Saturday, 31 March 2012

74 NNRs in the big parade ...

Wales has more nature reserves per capita than any other country in the UK or on mainland Europe. This says a lot, not only about the outstanding landscape, scenic beauty and wildlife diversity of Wales, but also about how its people value being close to nature and want to protect their natural heritage.

Each year millions of visitors enjoy nature reserves in Wales; many more would do so if only these special places were easier to find. Once off the beaten track exploring the countryside can be confusing, even for local people - much more so for holidaymakers, for many of whom nature reserves are high on the list of reasons for coming to Wales. Few reserves are signed from main roads. Many are down confusing networks of lanes where it is all too easy to get lost, wasting precious leisure time.

This spring a comprehensive guide to every National Nature Reserve (NNR) in Wales - plus dozens of our finest RSPB, Wildlife Trust and other nature sites - is being launched. is online now, with maps, directions, photographs of difficult junctions or hard-to-spot landmarks on the way to each reserve, plus details of facilities onsite and nearby as well as pictures of landscape features, habitats and species to look out for. It helps people to decide where to go and when, whether they are birders, wildflower lovers, fungi fanciers or fossil fans – or whether the priority is for somewhere safe for the kids, or suitable for Auntie Jenny who now can’t manage stiles and rough ground.

The author, Sue Parker, is a keen naturalist with a lifelong interest in wildflowers, and wild orchids in particular. Sue says, ‘It has been almost a full-time job for the past three years, visiting hundreds of reserves, some several times to record the changing seasons. This online resource would fill a thousand pages in book form, but it’s a labour of love, and I am continually updating and adding new information.’

A Wildlife Trust volunteer herself, Sue has dedicated the website to … ‘the hundreds of volunteers who work for the wildlife of Wales. Every wildlife conservation organisation in Wales is dependent on an army of people who turn out in all winds and weathers to work on our nature reserves for the benefit of plants, fungi, animals, birds and insects - and us. They also staff the offices, man the telephones, support special events for the public, and carry out a multitude of other tasks including the all-important one of fundraising. Thank you!’ 

With more than 70 National Nature Reserves and as many Local Nature Reserves funded by and managed on behalf of the people of Wales, it is hardly surprising that these special sites receive several million visits a year by locals and visitors. Added to this the Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, Plantlife, RSPB, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and other charitable and voluntary bodies also maintain a wealth of wonderful wildlife sanctuaries where people can get close to nature.

Sue Parker’s family came from Cardiff, but she was born in Tenby and has lived in many parts of Wales including Bridgend, Anglesey, Carmarthenshire and now Ceredigion. She is the author of several books about wildflowers, including Wild Orchids in Wales, and she co-authored the series Wonderful Wildflowers of Wales. As well as occasionally contributing to Radio and TV programmes on nature topics in Wales, Sue Parker is often called upon to give talks on wildflowers. Sue can be contacted via

Friday, 30 March 2012

Daffodils receive visit from Natur Cymru delegation

Allan Brandon (Dragonfly Man), James Robertson (NC Editor), Joanna
Robertson, Kate Gibbs (NWWT Chair) and Geoff Gibbs (NC dogsbody)
Wild Daffodils grow on an upland pasture above the Conwy Valley, you can read all about it in Natur Cymru #34 Spring 2010. As part of the magazine's quality control programme, part of the Natur Cymru team took this morning off from indoor stuff to check the daffs out. They (the daffs) are still there, and doing well. In one photo you can see the high-level delegation. The other picture shows more daffs.

The team also enjoyed other spring sights and sounds - Wood Anemonies, the first Speckled Wood butterflies of the year, sparring Buzzards and Ravens, and plenty of Chiffchaffs singing away.

Wishing an enjoyable and wildlife-filled Easter to all readers!!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Squirrel baby carried down tree

I had seen the mother squirrel carrying nesting materials up the tree but what was it bringing down? In its mouth was a fluffy ball of baby squirrel. I watched it hop along and then up a tree covered with dense ivy, presumably providing greater protection from predators than the Scots Pine it was vacating.  What was the threat? Crows nest in the same tree but they’ve been neighbours for a long time. A buzzard was flying not far above the tree. Maybe it was a hungry pine marten?

Monday, 26 March 2012


It could have been a housing estate, with views to the Menai Strait and Eryri as a backdrop, but instead it’s a nature reserve. Transferred from the council to North Wales Wildlife Trust for the sum of £1 - a large expanse of meadows and woodland just a few minutes walk from Ysbyty Gwynedd. Three schools are on the boundary making it a perfect outdoor classroom.

Ben Stammers and Chris Wynne explain what makes it so special and the challenges ahead in managing it as a reserve with SSSI status on account of rare fungi.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Iolo's Wild Wales

FREE COPY of Iolo’s Wild Wales 3 disc DVD box set RRP £17.99 [WE HAVE RUN OUT OF COPIES SO THIS OFFER NO LONGER AVAILABLE. You will need to order elsewhere.]

The first five people to phone through and order a new Natur Cymru subscription will receive a copy of Wild Wales, first shown on BBC in three, one hour episodes, which is being released as a DVD box set on 9th April.

Here’s what one reviewer said about it:

The series was broadcast in three, one hour episodes: The Beautiful South, Heart of Wales and The Rugged North. Much of the most spectacular footage from Secret Life of Birds made its way into this production interspersed with red deer on Ramsey, bats, stoats, waxcaps, the Radnor lily, jumping salmon, red squirrels, sand lizards, otters, Risso’s dolphins, arctic charr, purple saxifrage, bottlebrush mosses, fallow deer, feral goats and seals on Bardsey.

New footage on birds included spectacular dives of an osprey into the Dwyryd estuary. After several attempts a fish was caught then repositioned mid flight, to be head first aero dynamic, as the bird flew at eye level past Portmeirion’s visitors seemingly oblivious to the natural spectacle.

It’s the sort of programme that makes you feel Grand Slam proud to be Welsh!

CALL 01248 387373 to take advantage of this offer: if you leave a message, please remember to give your phone number and mention Wild Wales.  Five copies available. Please have your credit / debit card details ready. 

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Living Wales & the ecosystems approach

Janes Potočnik
‘Resource efficiency is not a choice, it is inevitable. Our choice is whether to develop it now, or whether we wait until we are forced to when critical resources are exhausted and expensive. During the 20th century the world population grew four times, its economic output 40 times. We increased our fossil fuel use 16 fold, our fishing catches by a factor of 35 and our water use 9 fold. It was called the great acceleration, but I am afraid that we might hit the wall soon. 

The business as usual scenario tells us that we would need three times more resources by 2050. But already 60% of the world’s major ecosystems on which these resources depend are degraded or are used unsustainably. So business as usual is not an option.’ 

Janes Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment, 
12th December 2011.

Here in Wales we recently took part in the UK assessment which showed a much better situation with a mere 30% of our ecosystems damaged! That’s the wake-up call, now we need action and the Living Wales programme may yet save us from ourselves. But what is it? Will it change the way we do things? Will it stop anomalous decisions such as Pembroke Power Station

Pembroke Power Station - picture by Martin Caveney
If you want a layman's overview of Living Wales and the ecosystems approach you can click here to read the article published in edition 42 of Natur Cymru.   

Monday, 19 March 2012

Is she pregnant?

Above the railway one of the female goats had a kid at the beginning of March. Most of the time she stays on a steep bank surrounded by a dense expanse of gorse making it difficult for foxes to creep up on her kid. 

Meanwhile below the railway there is lots of expectancy (on my part at least) but still no kids. Yesterday I was alarmed to see an expectant nanny clambering over a barbed wire fence. Or have I got it wrong and she’s not pregnant?

Friday, 16 March 2012

Counting and measuring limpets in Pembrokeshire

Dale Fort have a couple of places left on their 'Population, ecology and sampling of rocky shores' course which starts on 22nd March 2012. To find out more or to book please contact Dale Fort Field Centre on 01646 636205 or email

A version of the article below, written by John Archer-Thomson (from Dale Fort), appears in the current / spring edition of Natur Cymru.

Limpets, limpets everywhere but……… How many? Are they changing? Is this normal? How do we know? John Archer-Thomson emphasises the importance of long running data sets to get a true measure of the impact of disasters such as the Sea Empress.

Dale Fort is one of the Field Studies Council’s (FSC) residential Field Centres and has been so for over 60 years. The FSC has three Welsh Centres, one in Snowdonia and two in Pembrokeshire: Dale Fort’s speciality is marine and coastal ecology. I first joined the teaching staff in September 1982: at that time one regular student investigation looked at the population dynamics of common limpets on a moderately sheltered rocky shore called 'Frenchman’s Steps'. We investigated the vertical range of the limpets (how high and low they could live on the shore); their size range and how this might vary with height; and also how their numbers (abundance) varied up and down the shore. Immersion time in sea water decreases significantly with increasing height up a shore, consequently shores exhibit a pronounced environmental gradient from top to bottom. Salty but essentially terrestrial conditions exist at the top of the shore: marine conditions prevail at the base. As a result rocky shores are fascinating places in which to conduct ecological investigations.

The method for data collection is simple. Groups of students are spaced at regular intervals along a tape measure, which runs parallel with the water’s edge, at the known starting height near the base of the shore. Each group has a 50 x 50cm quadrat (sample area) in which they measure the longest diameter of all the limpets they can find, recording the measurements in 5mm size classes. Groups then move up the shore to the next height (75cm above) and repeat the process, continuing upwards at regular height intervals until they run out of limpets to measure. In official sampling terms this is an interrupted belt transect at 75cm vertical height intervals, with up to ten replicates at each height. Results are then standardised so that they are comparable despite originating from different numbers of groups / replicates.

Typical results
Numbers are lower at the top of the shore because of factors such as dehydration and temperature stress: they are also lower at the bottom of the shore because, although conditions are much better for marine organisms, there are issues such as competition for space (with other species better suited to this part of the shore). Indeed, on this particular shore the substrate becomes less suitable as there are more pebbles and less solid rock for limpets to attach to. Optimum conditions, between these two extremes, are to be found in roughly the middle of the shore, so this is where limpet numbers peak. 

Typically most limpets are to be found in the 10-14.99mm size class. To analyse this data we make an assumption that limpet size varies with age, the largest therefore being the oldest. This is a reasonable assumption for any individual shore but definitely not safe if comparing limpets on different shores. Growth rate in limpets is indeterminate, with no fixed maximum, and very sensitive to food supply. There are fewer big (old) limpets because they die (disease, predation etc.). There appear to be fewer small (young) limpets as they are much more difficult to see because of their diminutive size: young limpets tend to live in damp microhabitats such as crevices where they are difficult to spot.  Small limpets grow more quickly and would move into larger size classes relatively quickly.

Limpets also seem to get bigger (on average) with increasing height up the shore. Explanations for this vary and indeed the strength of the trend varies considerably from shore to shore, although it has been a constant in the Frenchman’s Steps data. Most small limpets are to be found on the lower part of the shore, which is immersed for longer periods, because this is where the  limpet larvae settle when they leave their planktonic phase behind them and their thin shells mean they are prone to desiccation. One theory suggests that as limpets grow they need more space so they migrate upshore to where there is less competition for a place on the rocks. This is fine, although some workers disagree that this occurs, but it does seem to conflict with another known aspect of limpet behaviour, that of  'homing'. Limpets have a place on the rocks they return to after foraging for food (they eat green seaweeds, lichens and the biofilm of microscopic algae and cyanobacteria on the rock surface. They scrape their food off the rocks with a tongue-like structure called a radula). In experiments I have done with student groups, 'homing' is over 95% successful. This rather contradicts the idea of limpets migrating up the rocks into space. A suggestion which makes sense is that homing is the norm until the limpet outgrows (or gets ousted from) its home scar, then it migrates up the rocks into space where a new home scar is instigated.

Sea Empress
Student groups vary in their motivation and competence and hence the quality of their results but I decided to keep the sets of data we had collected without being entirely sure why! Then, in 1996, the Sea Empress tanker threw 72, 000 tons of Forties Blend, light crude oil over the coast of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and Frenchman’s Steps got its fair share. Suddenly my (warts and all) student data looked very interesting as a record of what was there before the spill. Mortality rates were in the region of 50% for our shores around Dale Fort. Other shores fared rather worse – West Angle Bay suffered close to 95% mortality. The size data showed a shift in the modal class from the 'normal' 10-14.99mm size class to the 15-19.99mm one. Oil kills limpets and young ones are particularly susceptible, hence the shift in the modal class. Within a year, perhaps surprisingly given the extent of the spill, numbers had recovered to within what might be considered a normal range, but the size class data were still skewed to the right. Within two years the modal class had returned to the typical 10-14.99mm slot and the population was back (in gross terms) to what might be considered normal. The rate of apparent recovery was surprisingly rapid.

I wasn’t entirely happy with the quality of the pre-pollution data though, and I wished to know what represented a 'natural' variation in the population of limpets on Frenchman’s Steps. From 1996 onwards, every April, a group of post-graduate students from the University of Leuven, Belgium, and latterly the teaching staff at Dale Fort, has monitored the population and Figure 1 shows the results to date. There are two 1996 data sets (in yellow) as I wished to demonstrate that although this is student data, these two data sets taken within a fortnight of each other, by two different school groups, were remarkably and  reassuringly close to each other. Since then the size class data has resolutely stayed in the 10-14.99mm size class so this seems to be 'normal'. The number of limpets has varied, albeit within what seemed reasonable limits, until 2010 when results exceeded all previous years by so much that I thought my conscientious teaching staff had done it too well! When we all collected data in April 2011 the results showed record breaking numbers of limpets on the shore, confirming that the 2010 data was not a blip. 2011 was a very good year for limpets!

What happens next? It is tempting to speculate that the numbers present on the shore in 2011 are unsustainably high so monitoring will continue to see what happens – roll on next April!

Although counting and measuring limpets in little blue squares may not be considered cutting edge science I think the exercise has tremendous value. Long term data sets showing variation (or lack of it) in 'natural' populations are not that common. It is unwise to speculate on the effects of pollution, climate change etc. if the information about natural fluctuations in populations is not available. I think students benefit educationally from seeing how data they have collected fits into a bigger picture and has relevance to the real world in which, unfortunately, oil spills occur.

John Archer-Thomson is Assistant Head of Centre at the Field Studies Council’s Dale Fort Field Centre. 

Taxonomic note: I have been deliberately vague about the species of limpet we are talking about here. The common limpet (Patella vulgata) is likely to make up the bulk of the experimental population but I can’t rule out the presence of the china limpet (P. ulyssiponensis) more common on the lower shore and in pools and the black-footed limpet (P.intermedia) which seems to favour the lower shore and exposure to wave action. Telling the three species apart is difficult without removing the animal from the rock which stresses and possibly kills it. This would be totally unacceptable for student groups working on a regular basis in practical terms, and ethically best avoided unless scientifically essential. Frenchman’s Steps’ site characteristics favour an almost exclusive population of the common limpet hence the need to identify down to species level is unnecessary, especially considering the ethical cost.

Iolo's Secret Life of Birds

Free copy of Iolo’s Secret Life of Birds 3 disc DVD box set RRP £17.99 [THIS OFFER NO LONGER APPLIES. ALL 5 COPIES HAVE GONE. You will need to order elsehwere.]

The first five people to phone through and order a new Natur Cymru subscription will receive a copy of the Secret Life or Birds, first shown on BBC2 in five half-hour episodes, which is being released as a DVD box set on 9th April.

Here’s what one reviewer said about it:

For me there were plenty of secrets, some more spectacular than others: such as the aerial passing of freshly caught prey between a pair of hen harriers, or a tree creeper hollowing out a cosy sleeping hole in the bark of a giant redwood. More harrowing though was the story of the pigeons; diligently building their nest in Cardiff, taking turns to sit on eggs for three weeks, despite the rain, then four days of feeding until the sparrowhawk arrived - cruel curtains for the chicks as the helpless parents watched on. I think it makes a fantastic introduction or a great reminder of the rich variety of our bird life across Wales and aspects of behaviour most of us miss; both an inspiration and a snapshot in time.

CALL 01248 387373 to take advantage of this offer: if you leave a message, please remember to leave your phone number and mention the Secret Life of Birds.  Five copies available. First come, first served. Please have your credit / debit card details ready. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

When the tide goes out - zostera!

Zostera marina
An equinoctial spring tide is a great time for exploring Porth Dinllaen and Ivor Rees had agreed to meet me there to explain the zostera beds for Country Focus (broadcast on 25th March). Lying flat on the sands were thin green blades about 30cm long which in summer will be between 100cm and possibly 200cm. This is Zostera marina, a flowering seagrass, the larger of three species. 

It’s neither threatened nor rare but this is the only (unless anyone knows differently?) place in Wales where you can see it without diving. The beds at Porth Dinllaen cover an area of about twelve hectares and it spreads either by rhizome or by seed. If I return in September I will find seeds stuck in the stems of the zostera.

On a nearby outcrop of rock there was a profusion of all sorts of seaweeds and I naïvely asked Ivor how these differed from zostera – they’re algae whilst zostera is a plant with a totally different reproductive system. 

Zostera beds are important fish nurseries for many species and off the south coast of England this is where sea horses will be found; but for the moment our waters are too cool for them.

We were not the only explorers on the beach, Chris Richardson, head of Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences, was there with a group of students. As well as looking at the zostera beds, and identifying goodness knows how many species and organisms, they were hunting razorfish. First identify a likely looking entrance to a razorfish burrow then pour on some salt and a few minutes later out pops a razorfish.  

As we walked over the normally sea covered sands other tasty fruits of the sea were wondering where the water had gone. King scallops were perfectly camouflaged, the bright shell buried on the underside and a plantation of seaweeds on top – then they would blow their cover by squirting water if you came too close. A sad looking lobster was trapped in a pot, other lobsters were seen lurking in puddles beneath rocks. Plaice, wrasse and prawns briefly marooned in puddles until the turn of the tide.   

What a beautiful beach. I must return with snorkel.   

Friday, 9 March 2012

Collateral damage – roads and the plight of sand martins

Flying across the Sahara sounds dangerous whereas landing on Anglesey relatively safe - but no.

There are five or so coastal colonies of sand martins on the island and one in the middle where the A5 and A55 cross the Cefni. Concrete structures either side of the river have low-lying drainage holes with nesting appeal. In recent years sand martins have found these irresistible, laid their eggs and maybe hatched them by the time spring tides swelled upstream and drowned them. 

Last year, Ffred, from Kehoe Countryside Ltd, was commissioned by Jill Jackson of the North Wales Trunk Road Agency to build a sand martin wall. Half the drainage holes were blocked with chicken wire and 6 of the 96 new nesting holes were used. It seems the birds are not too bothered by the sound of traffic whizzing past. 

To build on that success another wall has been commissioned on the opposite bank and all of the drainage holes will be blocked. Construction has been completed just in time for the arrival of the early migrants.

Here’s what the building site looked like in early March.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

New kids and a greater horseshoe

I caught a glimpse of a solitary black headed goat on the horizon. Hidden out of sight amongst the flowering gorse was her young kid. Not sure how old it was but it kept up with Mum, moving quickly across the mountain to their castle retreat.

As if that was not enough joy for one day; Jean and Sarah from the Bat Group called round to check the adits.  The old mine by the waterfall, with its curtain of rain at the entrance, is normally empty but had a lonely lesser horseshoe with the whole place to itself. As for the main adit that two years ago had 116 lesser horseshoes, there were only 44, maybe reflecting the late date of survey. But what a consolation - in amongst the lessers was a greater horseshoe!

These are seriously rare in north Wales, maybe just a handful.  There has been a greater horseshoe in residence in Maentwrog for a couple of years; was this the same one or a new one? Impossible to say. But if it hangs around long enough it might get ringed. Ringing bats is a bit trickier than birds as the wing-type membrane extends to the ankle.

Jean lifted this one from its hanging position to discover it was a male then carefully hung it back to the roof. I wish I’d seen it. I normally go in but wimped out at the prospect of being waist deep with leaky waders. This is what it was like inside on a previous survey:

The following day I went to check up on my other gang of goats, the warden’s favourites as they munch their way through the Maentwrog nature reserve.  No sign of any kids but one female looked bulkier than normal. It’s not easy to tell with the long shaggy coats.