Monday, 28 February 2011

Encounter with a Sparrowhawk

In the middle of my lawn is a berberis shrub about 5 feet high and with a spread of some 7 feet. Small birds love this shrub. Throughout winter I throw food underneath it and the birds hide safely in its branches - though it's deciduous, there are plenty of sharp thorns for protection. The birds hop down to grab a morsel, then quickly hop back up again. Blue tits and great tits are the most abundant, with robins, dunnock and coal tits following. Chaffinches, though there are plenty around, don't seem drawn to it for some reason.

The bush is useful shelter not just from cats but from other birds. In the big freeze before Christmas 2010 the bigger birds descended looking for food. Crows and jays took their pick of the best, while at one time there were 14 blackbirds (11 of them male – where were the females?) who bullied each other and anything smaller that came near. The small birds hid nervously in the berberis until these thugs had gone.

Then last week the bush showed its true worth. I was on the phone, watching the birds out of the window. Suddenly there was a flurry of blue landing on a branch – a pigeon I thought at first, though they rarely come in the garden: it was about pigeon sized. Then with astonishing agility the blueness flipped itself about the shrub, landing briefly here and there. It was so fast there were only flashes of slate blue and russet. The small birds were far too sensible to try to escape: they knew their best chance was to stay put amongst the tight berberis thorns. Sure enough, their pursuer landed briefly on the ground before taking off and vanishing, still hungry, to hunt elsewhere.

It was almost certainly a sparrowhawk, but I've previously only seen them shooting past at a zillion miles per hour. It was a great treat to see one so close. Meanwhile, my daughter was on the other end of the phone saying "What, what is it?", wondering why I'd let out a squawk and then stopped speaking.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

High Tide

Ten minutes by car and I am at the seaside. Not the buckets and spades variety, this is the sheltered strip of sea between the mainland and Anglesey, the Menai Strait. The tide is exceptionally high, higher than I ever remember seeing it here, so there is only a narrow strip of shingle between high water and sea wall. This strip is coated with bladder-wrack, a harvest I would dearly like to gather to improve my asparagus bed, but it is laced with plastic debris. I doubt if the little huddle of seven oyster-catchers standing only feet away mind about that, but for me it is a reminder that we treat the sea like a dustbin.

As I watch, the tide starts to pull the waters away towards the ocean, and a riffle appears where the retreating water is drawn across the concrete edge of a small quay. What power there is in the tides, and how long before someone suggests building a barrage here to harness it to feed our collective energy hunger?

Further along the shore there is a small woodland, which I approach carefully, treading gingerly on the thick bed of seaweed. The wood is the colour of spring, a carpet of bluebell and sanicle, violet and lesser celandine, but mostly of wild garlic, tens of thousand of bulbs sending up a single bright green leaf to greet the new year. The sun is shining, I revel in this moment of greenery. No need for a barrage. All it takes is a walk by the sea to re-charge your batteries.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Nature of Cwmorthin

When wind and rain beats down on the mountains a good alternative is to explore a mine - my guide took me deep underground into Cwmorthin. A massive complex of levels, inclines and chambers crossing through two principal veins of slate. ‘The Slaughterhouse’, its nickname for obvious reasons, is just above Tanygrisiau and connects through the mountain into the Oakeley quarry formerly owned by the occupants of Plas Tan y Bwlch.

The map looked impossible to my ordnance survey mind, the extra dimension of multiple levels was difficult to absorb. As for ‘finding north’, not by compass, GPS, moss or star but by angle of the vein – ours travelled downwards in a northerly direction.

This underground world is massive and full of industrial and cultural heritage .... railway tracks, trucks, wagons, catwalks, winding gear, generators etc. and every now and again a ‘caban’. Single room, stone-built canteens in which to take a break and discuss world affairs. The inside walls of one caban were papered with newspaper sheets from as long ago as the Titanic.

We had our picnic outside one of these cabans in a large chamber and as we munched we talked about the wildlife and nature within. Fungus was eating rotten timbers and a bat had been seen flying out on a summer’s eve, but what else can prosper in this energy starved world? I kept a wary eye out for Trolls.  

This is what it’s like deep down ....

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Cockles and Mussels – Hollywood in Wales

Back in the late 50s, when our family had 1 of the only 2 caravans in Borth, I remember vividly the nightmare of getting lost at Ynyslas. Chasing my brother across the dunes I missed a turn and ended up the sticky end of the estuary before a stranger stopped and drove me back to the most worried looking parents on the sands.

I remember too the cockles, raking a bucketful out of the sand. I think we added flour to the water in the bucket to flush out the sand from the cockles but they always seemed a bit gritty to me.  Those days when the sun seemed to shine forever and the sea was never cold.

It has been a treat for me to return and make a film with members of CCW about Ynyslas Spit, one of a series of films that try to explain the current ‘ecosystem’ buzzword, through examples of what they are, how they work and the benefits we derive from them. The film can be viewed on the Natur Cymru YouTube channel.  Much has changed but the essence is still there. 

Mussels have always been a gourmet item to me, their modest price out of all proportion to their magnificent taste – the sight of a steaming bowl of moules marinières sends me into ecstasy. I have harvested a few saucepans’ worth from Borth y Gest rocks, at low tide, and always wondered how they were harvested commercially.

Another filming assignment explained the mareculture of mussel farming in the Menai Strait. I was staggered to learn that 50% of British farmed production comes from this tiny bit of sea bed, so perfectly fit for purpose with masses of nutrient rich water washed through the strait each tide. Furthermore, Ynys Môn provides natural storm protection to prevent the mussels being smashed or washed away and also makes it possible for dredgers to venture out whatever the weather.

James Wilson, of Deep Dock Ltd, welcomed me on board the 43m long Mare Gratia mussel dredger and explained the process.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

BTO Atlas, some birds and a Pine Marten

I thought I’d start by deconstructing the picture taken at Easter last year. I’m kitted out for a bird survey, counting birds in a 2x2 km square for the British Trust for Ornithology’s Bird Atlas 2007-11. The location is close to the A5, on rough grazing land between Penmachno and Ysbyty Ifan, and about 5 miles SE of Betws y Coed. For local bird recording, we are in Vice-county 49 (Caernarfonshire), but for LBAP purposes we are in Conwy County Borough Council. The wildlife must find this very confusing! I’m pointing out a Red Kite which has just flown past; they are just moving into this area as the range expands (over 1,000 pairs in Wales now).
The pasture has probably been improved at some stage, and this has not helped small birds, although there are still meadow pipits, wheatears and linnets. Forty years ago, when the first Breeding Atlas was on, this area was full of curlews and lapwings; now there a few of each left. The RSPB is helping to look the residual population in this area (Hiraethog). Both land-use and predation are important factors in these population changes – if you want to see what this area was like 40 years ago, visit the North Pennines (Upper Teesdale, for example). Will we ever get these breeding waders back in Wales?
For the BTO Atlas, we have been mapping birds in the winter as well as the breeding season. Some winter visits produce no birds at all. Natur Cymru subscriber John Lloyd lives and farms in the original heartland of the Red Kites, where a few pairs managed to survive. John emailed me the other day to tell me about some recent fieldwork for the Winter Atlas. He says:
I even managed a zero count in an hour at Abergwesyn at the beginning of the month. I was just congratulating myself on having become a "proper atlaser" and walking out through the conifers of a neighbouring tetrad (2x2km square) when I came across a pair of Crossbills defending a probable nest against what I am sure was a Pine Marten. I never saw the front half of the beast, just its rear but that woke me up from my reverie. The Vincent Trust have accepted it as a sighting.
The moral is: you never know what you are going to see, just get out from behind your computer!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Reality kicks in

If you are reading this, you probably spend too much time staring at a screen. I certainly do. Editing a wildlife magazine for me means lots of time spent in the office, and little time engaging with nature. But I do have a large dose of reality on my doorstep. I have a small herd of Welsh Black cows to graze my meadows and, almost a bi-product, produce organic beef. This week the time had come for one of my steers. Approaching 30 months, his value would sharply decline once over that magic age, for no good reason that I can think of – slow maturing traditional breeds need longer than that.

Anyway, the decision was taken, I put him in the cattle crush and starting clipping beneath him to remove matted lumps of hair and dung, to clean him up. He thought little of this. Three kicks in succession alerted me to the difficulties of my task. The fourth scored a direct hit on my gloved hand. At that point, perhaps satisfied that he had made his feelings known, he settled down to eat the bucket of rolled barley before him, and I was able to get on with the job. An hour later he was on his way, the paperwork complete.

So I’ve had my dose of reality for the week, and have felt like a farmer for half a day. It keeps me grounded, and gives some practical basis to any preaching that I might indulge in from time to time; like berating the folly of scientists who advocate increasing food production by intensifying output on current farmland, apparently unaware that traditional farming systems are vital for wildlife. I’ve learnt about farming and nature the hard way – at a rather painful first hand.