North of Tywyn, a 19th-century land reclamation dyke heads from the Wales coastal path to the Ynysymaengwyn estate. At wintry dawn through a glass, I watched passing squadrons of dark, goose-sized birds, necks outstretched, wings beating powerfully before they glided down into Morlyn – a square kilometre of coastal lagoon formerly known as Broadwater. The birds were cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo). Their rookery – the only inland breeding colony in Wales – is four miles upriver on a former sea cliff, Craig yr Aderyn, where their presence was first recorded in 1695 by the Welsh naturalist Edward Lhuyd. (An early Welsh poem suggests that they were already long established at that date.)
These prehistoric-seeming birds splashed down, sat low in the water with heads upraised, then dived with the serpentine spasm that earns them their Welsh name of Bilidowcar (Billy the ducker) to seek out flatfish and eels. After they’d caught and swallowed their awkward prey, they emerged from a channel through Morlyn to waddle on to sandbanks in the twisting course of the river. There they stood in habitual pose, wings outstretched. (Their wings lack weatherproofing, to decrease buoyancy in diving – a marvellous evolutionary touch – so must be dried before flight.)
Until recent times, Welsh angling associations offered bounties for the heads of cormorants. Now even the wildfowling fraternity around Broadwater SSSI has its activities constrained, mainly thanks to diligent work by Marged Tudor-Turner in pressing the Ordnance Survey to resurvey tidal limits along the Afon Dysynni. Her work with oceanographers from Bangor University has established that the lagoon “predominantly fluctuates in response to river inputs, rather than tidal exchange”. This has been of crucial importance here, for crown estate leases of shooting rights are dependent on foreshore classification: if the banks are riparian, they’re not crown estate and can’t be leased by that body to the shooters.
The Unesco Dyfi biosphere (of which Morlyn should be a part) is a haven for lapwings and curlews – both declining species, here being one of their last strongholds. Marged and her fellow conservationists have won a famous victory for wildlife. Let’s hope the threat of species loss prevails against this bloody “sport”.