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.

beech fern

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.





New Patch in the Pandemic


 I am sunning myself on a bench 150 feet above the town on a rocky and partly wooded ridge known as Penrallt.  It is my new ‘patch’. Elen and I moved to Machynlleth eight months ago after 35 years in Llanuwchllyn; despite only moving 30 miles away it was a huge wrench. Living now in the nearest thing to a leafy suburb that a small town like Machynlleth can muster we still see hills and woods from our windows, but after the wilds of Cefn Prys it was a shock. I kept mistaking a streetlight for the moon. But I am slowly adapting, and Penrallt is part of that: a fragment of almost natural land that I am free to walk to for my hour of exercise. It has become my lock-down lung.

photo: Tom Kistruck

A month ago I could not have sat here without 3-4 red kites sliding in and out of view and several ravens performing joyful acrobatics along the ridge. Now they have vanished. Every year it is the same, after an early spring of display and territorial bragging these big birds sink back into the trees and become invisible; busy now with nesting and feeding young there is no longer an advantage in advertising their presence. It is the turn of the willow warblers now, their sweet song sliding down the scale is in vivid contrast to their cousin the chiffchaff doggedly repeating its own name. Best of all are the blackcaps with their glorious bell-like notes ringing out as if in praise of a life-perfect. Miraculously these three warblers, weighing only a few ounces each, have just flown dizzying distances on migration to arrive here on Penrallt, stake out a territory and raise a brood.

This rocky ridge is a bit of a local anomaly: common land owned by the council it is like a wild but miniature park, with well maintained paths and simple benches. It has a modest share litter and there is graffiti on the rocks, some political others personal. A chalked message ‘I love you Nain and Taid’ (grandparents) seems particularly poignant in these socially isolated times. Penrallt is an interesting fragment of a lost landscape. It was clearly grazing land at one time; I say that because it is now being vigorously colonised by trees, so something was holding them back – sheep probably. Up until 30-40 years ago much of this ridge must have been dominated by dry, heathy vegetation, then for whatever reason the grazing animals were taken away and the trees got going. Some remnant patches of heather and open areas of bracken remain, as well as scree and rocky outcrops where it is harder for the trees to get a foothold. Apparently adders have been seen here in the past but I wonder if enough open ground remains for them now. There are few truly woodland plants, much of the ground is still more like shaded heathland with extensive trees. Prior to the twentieth century dry lowland heath may have been quite extensive in the district but now it is reduced to ghosts and whispers on hedge-banks and rocky knolls where the finer grasses and less competitive plants cling on.

Rambling along the ridge I notice how oaks are beginning to obstruct the view with their tender new leaves, as membranous as young lettuce. The warm air amplifies the heady scent of gorse flowers and has the peacock butterflies moving so fast I often only see their shadows, looking up just too late. Holly blues, like agitated fragments of sky, are also plentiful, as are the orange tips – or at least the males, the plainer females are not still long enough for me to pick them out. I am pleased to hear a newly arrived wood warbler jingling its loose change in the better established woodland at the eastern end. There don’t seem to be any redstarts or pied flycatchers, but these are hole nesters and I suppose the trees are not yet gnarled enough. In an open area of old bracken and freshly minted bluebells the path sides have been ploughed by badgers searching for leatherjackets. Dozens of green longhorn moths with absurdly long antennae swarm erratically around a nearby oak, lurching like drunken tightrope walkers across the foliage.   There is plenty of life here to absorb this locked-down naturalist.

photo: Tom Kistruck

I have never seen a place like this for oak regeneration; the seedlings, saplings and adolescents trees far outstrip any other species. Oaks are often thought of as a late arriving high forest tree, shrouded in the promise of longevity and public esteem, but here they are rampant pioneers. Recently, well meaning folk have planted some hazels and rowans, probably as a ‘trees capture carbon’ gesture; grumpily I think they would be better off tackling the rhododendrons which are beginning to flex their muscles. The trees are coming anyway.

It is not just the trees that are coming. Around the edges of Penrallt the botany has a distinctly urban flavour with all sorts of exotica scrambling over the garden fence at the prospect of virgin territory up for grabs. I encounter grape hyacinth, Italian lords and ladies, stags-horn sumac, Himalayan honeysuckle and plenty more. It will be fascinating to see which of these chancers manages to survive and prosper over the years. They certainly add a frisson to the usual botanical suspects.

Penrallt is very much on the move, a glorious free for all that is casually ‘re-wilding’ itself whilst our attention is elsewhere. Most people probably barely notice, as on a human timescale this change is slow, but not ecologically – and it is the oaks that are epidemic.




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.







Forty Years On

 Recently Elen and I went back to the Gower peninsula near Swansea to celebrate the forty years since we met there (when I gate-crashed her birthday party, but that is a different story…)

I had forgotten how lovely Gower was and, praise be, still is. The combination of dramatic bays and cliffs on the southern coast; a bristling central spine of common land and the ever-receding mystery of the northern salt-marshes, seem to fold a whole world into its modest land mass.  I think I had gone with a ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ script tucked into my back pocket, imagining it would be overrun or hopelessly gentrified by now. But apart from some tasteless new-build here and there it was wonderfully unspoilt and rural with overgrown hedges, winding single-track roads and a surprisingly dark night sky. If anything it looked a touch run down – in a ‘potholes and peeling paint’ sort of way – which was unexpected, so close to the South Wales conurbation.


On our first day we walked, in warm sunshine, down from Parkmill following the path through the woods along Pennard pill (the local name for stream). The detail was lovely: twisted wind pruned trees, gorse stems warmed by the winter sun, overhanging banks deep enough for a child to hide and hanks of bladder-wrack stranded by the tide. This  steep-sided valley, watched over by a frowning castle ruin, is a perfect  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ entrance to the heady space of Three Cliffs Bay. Crooked in a sheltering arm from Pennard cliffs the bay is like a child’s drawing of how the seaside should be: a stream with steppingstones, tangled woodland, rocky headlands, sand dunes and a flat sandy beach meeting the restless sea. Thousands of people are drawn to this intoxicating mixture every year but at this season it was not crowded: a few families and dog walkers, a man riding his horse along the sand with three medieval looking greyhounds at foot, and a rather solemn party of druids wearing laurel wreaths in their hair.


Where I did notice some changes was on the common land that runs west to east along the middle of the peninsula. Much of it, particularly on Fairwood Common, has grown up with brakes of birch saplings punctuating the hazy deserts of Molinia (Purple Moor-grass). Although there were a few sheep poking about along the road verges, this was a landscape that spoke loudly of a decline in grazing.  Molinia has become dominant in many areas of rough grazing and moorland around Wales, where cattle and ponies no longer graze; unfortunately sheep don’t like to eat it so it can gradually swamps less competitive plants. Molinia may also be encouraged to spread by nitrogen pollution – which effectively is an invisible fertilizer that comes down in the rain. Shaggier and wilder now, perhaps these commons are what our post agriculture, rewilded, carbon guzzling landscapes will look like 20 years from now. If, as some people predict, we end up eating plant-based or cultured ‘meat’ then there will be little call for sheep or cows, ushering in an era of ‘wild neglect’. I knew a man, all those years ago, who swore that he had seen sheep rolling over the cattle grid to get on to Fairwood common; these days they would be more likely be rolling to get off.


On our final morning we had a stroll around Oxwich National Nature Reserve, a place close to my heart, as I was warden there for 5 years or more in the late 70s. I expected to be disappointed, especially as Natural Resources Wales – the latest incarnation of the government conservation organisation that manages it, has been getting a very bad press recently. But I left relieved – even impressed.

Around the sweep of the bay the sand dunes were accreting rather than eroding: both natural processes, but the former is less anxiety promoting for people like me. Since my time a large area of the fixed dunes has been fenced off and is being grazed by ponies, at what appeared to be just the right intensity. Inside the fence there was a mosaic of tiny dune plants, which thrive when the competition from coarser, more vigorous species is reduced by grazing. Also the small patches of sandy ground opened up by the ponies hooves provide seedbeds in which new plants can establish. It was too early for flowers, save the tiny white stars of Common Whitlow Grass, but in June this will be alive with colourful plants and their attendant insects.

Also new to me was a series of winding boardwalks through the flooded carr woodland which gave us an inside view of a habitat previously inaccessible to visitors. A bird hide on one of the lakes was another innovation: although it gave the usual view of nothing much at all. The waterside vegetation had recently been cut back (another plus) and some wag had written on the chalkboard in the hide that they  “didn’t seen much except some men in high-vis jackets working with brush cutters, and two mallard – presumably deaf ”.


All of this is probably a rather superficial response from somebody as much taken up with a nostalgic weekend as conservation assessment. On the other hand long absence allows for a freshness of view from what I hope is an educated eye, unclouded by the familiar. I was a restless young man back then, but looking again at the beauty and richness of Gower had me wondering if, 40 years ago, I should have stayed put and dug in.










Ashes to Ashes


On a dull October morning with a waft of drizzle in the air I have come to pay homage to some fine old trees. Scattered across the steeply sloping pasture in front of me are about a dozen venerable oaks and ash, plus a few gnarly alders. I can only imagine these trees escaped the plough in the 20th century because this is estate land with a tenanted grazier. Whatever your views about the landed gentry they have left us a fine legacy of old trees. It is the ash trees, in particular, that I have come to honour today.

The day is brightening a little and the increased light illuminates the canopy of the nearest big ash. It seems to have a more buoyant, airy profile than the doughty oaks, but perhaps I am kidding myself as I am inclined to view ash as the fairer, more feminine of the two. Ash have always seemed a bit fey to me, slightly aloof and less down to earth than the dependable oak. These trees have grown up in open wood pasture so their canopies are full and round like domed parasols, branches drooping elegantly to the browse (or should it be hem) line: that is the limit to which stock can reach.

The leaves on this one are still mostly a dark glossy green but a few are shading to lime. In a week or two they will be lemon yellow and littering the ground like casually discarded gloves. Ash are like that –  they really don’t care. The twigs are smooth and flick up at the ends, terminating in triangular black buds reminiscent of the cloves my mother used to flavour stewed apples. Characteristically the bark is light grey and patterned with deep fissures, like the hide of an elephant. The trunk is parallel-sided up to about 20 feet where the multiple limbs spread out; this tree was undoubtedly pollarded in times past.  At the base rounded buttresses covered in white lichen are almost indistinguishable from rocks. Judging by the thick compost of droppings amongst the grass this tree gives both shade and shelter to the sheep that graze this pasture.

In most of the areas of Wales I am familiar with, ash trees only aggregate along stream sides and in valley bottoms where the leached nutrients accumulate, washed down from the thin soils above. En masse their pale grey bark lends a ghostly pallor to the winter landscape that you can pick out half a mile away.  More often I associate big ash trees with hedgerows and farmsteads. There was a fine specimen in my neighbour’s yard with a hollow big enough for a child to stand in. The story goes that a 100 years or so ago the maid (!) cleaned out the morning grate and threw hot ashes against this tree, which duly burned a hole that started the rot.

The biggest ash on this hillside has lost a massive limb, but far from disabling it the tree looks good for centuries yet. Sprouting out of the rot hole are several seedling rowans and a hazel that have germinated in the composting wood, no doubt from seeds dropped by birds or squirrels. On the opposite side a huge horizontal limb supports many smaller branches, yet miraculously the tree bears its weight without breaking. It reminds me painfully of a school punishment that required holding up a wellie in each extended arm; three minutes was bad enough let alone 300 years.

What drove me here today was the fear that trees like these might not be with us much longer; that I might outlive them, rather than the other way round. The advance of ash dieback disease has now become conspicuous in many parts of Wales; the browning twigs and leafless branches stand out almost everywhere I go. Ash dieback is caused by a fungus (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) that originated in Asia, but was almost certainly imported into Britain with trees grown commercially in mainland Europe. The fungus produces millions of dust like spores, which spread on the wind, making it impossible to contain. We are helpless in the face of it.  There is an outside chance that it blew here naturally but the mass importation of trees and perhaps changing conditions have triggered an epidemic. Ash trees regenerate very freely in Britain, so importing young trees was clearly more about free market economics that conservation. Despite having ample opportunity to take practical precautions to prevent this disease entering the UK, nothing was done until it was too late. If ash dieback proves as lethal as it has in some parts of Europe the British landscape will be devastated.  Ash is our third commonest tree. Equally catastrophic will be the effects on the 1000 or so plants and animals that depend upon it in some way. These fine old trees may last a while yet but I can no longer draw comfort from the notion that they will outlive my children’s children. Will anyone care much? In these times when we are punch drunk with bad news stories the danger is we will shrug disconsolately – seeing it as the new normal rather than a national disaster.

Walking around old trees has always given me a feeling of security and long perspective; after all they took root before motor cars, electricity and telephones changed all our lives. They connect me, no matter how tenuously, to the pre -industrial era when human impact upon the land was unavoidably slow and gradual. There is nothing better than a really big tree to convey the sense that the affairs of humans are insignificant. Sadly this can be as deluded as it is comforting. All I can do is to honour them, stand with them and quietly rebel against their extinction.



Given Half a Chance

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

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

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

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

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

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

wikimedia commons

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

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





Time to Panic?


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

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

photo: Wikimedia commons-sharpphotography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebellious Nature


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

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

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

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

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


Life on the Edge


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

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

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

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

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

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