Island Farming


One morning last month I walked to the top of the hill (known fondly as ‘the mountain’) on the eastern side of Bardsey Island. I had a fine view of the irregular patchwork of small fields, which stitch together like quilting across the lowland part of the island. Rumpled with rushes and rough grasses the soft green and brown was lit by small ponds glinting in the morning sun. I imagine this is what pastoral landscapes must have looked like seventy years ago before agriculture modernised and intensified. And remarkably this place is getting more tousled and grubby-kneed as each year passes. To some this might look like neglect but in truth it is the result of very careful husbandry.

Bardsey means different things to different people: holiday destination, bird observatory, place of pilgrimage, farm, and nature reserve – even ‘home’ to a few. But it was the intersection of farming and conservation that particularly interested me that morning. Anyone visiting the island would be in no doubt this is a farm: the impressive farmsteads, field boundaries and scattered livestock make that obvious – and add a bucolic charm for many. This is a long settled place; it has been worked for centuries. A fundamental truth about the British countryside is that it has been farmed for so long that much of its wildlife adapted by default to the slow moving, hand-made agriculture that was commonplace until the Second World War. Most wildlife was simply an unintended by-product of farming operations. Deliberately managing a farm and a nature reserve for the benefit of both is another matter – especially on an island. Nature conservation rightly takes prides in its scientific base but day-to-day farming, particularly the management of livestock, is a pragmatic business – the art of ‘suck it and see’. It is not often that the science directly informs the art.

photo: Tom Kistruck

Nearly eleven years ago Gareth Roberts, who is the farming tenant on Bardsey as well as Cwrt farm on the mainland, employed Steve Porter to run the day-to-day operation for him on the island. Steve didn’t come from a traditional farming background so he arrived with an open mind.  His wife Jo, who is an ecologist, was also employed by the RSPB to monitor changes in the island’s wildlife, and so inform the farming. You couldn’t have written it: when conservation and agriculture are so often in conflict, on Bardsey the farmer and ecologist were comparing notes over breakfast; fine tuning the day to day, year to year management of the land for the benefit of both livestock and nature. Thanks to Gareth’s open handed and innovative guidance and the increasing flexibility and trust of Natural Resources Wales (the government conservation agency) Steve and Jo have been able to experiment: adjusting and re-adjusting the farm management, particularly the grazing of sheep and cattle for the benefit of wildlife. What has resulted is that rarity – a conservation good news story.

When Steve and Jo first came to Bardsey they inherited wide acres of closely grazed sheep pasture with little biodiversity and a very prescriptive and inflexible grazing plan. Working with Gareth and NRW their aim has been to manipulate the livestock grazing to gradually produce mosaics of vegetation, which they hoped, would naturally increase the diversity of plants and animals. Eleven years on the heather and creeping willow are now thriving on the precious maritime heath and orchids and insects are increasingly abundant in the pastureland. That morning I had seen hundreds of autumn lady’s tresses orchids in the fields – tiny twisting spires, miniature cathedrals that could have been designed by Gaudi. The choughs so often said to require nothing but tightly cropped turf for feeding are now also probing the heathland and rough grassland for invertebrate prey. Cattle, recently introduced to the mountain in summer, are making inroads into the bracken, which can smother more delicate plants. Grasshoppers, bees and spiders are taking advantage of the increase in flowers and longer grasses. Year-by-year this farm has been getting better for wildlife. That is a sentence to savour.

painting: Rachel Porter

Adjusting livestock grazing to benefit wildlife is tricky, if the ground is wet heavy-footed cattle may damage the vegetation, if it is dry they may not have enough to drink. If you need to take sheep off to allow plants to flower it may be a problem where to put them, especially if other areas are stocked to conservation capacity. Steve and Jo have also learned that seasonality is an important part of the ‘where, when and how many animals’ calculation. Each year’s pattern is, in part, a response to the weather of the previous year; a flush of grass after a wet warm season will smother less competitive flowers if the grazing isn’t increased in response. Flexibility is essential.  Sheep graze in a quite different way to cattle, clipping rather than tearing the vegetation, each producing a different kind of sward as a result. Of course much of this is true for every livestock farm but here the goal is a thriving ecosystem as well as healthy livestock.

Steve and Jo Porter (photo: Elen Elias)

This has been a golden time for conservation farming on Bardsey, but sadly things are changing as Steve and Jo are leaving. Having successfully reared and home-schooled their two children, Ben and Rachel, through to higher education they feel the time has come to move back to the mainland. Fortunately Gareth and his wife Meriel are able to move to the island in their stead, so the farming will remain in good hands, and Jo will continue to come back and do some wildlife monitoring.  That evening, as the sun was going down, nearly everyone on the island gathered on the beach to say goodbye to Steve and Jo. Food and drink round a driftwood fire and an energetic football match provided a typical island send off. Sitting there looking out over the sea into the sun setting behind the Irish hills I had mixed feelings, but it was gratifying to be able to reflect on the work of some good people who had made a difference, and two in particular for whom the work had been a calling as much as a job.

photo: Tom Kistruck



A Hundred Year Experiment

 It is pushing thirty degrees and ominously there doesn’t appear to be any prospect of shade in this rocky cauldron. I am standing at the edge of the lake in Cwm Idwal looking up at the majestic thousand-foot rock wall that wraps around its upper end. This is what geographers call a hanging valley, a colossal scoop of rock that was gauged out by glaciers millions of years ago leaving a classic cirque cradling a lake. The complex geology was folded under immense pressure into strata that are writ large across the towering headwall.  This has to be one of the most spectacular places in Wales.

photo: Owen Elias

About forty years ago I stood with a group of botanists high up on these cliffs in a place known as the Devils Kitchen. Our guide, the then warden of this National Nature Reserve, was Iorrie Ellis Williams and I remember how he stuck his stick in the ground, spread his arms wide to the stupendous view and declaimed,  “This is God’s own country”. On reflection I don’t think he meant just that it was beautiful and rich in rare arctic alpine plants, both of which mattered to him, but that it was also a place that represented Welsh culture, language and way of life. Cwm Idwal has a particular place in Welsh imagination as many of its special plants, such as moss campion, various saxifrages and the Snowdon lily, were first documented here by Evan Roberts, a quarryman and self taught botanist from nearby Capel Curig who established an international reputation for his knowledge of mountain plants. Cwm Idwal has been, like most of upland Wales, significantly influenced by farming; hundreds of years of sheep and cattle grazing have drastically modified the vegetation here. It is also a place much loved by hill walkers and climbers – many famous names have cut their teeth on the Idwal Slabs. On top of that tens of thousands of ‘ordinary’ folk come here every year just to soak up the splendour. That is how it is with wild places like this, everybody thinks its ‘theirs’ and so inevitably view it from different perspectives, some of which conflict.

photo: Gethin Elias

Tugging my hat down against the heat I take the path that runs above the eastern shore of the lake, which is paved with rocks artfully levered into place by a gang of local men who’s speciality is repairing mountain paths. Working with stone is an indigenous skill here. Without this work a combination of trampling feet and falling rain would reduce these paths to eroded gullies. The slopes above and below are cushioned with heather and bilberry interspersed with tall grasses and patches of heath rush – much like any other lightly grazed bit of moorland, but it was this I had come to see. Until recently these slopes were grazed down to contouring hugging lawns embedded with vestigial, barely surviving, heather and bilberry plants. Then twenty years ago the grazing tenant retired and Barbara Jones, the upland ecologist for the Countryside Council for Wales, persuaded her employers to buy the tenancy and let the National Trust, who own Cwm Idwal, take it ‘in hand’.  Barbara’s reasoning was that the arctic alpine plants that are so special here were not doing that well perhaps because, being at the southern limit of their range, they were beginning to feel the impact of a warming climate. The other major stressor on these plants was grazing from sheep and feral goats. Now there was an opportunity to discover if removing that pressure would enable the plants to thrive even in the face of climate change. So it was arranged that there would be no further grazing in Cwm Idwal for the foreseeable future and that natural processes would be allowed to take their course. Barbara calls this “a hundred year experiment” – which is probably as realistic as it is ambitious. A neighbouring farmer is paid to shepherd out any sheep that trespass via the higher slopes, which are impossible to fence. At present the rare plants mostly grow in difficult to reach ledges and crevices, perhaps as a last refuge from hard years of grazing, but unfortunately the ‘wild’ goats (which are very popular with visitors) are good at clambering to such places. So now, if their numbers build up in the cwm, they are discretely culled to more acceptable numbers.

By the time I get to the head of the lake I am frying but the only patch of shade I can find, in the overhang of a huge boulder, is already crammed with five other people, so I have to put up with the heat. In places the flowers are conspicuous: thyme, bog asphodel and butterwort are flowering profusely, where previously they would have been grazed off. But what really takes my eye is the burgeoning heather and bilberry, which are beginning to close over these previously grassy slopes. Here and there whippy rowan saplings have taken root; the berries dropped by birds now have a better chance of reaching the soil and germinating in the more open sward of these dwarf shrubs.

Having started up along the steep path to the Devils Kitchen I take a break to recover my breath.  Sitting beside the path the shouts of encouragement and clink of the gear from a group of climbers on the Slabs seems quietly reassuring in the hot, still air. The whole cwm feels rested,as if convalescing after the hard years of grazing. Every few years I have come to see how this experiment is progressing and what is striking is how slowly it has changed; harsh climate, altitude and poor soils mean these upland ecosystems move slowly. Barbara tells me that, mossy saxifrage excepted, there has been little or no visible effect on the arctic alpine plants after twenty years; they grow so slowly it might be thirty to fifty years before any change is visible.  Apparently when the scheme was first mooted there was some concern from the public that ‘the place would become a jungle’ but the changes to the vegetation have been so gradual that hardly anyone has noticed.

The path down from the Devil’s Kitchen is more like a staircase for giants, each step needs negotiating. This would not be a good place to fall. Beside the path mountain sorrel, beech fern and starry saxifrage sweeten the effort. At a place where a trickle of water flows over a rock I startle a pair of twite who had come to drink. They fly off uttering hard metallic calls, which echo around the rocks. I am pleased to see them, as this is the only area in Wales now where you can find these upland finches. Making my way along the west side of the lake I come across a slope that is thigh deep with inpenetratable gorse and heather, a vivid illustration of why the local farming community objected to this scheme. They thought it a ‘waste of land’ and that furthermore it would be impossible to reintroduce sheep in due course. From their point of view mountain land doesn’t look right without sheep or cattle. This was dereliction. Perhaps they also feared it was the thin end of the wedge for farming in Snowdonia.

A cheerful group of people, eastern European by the sound of them, are picnicking on the lakeshore and frolicking in the water. A bit further on, posing (no other word will do) on the top of a rock, a young scantily clad and heavily tattooed couple are in a passionate embrace. I reflect wryly that despite this being a National Nature Reserve not everyone is here to wonder about vegetation succession and the like. It’s a beach, romantic walk, climber’s training ground, abandoned (stolen) farmland, naturalist’s treasure house and no doubt more. So where is this experiment heading? As far as the arctic alpine plants are concerned nobody knows. For the rest probably continued slow development to heathland with scattered trees or even light woodland – and perhaps nobody much will notice. From the traditional farming perspective it will look like derelict land, but perhaps that point of view will begin to soften if the post Brexit policy of ‘public goods for public money’ for farming support becomes a reality. It seems to me that we need bold experiments like this one to help us understand and be flexible in the face of a changing and globalised world. I hope all concerned in Cwm Idwal can hold their nerve – and report back in eighty years time!















On this glittering May morning the sunlight bounces off the sea loch in bright fractal patterns. In the foreground sedge and grasshopper warblers natter and reel in the rushy pasture while a cuckoo sounds off from the top of a nearby rowan.  Between the two, about half a mile away, is rocky ridge covered in low hazy woodland. That is what we have come to see.

Elen and I have travelled to the Isle of Seil in Argyll specifically to find Ballachuan wood, a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve, which is one of the very best of Scotland’s mysterious hazelwoods. We follow a track across the rough pasture and climb a stile into the wood. Straight away it seems odd. This is one of Britain’s most ancient woodlands and yet it is no more than twice my height at best. Around the edges there are a few other tree species, a wych elm and a group of wild cherries humming with bees, but further in there is only an even blanket of low growing hazels. This early in the season the wood is light and airy, with a rich ground flora in full bloom. A hazy carpet of bluebells is just beginning to open and scattered amongst them are sanicle, golden saxifrage, wood anemone, enchanter’s nightshade and sweet woodruff. Here and there early purple orchids glow like light sabres amongst the wild garlic. As we duck between the hazels following a faint path I am struck by the fragile ‘other worldly’ feel of this place. It is as if we have been dropped into an alternative reality and I am reluctant to step off the path for fear of doing irreparable damage with my alien feet.

Hazels are familiar shrubs in lowland woods and hedgerows all over Britain. Historically they were usually coppiced, periodically clear-cut, for the multiple slender and flexible stems they produce which were so useful in the pre-industrial age for baskets, sheep hurdles thatching spars and the like. For many years I assumed that hazels were multi-stemmed because they had been coppiced, although it often struck me as odd to find them like that in very out of the way places. It turns out that left to their own devices they are a naturally multi-stemmed species; in fact hazels can persist for hundreds of years by replacing old and dying stems with new ‘whips’. A researcher in Finland has found living hazel stools he estimates to be more than 900 years old. Consequently where there has been little interference over the centuries and climatic conditions are suitable hazels have formed self-perpetuating woods that can persist indefinitely, without any ‘encouragement’ from humankind. And it seems that these hazels at Ballachuan have not been significantly exploited since they first colonised this rocky ridge following the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago. What we are looking at is almost entirely natural – a rare sight in twenty-first century Britain.

Another striking thing about these hazels is that they are festooned and plastered with lichens. On the younger stems smooth crustose species form cream and silver patches; on the older stems there are  ‘leafy’ species, some of them cool and fleshy to touch. I am not a lichenologist but I can recognise a rich assemblage, and I have never seen anything like this before. Such an abundance and variety only occurs in very old and undisturbed woodlands, where there is a moist and equable climate with very little atmospheric pollution. The air here must be very clean. Even quite spindly hazel branches are covered with tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria); it is everywhere, dried out in this weather to gruesome parchments resembling inverted lungs. Grey beards of Usnia species hang down like wispy goatees and ‘script’ lichens are inscribed with indecipherable codes of dots and scribbles. It all seems so delicate and precious and yet  this wood must be very resilient to have survived here for so long.

Until comparatively recently ecologists had not placed any particular value on hazelwoods, they were generally thought to be a stage in the development of other common woodland types rather than an endpoint in themselves. Then in the 1970s two lichenologists, Sandy and Brian Coppins, began to realise that the lichen flora of some Scottish hazelwoods was particularly rich and distinctive, including some species that were globally rare. Although pioneer hazelwoods occur in various places on the Atlantic fringe of Britain they discovered that the most special lichen communities were confined to pure hazel stands that had remained undisturbed for a very long time. These so called ‘old growth’ Atlantic hazelwoods are more or less confined to western Scotland and are home to some of the richest assemblages of oceanic lichens in Europe. Along with oak and birch woodland found along the edges of western Britain they are part of the ‘coastal temperate rainforests’ of the world, an extremely rare and threatened habitat type. As well as lichens these woodlands are also important for mosses, liverworts, fungi and ferns.

Ducking amongst the hazel branches we scrambled along a now barely visible path, following a shallow stream right down to the seashore where its gravelly bed widened out into a small bay swaying with bladder wrack. A common sandpiper, startled by our arrival, flew off, piping loudly on characteristically stiff wings. The hazels above the rocky shore were wind pruned to no more than waist height. A scattering of alders, birch and sallow infiltrated them at the edges but it seems that thin soils, maritime exposure and the tight canopy of the hazels prevents these taller species from ever colonising the wood.

I had expected a grimmer place swirling with Celtic mystery, and no doubt on a wet day in February it could seem that way, but today it smacks of intoxicating enchantment; perhaps if you slept the night here you would wake up altogether changed. This extraordinary wood is probably a living relict of the original ‘wildwood’ that has persisted essentially unaltered since it colonised the post glacial tundra 10,000 years ago in a Britain where humans were of no significance. It is indeed a message from ‘beyond’.












Giving It Hard

 Elen and I recently visited Iona, a small island off the coast of the Isle of Mull in northwest Scotland, which is chiefly known as the place where, in 563AD, Saint Columba established Christianity in Britain. The subsequent monastery and religious community are still thriving and consequently a remarkable number of people visit this out of the way place.

Once we had looked round the abbey we decided to escape the crowds and walk to the beach on the other side of the island. As we were walking through the village a breathless Liverpudlian accosted us, “You’se birdin’?” he demanded (our binoculars were the give-away) and without waiting for an answer went on “ See that bungalow with the Audi and the fella mowing his lawn? Well there’s a corncrake in his garden and it’s giving it hard” – this accompanied by duck quacking hand gestures. Grateful for the tip we hurried the 200 yards and stood, with two of other birders, peering over the wire fence. Sure enough after a couple of minutes a dumpy brown bird emerged from a patch of wild iris and started ‘giving it hard’, its throat throbbing with the effort of producing the extraordinary rasping call for which corncrakes are renowned. It sounded for all the world like somebody winding up a clockwork toy, over and over again. After a minute or two his ‘Missus’ slipped out of the irises and stood beside him. Hearing a corncrake is difficult because they call mainly at night, seeing one is nigh on impossible because they stay concealed in tall vegetation; yet here they were in plain view in Iona’s version of a suburban garden with a parked Audi and the ‘fella’ still mowing his lawn.

Corncrakes, which are related to moorhens and coots, used to be widespread in British hay meadows, until agricultural intensification drove them to our absolute western fringes. So now, excepting a reintroduction scheme in Cambridgeshire, they are confined to just a few places on the Scottish islands. Here concerted efforts by local people and conservationists have prevented their likely extinction in Britain by devising corncrake friendly farming. Central to this is ensuring there is sufficient long vegetation between April and September for nesting and shelter, and mowing hay from the centre of the field outwards so that the flightless young can escape the mowing machine. Whether these efforts will prove enough remains to be seen as these secretive birds, which are normally so reluctant to fly, migrate all the way to sub-Saharan Africa for our winter where they face many other hazards in a fast changing world. Meanwhile the population of 20-30 pairs on Iona seem to be doing fine – even in the suburbs.



Dead from the Neck Down



It is 8.30 on a peerless sunny morning in late April, the sort of morning I had waiting for all through a long cold winter here in North Wales. I am sitting in a conifer plantation that looks like a Bridget Riley painting in brown (an unlikely thought). The trees are forty foot tall Western Hemlocks, which stretch away in a series of vertical stripes in subtly differing shades of brown. Nightmarishly this place is the same wherever you view it from. The sun is still low so some lateral light is penetrating the gloom around the edges. I don’t suppose this plantation has been touched since it was planted fifty years ago, so now the trees are thinning themselves. Some have rotted where they stand; others dropped criss-cross on the floor like pick-up-sticks. The ground, a cushion of conifer needles, is also brown, except for a scatter of green foliage torn off by the wind. Absolutely nothing grows here. On an overcast day (and we get a few of those) it would be difficult to see to write these notes.

Over the sound of the river at the bottom of the slope I can hear a chaffinch, mistle thrush and robin singing. I catch a snatch of Wren song by the river, probably outside the plantation. Overhead a small flock of siskins twitter and buzz through the canopy. There are probably other birds: jay, song thrush, coal tit, goldcrest and so on but, apart from the siskins, they are the kind of bird you would find in any decent urban park. Also without exception they are in the sunlit canopy; so 80% of the plantation is silent and lifeless. I haven’t seen a single insect, although sunlight gleaming on the looping threads of spider webs indicates faint signs of invertebrate life.

After about an hour I can’t bear it any longer. Part of the reason I can’t bear it is because I know what was here before these trees were planted. On either side remains some glorious ffridd. This is steep, rocky grassland, wet and boggy in places, scattered with hawthorn and crab apple trees which runs down to the riverbank. It is brutally bisected by this plantation. I know this ffridd well: a vibrant place with carpets of bluebells, patches of heath spotted orchids and sundews, redstarts, cuckoos, tree pipits and buzzing with insect life in the summer. And it used also to be right here where I sit, the clues abound: dusty boulders poking through the forest floor, a ghostly section of dry-stone wall. These are a parody of the rocks and walls outside dressed in lichens and mosses, nest sites for wagtails and wheatears, and this winter an all white stoat slipping in and out of the crevices. By comparison this place is a graveyard.

To be fair I know that at the thicket stage, for 10 years or so, plantations can come alive in the tangle of young trees, brambles and rushes. In the replanted Sitka spruce behind my house we have gained whitethroats, grasshopper warblers, reed bunting and others over the last ten years, and our honeybees thrive on the sallow, gorse and abundant flowers that grow along along the forest access track. But in 5 years time the Sitkas will have outcompeted everything else, closing out the light and embalming the land for another 30 years or more. Then the heavy machinery will move in, clear fell the trees and leave the place looking like a battlefield, and so the cycle begins again. Unless we can come up with a radically different way of managing our conifer forests these sometimes vibrant but mostly moribund ecosystems are doomed to a perpetual ‘Groundhog Day’ existence of never maturing. It is common enough in Europe to see conifer forest management that includes routine thinning, selected felling and spontaneous regeneration, all of which contribute to the development of rich and mature forest ecosystems. I know there are exception in our forestss, some of them not far from here: big trees, mixtures with broadleaves, open rivers and streams etc. In places there are crossbills, nightjars, goshawks and even pine martins but sadly, where I am sitting, is the rule rather than the exception. We have 170,000 ha of conifers in Wales, most of it planted recently (in ecological terms) and mostly on native habitats, which, no matter how impoverished, offered a complexity of life that is infinitely richer than this deadzone.


This post was first published on Mark Avery’s Standing up for Nature blog site on 4th May 2018








What Does it Take?

 Conservationists constantly worry about how to ‘keep things going’ – be it a bird, butterfly, or some other organism teetering on the brink. It is a pretty sad state of affairs, but that’s the deal by now. It takes a lot of dedication by a few, in the face of indifference by the many, to stand against the flow of wildlife disappearing down the plughole. Last summer I came across a vivid example of what it takes to keep things going. Charlesjsharp – Own work from Sharp Photography

Not far from where I live is a scruffy looking, overgrown meadow in a nowhere-in-particular sort of place. The rushes and grasses are knee high and tussocky, birch saplings and sallow bushes threaten to overrun it. Although it doesn’t look much it is in fact carefully cared for. On a sunny day in June I went there with my friends Annie and Andrew to count marsh fritillaries, one of Europe’s fastest declining butterflies. Annie and Andrew have been committed to keeping marsh fritillaries going on this seemingly forgotten piece of land for years. We were careful to walk the same route for the same length of time as previous years, so comparisons could be made. As we waded through the long grass scattered with ragged robin and heath spotted orchids I discovered just how wet the meadow was: the water flooded over my boots and I soon had wet feet (my companions were wearing wellies!). The marsh fritillaries were surprisingly easy to see flying low over the vegetation and settling confidingly to bask in the sun. Seen in flight they were a dull coppery brown but up close a beautiful chequered pattern of cream and orange, with conspicuous yellow tips to their antennae. We counted forty-four butterflies, a good total by all accounts.

The essential, non-negotiable ingredient for marsh fritillaries in these wet meadows is devil’s-bit scabious, the exclusive food plant of their caterpillars. This place had masses of it, although in June it is just leaves, the delicate blue flowers would not appear for another couple of months. At this season the butterflies were mating and laying their eggs in batches on the underside of the devil’s-bit scabious leaves. On hatching the bristly black caterpillars spin a collective silken web for protection, within which they feed on the scabious leaves. Once they have consumed one plant they migrate en masse to another, spin a new web and repeat. We went back again in September (I was wearing wellies this time), to count the larval webs, which by then were bigger and more conspicuous as the caterpillars had grown. It was a bit like searching for soggy bits of Kleenex discarded in the long grass. We found about 70 webs, each with small black caterpillars curled up inside. Each one was marked with a cane, and afterwards Andrew used some neat IT skills to plot them precisely on a map. All of this counting and mapping gives us a fair idea of how marsh fritillaries are doing year on year.

The other essential part of keeping things going is managing the habitat. We have no real idea about the ‘where and how many’ of marsh fritillaries before humans began modifying the landscape. What we do know is that in this part of Britain they adapted well to damp, lightly grazed pasture land that contained devil’s-bit scabious. Sadly over the last 60 years or so the majority of such places have either been drained and agriculturally improved or heavily grazed by sheep. The latter is a big problem for marsh fritillaries as devil’s-bit scabious is highly palatable to sheep, and with even moderate grazing they will wipe it out, taking the butterfly with it. Some years ago, having found the marsh fritillaries here, Annie negotiated with the estate that owns the land and they, to their credit, agreed not to graze it but set it aside for the butterflies. Annie then persuaded a local stable to put 3-4 ponies on the meadow in the summer time to reduce the coarse vegetation that can crowd out the devil’s-bit scabious. Cattle, unlike sheep, do not prefer devil’s-bit scabious, and horses avoid eating it all together, which makes ponies the ideal grazers here. Despite this, getting a level of grazing that ensures the devil’s-bit thrives, yet sufficient numbers of butterfly eggs and caterpillars survive the trampling of the ponies, is a tricky business. What is more the colonisation of the grassland by sallows and birches seems to be unavoidable with this level of grazing, so in the winter Annie and Andrew spend time cutting these out. This is an on going commitment as the meadow would eventually become a young wood if left to its own devices. If any part of this carefully constructed regime were to fail the butterflies could be lost within a few years.

In Britain marsh fritillaries are now often confined (very unnaturally) to small islands of suitable habitat. Maintaining optimum conditions for a single species year after year on a small site is very difficult. Insect populations can fluctuate dramatically in response to weather, parasites and the condition of the vegetation. In an extended mosaic of more or less suitable habitat that would not matter much as they could move about as conditions changed. But these butterflies are now ‘caged in’ and entirely dependent on two unpaid enthusiasts and the estate that owns the land to keep them going. You might ask ‘why bother?’ – not many people would miss the marsh fritillary. I can only answer that for me it would mean one more spark going out in the firmament and another small step towards the darkness.

At the Gates of the Dead



The Buttington Oak


The news came through recently that one of Wales’ biggest oak trees had blown down, so we went to pay our respects. The Buttington Oak was enormous, measuring 36ft 2inches (11.03m) in girth, and was probably 8-900 years old. Plodding across the sticky alluvial clay of the Severn valley and feeling rather exposed in the unaccustomed flatness, we found the tree in a pasture just back from the riverbank. It was a colossal carcass, lying collapsed and crumpled like a shot elephant. The upturned butt was so big that the dog of a fellow pilgrim was able to walk about inside it. Despite being hollow through to the sky there was still a mass of living branches on its crown that, had it stood, would have been breaking into leaf next month. Sadly it seems that one more gale had been too much for this big-bellied ancient. I am told there has been a steady trickle of mourners to Buttington from around the country over the last couple of months; the craggy seniority and stubborn survival of very old trees seems to be an inspiration to many of us. They have a ‘presence’ that quietly puts human hubris in its place, giving rise instead to respect and even awe.

The Great Oak at the Gates of the Dead

Not far away from Buttington is Chirk Castle where the National Trust boasts of 650 veteran trees in the parklands that surround the castle, so feeling enthusiastic about old trees we decided to go and pay them a visit. Some of the biggest oaks at Chirk grow along the route of Offa’s Dyke, which bisects the estate. Although not old enough to have seen King Offa build his dyke between Wales and England (AD 750) they do seem to have been planted or retained as marker trees along its route. One of the most remarkable of these at Chirk is the ‘Great Oak at the Gates of the Dead’, a split and crippled veteran with a blackened and hollow heart which stands guard at the site of the Battle of Crogen. Here in 1165 a Welsh army defeated the English (which always goes down well around here) and many of the dead are said to be buried in the adjacent field. This Methuselah, although only a teenager at the time, saw it all – and a lot more since.

the sweet chestnut at Chirk

My favourite tree at Chirk was a 500-year-old sweet chestnut, which apparently is five trees fused together into one squat mass. Crouched behind the parkland wall it has hunkered down for generations, all contorted rot and shedding skin it seemed the epitome of extreme old age, yet youthful shoots were still growing from its ancient bulk. Perhaps it is good for a few more centuries yet.

Rhagium mordax – a longhorn beetle who’s larvae depend on decaying wood (photo Janet Graham)

Appart from being remarkable organisms in their own right, veteran trees are important ecologically. They are often, in effect, complete ecosystems, with many invertebrates and lower plants completing some, or even all, of their lifecycle within a single tree. Remarkably 1700 species of invertebrates found in Britain depend at least in part on decaying wood, making this an important yet often overlooked habitat. These saproxylic creatures (fauna of decaying wood) are principally beetles and flies, which live and feed on the deep rot, accumulated debris and associated fungi (not to mention each other) found in old and damaged trees.The long process of wood decay, which can range from bone dry to waterlogged, provides a succession of conditions suitable for different species of rot loving invertebrates.Many of these are rare relicts of the fauna found in the primeval forest that once covered Britain. The bark of mature trees growing in the open can also develop a rich assemblage of lichens over time; the available light and warmth suits them as does the increasingly alkaline bark of oak trees as they age. In the original Wildwood it is likely that a spectrum of young to old trees would always have been available fairly close by, including those that were old and decaying. Once they had grown beyond the sapling stage there wasn’t much, other than lightening strikes or the collapse of an adjacent tree, to threaten them so many would have progressed from stout middle age through to decaying elders.



Tree Lungwort lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria) growing on an old oak


Historically humans have always cropped trees for timber. In times past no sensible person would have left a tree to go rotten but rather cut it down in its prime, to be used for building anything from houses to warships; what was left over went for firewood. Consequently, old and decaying trees have become uncommon in our woodlands, which has all but eliminated an element of their original fauna. Concentrations of old trees in Britain are now usually found only in ancient open commons or the parks around great houses, where they were retained beyond their years for ornamental reasons. Even there they were usually cleared up when they fell apart or died. Ecologically old trees go on being useful even when dead as standing or fallen trunks and limbs are still inhabited by lichens and rot dwelling insects. So it was good to see that at Chirk the National Trust were not clearing away the debris but often leaving it piled up around a splintered trunk.

Another problem facing the inhabitants of ancient trees is the ‘age gap’. It is only in the last 25 years or so that we have begun to realise that there are almost no middle-aged trees within beetle flight of the veterans. The National Trust have now planted many new trees in the parkland at Chirk, but whether these will have developed enough rot to support the specialist insects before the veterans finally disintegrate and compost down, must be touch and go. Oaks and beech need to be 200 years old before the conditions that support these insects start to be formed. In these more conservation conscious times some woodland trees are being allowed to grow elderly, so perhaps the ‘old forest’ faunas in these parkland refuges will in time be able to migrate back to their original habitat – if they can survive the ‘age gap’.