Monday, 23 January 2012

Mobile dunes of Barmouth

Blown in from the Channel Isles?
Strong winds, stormy seas and Bermo’s seafront road was closed by an impromptu sand dune. As for the Jersey Lifeboat - I’m not sure how that ended up here.

I think the dunes at Bermo are a relatively recent phenomenon following construction works near the harbour. They are steadily moving up the coast, the natural, free and uninhibited way. Not locked down by plantations of marram grass or other human intervention.

Tourists might prefer to walk straight from their hotels onto the beach but the dunes provide a brilliant natural coastal defence.  By being mobile they can shift, grow and adapt as sea levels rise. We probably need to remobilise other dunes along the coast to regain this natural protection just as they did in Holland and Denmark.

Mobile dunes, which are now very scarce, also provide a dynamic environment favoured by a very specific range of plants and wildlife.  

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Horses and community woodland

John Bunce and a Clydesdale
It sounded like an ideal combination – using horses in woodland, but was it practicable and appropriate?  This was the mix of thoughts when our community woodland group considered using horse loggers to thin an area of neglected larch wood. Here is our experience.

The woodland
Blaen Bran Community woodland, or Coed Gwaun-y-Fferiad to give it’s Welsh name, lies to the north west of Wales’s only new town, Cwmbran, and is an area of 100 acres around a disused reservoir which used to supply water to the communities that made up Cwmbran. The area was planted by the Forestry Commission between 1937 and 1939, as they had a long term lease from what was then the Llantarnam and Llanfrechfa water board. Post war there was rotational thinning, planting and felling firstly by the Forestry Commission, and then by a succession of private owners. The last of these sought to have more community involvement with the woodland. Its close proximity to Cwmbran, now a town of 45,000 people, meant that it had become both a playground and a dumping area. Off road motorbikes regularly rode through the woodland and deliberate fires were a seasonal feature.

The community group
The community woodland group was born through two convergent threads. Children at Woodlands primary school, the closest to the wood, had occasional nature trips there under the direction of the deputy head. They noted some of the mess and damage, and wrote to Cwmbran Community Council to ask if they could do something about it. At around the same time the forestry agent for the then leaseholder also approached the Community Council and gave a talk on the wood and its history seeking support to get more community involvement.

The Blaen Bran woodland is on an area that had been historically used for small scale coal mining;  it lies along the eastern outcrop of the south Wales coalfield. Ground is undulating, with a rise to the northwest from around 700 metres to about 900 metres. The upper part of the woodland - around 30 acres of the total – had been planted with larch in the 1970’s. This had never been thinned, leaving this part of the woodland relatively dark and inaccessible, although there was an old track through the middle and old tithe maps of the 1840’s showed that the area had been arable farmland, with remains of boundary walls and part of a stone farmhouse visible in places.

This un-thinned larch wood was not easy to get to; whilst the main forestry track was in reasonable condition, the actual entrance track to the woodland was not. It lay over local authority land, and being on a fairly pronounced slope that had been eroded and not repaired over the last 20 to 25 years. The community woodland group got some grant funding to thin a section of the larch, but the small area allied to the poor access and the sloping ground meant that contractor interest to take on the work was limited. It was then that consideration was given to using horses and the group looked around for potential horse loggers.

Horses and logging
Contact was made with the British Horse Loggers ( and two contractors and their horse teams were available at the time we wanted. They were Frankie Woodgate and her two Ardennes, from Kent and John Bunce with his two Clydesdales from Gloucestershire.

We also spoke to the loggers about holding a demonstration session on a Saturday late morning and early afternoon, so that visitors could see how horses worked with their handlers.  We let our members know and spread information by word of mouth as well as putting up posters in some of the local pubs and at the entrances to the wood. Around 60 people came along and really enjoyed seeing  the horses at work. One of the audience, member of a local male voice choir, recalled how he used to work with horses in the woodlands as a youth, and it brought back good memories.

Remember the Alamo!
Certainly using horses on the sloping terrain worked effectively, and there was much less impact on the ground than would have been the case with mechanical equipment, although we could have planned better to fell lines more quickly to make best use of the loggers time and expertise.

Generally the larch wood brought out was of poor quality, but we went on to use some to create a stockade behind one of our vulnerable boundary fences that tended to be cut by off-road bikers bringing their bikes in the woodland. Larch log sections were placed behind the fence and stakes at intervals behind helped keep logs in place. Sections of wire secured logs together so that they could not be lifted out. Locally we refer to this as ‘the Alamo’ and it has worked well.

Overall it has been a good opportunity to have traditional methods of one aspect of forest management brought to a wider audience; to have a good job done with low impact on the environment; to support traditional small business and to learn from the experience as well.

A new town and old traditions – a positive way forward!

David Williams

Friday, 20 January 2012

Dealing with (Chinese mitten) crabs

I joined a group of volunteers in Dolgellau for a training session on this alien crab. Chinese because it came from China, first recorded in the Thames in 1935, and probably transported in ballast water. Mitten because both claws are covered in fingerless, hairy mitts. No-one seems to know the reason for the mitts.

We see their arrival as a threat because they are multiplying and spreading fast causing problems on the Thames with erosion of riverbanks, caused by their burrowing, and blocking intakes of water to power stations. It’s said they have no predator although I’m sure otters would eat them and like all crabs they are vulnerable when they shed their shells.

A distribution map of records shows them mainly present in the east and southeastern waterways  but worryingly they are knocking on the door of Wales. There are many records from the Mersey and the Dee. A solitary male was recorded in the Conwy about 4 years ago and an individual was recorded in the English side of the Severn near Worcester. If they get a hold in Wales, the fear is they will eat the eggs of salmon and trout and encroach on species within Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).

They are highly mobile travelling up to 1500 km inland in China and quite happy to travel overland. On the Dee they can be seen walking round the weir and in Yorkshire there’s a lake, without any connecting stream, in which they are present. Maybe they will get to the source of the Dee and go cross-country to the Mawddach?

They are the only crab in the UK that lives in freshwater but they need the marine environment for breeding. In the autumn (September on the Thames) the 4 to 5 year old males migrate downstream to the brackish / saltwater and a little later are joined by females. The males die after mating and the females overwinter in deeper salt water returning to the estuary in February / March to lay between 250,000 to a million eggs over a three month period! After one or two months the larvae / juveniles migrate upstream to freshwater between March and May  and spend the next few years there until it’s time to breed. In China it all happens with a couple of years, maybe because it's warmer.

As volunteers we were being told to look out for their burrows; elliptical holes not far above the waterline, with a downwards angle (so they have a puddle beneath the water table) and signs on the outside of mud / silt that has been scraped out. Other techniques include looking out for skeletons and, in the spring, lifting (and carefully replacing) boulders in the intertidal area to look for juveniles. Next autumn we will try putting  out fyke nets to catch the adults going downstream to breed.

The hope is that if we can identify the crabs early enough we may be able to do something about them before they become a big problem as on the Thames.

At our training event we were lucky to have the company of Marvin, now resident in the UK, but originally from near Shanghai. When asked how they dealt with the problem in China he explained their problem was somewhat different; not enough crabs! For a thousand years or so they have been a highly valued delicacy but in the 1970s to 80s were fished into rarity. These days the national craving is only satisfied through crab farming whereby they are raised in pens within lakes from which they can’t escape.  

There was a young man in Marvin’s village who was the local expert at hunting wild crabs, he knew how to differentiate between burrows for crabs and those for snakes! He was also very adept at getting them out without too much personal pain; plate size crabs give quite a nip.

It strikes me that this, eating the invasive species, is a classic Natural Environment Framework type of solution.

If you’d like to know more about the subject visit the Chinese mitten crab website. If you’d like to join us volunteers  checking out the Dee, Clwyd, Conwy and Mawddach contact Rhian Hughes at the North WalesWildlife Trust.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Stretch the budget with free training

In these days of tight budgets and organisations trying to do more with less, it’s good to see some free training on offer. Advanced Professional Training (APT) in Bioscience is a new range of accredited training courses from Swansea University for people working in any bioscience related field, such as environmental management or ecology.

Current courses include:

Understanding protected species (including bat, invertebrate, terrestrial mammals, reptiles and amphibian modules)
  • Introduction to wild plant identification
  • Techniques in ecology
  • Invasive plants: identification, ecology and control.

 Also on offer are lab-based training modules to help with scientific report writing, microscopy skills and other essential laboratory skills.

For a full list of courses offered by APT bioscience, please see or contact Dr Neil Price (01792) 295379

Monday, 16 January 2012

Unknown Wales Conference 2012

Following on from the success of last year’s Unknown Wales Conference, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (WTSWW) and the National Museum Wales (NMW) have decided to hold the Unknown Wales Conference again in 2012.

Trevor Theobald - 2011 conference
Over 200 delegates attended the 2011 conference, which was opened by naturalist and television presenter Iolo Williams and covered a wide variety of wildlife topics. It is hoped that the Unknown Wales Conferences will become an annual event – dedicated to celebrating Welsh Wildlife and encouraging people to enjoy nature.

This year’s Unknown Wales Conference will take place on Saturday the 19th May 2012 at the National Museum Wales from 10.00am until 4.00pm and is free to all. The presentations will again cover a host of taxa in Wales from lichens and ancient Welsh trees, to marine fish and brown hares.

Accompanying the conference this year will be a poster competition (Friday 18th May) and various conservation and local recorder stands in the main hall (Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th May). Natur Cymru will be there at least for the Saturday. 

For further information about the conference and for booking, please contact: Rob Parry, Conservation Manager, Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Blue lichen?

Moving logs into my log shed I found a couple with a striking royal blue fungus. ID guides failed me but a Google search revealed an identical photo from a blog describing it as blue lichen. It's not a lichen, just a fungus called terana caerulea. More commonly it is called cobalt crust fungus or velvet blue spread. According to Wikipedia it was chosen as fungus of the year for 2009 by the German Mycological Society. It can be used in the creation of an antibiotic called cortalcerone. So now we know, thank you Wikipedia. It might not be rare but everyone who sees it says wow!

Terana caerulea - 'fungus of the year 2009'

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Not rutting – just headbanging?

September and October is the time I see most of the billy battles but yesterday there was quite a fight on the drive beneath our house. The third billy and the three females carried on grazing as heads and horns cracked in battle. I wonder what it was all about?

Monday, 9 January 2012

Fancy a Chat?

stonechat Saxicola torquatus
Jill Pakenham
The spring of 2012 will see the first dedicated survey run by BTO Cymru which will be taking the lead on a pilot survey of three of our chat species, namely the resident stonechat, and the migrants whinchat and wheatear. These three species are seen as a Welsh speciality, and are on every visiting birders wish list. 

whinchat Saxicola reubetra
Bob Garrett
Results from the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) show that stonechat numbers have fallen sharply after the last two cold winters, while whinchat and wheatear have shown declines in both range and numbers. The long-term trends for whinchat and wheatear are both showing declines of over 55%. Preliminary analysis of data from the Bird Atlas 2007-11 appears to confirm the long-term BBS trends and highlights areas from which the species have disappeared in the last twenty years.  

wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
Jill Pakenham
The birdwatchers of Wales have noticed that the Welsh whinchat population has disappeared from much of its traditional range, and that wheatears are no longer a common breeding bird. The primary method for monitoring bird populations is the BBS, for which nearly 250 random squares are surveyed annually in Wales by BTO volunteers.  A targeted survey is needed to obtain more detailed information on scarcer species such as the chats and the habitat features that are most important to them.

The survey will be conducted by volunteers surveying randomly selected 1km squares during three visits in each of April, May and June. The whole square will be covered and all target species plotted on maps. This is going to be an on-line survey, having a similar feel to existing BTO surveys.

If you feel like taking part and would enjoy visiting some stunning countryside contact the BTO Cymru office at either 01248 383285 or email

The BBS (Breeding Bird Survey) is jointly organised by BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee) and RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). 

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Jellies in the rainforest

From indoors the day looked dreary but out in the woods, sparkly droplets of rain added an extra dimension. Close-up the colours so bright and swirls of rainforest mist beyond. It was certainly an atmospheric setting. And then there were the jellies. 

First a yellow one lying on a mound of moss beneath an oak – was this the witches butter?

Later on a grey one with hints of pink on the top of a decaying branch. There’s an interesting article on the BBC Scotland website which refers to it as star jelly but no-one seems to know what it is. The article concludes it may have come from an alien’s nose! 

And this is what it looked like elsewhere in the rainforest:

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Holt Cuisine - food for posh otters

The Mammals in a Sustainable Environment project will be holding a 2-day otter diet workshop on the 18th & 19th February at Treborth Botanic Gardens, Bangor.

The purpose of the workshop is to analyse otter spraint collected along the north Wales coast to learn more about their diet and ecology. Training will be provided by local expert Rob Strachan, so if you would like to learn more about otter ecology, please get involved. All levels of experience welcome! 

The workshop will be free of charge, but places are limited so book early! Please contact Ceri Morris to book your place on 07881 850735 or email

The MISE project is part funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) through the Ireland Wales Programme (INTERREG 4A).