Distant Drum

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 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….

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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.

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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.

 

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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.