Wednesday, 15 October 2014

State of the choughs 2014

It’s 10 years ago since the last UK census of choughs and they’ve just been counted again. Are things getting better or worse? Reg from the RSPB presented some of the survey findings at the Heathlands for the Future seminar on 8th October.

Two thirds of the UK population are in Wales and Llŷn is a very important component, home to 14% of UK choughs. Numbers in Scotland and Northern Ireland have declined and Wales is showing signs of decline with a 48% reduction in Snowdonia and disappearing in Montgomeryshire. In Llanberis there used to be over 65 birds but now they number just a few. On Llŷn there are between 53 to 60 pairs and numbers here are starting to reduce. The only habitat where there are signs of increase is in the sand dunes.

We are fortunate to have the passion and dedication of Adrienne Stratford and Tony Cross who have been ringing and recording choughs in mid to north Wales for the past 23 years. In that time they have ringed 5,000 nestlings, 150 adults and recorded 130,000 sightings. Within Llŷn 1,280 nestlings and 38 adults have been ringed.

Adrienne and Tony have written a report which hopefully will be published soon. One part of the analysis records the first year movements from Llŷn showing long distances of up to 60km – the adults take their youngsters back to the flock or roost from which they themselves originated.

On average males travel 10km from their place of birth to where they breed and the females travel 23km. By spreading themselves out they reduce the risk of in-breeding.

Another analysis looks into their feeding habits with soil and dung invertebrates a key component. After breeding and around July the birds head up into the mountains to feast on bilberries coming back down from August to October to feed on leatherjackets, the larvae of crane-flies. It’s the cow-pats (and pony-pats) that provide the best larder during the winter months.

In late spring I had the privilege of meeting Adrienne in a disused quarry building on the north Wales coast where last year she’d installed a nesting platform from bits of old planks.

A pair of choughs had taken up residence, added heather, lined it with sheeps’ wool and produced two beautiful chicks. They were plucked from their nest into a pillow case, brought down a ladder, ringed, sexed and weighed before being returned to the nest. A couple of times the adults came and shouted insults at us but it was as if they knew the score; it’s that time of year again. As for the chicks, they were quite chilled out and happy to beg food with their plaintive cries and open beaks.

I was surprised to see the tangerine orange colour of their legs. Eventually these and the beak will turn to red.

To Adrienne the choughs are a long running soap opera. She knows their relationships and family histories and 2 of them are now 19 years old. 

Farmers; not scapegoats but partners in conservation

Common sense is a great thing; when you hear it, you know it makes sense. That’s how I felt, listening to Sharon Parr explain how they farm for conservation in the Burren. It’s a vast area of limestone pavement in the middle of the west coast or Ireland, home to a profusion of wild flowers from March to November, including the Irish Orchid. It’s a hotspot for walkers and tourism and the jewel in the crown of Irish wildlife. Lots of invertebrates and archaeology abounds from Mesolithic to the enclosures era.

Half of it is designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 6% is a ‘national park’ (with just one member of staff!) but almost all of it is privately owned by farmers who have eked out a living on what is now considered ‘marginal’ land. Whereas in Wales we used to send stock to the uplands in summer and to the lowlands in winter, the Burren farmers traditionally do the reverse, leaving the uplands, with all their flowers, fallow through the summer.

Modern techniques such as feeding silage are not good for the Burren; the consequent pools of slurry around the feeders pour through the limestone karst into the aquifers below. Also, cattle eating silage have less need to roam around grazing the vegetation and in particular the hazel scrub which is prolific here.

Since 2005 the Burren has received significant EU LIFE funding which has harnessed the knowledge and enthusiasm of farmers to operate in a way which is good for farming and good for nature. Whereas the local agri-environment scheme penalises you, for not implementing a meaningless activity (e.g. a 30 metre exclusion zone from monuments which might be relevant on arable farms but serves no purpose in the Burren), the Burren LIFE scheme rewards positive farming. It’s not about the number of stock or the grazing days, it’s about delivering a product and the main measure is species rich grassland. It’s up to the farmer to decide how he delivers the product, if he achieves it through grazing elephants, that’s his business!

Each field is scored (by Sharon or a colleague) from 1 to 10 with the higher score generating more money. 2 or less earns nothing, 3 earns €36 per hectare and 10 is worth €120 per hectare. There is no rule that says you can’t use silage but if you do, then that field will not be eligible for any reward. In recent years silage consumption has dropped by 61% and the trend is towards higher scores for the fields.

The shift away from silage has been helped by the creation of Burren LIFE feed; a concentrate with all the right minerals designed following an investigation of local vegetation. Cattle are given a couple of handfuls each day after Christmas, when grazing becomes less good, and it takes them just a few minutes to eat and lick out the trough as opposed to prolonged sessions at a silage feeder. In this way the cattle are put into good condition for spring calving.  Not only do the cattle get all the essential minerals, but the feed also stimulates them to even more grazing.

There are other possibilities to receive funding for agreed improvements such as scrub control, for gates, internal walls, water supplies etc. These all contribute to the bigger picture of bringing more land under management through appropriate grazing. For these works the farmers fund 25% to 75% of the total cost.

Does it work? The results have been spectacular and the Burren project is held up as an example of best practice – hopefully there will be an ‘afterLIFE’ when the current funding finishes in 2015.

Unlike Glastir in Wales, which has not been taken up by as many farmers as hoped for, the Burren project has been oversubscribed; 345 farmers applied but there was only room to accommodate 159. Those in the scheme have received on average €7,500 per year with the maximum payout €15,000.

I met a Llŷn farmer the following day who told me that under Glastir he would be expected to reduce the number of grazing sheep to just 37 of his flock of over 150. In his view this would be totally impractical and result in the land becoming overgrown and good for no-one. Fortunately farmers like this one have been able to receive targeted items of funding via Partneriaeth Tirlun Llŷn which seems to follow the common sense approach of Burren LIFE!

It also makes sense that these two projects are learning from each other. Sharon Parr was one of the speakers and participants at the Heathlands for the Future seminar held near Aberdaron on 8th to 9th October 2014.

There's a very informative website for the Burren which includes a short atmospheric film

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Heathland Bedding

Delegates at the Heathlands for the Future seminar 2014
on heathland near Aberdaron
Cutting and collecting heathland scrub, full of gorse and leggy heather, is a tough job tackled by the Ryetec flail collector. It’s a key tool in bringing overgrown heathland back into good condition; better than burning, which results in a profusion of gorse, and better than just cutting. By cutting so low and exposing the earth it primes the ground to receive incoming seed or to allow seeds within the seedbank to get established. And by removing the cuttings the heathland avoids the build-up of nutrients that would encourage the ‘wrong’ sorts of plants.

But what to do with the cuttings? Despite the prickly nature of the gorse it does in fact make very comfortable bedding for cattle. Kevin Roberts, who works for the National Trust during the day and then runs a farm near Aberdaron, swears by it. For the past three years he has been laying a bed of cuttings in his cattle shed and a depth of 30cm, topped up every month, has proved the right sort of formula. He reckons this saves him 10 to 15 minutes a day compared to using straw and the annual savings in buying straw are worth £2,000. It seems a no-brainer that this practice, which benefits both the economy and nature, should be encouraged more widely. Or is there a hidden snag?

An initial concern was that spreading manure, mixed with the bedding, might lead to the spreading of gorse; but a trial has shown that after six months there was no germination. As the herd of cows looked on, Kevin crumbled a handful of the material from the pile in the field that had been left a couple of years to rot down. Analysis has shown that it has a pH of 8.2 i.e. very alkaline despite being harvested from acidic ground. He is spreading it onto fields that have been ploughed but not onto pasture as there are quite a few stones in the mix.

Heathland bedding is one of many pioneering and practical projects undertaken by 
Partneriaeth Tirlun Llŷn. If you would like to find out more please contact Arwel Jones or Hilary Kehoe.

The rough, tough Ryetec, with its set of 48 flails, does pick up stones and the National Trust archaeology team has clearly marked out the ancient monuments, hidden in the heath, that are to be avoided. The driver also takes care to avoid demolishing ant hills. If you’re watching the Ryetec in action it’s best not to stand too close! 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Natur Cymru at the Unknown Wales Conference

This year’s Unknown Wales conference was held on Saturday (11th) at the National Museum in Cardiff; it is a joint event with the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and is sponsored by the Welsh Government. Entry was free and the seven 30-min talks ranged widely over a variety of topics, from the diatoms and dung beetles of Wales, reintroduced sand lizards on Welsh dunes to the Barry Triangle where rare deep-sea fish suddenly turn up! For the full programme, see

Natur Cymru was well-represented, as shown in the photo taken by a helpful bystander; from the left Geoff Gibbs (North Wales), Ken and Delcie Simkin (Mid Wales), Jane and Ivor Rees, and Kate Gibbs (all North Wales). Everyone in the audience (around 200) was handed a bag of goodies including a back number of Natur Cymru, and during the lunch-break we recruited five new subscribers.

It would be good if this conference could be more accessible to a wider audience throughout Wales – would people be happy to sit in a venue in Bangor or Aberystwyth to watch the event on a screen if all the speakers were in Cardiff? In any case, we can heartily recommend the event as a great day out for anyone interested in Welsh wildlife and environment; roll on next year!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Botanising at Abermenai

Abermenai Point is the southernmost extremity of Anglesey and being further from road access than anywhere in the county is the closest the island gets to having an ultima thule. A group of botanists went there a few weeks ago. We followed one of the traditional routes that used to be taken by workers going from Anglesey by ferry to the slate quarries in Snowdonia. Appropriately, the small car park at Penlon is bounded by a slate fence on which are inscribed delightful images of birds, butterflies, thus reflecting both the heritage and wildlife interest of the route.

Our first pause was near the mouth of the Afon Braint where the river channel takes a sharp turn. In text book fashion, erosion on the outside of this bend is matched by accretion on the inside with new ground being colonised by salt marsh plants. To reach Abermenai Point we then headed off across 1.3 km of tidal flats. On some maps these flats are called Traeth Melynog, perhaps this roughly translates as ‘yellow beach’. Although the tide was well out the crossing was wet underfoot because of the innumerable lugworm casts and patches of blanketing green seaweed. 

Abermenai Point itself is a fine example of a recurved shingle spit with superimposed dunes. On the inner side it hooks right round to almost enclose a marsh dominated by sea-purslane. Shingle spits like this occur at their mouths of several Welsh estuaries, but the SW end of the Menai Strait is unusual in having hooked spits on both sides.

Masses of Babington's Orache growing on debris wash onto the top of the shingle by storms last winter

On the point itself there is a ruined building associated with the former ferry. An interesting thought is that this may have sheltered several eminent botanists who passed this way in the 17th and 18th centuries. In his book based on researching the journals of early botanists visiting Snowdonia (The Botanists and Mountain Guides of Snowdonia, 2nd ed, 2007) Dewi Jones mentions several who crossed to Anglesey by way of the Abermenai Ferry. In August 1639 Thomas Johnson used the ferry, while staying at Glynllifon with the local MP who was also interested in botany. From the ferry these early botanists went on to Llanddwyn Island where they recorded Rock Sea-lavender. It is still common there in a limited area round the Old Light. We found a tiny amount of it on our visit behind Abermenai Point as well. The next recorded botanical visitor was John Ray. In May 1662 he noted two seashore species at Abermenai which no longer occur anywhere in North Wales, Cottonweed and Sea Stock. Joseph Banks was also there, in 1773, noting the presence of another plant no longer recorded here, Isle of Man Cabbage.

Sea Holly

On our visit, perhaps the most spectacular plant encountered as we came back along the inside of the long spit was Sea Holly. It is more abundant here where blown sand comes over the salt marsh edge than anywhere else we know in Wales. Sea Holly, with its geometrical growth forms and sky blue flowers, is arresting enough, but this huge swathe of blue was a magnet to nectar-hungry migrant butterflies, and we saw both Painted Ladies and Clouded Yellows.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Hill Forts and Butterflies on Lleyn

Looking NE towards Yr Eifl from Garn Boduan

The Lleyn peninsula has superb hills along its north coast - Yr Eifl (The Rivals) and 4 big hills behind Clynnog Fawr. Driving from Caernarfon to Nefyn one has great views of them, and in fact the road passes the foot of the hill capped by Tre’r Ceiri (The Town of the Giants). This 2.5ha hill-fort contains 150 hut-circles within the ramparts.
On 31st August, however, we were breaking new territory and chose to ascend Garn Boduan, a volcanic plug about 8km SW of Tre’r Ceiri and only 1km from Nefyn. The lower slopes are clothed in conifers, but half-way up the path emerges into gorse, bracken and heather, attracting myriad honey- and bumblebees. On the way up were various Vanessid butterflies – Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells and Red Admirals, then once on top we spotted the hoped-for Wall Browns, males sunning themselves on the rocks. They were not still for long, as one would find another male and they performed aerial tussles, just as Speckled Woods were doing along the path through the conifers. Garn Boduan also has hut-circles, about 170 in the 10ha hill-fort, but these are not easy to see as they are mostly hidden in heather and gorse – Tre’r Ceiri’s huts are much more apparent. As we dropped down from the summit, a Painted Lady flitted past, and finally we found a rather faded Grayling, another of the Brown family at the end of its season.
 Although Tre'r Ceiri no doubt had many visitors that day, Kate and I had Garn Boduan and its butterflies all to ourselves.

Wall Brown on summit rocks