walla, where a willow-bordered pond
Gathers the wild duck from the winter dawn…”

Turloughs are a priority habitat for conservation under the EC Habitats Directive.