Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Wild Goats of Maentwrog

Twin kids were born into our local gang of goats in February. After years of decline, from six adults down to three, we were beginning to worry about their future; kids were either not being born or not surviving. But this year’s twins were looking fit and strong on the drive this morning. Only one of them chose to pose in this family photo; kid to the front, then Mum and Auntie behind with Billy in top left hand corner. 

Was he the Dad? The strong black and white markings suggest it might have been a Billy from above the railway line but we’ll never know. He was definitely looking frisky today as he flirted with Auntie. 

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Tai Chi with a blade

Snath and peen? Not an anagram but two new words for me. Snath is the wooden handle of a scythe onto the end of which is fixed the razor sharp blade of a scythe, in our case an Austrian scythe. Keeping it sharp is of the essence; rubbing a wetstone repeatedly over the top of the blade, then removing the burr on the underside, every two to three minutes.

But after a day of scything, sharpening alone will not be enough, and it will be time to peen your blade. This is a cold forging of the steel; using a hammer to strike onto a peening rig, the final 4 mm of the blade is beaten outwards to give a thin profile which is then ready for sharpening.

Why does it need to be a wetstone? In sharpening, the stone is taking off dirt and metal which would gunge up the stone unless it is kept and washed in a pouch of water.

Blades peened and sharpened we were inducted into the technique of scything on Cae Poeth, one of the National Trust’s wildflower meadows at Bodnant Gardens. Keep the wind to your back, work downhill and cut at a right angle to the lie of the sward; it’s not always possible to manage all three! The blade should be slid across the ground as it needs to be as close as possible to the base of the grasses if it is going to cut as opposed to stroke. Head down, stay focused and get into the zone sometimes described as Tai Chi with a blade.

Our instructor, Siôn Jinkinson, explained that in a day it should be possible to scythe an acre of meadow. This is somewhat less than the boast in H E Bates’ short story, The Mower, in which Ponto claimed:

'Me and my old dad used to mow twenty- acre fields afore dark - and start with the dew on. Twenty- acre fields. You don't know what mowin' is.' He went on to say .... 'My old man used to drink twenty pints a day. God's truth. Twenty pints a day. He was a bloody champion. You can't mow without beer.’

I enjoyed my scything workshop, so peaceful compared to strimming, with no pollution and less chance of wounding wildlife. As for the relative costs the scythe wins hands down – a good scythe, complete with accompanying tools to sharpen and peen, can cost about £135, will last a lifetime and needs no fuel other than what you eat. Equipment can be ordered from The Scythe Shop and Siôn Jinkinson is the distributor for north Wales.

Thanks Siôn and thanks National Trust. A great day.


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Garden wildlife hotspot

Over the summer I’ve been cultivating parts of the veg patch where soil has not seen the light of day since probably WWII. Today I tackled a stony section leading up to the wall and next to one of several compost heaps. Molly, our inquisitive collie, was almost by my side all day, transfixed by something inside the dry stone walls; the sun was strong and she was panting but even when I went to the house and fetched her a bowl of water, she would not pause her gaze for fear she’d miss the moment.

I was glad she was preoccupied when the earth before me started to move; not an earthquake but a mole whose snout broke surface and quickly retreated. I watched its progress as it tunnelled the few feet to the compost heap. A few minutes later it returned going the other way and the dry crumbly soil above it subsided, briefly revealing the black moleskin boiler suit. I nipped up to the house to get a camera ready for any next appearance.

But alas the mole did not return and I worked my way up the garden removing chunks of a rotten tree stump. As I pulled away at a large bit of root a male slow worm fell onto the bare soil; just as well I had the camera – beautiful.


After lunch, Molly still staring into the wall, I was removing some weeds beside the old tree stump and noticed a lizard in the wall. The camera was recharging up at the house but my mobile phone recorded the moment. And shortly after that, there was another lizard, possibly called Swampy, which stared me down, intent on preserving its homelands.


Taking note of the protest I have decided that this little patch of garden does not need to be cultivated; it obviously has a more noble purpose than food or flower production.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Job vacancy

If you're reading this blog site you're probably interested in the wildlife of Wales and think that Natur Cymru is doing a good job of promoting it and educating people about it - well we hope that's true!

How would you like to be more involved in what we do? We are looking for someone to help us promote the magazine in South Wales - not only will you get the chance to be out and about meeting lots of interesting people, we'll even pay you to do so! It's a part-time post, so it could suit a student, a retired person or anyone working from home who has time to spare. See our website for full details: http://www.naturcymru.org.uk/vacancies.aspx


Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Formal gardens with a wildflower feast

Since I was born 60 years ago 99% of species rich grassland in Wales has disappeared; victim of modern farming and gardening practice. But great things are happening at a dozen National Trust properties to champion these grasslands, to restore hay meadows brimming with wild flowers and to inspire people to have a go with their own pockets of land.  The result is beautiful and creates a paradise for bees, butterflies and other insects.

To raise awareness of this project I was asked to make some YouTube films at three of the properties; Powis Castle, Erddig and Bodnant. It was a privilege to meet the gardeners, to see and hear how they manage their grasslands.

Steep terraces rise up from the Great Lawn to the red Powis Castle on the skyline. Giant topiaries and manicured lawns at the top, then lush herbaceous borders and, on the lowest slopes, trees and shrubs in a sea of tall grass packed full of ox-eye daisies. The wild, natural flora complements the formality and landscaping. Dave Swanton explains:


I’d not been to Erddig before, really impressive but a different look and feel to Powis. Over 2,000 orchid spikes were in bloom on the canal banks near the great house  – up until the 1980s these would have been mown down the moment they lifted their heads out of the ground. Glyn Smith explains:


At Bodnant we did not go to the usual places but started in Old Park Meadow which was only recently opened to the public. Here, as at the other properties, I was introduced to the wonders of yellow rattle, a magic ingredient which reduces the vigour of the grass, creating pockets for wild flowers to colonise. Bill Warrell explains:


Suitably inspired I have bought a 500g bag of yellow rattle seed to sow in different parts of my lawns and grass banks this autumn. It needs to be done at this time of year so that the seeds are exposed to winter chills, a prerequisite for germinating in the spring. Would putting them in the deep freeze achieve the same purpose? Thinking even further ahead I have booked myself onto the scything workshop which is being run at Bodnant on 19th August – no point growing a hay meadow if the beauty and tranquillity is then chewed up by a noisy strimmer!

Many thanks to the National Trust and to Natural Resources Wales for making this happen.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Is it a hornet or is it a hoverfly?

Kate and I were down at the Royal Welsh Show last month, helping on the Wildlife Trust's stand. As usual we found it very enjoyable (if quite tiring!), engaging with lots of farmers and other wildlife enthusiasts. We stayed with Keith and Alison Noble in Brecon, Keith is a trustee of Brecknock WT.

Before we left for home in North Wales, they kindly took us to Llangorse Lake on a lovely sunny morning. The rest of this blog concerns a hornet and a hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) which looks like a hornet! Now I’ll let Keith tell the story.

"When we were leaving Llangorse we saw what I thought might be Volucella zonaria on a bramble bush but it proved to be a Hornet. As we came through the gate at home what looked like zonaria shot off the Escallonia. Later it reappeared and I got a photo. So here is the largest British hoverfly, a Hornet mimic whose grubs live as scavengers in wasp and Hornet nests. I first saw this locally at Penlan sports field on 22nd July two years ago. This year it appeared in my garden on Buddleia on 2nd and 5th July, and then on Escallonia iveyi on 23rd, 29th and today 31st July when I took this photo. This is a striking and distinctive insect which has been spreading north and west. I cannot believe it has specially chosen my garden – please could other people look out for it. Records should be sent to your Local Records Centre, which you will find on www.lrcwales.org.uk

Volucella zonaria

Monday, 28 July 2014

Why are some Elephant Hawkmoth larvae green and others black?

Black Elephant Hawkmoth with trunk extended
Gardening can be hot, sweaty and boringly repetitive, especially when weeding, but every now and then something magical crops up.

Today’s discovery was an unusual caterpillar or larva which I’d never seen before. But I was surprised when someone replied to my Tweet that it was the larva of an elephant hawkmoth – I’d seen one of those before and it was bright green.

How come the larvae of the elephant hawkmoth can be such different colours? Both share the huge ‘eyes’ and trunk like proboscis.
Green Elephant Hawkmoth with scary big eyes!