Gower: Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: Sometimes Described as Wales in Miniature Due to the Diversity of Its Landscape, Gower Is One of the UK's Most Protected Areas. Jo Sargent Explores the Peninsula as It Celebrates 50 Years of AONB Status

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Standing on a sunny cliff-top in Rhossili, looking out over a sea as smooth as a millpond, it's easy to understand why Gower was picked to become Britain's first ever Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Worms Head, one of the most photographed locations in Wales and one of four tidal islands found off the Gower coast, snakes off into the distance. To the north, gulls soar above an enormous strip of golden dunes, and just around the headland is Three Cliff Bay, voted one of the five best views in Britain by Country Life magazine in 2002.

Named after the peninsula's rounded shape--Gower is the anglicised form of the Welsh word gwyr, meaning curved--the area had already been recognised as having significant natural importance even before it became an AONB in 1956. The National Trust first purchased land in Gower in 1933 and now actively manages a total of 2,226 hectares, including 42 kilometres of coastline--almost three quarters of Gower's coast. In all, the region contains a staggering amount of protected land--25 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, five Candidate Special Areas of Conservation, three National Nature Reserves, a Special Protection Area, a Ramsar site, three Local Nature Reserves, 23 Wildlife Trust Reserves, 67 Ancient Woodland sites, and one Coed Cadw Reserve. It's an impressive list, but as Jonathan Mullard, author of New Naturalist Gower and former countryside officer for the AONB, explains "Gower is important because of its diversity. Although it's probably only about 207 kilometres square, it has Britain's biggest calcareous dune system, it has one of the biggest freshwater marshes, one of the biggest areas of common land and contains the largest estuary that is wholly in Wales."

But it isn't merely the diversity of the landscape that marks Gower out as special--it's the way that these different environments intermingle and allow wildlife to thrive. "There are no sharp divisions between these habitats," says Mullard. "They merge, and that's really good for wildlife. So, in Whitford, you've got the sea, then the beach, pioneer dunes, mid dunes and rear dunes, then there's a seepage area, a freshwater marsh strip, saltwater marshland, the estuary and then woodland. There are no hard edges in Gower, which is great because there are too many areas of countryside that have become over-maintained, like intensively managed fields."

There is farming within the area--indeed, agriculture is still a vital part of the local economy--but it is, according to Mullard, "primarily benign and mostly made up of small family farms". This ethos of traditional land management is echoed in the continued use of common land by the local community--a third of the designated AONB is still classed as heath or common land. "People have common rights," explains Mullard. "It's all associated with landholdings, so depending how much land a farm owns, the tenant and the farmer combined, they will get so many stints on the common." Each stint gives the farmer the right to graze a certain number of livestock on the land, and the grazing process has become an integral part of the ecosystem. If common land isn't grazed, the area becomes covered with scrub, creating a monoculture that can have a negative impact upon the local wildlife.

But one of the main things that makes Gower unusual is its proximity to the city of Swansea. Driving into the AONB, you're immediately struck by the juxtaposition of urban Swansea and the rolling green space it borders. This closeness of city and country has both positive and negative impacts. While creeping urbanisation, such as the introduction of streetlights and road signs, has been detrimental, the proximity of the AONB has also encouraged a strong sense of ownership within the city's residents (see A sense of preservation), and ultimately, as Mullard points out, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it's vital that people come to behold it. "One of the main threats to any AONB is indifference," he concludes. …