Category Archives: nature writing

Ashes to Ashes


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.



Given Half a Chance

Cefn Prys with ‘the field’ in foreground. Drawing by Peter Hanauer July 2019

After 35 years we are leaving Cefn Prys, our beautiful home in the hills of North Wales. There is too much of a lump in my throat to write much about that right now, but suffice to say that it has been a fine love affair between people and place, I don’t think either could have asked more of the other.

One of the advantages of staying put for so long is that you notice the slow and subtle changes. The five-acre field outside our kitchen window was much like any other 30 years ago. I suppose it was agriculturally improved at some time – although there is not much rye grass to be found in it now. Most of the pastures on surrounding farms have been drained and reseeded, then receive regular doses of fertilizer, or at least a slathering of slurry from the cattle housed indoors over winter. Consequently the fields are bright green with highly nutritious grasses and nothing much else; they are wildlife deserts.

About 25 years ago our neighbour discovered that he had Type 1 diabetes, which limited him to the extent that he came close to selling up. But he decided to stay and adopt a “low input low output” approach, which demanded less of him physically. Since then his fields have not been reseeded, fertilised or treated with slurry and, due to his low stocking rates, only lightly grazed. He mostly runs an ‘open gate’ style of stock management so the sheep can graze where they choose; but for some reason they don’t favour the field below our house in the spring and summer. Consequently by early July the grass ripples in the breeze like a hay crop – but it doesn’t get cut, so the flowers and grasses freely set seed. Then through the autumn and winter the sheep and a few cattle graze it short once again. Under this regime the field has gradually, almost imperceptibly, changed.

Last evening, when the day had cooled down a little, I strolled through the field, squinting into the low sun, to see what I could find.  The tawny grasses twitch and ripple like the flank of an animal as I brush by. A yellow spread of greater birdsfoot-trefoil and autumn hawkbit underscores them and is everywhere underfoot. Butterflies: meadow browns, ringlets and this year scores of small skippers dance and dart, sipping nectar from the birdsfoot–trefoil and stately marsh thistles.  I kick up a small blizzard of pale translucent moths from between the grass stems. A whole childhood of grasshoppers flick and clamber away from my boots, then settle back to their lazy stridulations, sounding like a host of old fashioned bicycles free wheeling into the sunset.

Dotted amongst the grasses are common mouse-ear, lesser stitchwort, selfheal and the gone-to-seed heads of pignut; this latter a recent colonist, probably from the wild bank in our garden, itself a fragment of old meadow. Where the field slopes down to the stream are clumps of soft rush interspersed with scrambling marsh bedstraw and more nectar-rich marsh thistles. Flying between these are the svelte sparks of six-spot burnet moths, dressed for the opera in their dark-grey and crimson velvet. This is the first time I have seen this lovely day flying moth here. All around me swallows are weaving a cat’s-cradle of flight above the grasses, picking off the abundant insects.

wikimedia commons

I am not suggesting that this meadow is some undiscovered gem that would have conservationists salivating and snapping into ‘protect and manage’ mode. It is an ordinary field that has, by chance, been given a bit of elbow-room. Neither do I want to misrepresent my neighbour, who, although a thoroughly decent man, would be amused to be described as a conservationist. When I complimented him on the growing richness of his fields he candidly told me that if it hadn’t been for his diabetes they would not be looking like this now.

Standing here in the low evening light is heart warming and nostalgic: I remember (just) when most ordinary countryside was brimming with wild flowers and insects; it was our unquestioned normality. Not anymore: but this field shows that, given half a chance, nature will breathe life back into the grass again.  Sometimes it pays to do nothing – although my neighbour would probably not agree.





Time to Panic?


I have come back to the hills around Glaslyn that I wrote about last time (Rebellious Nature, April 2019). I was soured by the foul weather that day and taken aback by my conclusion that these hills might be better under trees. So I thought I had better take another look and I have picked a fine day this time.

Strolling along the track in the spring sunshine there is little sound except my boots on the gravel. An occasional outpouring of song from an ascending skylark gladdens my heart. Scattered across the hills some of last years lambs totter under heavy fleeces and there are a few ewes with new lambs at foot, but not many as yet. Two green hairstreak butterflies suddenly appear in front of me, flashing emerald and bronze as they whirled around each other like frenzied sword fighters. Later I see some more: it must be a good year for this diminutive butterfly. A wheatear flips across the track but little else stirs, other than a red kite drifting overhead.

photo: Wikimedia commons-sharpphotography

After about a mile I settle back against my rucksack on a grassy hillside to take a good look. I half expected to be writing  ‘what a difference a day makes’  – but not really. On these bald hillsides there is no more than an inch or so of soil above the underlying shale, although some gullies and basins have a depth of peat.  Amongst the dominant mat grass I can find vestigial bilberry and heather plants, reduced to almost nothing by years of sheep grazing. On a steeper slope the dark stain of some stunted heather shows faintly, like an x-ray image of an earlier moorland masterpiece; or more likely red wine on the carpet and about as welcome. Farmers would rather have grass because it supports more sheep. In the peaty areas hummocks of bleached sphagnum moss are pale imitations of the vibrant sponges found on healthy blanket bog. The mat grass is as faded as an old dog, colour bleached out by the weather – it will green up in a month or two. This is somebody’s living but it is poor stuff agriculturally; you need an awful lot of it to sustain not many sheep.

The area near the lake is a nature reserve and has extensive heather. Unlike the contour hugging grassland it is more three-dimensional hosting Cladonia lichens, flowering sedges and some bright yellow stars of tormentil. Day flying eggar moths dash about with blind intensity. From here it is easy to understand why conservationists value heather more highly than grass moorland. The nearby escarpment edge is fenced out and dozens of rowan saplings have seeded themselves amongst the heather: an expression of the supressed potential in this land. A thrush sized bird slips quietly out of a gulley and over the edge: a ring ouzel perhaps, it is just the place for one.

Over the years there has been a long and sometimes difficult dialogue between conservation and agriculture; yet it is always potentially fruitful as they are often mutually dependant. Traditionally British conservation values long established habitats shaped by human activity and the species that have adapted to them. From that perspective some level of grazing in the hills is considered essential, usually depending on the ‘condition’ of the vegetation. So farming and conservation can accommodate each other in places like this, if sometimes with difficulty.

Rewilding is something altogether different. It favours ‘self-willed nature’ with humans withdrawing to the margins, passive onlookers as natural processes take over. Those who promote this vision often consider the uplands to be ‘marginal land’ which is ripe for rewilding. And I am sitting in just such a scheme right here: Summit to Sea is a flagship project for the organisation Rewilding Britain and its partners, which covers thousands of acres of land (their own and other people’s) running from the top of the Cambrian Mountains right down to the sea. In many ways this is an exciting and forward-looking vision, which has much to commend it but it is really a landscape scale conservation scheme, which has unfortunately been rebranded as rewilding. I say unfortunately because ‘rewilding’ is a toxic word amongst the farming community here. George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’ took this area as a ‘case study’ and it has left a bitter legacy – “people don’t live in case studies”.

Agricultural communities are the backbone of the Welsh language and culture and when you take into account the dependent vets, contractors, feed merchants and so on, they are the glue for a rich and indigenous linguistic culture, which demands every bit as much of our care and attention as green hairstreaks and the like. Rewilding sets out to change the relationship between people and the land, so unsurprisingly it is seen as a direct threat to the Welsh speaking way of life. To be effective it needs large areas of land that are currently farmed.

If farmers gave up much of their hill land for rewilding what would they do then? A recent report by Rewilding Britian suggests rather vaguely they could be rewarded financially “for delivering carbon reductions as part of a mosaic of land uses that sustains thriving rural communities.” George Monbiot seemed to envision (ex) farmers in a sort of park ranger role. The trouble is, as a neighbour of mind is fond of saying, “every farmer wants to farm”. Listening to the arguments between these two positions often sounds like a dialogue between a life lived and one imagined.

We could go on having a slow evolving dialogue about all of this: it is a civilised, if often frustrating, way to proceed. But things have changed. A recent UN report (undoubtedly conservative) estimates we have 12 years remaining in which to prevent 1.5 degrees of warming. If we don’t achieve this, melting polar ice and methane from warming permafrost will likely trigger unstoppable climate change that could threaten our very existence.  It is clear that we have an emergency and we need to treat it like one. As Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist said recently  “I want you to panic”. In such a situation the long slow dialogue is no longer an option; rather we need to be on a ‘war footing’ at every level, from personal to global. There is no other sane option – not any more. We need to move very quickly; yet to abandon thoughtful decision-making would surely repeat the same old pattern that got us into this mess.  ‘Discerning panic’ on the other hand, is a demanding requirement.

Apparently, cutting down on emissions will not be enough to save us; we must also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere. And trees are very good at doing that. So should we divert the public money that underpins agriculture, as Rewilding Britain suggests, compensate farmers and afforest the uplands? The upland farming community and its indigenous language and culture would then be at risk of going the way of coal mining; another culturally rich, subsidised industry who’s product we no longer deemed essential.

Trudging back to my (fossil fuel driven) car in the afternoon sunshine my head is spinning with the tensions and contradictions inherent in all of this. Right at this moment the only thing I am sure of is my gratitude for everyday miracles: amongst them an ancient tongue spoken and the skylark in its tower of song.

Rebellious Nature


A brutal east wind is cutting across this hill country – there is nothing to obstruct it.  It is a dry day, so we call it fine, but otherwise it feels like a survival exercise. It is still winter up here, no matter what the calendar says.

I am walking with my friend David Cooke in the Cambrian Mountains: the bulging massif that fills the centre of Wales. As always the wide-open spaces bring a sense of freedom but in truth it is a dismal scene: a kind of infertile emptiness surrounds us – and it stretches for miles. The interlocking ridges are clothed in tufted grass and rushes that are so bleached they look irradiated; growing on degraded soils this vegetation is neither nutritious nor diverse. I know the weather doesn’t encourage optimism but it seems to me that apart from a lot of grass, some distant conifers, and a scatter of sheep there is nothing here. These are George Monbiot’s original ‘sheepwrecks’ and, much as I baulk at his incendiary style, it is difficult not to have sympathy with his point of view right now. These hills have been nibbled down to a thin skin that barely covers the bones of the earth. The crumbling walls of a 19thcentury mine only add to the sense of desolation. Struggling past the beaten pewter dish of Glaslyn the wind is so strong it feels personal, as though it wants to rip me from the face of the earth. At each step my walking pole flaps uselessly like a dislocated limb.

Now for the tricky bit: we have reached the edge of the great crumbling escarpment, which reveals an enormous but hazy view to the west. To get to our destination, which is 1000 feet below us, we need to descend on a path that is both steep and loose. My knees would find that a bit of a challenge at any time but today the wind pursues us over the edge, hurtling into our backs and threatening to blow us over. It is impossible to walk upright and I proceed in a half crouching stagger, sliding across the loose shale; only my stick prevents me from falling flat on my face. I’m grateful there is nobody around to capture this for YouTube. As I struggle forward my phone keeps bleeping for attention, so when we stop for a break I check the messages. This highlights a very modern incongruity: in this wild and desolate place, where we see only one other person all day, I am receiving live feeds from friends on a raucous and crowded Extinction Rebellion protest in central London. I send a photograph of ‘here’ and receive a reply “it’s all connected” – and she is so right. I have written before how much I value the culture of the farming community which has shaped these hills for centuries but today it is hard not to agree with those who refer to this as an ‘ecological desert’. We have made it thus.

The path is easier now and David and I are glad to have got this far without mishap. And what a difference 1000 feet make. Down here the trees are coming into leaf, blackthorn foaming with blossom and primroses are posing along the path side. Most interesting of all is a half-mile long woodland on the downside of the path, which has been planted in the last ten years. Conservationists can be a bit sniffy about tree planting mainly because native trees, which will grow up spontaneously if you fence out the sheep, are very well adapted to local conditions; unlike many planted trees which often start life in a Dutch nursery. But that seems a bit picky in this instance. These trees are appropriate species (birch, rowan, hazel and oak), well spaced and not planted in regimented rows. With bracken and bramble developing underneath this nascent wood is so three-dimensional compared to the blasted heath above, which did little more than prevent sky meeting rock. It will take hundreds of years for this to become a fully functioning woodland but in the meantime it will soak up carbon dioxide from our polluted air, inhibit flooding, recondition the soil, provide increasingly good wildlife habitat and be a delight on the eye. It must have been grazing land until recently; perhaps a farmer has given it up as part of an agri-environment scheme. Would that be a better future for the more degraded areas of our hill country, where sheep farming is only kept alive with government subsidies? I find that a hard question to ask but it is becoming even harder to dodge.

Looking at this elegant young wood and hearing Extinction Rebellion’s desperate alarm calls points up this existential dilemma for the hills. How much longer can I go on saying ‘on the one had and yet on the other’?  Time is very short now.


Life on the Edge


 Above the Conway valley where the rich improved pastures run out and the ‘rough’ begins, a maze of small fields enclosed by stone walls occupy the in-between land, known as ffridd in Wales. I had been told there is a place here where wild daffodils still grow – if you can find it.

Picking a window in a week of biblical rain, Elen and I drove up the twisting single-track road and parked where the tarmac ran out. Armed with local intelligence and a good map we set off walking. This is land of rock and water: steep irregular fields gridded out with high stone walls and noisy streams tearing through every gap and crevice.  The pastures were studded with gorse and tussocks on the drier slopes and squelching bog-land half submerged in water at the bottom. Despite a few celandines in flower and bluebell leaves poking through the rough grass it felt bleak and abandoned up here. However you can be sure that a place new to you, that feels obscure or confusing, is somebody else’s backyard. The ewes and lambs in these fields will be fed and cared for every day by somebody who knows every inch of this place. But we did not, so we blundered about advancing and retreating until, eventually, we found a ladder stile into a place that looked more promising.

This steep enclosure had ash and hazel woodland lower down and bracken covered slopes with scattered trees higher up. It is a place right on the cusp, where the valley woodlands give way to the rough hill land above. From the stile we could see dabs of yellow and soon found hundreds of daffodils amongst last years crumpled bracken fronds. The snag was that many of the flowers (but not the leaves) had been eaten down to a short yellow shaving brush and of those that hadn’t most were still in bud. A scatter of fresh sheep dropping suggested the culprits; probably the daffodils were early due to the unusually warm weather in February, so the sheep were still there when they came into bud. I felt rather deflated and pottered about disconsolately, photographing the few that were in flower. Elen went off exploring and soon came back with better news: in a sheltered spot at the bottom of the wood, out of reach of the sheep, was a mass of flowering daffodils.

Daffodils are so quintessentially domestic I wasn’t sure that I could believe in them as wild flowers; but these were convincing. About nine inches tall with pale yellow petals framing a golden trumpet they emerged from sheaves of blue-green leaves amongst the bracken litter. There was something delicate, almost dainty, about them compared to their domestic cousins, but they must be tougher than they look to survive up here. Several big ash trees had come down in the recent gales, their surprisingly shallow root plates peppered with rocks; but the daffodils will have survived worse than that. Apparently there are 26,000 cultivated varieties of daffodils listed by the RHS, many of which have found their way into the countryside, more by design than accident, in the main. The native daffodil, although much reduced is still widely, if patchily, distributed in England – but it is scarce in Wales.They seem to favour oak and ash woods, scrubby banks and bracken and particularly lowland pastures in counties such as Hereford and Worcester. This population has survived and prospered thanks to the efforts of local conservationists, and latterly the Snowdonia National Park who paid for the fencing and compensate the farmer for his loss of grazing during the flowering period. It is impressive that somebody is quietly putting in the money and effort in this out of the way place to ensure we still have wild daffodils; a small triumph over adversity in these difficult times.

On the way back we visited Llangelynnin church, which is only half a mile from the daffodils. The present building, dating from the 12th century, crouches low behind an impressive protective wall; it seems more geological than built. At close to a thousand feet, surrounded by rough grazing and with no direct access by road it, like the daffodils, also felt on the edge. The bare simplicity of its interior touched me, there was an accumulated quiet that goes beyond silence. This was a central place in a human community once. Few people live here now but there are fresh flowers above the altar and services are still held monthly in the summer: another place of quiet caring. The irony is that when Saint Celynnin established the first religious settlement here in the 6thcentury this wasn’t the upper edge of settlement at all. The wooded valley with its navigable river was a dangerous place then and most people lived up here, above the trees. Earlier still the rich collection of standing stones, hut circles and ancient cairns on the hill country above here testify to a more equable climate when the habitable edge was even higher. Perhaps the daffodils were higher too, on an edge that seems almost inconceivable today.

Special thanks to Becca Crane – without her directions we would never have found the daffodils.


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