Category Archives: nature writing

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

 

                                                                            

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

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

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

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

photographs: janet grahem

 

 

 

 

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Remembering

 

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

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

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

Margied’s favourite picture of Craig y Tan

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

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

 

 

Time Lines

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wake Up

      

 

          We can’t afford to take more

      than the Earth can afford to give us.

 

Yet we ignore this profound and non-negotiable truth

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

 

When my grandchildren ask

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

 

Wake up. Live right.’

Is the only sane answer.

 

 

Slimy Dog Vomit

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peatlands

 Fens are spooky places, especially in a dusky light like this. Standing on the side of a narrow, pockmarked road a warm wind blows into our faces out of the drama of the western sky. The road is dead straight, slicing through hundreds of acres of rough pasture swaying waist deep with rushes and meadowsweet, spangled with vetches, willow herb and knapweed. Flanking the road on both sides are deep, slow flowing rhynes (ditches), the water scummed over with duckweed and the strange three-petalled flowers of frogbit. As I lean over the bank to examine one the ground quakes, threatening to tip me in. I am reminded that this landscape rests entirely on a gigantic sponge of peat. Six mallard arc across the enormous sky and splash into some unseen waterway leaving us isolated in an overwhelming sense of space and quiet.

 

This area of Somerset, known as the Levels and Moors, was once covered by the sea; Glastonbury Tor and nearby hills were marine islands. As sea levels dropped over the millennia it became salt and then freshwater marsh where the annual growth of vegetation layering into the sodden ground formed incremental depths of peat. We know from analysis of the pollen preserved in these layers that a matrix of open water, reed swamp, marshland and damp woodlands formed here. From medieval times people began to drain these peatlands to exploit their potential as fertile crop and grazing land, thus gradually creating a landscape of fields and pastures set in an intricate grid of ditches which took the water away into the rivers and out to sea. Over time these fields became fringed with hedges, alders and pollarded willows planted along the ditch banks and lodes (tracks) to provide stock barriers and wood for fuel and basket making.

 

Now this landscape is evolving once again. The new priority is to prevent the flooding of homes and settlements – which happened so disastrously on the Levels south of here, two years ago. In the area where we are standing, which is known as the Avalon Marshes, many of the winter fields are now deliberately flooded with surplus water which, incidentally, attracts thousands of waterfowl and wading birds. The intricate series of rhynes, sluices and pumps are overseen by the Environment Agency, which is the primary authority here in terms of flood prevention. The other important landscape influence has been peat extraction. Peat has been cut for fuel locally throughout history but by the mid twentieth century extraction had accelerated to an industrial scale to supply the horticultural trade. Once the peat is dug out the underlying, infertile clay is exposed and the land becomes useless. This is when it becomes particularly interesting to wildlife conservationists because, if you flood the worked out diggings and plant them with reeds you can, in twenty years or so, create wonderful nature reserves for wetland wildlife; particularly birds such as bittern, egrets, marsh harriers and bearded tits.

Earlier in the day we had visited one of these reserves with its acres of rustling head-high reeds and half glimpsed pools edged with yellow bladderwort flowers. Dragonflies zipped back and forth rustling on the turn as they grabbed at smaller insects. The rasps and burps of Iberian marsh frogs amplified the feeling of immersion in a hidden world. This Spanish species was somehow introduced here and seems to be thriving. “Good food for egrets” was the unconcerned comment I got, when I asked about them. From one of the hides we saw the hunched brown shape of a bittern fly slowly past, like an old man in an overcoat. Two marsh harriers lazily quartered the reed beds – I never see them catch anything and wonder how they live. Most thrilling was being eye to eye with a great white egret right in front of the hide. This tall, perfectly elegant bird with its bridal white plumage was impossibly rare when I started bird watching. I went all the way to the Danube Delta in Romania to see some. Now they are breeding right here in Somerset. As it stalked carefully through the water, barely making a ripple, it was easy to see how precisely it was adapted to its environment: stilt-long legs and splayed toes enable wading through water and soft mud, a yellow dagger of a bill in a head barely wider than the sinuous neck – which can flick into the water in a blink. It had an odd habit of leaning sideways apparently looking up at the sky with one eye, as if watching out for rain. Then its head shot into the water to spear a morsel and I realised it had been looking down – with the other eye.

Great white Egret Photo: Gavin Chambers

Agriculture here is still based around family farms rather than the agri-business that is widespread on the east Anglian fens. It seems that, after some initial resentment, the farming community on the Avalon Marshes is adapting to the often complementary needs of wildlife conservation and flood prevention. Now rather than growing crops, which is difficult when winter water levels need to be high, farmers are keeping cattle, which graze the pastures in summer and over-winter in barns on the farm. Some are even specialising in renting out their stock to graze the land of conservation organisations to keep the wildlife pastures in good condition. All of this is under written financially by government/EU funded agri-environment schemes, which enable farmers to work in wildlife friendly ways and still make a living. What has gradually developed is a matrix of reserves and wildlife rich farmland where nature is thriving. This is conservation on a landscape scale, which is proving beneficial to a community that is not affluent and wouldn’t previously have benefitted from tourism – the brown signs here now point to nature reserves. These agri-environment schemes seem to be an admirable example of ‘public goods for public money’ and I only hope that post Brexit the Westminster government continues to provide the taxpayers’ share of this good news story.

Little Egret photo: Gavin Chambers

Down by the Riverside

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 At this point the stony riverbed is no more than a metre wide along which the bedrock forms a series of shallow steps over which the water flows in cascades, like a glittering staircase. Above here the river branches out into a network of small streams, any one of which could be called its source. Disturbed by my arrival a grey wagtail bounces away downstream flashing its chrome-yellow underwear.

I have set out this morning to walk down the Afon (River) Lliw, having been given a lift close its source. At this height it is no more than a shallow-v cut into miles of rough and rolling pasture, brushed with the bleached tops of soft rush and mapped by weathered stonewalls. It feels high-up-above here and there is an exhilarating sense of space. A cocksure wheatear flirts his tail from a wall top as I pass. Sheep are scattered across the landscape like confetti and in one place there are cattle – an uncommon sight in the uplands these days. Trees and bushes are non-existent, save one: an ancient and frail looking hawthorn permanently bent by the wind, which still flowers ‘defiantly’. Feeling my age, I note the metaphor and tip my hat to the tree. I have mixed feelings about this landscape: on the one hand there is the grinding attrition of the vegetation from centuries of stock grazing, which is personified by the single derelict hawthorn, and on the other hand the sheer magnificence and freedom of just being here. It is a fine Sunday in May and if I meet anybody else all day it will be a surprise (I didn’t).

Half a mile downstream I come to an abandoned, but tidy, stone house in the middle of nowhere. Barring the two sturdy sycamores at its back (the signature trees of these hill farms), there is no longer anything to anchor it to place. The roof is still good and the front door key is hanging up – on the outside! In the downstairs room is a scatter of wooden shearing stools; a cracked mug on the cast iron range and some rusting tinned food in a cupboard. Upstairs two desiccated swallows lie on the dusty floor – they must have got trapped inside, somehow. Perhaps this house was always a ‘hendre’, a shepherd’s summertime cottage, but it is a vivid reminder of how many more people lived in the uplands 150 years ago. Within sight of here, at Hendre Blaen Lliw, my son’s friend Owen has just moved into what must surely be, at 1500 feet, one of the highest inhabited houses in Wales. A young man on his own with no mains services takes a certain kind of resilience, especially in winter, but I suppose he was born too it as his family farm much of this wild land.

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photo: Tom Kistruck

Below Blaen Lliw the river widens out a bit, and because water levels are low in this dry spell, a layer of blotchy pink stone the colour of drowned flesh has been exposed below the usual boulders dark with moss. A common sandpiper flicks away downstream on stiff wings piping loudly. I’m pleased to find they are still on the river. One or two rowans have begun to appear on the riverbanks and in the top of one, about fifteen feet up, is a tidily refurbished crow’s nest. I contemplate climbing up to see if it contains eggs or young, but think better of it. There is something reassuringly domestic about this homely nest in such a bare, windswept landscape. At the same time it seems an unnervingly exposed place to incubate eggs, and feed chicks. A red kite wheels over the river, crossing the valley with barely a wing beat. We met Stephen (Owen’s father) on the way up and he told us it had been around for several weeks, probably feeding on the afterbirths at lambing time, so providing a useful clean-up service. To my right about a quarter of a mile away the ground rises steeply towards the highest ground. There is heather on these slopes, an indication of less grazing pressure from sheep and a scatter of fifty or so young rowans reinforce the point. Sheep numbers in the upland have been reduced since an historic high in the 1980s and now, on some less accessible slopes and rocky places, the beginnings of new woodlands are springing up.

Where the valley widens out there is a sizeable bog and it is hard going across the lumpy cotton grass – which is just beginning to wave its white flags. Towards the middle are waist high clumps of tussock sedge, a sure sign of the wettest area. Apparently the ‘tussocks’ of these enormous sedges used to be trimmed into hassocks for kneeling on in chapel years ago. A grasshopper warbler is reeling off its drunken song somewhere out in the rushes and nearer at hand a reed bunting is picking out a much more hesitant tune. As the wind sighs across the bog I am filled with gratitude in the solitude of this wild place.

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The weird thing about waterfalls is that you can’t hear them from upstream until you are almost upon them. In this case the Afon Lliw plunges over a shelf of hard rock just above Buarthmeini; seventy feet of crashing, glittering water that orchestrates every other sound.   Set amongst rocky hillsides studded with birch and rowan trees it is wonderful sight. In the south of Britain it would probably have a car park and picnic site; up here there isn’t even a path. Nobody bothers with it.

These birches are the first I have seen since starting out this morning and they provide a song post for my first willow warbler – so neatly pointing up the link between habitat and species. Clambering across the water-scoured rocks at the top of the falls I find bluebells in deep cracks and some violets the texture of purple velvet. There is even a straggling thyme plant clinging on precariously – how does it withstand the river in spate? Getting down the side of the falls is a struggle as the steep, rock strewn ground is knee-high with heather and clumps of moor grass. I experience my only moment of fear all day, this is leg-breaking terrain and there is no phone signal here.

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Below the falls the air is thicker; it is sheltered and intimate compared to the wide-open uplands above, where I had felt like an ant creeping across the landscape. This bit of land beside the river is fenced out, perhaps to protect the sheep from the danger of the falls, and it has become lush. There are hawthorns and hazels and even a young sycamore in the proto-woodland. Marsh marigolds and wood anemones are flowering beneath the trees and a lizard slips away from my boot. A singing blackbird conjures the warmth and security of village lowlands. The absence of nibbling sheep in this sheltered place has released the land, allowing it to move towards its wooded climax.

A hundred yards further down river I stumble upon a ruined farmstead huddled beneath a rocky bluff and screened by ash trees. It is of Lilliput proportions – the house no bigger than a modern lounge. The roof has long gone and ferns and moss soften any sense of absence. The window sockets, chimney and a slate threshold are still intact. Out front are a barn, sheep pens and several small meadows mapped out by crumbling stone walls, some of which are muffled with cushions of silver-grey moss a foot deep, like insulation against history. The whole place is slowly sinking back into the earth from which it arose. Yet 150 years ago there would have been a family here with, no doubt, multiple children crammed into this modest house. Whenever possible life must have been lived out of doors. Oats would have been grown, bread baked, cows milked and cheese made. They would have laughed and quarrelled, hoped and feared like the rest of us. Most of all they would have worked, the endless physical work that is the lot of peasant farmers the world over. A sense of community and interdependence amongst the handful of farms scattered through the valley, coupled to strong traditions and a sense of humour would have helped temper the hard labour. Expectations must have been very different then as most people rarely left the valley and the edge of their familiar world was probably within a ten mile radius of here. With just a little more phone signal I could find out what is happening in Beijing right now. Sitting here on a mossy boulder in this slow moving place that seems totally absurd.

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