This month we're kicking things off with the first of a two-part special down in lovely Pembrokeshire where our senior communications officer, Llinos Merriman, spoke to our colleague Phil Newman about his career and the great work they do in the Skomer Marine Conservation Zone.
Llion: Hi there and welcome to the very first episode of Cyfoeth, the Natural Resources Wales Environment Podcast. My name is Llion Bevan and I'm a senior communications officer, working for NRW.
Our work is broad, so we'll have no shortage of great stories to share with you.
We are a regulator protecting people and the environment, a land manager responsible for 7% of Wales's land area including woodlands and National Nature Reserves; a category one emergency responder to about 9,000 environmental incidents every year; a principal adviser to the Welsh Government and the largest supplier of certified sustainable timber in Wales with up to 835,000 cubic meters of timber being felled in our forests each year.
And there's so much more beyond that.
All in all, our work is to protect and promote the natural resources of Wales to help fix the local environment where it's needed and to protect it where it's special.
This month we're kicking things off with the first of a two-part special down in lovely Pembrokeshire where my fellow senior communications officer Llinos Merriman, spoke to our colleague Phil Newman about his career and the great work they do in the Skomer Marine Conservation Zone.
Now to be honest with you, we had planned to make one episode out of our visit to Skomer, but our colleagues had so many interesting things to say that we had to turn it into two episodes.
Over to you Llinos.
Llinos: Thanks Llion, I'm joined here by Phil Newman who is our senior Marine Environment Assessment officer at Skomer and thanks so much for joining me.
Phil: That's alright, you brought the weather with you too. Always a bonus.
Llinos: It’s absolutely glorious today, isn't it? So we're on Skelmy, which is our monitoring boat at the Skomer Marine Conservation Zone. First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the work you do?
Phil: OK, well, I started way back in the sort of late Ice Age, I think! In 1991 is when I first turned up, so I've been around for a little bit.
The work that we do is mainly marine monitoring - whether that's underwater or on the shores and includes both biology as well as water quality and oceanography, and that sort of thing. So, things like water temperature and how murky the water is, salinity things like that and some water chemistry stuff.
And then underwater we've got a whole series of sites set up with permanent sites that are marked out so we can find them from one year to the next, and looking at a range of different underwater communities.
Llinos: Sounds very varied. You've got a lot going on here. When we decided to launch the podcast, we wanted to start with something really quite special and a bit of a bang - so we decided to come here to join you at Skomer Marine Conservation Zone. But maybe for listeners who aren't familiar with it, can you tell us a bit more about the Conservation Zone itself and why it's so special?
Phil: OK, well, the Marine Conservation Zone extends around the island of Skomer. It goes up to the high watermark, so effectively we look after all the wet bits as we tell people.
The boundary then extends across to the mainland so to the Marloes Peninsula and the coasts and waters around that are included in the Marine Conservation Zone.
It's about 1,400 hectares of seabed; some of it is rock, some of it is sediment and we've got everything in between, so there's a whole range of different habitats there, and then on one side of the island, it's very sheltered from waves or wind and on the other side, it's exposed to the full force of the Atlantic storms, if you like.
And then we've got a 7-metre tidal range. To put on top of that, in some places there's very, very strong currents, and in other places there's barely any current at all, so by the time you've put together all those permutations and combinations, the number of different habitats we've got is phenomenal for one little patch of seabed. And of course, we get all the various animal and plant communities that are adapted to all those different habitats.
So the diversity of those communities is absolutely immense, and that was the reason that it was chosen in the 1st place back in 1990.
That was when it was designated as a Marine Nature Reserve a statutory Marine Nature Reserve, but that had been a process that had been going on for probably 20 years before that. The site has always been well known, as a site of very high biodiversity.
Llinos: That's really fascinating. It sounds like a lot of work has gone into making it what it is today. Are there any particular species that are really special here?
Phil: Well, part of the beauty of Skomer is that it's right at the edge of the range of a lot of species.
So there's some things like the pink sea fan which if you go any further north up the coast of Wales, fizzles out. So it's kind of the last stronghold if you like. Whereas down in the southwest of England, they are ten a penny down there. So we're right, bang on that that edge.
And then we get some northern species, so we're on the overlap between the two, so that helps to sort of improve the biodiversity as well.
But it means that with climate change we're in a good position here to see whether that's affecting some of the marine communities as well, because obviously that boundary will wobble in one way or another.
Llinos: OK, so it sounds like there is quite a lot of work that gets done here throughout the year. How would you manage to get it all done?
Phil: Well, Basically there's four of us in the team at Skomer MCZ. Two full time, two part time, so you know we're not full time people to start off with, and to form a diving team we have to have four commercially qualified divers.
So we spend as much of the good weather season - from beginning of April right through to the end of September - on the water or under it, or on the shores getting on with our work.
But obviously people need time off. They need holidays, they occasionally need to see their families! So when one of the team’s away, obviously that means the diving team can no longer function with only three people.
In that event, we've got a whole, pool of volunteers who are suitably qualified.
They've got all the commercial diving qualifications or the equivalents and, they come out to make up the numbers, and without them, certainly this year when we've had issues with certain members of staff being out of action, we couldn't have got anything done.
So the volunteer divers who help us as part of our team are incredibly important.
And then we have other projects which are just too big for our small teams handle on their own, so things like looking at our protected scallop population. We need to cover hundreds of square meters of seabed doing the surveys for that and that's where our teams of volunteer divers come in.
We charter in local dive charter boats, fill them with volunteer divers - and they get on with the work, which doesn't necessarily need any marine biological experience.
They just need to be competent divers who can recognize a scallop in the instance of the scallops surveys. And everybody has a thoroughly good time, provided the weather is OK. Loads and loads of scallops are brought up onto the deck of the boat. They're all counted. They're all measured and they have growth rings like a tree.
On the shell, so we can count the growth rings and we get really important statistics on how old the population is and how many of each age there are, and then all the scallops go back in again.
So if there are a few inexperienced divers who haven't done this survey before, the tears that they weep when they see the scallops go back in the water.
Unfortunately, if you took the scallops home, even one scallop might cost you £50,000, because that's what the fine is for, removing them.
Llinos: So these divers, it sounds like that you're all having a great time. Do you have to repeat volunteers that come back year on year or do they tend to be a good mix of different people?
Phil: Well, we definitely have repeat offenders. Don’t want to call them that really, but our first volunteer diver projects was to survey the eelgrass bed in North Haven, which is just behind us here.
We're tied up to the visitor moorings which help protect that eelgrass bed to stop people from anchoring in it because that damages it.
But if we were trying survey that yourself, it would take us all year just with our small team. So back in 1997 I think the first survey was done as an experiment really to see if we could use volunteer divers and we've got the same people coming back years and years later and insisting on coming back. Woe betide you if you missed them off the email list.
Llinos: Fab, it sounds like there's ever such a lot, I'm wondering, you've mentioned that it might take you almost a year to get just one type of monitoring done if it was just your small team. Does the season effect what sort of work you do at all? How does that workout? Do you do different types of work?
Phil: Yes, very definitely.
So in the supposedly good weather season - and again, that can be a mixed bag from year to year - we get all the sort of underwater stuff done, anything that really requires boat work.
And then towards the autumn we have the seal pups turn up so they are up to about 400 seal pups born within the Marine Conservation Zone and about a third of those are born on mainland beaches.
So from our office in Martin’s Haven we can simply walk out along the clifftops and count seal pups every few days and keep on top of those. But obviously on the island it's a much bigger job, so that's contracted out to us in the last few years the Wildlife Trust who have warden’s resident on the island so they're able to carry out that work for us.
But one of the beauties of having the team based in Martin’s Haven. And our boats on moorings in Martin’s Haven is there any good weather window regardless of what the weather forecast might have promised us, if it's different to that, we can get out at the drop of a hat and actually get on with some work.
So the use the amount of downtime is very, very limited because we can take that opportunity very quickly.
Llinos: So with the monitoring work that where collecting here and all the data that you're bringing together, does that get used for a particular purpose?
Phil: Yes, and there are numerous purposes for the monitoring work, whether it be the visitor and recreational visitor monitoring that we do, which is almost unparalleled in the UK.
Nobody collects that sort of level of information anywhere else. And even with fishing intensity, the same can be said of that.
So bits and pieces of data are used for different sort of policy drivers.
But the overall purpose of the monitoring that we do is to be able to report on the status of the site itself. And the fact that the Marine Conservation Zone is slap bang in the middle of the Pembrokeshire Marine Special Area of Conservation means that we can also contribute to reporting on that site and a lot of our data goes towards that as well.
So it's multiple uses and as one of our colleague Catherine Duigan coined the phrase - sample once use many times for data that's quite difficult to acquire.
Llinos: Great so I can hear some people in the background and I can see some boats milling about us here. So I'm wondering how many visitors you get in a year. What's your average intake?
Phil: It varies quite a lot from year to year. Some years we can be absolutely
bombarded with people on sit on top Canoes and kayaks, and every year we will get several hundred kayaks particularly. Some of the commercially lead groups of kayaks come out to Martin's Haven and set out, and they can they go right around the island and back again. So there maybe a dozen or more kayaks or in a group like that, but with a professional guide and we have a very good working relationship with the professional guides - one of whom actually replace our oarblade on our Dinghy free of charge, bless them, so yeah, good working relationship there.
Then we have anglers, and we maybe have several hundred anglers in a year. Divers used to be in the thousands - we used to have thousands and thousands of divers coming out, but for one reason or another, those numbers have diminished - popularity of overseas holidays, I think has probably contributed it.
You're guaranteed nice clearwater warm conditions and that could be a little bit of a mixed bag In Pembrokeshire.
But in COVID we're seeing a lot more divers this year than we have in previous years.
Llinos: Winning them back around! And so how has that affected your monitoring work? The state of things has coronavirus did it impact you quite heavily?
Phil: Well that yes. In 2020, basically nothing happened at all, so the lockdown came. And because of all the precautions that were being taken at the time it was deemed that working on small boats you couldn't socially distance, so we we’re put on to other duties for the whole of 2020, which meant sitting at our desks, which is very much goes against the grain to a team are used to being out in the field. It's the first time in 30 years that we've been stopped completely from doing our monitoring.
You know, we've survived storms, the Sea Empress oil spill. All sorts of things, even staff shortages, and we've still managed to get out and do most of, if not all of, our monitoring program, The knock on has continued into this year a little bit in that we're about six weeks late starting our monitoring program, so that's caused some issues.
But we're working around with sort of COVID precautions in place and we're going as fast as we can to try and sort of make up for lost time on that particular front.
Llinos: So has it in terms of thinking about you've mentioned that you've got this great bulk of data that have been collected over 30 years has the inability to go out over the last year, has that affected the robustness of that data at all?
Phil: It's made a gap, which is always bad news in any data set, and fortunately because we've been collecting the data over such a long period, it means that that data set is more robust.
So having one year dropout needn't necessarily be a catastrophe. Having said that, we can miss a year and if something will happen during that year and we've got no monitoring to find out what the situation was before that incident happened.
We were just lucky in that in the year that we weren't able to do any monitoring, nothing awful happened - that we know of yet. We will report at the end of this year if that's not the case.
Llinos: A little birdy told me Phil that you're retiring this year after 30 years here at Skomer, and I'm sure you've got a whole raft of highlights to choose from. But could you maybe tell us about a couple of them?
Phil: Yeah, time off for good behaviour!
Yes, Yeah, it's kind of weird thinking that I won't be out here doing this sort of thing, in a few months’ time. Yeah, there are all sorts of highlights. I mean, it's a fantastic job to be able to do.
And having been here this long, I've been here long enough to see the changes.
Some good, some not so good admittedly, but it’s being able to see the impacts of our management, I think, which is most satisfying.
We've got, so we've got the protective scallop population like mentioned before, and the fact that we are out here making sure that fishery bylaw is enforced even by soft enforcement just by being here in people’s faces.
But, to be able to see the scallop population rebounding as it has done, so there are many, many times more scallops here now than they were here now than they were when I first appeared so see and to also see the recovery set in the sediments seabed where the scallops live, because that's no longer subject to trawling or dredging, let alone taking scallops away. The whole diversity of that sediment seabed has just gone through the roof people, I mean the people who we send samples off to are just flabbergasted by the number of species.
And the sheer abundance of stuff in what’s basically muddy gravel. Yeah, so yeah, that's very satisfying.
There's been various incidents over the years where you know I'd be terrified, happy, sad, in when I'm doing the monitoring work and I realized that perhaps the pink sea fan that I've been taking photograph of dutifully every year for the past 25 years is no longer there and it's just vanished.
And that can hit you.
Or a site where that's been getting particularly badly impacted by loss of sea fans. You just wonder where the next steps are going happen in that
And sort of peaks of excitement. One is when we found an unexploded parachute mine from the Second World War right next to one of our monitoring sites. Been there peacefully for 70-80 years. And yes, we just happened across that, all 750kilos of the Third Reich best high explosive - still fully viable according to the bomb disposal guys who came out, took it away and blew it up.
Llinos: I, I'm really surprised to hear that I'm glad I asked that question. Do you know what you're going to be doing with your retirement? Any special plans?
Phil: Uh, catch up on my sleep? No I think, well, I've already filled out the paperwork to sign on as a volunteer because I figure that there's still a few more good years in me that the Marine Conservation Zone can benefit from.
So I'm hoping to come out and do some diving work with the team in the future.
And the go home again before I have to do any of the paperwork!
Llinos: Sounds Wonderful, lovely, got all the best bits!
Llion: And that's it for this month. Thanks for joining us on our trip to the Skomer Marine Conservation Zone. I know that Llinos and I have learned a great deal from talking to Phi4l.
In next month's episode will carry on with our visit to Skomer. We'll talk to our colleagues, Kate Lock and Mark Burton about the different kinds of shoreline monitoring they do at the marine conservation zone.
Will also be catching up with Phil for a short question and answer session.
So if you want to ask any questions of Phil about his work, message us on social media or tweet using the hashtag #NRWpodcastqs.
That's NRWpodcastQS. We'll put that in the episode description if you need to check it, but be sure to get them in quick because he's retiring at the end of September.
Now, as I said at the start of this episode, this is our very first foray into podcasting, so please bear with us.
There might be some bumps on the road, but we're having a great time in building the podcast and we know it's a great way to give people a detailed look into our work and to know more about the people who make up NRW.
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Thanks for listening.