Category Archives: nature writing

Slimy Dog Vomit


 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








 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


 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.


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.


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.


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.


Shaping the Land



I met my neighbours by the stone sheep pens; they were bringing the ewes with twins into the fields by the house to keep a close eye on them. A ewe is refusing to budge; one dog cuts off her escape route whilst the other is flat to the ground, moving forward like a crocodile. She turns to face him, stamping her foot defiantly, but gradually backs-up, her lamb close by her side. Dog and ewe are nose to nose, no more than a foot apart. Hywel is calling to the dogs – a stream of words, some soft others harsh, to which they instantly respond. Leaning on his crook, a newborn lamb under one arm, he looks totally at ease – a man in his element.

I have been spending time with these men over the last couple of years trying to understand what it takes to farm this wild and obdurate place. They are patient with my questions, my ignorance of the obvious, pleased that somebody is taking an interest they say. If you look out of the window anywhere in rural Wales you will see the work of such people. Three thousand years ago there would have been a ‘wildwood’: some kind of fluctuating continuum of forest, scrub and wood-pasture; then gradually humans got busy felling, burning, cultivating and grazing with domesticated stock – we began to shape the land. Over time only some of us, farmers, did that work and by the beginning of the last century they had fashioned a diverse ‘cultural landscape’ which was both productive and rich in wild and human life. It was the archetypal countryside for many people: hedged fields, grazing animals, small woods and farmsteads.

This farm is still like that, if a little on the wild side. It is certainly not typical anymore and, in truth, like most hill farms, would not be viable without subsidies. Rough, high and wet it is too demanding for all but the indigenous Welsh Mountain sheep. It is also very beautiful (if that is how you see the world): craggy woods plastered with mosses and lichens, rock strewn ffridd dotted with ancient thorns and crab apples; a hurtling mountain river along one boundary and up above, a wild moorland of heather and bog. Along with their forebears these men and their sheep have shaped it this way from the post-glacial ‘wildwood’.

What has also evolved over the 2000 years of farming is a human culture rich in knowledge, skills, language, custom and mutual understanding. These two men go about their work with such understated ease, seemingly oblivious of their expertise. To see them work is to experience how they belong here; a hand-in-glove fit between people and place. Looking around this farm I am reminded of how much of the wildlife and landscapes we treasure have arisen because of agriculture – mostly as an unintended by-product. Is this place an anachronism or a model for a more intentional future? It is becoming clear that society requires other things, the so called ‘ecological services’, from the land as well as food, including a rich and beautiful countryside – for which it must be willing to pay. Could farmers come to husband wildlife and landscape with as much pride and skill as lamb or beef? It would mean a big shift in attitude for some and acquiring new expertise for many, however it could help ensure the future of a distinctive culture, for which we would all be the richer.

This piece first appeared in Natur Cymru magazine in April 20017





Lest We Forget


In 1966 the well-known nature writer William Condry wrote the following, about a farm near here :

“ On these slopes you can find meadows and sheep pastures nearly as fragrant and colourful as meadows in the limestone Alps. In the wetter places there are marsh orchids. On the drier fields there is a scattering of frog orchids and also – but it is very rare and hard to find – the small white orchid, which characteristically shares these calcareous pastures with the frog orchid.… But many people would say that the glory of these slopes is the upright vetch (Vicia orobus) that makes splendid patches of purple–pink in some of the fields.”

This is the same place today:

For those not versed in these matters this is a commercial crop of Sitka spruce, which originate from North America. These trees, planted as a monoculture, shut out the light and acidify the soil. Almost nothing grows beneath them. On a recent visit with a group of botanists we found only the common acid loving species you would find on any local roadside, or bit of boggy ground.The beautiful flowers that Bill Condry describes depended on the alkaline soils found on a narrow band of lime-rich rock that runs under theses trees. They also required the unimproved, lightly grazed pastures that were still characteristic of farms 60 years ago. A few years after Condry wrote about Maes Meillion the Forestry Commission bought the land and planted a landscape of spruce. Today this is a profitable crop which will soon be harvested – and then replanted, so repeating a now familiar cycle in the Welsh uplands.

I find it tempting to look for somebody to blame for the loss of these “fragrant and colourful meadows” but in the 1960s places notified for nature conservation were few and far between and their protection virtually unenforceable. The Forestry Commission was being encouraged and financed by government to plant up land in an attempt to make us more self-sufficient in timber. The farmer was probably keen to sell the land for what seemed like a good price then. Perhaps neither he nor the Forestry Commission knew the flower rich meadows were there, and if they did they probably didn’t care – ‘there is always some more somewhere over the hill’. Similar things were happening in farming as old pastures were being ploughed and reseeded, then fertilized and heavily grazed. The upshot is that now none of the wonderful flowery meadows on our band of lime-rich rock are left. Gone and almost forgotten. In the end perhaps nobody was to blame, but unless we remember we can never learn.

Cold Porridge and Barnacles

 Some of the woodlands in this part of Wales are classified as ‘temperate rain forest’, which isn’t some tabloid terminology but part of a formal classification of the planet’s habitats. These forests are globally scarce, found only in high-rainfall temperate regions; characteristically they have an abundance of epiphytic plants – in our case mosses, lichens and ferns.

I have been investigating a local wood which, although dominated by birch and rowan rather than the usual oaks, looks to me like one of these ‘Atlantic’ woodlands – not least because it is smothered from boulder to twig in a luxuriant coating of mosses and lichens. As I don’t know much about either of these I persuaded Dave Lamacraft, who is Plantlife’s lichen expert in Wales, to come and have a look. It was an education.

It turns out that lichenology is a bit like alchemy and is best taken slowly; which suits this place as it is a steep jumble of boulders discreetly draped in moss, just waiting to break your leg. Two things about lichens stand out: many of them are very small and all of them, until recently, were only referred to by Latin names. At least now there are some with English names, which helps a bit. Watching how Dave went about identifying them was fascinating; most have to be examined through a hand lens, which you hold to your eye and then lower to the plant, consequently you spend hours with your nose up against a branch or a boulder. Close up these lichens come in many forms: flaky, cupped, crenulated, fissured and strap-like; some were encrusted, others slapped on like face cream or pats of cold porridge. Some of those we found were easy to identify e.g. the fishbone beard lichen (Usnea filipendula), which hangs down like a hank of grey hair; or the barnacle lichen (Thelotrema lepadinum) whose fruiting bodies do look remarkably like barnacles. But many others were difficult, which is where the alchemy comes in – Dave variously shone an ultra violet light as some species show up a different colour or dabbed them with bleach for the same reason, he even chewed fragments – “if this tastes really horrible I will know which one it is!” More often than not he cut off a tiny piece, carefully folded it in paper, and stowed it in a collecting tin for later identification under the microscope.

There is a group of lichens known as ‘Atlantic’ species, which are characteristic of these high-rainfall west coast woodlands. Due to the scarcity of their habitat they are some of the most treasured of our lichen world and we have a particular duty to care for them. I had a hunch that this wood contained some of these and by the end of the afternoon, much to my delight, Dave had found a good selection of them. He also found several others which are indicators of long continuity, which supports the idea that this is a very old wood, perhaps a direct descendent of the original post-glacial ‘wildwood’.

As we walked back to the car Dave stopped to examine the old hawthorns and birch trees scattered across the pastures on the farm. He was looking for ‘nitrophilous’ species of lichen i.e. those that are indicators of a nitrogen polluted environment. Despite this valley having some of the cleanest air in England and Wales he did find some – just scraps – but they were there, where the rain and wind sweeps in from the west bringing nitrogen dioxide in solution. One of these lichens Xanthoria parietina, a conspicuous chrome-yellow crusty species, is sometimes common along main roads and at service stations just because it thrives on the nitrogen from exhaust fumes. It seems odd that we should have this pollution here when there is so little industry and settlement to the west, where the prevailing winds blow from, but it seems that exhaust fumes from cars and trucks and even offshore shipping are enough to push atmospheric nitrogen over a critical threshold. One consequence of this is that vigorous plants such as hogweed and stinging nettles, which thrive on nitrogen ‘enrichment’, are outcompeting more delicate plants such as violets and primroses, which prefer it nutrient ‘poor’. According to a recent Plantlife report this process is having a profound and detrimental effect on wild flowers and vegetation all across Britain.  It is raining fertilizer – and there are bound to be consequences.

Xanthoria parietina


Distant Drum


 Gritty flakes of snow brush my face and an icy wind sighs through the trees, shivering the ‘lamb’s tails’ on the hazels. Under a leaden sky the countryside seems hard-faced and locked down.

The conditions are certainly reflected in the birds’ behaviour as I scatter seed and fill the feeders; they are frenzied, landing to feed when I’m only a yard away. In weather like this their challenge is to take on enough calories to make it through the next night. Within minutes the lawn is a twitching mass of birds – then abruptly they are gone, spooked by something, or nothing, and the stage is empty. They sit round suspiciously in the trees waiting for the all clear. How that is arrived at is always a mystery to me, but they gradually trickle back. We have a good selection of finches this winter: chaffinches, greenfinches, goldfinches, half a dozen bramblings, some delicate and confiding siskins and even an occasional redpoll. Add those to the tits, robins, dunnocks, plus the jays and magpies that come bounding in, and there are probably 150 birds queuing up each morning. The ethics of feeding birds intensively like this are interesting: it is a long way from natural, although not far from the weed seeds and spilt grain of farming 70 years ago. The feeding birds are undoubtedly targets for a sparrowhawk, which sometimes slaloms over the hedge at lightning speed and makes a kill – for which I feel a degree of responsibility. But then sparrowhawks also need to make it through the night….


photo: Dave Smith

We were very excited last week to have the first ever hawfinch recorded in the garden. It looked down on the feeding frenzy from a larch tree, preening and fanning its distinctive white tipped tail, but didn’t join in the scrum. Hawfinches are a local and declining species in Britain; they are also shy and rather elusive. Although strikingly patterned their most prominent feature is a massive bill, powerfully adapted for cracking the stones and extracting kernels from cherries, sloes, hawthorns and the like. Looking carefully through the binoculars we could see that ‘our’ bird had a yellow ring on one leg, which meant it had come from the population around Dolgellau, which is about 12 miles west of here. Dedicated fieldwork over many years by Dave Smith and others has revealed this as one of the most important populations of hawfinches in Britain: to date in excess of 800 birds have been caught and ringed to help understand the distribution and dynamics of these fascinating birds. If ever we get a better look at the bird in our garden and can read the ring we should be able to find out where it was hatched, how old it is and if it has turned up anywhere else. We don’t have the mature mixed woodland here that hawfinches are associated with around Dolgellau, but we do have ample sloes and haws on the untrimmed winter hedges, which can sometimes tempt them out into open country.


Despite the desperation of the birds to survive another winter’s night the plants are beating to a different drum. Demure snowdrop bells are opening every day and the frail early crocuses are reaching for the light. Even up here in the hills plant life is visibly inching forward, regardless of the weather – responding to the ever-increasing daylight. Although there could be plenty of harsh weather yet, spring is coming and nothing will stop that steady pulse – I can feel it in the air each morning. The birds feel it too, once their stomachs are full; greenfinches are wheezing pleasurably and the dunnock’s glassy plainsong sounds from the hedge. I feel myself quickening, like all other life, to the sound of that quiet drumbeat.


The Green Fuse



This wood has fascinated me for a long time. It seems mysterious and outside of time, as if no one has ever set foot in it.


Today I am sitting near the top of the wood at about 1000 feet with my back to a small cliff, in a kind of ‘cwtch’ in the rocks, so they fit round me keeping off the worst of the cold wind. Probably people and animals have sheltered here for centuries. Fallen bracken, the colour of dried tobacco, is folded over some of the rocks below me; dotted amongst it are patches of crystalline snow. I can hear Hywel whistling to his dogs lower down the valley. A raven croaks overhead. Half a mile away and 100 feet below me the river sounds like distant motor traffic; a dispersed white noise I could easily not hear. Underneath this is a silence, a stillness that is always there, unchangeable. It is that which takes this place out of time.


I understand why I like this spot: I have my back against the wall and I can see all the territory below me. If I don’t move I am unlikely to be seen amongst the trees. It gives me a sense of both safety and advantage, which must be hardwired from the time we were both predator and prey. I also have a sense of expectancy, waiting and watching for something. It dawns on me that I have come looking for the first signs of spring up here in the hills. There is little to encourage me; the wood seems implacable, and of course the expectation is only mine.


The ground slopes steeply away from me, a chaos of boulders ranging in size from a bucket to a garden shed. The trees that have somehow struggled into being in such an unforgiving place are bent and twisted, festooned with moss and encrusted with lichen. The moss also demurely carpets the boulders wall-to-wall, concealing all manner of fissures and holes. It is a treacherous place to walk. To my left Moel Llyfnant, covered with snow, looks like a huge cone of sugar. Beside it the flank of the Arenig disappears into low cloud, the summit lost from view. To my right, perhaps 10 miles away, is the rounded profile of the Berwyn Mountains, where I spent a good chunk of my working life. Sitting here I feel nourished; there is nowhere I would rather be. This must be what Thoreau meant by ‘the tonic of wildness’.


This wood has such presence it is easy to imagine it as ancient but it is probably quite young. The trees are almost exclusively birch or rowan, which are classic short-lived pioneer species; the sort that colonise open ground and get woodland started. The oaks, ash and other longer-lived trees gradually follow, although perhaps at this altitude that pattern of succession is less certain. The wood is on the map from 1921, in more or less the same configuration, but probably none of these trees are more than 150 years old, so it cannot date from long before that. There are no large decaying stumps to suggest a previous generation of trees and as far as I know there have been no specialist wildlife species found here that might indicate an ancient woodland. It is more the sense of ‘place’ that makes this wood stand out. And of course it is beautiful – whatever we each mean by that. I remember once walking with a farmer into a narrowing valley on the western escarpment of the Berwyn. It was a glorious spring day, the birds were singing and a waterfall poured over the towering cliff at the head of the valley in front of us. I stood in wonder. He looked at me appraisingly and we had an exchange that went: “I suppose you think this is beautiful? I do, don’t you? It’s just the place where I work”. Perhaps he was just winding me up or, more likely, making a point that this was not just a ‘playground for nature’ but a place of hard and sometimes brutal work. It seems to me that embracing both these viewpoints – the beautiful and the brutal if you like – is essential to understanding such places and our relationship with them.


You could be forgiven for thinking the wood is untouched, but this land has been farmed for centuries and that has shaped the wildness of the place. It probably got established by default, at a period when grazing pressure was low. This boulder scree is a place of last resort for grazing sheep so perhaps that was enough of a window for saplings to get away and a wood began. Also I know that the wood was cut for firewood for many years, in particular to feed the ‘popty mawr’, the big bread oven on which the family depended for their loaves up until 50 years ago. Now the wood is fenced out as part of an agri-environment scheme which permits only limited winter grazing. Will this allow new saplings, which are almost totally absent, to provide the next generation of trees and so prevent the wood from dying out? Or perhaps in the near absence of grazing brambles will grow up and smother the woodland flowers.


I have been sitting here for more than an hour and the cold is beginning to get into me. Reluctantly I pick my way between the trees and over the boulders towards the fence. It is then that I notice them. Hundreds of stiffly pointed bluebell leaves pushing through the moss; a literal manifestation of Dylan Thomas’ ‘green fuse’, through which the life force flows. It is beginning again. In six weeks this place will be a carpet of blue – and I will call it beautiful.

Looking Out



Today I am confined to the house with a nasty cold, which is frustrating because it is not raining and, although cold, the sun is shining intermittently. I feel imprisoned. The best I can manage is to look out.


This is the season of far-seeing, the blessing of a deciduous landscape. Those countless obscuring leaves have fallen away, allowing the long view. There has been a fresh fall of snow on the mountains overnight. From the kitchen window the ground beyond the garden drops away steeply into the river valley, then rises again through hedged pastures, copses and eventually moorland before arriving at the white bulk of the Arenig, nearly 3000 feet at the summit. It dominates our horizon, constantly drawing the eye. I find it tempting to throw adjectives at it ‘brutal, impassive, aloof etc.’ but none of them stick. It is just there, immeasurable.


In the bottom of the valley two columns of listless blue smoke rise from bonfires; Gwyn Roberts is hedge laying and burning up the trimmings. A buzzard, harassed by a noisy crow, flies low over the house, tips sideways and slides into the valley, mewing loudly. Otherwise all is still – except that is in the immediate foreground, where we feed the birds. Here there is a frenzy of movement: finches, tits, and robins feeding as if their lives depend upon it, which is probably true. Three jays come bounding in with piratical confidence, searching for the seed I have scattered on the ground. Crows, on the other hand, are leery, always with one eye on the exit. Perhaps it is a bit of a confined space as the crow flies. Two magpies crash in scattering the 20-30 chaffinches. They are bolder than the crows despite being equally persecuted. The cast is topped off by a couple of squirrels and a hefty rabbit, known in the family as Jumbo, who regularly stokes up on birdseed.


photo: Tom Kistruck

Shifting to the other side of the house I can see along the edge of the lawn spears of yellow and purple crocuses that will prostrate themselves in the winter sunshine any day now. Yesterday I found the first flowering celandine in the garden, the earliest date over the last 15 years. Its traditional Welsh name is Llygad Ebrill, April’s Eye, which says something about the direction of travel of our climate. Despite these intimations of spring the garden, and countryside in general, looks soggy and neglected. It’s the time of year when you can see last year’s litter exposed on the roadsides. The lawn is shaggy and pock marked with holes. Before Christmas a telephone engineer left the gate open and out neighbour’s cattle got in, plunging into the soft ground with their great heavy feet. Nothing panics me quite like the sight of a cow lumbering past the kitchen window.


Between the crushing presence of the mountain and the circular inevitability of the seasons I feel insignificant. We come and go preoccupied with ‘the affairs of men’: politics, ideologies, economics and so on, meanwhile just outside the window Nature is unavoidably getting on with it; battered but unstoppable. Sometimes it’s a relief to feel this inconsequential. I do my bit, tread lightly on the Earth, otherwise perhaps all I can offer is to look out and say what I can see. At least that is how it feels today.








In yet another conversation about excessive rainfall, somebody in the village said to me ‘Aled Richards’s house didn’t flood this time. I’m sure it’s because of what they’ve done on Penaran’. And what they have done on Penaran is block ditches.


In the hills around here, as in much of the uplands of western Britain, the gentler slopes, ridges and hollows are clothed in a layer of deep peat, sometimes several metres thick. In our wet and acidic conditions iron-pans form in the substrate, which inhibits drainage. This leads to water-logging. Such saturated conditions are starved of oxygen, which limits decomposition and so leads to deepening layers of partially decomposed plants, particularly bog-mosses. This way peat is formed. As long as rainfall outstrips the loss of water through evaporation and transpiration from plants, peat will continue to grow. The resulting blanket bog forms a distinctive landscape: rolling away in soft greens and browns, sodden underfoot, treeless and open, exposed to all weathers. I find the space and solitude nourishing – a place to unknot; but its not to everyone’s taste.


Get down on you hands (and soon to be wet) knees and blanket bogs look very different. In the wide-open space under an arching sky you can feel like Gulliver in Lilliput, peering at the details of a miniature world. There is an unexpected intimacy in the hummocks and lawns of crimson, gold and brilliant green bog-mosses patched between clumps of heather and the silk handkerchiefs of the flowering cotton grass. Lichen like tiny, bleached antlers, can be as brittle as Shredded Wheat under your boots. The red stars of insectivorous sundews glisten with lethal stickiness and green flower shoots of bog asphodel look as succulent as asparagus. On a warm day wolf spiders sprint across their killing fields of moss and azure bodied damselflies patrol the pools.


But this is sheep country and farmers are always trying to get a better bite. For many years (incentivised by governments) they cut networks of ditches thorough the peat, hundreds of kilometres of them in the UK, to try and dry the land out and encourage more palatable vegetation. In truth this proved to be of very little benefit to the sheep but highly detrimental to the specialist wildlife – which needs it waterlogged. Pools dry up, bog-mosses disappear and the peat stops growing. What is more ditching exposes peat to the air where it oxidises, releasing yet more carbon into the atmosphere. As intended, water gets away more quickly, accelerating and accumulating from ditch to stream to river – so arriving in a valley flood.


In recent years conservationists have begun addressing this. Locally there has been an impressive five-year scheme, financed by the EU Life fund, aimed at restoring blanket bogs. One of the things they did was to block ditches, 485 km in all, including on Penaran. Since then the water table has been slowly rising, bog-mosses are thriving and the peat is growing again. These bogs are huge water absorbing sponges, which allow little lateral movement, so now, when the rain pours down less water goes careering down the hill – and into Aled Richards’s house.


Blanket bogs are rare, Britain and Ireland have 20% of the global total; they are a source of drinking water, flood prevention, carbon storage and fascinating wildlife, not to mention peace and solitude. Looking after them seems like a ‘no brainer’; an elegant example of how our well-being and the natural world are inextricably linked.