Home Sweet Home

 

 It has been raining here since last July – or so it seems. The land is totally saturated, walking on it my boots make sucking noises in the mud; even the farmer’s quad-bikes are getting stuck. As the water table is now just below the surface any rain runs off in sheets from the slightest gradient.

Despite this there have been occasional days when something else is stirring. Stepping out of the back door and sniffing the air like some emerging mole, I sense a renewed energy after months of torpor. A mistle thrush is singing in the top of the larches, although its song is more melancholy than hopeful. Half a dozen crossbills feeding in the next tree along are deep in conversation and a great tit is tuning up. The snowdrops have morphed from sleek spikes spearing through the warming soil into demure bells; some of them have their feet in a puddle of water, but snowdrops thrive on that. Raking off the last of the autumn leaf-fall I expose unfolding celandine leaves, still wrinkled like faces creased from sleep. Looking in the place where we usually find the first celandine flowers I am puzzled to find all the buds have been neatly nibbled off. Discussing this over lunch Gethin suggests that it was probably the work of voles feeding beneath the cover of a brief blanket of snow a fortnight ago. Even on these charmed days there are still no insects stirring, although putting my ear to our beehives I can hear a faint hum. I wonder what pollinates our witch-hazel, which is flowering in defiant magnificence despite the conditions. The elusive promise is only in the air for an hour or two; we (spiders, primroses, me) all sense what is coming, but also that it is ‘not yet’.

Sure enough the next day it is lashing down again; there is a gigantic puddle on my neighbour’s field on which two ducks are spinning happily – which just about sums things up. But this is home. I sometimes hear people say they are thinking of moving to a place with more sunshine, which makes it sound like a tourist destination. For me ‘home’ is a rich broth of relationships, personal history, attitudes, culture, language, landscape, wildlife and even climate, the flavour of which deepens over time. I know in my bones that moving somewhere else is not an option. Come rain or shine this is where I belong now, and it is a relief to be so sure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Two Down

 

 The hill country where I live is mostly occupied by small, family owned farms and it is often said that in such places agriculture has been less damaging to the countryside than in the intensively managed arable areas. And by and large that is true, but two recent incidents highlighted for me that we still have a way to go before there is sufficient overlap between valuing beauty and valuing efficiency. Both involved trees.

On one of my regular walks from our house there was a wonderful old birch tree in the corner of a windswept field: ancient, craggy and leaning away from the wind, its roots clung to the ground like arthritic fingers. That tree had withstood decades of hard weather in this exposed place, which I respectfully acknowledged whenever I passed by. Then one day I found it had been bulldozed out by its roots; it lay wilting in the field like a beached whale. The farmer was reseeding the pasture and, despite its marginal location, the tree was apparently in the way.

Secondly, across the fields from our kitchen window, in a battered old hedgerow, stood a magnificent crab apple, quite the tallest and finest I have seen in the district. Covered in blossom in the spring you could see it from half a mile away, its pale pink flowers a beacon of renewal and hope. If you stood beneath it the canopy hummed with bees drawn to the copious pollen and nectar. Then, just before Christmas it was cut down. The farmer was (to his credit) restoring the derelict hedge and felt the new hedge plants would not grow well around the roots and shade of the old crab apple. So he cut it down. All that remains between the new fences is a broad, amputated stump – which displays a little heart rot, as befits its age.

Both these trees were removed mostly because they were in the way of an easier or more efficient operation. In themselves I suppose neither were that important (except that they were ancient and splendid), there are thousands of birch trees and a fair scattering of crab apples locally, but both could easily have been accommodated within the usual running of the farm if they had been sufficiently valued. Part of the problem is that they were so easily expendable; probably fifteen minutes work in each case, with the machinery available.

I don’t want to characterise my farming neighbours as being uncaring or insensitive, certainly in the case of the man who cut down the crab apple he is knowledgeable about countryside matters, especially in this valley where his family have farmed for generations, but there is a gap in perception that is important. The focus for me in the countryside is the beauty and fascinating detail of its wildlife; for farmers it’s their work place and their livelihood depends on using it productively.

Nearly 85% of Wales is farmed and yet tourism, in all its guises, is the biggest earning industry here, so this ‘little local difficulty’ can be seen to represent a bigger argument. It seems that the public want and expect the countryside to be beautiful and buzzing with wildlife – although I have to own they don’t seem to want that as much as I do. In order to help bridge the gap between efficient work place and beautiful playground (to caricature both) the government pays farmers to look after the countryside as well as use it to produce food. It is also well understood that most hill farms are not financially viable without these various forms of financial help. That being so, many local farmers, including the two above, are signed up to an agri-environment scheme from which they receive substantial amounts of public money to care for the natural features and wildlife on their land.

Part of the purpose of such schemes should be to reinstate the value of, for example, old trees. The understanding and valuing of such things has become diminished amongst farmers as two or three generations have grown up through the era of increased productivity through intensification. Old trees or flowery pastures have been swept aside and so has knowledge of them; what would have been passed from father to son has withered away. Glastir, the agri-environment scheme available here, whilst doing some good, such as the hedge restoration above, has a poor reputation for design, implementation and delivering the goods. Recent research by the RSPB has shown that well designed and carefully targeted agri-environment schemes can, with little supervision, make a positive difference to wildlife on farms. It is by such means that the gap in values can gradually close so that when the moment comes to decide, a craggy old tree can be left standing for its own sake, despite being a bit in the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Would Anyone Want to Photograph the Genitals of a Gnat?

 

                                                                            

I recently went to visit my friends Andrew and Janet, who live across the valley from here. They are expert naturalists and amongst the many useful things they do is to identify and record various insect groups. Their latest passion is fungus gnats. These are small, grey-brown, flies typically 2-3 mm long, whose grub-like larvae feed on fungi and various kinds of plant material. There are probably several hundred species in the UK but nobody is quite sure. There is much we don’t know about fungus gnats.

In most respects fungus gnats are very similar but, for reasons that are hard to fathom, natural selection has caused the males to evolve remarkably varied and elaborately structured genitalia, which are different between each species. Consequently if you want to know which one of these very small insects you have found you must look at the details of their genitals. The only way you can do that is to dissect these out from a dead insect under a microscope. As you can probably imagine dissection at that scale is a skilful and very precise business – and that is Andrew’s job.

You may not be surprised to know that fungus gnat specialists are few and far between and if you need to consult and collaborate with others they need to be able to see what you can see down the microscope. This is where the second part of the process comes in – and it is Janet’s specialism. She has developed a way of photographing the dissected-out genitalia which are under the microscope. A special camera is fitted to the top of the microscope and linked to a computer monitor on which the image is projected. This is then used to very precisely guide the photography fractions of a millimetre at a time, painstakingly tracking both laterally and into the depth of the image on the screen, gradually stacking hundreds of photographs one on top of the other to produce a composite image. The results are surprisingly beautiful – like exquisite drawings of something mysteriously ‘other’, clearly organic but hard to place.

All of this seems to raise two questions: why would anyone want to photograph the genitals of a fungus gnat and who cares about them anyway? The answer to the first question is that the photographs (and previously drawings) are the way we can share and extend our knowledge of the identification and distribution of these, admittedly obscure, insects. And the answer to the second question is that ecologists frequently tell us that the ecosystems on which we all rely are determined by an interlocking dependence of millions of species, from microscopic single-celled creatures up to elephants and humans. If you start to lose components of that almost infinitely complex web it will eventually begin to malfunction and ultimately collapse. These are literally our life support systems. Consequently fungus gnats matter because everything matters scientifically – and some would say metaphysically. If we don’t understand what we have got we can’t know when and how we are doing damage to those complicated life webs. What Andrew and Janet are doing is part of a painstaking, committed and largely unsung process that has advanced human knowledge and understanding of our world over centuries. Slowly and patiently inching forward.

photographs: janet grahem

 

 

 

 

Remembering

 

About fifty of us stood around the open grave, the singing thinner now than it was in the chapel. On this soft autumn day we had come to bury Margied Jones of Craig y Tan, aged 91 years. A warm hearted, sharp-witted woman with a generous spirit, she was totally devoted to the community in which she lived. Amongst the many things going through my head as I stood there was that she was a link to an era that has almost passed from direct memory.

Margied was born and spent most of her life in Craig y Tan, a beautiful and, some would say (not her), remote hill farm not far from here. When she was a girl they cut peat on their mountain land, stacking and drying it, then using it for fuel on the open fire and in the ‘popty mawr’, the big bread oven that was fired up every few days to keep them in loaves. Much of their food – meat, eggs, milk, vegetables were produced and consumed right there on the farm; no food miles or packaging and very little shopping, supermarkets had not been invented. Neither electricity nor the telephone had arrived so the long winter evenings were lit with oil lamps; otherwise they worked out of doors most of the time, going to bed early and rising with the dawn. If they needed to ask a neighbour a favour they walked the mile or two to speak to them – and back.

Margied walked everywhere; it was a lifelong habit. Even as a ninety year old she would walk several miles round the valley (her beloved Pennant Lliw) picking blackberries, which she made into jam – mostly to give away. As a six year old she walked the three miles to school and back again each day whatever the weather – and we have some weather here. She once described to me how, early on before motor transport reached the farm, she and her father walked the sheep to their winter pastures. That meant shepherding 200 sheep along the public roads to Bettws Gwerfil Goch, which is 24 miles from Craig y Tan. Margied, aged about 11, walked at the front, her father at the back with the dogs – to keep the sheep together. Once they had settled the sheep into their winter home they stayed the night with the farmer and then walked back the next day.

Margied’s favourite picture of Craig y Tan

Listening to the remembered details of her early life what struck me was how softly their lives had impacted on the land compared to now. I don’t mean to romanticise those times, if people could find an easier or more productive way to work they would do it, but mostly the available technology limited them. Ploughing was by horse, ditches dug by hand and if you wanted to fell a tree you took an axe or a hand saw to it. In this way the land was shaped – slowly and painstakingly over centuries, bequeathing varied and beautiful ‘cultural landscapes’ across the UK which, when Margied was a girl, were rich in wildlife as well as harmonious on the eye.

During Margied’s long life agriculture became mechanised, then industrialised and finally globalised and so the descendants of her generation have (although thankfully not at Craig y Tan) unwittingly hollowed out the wildlife legacy which was integral to the landscapes of her youth. Margied’s focus was always on the human community of this valley so I am not sure if she noticed or regretted these changes. But I do.

 

 

Time Lines

The August bank holiday weekend was fine and sunny so I decided to have another look at Waun y Griafolen, the great bog at the source of the Mawddach river which, although only about three miles from our house as the crow flies, is as inaccessible as it is wild. Elen and Gethin elected to come along too and we decided to try a route from the west to cut down on the long slog in. During the hour it took us to drive there along winding single-track roads we only passed one other vehicle, which says a lot about the place. Bumping along a potholed farm track we finally came to a halt beside a deserted farmhouse – corrugated iron over the windows, swallows flying in and out of its flaking roof. A caravan, green with mould, half buried amongst some ragged conifers added to the god-forsaken air of dereliction that so often haunts profitless hill farming. All around us in this valley are centuries of worked and built stone: field and boundary walls, sheep pens, barns, pigsties, houses – the product of hard, patient labour and great skill that are slowly falling down, collapsing back into the earth out of which they were hewn. Right beside the track is a maze-like complex of sheep pens, now reduced to stone skeletons laid-out under shrouds of woolly hair-moss. The ghosts of half forgotten families, even whole communities, stalk these places with palpable sadness. Part of that story rings the horizon like sharks’ teeth: conifer forests, that deadening industry that swallowed up so much hill land in the twentieth century.

 

After half an hour of stiff walking we top the escarpment at about 1400 feet and can see through to Waun y Griafolen. Over the last few hundred thousand years the river has cut a notch in the ring of protective hills that offers us an open doorway. Beyond that we could see an area of eroding peat-hags that I was particularly keen to revisit, having been there only once before, three years ago. And they are extraordinary. Ragged mounds of brown peat about ten feet high with teetering topknots of heather and moss are scattered over about two and half acres. Rising abruptly from the flat ground they look like features from the Arizona desert made out of chocolate. We are looking at about three metres depth of exposed peat, which will, on average, have accumulated at about a millimetre a year. That is three thousand years worth of vegetation history stacked up in front of us. Peat really is extraordinary stuff. The gentler slopes and basins of much of upland, western Britain are clothed in a layer of it, sometimes, as here, several meters thick. It is made up of partially decomposed plant remains, in particular bog-mosses which thrive in waterlogged conditions and are resistant to decay. In places like this the wet, acidic, nutrient poor substrates are starved of oxygen, which means that the microbial plant and animal life which break down plant material cannot live in any numbers, so decomposition is inhibited. This leaves ever deepening layers of partially rotted leaves and stems which, when wet, are the colour and consistency of Christmas pudding. As long as rainfall outstrips evaporation and the transpiration from living plants the peat will continue to grow giving rise, in wet and mild places like this, to a world draped in peat. This is ‘blanket bog’ a distinctive landscape that rolls gently away in soft greens and brown, sodden underfoot, treeless and mercilessly exposed to wind and rain. Such places are not to everybody’s taste but I find their space and solitude deeply nourishing.

Blanket bogs are a rare landform globally – Britain and Ireland have 20% of the world’s total – and surprisingly valuable to human society. They are an important source of drinking water with many of our great cites being supplied by the rainfall from boggy moorlands such as these. The taps are kept running in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham thanks in large part to rainwater caught and stored in the hills of Wales. This ability to store water in the spongy ground is also a vital for flood prevention: An intact bog is 85-98% water; in effect an enormous water absorbing sponge which allows little lateral movement, so when the rain pours down it is held and then released slowly, rather than careering downhill and flooding homesteads and villages below. Blanket bogs also have huge stores of carbon bound up in the peat, which, if excavated or damaged is released as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which accelerates climate change. These vital functions along with its unique assemblage of plants and animals and wide-open spaces provide a vivid example of how our welfare is inextricably and elegantly bound into the health of the natural world. Ensuring that farmers, foresters, grouse shooters and others keep the skin on the soft underbelly of this land is in all our interests.

Littered across the eroded ground and protruding from the bottom of hags are bits of wood, some soggy others bleached as bone, ranging in size from twigs to hulks of timber. These are the preserved remains of a forest that covered this ground 3-4000 years ago, before the climate shifted into a warmer and wetter phase and the blanket peat began to form, gradually burying the remnant trees and preserving some of them forever. It is exciting to realise that the knotted and still fibrous piece of birch I am holding is 3000 years old; a surviving splinter of the original wildwood right here in the palm of my hand.

Gethin is prowling around the peat hags peering at the ground and I know what he is looking for. When we were here three years ago he found two fragments of worked flint, details of which he sent to the county archaeologist, who followed up with a further visit and found several more. His report said five of the flints, including the two that Gethin had found were “small blades, probably punch struck, suggesting a late Mesolithic date.” He thought it likely that the ‘scatter’ was the remains of a small temporary summer campsite on an open area of exposed riverbank in an area that was otherwise forested. It is likely that the spread of peat was the main cause of forest decline in areas such as this but recent research suggests that the small human population, with their stone tools and use of fire, may also have had a considerable impact on forest clearance. The woody fragments protruding from the eroding peat together with Gethin’s sharp-eyed finds gives us to an extraordinary glimpse of a scene from 3-4000 years ago where a group of hunter-gather people, probably on a deer hunt, camped right here on the bank of the river in a forested landscape that must have looked entirely different from the windswept moorland that surrounds us. This was a time when humans were of little ecological significance – just another predatory animal roaming the primeval landscape. How times have changed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wake Up

      

 

          We can’t afford to take more

      than the Earth can afford to give us.

 

Yet we ignore this profound and non-negotiable truth

every day, unwilling or too afraid to look it in the eye.

 

When my grandchildren ask

‘Now that you know this what will you do?’

 

Wake up. Live right.’

Is the only sane answer.

 

 

Slimy Dog Vomit

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 I found this bilious mess in some rough grassland a few days ago. It is colloquially known as ‘dog’s vomit slime mould’. * At a distance it really did look like something the dog had sicked up. On closer inspection I could see that it consisted of a clear gelatinous mass tightly covered in bright yellow granules, which coated the lower grass stems.

Slime moulds (Myxomycetes) are extraordinary life forms: they are neither plants nor animals, although they can resemble fungi. One of the things that is distinctive about them is that they slither about, purposefully shifting from one place to another in search of the microbial organisms on which they feed. It has to be said that they do not move very fast, although recorded times of 1mm per second would be clearly visible, there would be no need to tuck your trousers into your socks. It is best to think of slime moulds, in their conspicuous form, as more of an undifferentiated colony than a single organism and their movement rather like that of an amoeba – to which they are related. Much of the time they live as tiny single cell animals on substrates of one kind or another, but if food becomes short they can aggregate in a bag of slime and start moving as a single body. Eventually this enters a more conspicuous reproductive stage, a bit like the mushroom stage of a fungus, and in this case shows up as acidic yellow slime. It will probably only last a few days in this state before drying out and disintegrating, leaving no evidence of it ever having been there. Many slime moulds, including this one, are quite common, and our cool, moist climate seems to particularly suit them. There is still a great deal we don’t understand about these strange and elusive ’creatures’.

I suppose it depends on your point of view whether you find this organism to be a fascinating and beautiful life form or completely disgusting. Perhaps the alternative and more appetising name of ‘scrambled egg slime mould’ might help make up your mind in its favour.

* a name applied to at least two species, this one is probably Fuligo septica