I am sunning myself on a bench 150 feet above the town on a rocky and partly wooded ridge known as Penrallt. It is my new ‘patch’. Elen and I moved to Machynlleth eight months ago after 35 years in Llanuwchllyn; despite only moving 30 miles away it was a huge wrench. Living now in the nearest thing to a leafy suburb that a small town like Machynlleth can muster we still see hills and woods from our windows, but after the wilds of Cefn Prys it was a shock. I kept mistaking a streetlight for the moon. But I am slowly adapting, and Penrallt is part of that: a fragment of almost natural land that I am free to walk to for my hour of exercise. It has become my lock-down lung.
A month ago I could not have sat here without 3-4 red kites sliding in and out of view and several ravens performing joyful acrobatics along the ridge. Now they have vanished. Every year it is the same, after an early spring of display and territorial bragging these big birds sink back into the trees and become invisible; busy now with nesting and feeding young there is no longer an advantage in advertising their presence. It is the turn of the willow warblers now, their sweet song sliding down the scale is in vivid contrast to their cousin the chiffchaff doggedly repeating its own name. Best of all are the blackcaps with their glorious bell-like notes ringing out as if in praise of a life-perfect. Miraculously these three warblers, weighing only a few ounces each, have just flown dizzying distances on migration to arrive here on Penrallt, stake out a territory and raise a brood.
This rocky ridge is a bit of a local anomaly: common land owned by the council it is like a wild but miniature park, with well maintained paths and simple benches. It has a modest share litter and there is graffiti on the rocks, some political others personal. A chalked message ‘I love you Nain and Taid’ (grandparents) seems particularly poignant in these socially isolated times. Penrallt is an interesting fragment of a lost landscape. It was clearly grazing land at one time; I say that because it is now being vigorously colonised by trees, so something was holding them back – sheep probably. Up until 30-40 years ago much of this ridge must have been dominated by dry, heathy vegetation, then for whatever reason the grazing animals were taken away and the trees got going. Some remnant patches of heather and open areas of bracken remain, as well as scree and rocky outcrops where it is harder for the trees to get a foothold. Apparently adders have been seen here in the past but I wonder if enough open ground remains for them now. There are few truly woodland plants, much of the ground is still more like shaded heathland with extensive trees. Prior to the twentieth century dry lowland heath may have been quite extensive in the district but now it is reduced to ghosts and whispers on hedge-banks and rocky knolls where the finer grasses and less competitive plants cling on.
Rambling along the ridge I notice how oaks are beginning to obstruct the view with their tender new leaves, as membranous as young lettuce. The warm air amplifies the heady scent of gorse flowers and has the peacock butterflies moving so fast I often only see their shadows, looking up just too late. Holly blues, like agitated fragments of sky, are also plentiful, as are the orange tips – or at least the males, the plainer females are not still long enough for me to pick them out. I am pleased to hear a newly arrived wood warbler jingling its loose change in the better established woodland at the eastern end. There don’t seem to be any redstarts or pied flycatchers, but these are hole nesters and I suppose the trees are not yet gnarled enough. In an open area of old bracken and freshly minted bluebells the path sides have been ploughed by badgers searching for leatherjackets. Dozens of green longhorn moths with absurdly long antennae swarm erratically around a nearby oak, lurching like drunken tightrope walkers across the foliage. There is plenty of life here to absorb this locked-down naturalist.
I have never seen a place like this for oak regeneration; the seedlings, saplings and adolescents trees far outstrip any other species. Oaks are often thought of as a late arriving high forest tree, shrouded in the promise of longevity and public esteem, but here they are rampant pioneers. Recently, well meaning folk have planted some hazels and rowans, probably as a ‘trees capture carbon’ gesture; grumpily I think they would be better off tackling the rhododendrons which are beginning to flex their muscles. The trees are coming anyway.
It is not just the trees that are coming. Around the edges of Penrallt the botany has a distinctly urban flavour with all sorts of exotica scrambling over the garden fence at the prospect of virgin territory up for grabs. I encounter grape hyacinth, Italian lords and ladies, stags-horn sumac, Himalayan honeysuckle and plenty more. It will be fascinating to see which of these chancers manages to survive and prosper over the years. They certainly add a frisson to the usual botanical suspects.
Penrallt is very much on the move, a glorious free for all that is casually ‘re-wilding’ itself whilst our attention is elsewhere. Most people probably barely notice, as on a human timescale this change is slow, but not ecologically – and it is the oaks that are epidemic.