Author Archives: dispatchesfromtheundergrowth

About dispatchesfromtheundergrowth

I am a naturalist and environmentalist with a deep concern for the appreciation and conservation of our wild plants and animals. I spent much of my career in national parks and nature reserves working for conservation agencies. I want us all to care more about nature in the quiet-nearby.

Going to the Dark Side


photo: Tom Kistruck

Just above the busy A487 under the southern slopes of Cadair Idris is a remarkable fragment of countryside, which I had been meaning to take a closer look at for 20 years or more. I parked in the layby at the top of the pass; it was already half full with cars. Trudging up the slope towards the ridge-top was a straggle of dressed-to-kill hikers and a few rather more utilitarian plane spotters who carried shopping bags and windbreaks. I was heading to the other side of the valley – definitely ‘the road less travelled’.

It was a sunny February day, forecast to hit thirteen degrees, but I quickly realised that wasn’t going to apply to me. This side of the valley was in deep shade and I was soon reaching for my gloves. Gaining access through a disused quarry I clambered onto the steep slope under Craig y Llam and plunged unsteadily into the waist high heather and bilberry. Ahead of me for about a mile, parallel with the road, was a glimpse of what upland Wales might look like if we walked away and left nature to get on with it.

This must always have been a difficult place: steep scree – the fractured clitter still visible in places – with treacherous stream gullies bisecting the slope, all boxed in by dripping crags above and the road below.  There can’t ever have been much forage for sheep here, but that wouldn’t have stopped them. Then this wild jumble of a slope was fenced out so the sheep were (more or less!) excluded. This has been the situation for the 35 years I have been passing this way, but it might be twice as long as that.

The consequence of this absence has been a prolific growth of heather and, even more striking, thousands of small rowan trees.   Ominously there is also a scattering of young conifers and a few rhododendrons, but it is the rowans that take my eye, their gleaming shrink-wrapped bark give a cheerful gloss to the dour heather. These trees must have originated from berries spread by birds but by now the older ones are producing berries of their own and giving rise to new saplings. That they survive and grow here at all is a testament to their tenacity as there can be precious little soil amongst the splintered scree. Those other pioneer trees, birch and sallow, seem to be absent; perhaps the conditions are too harsh for them. Some of these rowans must be 50 years old but they are no more than six feet tall: squat and thickset, hunkered down for the long haul. Goodness knows if they will ever become proper woodland or remain like a scattering of un-awakened Ents.

The going is hard across the slope: a combination of steepness, invisible rocks underfoot and deep vegetation means I struggle to make any headway, twice collapsing in ungainly slow motion on to a cushion of heather. It looked much easier from the car. There is a debate amongst upland conservationists about what would happen to heather if you didn’t subject it to the usual treatment of burning, cutting and grazing. This place provides some of the answers. The heather is a mixture of tall healthy looking plants and a percentage of dead ones, bleached as bones; which is more or less what you would expect in a natural situation. Whether any younger plants are being recruited is difficult to say as the heather is embedded in a deep carpet of moss over rocks that disguises the size and age of the plants. Much of the moss is bronze and brilliant green Sphagnum (bog moss), which hints at the high levels of precipitation in this often mist shrouded pass. Sphagnum on a well drained, peat free slope is only possible if it rains a great deal. The contrast between all this prolific growth and the sheep nibbled hillsides is most vivid at the top of the pass where a fence divides the two, illustrating the  ecological history of the Welsh uplands in a single snapshot.

The cumulative effect of the rock, moss, heather and stunted trees are somehow primeval. Despite the swish and rumble of the traffic on the road below this place seems outside of time, empty and indifferent; a glimpse of post-apocalyptic Wales. The only birdlife I hear is a ticking wren buried somewhere in the rocks above me. This is a place where ring ouzels nest but they will only be setting out from their winter quarters in Morocco about now. Peregrines also nest on the crags in this valley, but most likely high up on the other side – which is enviably bathed in warm sunshine this morning. In fact the other side with its closely cropped turf and topiaried gorse clumps looks like the Wales everyone expects; altogether more friendly than the dark anarchy on this side of the tracks.

After a couple of hours I give up and inelegantly scramble down to the road; better to risk the traffic than head back across that leg breaking terrain. The layby is full now and I can see the plane spotters high up on the ridge waiting for the fighter jets to come hurtling through the pass, their roar an intimation of Armageddon.







To Begin Again

About thirty years ago a rather morose man in a flat cap arrived with a large excavator to dig a pond on land adjoining our garden. I did my best to influence shape and form, but to him a pond was a hole in the ground – and he dug a deep one. A few years later we managed to buy the land and, with the help of a more sympathetic contractor, perform some cosmetic surgery on the pond, making it more suitable for wildlife.

Situated below the house and ringed with trees the pond forms a natural bowl, a place that ‘holds’ you. It is perhaps the most intimate and contemplative place in our rambling garden. Sometimes I sit with my back against the sycamore tree, feet in the wood sage, and just soak it all up. In summer warblers, flycatchers and swallows swoop and snap at the throng of insects nectaring on the pale pink umbels of angelica. On the opposite bank a fine bramble patch has developed and last year a pair of garden warblers reared a brood in its tangled depths.

A succession of dragonflies emerge from late spring to early autumn, including two or three species of turquoise blue damselflies, drifting like flying matchsticks across the water to settle on the pondweed that paves the surface. Later, the powerful and highly mobile southern hawkers patrol the space like border guards, snatching less able insects into their predatory embrace. On summer nights the streamlined forms of diving beetles leave their watery element and (amazingly) take flight, only to be grounded by our outside lights.

Bulrushes and yellow iris grace the margins, making it a proper storybook pond, whilst providing watery mats of vegetation where frogs deposit their spawn. Sometimes 300 or more burp and writhe in each other’s passionate embrace before melting back to wherever they came from; their legacy is thousands of wriggling tadpoles. At that season a heron flights in each day for some amphibious pickings; standing as hunched and immobile as his human counterparts. Once a pair of mallards hatched seven ducklings and the female escorted them in single file, like a lollipop lady, up to our lawn for scattered bird food. Anguished, we watched as each day there was one less duckling; the crows picked them off, until there were none.

Magically, most this wildlife abundance arrived by itself, apart from the iris, we have introduced very little. We started with a muddy hole and sat back. Over 25 years or so the pond has progressed from sparse, to luxuriant, to choked, so by last summer very little clear water remained. Silt and the prolific growth of marginal plants were swallowing it up. That is the way with ponds, they are only transitional things really, always on their way to becoming something else. For many years we tried to control the rampant vegetation by hand. I well remember one hot summer’s day when Gethin spent hours up to his chest in muddy water doggedly pulling out clumps of sweet-grass, but it was a losing battle. Reluctantly, last autumn we hired another man, with an even bigger machine, to sort it out. We needed a big machine to get enough reach from bank to centre but the trouble is, even with a driver as skilled as Eddie, if you use a big machine you get a big machine job. Apart from a few bit of iris and other marginal vegetation left for re-colonisation, it is ground zero out there now. We are back to a muddy hole, with a few lost water boatmen rowing to nowhere.  Goodness knows how many organisms perished in the maw of that machine.

It looks like ecological vandalism. But I knew from hard won experience that a bit of conservation gardening would never be enough. Most of the wildlife in our countryside arose as an accidental by-product of agricultural operations, many of them brutal. But given a half decent chance natural processes will always reassert themselves. So I am certain that, as long as we sit back, in 5,10 and 20 years time the pond will be bursting with successional stages of plant, insect and bird life all over again – and eventually somebody will be tutting over what to do about an overgrown pond.

At The Crossroads



Peering out from my place in the undergrowth I feel, rather uncomfortably, compelled to wade into the treacherous waters of countryside politics this month, not least because they pose a direct threat to ‘nature in the quiet-nearby’.

The consultation on the Welsh Government’s paper ‘Brexit and Our Land’ has just closed, and I hope they are listening carefully to the responses. As a member of the European Union the UK has been bound in to the Common Agricultural Policy – which has been an unmitigated disaster for wildlife and the countryside. Post Brexit there is an opportunity to devise our own agricultural and countryside policy and, as this is a devolved area of responsibility, the Welsh Government has put forward some ideas. The most striking aspect of these is to scrap the Basic Payment Scheme, which is the cash per hectare that all farmers receive for doing, frankly, very little for society and the environment. It is proposed to divert this money into paying farmers and foresters to deliver ‘public goods’. These are things like flood prevention, encouraging wildlife, storing carbon, soil improvement and woodland extension – all of which society needs urgently, but for which there are no commercial markets.  As farmers and foresters manage about 90% of the Welsh countryside they are the only people who can deliver what we need. These are bold proposals by the Welsh Government and I applaud them for grasping the nettle – but they have no doubt found out that it stings.

During and after the Second World War farmers and foresters were urged to produce more, and they responded magnificently. We now produce far more food and timber than ever before. As a result, farmers have come to come to think of food production as being the only proper purpose of their business. That is how they judge themselves and each other. But sadly the intensification of farming and forestry has indisputably taken a toll on the countryside. As one of the small army of naturalists who, since the 1970s, has been mapping and surveying, I know the truth of that and trust the integrity of the results. Conservationists are not exaggerating – our wildlife has declined dramatically. There is insufficient space here to go into the whole sad litany but one stark example will serve. When I arrived here in 1983 to work on the Berwyn Mountains there were approximately 240 pairs of curlew – now I would be surprised if there are 10. We don’t yet know what has caused this catastrophic decline, but it illustrates why conservationists are so worried. Something has to be done before it is too late.

Farmers know, and so does everybody else, that agriculture in the hills is not viable. Without some sort of subsidy they would be out of business tomorrow. For a long time it was understood that part of the reason for a basic payment was to keep people on the land. The current version of this is the Basic Payment Scheme, which in effect, acts as a safety net to keep farmers solvent as markets and the weather fluctuate. Consequently, their response to the Welsh Government’s proposals has ranged from nervous to downright hostile. They fear that without the Basic Payment Scheme many farmers will go out of business. In the excruciating jargon used in these matters a lot of farms no longer have much ‘natural capital’ from which to deliver the ‘public goods’ and so would struggle to attract payments from that aspect of the proposals. The habitats and wildlife have gone. I heard one source quoted as saying that 30% of farmers in Wales will go bust if these proposals are adopted. Who knows if that is an accurate assessment – there is a lot of fear around. To some it can seem as if these ideas about ‘ecosystem services’ and the like are concepts that are being imposed upon farmers from an ‘urban’ culture and it is true that such ideas have not, by and large, arisen from within the farming community, who have mostly been focused food production. I understand how threatening such ideas could seem, especially as the language used is often so alien. These proposals are also worrying the wider Welsh community because farmers and their families are the backbone of rural society here.  They are the continuity that ensures a particular identity associated with Welsh language and culture prospers from one generation to the next. A 30% decrease, or anything like it, in farming families would be a cultural disaster.

I feel both sides of this dilemma keenly. I have been a naturalist and conservationist for 50 years or more. I care deeply about the fate of our wildlife. Over the last 35 years of living here I have also come to value the human culture and community that has shaped this land for centuries. Aspects of these seem to be amongst the finest expressions of being human.  I have also learned that the Welsh way of viewing the countryside is through the lens of language and community. People here would not usually go to a species list or survey result to understand the land, they would more likely begin with whose field it is and what would his grandfather have said about it. It is often said that scratch any Welsh person and you will find the name of a farm not far below the surface.  It never ceases to amaze me how tenaciously hill farmers cling to their land – the attachment runs very deep. Yet despite the high price of agricultural land selling-up never seems to be an option, unless infirmity or family calamity makes it unavoidable. Continuity is the unspoken covenant.

In view of all this it seems to me that a post Brexit policy must satisfy some key objectives:

Keep small and medium sized farms in business for the sake of our collective culture.

Ensure that we continue to produce good quality food from the best agricultural land and timber from our commercial forests.

Manage the land in ways that help our impoverished wildlife to recover on farmland and in forests.

Provide those ‘ecological services’ that are so desperately needed in the face of environmental degradation and climate change.

The markets, particularly for food and timber, can take care of some of that but taxpayers must be prepared to foot the bill for the rest. If this is what we want from farmers and foresters we must be prepared to pay for it. Fulfilling these objectives is a tall order but I think it could be done given sufficient political will. There are lots of good ideas and practices out there already. Many farmers are willing to deliver what is required but they need encouragement; these are new areas of knowledge for them. To date the hands-off, bureaucratic approach of the current agri-environment schemes have left farmers discouraged and disenchanted. I am also concerned that the Welsh Government’s proposals have inadvertently, had a polarising effect, when what is needed is co-operation. Conservationists need to be seen to want farmers to prosper and farmers need to show that they want wildlife to thrive. We need to listen and learn from one another, be open-minded and encourage each other. The Welsh countryside is at a crossroads. If we do not seize this moment together our country will be forever impoverished and future generations will rightly hold us to account.

Bed and Breakfast Birds


 Thirty years ago, when Gethin and Angharad were little, Elen and I were short of funds, so we toyed with the idea of doing bed and breakfast at our house – mercifully this never materialised. At the time I dreamed of attracting birdwatchers to stay by advertising that ‘within a three mile radius of the house you could find hen harrier, merlin, peregrine, short-eared owl, red and black grouse and probably golden plover.’ I would never have done it for fear of disturbing the birds, but as ornithological brags go it wasn’t bad.  Thirty years on and the moorland habitat is still there and apparently in good condition – but what of the birds? This spring Gethin and I decided to have a day ‘on the mountain’ to see what we could find.

It was an overcast, chilly day in late April but the cloud was high and an occasional gleam of sunshine illuminated the enormous view that opened up behind us as we climbed. Above the last farm the ffridd (rough ground between pasture and moorland) was strewn with boulders and billows of dead bracken; ancient ash and rowan trees variously broken, hollowed or cankered stood propped and crooked amongst them. Tree pipits sobbed as they parachuted down – this is just their country. A pair of pied flycatchers, anxious for us to pass, fussed from branch to fence and back again. Cresting the slope we crossed a small river and followed the faint path along the rush filled upland valley. Apart from the thin calls of meadow pipits taking to the air and an occasional wren singing lustily it was strikingly silent. Nobody much comes this way.

photo: Wikimedia commons 13.43 author: Isle of Man

After about a mile Gethin suddenly stiffened and exclaimed “harrier”. He said he had heard the characteristic ‘yip yip’ call and sure enough up to our left we saw a male hen harrier drifting away across the heather and up over a conifer plantation, before being lost from view. “Probably a food pass”, Gethin said laconically. Unlike me he had no reason to get excited; at this season surveying moorland birds is right at the centre of his work for the RSPB. In fact he was so ‘on it’ that I was beginning to feel laboured and slow. There was a time when I used to teach him this stuff…. There is no doubt that hen harriers are the moorland poster boys for conservation, particularly the males. Apart from anything else they are so beautiful: soft, pale grey plumage, almost white in some lights, with ink black wing tips and large yellow eyes. Their long slim wings, and a tail that flexes and fans are superbly adapted to tilt and slide across the heather, pouncing at the slightest movement from a vole or panicky pipit. I once held one of these extraordinary birds and I remember how its beautiful yellow eyes looked back at me with the blank indifference of planetary moons – the gaze of untroubled evolution.  Endlessly patient they drift like pale ghosts across this dark landscape, conspicuous and yet often unseen in  places where people rarely go. Gethin set up the telescope and settled into his own endlessly patient vigil. He was completely tuned in scanning the hillside for the smallest movement, and eventually it paid off: he saw the male settle on a rock about half a mile away and nearby he found the female, her streaked brown plumage neatly camouflaged against the heather. She seemed to be eating something, probably from the food pass. When the females are incubating eggs the males will fly in with food and use that ‘yip yip’ to call her off the nest. The food pass is often spectacular with the female turning upside down in mid air to catch the prey in her talons as he drops it.

Gethin was a bit concerned that these birds were rather close to a forestry plantation, which could give cover to foxes and crows, both of which take harrier eggs or chicks. The mixture of pleasure and anxiety we experienced was familiar as these birds are scarce and their numbers in Wales are down by about a third since 2010. Until recently we assumed they were free of the illegal persecution associated with grouse shooting that has so disgracefully supressed the population of hen harriers in England, almost to the point of extinction.  This arises because, although hen harriers mostly eat voles and pipits, they do predate grouse chicks. As these birds are fully protected by law this persecution is a national scandal, which is far from being resolved. There is little intensive grouse shooting in Wales and incidents of persecution have been rare over the last thirty years. Sadly this has been blemished in the last two years when young harriers fitted with tracking devices have ‘disappeared’ over a grouse moor about twenty miles from here. One of these birds Gethin had watched over from egg to fledgling, so he was understandably angry and upset. There is no certain proof that grouse shooting people were responsible for these disappearances but there is a long and repeated pattern: hen harriers disappear far more often over grouse moors than anywhere else.

At first sight these rolling slopes of knee deep heather look like good habitat for hen harriers. Tall woody heather like this can become impenetrable to sheep, so farmers, as well as grouse shooters, used to patch burn these moorlands as the subsequent tender regrowth provided a ‘better bite’ for their animals. These days the government conservation agency forbids the burning of moors like this one, which is underlain by deep blanket peat, as the specialist plant communities are easily damaged by fire. But is this also so good for the birds?  I wonder if the uneven age structure resulting from burning (or cutting) might support a greater density of meadow pipits, skylarks and voles as well as red grouse, which in turn would sustain more hen harriers? Although hen harriers require deep heather to nest in they also hunt widely over grassy moors, rush-filled flushes and young conifer plantations, where their prey species are often more plentiful. In Britain we have a particular responsibility towards blanket bogs and hen harriers, both of which are scarce and threatened,a as well as many other moorland species. Consequently ‘how to manage for everything’ becomes the unsolvable conundrum that keeps conservation managers awake at night.

Despite that, Gethin and I were pleased to find a pair of hen harriers on our doorstep and we set off up the valley in good spirits leaving them in peace. At least one of the birds on my bed and breakfast brag is still with us.

Island Farming


One morning last month I walked to the top of the hill (known fondly as ‘the mountain’) on the eastern side of Bardsey Island. I had a fine view of the irregular patchwork of small fields, which stitch together like quilting across the lowland part of the island. Rumpled with rushes and rough grasses the soft green and brown was lit by small ponds glinting in the morning sun. I imagine this is what pastoral landscapes must have looked like seventy years ago before agriculture modernised and intensified. And remarkably this place is getting more tousled and grubby-kneed as each year passes. To some this might look like neglect but in truth it is the result of very careful husbandry.

Bardsey means different things to different people: holiday destination, bird observatory, place of pilgrimage, farm, and nature reserve – even ‘home’ to a few. But it was the intersection of farming and conservation that particularly interested me that morning. Anyone visiting the island would be in no doubt this is a farm: the impressive farmsteads, field boundaries and scattered livestock make that obvious – and add a bucolic charm for many. This is a long settled place; it has been worked for centuries. A fundamental truth about the British countryside is that it has been farmed for so long that much of its wildlife adapted by default to the slow moving, hand-made agriculture that was commonplace until the Second World War. Most wildlife was simply an unintended by-product of farming operations. Deliberately managing a farm and a nature reserve for the benefit of both is another matter – especially on an island. Nature conservation rightly takes prides in its scientific base but day-to-day farming, particularly the management of livestock, is a pragmatic business – the art of ‘suck it and see’. It is not often that the science directly informs the art.

photo: Tom Kistruck

Nearly eleven years ago Gareth Roberts, who is the farming tenant on Bardsey as well as Cwrt farm on the mainland, employed Steve Porter to run the day-to-day operation for him on the island. Steve didn’t come from a traditional farming background so he arrived with an open mind.  His wife Jo, who is an ecologist, was also employed by the RSPB to monitor changes in the island’s wildlife, and so inform the farming. You couldn’t have written it: when conservation and agriculture are so often in conflict, on Bardsey the farmer and ecologist were comparing notes over breakfast; fine tuning the day to day, year to year management of the land for the benefit of both livestock and nature. Thanks to Gareth’s open handed and innovative guidance and the increasing flexibility and trust of Natural Resources Wales (the government conservation agency) Steve and Jo have been able to experiment: adjusting and re-adjusting the farm management, particularly the grazing of sheep and cattle for the benefit of wildlife. What has resulted is that rarity – a conservation good news story.

When Steve and Jo first came to Bardsey they inherited wide acres of closely grazed sheep pasture with little biodiversity and a very prescriptive and inflexible grazing plan. Working with Gareth and NRW their aim has been to manipulate the livestock grazing to gradually produce mosaics of vegetation, which they hoped, would naturally increase the diversity of plants and animals. Eleven years on the heather and creeping willow are now thriving on the precious maritime heath and orchids and insects are increasingly abundant in the pastureland. That morning I had seen hundreds of autumn lady’s tresses orchids in the fields – tiny twisting spires, miniature cathedrals that could have been designed by Gaudi. The choughs so often said to require nothing but tightly cropped turf for feeding are now also probing the heathland and rough grassland for invertebrate prey. Cattle, recently introduced to the mountain in summer, are making inroads into the bracken, which can smother more delicate plants. Grasshoppers, bees and spiders are taking advantage of the increase in flowers and longer grasses. Year-by-year this farm has been getting better for wildlife. That is a sentence to savour.

painting: Rachel Porter

Adjusting livestock grazing to benefit wildlife is tricky, if the ground is wet heavy-footed cattle may damage the vegetation, if it is dry they may not have enough to drink. If you need to take sheep off to allow plants to flower it may be a problem where to put them, especially if other areas are stocked to conservation capacity. Steve and Jo have also learned that seasonality is an important part of the ‘where, when and how many animals’ calculation. Each year’s pattern is, in part, a response to the weather of the previous year; a flush of grass after a wet warm season will smother less competitive flowers if the grazing isn’t increased in response. Flexibility is essential.  Sheep graze in a quite different way to cattle, clipping rather than tearing the vegetation, each producing a different kind of sward as a result. Of course much of this is true for every livestock farm but here the goal is a thriving ecosystem as well as healthy livestock.

Steve and Jo Porter (photo: Elen Elias)

This has been a golden time for conservation farming on Bardsey, but sadly things are changing as Steve and Jo are leaving. Having successfully reared and home-schooled their two children, Ben and Rachel, through to higher education they feel the time has come to move back to the mainland. Fortunately Gareth and his wife Meriel are able to move to the island in their stead, so the farming will remain in good hands, and Jo will continue to come back and do some wildlife monitoring.  That evening, as the sun was going down, nearly everyone on the island gathered on the beach to say goodbye to Steve and Jo. Food and drink round a driftwood fire and an energetic football match provided a typical island send off. Sitting there looking out over the sea into the sun setting behind the Irish hills I had mixed feelings, but it was gratifying to be able to reflect on the work of some good people who had made a difference, and two in particular for whom the work had been a calling as much as a job.

photo: Tom Kistruck


A Hundred Year Experiment

 It is pushing thirty degrees and ominously there doesn’t appear to be any prospect of shade in this rocky cauldron. I am standing at the edge of the lake in Cwm Idwal looking up at the majestic thousand-foot rock wall that wraps around its upper end. This is what geographers call a hanging valley, a colossal scoop of rock that was gauged out by glaciers millions of years ago leaving a classic cirque cradling a lake. The complex geology was folded under immense pressure into strata that are writ large across the towering headwall.  This has to be one of the most spectacular places in Wales.

photo: Owen Elias

About forty years ago I stood with a group of botanists high up on these cliffs in a place known as the Devils Kitchen. Our guide, the then warden of this National Nature Reserve, was Iorrie Ellis Williams and I remember how he stuck his stick in the ground, spread his arms wide to the stupendous view and declaimed,  “This is God’s own country”. On reflection I don’t think he meant just that it was beautiful and rich in rare arctic alpine plants, both of which mattered to him, but that it was also a place that represented Welsh culture, language and way of life. Cwm Idwal has a particular place in Welsh imagination as many of its special plants, such as moss campion, various saxifrages and the Snowdon lily, were first documented here by Evan Roberts, a quarryman and self taught botanist from nearby Capel Curig who established an international reputation for his knowledge of mountain plants. Cwm Idwal has been, like most of upland Wales, significantly influenced by farming; hundreds of years of sheep and cattle grazing have drastically modified the vegetation here. It is also a place much loved by hill walkers and climbers – many famous names have cut their teeth on the Idwal Slabs. On top of that tens of thousands of ‘ordinary’ folk come here every year just to soak up the splendour. That is how it is with wild places like this, everybody thinks its ‘theirs’ and so inevitably view it from different perspectives, some of which conflict.

photo: Gethin Elias

Tugging my hat down against the heat I take the path that runs above the eastern shore of the lake, which is paved with rocks artfully levered into place by a gang of local men who’s speciality is repairing mountain paths. Working with stone is an indigenous skill here. Without this work a combination of trampling feet and falling rain would reduce these paths to eroded gullies. The slopes above and below are cushioned with heather and bilberry interspersed with tall grasses and patches of heath rush – much like any other lightly grazed bit of moorland, but it was this I had come to see. Until recently these slopes were grazed down to contouring hugging lawns embedded with vestigial, barely surviving, heather and bilberry plants. Then twenty years ago the grazing tenant retired and Barbara Jones, the upland ecologist for the Countryside Council for Wales, persuaded her employers to buy the tenancy and let the National Trust, who own Cwm Idwal, take it ‘in hand’.  Barbara’s reasoning was that the arctic alpine plants that are so special here were not doing that well perhaps because, being at the southern limit of their range, they were beginning to feel the impact of a warming climate. The other major stressor on these plants was grazing from sheep and feral goats. Now there was an opportunity to discover if removing that pressure would enable the plants to thrive even in the face of climate change. So it was arranged that there would be no further grazing in Cwm Idwal for the foreseeable future and that natural processes would be allowed to take their course. Barbara calls this “a hundred year experiment” – which is probably as realistic as it is ambitious. A neighbouring farmer is paid to shepherd out any sheep that trespass via the higher slopes, which are impossible to fence. At present the rare plants mostly grow in difficult to reach ledges and crevices, perhaps as a last refuge from hard years of grazing, but unfortunately the ‘wild’ goats (which are very popular with visitors) are good at clambering to such places. So now, if their numbers build up in the cwm, they are discretely culled to more acceptable numbers.

By the time I get to the head of the lake I am frying but the only patch of shade I can find, in the overhang of a huge boulder, is already crammed with five other people, so I have to put up with the heat. In places the flowers are conspicuous: thyme, bog asphodel and butterwort are flowering profusely, where previously they would have been grazed off. But what really takes my eye is the burgeoning heather and bilberry, which are beginning to close over these previously grassy slopes. Here and there whippy rowan saplings have taken root; the berries dropped by birds now have a better chance of reaching the soil and germinating in the more open sward of these dwarf shrubs.

Having started up along the steep path to the Devils Kitchen I take a break to recover my breath.  Sitting beside the path the shouts of encouragement and clink of the gear from a group of climbers on the Slabs seems quietly reassuring in the hot, still air. The whole cwm feels rested,as if convalescing after the hard years of grazing. Every few years I have come to see how this experiment is progressing and what is striking is how slowly it has changed; harsh climate, altitude and poor soils mean these upland ecosystems move slowly. Barbara tells me that, mossy saxifrage excepted, there has been little or no visible effect on the arctic alpine plants after twenty years; they grow so slowly it might be thirty to fifty years before any change is visible.  Apparently when the scheme was first mooted there was some concern from the public that ‘the place would become a jungle’ but the changes to the vegetation have been so gradual that hardly anyone has noticed.

The path down from the Devil’s Kitchen is more like a staircase for giants, each step needs negotiating. This would not be a good place to fall. Beside the path mountain sorrel, beech fern and starry saxifrage sweeten the effort. At a place where a trickle of water flows over a rock I startle a pair of twite who had come to drink. They fly off uttering hard metallic calls, which echo around the rocks. I am pleased to see them, as this is the only area in Wales now where you can find these upland finches. Making my way along the west side of the lake I come across a slope that is thigh deep with inpenetratable gorse and heather, a vivid illustration of why the local farming community objected to this scheme. They thought it a ‘waste of land’ and that furthermore it would be impossible to reintroduce sheep in due course. From their point of view mountain land doesn’t look right without sheep or cattle. This was dereliction. Perhaps they also feared it was the thin end of the wedge for farming in Snowdonia.

A cheerful group of people, eastern European by the sound of them, are picnicking on the lakeshore and frolicking in the water. A bit further on, posing (no other word will do) on the top of a rock, a young scantily clad and heavily tattooed couple are in a passionate embrace. I reflect wryly that despite this being a National Nature Reserve not everyone is here to wonder about vegetation succession and the like. It’s a beach, romantic walk, climber’s training ground, abandoned (stolen) farmland, naturalist’s treasure house and no doubt more. So where is this experiment heading? As far as the arctic alpine plants are concerned nobody knows. For the rest probably continued slow development to heathland with scattered trees or even light woodland – and perhaps nobody much will notice. From the traditional farming perspective it will look like derelict land, but perhaps that point of view will begin to soften if the post Brexit policy of ‘public goods for public money’ for farming support becomes a reality. It seems to me that we need bold experiments like this one to help us understand and be flexible in the face of a changing and globalised world. I hope all concerned in Cwm Idwal can hold their nerve – and report back in eighty years time!















On this glittering May morning the sunlight bounces off the sea loch in bright fractal patterns. In the foreground sedge and grasshopper warblers natter and reel in the rushy pasture while a cuckoo sounds off from the top of a nearby rowan.  Between the two, about half a mile away, is rocky ridge covered in low hazy woodland. That is what we have come to see.

Elen and I have travelled to the Isle of Seil in Argyll specifically to find Ballachuan wood, a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve, which is one of the very best of Scotland’s mysterious hazelwoods. We follow a track across the rough pasture and climb a stile into the wood. Straight away it seems odd. This is one of Britain’s most ancient woodlands and yet it is no more than twice my height at best. Around the edges there are a few other tree species, a wych elm and a group of wild cherries humming with bees, but further in there is only an even blanket of low growing hazels. This early in the season the wood is light and airy, with a rich ground flora in full bloom. A hazy carpet of bluebells is just beginning to open and scattered amongst them are sanicle, golden saxifrage, wood anemone, enchanter’s nightshade and sweet woodruff. Here and there early purple orchids glow like light sabres amongst the wild garlic. As we duck between the hazels following a faint path I am struck by the fragile ‘other worldly’ feel of this place. It is as if we have been dropped into an alternative reality and I am reluctant to step off the path for fear of doing irreparable damage with my alien feet.

Hazels are familiar shrubs in lowland woods and hedgerows all over Britain. Historically they were usually coppiced, periodically clear-cut, for the multiple slender and flexible stems they produce which were so useful in the pre-industrial age for baskets, sheep hurdles thatching spars and the like. For many years I assumed that hazels were multi-stemmed because they had been coppiced, although it often struck me as odd to find them like that in very out of the way places. It turns out that left to their own devices they are a naturally multi-stemmed species; in fact hazels can persist for hundreds of years by replacing old and dying stems with new ‘whips’. A researcher in Finland has found living hazel stools he estimates to be more than 900 years old. Consequently where there has been little interference over the centuries and climatic conditions are suitable hazels have formed self-perpetuating woods that can persist indefinitely, without any ‘encouragement’ from humankind. And it seems that these hazels at Ballachuan have not been significantly exploited since they first colonised this rocky ridge following the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago. What we are looking at is almost entirely natural – a rare sight in twenty-first century Britain.

Another striking thing about these hazels is that they are festooned and plastered with lichens. On the younger stems smooth crustose species form cream and silver patches; on the older stems there are  ‘leafy’ species, some of them cool and fleshy to touch. I am not a lichenologist but I can recognise a rich assemblage, and I have never seen anything like this before. Such an abundance and variety only occurs in very old and undisturbed woodlands, where there is a moist and equable climate with very little atmospheric pollution. The air here must be very clean. Even quite spindly hazel branches are covered with tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria); it is everywhere, dried out in this weather to gruesome parchments resembling inverted lungs. Grey beards of Usnia species hang down like wispy goatees and ‘script’ lichens are inscribed with indecipherable codes of dots and scribbles. It all seems so delicate and precious and yet  this wood must be very resilient to have survived here for so long.

Until comparatively recently ecologists had not placed any particular value on hazelwoods, they were generally thought to be a stage in the development of other common woodland types rather than an endpoint in themselves. Then in the 1970s two lichenologists, Sandy and Brian Coppins, began to realise that the lichen flora of some Scottish hazelwoods was particularly rich and distinctive, including some species that were globally rare. Although pioneer hazelwoods occur in various places on the Atlantic fringe of Britain they discovered that the most special lichen communities were confined to pure hazel stands that had remained undisturbed for a very long time. These so called ‘old growth’ Atlantic hazelwoods are more or less confined to western Scotland and are home to some of the richest assemblages of oceanic lichens in Europe. Along with oak and birch woodland found along the edges of western Britain they are part of the ‘coastal temperate rainforests’ of the world, an extremely rare and threatened habitat type. As well as lichens these woodlands are also important for mosses, liverworts, fungi and ferns.

Ducking amongst the hazel branches we scrambled along a now barely visible path, following a shallow stream right down to the seashore where its gravelly bed widened out into a small bay swaying with bladder wrack. A common sandpiper, startled by our arrival, flew off, piping loudly on characteristically stiff wings. The hazels above the rocky shore were wind pruned to no more than waist height. A scattering of alders, birch and sallow infiltrated them at the edges but it seems that thin soils, maritime exposure and the tight canopy of the hazels prevents these taller species from ever colonising the wood.

I had expected a grimmer place swirling with Celtic mystery, and no doubt on a wet day in February it could seem that way, but today it smacks of intoxicating enchantment; perhaps if you slept the night here you would wake up altogether changed. This extraordinary wood is probably a living relict of the original ‘wildwood’ that has persisted essentially unaltered since it colonised the post glacial tundra 10,000 years ago in a Britain where humans were of no significance. It is indeed a message from ‘beyond’.












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.



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. 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.