Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Squirrel harassing bats

I was walking through the drizzly woods, enjoying fresh bilberries, Molly scouting ahead. A squirrel ran up an old oak, and while Molly gazed upwards, front paws on the trunk, a second squirrel sneaked up the far side and into a hole half way up the tree. A couple of minutes later its head popped out to check the coast was clear and it carried on to the top.

Seconds later out swooped 1, 2, 3, 4, then 5 bats in quick succession. Then 6, 7, 8 and 9 ….10 ……. 11 and 12. After a long pause out came number 13, a few minutes later number 14 and much later came number 15. These were large looking bats. None of your frantic flapping of the wings or jumpy zig zag flight. More of a glide and a swoosh. All went the same direction and none returned in the 20 minutes I watched.

I wonder what went on inside. Did the squirrel attack the bats? Did the bats mob the squirrel? Why were some of the bats so slow to leave the roost? I’ll never know, but it was a great encounter.

A friend suggests the bats were probably Noctules.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Natur Cymru at RSPB Conwy 20

Natur Cymru had a stall at RSPB Conwy’s 20-year celebrations this last weekend. Saturday was a lovely day with plenty of visitors, Iolo Williams was there to launch the event and cut the birthday cake etc, BTO people ran a bird ringing demonstration and lots of other things were happening. Over the two days, we recruited five new subscribers for Natur Cymru and made a number of useful contacts (including potential authors and a cover artist).

Sunday was rather different, it started raining about 8am and continued all morning.  These photos were taken by Viv Finn who was on the Bywyd Gwyllt Glaslyn Wildlife stand. One shows Guiseppe Bocatto from North Wales Wildlife Trust, keeping the water at bay. The yellow duck is obviously appreciating the fact that RSPB Conwy is indeed a wetland reserve! Congratulations to the RSPB staff and volunteers, and assorted stallholders, who remained cheerful throughout and coped well with the conditions.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Pictorial Meadows

Wild flowers come and go, mainly in the early part of the summer, but my mix from Pictorial Meadows just keeps on coming. It should still be blooming up till the first frost in November.

I seeded six sections of the veg patch at different times and with varying success. A length on rich soil behind a row of peas was the first to get going, it took off really fast. Was that because it was on a slight slope, angled away from the sun, and did that mean they didn’t go too thirsty?

Other sowings thrived but some were patchy. Seedlings close to stone walls and compost heaps were probably most vulnerable to slug attack. In some areas a mix of seedlings sprouted but only a couple of species went on to survive. Was that because the slugs didn’t like them? Areas that were initially devastated by slugs are still pushing up tiny seedlings and these look like they might survive. Are the slugs sick of the plants?

The seeds had to cope with initial drought and my sporadic watering through a hosepipe from the stream above. They were then hit bit exceedingly heavy rains and pools of long standing water.  

The supplier stressed the need for weed free beds, which they were when I sowed the seeds. But other seeds have been trespassing or rising out of the seedbank. So what I thought was going to be a low input project has turned into an obsessive, time consuming but satisfying labour of love. Next year I might plant narrower beds so that I can reach across and weed. With the current set up I need to use a scaffolding plank resting on stools – lying face down in a flower bed causes the occasional passer-by to ask if all is ok.

It was the new head gardener at Bodnant who gave me the idea. He had a border on one of those immaculate terraces which was plagued with a particularly pernicious weed; by sowing a mix of annual seeds he’d be able to inspire the visitors and keep the weeds in check ready for planting perennials next year.

If you’d like to have a go you should visit the Pictorial Meadows website. I got a bit carried away with ordering seeds and opted for 500g at a cost of just over £150. I chose the original Pictorial Meadows mix which is said to produce stunning displays until late October / November, starting out with white, blues, pinks and reds, turning to reds, orange and yellow in the autumn. The mix has been carefully balanced for colour and succession of display. Components include: Shirley Poppy, Pavader Rhoeas Californian Poppy, Eschscholzia Californica Cornflower, Centaurea Cyanus Fairy Toadflax, Linaria Maroccana Tickseed Coreopsis Tinctorial Red Orache Atriplex Hortensis and Larkspur. Delphinium Ajacis General Height: 60cm.

So far it’s done what it says it will do on the packet which is not always the case with my gardening attempts! Should I collect the seed at the end of the summer or buy more for next year? Needless to say the supplier strongly recommends buying new so that you get the mix in the right proportions.

Photos struggle to convey the effect, the swaying in the breeze and the buzz of the bees. This YouTube is better but still a poor substitute for the real thing.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Green Shield Bugs

I picked a colander full of broad beans, took them to the kitchen and discovered I’d also picked up a couple of copulating hitchhikers - green shield bugs. 

They mate back to back as they’re not flexible enough for both to face forward. Or maybe they can't stand the sight of each other?

During their journey to the kitchen and back to the beans they remained attached, the larger one, the female, walking forwards up my arm and the male having to walk backwards. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

While shepherds watched their flocks

Too many sheep, with consequent overgrazing, has damaged the rich mix of plantlife at Hafod y Llan, the farm that rises from the Nant Gwynant valley floor to the summit of Snowdon. Believe it or not, sheep are picky eaters, with a bit of a sweet tooth for particular plants, leaving others to thrive and dominate the mountain sward.

Bilberry and heather regenerating on the foothills of Snowdon
Since the National Trust acquired the farm 15 years ago the number of sheep has been halved but the plantlife has not recovered everywhere or as well as hoped. The problem is that sheep, like nature, abhor a vacuum and sheep from neighbouring farms have been trespassing. Worse still, they like to graze on the more sensitive areas on the higher slopes of the mountains.

To sort this out a shepherd was employed in 2014 to push the sheep into the correct areas and to evict the trespassers. But when he knocked off, the sheep ‘came out to play’. So this year a second shepherd has been appointed and between the two of them they can provide 7 day cover during daylight hours in the summer. Hopefully the mountain tops will soon be a purple haze of blooming heather and fruiting bilberry with sheep growing fat on the pasture below.

If you’d like to know more about this project, embracing traditional shepherding to tackle a current issue, this film might be of interest (Welsh version first and English version below):

Saturday, 13 June 2015

National Trust Woodlands

Some years ago I was surprised to learn that the National Trust owned so much farmland and coastland; my childhood perception had been the stereotypical stately home. More recently I was surprised by the fact that, after the Forestry Commission (including NRW of course), the National Trust is the second biggest owner of trees and woods. I learnt this as an observer to the Wales Woodland Meeting which was held at Plas y Brenin on 29th April 2015. NT rangers and woodland representatives had converged on North Wales to exchange knowledge and ideas from across the country.

The day began with a thought provoking session on strategy and woodland management. Ray Hawes, head of forestry for the NT, led a discussion about the newly published strategy for the whole of the NT. This calls for land and landscapes that are healthy, rich in wildlife, enjoyable, culturally rich, beautiful or unspoilt and productive. To what extent will this change the NT policy for forestry? Policy needs to marry change with the need for continuity and the timescales of trees.

The 5 key questions when considering how to manage a woodland are:
  • What is this woodland? – its significance
  • What will happen if we do nothing? – the process which is under way
  • What could it be? – a vision
  • What is the least we need to do? – action e.g. to eradicate disease
  • What can we do now to reduce future work? – investment e.g. in removal of ponticum while it is small.  
Woodland planning or management is not a one-size-fits-all; diversity of woodland is to be encouraged. Foresters should be eccentric, do things strangely, build in resilience to disease and changes in the environment.

The need for recording decisions was emphasised and is an essential requirement of the Woodland Certification Audit. An overgrown ancient woodland in Northern Ireland has an avenue of horse chestnuts; was the avenue leading to a historic landmark? After much digging around the answer was no, there had been 50 spare saplings looking for a home!

Using film to inform and communicate the cause

After coffee we were treated to BAFTA award winning performances by Rhodri Wigley and Dave Lamacraft (Plantlife) who co-starred in a 9 minute film about Dolmelynllyn and its lower plants. Rhodri explained the steps taken to manage a woodland for the benefit of lichens and bryophytes.
Dave Lamacraft and Rhodri Wigley

This was part of a series of films produced last year and another series is under way for 2015 which includes: Cwm Idwal, Cwm Ivy, Castlemartin Peninsula, Migneint Birds, Llynnau Cregennen, Ceredigion Coastal Grasslands, Shepherding at Hafod y Llan, Grassland Fungi and the use of DNA to identify their presence before they fruit. A film aimed at past and potential donors towards trees and woodlands is ‘Dolmelynllyn through the seasons’; this will be filmed at four different times of the year highlighting the work that goes into managing a woodland.

Glastir and woodland grants

Not much has happened in the first part of 2015 but there is expected to be an announcement at the Royal Welsh Show. The Glastir Woodland Management and Glastir Woodland Creation schemes should have ended in May 2013 but were extended to 2014. New schemes will follow from the Rural Development Plan.

Post Phytophthora
The Glastir Woodland Restoration Scheme has been announced and is aimed at woodlands felled due to Phytophthora ramorum. For every 1 hectare of woodland felled there will be a grant towards replanting 2 hectares with payments of £1,900 per hectare of timber woodland and £2,700 per hectare of native woodland. Expressions of interest need to be submitted online by 5th June 2015 There will be separate contracts for separate areas (i.e. not one contract covering all of NT Wales) and contracts must be completed within a year.

Grants covering up to 80% of training costs will likely continue through a service centre.  Farming Connect has historically provided, and is a likely candidate to continue to provide this service in the future.  It is not yet known whether there will be limits such as a ceiling on the number of students from any one organisation. It was felt that quite a few people would be interested in refresher courses.

European Single Payment rules for Wales have been interpreted restrictively compared to the rest of the UK. Land which has 100 trees or more per hectare is not eligible; for some farmers this is up to 40% of their land. It’s the sort of ruling that could encourage the removal of trees in order to qualify for financial support!

Valuing and Managing Veteran Trees

Ankerwycke Yew by Alan Bennett
copyright Brunel University London Arts Collection 
Alan Kearsley-Evans and David Larter have taken over as the champions for veteran trees and both have been on a 3 day course that equips them to deliver a 1 day course on veteran trees. Alan will cover the south and David the north, but if there are a large number of students then both will be involved.

Ideally, no work should be done closer to a veteran tree than 5m outside the extent of the canopy, or a distance from the centre of the tree of 15 times the diameter of the trunk at breast height, whichever is the greater. This establishes a ‘separation distance’ or exclusion zone round the tree and gives it the best chance of long-term survival.

As visitor numbers increase and the pressure on car parks grows, there is potential for conflict. Scraping away the topsoil beneath a veteran tree to expand a car park is NOT a good idea!

The Ancient Tree Forum of Wales has recently been established and had its first meeting at Dinefwr.

Woodland highlights of the previous year

Erddig – James Stein

About 250 veteran trees have now been recorded at Erddig and of these 40% are in the fields of tenanted farms which makes it difficult to enforce exclusion zones around their bases. Work has been carried out on about a dozen veteran trees; propping up of limbs, fencing to exclude stock, and mulching of the base.

One oak, which is thought to be about 500 years old, has had the encroaching chestnut and beech trees pruned back. Another veteran which has a hollow trunk has had logs and branches piled up near the base to exclude sheltering sheep; eventually the logs will rot down and enrich the soil.

The double avenue of pleached limes has been pruned. It takes approximately 10 weeks of work each year. Each tree has about 500 shoots, which makes 65,000 pruning cuts, all with secateurs.

Ysbyty Estate – Andrew Roberts

At the start of 2014 work had begun to thin out the conifers, but then came the storm and thinning was not an issue. The wood was sold ‘standing’ at £9 a tonne (wood pulp price) but the buyer discovered that it was suitable for timber and upped the price to £12 a tonne. The 1,000 tonnes generated some welcome unbudgeted income.

Other thinning work was undertaken under the Better Woodlands for Wales scheme then milled on a portable mill hired in at £330 per day. This produced the cladding for the Hafod y Llan hydro shed.

Some large conifers were felled that were encroaching on veteran trees. Timber mills no longer want thick trunks and the maximum size they take is 60 to 65cm.

There is a scattering of hawthorns on the ffridd but no regeneration. Young hawthorns of local provenance are being planted with protective guards at the rate of 10 per year. Andrew commented that thick patches of gorse were good for regeneration.

Pembrokeshire – Chris Oliver

Five years of fuel 'felled' in one night
The February 2014 storm devastated the biomass crop intended for the Stackpole boiler which consumes 800 cubic metres a year. The devastation of the storm across Wales provoked a generous donation from an NT supporter in Tasmania – a million Australian dollars for woodland works in Wales. Part of this money has been used to fund infrastructure works in Pembrokeshire, putting in forestry tracks which will simplify the task of extracting timber. All trees should have been extracted by Xmas 2015.

Chris is looking to replant with different types of trees, with conifers taking 15 to 20 years until harvest. He has started coppice rotation and is aiming for structural diversity in the woodland.

Lodge Park wood, to the rear of Stackpole House, was planted with laurels by the Cawdors to provide cover for game birds. The wood had become greatly overgrown but has now been thinned and opened up revealing a secret, long lost rose garden. Chris has written this up and had it published in the journal of the Ancient Trees Forum.

Tree Diseases – Steve Whitehead

Citrus Longhorn Beetle
Current diseases are considered to be the tip of the iceberg compared to diseases that are on their way from Asia. Everyone is encouraged to be vigilant and to report all diseases in an email to Steve Whitehead. Some of the properties have been using volunteers to look out for diseases as well as recording veteran trees. Copies of the Observatree monitoring tree health leaflet were handed out. The opening paragraph is a chilling thought: ‘Until the 1990s the UK dealt with one or two new tree pest and disease outbreaks a decade. During the past 10 years we have dealt with 18.’

There is a very informative Observatree guide to diseases with films of what to look out for. Here is a link to the pests and diseases page.

The threat is ‘a clear and present danger’ which underlines the need to build resilience into our woods, to have diversity and to use local provenance. If properties are importing species they should quarantine them before planting out and a period of 3 months was considered to be the bare minimum but longer would be better. There was talk about establishing a tree nursery or tree nurseries such as the one producing trees for Dyffryn Mymbyr.

Trees in the uplands – Jan Sherry, Natural Resources Wales

The best Juniper in Wales is on NT property and the Juniper on Snowdon is in particular danger of Phytophthora – the source of the danger is the 3 Peaks Challenge with dirty boots travelling down from the Lake District.

Our uplands are relatively bald representing less than 3% of broad-leaved trees in Wales (National Forest Inventory 2012) and there are no examples of native woodland at the limits of altitude.

Trees are an important component of the ffridd mosaic and can also be part of flood alleviation measures by helping to hold the water in the uplands. Trees also provide shelter for livestock.

Not many trees on the Carneddau
The Brecon Beacons and the Carneddau are treeless landscapes and historically the Brecon Beacons National Park thought it was necessary to retain an open, treeless landscape as this was the landscape appreciated at designation time. Blorenge on the other hand is comparatively rich in trees.

Trees on the ffridd regenerate when farming activity decreases e.g. at the end of war, and the hawthorns at Dyffryn Mymbyr are an example of this; they mainly date to the same decade. As sheep density reduces, regeneration increases – even Pumlumon, described by George Mombiot in ‘Feral’ as a green desert, is seeing a regeneration of heather and trees.

Jan displayed maps showing current areas of where we have upland trees / woodland in northern Snowdonia and then a map showing desired areas for more woodland. Some questions need to be asked:

Do we want more trees in the uplands? Not everyone does.
If yes, what sort? Scattered? Woods? Copses?
If yes, where? Can we accommodate by moving some of the heathland uphill?
Should we go for slow regeneration or replant? If we replant, from what resource?

There was discussion about the Welsh Government target for 100,000 hectares of newly planted woodland by 2020. How achievable a target is it?

After Jan’s talk we went to Dyffryn Mymbyr which was great – see separate write-up at

The following day some went for a guided walk around the woodlands at Llyndy Isaf and at Castell Penrhyn.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Natur Cymru Summer 2015 - Issue 55

Publication date: 15th June 2015
Cover price £4.50, or quarterly by subscription £18 pa (individual) or £32 (group/organisation)

Prospects for wild pollinators in Wales ● Mike Howe. We cannot rely just on honey bees to pollinate our crops and wild plants.

Ymgyrch Gwel Sêr • Gethin Davies. Gweithio tuag at statws ‘Awyr Dywyll Ryngwladol’ yn Eryri.

Blue Ground Beetle at Coed Maesmelin - a mystery unravelled • John Walters, Christopher Matts & Clare Dinham. The discovery in Neath Port Talbot of a beetle new to Wales.

Fifty Years Ago – the North Pond on Skomer • David Saunders. Habitat creation and the new wildlife it brought to the island.

Malltraeth Marsh: digging for victory • Ian Hawkins. The RSPB has created a nationally important Anglesey wetland.

Dinosaur discovery – new kid on the Jurassic block • Cindy Howells. The discovery in south Wales of a dinosaur new to science.

Sea grass meadows in Wales – vulnerable features and fish nurseries • Richard Unsworth. New research is confirming the wildlife and economic value of this rare subtidal habitat.

Seeing in the dark – the value of camera traps • Mal Ingham. New technology and hard work are revealing more about Wales’ nocturnal mammals.

Glow-worms and street lighting • Anne Butler. How a new study has led to improved conservation of glow-worms on the Great Orme.

Green Bookshelf ● Catherine Duigan, David Parker, David Saunders

Plantlife ● Colin Cheesman. Wales’ forgotten flora – arable weeds!

Nature at large ● David Iorwerth Roberts. Afon Elwy – caring for a river.

Habitat management • Ivy Denham. It’s all in the mind – changing perceptions of how the landscape should look.

Woods and forest • Kylie Jones Mattock. Learning to love the surprisingly significant slug.

Llinellau bywyd – Yr awydd/ Life lines – Burning desire ● Huw Williams. Tanau gwyllt yn Ne Cymru / Wild fires in south Wales.

Marine matters ● Ivor Rees. The legacy of biologist Edward Forbes.