We drove from Tregaron, approaching Nant Irfon National Nature Reserve from a northerly direction, and even though it was a grey November day the drive through the Cambrian Mountains and valleys was magnificent and one we will definitely repeat in summer.
The Irfon Valley was once covered by a vast ancient forest, and the remaining area of oak woodland that is preserved in this NNR is a remnant of that forest. On the trees and exposed rocks there are numerous species of lichens and mosses, while other habitats within Nant Irfon NNR support interesting plant communities and the birdlife that is typical of this classic upland landscape of Wales.
Nant Irfon NNR is managed by Natural Resources Wales (NRW).
From Llanwrtyd Wells take the unmarked road towards Abergwesyn and Tregaron.
Once through the village of Abergwesyn continue along the road signed to Tregaron until you see a large riverside layby on the left-hand side of the road; there you will see an Information Board, set on a stone plinth, displaying a map and details of Nant Irfon NNR.
If you drive from Tregaron take the turn in front of the Talbot Hotel towards Abergwesyn, and continue along the so-called Abergwesyn Mountain Road ignoring turns to Llyn Brianne. The NNR car park will on the right-hand side of the road at the bottom of the Irfon Valley.
The nature reserve has open access throughout the year, but there are no formal footpaths and the going can be rough. Good, stout footwear is essential and visitors should be careful of deep pools, boggy ground and swift-flowing streams. This NNR is not suitable for wheelchair users or for prams and pushchairs.
There are no facilites other than interpretation boards at the reserve itself, but there are a café and toilets at Coed Trallwm Visitor Centre, which is a privately run operation, on the road between Abergwesyn and Beulah. Predominantly a mountain-bike centre, this facility welcomes visitors (even if they are not mountain bikers) during their open season which runs from February (school half-term holidays) to mid-November. There are also cafés, shops and pubs in Llanwrtyd Wells, and the Elan Valley Estate Visitor Centre is only about eight km (five miles) from this nature reserve.
Although it is unusual for oak trees to grow at this altitude, the oak woodland at Nant Irfon has the excellent birdlife associated with other such woodlands in Wales. Many typical species are present in spring and summer including Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita), Redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca), Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) and Wood Warblers (Phylloscopus sibilatrix). If you are lucky you may catch a glimpse of a Treecreeper (Certhia familaris) or a Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), too.
In the open heaths and acid grasslands there are Northern Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe), Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra) and Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis), while along the river and streams you might catch sight of a Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), a Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), or perhaps even a few Dippers (Cinclus cinclus) squabbling among themselves or standing on emergent rocks and 'bobbing' up and down as they wait patiently for some sign of insect life below the surface of the water.
Some of our rarest breeding birds are present in this wild and remote place, including Merlins (Falco columbarius), Hawfinches (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) and the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus minor) which has white 'bars' across its back and a larger red crown than the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). Other birds seen frequently in the area include Red Kites (Milvus milvus), Buzzards (Buteo buteo), Golden Plovers (Pluvialis apricaria) and Ravens (Corvus corax).
Apart from being a very good place to see birds, the oak woodland at Nant Irfon NNR is host to many kinds of lichens, liverworts, ferns and mosses. The combination of ancient woodland trees and the high humidity created by copious amounts of rain (over 200cm annually), is perfect for lower plants, and more than 400 species have been recorded at this site including the rare Wilson's Filmy Fern, which hides away in the dark rocky parts of the woods.
Much of the area is composed of acid grassland. While a casual glance at this type of landscape, especially in winter, may lead you to conclude that it is featureless and rather boring, it is nevertheless an important wildlife habitat and one that is vital to the survival of many plants, insects, reptiles, birds and other animals.
Typical grasses in drier parts of the Reserve are Sheep's Fescue (Festuca ovina), Wavy Hair-grass (Deschampsia flexuosa) and Common Bent (Agrostis capillaris), and in summer they are accompanied by the flowers of Heather (Calluna vulgaris), Tormentil (Potentilla erecta) and Heath Bedstraw (Galium saxatile).
In the southern part of the reserve, where there are persistent springs and water seepage, the flora is richer and more diverse. Species such as Globeflower (Trollius europaeus), Heath Spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata), Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), Devils-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) and the lovely Bog Asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum) all bloom there in the summertime. Globeflower is becoming very rare in the UK, but we still have a few places in Wales where this wonderful, bright yellow member of the buttercup family can still be seen. Bog Asphodel, which is also a lovely golden colour, isn't just noticeable in summer: its spent flowerspikes turn a deep orangey-brown in autumn and are often a prominent feature of the grassland long after all other flowers have finished blooming.