Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Return of the Magnificent Seven

When we first moved into our house in Snowdonia there was a gang of seven wild goats to welcome us; six adults and one kid. For the first few years the population was constant. Occasionally we’d lose one to old age, or a young male would go off in search of his own territory, but new ones would be born.

I'm the proud Dad!
We called them the Below the Railway Gang to differentiate between the ARGs, the Above the Railway Gang, which have a very distinctive colouring with a jet black head and shoulders and a white rear. I’m not sure how many ARGs we’ve got as they are much higher up the mountain but several years ago we counted twenty; that was the year they had four kids.

In recent years our gang of seven was depleted with successive years of no kids; was our impressive looking billy not up to the job? Inevitably the older ones would die of old age including the top billy. Months after he disappeared we found his skull and horns sticking through the snow, thirteen growth rings made him a teenager.

It was not until I discovered this skull that I understood goat horns. I knew they kept on growing each year, as opposed to being shed like a deer, but I hadn’t realised that they were connected to the skull with such a long piece of bone. The horn itself is a sheath, made of the same stuff as our fingernails, that slots over the bone. For a goat to lose a horn, which I’ve seen after the autumn rutting, it must be a serious and painful business.
Mum to four kids in thirteen months feeding at
bottom of cliff

Thirteen  months ago we were down to one elderly male and two middle aged females when out popped twin kids. We were delighted with the new arrivals and watched as they grew into sturdy youngsters. Curiously their colouring was more in keeping with the black and white ARGs than the mottled grey and white of our billy – had one of their billies crossed the line?

Over the last couple of months I have been watching the behaviour of our local gang and often found them taking afternoon siestas in the cosy bracken. Then one day I found just four of them, the billy, the twins and their auntie – where was mum? Sure enough a couple of weeks later, our good friend Sandra, a keen goat watcher who was looking after the place while we were away, saw the next generation, another pair of beautiful black and white twins.

One of the new twins - they don't stay still
long enough for a family pose.
For the time being they are resident on and around a steep sided cliff towards the bottom of our drive. She’s an attentive mother, quickly ushering the kids out of site whenever cars or people pass by. Yesterday I noticed the rest of the family had come down to the cliff and had just crossed the fence on their way back into the nature reserve. For the next week or so this fence is too much of an obstacle for the new kids but soon they’ll be tearing about with the rest of the family. I hope there is no jealousy on the part of last year’s twins.

So there we have it, the return of the magnificent seven – a lucky number and a modest one, which should not cause any conservation concern to the nature reserve. Back in the 1980s there were said to have been about sixty wild goats, that some were caught and transported to Scotland whilst others were shot. No need for drastic actions like that at the moment. Seven goats should be about right to keep down the ivy and brambles to make good space for the lichens and bryophytes.
One of last year's twins aged about 13 months.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Wales in Cape Verde

With a blog named Natur Cymru there’s a presumption that the subject will have something to do with Wales other than a Welshman such as me happening to visit. Well, São Vicente, or St Vincent, one of the Cape Verde islands, has a tenuous coal connection, enough to warrant a mention.

Mindelo - capital of Saint Vincent 
All of the islands are volcanic in origin and São Vicente has a huge natural harbour formed when the seaward wall of a volcanic crater collapsed into the sea. This, combined with its position as a natural stepping stone across the Atlantic, made it an ideal coal-bunkering station in the heyday of steamships.

At any one time there were 34,000 tonnes of coal from the Rhondda, shipped via Cardiff, ready to refuel coal-hungry ships on their way to or from Europe to South America or Cape Town. At its peak this was the 4th major coal-bunkering station in the world, after Port Said, Singapore and Malta.

The many expats left behind a cricket team, a golf club and several words such as ‘ovatime’ which have crept into creole, the unofficial but spoken language. The official language remains Portuguese, as this was their colony for 500 years or so until 1975.

White sand from the Sahara
A popular place for the British expats to live was Mato Inglese on the slopes of Monte Verde, the ironically named Green Mountain, which it is anything but. The island is desperately short of water and these days Mato Inglese is more or less deserted as its water supply has dried up. The island has a few boreholes yielding water but apart from that the 80,000 residents are dependent upon a desalination plant and supplies from the neighbouring island of Santo Antão. 

In recent years there has been a construction boom fuelled by tourism developments and by emigrés returning to their homeland – emigrés are said to account for 20% of GDP. A sad consequence of the construction boom is the illegal taking of sand from the beaches compromising the breeding efforts of several species of turtle including leatherbacks and loggerheads. Most of the sand is volcanic black but the windward side of the island also has dunes of white sand blown in from the Sahara.

The reason for so many emigrés is the sporadic rain, leading to crop failure, many deaths and tens of thousands of Cape Verdeans escaping to survive; the current population of the 9 islands is half a million. When it’s a matter of killing to eat and survive it’s no surprise that the local wildlife is an obvious target and one of the easiest targets was the baby Cape Verde Shearwater, on the neighbouring uninhabited island of Raso, with each chick yielding an ounce of flesh. According to the 2014 edition of Bradt’s travel guide this starvation time necessity became part of a modern day annual ritual to celebrate the end of famine, with thousands of chicks being slaughtered each October. Fortunately this practice has been outlawed and suitably policed since the last cull in 2008. There is an exceedingly gruesome YouTube film of the 2008 cull which was used as part of the pressure to encourage the government into action.

The islands are 300 to 500 miles to the west of Senegal in the middle of a vast expanse of prime fishing territory and a target for the world’s fishing fleet. The Chinese are said to be there, removing the fins of sharks, but I saw no evidence of this. However, my local guide said that of the 80 corner shops in Mindelo, the capital of São Vicente, 78 were owned by Chinese whom you never see. Maybe because they’re always out fishing? 

For several years the EU has had an agreement to fish these waters and is currently paying Cape Verde €500,000 a year for the rights to catch up to a certain quota; but policing must be impractical over such an expanse with just two(?) patrol boats to cover it. While I was there I saw a ship carrying the Spanish flag offload at least two containers of frozen tuna and marlin.

Second hand information says the local fishermen are suffering from the arrival of factory scale fishing with fish prices rising due to less volume. The story also goes that the presence of the sharks frightens smaller fish to stay closer to the islands for protection – but with their removal, the fish are now much further out to sea, beyond the easy reach of the locals’ small boats.

I can’t verify any of this from what I saw but the sight of fish being landed, prepared on the beach and sold in the market was a colourful spectacle.

On a drive round the island I saw a group of fishermen struggling to haul their boat up onto the sand so I gave a hand. Our taxi driver felt honour bound to help as well and after about ten minutes the job was done. Getting me to pull or push at the same time as the rest was difficult – there was no ‘1-2-3 heave’ but more of a ‘grunt-grunt-grunt’.

When the boat was safe one of the fishermen, with dreadlocks, came across and shook my hand African style. He said thank you and for a moment I thought he was going to give me a fish, but instead he asked for 5 Euros. I am sure he had an opinion about the presence of foreign fishing boats.  

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

LIFE publications - Freshwater Fish and more

Natur Cymru has frequently featured the LIFE project in its pages, and you can read more in the pages of its own LIFE Nature Focus publications.

The latest takes a close look at the work LIFE projects have done to protect threatened freshwater fish species and improve their habitats. The 64-page brochure, LIFE AND FRESHWATER FISH, highlights the status of key species and the threats they face, as well as providing an overview of LIFE's efforts to improve their conservation status, help in the management of the Natura 2000 network, and meet the targets set by the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020.

Since 1992, more than 135 LIFE projects have directly targeted over 50 threatened freshwater fish species listed in the annexes of the EU Habitats Directive or in the IUCN European Red List. Hundreds more projects have indirectly benefitted fish populations through restoration of river, lake and other habitats vital to the lifecycle of freshwater and migratory fish populations.

The publication features a plethora of best practice examples from such LIFE projects across the EU, including in-depth profiles of projects in Denmark, Estonia, France, Italy and Spain. In addition to chapters on habitat restoration, reintroduction and restocking work, actions to overcome river barriers and stakeholder engagement and awareness-raising measures, LIFE AND FRESHWATER FISH concludes with a set of lessons from LIFE for all those involved in fish species conservation.

Other publications are also available, why not check them out on the publications link here


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Carmarthenshire Meadows Project

Do you want to manage your land to encourage wildlife?

Are you unsure how to do it?

Do you lack the livestock or equipment to help you?

Ivy Denham is a regular contributor to Natur Cymru, writing about the practicalities of habitat restoration, and has news of a the launch of a new Carmarthenshire Meadows Project.

Where:  The National Botanic Garden of Wales, Llanarthne, SA32 8HN
When: Saturday 28th March from 11am to 1pm.

Entry to the meeting is free if you give your contact details beforehand to Carmarthenshire’s Biodiversity Officer Isabel Macho at or ring 01558 825390

The project aims to inspire the creation of a county-wide community that supports each other to improve the diversity of plants, fungi and animals on meadows, large or small, across Carmarthenshire.

This has been inspired by the highly successful Monmouthshire Meadows Group, a collection of 80 field owners, who over the past 10 years have greatly improved the quality of over 500 acres of Monmouthshire grassland. They do this by sharing knowledge, farm equipment and livestock – have a look at their  website

One of the delights of Carmarthenshire is its rolling landscape of beautiful meadows. But look closely and you’ll struggle to find a field with a rich diversity of wildflowers. Like much of the UK where 98% of flower-rich meadows have been lost in the past century, Carmarthenshire’s farmers have had to intensify their farming methods to make a living, and consequently, our ‘traditional’ wildflower-rich meadows have been reduced to isolated islands amongst a sea of green grass dominated fields.

The Botanic Garden manages Waun Las National Nature Reserve on which a few meadows have been restored to much of their former splendour. Here, you can now find fields full of orchids, caraway, bees, butterflies and colourful fungi, the result of careful grazing and strategically timed hay cutting.

So it’s an appropriate place to come and find out what you might be able to do with your field. You won’t hear about any new funding at this meeting – there isn’t any! But you might be inspired to work with others across the county to help restore the floral and faunal splendour of your own patch of Welsh countryside.

There’ll be short talks about meadows and a Carmarthenshire perspective, a chance to ask questions and make suggestions plus an invitation to have a go at using a scythe and to meet Waun Las’ farmer and his Welsh black cattle.

We look forward to meeting you.

Members of the Carmarthenshire Biodiversity Partnership

Natur Cymru Spring 2015 - Issue 54

Publication date: 17th March 2015
Cover price £4.50, or quarterly by subscription £18 pa (individual) or £32 (group/organisation)

Dragonflies in Wales – from the records ● Brian Walker & Claire Install. Findings from the new Dragonfly Atlas.

Recording the water-bird splendour of the Dee Estuary • Neil Friswell & Colin Wells. Thirty years of the Wetland Bird Survey on the Dee Estuary.

Y Tywyddiadur – sychder eithriadol 1887 yng Nghymru a thu hwnt • Duncan Brown & Twm Elias. Cofnodi tywydd yng Nghymru (rhan 3).

Common terns at Shotton – a Welsh success story • Peter Coffey. Wales’ common tern breeding colony.

Teifi Marshes nature reserve – from water shrew to water buffalo • Nathan Walton. The wildlife of a much loved wetland reserve.

The Argent and Sable moth and its association with bog myrtle in Wales • Andrew Graham. Revealing an intimate association between an insect and its foodplant.

Tŷ Newydd – an environment to write about • Robert Minhinnink. The National Writers’ Centre of Wales and its sense of place.

60 Years Ago – the story of a National Nature Reserve • Peter Walters Davies & James Robertson.
The struggle to save Cors Fochno from agricultural reclamation.

Green Bookshelf ● Kathryn Birch, Jim Latham

Discoveries in Science ● Kath Slade. 3D slide collection at Amgueddfa Cymru/Nat. Museum Wales

Nature at large ● Ceri Morris. A Pygmy sperm whale is stranded in Caernarfon Bay

From the garden ● Bruce Langridge. I name this field… Cae Tegeirianau

Tribute to Ziggy Otto • Charlotte Gjerlov. Natur Cymru author and inspirational conservation biologist

Islands round-up • Geoff Gibbs. News from Skomer and Skokholm

Life lines ● Anthony Barker. Offshore early warning network

In my front garden ● John Crellin. Life on the street

Buglife ● Craig Macadam. Riverflies and their importance to wetland ecosystems

Woods and forests ● Christopher Matts. Can Ancient Woodland benefit farmers?

Monday, 23 February 2015

Conquest of the Skies - David Attenborough

The power of flight is one of the greatest miracles of Nature. Over one hundred billion creatures soar through the air today – from nectar-drinking hummingbirds to armoured airborne beetles, from bats hunting in the black of night to bizarre winged lizards.

In Conquest of the Skies, David Attenborough travels back in time to unravel the astonishing 300-million-year story of how these animals first appeared and explores the huge variety of aeronauts that fill our skies today. Using the latest scientific analysis, he can now reveal the hidden mechanics behind their gravity-defying skills.

The 208 minute DVD or 3D version will be released on 9th March 2015 and can be ordered through Amazon. Just click here.

Seeing is believing .... take a look at this amazing preview:

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Glory be to the National Trust; the more I know it, the more I love it

Mighty castles and stately homes present just one side of the National Trust in Wales but there is so much more that often goes unreported. The vast tracts of land and farms, in the uplands and along the coast, don’t just look after themselves; they need to be managed to bring out their best. They are managed for the preservation of rare plants or creatures, for sheer beauty of the landscape or to provide access so that people can get out and experience it first hand. 

Glory be to the National Trust and also to Natural Resources Wales for their support in making this happen. 

In the past year I have been lucky to see this other side through the lens of a camera and to re-live the moments as I edited the footage into films.

Tom Jones
My first assignment was at Penarfynydd Farm where I met Tom Jones the farmer. Penarfynydd is a National Trust tenanted farm 3 miles west of Aberdaron near the village of Rhiw on the Llŷn Peninsula. Twenty years ago the heathland was in poor shape with intensive sheep grazing but today it is looking good with a mixed regime which includes cattle, ponies and a specialist breed of sheep. This is a success story in which both the farm’s economy and a broad range of scarce wildlife have benefitted through multiple partners including Natural Resources Wales, working as an effective team. Penarfynydd is living proof that farming and nature conservation does not need to be a compromise. This is what Tom had to say about it:

My next assignment was to do with species rich grasslands. 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.

Dave Swanton
To raise awareness of this project, which is supported by Natural Resources Wales, I was asked to make 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:

We managed to attract the attention of Country Life and had a small news item about Powis Castle and its grasslands published in a summer edition of the magazine.

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 bought a 500g bag of yellow rattle seed and sowed it in different parts of my lawns and grass banks last autumn. It needs to be done at that 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?

Orchids at Erddig
If my lawn does indeed take off into a hay meadow it’ll need mowing in August so I joined in a scything workshop that was organised at Bodnant and learnt about snath and peen. A 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.

In summer 2015 I will publish an article about the Bodnant hay meadows in The Countryman magazine. You can see the art of scything at our workshop in this short film, Tai Chi with a Blade:

In late summer (2014) I started another series of films covering five very different sites and types of work. The first was Gupton Farm at Freshwater West; best known as Wales’s premier surfing beach and to some people as the film set for Harry Potter or Robin Hood. Many others know it as a beautiful beach for holidays or a great space to walk the dog. What’s not so well known is that it’s home to Gupton Farm, a 400 acre farm that’s at the forefront of pioneering work to accommodate rising sea levels and climate change.
Freshwater West

Through appropriate grazing in different seasons the National Trust’s tenant farmer, Chris James, is working in partnership with Natural Resources Wales, to help the landscape respond in a natural way. As sea levels rise and squeeze the narrow coastal strip, once arable fields are being encouraged to revert to dunes, thereby providing effective defences against flooding and extending scarce habitat.

Beyond the dunes is a rare fen meadow, a haven for all sorts of flora and fauna and a vital feeding ground for overwintering birds. Through anticipating change, this habitat will be saved and migrated inland; and it’s being done without compromising the financial viability of the farm. Jonathan Hughes, General Manager for the National Trust in Pembrokeshire, explains how it all works:  

I went back again in the winter when the land was thoroughly waterlogged and amongst other things we saw large numbers of lapwings and other species feasting on the grains from the silage and the many insects and invertebrates. Birds and cattle, farmers and ornithologists - all in harmony; perfect!

Jonathan Hughes, General Manager for the National Trust in Pembrokeshire, describes and shows what it looks like in winter:

In the Gower I made a film about Cwm Ivy. For hundreds of years there has been a sea wall at Cwm Ivy but climate change and rising sea levels mean that it is no longer a defendable position. The wall has been breached and on a regular basis salt water flows into what used to be a SSSI freshwater marsh. Whilst we have lost the freshwater marsh, we have gained valuable new saltmarsh.

The outstanding issue is that the sea wall forms part of the Wales coastal path and at present walkers are needing to take a diversionary route.

Alan Kearsley Evans explains the situation in this short film and the plans for a bridge over the breach as well as aspirations for this becoming a site for ospreys.

Wetting the Migneint. The Migneint, a vast, upland bog, between Ffestiniog and Ysbyty Ifan, is much wetter than it used to be. Over a series of years the National Trust has been working with Natural Resources  Wales and several other partners to block drainage ditches; the oldest were put in to ‘improve’ the grouse shooting for the Victorians and the more recent ones to ‘improve’ grazing and productivity.
Pete the Peat - extracting a core
Anyone who has walked in the Migneint will know the tug and squelch of the peat bogs but it’s been unnaturally dry for many years. What might at first have seemed an improvement has been an environmental ‘own goal’ resulting in the loss of thousands of tonnes of peat which is a great store for carbon. Without water, new peat can’t form and dry peat oxidises, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.

Another consequence of ditches is that rainwater rushes off the uplands contributing to floods downstream in the Conwy valley.

Andrew Roberts from the National Trust explains the finer points of building 30,000 dams and Pete Jones, the Peatland Ecologist from Natural Resources Wales, extracts 500 years of history from a core of peat.

Dolmelynllyn is for lovers of the lower plants. The ancient woodlands around Dolmelynllyn are a Mecca for lichens, liverworts and mosses; the so-called ‘lower plants’. Students travel hundreds of miles to see the rare specimens, just a few miles north of Dolgellau, many of which have disappeared elsewhere a long time ago.
Red-eyed shingle lichen

The magic formula is an abundance of rain, the temperate Celtic rainforest, fresh air and sensible management by the National Trust with help from Plantlife and Natural Resources Wales.

Rhodri Wigley, the lead ranger for the National Trust at Dolmelynllyn, and Dave Lamacraft, from Plantlife Cymru, explain what’s so special and how they care for it.

The coastal heathland of North Pembrokeshire is hardly prime agricultural land and without grazing, it would soon become overgrown; bad news for walkers, also for birds such as chough and for several rare plants.

Andrew Tuddenham
For many years the National Trust has made use of wild ponies to keep the heaths under control but now the focus has switched to grazing by Welsh Blacks. Not only do they do a better job, they also provide valuable food helping to offset the costs of conservation.

Until recently the cattle were overwintered in a number of small barns scattered across the area. But now all over-wintering has been brought under one roof at Southwood Farm; much more efficient and making it feasible to breed and build up the herd.

Traditional field walls ripped up in the drive for greater productivity are being replaced to allow greater management of grazing land, moving cattle in time to avoid turning fields into mud baths. New footpaths are being introduced connecting with the nearby coast path and there are plans to create a bunkhouse. And for bedding the cattle are enjoying the local heather and gorse harvested with a Ryetec Flail Collector to create fire breaks on the heath.

Everyone’s a winner it seems! Here’s Andrew Tuddenham explaining the background and the plans for the future:

In the Autumn I enjoyed the two day Heathlands for the Future seminar organised by the HLF Llŷn Landscape Partnership (Partneriaeth Tirlun Llŷn). There is so much being done - I wrote up the event as a series of 5 x blogposts:

There is so much material from all these stories that I am converting it into a presentation about the NTs conservation work in Wales; the first booking is with the Flintshire U3A.