Friday, 25 July 2014

Hot day, cool mountain

Our original plan had been to kayak the Dwyryd down to Borth y Gest but the tides were no good. Instead we went up Moelwyn Bach and as we looked down to Portmeirion it looked as if someone had pulled the plug.

The view on the lower slopes has changed a lot with the removal of the Phytophthora infected larch now almost complete. It’s good to see the occasional oak that for so many years has been hidden in amongst the conifers.

Everywhere is very dry but the mountain still has plenty of wet spots. At one stage we were walking along a shallow stream being patrolled by a Golden Ring, presumably looking for a mate. It latched onto my walking stick and was very reluctant to let go; I think I was being given the evil eye and told to get off his patch.

Golden Ring - 'Clear off!'
The beauty of going up is that the cooling breeze gets stronger and soon you’re above the bracken line and into the bilberries – there’s a bumper crop. Pop a hot, sun-warmed berry into your mouth and it explodes with flavour.

Now that Haydn is a geology student we are trying to be a bit more purposeful in our walks and took with us the brightly coloured geological map of Snowdonia. Our local mountain has so much variety which is evident from the many bands of colour on the map that need to be crossed to get to the summit; it’s also evident simply looking at the rocks themselves. Exotic sounding Breccia is my firm favourite.

Birds were keeping a low profile in the hot sun but butterflies were out in force, lots and lots of Small Heath. Also loads of little white butterflies (or moths?) – must take a closer look next time. Bog Asphodel was striking and so too the Sundew. Towards the top I noticed a compact plant that I now know is called Alpine Clubmoss. A perfect day.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Ugly House Stud Farm for Bees

Ten virgin queens in hair curlers
Dare I say there’s a buzz at Tŷ Hyll? I love this photo of a proud beekeeper with ten virgin queens in ‘hair curlers’ which protect the queens from attack by a rival; the first new queen to hatch in any colony will kill potential competitors as soon as they emerge.

All ten of these virgin queens have now been placed in the Ugly House woodland in separate apideas (mini hives) along with a cupful of fondant and some young worker bees. After a couple of days the virgin queen in each apidea will have been accepted by the workers and can be released from the hair curler.

The virgin queens will be sniffing out the pheromones of the resident, roving drones at Tŷ Hyll and all being well, mating will take place in the next week or so. Each mated queen can go on to produce over a million bees during her life without the need to mate again – amazing!

If you’ve not yet been to the Ugly House (Tŷ Hyll) it is two miles out of Betws y Coed on the way to Capel Curig with an olde worlde tearoom, beautiful wildlife garden with five acres of idyllic woodland and enthusiastic beekeepers. More details at

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Geology of Snowdonia

For logistical reasons (Sherpa buses) our Paul Gannon geology walk starting at Pen y Pass was switched to the foothills of Snowdon, just above Llanberis. I’d done this walk with Paul a couple of years ago and had only half understood what was said so was hoping to get the other half of the story.

Snowdonia Society geology walk
The weather was fine but hardly tropical as I tried to come to terms with the explanation of tectonic plates and that the spot we were standing on had been beneath the equator about 600 million years ago.

If I’ve got it right our rocks were created by underwater volcanoes, when our continental plate collided with an oceanic plate, but the mountains followed much later when our continent collided with another continent. An oceanic plate is denser than a continental, so when they collide the denser one goes beneath and this is called subduction. But when two continents collide they buckle, fold and squeeze the rocks into the mountains.

Our mountains emerged about 400 million years ago and were about the height of the Alps, but have been shrinking ever since.  The Alps are much younger, a mere 30 million years, and are still growing, but eventually erosion and weathering will bring them down to size. For the next few thousand years Snowdonia will stand still; rising spring-like since the melting of the glaciers but eroding by a similar amount. 

Our rocks are mainly from the Cambrian era, about 450 million years ago, but lying in the footpath was a gneiss rock from a much earlier era - how did that get there? Either by glacier from Anglesey or imported rock for footpath maintenance. 

Paul explained the three types of rock, volcanic (or igneous), sedimentary and metamorphic, but we would be concentrating on sedimentary. The three types of sedimentary rock are called mudstone, siltstone and sandstone with the names referring not to the chemical composition but the particle size with sand being the largest and mud the smallest.

From here we were shown an example of graded bedding, layers of sediment with the larger particles sinking towards the bottom of each layer, and could see the angle at which the rocks had been buckled and bent.

Paul explains tension gashes
Looking down steeply onto Nant Peris we were next to a fantastic example of tension gashes. These sandstone rocks had been horizontal in the sedimentary phase but during the mountain building phase had been put under huge amounts of tension and bent upwards. Cold rocks would be ‘brittle’ and shatter but hot rocks, 10 to 15 kilometres beneath the surface, would be more malleable or ‘plastic’.  We were presumably looking at sandstone coming from the crossroads of that zone with brittle deformations at one end and plastic deformations at the other.

Along the way I began to feel more comfortable with the geology beneath my feet, it started to make sense and I thought yes, you’ve almost cracked this subject. From ignorance to a little bit of knowledge with tentative understanding and then despair as I realised the enormity of how much more there is to learn. Maybe it will all become clearer if I buy the revised 2nd edition of Paul’s book The Rock Trails of Snowdonia?  Maybe Paul could take me on this walk for a 3rd time?

Thanks very much to Paul for donating his time and to the Snowdonia Society for organising this geology walk. Write ups of previous geology walks are here and here.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Redstart Potty Practice

For a couple of weeks I enjoyed watching a family of redstarts nesting in a gap above the front door, conveniently opposite a bedroom window from which to film. Looking back at the footage I was surprised to see the ‘potty practice’. Daddy redstart landed in the nest, delivered food then waited a while until one of the chicks turned round, raised its bum into the air and pooped out a white sack. Amazing!

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Wild honeybees nesting in a tree

What species?
Today was my first time to see bees nesting in a tree; about 9 feet up an old ash in a crack (see YouTube below). This is the sort of no nonsense, no hive, no honey sort of bee-keeping that appeals to me.  

On my journey round a beautiful garden in north Wales the birds were singing and the moths and butterflies flitting everywhere. That is apart from one couple which were locked in a prolonged act of passion. I’ve looked on the identification sites but still none the wiser. Can anyone help? 

Monday, 23 June 2014

Making a coracle

‘Happy Birthday’ and my present was a coracle making course at the Woodland Skills Centre in Bodfari, near Denbigh. Our tutor was James Mitchell and the coracle design was the Boyne, as in the Irish river. Apparently the Welsh design, with cleft ash, is a bit tricky for beginners, hence the Boyne, based on hazel rods or any old withy.

James, making things look easy
We selected our rods from several sheaves and tidied up their stems, removing knots and small branches. Next we made a cross, measuring 5 by 4 feet, and inserted ribs and runners; ribs along the sides and runners at either end. 8 rods or poles went down the length of one side and another 8 along the other side with 6 poles at each end. A bar was used to sink a hole 8 inches deep, into which each rod was secured.

Next came the weaving of pairs of twisted rods threading through the 28 rods planted into the ground and after two circuits of twisted pairs, then the seat was prepared. An adze was used to finish the surface of the seat giving a rustic look as distinct from the teeth of a chainsaw. Nicks were sawn and chopped at either end to fit the seat snugly between the middle 2 rods at either side resting on the twisted rods. Then a further 2 pairs of twisted rods secured the seat and poles into a rigid position. 
Bending those rods

Next came the tricky bit of bending the rods to meet their counterparts at the other side or end. The motion was a pull and a push with the occasional twist and bending over the knee. There were many ominous cracks and sometimes the rods would snap and need to be replaced. Sometimes they would split, which James referred to as ‘de-laminating’, with 1 or 2 years of outer growth separating from the rod. We were advised to stick to narrow rods of less than an inch thick; the thicker they were, the harder it was to bend them. Shaving some layers on the inner side of the proposed bend helped to make the bending process a bit easier.

At the start of day two we finished off the bending and trimmed the narrow ends of rods to squeeze through the weave. It looked very ungainly and impossible for the runners to neatly lash into the ribs, but they did. James demonstrated the ‘square truss’, an elaborate way of lashing a rib to a runner, and then I had another 47 to do. Getting a slip knot effect was an efficient way to leave both hands free and, with one and sometimes two feet on the runners, the runners were forced down to touch the ribs and secured with sisal, a length of about 2 metres per knot.
Upside down basket or
coracle growing out of the ground
Tying seemed to go on forever and then it was time to insert the Spanish windlass, a double thickness of sisal with a rod twisted in the middle, just to keep the tension between the sides beneath the seat.

After this we needed to lever the coracle from out of the clutches of the 28 rods sunk 8” into the sandy ground. Slowly the coracle rose out of the ground, like an awaking armadillo, and then the weave was tamped down. Unnecessary and sticky-out bits were pruned out including the bottoms of the rods. Any sharp notches or blemishes were smoothed and then the coracle was set on top of a length of canvas.

Norman sewing on the canvas
We were instructed in how to sew with an upholstery C shaped needle; the sort used by Victorian surgeons. A series of 1 foot chunks were sewn at the top, then bottom then both sides, the four corners and then we filled in all the gaps; all the while pulling the canvas tight. Then the coracle was lifted onto a table, upside down, ready for bitumen. The first coat was thinned and went on easily; I say this because I was at home enjoying a beer and some supper while James our diligent tutor was painting into the solstice dusk.

Paul applying bitumen
On the start of day 3 we turned the coracles right side up and painted the rim. Then we turned them upside down once more on top of tables and applied a thick dollop of bitumen. You think you’re doing a thorough job until you look from beneath and see all the ‘stars’ which will leak water. For this stage you needed to team up with a fellow student; the ‘star gazer’ would lie on his or her back beneath the coracle pressing a stick at any stars or constellations whilst an extra dollop was applied to block the light. The freshly painted hulls were left gleaming in the sun whilst we went into the shed to make our paddles.

A stout hazel rod with a bend was inserted into a shaving horse and with a draw knife I made a smooth and level end onto which a paddle-shaped piece of marine ply could be affixed.  A crude handle was affixed to the top end and linseed oil applied to the paddle blade. 
Coco sculling 

After lunch we headed off to a lake and James instructed us in the 3 essential skills; getting in, getting out and sculling. Sculling was nothing like those narrow rowing boats with sliding seats and a pair of oars, it was more like sticking a food mixer into the water in front of you and wiggling it around in a figure of eight. It took a while to get going but once moving, the sculling motion propelled you along quite smoothly. A single stroke with the paddle down the side had the effect of setting off a spinning wheel. 

This course was my 60th birthday present and I don’t think I will ever forget it. Thank you Sue and thank you James for your patience.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Natur Cymru 51st edition

'Birds of Wentwood Forest' by Paul Robbins.
Paul is based in south Wales and his website is
Brecon Beacons – a volume of natural riches. Jonathan Mullard. The creation of the latest volume in the New Naturalist series

Wentwood – an ancient forest back from the brink. Barry Embling. From commercial plantation to broadleaved woodland

A riddle in the cliffs. Ivor & Jane Rees. Archaeological evidence for the gathering of 'sea manure'

Afordir gwyrdd – rhy wyrdd?. Iwan Edgar. Newidiadau tirwedd y mae polisi amaethyddol wedi annog ffermwyr i'w cyflawni

Gobies – a guide. Paul Kay & Lin Baldock. A closer look at the goby species around the Welsh coast

Waters from the deep – Taff's Well thermal spring. Gareth Farr. New interest in an old hydrological curiosity

Shakespeare's Meadow. Ursula Bowen. Enhancing Radnorshire's Willow Globe Theatre

Turning tides and turbulence.Vicky Moller. The case for renewable energy from the seas around Wales

Discoveries in Science. Ingrid Jüttner. New diatom species described from Wales

Green bookshelf. John Lloyd, David Saunders, James Robertson Geoff Gibbs

Life lines. Stewart Campbell & Margaret Wood. GeoMôn launches geoboards and rock trail

Recording nature. Lizzie Wilberforce. Pembrokeshire's Seabird Islands: conference report

Nature at large. Ivy Denham. Habitat management – coastal grassland

Marine matters. Ivor Rees. Expanding responsibilities at sea 

From the garden. Colin Miles. Weekly surveys at the National Botanic Garden for Wales 

Mammals at large. Lizzie Croose, Lorna Baggett. Recording polecats and mink