My freshwater habitat: Catherine Hughes, the Washpool, River Irfon, Mid-Wales

26th March 2024

Engagement Officer Catherine Hughes explains why the Washpool (PwllGolchi) in the River Irfon catchment is a special place for her and many of the people she works with.

My work in the beautiful River Irfon catchment in mid-Wales relies on having strong connections with local people. The Washpool is a very special spot along the river and it’s the place I’ve visited most since joining Freshwater Habitats Trust in 2021.

What do you love about the Washpool?

With its deep water and surrounding waterfalls, the Washpool (PwllGolchi in Welsh) feels like a magical place. The Washpool has a long association with the local farming community: it was historically used for sheep dipping and has the remnants of a sheepfold (a dry stone sheep pen) on the far bank. This historic feature has helped to shape the Irfon, creating different depths in the river.

The Washpool is part of the main river Irfon about a mile out of Llanwrtyd towards Abergwesyn. It has easy access, which means it works well for education events and I’ve spent many happy days with local school groups, from nearby Garth and Llanwrtyd, doing kick sampling and water testing.

Woman standing next to a tree with a river behind.

- Catherine Hughes at the Washpool

Kick sampling is a simple technique for dislodging creatures on the riverbed, using nets and trays, so they can be identified. Using this method, local children have found several fish species, such as minnows and small trout, along with invertebrates, including mayflies and caddisflies.

These activities are great fun but they are also helping to connect people with the freshwater environment at an early age.

As Engagement Officer on the new River Irfon Catchment Project, my role is to be inclusive as possible to work with all parts of the local community. So, I am looking forward to discovering more of the species that live in the Washpool with people of all ages over the coming months.

Three girls crouching down looking at invertebrates in water in a pond dipping tray.

Why is it important that we learn more about the River Irfon catchment?

The River Irfon stretches from Abergwesyn to Builth Wells and its catchment is a Special Area of Conservation because of its freshwater biodiversity. It’s one of Britain’s best remaining freshwater landscapes and includes one of the last UK populations of a species called Freshwater Pearl Mussel. However, water quality is declining and there are now calls to improve the catchment.

To improve water quality and reverse the decline in freshwater biodiversity, we need to assess water quality and monitor species, as well as putting in place practical improvement measures. Through our previous work in the catchment, and our new River Irfon Catchment Project, we are assessing all aspects of the Irfon’s freshwater environment, including the river’s tributaries and floodplains, as well as its associated ponds and wetlands.

Group of people standing in a field with hills behind, smiling to camera.

- Members of the Welsh Government Pan Environment team with Freshwater Habitats Trust representatives in the Irfon catchment.

A key part of the project involves working collaboratively with farmers – and this is my passion. We’ve been working with farmers to introduce measures to protect the freshwater environment.

Why is it so important for farmers to be involved with the River Irfon Catchment Project?

The River Irfon Catchment project focuses on getting farmers on board from the very start – and keeping them on board throughout. Farmers have been incredibly positive, including allowing us to run a citizen science project testing water for nitrates and phosphates across the 290 m2 of the catchment.

The farmers I worked with are rightly passionate about their catchment and are proud that the River Irfon still provides habitat for Freshwater Pearl Mussels. They are keen to address water quality issues and do what can be done to see these mussels thrive again.

freshwater pearl mussel

- Freshwater Pearl Mussel

I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of farmers and community groups in the catchment who have helped me to get connected to all interested parties. A special thanks has to go to Ken Chamberlain who runs a dynamic walking group and, with his fellow walkers, has totally embraced the water testing in some of the harder-to-reach parts of the catchment.

What is your connection to the River Irfon catchment?

I live in Hay-on-Wye, which is about 30 miles from Llanwrtyd Wells. The town of Llanwrtyd Wells is in the heart of the Irfon catchment and hosts a whole range of events from bog snorkelling and ultra marathons to a summer cider festival and real ale wobble race. It also hosts the Man V Horse event, for which I rode on my horse Bess back in 2009.

I’m 100% NorthWalian as my parents moved from the Lleyn Peninsula in their 20s to tenant a dairy farm in Worcestershire for one of the Cadbuy families. I loved the farm and particularly the cows. After studying agriculture at Abersytwyth, I worked for the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) which was a cooperative that bought milk from all UK dairy farms where milk prices was pooled, regardless of how many cows were milked or where the farms were located.

- The River Irfon catchment in mid-Wales

Once the MMB disbanded in 1993, the ethos of cooperative milk buying ended and small dairy farms quickly diminished, with numbers dropping from 32,000 to five.

I was awarded a Nuffield scholarship in 1992 to examine the dairy industry in New Zealand, Canada and the US and how they responded to freer markets. I then worked as an agricultural journalist for Farming News and Farmers Weekly before joining the communications departments of various agricultural and food companies.

Working on the River Irfon catchment project combines my connection with this beautiful Welsh landscape and my roots in the farming community.

Woman standing in a river holding a bucket

- Catherine Hughes at the Washpool

When the Washpool becomes busy in the summer months, people push up the Irfon to the smaller ponds and rock features, like the Wolf’s leap and the Pwll Bo. The diversity of the washpool, with its different depths created by its sheepfold past, reminds us how livestock have played an important role in creating dynamic ecosystems.

Catherine Hughes is Community Engagement Officer for the River Irfon Catchment project, which is funded by the Nature Networks Programme, delivered by the Heritage Fund, on behalf of the Welsh Government.