Free, though £3 for non-RSPB members to use the main carpark
Nash Road, 4 miles south of Newport; NP18 2BZ
Created in 2000, Newport Wetlands National Nature Reserve is a relatively large place, extending three miles along the south Wales coast, from the River Esk estuary eastwards to Gold Cliff, and contains a mix of watery landscapes including saltmarsh, mudflats, saline lagoons, reedbeds, wet grassland and wet woodland, all combining to make this one of the best bird-watching sites in the country.
Some of the landforms were artificially created, in the 1990s, as part of a project to replace saltmarsh and other habitats that were lost during construction of the Cardiff Bay Barrage (open 1999), which transformed the estuarine mouth of the River Taff, Penarth Flats, into a freshwater lake, to facilitate urban development along the shoreline. Previously, the modified section of the NNR was a mosaic of wet fields bordered by rhynes, used for agriculture and grazing.
The reserve is home to a great range of invertebrates, and a few notable plant species such as arrowhead and flowering rush, plus six types of orchid (bee, common spotted, pyramidal, southern marsh, common twayblade and marsh helleborine), but it is the bird life for which the place is most famous. The scenery is not so special, since beyond the reedbeds and marshlands the coastline is mostly flat and featureless, bordered by an earthen embankment, with muddy salt flats beyond; only in a few places are rocks exposed, brown layers from the Murcia Mudstone Group.
Besides looking at birds, most visitors are here for recreation - dog walking (only permitted in some sections), picnics and exercise. The wetland section of the reserve is provided with a large carpark, visitor centre and cafe, these managed by the RSPB, though the reserve itself is owned by Natural Resources Wales. Birds that may be seen, at various times of the year, include curlew, redshank, Cetti's warbler, water rail, bearded tit, shelduck, mute swans, tufted ducks, coot, little grebe and grey plover.
The nature reserve is part of the Gwent Levels - partially drained, low-lying, seasonally-flooded coastal land that stretches over 20 miles from the Rhymney River near Cardiff to the River Wye at Chepstow. The site is accessed by quiet roads southeast of Newport, off the A4810, the main entrance being along Nash Road, which just beyond ends at one of the gates of the Severn Powerstation. From here a network of paths loop through the most visited part of the reserve, the western third, known as the Uskmouth Reedbeds; this is the section managed by the RSPB. To the west is the central portion, the Saltmarsh Grasslands (named after the settlement of Saltmarsh), containing fields and rhynes in a natural, unmodified state, while the easternmost section, and the smallest, is the Goldcliff Lagoons between Goldcliff Pill and Gold Cliff Point, containing three large saline pools also recently created, surrounded by more grassland and reedbeds.
From the parking area (£3 per vehicle, free for RSPB members), the main path/track heads straight for the coast, half a mile away, initially through scrub and grassland then through some of the reedbeds, crossing the middle of two long pools via floating pontoons and out to the brink of the salt flats beside East Usk Lighthouse, a white structure built in 1893. More paths loop around and between the pools, while another circles a patch of more wooded terrain in the northwest, bordering the power station; within here is another pool (Ash Pond) but this is largely inaccessible. The edges of this path are one of the prime wildflower habitats in the reserve, while the central portion around the long pools is the best area for birdwatching. Further west are more wetlands, also good for wildflowers, and quieter, less visited, since this area is further from the car park. The fields here may also be approached via a separate track, Field House Lane, with a small amount of (free) parking at its entrance.
The 331-acre Saltmarsh Grasslands, the central section of the reserve, is not much visited as it contains only fields and ditches, no different to most other parts of the Gwent Levels. A narrow road, Saltmarsh Lane crosses towards the west edge, all the way to the coast, and a similar track (Boat Road) enters further east; both link to the coast path, running all along the seawall. Various gates and footbridges allow exploration of the fields and rhynes.
Goldcliff Lagoons, the easternmost component of the nature reserve, is entered via an unsigned track south of Goldcliff Road, alongside Mireland Pill Reen, passing close to the edge of one of three saline pools and ending at a small parking place in front of a gate, from where a path continues. Along here are several bird hides overlooking two of the pools, before the track bends east and meets another road that leads to a cafe right on the coast, at Newport Seawall, marking the easternmost tip of the NNR, or at least its inland section, since the boundaries incorporate the inter-tidal zone for half a mile further east. The name of this location references a short, richly-coloured cliff, formed by a small outcrop of blue lias limestone, rock that occurs in much greater abundance 20 miles west, all along the spectacular coastline of the Vale of Glamorgan.