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Just What the Doctor Ordered

 

I hadn’t been to Craig y Tan for months: a combination of a hip replacement operation and Covid 19 lock-down had made it impossible. But by late June and I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I set out early and pulled up at the farm by 7.30, on what is promising to be the hottest day of the year so far.  Parking someway short of the yard I can see Hywel walking across the field below the house. He is carrying one grandchild and leading the other by the hand; in front of them seven sheep dogs spin and leap, let out for their early morning exercise. He stands for a while looking down the valley and I imagine he is talking to the children about Craig y Tan; I know how important it is to him that they are steeped in this place.  It is a tender scene, evoking the care for family and place bound together, generation upon generation. A bit later I catch up with them under the sycamore tree by the house. Anest is pushing herself on the swing and Eurig, a sturdy little lad just past his first birthday, stands regarding me solemnly. Hywel and I talk a bit of nature and a lot about family and grandchildren; the affection and pride for these two shines out of him, transcending anything else we might have spoken about.

Setting off across the meadows and rough grazing, the grass is wet with dew but the streams are low after the dry weather. It is very quiet; other than a wren belting it out and the intimate calls of house martins swooping around me there is a deep silence. It is already getting hot; a gentle breeze barely stirs the leaves. As I walk my boots scuff against heath bedstraw, bright yellow hawkweeds and the green bladders of seeding bluebells. Facing up the valley towards Moel Llyfnant there is little evidence of ‘human time’, just the unhurried rhythm of natural processes. The rocks, squat hawthorns and sheep cradled in this valley feel like a scene outside of time – as if nothing has ever changed and never will.

 

Heading uphill I scramble over the fence into the woodland (a bit of a challenge for my new hip) and everything changes; or at least intensifies. Because it is so rare that anybody comes into these woods they have an untouched, fairy-tale atmosphere. A buzzard circling overhead starts mewing, a wild sad sound that only adds to the estrangement. Under the gnarly trees the grasses and ferns are tall: patches of stately marsh hawk’s-beard and valerian decorate the wetter places, delicate beech ferns fringe a chaos of rocks. I feel uncomfortable about crushing the vegetation, as if by walking here I am spoiling the place. Painstakingly I clamber up the moss covered block scree, testing each step with my stick; this is not quite what the doctor ordered.

I make it up to the base of the cliff and settle down with my back against a rock. Looking down I can see through the twisted intricacy of woodland to the rough pastures both sides of the river half a mile away. From there the lower slopes of the mountain is gridded with elderly stone walls and above them a long bare ridge ascends to the summit of the Arenig at nearly 3000 feet. There probably isn’t a single other human being between here and there. Around me the plant and insect life is prolific: small flies, a beetle and various spiders run over my clothing and notebook as I write. Two spotted flycatchers ‘tsskk’ their soft familiar call at me; I am surprised to find them here so far from habitation. Perhaps they have a nest in a rock crevice, the sort of place they must have used before houses and barns existed. The air smells clean and sappy – fresh and far from harm.

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I have been exploring and writing about Craig y Tan for four or five years now and I find myself wondering what it all amounts too. Is this farm some quaint and delightful anachronism or a beacon for a more ecologically sensitive world? At the heart of the question is a quest for the reconciliation of farming and nature conservation. Personally it has been a great learning. After 35 years of living here and working in the hills I thought I knew a bit about this kind of farming, but I know a lot more now. Similarly I brought some natural history and conservation knowledge and experience with me but nothing beats paying close attention to one ‘patch’. When it comes down to it the world is essentially local, and all the better for being understood that way. I also had some appreciation of the farming way of life and its cultural context but thanks to Hywel that has deepened and become more nuanced. Although not a man to proselytise or thump the table he feels strongly none the less and he has been quietly and kindly educating me. Visitors passing through Craig y Tan might (at least on a dry day) call it Paradise and walk on; they could be forgiven for not appreciating the extent to which this wild place has been shaped by Hywel and his forbears, or the extent to which the public purse, through an agri-environment scheme, helps maintain its rich and varied character.

heath spotted orchid. photo:Gethin Elias

Despite the day warming up I am getting a bit stiff sitting at the top of the woods; it’s time to move – which will no doubt be a relief to the spotted flycatchers. Going down is even more hazardous than coming up so it takes a while to get back to the boggy pasture outside the wood. Towards the river the butterflies are now on the move in the warmth of the day: meadow browns, ringlets, a small skipper and, to my delight, several small pearl-bordered fritillaries, the first I have seem at Craig y Tan. Heath spotted-orchids are just beginning to open their delicate pink spikes and the magenta bells of the cross-leaved heath attract nectaring butterflies. A very small frog, alarmed by my approach, struggles to get away though thick rushes beside a ditch. I am seeing all of this with fresh eyes after a few months away; it makes me realise just how abundant wildlife is on this farm.

At the riverbank I am grateful to pitch into the shade of a big hawthorn. The river is about half full and burbling along with a lack of drama that seems to suit the day. A small trout jumps and flops back with a mild splash. I wait in vain for a dipper to come barrelling past but the dragonflies keep me entertained. Two impressive golden-ringed hawkers are intermittently scrapping with rustling wings over territorial rights. Several splendid demoiselles flit elegantly above the water like Georgian dowagers with time on their hands; their electric blue seems to me a little too gaudy for North Wales. Looking back across the boggy pastures and up into the woods where I have been this morning the farm seems rested, harmonious, there is no intensity or stress on the land or stock.  Could more farms be like this?

splendid demoiselle. photo: Tom Kistruck

So is Craig y Tan farm a throwback or a way forward? It is undoubtedly a beautiful place and still rich in wildlife, especially by current standards. It is also a viable, if subsidised, working farm in the hands of a local Welsh speaking family committed to their community and way of life. From the perspective of  ‘ecological services’ such as carbon storage and sequestration, water quality, flood prevention, biodiversity and public health it scores pretty highly. Through the agri-environment scheme the current land-use system has been somewhat tailored to meet nature conservation needs and, with some important caveats, is doing pretty well. In Hywel we are unusually lucky to have a farmer who is interested in the natural history of his farm; I don’t want to pretend he is typical.

Ambling back along the river my head is full of the complexities thrown up by seeing this farm as a microcosm of hill farming and wildlife conservation. It does seem to be working; there is harmony between the two, albeit at considerable public expense. Meeting Hywel and his grandchildren this morning has stayed in my mind all day. It was a reminder that although Craig y Tan can be seen to represent the struggle to retain a rich wildlife heritage in a farmed landscape it is just as much about community, family, hard work and commitment to place. Anest and Eurig will, I hope, enjoy and remember Craig y Tan all of their lives, as perhaps their descendants will.  I am just passing through – and I call it Paradise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life in the Gutter

 

In late February I had a hip joint replaced, and then came lock-down: a combination that limited me, for a while, to tramping the streets of the town where I live. One of the joys of this has been getting to know the botanical life that lives in the gutter: clinging to walls, cracks in the pavement, rough ground and doorways. These are the backstreet habitats exploited by the nimble and exotic alike; places where newly arrived migrants rub shoulders with native lowlife, eking out a living just under the radar.

In March and early April there were the ’weeds’ such as thale cress, whitlowgrass and cornsalad – none of them very photogenic but still smart enough to flower and set seed before anyone noticed how ‘untidy’ they were. Many of these annuals are native plants, originally inhabitants of open ground that was probably scarce in the ‘wildwood’. Later they prospered and spread amongst crops in agricultural landscapes and yet more recently they have colonised the dry places and disturbed ground of our urban spaces.

Many new arrivals have simply scrambled over the garden gate – an ornamental quaking grass is well established in parts of Machynlleth. Similarly I have found pansies, snapdragons and two exotic bellflowers, as well as more culinary opportunists such as oregano, fennel and lemon balm, each decorating the gutters and walls of our streets. We can also thank gardeners for more notorious escapees such as rhododendron ponticum and Japanese knotweed. Rhododendron smothers whole hillsides not far from here and the knotweed is so prolific and tenacious that you can incur a hefty fine just for moving it from place to place.

Our flora has always been on the move. When the ice sheets and permafrost retreated northwards 12,000 years ago Britain was still joined to Europe and plants from the south and east were able to gradually colonise the warming ground. Later, humans started to move longer distances and plants went with them. Much of our arable flora, along with the wild ancestors of wheat, originated in the bone-dry grasslands of Turkey and the Middle East where their seeds mixed with the grains taken into cultivation. Until cleaning of cereal seeds became more efficient in the 19th century wild flowers were unintentionally harvested and re-sown for centuries, alongside wheat, oats and barley. Ecologically life in the bare, well drained soil of the cereal fields was like Turkey revisited, so consequently they thrived. The patriotic red poppies of our cornfields and waysides were part of this ‘invasion’ and so are not in fact native but early colonists of our farming landscape. For the last 150 years or so this arable flora has been in steady decline with cornflowers, hairy mallow, weasel’s-snout and the rest almost extinguished by increasingly efficient farming methods.

A preferential class system extends into the classification of Britsh plants: 60 years ago it was simple and brutal – natives okay, the rest – beyond the pale. More recently this has been broadly stratified into natives, archaeophytes (established before 1500) and neophytes (arrivals since 1500), the last two together are defined as ‘aliens’. This often seems like a declining order of worth amongst field botanists, with natives as the most highly regarded. Delightfully some plants have the temerity to ignore the rules. The Welsh poppy is an outstanding example of a plant becoming downwardly mobile. It is still found as a scarce native plant in mountainous areas (including not far from here on Cader Idris) where it is revered by botanists. Unsurprisingly such an attractive plant was taken into cultivation and from there it absconded back into the wild, to inhabit walls and waysides. This same lovely plant now belongs to a much lower caste than its mountain relatives.

There is a glorious ‘anything goes/survival of the fittest’ feel to this guttersnipe community. Under-loved natives such as cats-ears, dog daisies and ferns burst out of the cracks and scuffed-up soil, taking their chance alongside newcomers like periwinkle, red valerian and purple toadflax. It is a hazardous existence, at least in this town, where the council deems all this effervescent beauty to be unruly and unregulated. They send in a man with a strimmer who, like a modern incarnation of the grim reaper, cuts many off in their prime and later administers a dose of glyphosate for good measure.

But these botanical riffraff are a resourceful and tenacious bunch; many of them will outlive us all, bursting through the cracks of Armageddon Street long after we have gone. During lock-down the only things growing on the streets of this town were in the gutter.

 

 

 

 

Born to be Wild?

 

We planned to leave early but at first light it was blowing a gale and lashing with rain – going back to bed seemed a better option. I phoned Tom who was quite unperturbed saying, “Lets go, it might be different down there.” And it was.

Tom is my son-in-law and a warden at the RSPB’s Ynys-hir nature reserve, which is about 15 minutes drive from here. Along with my eldest son Owen we had planned a trip to look for lesser spotted woodpeckers, one of Ynys-hir’s star birds.  On the drive there we encounter dramatic flooding where the high tide has met overnight rain pouring down the Dyfi from the hills above. A train teetered uncertainly towards Aberystwyth along an embankment through the flooded fields – it felt like Armageddon. But when we pull into the sheltered car park all is tranquil: the wind had dropped, the rain ceased and the birds are singing.

At Ynys-hir, above the bog-land and grazing marshes of the Dyfi estuary, are a series of wooded and rocky ridges where the oak trees are distinctively twisted, as if from the effort of clinging to the bedrock. Arthur Rackham could have drawn this rumpled and mysterious terrain. The woodland is extensive, which is just what lesser spotted woodpeckers like. I had always assumed these sparrow-sized birds were out there somewhere and doing fine, but recently conservationists have realised that their numbers are much diminished. There may only be about 2000 pairs remaining in the UK, although nobody is really sure. The difficulty is that these small birds are very elusive: occupying a territory of perhaps 500 hectares they cling to twigs and upper branches, picking through the moss and bark for small invertebrates. This makes cold searching for ‘lesser spots’ a needle in a haystack sort of business. Tom tells me of a man he knows who has been trying to see one for 14 years, so far without success. Apparently your best chance is to hear them calling or drumming in the early spring – which is why we are here.

photo: Tom Kistruck

More in hope than expectation we ramble around these beautiful woods for an hour or two, peering and listening intently, but we don’t get a whisper. In truth, apart from ensuring a good supply of standing dead wood (don’t tidy up), there is not much conservation managers can do for lesser spotted woodpeckers. This is a bird that is out there somewhere living as it always has, whether or not we understand the reasons for its decline.

To compensate for our lack of success with the woodpeckers Tom offers to take us out onto the grazing marshes in his pick-up; this is a part of the reserve the public don’t usually get to, so we jump at the chance. The contrast after the muffled woods is dramatic: this land is three-quarters sky and straight-line flat. Gateposts are landscape features here. Tom (a proud Suffolk man) is clearly in his element in this bleak expanse and I tease him that he has somehow found a corner of East Anglia for himself amongst the Welsh hills. Flocks of golden plover, teal and lapwing swirl around us and we get a distant glimpse of the rare of Greenland white-fronted geese which overwinter here. A fine male merlin sits neat and lethal on a fencepost for us to drool over.

photo: Tom Kistruck

Apart from the wintering wildfowl and waders the main interest for the RSPB on these grasslands is the breeding lapwings. This was a common, and much loved, farmland bird until 40 years ago; it still shocks me to realise that in Wales they are now largely confined to about half a dozen nature reserves like this one. The causes of their demise are complex but revolve around changes in agriculture, both arable and pastoral, and an increase in predators, particularly crows and foxes. Lapwings like it damp to ensure a supply of invertebrate prey, so an intricate network of ditches, sluices and pipes have been installed here to redistribute the rainwater to where it is needed – the complexities of which Tom seems to carry in his head. Lapwings don’t like clumps of rushes: rather than hide from predators they prefer a clear view of what’s coming. So as well as getting the grazing levels right Tom treats the ubiquitous rushes with a herbicide, using a tractor powered weed-wipe. The biggest threat of all to lapwing breeding success is predation of eggs and chicks by foxes and crows. To deter the foxes a six-foot high fence, dug into the ground at the bottom and electrified at the top, surrounds this area of grazing land. A fence like this costs tens of thousands of pounds. Remote camera traps have shown foxes patrolling around the fence, searching for any weakness. Tom tells me he once saw a fox tossing lapwing chicks in the air like beanbags; he loses sleep over the thought of one getting in during the breeding season. Crows are perhaps an even bigger problem: there is no way to keep them out. Systematic culling of foxes and crows is often integral to managing breeding lapwing populations these days – although not currently at Ynys-hir.

Lapwings would be more or less extinct in Wales if it wasn’t for the kind of  dedicated, intensive management that is being done at Ynys-hir: expensive, time consuming work that raises dilemmas about the use of chemicals, killing predators, and enclosing wild birds with fencing. In truth there isn’t much different between this fence and those at safari parks or Whipsnade zoo. But if we want to keep the beautiful and evocative ‘peewit’ sound of breeding lapwings tumbling through the sky then these are the lengths we have to go to, at least for now.

The contrast between these two declining birds could not be greater: the lesser spotted woodpeckers are in a more or less natural environment and largely beyond our reach, whilst the lapwings are close to being farmed. In our drastically modified countryside it is sometimes hard to know what ‘wild’ means anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One More Turning

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Gaia House Retreat Centre, Devon: At 8am the world is almost monochrome and gripped with cold, frost rimming every leaf. Gaunt trees, some decked with mistletoe, rear up in front of me like something from the Deep. The only dabs of colour are orange berries on the withered remains of wild irises dotted along the roadside. The sky is a not-yet-blue colour but yellowing in the East – probably the sun is up on the coast. A too-close blackbird is turning leaves, pausing only to give me the eye. It feels as though life is hanging on, waiting for the earth to turn another couple of degrees, then the blessed warmth will quicken blood and flood through tissue enabling the day long search for sustenance to start in earnest.

 

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A cockerel in the valley sounds tinny and uncertain in the cold air. There is scattered applause from wood pigeons breaking cover. I am touched by a notice the folk on the corner have posted ‘To all who pass by…. wishing you good health, joy and blessings for 2017’.

The frost is not gone from the lawn until midday, despite three hours of weak sunshine. I circle the mottled trunk of the ancient plane tree which, like the aging body of an artist’s model, is slipping slowly into recline. Bunches of daffodil shoots poking two inches above the ground are like speed traps for unwary meditators. There is a flurry of bird calls now: nuthatch, goldfinch, robin, bullfinch and the distant laugh of a green woodpecker.

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West Ogwell church, which is painted cream, otherwise looks plain and dependable; the sort of church that has pinned the English countryside together for centuries. Unused, a little damp and peeling, it still has has beautiful wooden box pews like something out of Thomas Hardy. The churchyard is ringed with horse chestnut, beech, evergreen oak and a cranky old hornbeam that is leaning perilously over the graves. On the headstones are solid English names like Bishop, Taylor and Gilbert. Several low granite enclosures are where nuns from the old convent were buried, sometimes six together without mounds, just discreet names on the curb stone: Sister Gladys, Edna, Maud, Dora and so on – names from my grandmother’s generation – modest women who gave their lives to God.

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The afternoon is fading, Dartmoor reduced to a rusty smudge on the horizon, a couple of ragged tors still visible. By four o’clock the cold and darkness are closing in for the long night, and by eight the fog is as thick as smoke. In the bushes blackbirds are sounding the alarm – these conditions will prise open any weakness.

So to New Year’s Eve and we are sitting around a fire in the woods in companionable silence, a circle of flame-lit faces – some smiling others pensive. Tawny Owls are calling love to one another amongst the trees. We cast our regrets, hopes and aspirations into the flames and the sparks tower up, each one brilliant and brief in the endless stream. I feel in good company with Messrs Taylor and Bishop, Sister Edna and the rest as I enjoy my moment in the light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No People No Significance?

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It was Annie Dillard, the American writer, who said “no people, no significance” meaning, I think, that it is only we who can perceive significance. There is another way to look at it – that human presence in a landscape can add significance for us. I was reflecting on this whilst reading back over some notes I made on Bardsey Island this summer. I pulled out the following from a day in July:

Sitting in the sun against the wall of our cottage I tuned in to what I could hear: melodramatic wailing from seals, all ‘woe is me for I am a lost soul’; a smart male stonechat on the fence opposite has a ‘chack-chack’ call like beach pebbles colliding, interspersed with rusty squeaks – with his orange breast stuck out and feet apart he looks like an amiable grocer passing the time of day; piping oystercatchers – they sound so brainless; the textured throaty bleat of a ewe, just twice, is laden with context for me – Wales, hill-country, home; glassy twittering of meadow pipits along with the soft intimate calls between linnets is the common tongue here, the daily gossip; and behind everything is the surging hiss of the sea and felt-sound of grass shifting in the breeze.

 Nils (my grandson) found a little owl in Nant Valley. It yelled at us from a hole in a gorse bush, then advanced to a nearer fence post and then one nearer still – a ball of fluffed out indignation. Its lemon yellow bill and irises framed large black pupils, which stared relentlessly at us, furious at the intrusion. I presume it had a brood nearby as it continued to harass us until we were 100 m away.

 A runner from the bird observatory passed by with a panic message “Basking shark if you are quick”. I ran and arrived puffing heavily, just in time to get a glimpse through the telescope of two sharp black fins (dorsal and tail) cutting through the water. I thought of them as ‘ominous’ despite other-time images of gentle plankton gulping creatures.

 Ambling back along the track I admired the wayside flowers: cats-ear, bartsia, bell heather in magenta cushions, yarrow, knapweed, silverweed of the purest yellow. Gorse seeds were popping loudly in the heat.

 The moon was rising as we watched, lifting above the shoulder of the mountain. It was huge, a day off full, and silver – a priceless glittering coin. As we turned away we saw the ‘Bardsey bat’ – a lone pipistrelle that has taken up residence recently, probably in one of the buildings.

 In the early hours thee was the mother and father of all light shows in the western sky: sheet lightning bursting out every few seconds from all round the purple sky, sometimes underscored by the precision strikes of forked lightning. The strange thing was that it was largely silent, just the odd roll of thunder – the rain came later. The planet was flexing its muscles and the vastness of it made human concerns seem puny. At dawn the moon was poised low over the sea, butter yellow now with a golden trail stretching from horizon to shore across a flat-calm sea.

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A sense of harmony, between humankind and nature is deeply satisfying to people sensitised to such things; even more satisfying for some than untouched nature. The latter often evokes awe whereas the former comes with a sense of well being. Stone walls, smoke from a chimney or grazing cattle can add something to a landscape. On Bardsey visitors often remark upon this sense of harmony for, although it is a nature reserve, it doesn’t feel quite like one because it is also a place where people live and work, farm, fish for a living and holiday, which means buildings, boats, livestock and so on. There are, of course, all sorts of constraints, frustrations, hard graft and tolerances that go in to making this work – which is a whole other story. Sitting in the sunshine on the terrace of the bird observatory next morning I jotted down some of the factors that help produce this harmony for visitors to the island:

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You are hard pushed to spend any money here.

Children can be safely feral.

Nobody knows the time.

You must walk everywhere – there are no cars.  

No Internet, phone signal, TV or even electric light.

There is nothing to do, but everything to grab your attention.

 This place has a tousled unkempt look, which is a complement to all who care for it. The breeze ruffles the blonde grass and carries the sweet summer fragrance of lady’s bedstraw. The hiss of the sea is the islands tinnitus. Bardsey is much more than the sum of its parts – a mystery that is well worth attending too.

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It seems to me that although these experiences are about bearing witness, ‘recording significance’ Annie Dillard might say, they have at their heart a good deal about people interacting with nature. If I try to imagine Bardsey without the farming, fishing, birdwatchers, holiday folk and the marks they have made over the centuries it seems empty, somehow less significant.

 

 

Bearing Witness

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 We approached on one of those single-track roads that are so narrow and obscure you can’t quite believe they are public. The next leg of our journey was squelching along a boggy footpath, flanked on one side by steep woodland with lofty oaks and thickets of holly, and on the other flat estuarine pastures squared off with stone walls. Mossy old oaks and twisted thorns and crabs – a few hard, green apples still clinging to the leafless branches – lined the path, suggesting it had been here for a long time. We had been tipped off about this place and it felt like a secret.

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Our view opened out onto the side of the estuary: coffee coloured water swirling slowly towards the sea; on the opposite bank chrome yellow birches flared like burning torches amongst the quiet russet of the oaks. Under our feet the tightly grazed riverbank gave way to a long straight quay built from rough-hewn blocks of stone. It was this we had come to see. Nowadays the river is shallow and ribbed with banks of silt but 150 years ago the Dwyryd was navigable and a flotilla of small boats tied up here. They came to carry the slate from the great quarries above Blaenau Ffestiniog and Croesor – North Wales was roofing most of the world back then. Before the railway came slate was brought down to the coast by horse and cart and loaded on to the little boats, which sailed out to ocean-going ships off Porthmadog, for onward transport to the developing and cities of Europe and North America. All that is long gone now but this forgotten quay is a reminder of those busy and more prosperous times.

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The quay is cut every ten yards or so with flights of steps down to the water at each loading point: many boats must have moored here at busy times. Along the top of the quay are rough stone posts three or four feet high – capstans for tying up the boats. On one of the steps my grandson, Nils, finds otter prints in the skim of sand left by the tide, and better still, near the top of the steps, there are several spraints (droppings). Some naturalists say these have a distinctive smell like jasmine tea, which is helpful for identification, and today, for the first time, I get it – the musty/peppery scent does smell like some kind of exotic tea. Pottering along the quayside I am struck by the quiet details of nature: lichen encrusting the stones in yellow and grey patches; three tiny fungi quivering in the breeze, their tops turned up like bottle caps; ivy flowers covering a fallen hawthorn attract a smudge of small flies to their late nectar. There is a deep sense of harmony between this old industrial site and its natural surroundings. In its day I suppose it would have seemed modern, even brutal, but now, disused and forgotten, it seems to enhance this lovely estuary.

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All of this is beautifully caught in an exhibition of art works by Marged Pendrell at Plas Brondanw, which is not far from here. The exhibition is called ‘Flotilla’; its centrepiece a host of little boats, which specifically reference the trade in sea-going slate. The works are made from found objects and materials including slate, copper, lead, wood, sand and peat – the very ‘stuff’ of North Wales. Marged has a refined sense of the interplay between natural and man-made elements, combined with a magpie’s eye for collecting and rearranging natural objects so that they become more than the sum of their parts – metaphors for life’s processes. The whole exhibition chimed with the sense of ‘rightness’ that I had at the quayside. Even Plas Brondanw itself is an exercise in unexpected harmony, its turquoise and gold wrought-iron complementing beautifully, if counter intuitively, the backdrop of the mountains.

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I accept that such things are a matter of perception and taste but perhaps it is the ‘job’ of humankind to strive to give voice, in whatever way we can, to the beauty and intricate complexity of the world we are born into. Looked at from a whole-earth, Gaia perspective we are the ‘component’ that has the reasoning, imagination and language which enables the planet to see its self in the mirror and glory in what is. As the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling put it: “uniquely in us, nature opens her eyes and sees she exists”.

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For exhibition details: http://www.susanwilliamsellis.org

Mouldy Mushrooms

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These conifer plantations are so lifeless: a thick cushion of needles muffles the ground and the trees seem dead until halfway up – a brown on brown world. Just off the path a scatter of white blobs like screwed up tissues catches my eye. I fear the worst, but coming closer realise that they are some kind of life. Holding on to my hat and crawling through the prickly twigs I am confronted by something very strange: fifteen or so mushrooms, of a poisonous species known as The Sickener, are erupting in a delicate halo of white mould which appears to be digesting the very mushroom it is growing on – a fungus consuming a fungus. When I went back to check on them a week or so later they had vanished, slurped out of existence; presumably all that remained were the mould spores, which I was probably inhaling.

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Fungi can seem very strange, neither plant nor animal, they are found almost everywhere and are very numerous (12,000 species in Britain – and counting), yet they remain elusive and oddly out of mind. In fact they are essential to us in many ways: helping to digest our food, make bread, brew beer, manufacture antibiotics and a lot more besides. Fungi are also responsible for 90% of decomposition, without them we would be knee deep in dead leaves, and dead bodies. Most of those involved in such processes are microscopic moulds or yeasts, rather than the mushrooms that appear so mysteriously in our autumn woods and fields. Some of those are conspicuous like the Shaggy Inkcap or Puffballs but they are only the fruiting bodies, like apples on a tree, of an intricate web of underground threads (hyphae), which constitute the fungal organism itself.

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photo: Gethin Elias

Many of our woodland trees have an interdependent relationship with certain fungi whose hyphae wrap around the root hairs of the tree and supply them with nutrients; trees are not very good at obtaining these for themselves. In return the trees supply the fungi with the sugars they are not able to make because they lack photosynthesis. The intricate web of hyphae in a wood is vast: it has been estimated that one-kilogram of woodland soil contains 200 kilometres of fungal thread. Without these unseen partnerships there would be no woodland.

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photo: Owen Elias

Fungi provide wonderful examples of the intricacy and interdependence of living systems. We rarely think of them but couldn’t get by without them. So next time you are digesting a big meal or turning over your compost heap give thanks for fungi – for without their bit of mould you would not last long and your remains would be with us for very much longer.

 

 

Rewilding Sussex

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 Sir Charles Burrell must have a lot of nerve. I recently went on ‘safari’ at his Knepp Castle ancestral estate in Sussex and the place is seriously neglected. In fact it looks as though he has walked away, shut the door and thrown away the key.

This 3500-acre estate was, until 15 years ago, a mixed arable and dairy farm on the Wealden clay, an hour south of London. However it was only turning a profit two years in ten; that clay, it seems, is difficult to farm being a slippery mess in the wet, and bone hard when it is dry. Charlie Burrell (as he prefers to be called) had always been interested in wildlife so, inspired by a visit to the Dutch rewilding project at Oostvaardersplassen, he decided to try something similar at Knepp. He removed all the internal boundaries on the estate, introduced longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, fallow and red deer and Tamworth pigs – as proxy species for our original wild herbivores – and let them loose to feed and roam as they pleased across 2500 acres. On the face of it that was a pretty crazy thing to do with an estate your family had been farming for hundreds of years. I take my hat off to him, not just for nerve but also vision.

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I grew up with the notion that the original vegetated landscape of Britain, pretty well everywhere below 2000 feet, was high forest – a kind of majestic Mirkwood with an overarching canopy of big trees. Then about 20 years ago, the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera challenged this model, suggesting that it had underestimated the effect of the large wild herbivores that were common at that time – cattle, horses, deer, pigs and beaver – plus their attendant predators – wolves, lynx and bear. He postulated that the interaction between these animals and their environment would have created something more akin to savannah or parkland with clumps of trees, thickets of scrub and areas of grassland dotted with individual trees. Not all ecologists agree with him and in truth we don’t really know what the original ‘wildwood’ looked like before humans started clearing it 8000 years ago. Finding out is part of what Knepp is about; they call it “process led conservation”.

What confronted me amongst the fine old estate oaks was a mess of sprawling hedges 30 feet wide at the base, big blocks of sallow and large open areas dotted with patches of bramble and scrub – some of which sheltered young oaks from the browsing animals, just as Frans Vera predicted. This landscape is prompted, manipulated and sculpted by cattle, horses, deer and pigs. Some of it is low grade habitat at present, particularly the overgrown fields covered in ragwort and fleabane; but to everyone’s surprise populations of some nationally declining species such as turtle dove, nightingale, cuckoo and purple emperor butterfly are increasing at Knepp. What this landscape has, in effect, is lots of woodland-edge, which would have been plentiful in Vera’s vision of the ‘wildwood’. This may account for these increases, and why so much of our wildlife seems to thrive in the ‘edge’ habitats that have become scarce in intensively farmed landscapes.

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Looking at it I was struck by how big it seemed – 2500 acres of unfenced land in lowland England is substantial. To my eye it looked like a transitional landscape on its way to something else and clearly it is still on the move, but perhaps not towards continuous woodland. The staff at Knepp just don’t know and are willing to sit on their hands and wait to find out. One thing has become clear: some areas are, unpredictably, developing differently from others, there is a continuity of process but outcome is unforeseen. It seems that the changing landscape has personality, is wilful. A dynamic process has been let loose by the very act of not acting; the mice have indeed come out to play.

There are many limitations to comparing this project with a truly wild ecosystem, one of which is the absence of large predators to limit the populations of introduced herbivores. There is just not enough room for them at Knepp, and anyway lynx and wolves might be a stretch too far for the neighbours in Sussex. So the estate has to accept the responsibility of being the apex predator and cull them. Animal welfare apart, what is “overgrazing” and “too many” are fascinating questions in a project that claims to have no desired (or undesired?) outcome. How will they react if the numbers of purple emperors or turtle doves start to go down? Hold their nerve and do nothing, I hope.

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Another fascinating twist in this story is that Charlie Burrell has certainly not thrown away the key – the estate now regularly makes a profit. This has been achieved in various ways: renting out the farm cottages and redundant agricultural buildings; running a safari and camping enterprise and selling those culled animals as organic free-range meat at premium prices. Also expensive inputs such as fertilizer, herbicide, stock management, and farm machinery are no longer required. In fact Knepp is still a farm, if a rather eccentric one, which qualifies for a good deal of public money: £200,000 a year in Single Farm Payments alone we were told. I doubt they could survive without that, so Brexit is making them understandably nervous.

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I hope this imaginative and courageous experiment can continue to thrive. Knepp Castle estate has come up with an innovative version of rewilding suited to lowland England which will be fascinating for naturalists and ecologists to watch unfold over the years. It is already a reservoir from which wildlife can colonise the surrounding countryside and a source of inspiration and research, as well as a haven of wildness for visitors in this very crowded corner of Europe.

‘A breath of fresh air for the spirit’ is what Charlie Burrell calls it.

 

 

Island Mothing

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 We recently returned from our annual pilgrimage to Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli), which is a mile or so off the tip of the LLyn peninsula in North Wales. You can book accommodation there and have a holiday totally immersed in nature. The absence of cars, electricity and phone/internet connection relieve an unconscious tension, creating space that can be filled by the sound of the sea, brightness of the stars at night and a profusion of wild flowers, birds and insects. There is a simplicity and abundance to life here reminiscent of life in Britain 50-60 years ago.

One of the things that happen on Bardsey is moth trapping at the bird observatory. The trap is, in essence, a bright bulb (run off a car battery) suspended over a box filled with egg cartons. This is placed out at night and the moths are attracted to the light, dropping down unharmed to rest amongst the egg boxes. Each morning a group of us huddled round to see what has been caught overnight. Newcomers were hesitant and a bit mystified, peering into the crevices of the egg boxes as they were lifted out, marvelling at these unfamiliar insects. The observatory catches moths to record the numbers of each species day-to-day, year on year, so contributing to monitoring our wildlife populations. A less explicit reason is for the sheer wonder of examining close-up these otherwise unseen nocturnal creatures. Some of them like the garden tiger are big and brash, whilst others are paper thin and tremulous, seemingly too delicate to live.

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My grandson Nils eagerly called out the name and numbers of each species with impressive accuracy; Mark, an assistant warden at the observatory, confirmed these with a nonchalant glance – expertise born of long practice. Moths have fascinating and sometimes eccentric English names, amongst those we caught were: the lackey, ingrailed clay, mottled beauty, july highflier, true lover’s knot, smoky wainscot and the scarce footman. I found myself imagining a Mills and Boon plot where the mottled beauty and scarce footman are bound together by a true lover’s knot – perhaps the lackey has a part in there somewhere?

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Moths can occur in large numbers given the right conditions, as anyone who watched the recent Euro 2016 football final in Paris on television will have noticed; moths were everywhere, there must have been tens of thousands of them. Apparently the stadium lights had been left on all night creating, in effect, a gigantic moth trap. By the time the match kicked off the next day the place was crawling with moths, most of which were the silver Y, named after the distinctive shiny marks on its wings, which its scientific name Autographa gamma describe much more accurately. This is a migrant species that must have been passing north through Paris in very large numbers – some no doubt destined for the UK.  However events like this can be misleading as to the overall health of our moth populations. The Rothampstead Insect Survey, which has been trapping moths throughout the UK since 1968, has shown that overall abundance has decreased by 28% in that time and this rises to 40% in southern Britain. The spectacular black and white garden tiger, which has bright orange hind wings, has declined by as much as 92%; although it seems to be holding up on Bardsey – we caught 14 one night. The reasons for these declines are complex and multi-factorial but are overwhelmingly due, directly or indirectly, to human activity.

Silver Y, Great Orme, Sept 2007

photo: Janet Graham  

It seems sad that you now have to go to the ends of the (Welsh) Earth to get a glimpse of the wild abundance that was available to every country child not so long ago.

 

 

For How Much Longer?

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 It’s a cool damp morning framed by bleating sheep and the smell of bracken. Plodding up the hillside I am looking for boot-marks in the boggy ground amongst the white flags of cotton grass. They should have gone this way a couple of hours before me.

Cresting the ridge the wind spits rain into my face, making my eyes water. I am relieved I had the good sense to put on plenty of layers, which didn’t really seem necessary when I left home. The cloud is lifting, thank goodness, so I am able to scan the huge expanse of moorland and bog spread out in front of me. I can’t see any sheep, or people, which is a bit worrying. I have come up here to watch one of my neighbours ‘gather’ the sheep from his mountain-land and take them down to the farm for shearing. He should be ahead of me somewhere. Eventually I spot some sheep on the drier ground about a mile away and, encouragingly, a few are in single file heading slowly downhill.

Gradually the sheep coalesce into lines, like milk trickling slowly into the bowl of dead ground behind the ridge to my right – then the place is empty again. Sitting in the heather, idly eating bilberries, I watch a kestrel slide out over the great expanse of bog, which is being swept by weak patches of sunlight. You might think this remote, wind-torn landscape is untouched, the very essence of wildness, but sheep have been sculpting it for hundreds of years. As the writer Roger Deakin put it so aptly “they keep the contours… clear, sharp and well defined, like balding picture-restorers constantly at work on every detail.” On a nearby crag I can see a single yellow flower of goldenrod clinging to the one place the sheep can’t reach; a whisper of what might be if the incessant nibbling were to cease.

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After about an hour the sheep still haven’t reappeared so I begin retracing my steps in case they have got round behind me. Sure enough, a long line of ewes and lambs are snaking slowly across the hillside below me and bottlenecking at a gate. Up to my left a man with two dogs is slowly descending the hillside, whistling to the sheep, urging them forward. There is a cacophony of bleating as the ewes try to stay in touch with their lambs in the jostle. At the gate I meet my neighbour with his brother and grown-up son, plus eight sheep dogs. He explains to me that they have been taking it slowly, “if you don’t hurry them you will get the job done quicker in the end” – because the ewes are less likely to lose their lambs and go looking for them. These sheep are following a path of their own making over many generations and the men are in their grandfathers’ footsteps. These are the only paths here, ground into the hillside by the feet of countless sheep and attendant boots. Although the men have been walking for hours over rough terrain they are still moving easily, almost strolling through the bracken and across bogs. In full waterproofs and wellingtons (but bareheaded, surprisingly) they have the casual ease of people in their element. They have known sheep farming since they were boys and their expertise is palpable.

It is the continuity, the steadiness through time that strikes me. In a febrile week of politics following the Brexit vote, when our world seems in turmoil, it is reassuring to walk with these men following traditional rhythms and routes. Yet even here politics colour perception: no hill-farmer can stay in business these days without EU subsidies. For how much longer will sheep and men follow these paths at the edges of British agriculture?