Llanbedr Airfield near Harlech used to be a Royal Air Force base for operations against enemy raiders, and more recently it has been used for training and research. But throughout its military life the airfield has also guarded the floor of the coastal plain of Ardudwy and the stunning dunes of Morfa Dyffryn.
For many years the presence of the military contributed to the conservation of the dune habitat within the airfield, which is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its wildlife value.
Dotted over the site are several emergency water supply tanks built to provide water for fire engines in case of emergencies when the airfield was operational. These tanks have attracted an unexpected visitor over the years with a population of the endangered great crested newt using them for breeding since the 1960's.
Without maintenance as part of a working airfield, these would quickly deteriorate and dry up, so threatening the only population of the great crested newt in Gwynedd. But with a restoration grant from the Ministry of Defence a new semi-natural pool will be created close to the runway site to provide an ideal breeding ground for the amphibians. This work was funded by Defence Estates as part of a UK-wide project to improve the condition of SSSIs on MOD land.
Morfa Dyffryn Senior Reserve Manager Graham Williams said: "It's very strange that the newts were here in the first place as the ponds are totally artificial and largely devoid of plants needed for egg laying. Over the years the newts had learnt to lay eggs on shredded pieces of silage wrap which blew in from neighbouring land."
Local contractors and CCW staff have cleared a large area of overgrown scrub and relocated approx 7500 tonnes of sand to restore a natural dune slack habitat, which incorporates breeding ponds and purpose built hibernation sites for the newts. Around 10000 tonnes of concrete hardstanding and old wartime building foundations have also been removed to extend the area of natural habitat. In total, 1.5 hectares of dune slack has been restored and given time it is hoped that the site will be awash with colourful native dune plants such as creeping willow and a variety of beautiful orchids.
Oliver Howells, Defence Estates Natural Environment Adviser said: "Without the support of the local CCW staff this project would have been very difficult. It is important that MOD sites are not viewed in isolation but are considered as part of a wider ecological unit. By working together we have been able to enhance this part of the airfield and contributed to preserving the wildlife interest across the whole of the Morfa Dyffryn Reserve National Nature Reserve."
But before the diggers and the trucks moved in, the area had to be carefully searched and scoured by hand to ensure that no newts were harmed by the work in progress. The majority of the cleared scrub was also used in the construction of purpose built refuges to house any 'evicted' newts and to provide the population with winter hibernation sites.
Graham Williams said: " We had to be extremely careful to cause the least disturbance possible. This really was an operation of military precision. The result is that we have been able to roll back the years and restore an overgrown and degraded brown site to a young and diverse habitat that is able to sustain a far wider variety of important plants and animals. As the scrub and woodland developed over the years, the site had lost much if its interest and became a pretty sorry sight, but this has been a great opportunity to restore the dune habitat to its natural best."
He added: "Of course it's unfortunate that so many jobs had to be lost when the airfield was closed. It's important that we can ensure that the environment around us can make a positive contribution to the local economy. Projects such as this one provide work for local contractors and are essential in the maintenance and improvement of some of our most valuable wildlife habitats."