Giving It Hard

 Elen and I recently visited Iona, a small island off the coast of the Isle of Mull in northwest Scotland, which is chiefly known as the place where, in 563AD, Saint Columba established Christianity in Britain. The subsequent monastery and religious community are still thriving and consequently a remarkable number of people visit this out of the way place.

Once we had looked round the abbey we decided to escape the crowds and walk to the beach on the other side of the island. As we were walking through the village a breathless Liverpudlian accosted us, “You’se birdin’?” he demanded (our binoculars were the give-away) and without waiting for an answer went on “ See that bungalow with the Audi and the fella mowing his lawn? Well there’s a corncrake in his garden and it’s giving it hard” – this accompanied by duck quacking hand gestures. Grateful for the tip we hurried the 200 yards and stood, with two of other birders, peering over the wire fence. Sure enough after a couple of minutes a dumpy brown bird emerged from a patch of wild iris and started ‘giving it hard’, its throat throbbing with the effort of producing the extraordinary rasping call for which corncrakes are renowned. It sounded for all the world like somebody winding up a clockwork toy, over and over again. After a minute or two his ‘Missus’ slipped out of the irises and stood beside him. Hearing a corncrake is difficult because they call mainly at night, seeing one is nigh on impossible because they stay concealed in tall vegetation; yet here they were in plain view in Iona’s version of a suburban garden with a parked Audi and the ‘fella’ still mowing his lawn.

Corncrakes, which are related to moorhens and coots, used to be widespread in British hay meadows, until agricultural intensification drove them to our absolute western fringes. So now, excepting a reintroduction scheme in Cambridgeshire, they are confined to just a few places on the Scottish islands. Here concerted efforts by local people and conservationists have prevented their likely extinction in Britain by devising corncrake friendly farming. Central to this is ensuring there is sufficient long vegetation between April and September for nesting and shelter, and mowing hay from the centre of the field outwards so that the flightless young can escape the mowing machine. Whether these efforts will prove enough remains to be seen as these secretive birds, which are normally so reluctant to fly, migrate all the way to sub-Saharan Africa for our winter where they face many other hazards in a fast changing world. Meanwhile the population of 20-30 pairs on Iona seem to be doing fine – even in the suburbs.

 

 

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Dead from the Neck Down

 

 

It is 8.30 on a peerless sunny morning in late April, the sort of morning I had waiting for all through a long cold winter here in North Wales. I am sitting in a conifer plantation that looks like a Bridget Riley painting in brown (an unlikely thought). The trees are forty foot tall Western Hemlocks, which stretch away in a series of vertical stripes in subtly differing shades of brown. Nightmarishly this place is the same wherever you view it from. The sun is still low so some lateral light is penetrating the gloom around the edges. I don’t suppose this plantation has been touched since it was planted fifty years ago, so now the trees are thinning themselves. Some have rotted where they stand; others dropped criss-cross on the floor like pick-up-sticks. The ground, a cushion of conifer needles, is also brown, except for a scatter of green foliage torn off by the wind. Absolutely nothing grows here. On an overcast day (and we get a few of those) it would be difficult to see to write these notes.

Over the sound of the river at the bottom of the slope I can hear a chaffinch, mistle thrush and robin singing. I catch a snatch of Wren song by the river, probably outside the plantation. Overhead a small flock of siskins twitter and buzz through the canopy. There are probably other birds: jay, song thrush, coal tit, goldcrest and so on but, apart from the siskins, they are the kind of bird you would find in any decent urban park. Also without exception they are in the sunlit canopy; so 80% of the plantation is silent and lifeless. I haven’t seen a single insect, although sunlight gleaming on the looping threads of spider webs indicates faint signs of invertebrate life.

After about an hour I can’t bear it any longer. Part of the reason I can’t bear it is because I know what was here before these trees were planted. On either side remains some glorious ffridd. This is steep, rocky grassland, wet and boggy in places, scattered with hawthorn and crab apple trees which runs down to the riverbank. It is brutally bisected by this plantation. I know this ffridd well: a vibrant place with carpets of bluebells, patches of heath spotted orchids and sundews, redstarts, cuckoos, tree pipits and buzzing with insect life in the summer. And it used also to be right here where I sit, the clues abound: dusty boulders poking through the forest floor, a ghostly section of dry-stone wall. These are a parody of the rocks and walls outside dressed in lichens and mosses, nest sites for wagtails and wheatears, and this winter an all white stoat slipping in and out of the crevices. By comparison this place is a graveyard.

To be fair I know that at the thicket stage, for 10 years or so, plantations can come alive in the tangle of young trees, brambles and rushes. In the replanted Sitka spruce behind my house we have gained whitethroats, grasshopper warblers, reed bunting and others over the last ten years, and our honeybees thrive on the sallow, gorse and abundant flowers that grow along along the forest access track. But in 5 years time the Sitkas will have outcompeted everything else, closing out the light and embalming the land for another 30 years or more. Then the heavy machinery will move in, clear fell the trees and leave the place looking like a battlefield, and so the cycle begins again. Unless we can come up with a radically different way of managing our conifer forests these sometimes vibrant but mostly moribund ecosystems are doomed to a perpetual ‘Groundhog Day’ existence of never maturing. It is common enough in Europe to see conifer forest management that includes routine thinning, selected felling and spontaneous regeneration, all of which contribute to the development of rich and mature forest ecosystems. I know there are exception in our forestss, some of them not far from here: big trees, mixtures with broadleaves, open rivers and streams etc. In places there are crossbills, nightjars, goshawks and even pine martins but sadly, where I am sitting, is the rule rather than the exception. We have 170,000 ha of conifers in Wales, most of it planted recently (in ecological terms) and mostly on native habitats, which, no matter how impoverished, offered a complexity of life that is infinitely richer than this deadzone.

 

This post was first published on Mark Avery’s Standing up for Nature blog site on 4th May 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Does it Take?

 Conservationists constantly worry about how to ‘keep things going’ – be it a bird, butterfly, or some other organism teetering on the brink. It is a pretty sad state of affairs, but that’s the deal by now. It takes a lot of dedication by a few, in the face of indifference by the many, to stand against the flow of wildlife disappearing down the plughole. Last summer I came across a vivid example of what it takes to keep things going.

 

 

Wikimedia.commons.org. Charlesjsharp – Own work from Sharp Photography

Not far from where I live is a scruffy looking, overgrown meadow in a nowhere-in-particular sort of place. The rushes and grasses are knee high and tussocky, birch saplings and sallow bushes threaten to overrun it. Although it doesn’t look much it is in fact carefully cared for. On a sunny day in June I went there with my friends Annie and Andrew to count marsh fritillaries, one of Europe’s fastest declining butterflies. Annie and Andrew have been committed to keeping marsh fritillaries going on this seemingly forgotten piece of land for years. We were careful to walk the same route for the same length of time as previous years, so comparisons could be made. As we waded through the long grass scattered with ragged robin and heath spotted orchids I discovered just how wet the meadow was: the water flooded over my boots and I soon had wet feet (my companions were wearing wellies!). The marsh fritillaries were surprisingly easy to see flying low over the vegetation and settling confidingly to bask in the sun. Seen in flight they were a dull coppery brown but up close a beautiful chequered pattern of cream and orange, with conspicuous yellow tips to their antennae. We counted forty-four butterflies, a good total by all accounts.

The essential, non-negotiable ingredient for marsh fritillaries in these wet meadows is devil’s-bit scabious, the exclusive food plant of their caterpillars. This place had masses of it, although in June it is just leaves, the delicate blue flowers would not appear for another couple of months. At this season the butterflies were mating and laying their eggs in batches on the underside of the devil’s-bit scabious leaves. On hatching the bristly black caterpillars spin a collective silken web for protection, within which they feed on the scabious leaves. Once they have consumed one plant they migrate en masse to another, spin a new web and repeat. We went back again in September (I was wearing wellies this time), to count the larval webs, which by then were bigger and more conspicuous as the caterpillars had grown. It was a bit like searching for soggy bits of Kleenex discarded in the long grass. We found about 70 webs, each with small black caterpillars curled up inside. Each one was marked with a cane, and afterwards Andrew used some neat IT skills to plot them precisely on a map. All of this counting and mapping gives us a fair idea of how marsh fritillaries are doing year on year.

The other essential part of keeping things going is managing the habitat. We have no real idea about the ‘where and how many’ of marsh fritillaries before humans began modifying the landscape. What we do know is that in this part of Britain they adapted well to damp, lightly grazed pasture land that contained devil’s-bit scabious. Sadly over the last 60 years or so the majority of such places have either been drained and agriculturally improved or heavily grazed by sheep. The latter is a big problem for marsh fritillaries as devil’s-bit scabious is highly palatable to sheep, and with even moderate grazing they will wipe it out, taking the butterfly with it. Some years ago, having found the marsh fritillaries here, Annie negotiated with the estate that owns the land and they, to their credit, agreed not to graze it but set it aside for the butterflies. Annie then persuaded a local stable to put 3-4 ponies on the meadow in the summer time to reduce the coarse vegetation that can crowd out the devil’s-bit scabious. Cattle, unlike sheep, do not prefer devil’s-bit scabious, and horses avoid eating it all together, which makes ponies the ideal grazers here. Despite this, getting a level of grazing that ensures the devil’s-bit thrives, yet sufficient numbers of butterfly eggs and caterpillars survive the trampling of the ponies, is a tricky business. What is more the colonisation of the grassland by sallows and birches seems to be unavoidable with this level of grazing, so in the winter Annie and Andrew spend time cutting these out. This is an on going commitment as the meadow would eventually become a young wood if left to its own devices. If any part of this carefully constructed regime were to fail the butterflies could be lost within a few years.

In Britain marsh fritillaries are now often confined (very unnaturally) to small islands of suitable habitat. Maintaining optimum conditions for a single species year after year on a small site is very difficult. Insect populations can fluctuate dramatically in response to weather, parasites and the condition of the vegetation. In an extended mosaic of more or less suitable habitat that would not matter much as they could move about as conditions changed. But these butterflies are now ‘caged in’ and entirely dependent on two unpaid enthusiasts and the estate that owns the land to keep them going. You might ask ‘why bother?’ – not many people would miss the marsh fritillary. I can only answer that for me it would mean one more spark going out in the firmament and another small step towards the darkness.

At the Gates of the Dead

 

 

The Buttington Oak

 

The news came through recently that one of Wales’ biggest oak trees had blown down, so we went to pay our respects. The Buttington Oak was enormous, measuring 36ft 2inches (11.03m) in girth, and was probably 8-900 years old. Plodding across the sticky alluvial clay of the Severn valley and feeling rather exposed in the unaccustomed flatness, we found the tree in a pasture just back from the riverbank. It was a colossal carcass, lying collapsed and crumpled like a shot elephant. The upturned butt was so big that the dog of a fellow pilgrim was able to walk about inside it. Despite being hollow through to the sky there was still a mass of living branches on its crown that, had it stood, would have been breaking into leaf next month. Sadly it seems that one more gale had been too much for this big-bellied ancient. I am told there has been a steady trickle of mourners to Buttington from around the country over the last couple of months; the craggy seniority and stubborn survival of very old trees seems to be an inspiration to many of us. They have a ‘presence’ that quietly puts human hubris in its place, giving rise instead to respect and even awe.

The Great Oak at the Gates of the Dead

Not far away from Buttington is Chirk Castle where the National Trust boasts of 650 veteran trees in the parklands that surround the castle, so feeling enthusiastic about old trees we decided to go and pay them a visit. Some of the biggest oaks at Chirk grow along the route of Offa’s Dyke, which bisects the estate. Although not old enough to have seen King Offa build his dyke between Wales and England (AD 750) they do seem to have been planted or retained as marker trees along its route. One of the most remarkable of these at Chirk is the ‘Great Oak at the Gates of the Dead’, a split and crippled veteran with a blackened and hollow heart which stands guard at the site of the Battle of Crogen. Here in 1165 a Welsh army defeated the English (which always goes down well around here) and many of the dead are said to be buried in the adjacent field. This Methuselah, although only a teenager at the time, saw it all – and a lot more since.

the sweet chestnut at Chirk

My favourite tree at Chirk was a 500-year-old sweet chestnut, which apparently is five trees fused together into one squat mass. Crouched behind the parkland wall it has hunkered down for generations, all contorted rot and shedding skin it seemed the epitome of extreme old age, yet youthful shoots were still growing from its ancient bulk. Perhaps it is good for a few more centuries yet.

Rhagium mordax – a longhorn beetle who’s larvae depend on decaying wood (photo Janet Graham)

Appart from being remarkable organisms in their own right, veteran trees are important ecologically. They are often, in effect, complete ecosystems, with many invertebrates and lower plants completing some, or even all, of their lifecycle within a single tree. Remarkably 1700 species of invertebrates found in Britain depend at least in part on decaying wood, making this an important yet often overlooked habitat. These saproxylic creatures (fauna of decaying wood) are principally beetles and flies, which live and feed on the deep rot, accumulated debris and associated fungi (not to mention each other) found in old and damaged trees.The long process of wood decay, which can range from bone dry to waterlogged, provides a succession of conditions suitable for different species of rot loving invertebrates.Many of these are rare relicts of the fauna found in the primeval forest that once covered Britain. The bark of mature trees growing in the open can also develop a rich assemblage of lichens over time; the available light and warmth suits them as does the increasingly alkaline bark of oak trees as they age. In the original Wildwood it is likely that a spectrum of young to old trees would always have been available fairly close by, including those that were old and decaying. Once they had grown beyond the sapling stage there wasn’t much, other than lightening strikes or the collapse of an adjacent tree, to threaten them so many would have progressed from stout middle age through to decaying elders.

 

 

Tree Lungwort lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria) growing on an old oak

 

Historically humans have always cropped trees for timber. In times past no sensible person would have left a tree to go rotten but rather cut it down in its prime, to be used for building anything from houses to warships; what was left over went for firewood. Consequently, old and decaying trees have become uncommon in our woodlands, which has all but eliminated an element of their original fauna. Concentrations of old trees in Britain are now usually found only in ancient open commons or the parks around great houses, where they were retained beyond their years for ornamental reasons. Even there they were usually cleared up when they fell apart or died. Ecologically old trees go on being useful even when dead as standing or fallen trunks and limbs are still inhabited by lichens and rot dwelling insects. So it was good to see that at Chirk the National Trust were not clearing away the debris but often leaving it piled up around a splintered trunk.

Another problem facing the inhabitants of ancient trees is the ‘age gap’. It is only in the last 25 years or so that we have begun to realise that there are almost no middle-aged trees within beetle flight of the veterans. The National Trust have now planted many new trees in the parkland at Chirk, but whether these will have developed enough rot to support the specialist insects before the veterans finally disintegrate and compost down, must be touch and go. Oaks and beech need to be 200 years old before the conditions that support these insects start to be formed. In these more conservation conscious times some woodland trees are being allowed to grow elderly, so perhaps the ‘old forest’ faunas in these parkland refuges will in time be able to migrate back to their original habitat – if they can survive the ‘age gap’.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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