I apologise for the lack of blog-posts in recent months. For sometime I have been writing a book about nature and farming in the Welsh uplands and it has been accepted for publication. I must now revise the manuscript and get it back to the publishers by June – which is keeping me pretty busy. I will post details of the book in due course. I hope normal service will be restored later in the year. Best wishes to all.
It is only a scruffy patch of grass really, about 20 yards square at the back of the churchyard, where nobody will notice it. By late summer the pale swaying grass stems gleam in the afternoon sun, lending a soft haze to the dignified headstones, which they partly obscured. Every headstone here is slate, no doubt hacked from the quarries only a few miles away across the Dyfi.
Churchyards are often one of the few remaining places to find fragments of wildlife-rich grassland, agricultural intensification has destroyed most of it in the farmed landscape. But, like many others, St Peter’s in Machynlleth let a contract for churchyard maintenance, which in effect means two men come twice each summer and strim the grass wall to wall, leaving the cut grass where it lies. This produces a tidy, but featureless, green sward – rather sad for a place set aside to celebrate Creation. In the hope of improving on this we asked the church authorities if they would exclude a portion which we could manage for the benefit wildlife – and they agreed.
I had looked at our patch a few weeks before and counted about 30 species of plants including the grasses. There was nothing unusual, we are not dealing with one of those ‘Lazarus’ situations which sometimes occur when the cutting stops and a mass of orchids, or some other eye-catching plants, come up for air for the first time in decades. But with encouragement, and time, this place should become more interesting and varied. Our proposal was to let the plants grow, flower and set seed, then cut and cart away for compost at the end of summer. This gives the chance for new seedlings to establish, which especially important for annual species. Also, raking up and removing the cut material prevents smothering and over ‘composting’, which only benefits a few robust generalist plants at the expense of more delicate ones, which often prefer less fertile conditions.
At the end of August my friend Tom and I turn out to do the cutting and clearing; Tom is an experienced scyther and has a beautifully balanced Austrian scythe that he keeps razor sharp. I am in the ‘builders-mate’ role with a rake and wheelbarrow. Tom cuts neat swathes with a ‘chop, chop, swish’ rhythm – two short cuts and then a longer follow through. I rake up and wheel the cut material to a tottering pile under a yew tree; in a couple of weeks it will be half as high and twice as hot, as the decomposers get to work. What strikes us both as we work is the abundance of invertebrate life `amongst the grass: beetles, flies, ants (especially ants), spiders, harvestmen, earwigs, aphids – this ragged patch is heaving with life. Nothing special has been done to it, we have just taken a foot off its neck and let it grow. The ants have thrown up many loose mounds which previously would have been obliterated by the strimming, and where Tom has clipped one hundreds of small yellow ants seethe with activity, repairing and defending. The soil of these mounds is surprisingly dark; it is too dry for peat here, so perhaps the decomposition of the good folk of Machynlleth is the explanation.
It is deeply peaceful around the back of the church, away from the traffic and with a fine view of the hills. A good place to be interred. There is something about the work we were doing which seems timeless. Scythe, sickle, rake and a rattling wheelbarrow. Now and again we stop to talk, leaning on our tools in a way people would have done for centuries before mechanisation. I don’t suppose this is the first time this churchyard has been scythed – but the ‘tshic, tshic’ of the whetstone on steel won’t have been heard here for a long time. Taking a break, we draped our coats over a gravestone and sat on a tomb, without a hint of disrespect.
We decide to leave part of our area uncut so insects could complete their life cycle in the long grass. Cutting it all would wipe out many of them. Rotational cutting each year will give them a better chance, but we are unsure if the church authorities will wear it. Our faded and ragged patch with its half-obscured gravestones is in conspicuous contrast to the front-of-house respectable green. I know which I prefer – but I may not be representative of the congregation. The church warden came to look us over during the afternoon, and seemed sceptical about our efforts, saying he had seen more flowers outside our scruffy patch than within it. We will need to hold our nerve.
This simple, companionable work seems paltry in the face of recent ramped up warnings about the state of nature, but I suppose if everybody……. Anyway, it has been an uncomplicated and somehow honest pleasure, which feels like a good way to live.
It is a blue-sky morning, fat with the promise of early spring and I am standing at the bottom of a tight, single-track road just across the river from where I live. The road rises steeply to the north, winding through pastures and woodland, until eventually it reaches the open hill country above. I feel full of expectation, eager for clues of renewed life. At first sight the place looks unchanged since Christmas: the ground hard and bony, grass cropped short and the trees bare, but I can smell new growth: a rising succulence that is putting new flesh on winter bones. There is fresh unfolding foliage on honeysuckle, cleavers, herb Robert and cow parsley. Yellow stars of celandines light up the hedge bank with a brassy optimism, the plain white flowers of barren strawberry around them are like maids attending a dowager. Above me a goldcrest is stitching its high frequency song whilst a crow yells in a coarse f-off sort of way from nearby woodland. Abruptly a pheasant coughs like somebody tearing metal. A lizard, my first of the year, is more movement than image, slipping between dead grass and emerging nettles.
Further up a scruffy little pasture catches my eye: drab grey-green with scattered rushes and bracken, it is quite unlike the overfed verdance of the valley bottom grassland. This small field is steep (which no doubt saved it) and full of hummocks and jutting bedrock – and best of all a sprinkling of grassy anthills, a sure sign it has been spared the plough. Such places sometimes contain botanical gold, so I will be back in a month or two.
Turning round and looking south the escarpment edge of the Cambrian Mountains, although five miles from here, is sharp enough to cut your finger on today. In the foreground the river, a glittering blue slash across the landscape, looks benign and easy, but only days ago it bulged ominously with coffee coloured water moving with a remorseless force. En route from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury a train trundling along the valley gives a mournful hoot: a come-hither sound that has me longing to travel. It has been a hard year.
In the hedgerow a patch of dog’s mercury is fresh up from the soil, the tiny cream and green flowers just beginning to open. I am always pleased to see this modest plant; it is said to be an indicator of long gone woodland and as so many of our plants originated on the wildwood edge a hedge is a good enough proxy. A group of long-tailed tits are making their way along the lane from bush to bush in busy conversation; they seem oblivious of me – like people overheard on a bus.
Further up the lane the ground opens out into steep hard-bitten grassland strewn with last year’s brittle and flattened bracken. It is hard to imagine the forest of sappy fists it will be thrusting up in just a few weeks. The slope rises to a group of elderly oaks through which a raven sidles discreetly off stage. I can’t see a nest, but it is that time of year for ravens. A scattering of gorse is (as always) flowering but otherwise this slope looks closed, still in the grip of winter. Some of the oaks have shed limbs – a glorious chaos of lichen and rot. I offer up a silent prayer that they wont be tidied up, but a stack of logs at the roadside looks ominous. One or two trees lie prone, punched flat by distant gales, their root plates rotated to vertical. It is a miracle that they stand for so long in these shallow shaley soils, their sclerotic roots clinging on for dear life.
At this point the trickle beside the road runs into a kind of slate cistern, the sort of thing a posh garden centre would rob you blind for – but here, made long before artisans drank lattes, it is half overgrown and entirely forgotten. A bit further up, where the road crosses a stream, a dry-stone wall made from thousands of slate shards is twisted out of shape by tree roots, but it still supports the bank. It is hard to imagine the patience and fortitude needed to make such a thing for seemingly such a slight purpose. It reminds me of Andy Goldsworthy’s work, which shines a light on the everyday artistry that was once everywhere and nowhere in the countryside.
Either side of the lane is now open hill land. The tarmac has disintegrated into a loose rutted track with patches of exposed bedrock. I’m pleased to reach the top, the break in slope before the track slides down into the next valley. Spread out in front of me is a huge bowl with woodland and forestry plastered around the sides of the surrounding hills. It still feels hard and unforgiving up here, a few hundred feet make a lot of difference at this season. The hedgerow plants have gone, the birds are quiet and the wind suddenly has a bite. Not yet the glories of skylarks in their towers of song or small butterflies dancing across the warm turf.
Tucked under the slope150 feet below me is Bron yr Aur, a remote one-time farmstead now impressively ‘off grid’ with a wind turbine, hydro and a solar array. It was here, sometime in the late 1960s, that Led Zeppelin started writing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – one of the greatest rock songs of all time; apparently Bron yr Aur is still a place of pilgrimage for fans. It is a seductive thought that this road inspired their title, but really I have no idea if their stairway to heaven is the same as mine.
At the beginning of the week we had the sort of rain that would have got Noah out of his armchair: this culminated in the river Dyfi spilling millions of gallons of water onto the floodplain until there was a veritable sea downstream from the bridge. For 24 hours Machynlleth became cut off from both north and south, and at least one home was badly flooded. By Thursday the waters had subsided again leaving a tangle of debris and broken fences for the farmers to clear up.
On Friday it turned frosty and this morning we woke to the brightness of snow: the landscape was transformed once again. I got out early but at least one lot of dog walkers was ahead of me. Crunching and snapping underfoot in tiny seismic explosions the snow clung to every twig and branch in gobbets or delicately frozen filigrees. Yellow gorse flowers glowed like struck matches inside crystalline cages. My terrier dashed about nose to the ground – what is it about snow that seems to amplify scent trails? The sky was bruised purple and looked fit to burst. I met a couple of other wide-eyed, snow-struck walkers: “more on the way” we pronounced knowingly.
I was enjoying myself, but for many people all this ‘weather’ on top of a remorseless deluge of Covid news at the fag-end of January, must seem like the pits. Being forced to live in the shaky gap between vaccination and infection, in a closed-up town dumped on by floods and ice – is too much.
But, of course, this grim story is only one version of what is going on: It was light until 5.30 yesterday evening; I heard my first song thrush give voice – admittedly rather tentatively, less strident for now; some snowdrops have turned down their bells, dreaming of early pollinators; and the rooks at the bottom of our road are in constant conversation about the new season. It seems to me that we are no longer looking into winter but out towards spring.
But walking home through the muffled town I was reminded of this ‘life depends on your viewpoint’ stance when I noticed a blackbird foraging in the gutter, no more than a yard away. I was charmed by its confiding behaviour until it struck me that this wasn’t friendliness but desperation. If the snow and ice persist it will be hard pushed to find enough calories to make it through the night. Cute though it looked, cocking a bright yellow eye at me, it was trying to survive in the mortal gap between enough and too little. Mostly our affluence masks the inherent fragility of life but Covid has ripped this away – leaving us as vulnerable as a blackbird on an icy morning.
I hadn’t been to Craig y Tan for months: a combination of a hip replacement operation and Covid 19 lock-down had made it impossible. But by late June and I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I set out early and pulled up at the farm by 7.30, on what is promising to be the hottest day of the year so far. Parking someway short of the yard I can see Hywel walking across the field below the house. He is carrying one grandchild and leading the other by the hand; in front of them seven sheep dogs spin and leap, let out for their early morning exercise. He stands for a while looking down the valley and I imagine he is talking to the children about Craig y Tan; I know how important it is to him that they are steeped in this place. It is a tender scene, evoking the care for family and place bound together, generation upon generation. A bit later I catch up with them under the sycamore tree by the house. Anest is pushing herself on the swing and Eurig, a sturdy little lad just past his first birthday, stands regarding me solemnly. Hywel and I talk a bit of nature and a lot about family and grandchildren; the affection and pride for these two shines out of him, transcending anything else we might have spoken about.
Setting off across the meadows and rough grazing, the grass is wet with dew but the streams are low after the dry weather. It is very quiet; other than a wren belting it out and the intimate calls of house martins swooping around me there is a deep silence. It is already getting hot; a gentle breeze barely stirs the leaves. As I walk my boots scuff against heath bedstraw, bright yellow hawkweeds and the green bladders of seeding bluebells. Facing up the valley towards Moel Llyfnant there is little evidence of ‘human time’, just the unhurried rhythm of natural processes. The rocks, squat hawthorns and sheep cradled in this valley feel like a scene outside of time – as if nothing has ever changed and never will.
Heading uphill I scramble over the fence into the woodland (a bit of a challenge for my new hip) and everything changes; or at least intensifies. Because it is so rare that anybody comes into these woods they have an untouched, fairy-tale atmosphere. A buzzard circling overhead starts mewing, a wild sad sound that only adds to the estrangement. Under the gnarly trees the grasses and ferns are tall: patches of stately marsh hawk’s-beard and valerian decorate the wetter places, delicate beech ferns fringe a chaos of rocks. I feel uncomfortable about crushing the vegetation, as if by walking here I am spoiling the place. Painstakingly I clamber up the moss covered block scree, testing each step with my stick; this is not quite what the doctor ordered.
I make it up to the base of the cliff and settle down with my back against a rock. Looking down I can see through the twisted intricacy of woodland to the rough pastures both sides of the river half a mile away. From there the lower slopes of the mountain is gridded with elderly stone walls and above them a long bare ridge ascends to the summit of the Arenig at nearly 3000 feet. There probably isn’t a single other human being between here and there. Around me the plant and insect life is prolific: small flies, a beetle and various spiders run over my clothing and notebook as I write. Two spotted flycatchers ‘tsskk’ their soft familiar call at me; I am surprised to find them here so far from habitation. Perhaps they have a nest in a rock crevice, the sort of place they must have used before houses and barns existed. The air smells clean and sappy – fresh and far from harm.
I have been exploring and writing about Craig y Tan for four or five years now and I find myself wondering what it all amounts too. Is this farm some quaint and delightful anachronism or a beacon for a more ecologically sensitive world? At the heart of the question is a quest for the reconciliation of farming and nature conservation. Personally it has been a great learning. After 35 years of living here and working in the hills I thought I knew a bit about this kind of farming, but I know a lot more now. Similarly I brought some natural history and conservation knowledge and experience with me but nothing beats paying close attention to one ‘patch’. When it comes down to it the world is essentially local, and all the better for being understood that way. I also had some appreciation of the farming way of life and its cultural context but thanks to Hywel that has deepened and become more nuanced. Although not a man to proselytise or thump the table he feels strongly none the less and he has been quietly and kindly educating me. Visitors passing through Craig y Tan might (at least on a dry day) call it Paradise and walk on; they could be forgiven for not appreciating the extent to which this wild place has been shaped by Hywel and his forbears, or the extent to which the public purse, through an agri-environment scheme, helps maintain its rich and varied character.
Despite the day warming up I am getting a bit stiff sitting at the top of the woods; it’s time to move – which will no doubt be a relief to the spotted flycatchers. Going down is even more hazardous than coming up so it takes a while to get back to the boggy pasture outside the wood. Towards the river the butterflies are now on the move in the warmth of the day: meadow browns, ringlets, a small skipper and, to my delight, several small pearl-bordered fritillaries, the first I have seem at Craig y Tan. Heath spotted-orchids are just beginning to open their delicate pink spikes and the magenta bells of the cross-leaved heath attract nectaring butterflies. A very small frog, alarmed by my approach, struggles to get away though thick rushes beside a ditch. I am seeing all of this with fresh eyes after a few months away; it makes me realise just how abundant wildlife is on this farm.
At the riverbank I am grateful to pitch into the shade of a big hawthorn. The river is about half full and burbling along with a lack of drama that seems to suit the day. A small trout jumps and flops back with a mild splash. I wait in vain for a dipper to come barrelling past but the dragonflies keep me entertained. Two impressive golden-ringed hawkers are intermittently scrapping with rustling wings over territorial rights. Several splendid demoiselles flit elegantly above the water like Georgian dowagers with time on their hands; their electric blue seems to me a little too gaudy for North Wales. Looking back across the boggy pastures and up into the woods where I have been this morning the farm seems rested, harmonious, there is no intensity or stress on the land or stock. Could more farms be like this?
So is Craig y Tan farm a throwback or a way forward? It is undoubtedly a beautiful place and still rich in wildlife, especially by current standards. It is also a viable, if subsidised, working farm in the hands of a local Welsh speaking family committed to their community and way of life. From the perspective of ‘ecological services’ such as carbon storage and sequestration, water quality, flood prevention, biodiversity and public health it scores pretty highly. Through the agri-environment scheme the current land-use system has been somewhat tailored to meet nature conservation needs and, with some important caveats, is doing pretty well. In Hywel we are unusually lucky to have a farmer who is interested in the natural history of his farm; I don’t want to pretend he is typical.
Ambling back along the river my head is full of the complexities thrown up by seeing this farm as a microcosm of hill farming and wildlife conservation. It does seem to be working; there is harmony between the two, albeit at considerable public expense. Meeting Hywel and his grandchildren this morning has stayed in my mind all day. It was a reminder that although Craig y Tan can be seen to represent the struggle to retain a rich wildlife heritage in a farmed landscape it is just as much about community, family, hard work and commitment to place. Anest and Eurig will, I hope, enjoy and remember Craig y Tan all of their lives, as perhaps their descendants will. I am just passing through – and I call it Paradise.
In late February I had a hip joint replaced, and then came lock-down: a combination that limited me, for a while, to tramping the streets of the town where I live. One of the joys of this has been getting to know the botanical life that lives in the gutter: clinging to walls, cracks in the pavement, rough ground and doorways. These are the backstreet habitats exploited by the nimble and exotic alike; places where newly arrived migrants rub shoulders with native lowlife, eking out a living just under the radar.
In March and early April there were the ’weeds’ such as thale cress, whitlowgrass and cornsalad – none of them very photogenic but still smart enough to flower and set seed before anyone noticed how ‘untidy’ they were. Many of these annuals are native plants, originally inhabitants of open ground that was probably scarce in the ‘wildwood’. Later they prospered and spread amongst crops in agricultural landscapes and yet more recently they have colonised the dry places and disturbed ground of our urban spaces.
Many new arrivals have simply scrambled over the garden gate – an ornamental quaking grass is well established in parts of Machynlleth. Similarly I have found pansies, snapdragons and two exotic bellflowers, as well as more culinary opportunists such as oregano, fennel and lemon balm, each decorating the gutters and walls of our streets. We can also thank gardeners for more notorious escapees such as rhododendron ponticum and Japanese knotweed. Rhododendron smothers whole hillsides not far from here and the knotweed is so prolific and tenacious that you can incur a hefty fine just for moving it from place to place.
Our flora has always been on the move. When the ice sheets and permafrost retreated northwards 12,000 years ago Britain was still joined to Europe and plants from the south and east were able to gradually colonise the warming ground. Later, humans started to move longer distances and plants went with them. Much of our arable flora, along with the wild ancestors of wheat, originated in the bone-dry grasslands of Turkey and the Middle East where their seeds mixed with the grains taken into cultivation. Until cleaning of cereal seeds became more efficient in the 19th century wild flowers were unintentionally harvested and re-sown for centuries, alongside wheat, oats and barley. Ecologically life in the bare, well drained soil of the cereal fields was like Turkey revisited, so consequently they thrived. The patriotic red poppies of our cornfields and waysides were part of this ‘invasion’ and so are not in fact native but early colonists of our farming landscape. For the last 150 years or so this arable flora has been in steady decline with cornflowers, hairy mallow, weasel’s-snout and the rest almost extinguished by increasingly efficient farming methods.
A preferential class system extends into the classification of Britsh plants: 60 years ago it was simple and brutal – natives okay, the rest – beyond the pale. More recently this has been broadly stratified into natives, archaeophytes (established before 1500) and neophytes (arrivals since 1500), the last two together are defined as ‘aliens’. This often seems like a declining order of worth amongst field botanists, with natives as the most highly regarded. Delightfully some plants have the temerity to ignore the rules. The Welsh poppy is an outstanding example of a plant becoming downwardly mobile. It is still found as a scarce native plant in mountainous areas (including not far from here on Cader Idris) where it is revered by botanists. Unsurprisingly such an attractive plant was taken into cultivation and from there it absconded back into the wild, to inhabit walls and waysides. This same lovely plant now belongs to a much lower caste than its mountain relatives.
There is a glorious ‘anything goes/survival of the fittest’ feel to this guttersnipe community. Under-loved natives such as cats-ears, dog daisies and ferns burst out of the cracks and scuffed-up soil, taking their chance alongside newcomers like periwinkle, red valerian and purple toadflax. It is a hazardous existence, at least in this town, where the council deems all this effervescent beauty to be unruly and unregulated. They send in a man with a strimmer who, like a modern incarnation of the grim reaper, cuts many off in their prime and later administers a dose of glyphosate for good measure.
But these botanical riffraff are a resourceful and tenacious bunch; many of them will outlive us all, bursting through the cracks of Armageddon Street long after we have gone. During lock-down the only things growing on the streets of this town were in the gutter.
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.
We planned to leave early but at first light it was blowing a gale and lashing with rain – going back to bed seemed a better option. I phoned Tom who was quite unperturbed saying, “Lets go, it might be different down there.” And it was.
Tom is my son-in-law and a warden at the RSPB’s Ynys-hir nature reserve, which is about 15 minutes drive from here. Along with my eldest son Owen we had planned a trip to look for lesser spotted woodpeckers, one of Ynys-hir’s star birds. On the drive there we encounter dramatic flooding where the high tide has met overnight rain pouring down the Dyfi from the hills above. A train teetered uncertainly towards Aberystwyth along an embankment through the flooded fields – it felt like Armageddon. But when we pull into the sheltered car park all is tranquil: the wind had dropped, the rain ceased and the birds are singing.
At Ynys-hir, above the bog-land and grazing marshes of the Dyfi estuary, are a series of wooded and rocky ridges where the oak trees are distinctively twisted, as if from the effort of clinging to the bedrock. Arthur Rackham could have drawn this rumpled and mysterious terrain. The woodland is extensive, which is just what lesser spotted woodpeckers like. I had always assumed these sparrow-sized birds were out there somewhere and doing fine, but recently conservationists have realised that their numbers are much diminished. There may only be about 2000 pairs remaining in the UK, although nobody is really sure. The difficulty is that these small birds are very elusive: occupying a territory of perhaps 500 hectares they cling to twigs and upper branches, picking through the moss and bark for small invertebrates. This makes cold searching for ‘lesser spots’ a needle in a haystack sort of business. Tom tells me of a man he knows who has been trying to see one for 14 years, so far without success. Apparently your best chance is to hear them calling or drumming in the early spring – which is why we are here.
More in hope than expectation we ramble around these beautiful woods for an hour or two, peering and listening intently, but we don’t get a whisper. In truth, apart from ensuring a good supply of standing dead wood (don’t tidy up), there is not much conservation managers can do for lesser spotted woodpeckers. This is a bird that is out there somewhere living as it always has, whether or not we understand the reasons for its decline.
To compensate for our lack of success with the woodpeckers Tom offers to take us out onto the grazing marshes in his pick-up; this is a part of the reserve the public don’t usually get to, so we jump at the chance. The contrast after the muffled woods is dramatic: this land is three-quarters sky and straight-line flat. Gateposts are landscape features here. Tom (a proud Suffolk man) is clearly in his element in this bleak expanse and I tease him that he has somehow found a corner of East Anglia for himself amongst the Welsh hills. Flocks of golden plover, teal and lapwing swirl around us and we get a distant glimpse of the rare of Greenland white-fronted geese which overwinter here. A fine male merlin sits neat and lethal on a fencepost for us to drool over.
Apart from the wintering wildfowl and waders the main interest for the RSPB on these grasslands is the breeding lapwings. This was a common, and much loved, farmland bird until 40 years ago; it still shocks me to realise that in Wales they are now largely confined to about half a dozen nature reserves like this one. The causes of their demise are complex but revolve around changes in agriculture, both arable and pastoral, and an increase in predators, particularly crows and foxes. Lapwings like it damp to ensure a supply of invertebrate prey, so an intricate network of ditches, sluices and pipes have been installed here to redistribute the rainwater to where it is needed – the complexities of which Tom seems to carry in his head. Lapwings don’t like clumps of rushes: rather than hide from predators they prefer a clear view of what’s coming. So as well as getting the grazing levels right Tom treats the ubiquitous rushes with a herbicide, using a tractor powered weed-wipe. The biggest threat of all to lapwing breeding success is predation of eggs and chicks by foxes and crows. To deter the foxes a six-foot high fence, dug into the ground at the bottom and electrified at the top, surrounds this area of grazing land. A fence like this costs tens of thousands of pounds. Remote camera traps have shown foxes patrolling around the fence, searching for any weakness. Tom tells me he once saw a fox tossing lapwing chicks in the air like beanbags; he loses sleep over the thought of one getting in during the breeding season. Crows are perhaps an even bigger problem: there is no way to keep them out. Systematic culling of foxes and crows is often integral to managing breeding lapwing populations these days – although not currently at Ynys-hir.
Lapwings would be more or less extinct in Wales if it wasn’t for the kind of dedicated, intensive management that is being done at Ynys-hir: expensive, time consuming work that raises dilemmas about the use of chemicals, killing predators, and enclosing wild birds with fencing. In truth there isn’t much different between this fence and those at safari parks or Whipsnade zoo. But if we want to keep the beautiful and evocative ‘peewit’ sound of breeding lapwings tumbling through the sky then these are the lengths we have to go to, at least for now.
The contrast between these two declining birds could not be greater: the lesser spotted woodpeckers are in a more or less natural environment and largely beyond our reach, whilst the lapwings are close to being farmed. In our drastically modified countryside it is sometimes hard to know what ‘wild’ means anymore.
Recently Elen and I went back to the Gower peninsula near Swansea to celebrate the forty years since we met there (when I gate-crashed her birthday party, but that is a different story…)
I had forgotten how lovely Gower was and, praise be, still is. The combination of dramatic bays and cliffs on the southern coast; a bristling central spine of common land and the ever-receding mystery of the northern salt-marshes, seem to fold a whole world into its modest land mass. I think I had gone with a ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ script tucked into my back pocket, imagining it would be overrun or hopelessly gentrified by now. But apart from some tasteless new-build here and there it was wonderfully unspoilt and rural with overgrown hedges, winding single-track roads and a surprisingly dark night sky. If anything it looked a touch run down – in a ‘potholes and peeling paint’ sort of way – which was unexpected, so close to the South Wales conurbation.
On our first day we walked, in warm sunshine, down from Parkmill following the path through the woods along Pennard pill (the local name for stream). The detail was lovely: twisted wind pruned trees, gorse stems warmed by the winter sun, overhanging banks deep enough for a child to hide and hanks of bladder-wrack stranded by the tide. This steep-sided valley, watched over by a frowning castle ruin, is a perfect ‘Swallows and Amazons’ entrance to the heady space of Three Cliffs Bay. Crooked in a sheltering arm from Pennard cliffs the bay is like a child’s drawing of how the seaside should be: a stream with steppingstones, tangled woodland, rocky headlands, sand dunes and a flat sandy beach meeting the restless sea. Thousands of people are drawn to this intoxicating mixture every year but at this season it was not crowded: a few families and dog walkers, a man riding his horse along the sand with three medieval looking greyhounds at foot, and a rather solemn party of druids wearing laurel wreaths in their hair.
Where I did notice some changes was on the common land that runs west to east along the middle of the peninsula. Much of it, particularly on Fairwood Common, has grown up with brakes of birch saplings punctuating the hazy deserts of Molinia (Purple Moor-grass). Although there were a few sheep poking about along the road verges, this was a landscape that spoke loudly of a decline in grazing. Molinia has become dominant in many areas of rough grazing and moorland around Wales, where cattle and ponies no longer graze; unfortunately sheep don’t like to eat it so it can gradually swamps less competitive plants. Molinia may also be encouraged to spread by nitrogen pollution – which effectively is an invisible fertilizer that comes down in the rain. Shaggier and wilder now, perhaps these commons are what our post agriculture, rewilded, carbon guzzling landscapes will look like 20 years from now. If, as some people predict, we end up eating plant-based or cultured ‘meat’ then there will be little call for sheep or cows, ushering in an era of ‘wild neglect’. I knew a man, all those years ago, who swore that he had seen sheep rolling over the cattle grid to get on to Fairwood common; these days they would be more likely be rolling to get off.
On our final morning we had a stroll around Oxwich National Nature Reserve, a place close to my heart, as I was warden there for 5 years or more in the late 70s. I expected to be disappointed, especially as Natural Resources Wales – the latest incarnation of the government conservation organisation that manages it, has been getting a very bad press recently. But I left relieved – even impressed.
Around the sweep of the bay the sand dunes were accreting rather than eroding: both natural processes, but the former is less anxiety promoting for people like me. Since my time a large area of the fixed dunes has been fenced off and is being grazed by ponies, at what appeared to be just the right intensity. Inside the fence there was a mosaic of tiny dune plants, which thrive when the competition from coarser, more vigorous species is reduced by grazing. Also the small patches of sandy ground opened up by the ponies hooves provide seedbeds in which new plants can establish. It was too early for flowers, save the tiny white stars of Common Whitlow Grass, but in June this will be alive with colourful plants and their attendant insects.
Also new to me was a series of winding boardwalks through the flooded carr woodland which gave us an inside view of a habitat previously inaccessible to visitors. A bird hide on one of the lakes was another innovation: although it gave the usual view of nothing much at all. The waterside vegetation had recently been cut back (another plus) and some wag had written on the chalkboard in the hide that they “didn’t seen much except some men in high-vis jackets working with brush cutters, and two mallard – presumably deaf ”.
All of this is probably a rather superficial response from somebody as much taken up with a nostalgic weekend as conservation assessment. On the other hand long absence allows for a freshness of view from what I hope is an educated eye, unclouded by the familiar. I was a restless young man back then, but looking again at the beauty and richness of Gower had me wondering if, 40 years ago, I should have stayed put and dug in.
On a dull October morning with a waft of drizzle in the air I have come to pay homage to some fine old trees. Scattered across the steeply sloping pasture in front of me are about a dozen venerable oaks and ash, plus a few gnarly alders. I can only imagine these trees escaped the plough in the 20th century because this is estate land with a tenanted grazier. Whatever your views about the landed gentry they have left us a fine legacy of old trees. It is the ash trees, in particular, that I have come to honour today.
The day is brightening a little and the increased light illuminates the canopy of the nearest big ash. It seems to have a more buoyant, airy profile than the doughty oaks, but perhaps I am kidding myself as I am inclined to view ash as the fairer, more feminine of the two. Ash have always seemed a bit fey to me, slightly aloof and less down to earth than the dependable oak. These trees have grown up in open wood pasture so their canopies are full and round like domed parasols, branches drooping elegantly to the browse (or should it be hem) line: that is the limit to which stock can reach.
The leaves on this one are still mostly a dark glossy green but a few are shading to lime. In a week or two they will be lemon yellow and littering the ground like casually discarded gloves. Ash are like that – they really don’t care. The twigs are smooth and flick up at the ends, terminating in triangular black buds reminiscent of the cloves my mother used to flavour stewed apples. Characteristically the bark is light grey and patterned with deep fissures, like the hide of an elephant. The trunk is parallel-sided up to about 20 feet where the multiple limbs spread out; this tree was undoubtedly pollarded in times past. At the base rounded buttresses covered in white lichen are almost indistinguishable from rocks. Judging by the thick compost of droppings amongst the grass this tree gives both shade and shelter to the sheep that graze this pasture.
In most of the areas of Wales I am familiar with, ash trees only aggregate along stream sides and in valley bottoms where the leached nutrients accumulate, washed down from the thin soils above. En masse their pale grey bark lends a ghostly pallor to the winter landscape that you can pick out half a mile away. More often I associate big ash trees with hedgerows and farmsteads. There was a fine specimen in my neighbour’s yard with a hollow big enough for a child to stand in. The story goes that a 100 years or so ago the maid (!) cleaned out the morning grate and threw hot ashes against this tree, which duly burned a hole that started the rot.
The biggest ash on this hillside has lost a massive limb, but far from disabling it the tree looks good for centuries yet. Sprouting out of the rot hole are several seedling rowans and a hazel that have germinated in the composting wood, no doubt from seeds dropped by birds or squirrels. On the opposite side a huge horizontal limb supports many smaller branches, yet miraculously the tree bears its weight without breaking. It reminds me painfully of a school punishment that required holding up a wellie in each extended arm; three minutes was bad enough let alone 300 years.
What drove me here today was the fear that trees like these might not be with us much longer; that I might outlive them, rather than the other way round. The advance of ash dieback disease has now become conspicuous in many parts of Wales; the browning twigs and leafless branches stand out almost everywhere I go. Ash dieback is caused by a fungus (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) that originated in Asia, but was almost certainly imported into Britain with trees grown commercially in mainland Europe. The fungus produces millions of dust like spores, which spread on the wind, making it impossible to contain. We are helpless in the face of it. There is an outside chance that it blew here naturally but the mass importation of trees and perhaps changing conditions have triggered an epidemic. Ash trees regenerate very freely in Britain, so importing young trees was clearly more about free market economics that conservation. Despite having ample opportunity to take practical precautions to prevent this disease entering the UK, nothing was done until it was too late. If ash dieback proves as lethal as it has in some parts of Europe the British landscape will be devastated. Ash is our third commonest tree. Equally catastrophic will be the effects on the 1000 or so plants and animals that depend upon it in some way. These fine old trees may last a while yet but I can no longer draw comfort from the notion that they will outlive my children’s children. Will anyone care much? In these times when we are punch drunk with bad news stories the danger is we will shrug disconsolately – seeing it as the new normal rather than a national disaster.
Walking around old trees has always given me a feeling of security and long perspective; after all they took root before motor cars, electricity and telephones changed all our lives. They connect me, no matter how tenuously, to the pre -industrial era when human impact upon the land was unavoidably slow and gradual. There is nothing better than a really big tree to convey the sense that the affairs of humans are insignificant. Sadly this can be as deluded as it is comforting. All I can do is to honour them, stand with them and quietly rebel against their extinction.