Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Hedgehogs and docks

Helping a friend reclaim an overgrown garden in Blaenau Ffestiniog, uprooting nettles, reeds and various self seeding shrubs. Stick in the fork, press down, push forward, wiggle it about and out they pop.

I pressed the fork towards some reeds with leaves piled around and prodded a sleeping hedgehog. The spiky ball seemed OK .... no blood, no damage hopefully. As I put it back into the pile of leaves I could see there was another one. I haven’t seen a live hedgehog for years. This was a real treat.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day I dug out the largest dock roots you can imagine  - the full length of my garden fork. Shame there isn’t a competition for the largest dock.  

I logged on to COFNOD, the north Wales record centre, and recorded my hedgehog sightings under the hedgehog survey section. There did not seem to be anywhere to record my amazing dock roots.

Thursday, 25 October 2012


Bumblebees have undeniable appeal. They look like tiny flying teddy bears, and their ability to take off is aeronautically implausible. This popularity has stimulated the formation of an energetic Bumblebee Conservation Trust. It has also encouraged a number of excellent publications.

Twenty years ago the first edition of Bumblebees was published. One of a series of ecology and identification handbooks for naturalists, it has been substantially revised for this latest, third edition. It is much more than an identification guide, dealing extensively with the natural history of bumblebees.  This is based around the original research of one of the authors, and the final chapter contains useful information to help anyone interested in doing their own research to get started.

Several questions buzzed around my brain as I read this splendid handbook. I remembered that Alan Morley had written about unseasonal winter activity from buff-tailed bumblebee queens in Natur Cymru edition 10. It turns out that this species is regularly found starting a winter nesting cycle. A couple of bumblebee species that I see fairly regularly are not included as recent records on the map for my County, but the text makes clear that some areas are not well recorded, and the onus is on me to pass my records on!

As well as maps at the end of the book showing the distribution of species, there are many line drawings and superb plates contributed by Tony Hopkins. They add detail and delight to a wonderfully informative text about a fascinating group of insects.

James Robertson
Editor of Natur Cymru
This review was first published in the summer edition of Natur Cymru, June 2012  

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Heritage Trees Wales

    BUY NOW    
76 trombones in the big parade but only 74 trees in Wales make it into Heritage Trees. A handsome book to dip into and delve around. Nothing too weighty or pompous; good stories well told, leaving you wanting more as opposed to yawning.   

Garthmyl, a small village between Welshpool and Newtown, is not a well known place but important in our family as where my mother grew up. I never thought it would also be home to two (or 3%!) of these nationally famous trees.  The Garthmyl Oak being one and the Garthmyl  Cedar of Lebanon the other. The latter has a chandelier dangling from a lower bough so that the caretakers-come-owners can enjoy it by night!

The book begins with a serious foreword from Pauline at the Tree Council stressing that UK governments, including Wales, do little or nothing to protect these trees.  ...’many could be felled tomorrow without penalty. The value of these trees, these Green Monuments, is already formalised in other countries.’

I just spent £350 having tree surgeons dangle on ropes cutting out the dead and removing 10% of the canopy so that our Scots Pine will keep on growing – maybe the 30th reprint of Heritage Trees Wales in 2212 will include it if we’ve done the work well and we’re lucky. 

The Scots Pine we care for

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Economics of Happiness at Caffi Gwynant

EcoBro presents dinner and The Economics of Happiness at Caffi Gwynant on Friday 9th November, 7 pm. On the menu there are the following local delights:


Anglesey bacon chop topped with Welsh rarebit served with roasted baby potatoes and steamed greens

Glaslyn salmon and dill fishcakes on leek tagliatelle served with roasted baby potatoes

Homemade autumn vegetable crumble: parsnips, sweet potato, carrots, butternut squash and swede in a cider cream sauce topped with a Dragon cheddar and oat crumble served with roasted baby potatoes


Homemade treacle and stem ginger tart served with custard

Homemade pumpkin cheesecake served with Welsh Maid vanilla ice cream

All places must be booked and all meals pre-ordered by 4th November. Please contact Paula on williamspaula1@talk21.com or 01766 890855

Sunday, 21 October 2012


AGMs can be stuffy formalities but I really enjoyed the Snowdonia Society’s. Eighteen of us met at the Ganllwyd village hall for a pre-meeting walk led by Rhodri Wigley, the National Trust’s ‘ranger’ for Meirionnydd. Autumn colours, warm sun and blue sky brought out the best in the woodlands above Dolmelynllyn.
Rhodri at Rhaedr Ddu

Much work has been done in recent years leading up to last year’s 75th anniversary of the property being in National Trust ownership. Among the many buildings on the estate is Nant Las, a romantic one bedroom self-catering cottage which used to be the observatory. Below it, the pond has been renovated with a new concrete outflow to channel stormwater onwards to the river below. I’d noted the work when driving past on the main road and had wondered what was the point of the boulders in the otherwise smooth outflow. They are intended to provide breaks in the current for exhausted salmon making their way upstream; until now the bottom of the outflow was the highest point they have reached.

The restoration of the bee bole wall posed some discussion. Could there really have been 46 skeps (wicker basket type hives) in this many alcoves? Air traffic control would have been a bit like Heathrow. Here’s some footage of the stonemason at work re-building the wall in 2011.

Sadly the restoration of an old tree we passed is beyond the miracles of the National Trust and the colony of tree lungwort will perish when it eventually falls. 

Tree lungwort
I had looked at the front of Dolmelynllyn Hall many times and admired the elaborate first floor bay window but never realised until Rhodri explained that is was built with the uprights of a four poster bed, its headboard and footboard.  

After lunch in the village hall we held our AGM with the only sticky point being an exchange of views on developments at the Llanbedr airfield. More tea and cakes were followed by an enjoyable talk from John Lloyd Jones titled ‘A farmer’s view of Snowdonia’.

Who's been sitting on my bench?

Monday, 15 October 2012

Power of the Plas

It was one of the first houses in Wales to have electricity with a Gilkes turbine installed in 1905. This was used until 1928; presumably made redundant by the opening of the much larger Maentwrog hydro scheme which was big enough to power all of north Wales. Since then nuclear has been and (almost) gone from Trawsfynydd and in a few months The Plas will be back to having its own hydro power generated by yet another Gilkes turbine.

Construction is fraught with conservation complication. Work on the turbine end, alongside the main road, can only be done in the summer months so as not to disturb bats. Trench work at the top end has to wait until the ecologist confirms ground nesting birds have fledged. The section through the orchard to the road has to avoid anthills. And then there are trenches beneath highly prized trees, such as the huge limes and the ‘Tree of Heaven’, which have to be hand dug to preserve the roots.

The scheme will cost £420K and, at current electricity prices, is expected to have a ten year payback. Generating 100,000 Kw a year that’s enough for about fourteen normal households.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Mandy McMath

We were all gathered at the beautiful little church at Aberffraw for a very sad reason, the funeral of a much loved and admired friend and colleague, Mandy McMath. The church was packed, and I’m sure many of us reflected that our passing would be unlikely to draw such a crowd. People had travelled a long way to pay their last respects, and it was telling to appreciate how much Mandy had meant to several different circles of people – family, colleagues, the wider world of marine biology, and, significantly, the local community of Aberffraw. Those of us who knew of her passion for marine mammals learnt about her passion for gardening; this was well known to people in Aberffraw, but they may not have known how much she had achieved in her professional life.

Such occasions can be morbid, but despite the suddenness of her death at the very early age of 57, which was shocking, Mandy’s own attitude to life and to her illness, the way the service was conducted and the warmth of the tributes made, buoyed us all up. This was a gathering which we would not forget easily. I took away the thought that we should value each other more.

James Robertson

You can read about Mandy McMath’s life and achievements by clicking here 

Here is some recent footage of Mandy introducing Iolo to the seals around Bardsey:

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Renewable Energy and Biodiversity Impacts - IEEM 2012 Autumn Conference - in Cardiff 7th to 8th November

In the face of climate change and targets to reduce carbon emissions, renewable energy technologies are globally recognised as a critical part of the solution. However, the siting, design and operation of many renewable developments often bring significant conflict with biodiversity.

 What you will learn?

1. Knowledge of the evolving policy context, economic constraints and incentives that apply to the renewable energy and how these influence decision making
2. Identification of key issues that renewable technologies raise for ecologists and environmental managers
3. How the latest research is filling gaps in our ecological knowledge
4. How renewable technology developments can apply best practice to protect and conserve the most ‘at risk’ habitats and species

Key speakers include Tony Juniper and Jane Davidson

Full programme info and details of how to book your place please visit the IEEM website.

Conference supported by Community Windpower

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Old wood sheds new light

Richard Suggett, from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCA&HMW), gave an excellent lecture to the Meirionnydd History Society titled Searching for the Oldest Houses in Wales.

1402 seems to be the date of the oldest (dated) house in Wales that we know of and that’s Hafod y Garreg, near Builth Wells, described on the Alastair Sawday website as a particularly fine B&B! It’s thought that during the crushing of the Owain Glyndŵr rebellion (1400 to 1410) all other buildings of any significance were destroyed.

Tree ring dating, or dendrochronology, is the technology that gives us the scientific certainty of 1402. This involves taking a fat, pencil-shaped core out of beams and then measuring the growth rings of the tree to match the rings with known growth norms. In a cold year the rings are very thin, whereas in a warm year, with a good supply of rain, the rings are thicker etc. There’s a lot of skill and know-how in doing this including taking a sample which starts from the outermost skin of the tree towards the centre of the trunk. The outermost skin of the tree is called sapwood and this, especially in a 400 to 500 year old beam, can be very crumbly and prone to disintegrate. If the sapwood crumbles away, the best you can achieve, because these represent the final years of growth, is a date range as opposed to a specific year.

The technology is relatively new but since the 1980s its use has grown dramatically with about 250 houses in Wales now dated. Of these, about a third have been tree-ring dated as part of the Dating Old Welsh Houses Project which has been led by Margaret Dunn. This has radically changed our understanding of the local architectural scene and in particular the ‘Snowdonia house’.

After Glyndŵr the first significant houses or ‘hall houses’ to be built were quite grand or very high status buildings – built by people with the most power and wealth. Examples include Abbey Farm (1441) by Cymer Abbey, just north of Dolgellau, or Plas Uchaf (1435) which is not far from Corwen. Plas Uchaf was restored by The LandmarkTrust and is now available as holiday accommodation. 

From 1450 to 1500 most of the surviving buildings are referred to as ‘gentry halls’ i.e. quite posh whereas most of the buildings from 1500 to 1550 are ascribed the term of ‘peasant halls’ - the same basic shape or design as the posh version but much smaller and less grand. Then came the ‘Snowdonia house’, built on two floors with a substantial staircase.

The earliest Snowdonia house, with the date of 1585 inscribed on it, was thought to be the start of the era for this style of building. New evidence has blown this wide open and we now think the Snowdonia house started to appear in 1515 and that the style was fully matured by 1557. An example being Plas y Dduallt (trees chopped down between 1559 to 1565) with farm buildings now converted into excellent self-catering accommodation called Campbell's Cottage - historic homes and holidays are a good match!

Without the research of the Dating Old Welsh Houses Project with the support of the RCA&HMW we might never have known this. Whereas northwest Wales was previously considered an architectural backwater it is now considered to have been an area of great innovation, not just a belated follower of fashion.

Thank you Richard for an excellent lecture. Thank you Margaret for leading our project and congratulations on being made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. For she’s a jolly good …..

If you’d like to know more about, or get involved with, the Dating Old Welsh Houses Group - click here.  

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Mushroom Mogul

In 2004 Cynan Jones took part in the wild mushroom course at Plas Tan y Bwlch and now he’s a mushroom mogul running The Mushroom Garden. He started with shiitake and now provides a whole range of gourmet products based on those fungi. It was great to see him in action at Beddgelert (and live on S4C) launching the new products.

Umami powder .... ‘it’s that fifth taste on your tongue, well liked by the Japanese’ ... a blend of seaweed, Halen Môn Sea Salt and shiitake cultivated in Cynan’s shipping containers. He’s teamed up with a local chocolatier in Llan Ffestiniog to make an Umami flavoured chocolate.

Mushroom caviar is a mix of Snowdonia shiitake with laver bread from the Gower. I took some home with me and can vouch that it’s great on a canapé but too much garlic for vampires.

Washed down with a glass of Cwrw Madarch, a pale ale made with dried shiitake at a micro brewery in south Wales  .... what more could one want?

From what I gather these product collaborations have been encouraged by Menter a Busnes – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts? or something like that. Good stuff.

Here is Cynan talking about his new products:

Monday, 1 October 2012

An introduction to an island.

Ynys Llanddwyn has been a part of a holy pilgrimage route for hundreds of years. Whilst those pilgrims knew that the small island off the south-west coast of Sir Fon, surrounded by even smaller islands, was a destination for them, little did I know that the island would be my first destination of a real job after graduating.

I graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in Biology and secured a trainee placement as part of the conservation team with the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW). I am primarily based on Ynys Llanddwyn and Newborough Warren national nature reserve under the guidance and supervision of Graham Williams the senior reserve manager. I realise how lucky I have been to gain this placement considering the current employment woes for graduates and also to learn so much more about an area that I have always enjoyed for its natural beauty. Ynys Llanddwyn successfully attracts people from around the world to share and enjoy the many aspects it has to offer.

Ynys Llanddwyn is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, some nationally scare. Many species are specialists to the habitats that they are found in, on the island. The habitats themselves are diverse as they range from rocky out-crops to heath-land type habitats. The island is a thriving hot-spot for wild life enthusiasts particularly as it is host to many bird species. 

During the early part of July, there were three ground nesting Ringed Plover nests on the island. Unfortunately all three nests perished. Although it isn't possible to pin-point the exact reason why they perished, it could be due  to the constant disturbance from humans that caused the birds to leave the nest for long enough periods of time to allow predation from crows. Dogs on the island can too, be a thorn in a warden’s side as they can disturb nesting birds a lot. Hence between May and the end of September there is a ban on bringing dogs onto the island, although this isn't always honoured. So to anyone reading this, pass the message on and it will be much appreciated! The island is for everyone to enjoy and use, including the wildlife and as part of CCWs' work, we want to ensure the future success of breeding birds.

Additionally the island attracts flocks of Gannets, lured  by schools of mackerel. Watching Gannets diving into the sea is brilliant and fascinating. I could stand for ages watching them. Cormorants and Shags can be seen resting on a rocky out-crop just off the west side of the island known as Ynys-yr-Adar (Bird Island). Chough too have been a welcome site this year on the island, showing signs of strengthening population numbers. These birds are very interesting to watch in flight as they dive and swoop and their call is distinctive too.

Ynys Llanddwyn also boasts an impressive collection of plant life. The nationally scare Golden Samphire can be found on rocky cliffs. Bell heather can also be found on heath type habitats. Work has also been carried out to restore hay-meadows on the island. Yellow rattle is one species that has been used as it is parasitic on grass species thereby slowing the rate at which it grows allowing wildflower species, for example sheep’s bit scabious, to establish and grow.

As part of the management of Ynys Llanddwyn, it is grazed by four Welsh ponies. By keeping the faster growing species of grass at a lower level, other species have more chance to establish, thereby increasing the biodiversity of plant life and as an extension of that can provide more food resources for different invertebrates and birds. They are generally left alone to get on with their job but all are very characterful and I have seen them sunbathing on the beaches.

During early August, archaeological and restoration work began on the remains of the church on the island. The earliest part of the church is said to date back to the 13th century with additions being made until the 16th century. The church was pillaged for a lot of its stone during the reformation so it is possible that a lot of it is spread across Anglesey. The main aim was to restore the arch of the window on the east side, that collapsed in the 1950s but a lot has been discovered too. A porchway into the church had been uncovered and is thought to have been the last area of the building to be used for services before the church was abandoned. The bottom stairs of a sandstone, spiral staircase were uncovered too as well as the base stones of the chancel arch. All of which are helping to piece together the history of the church. The history of Llanddwyn is extensive and I could write a book so this is very brief and there is a lot more to tell. For more information though, take a look at the Countryside Council for Wales' website. The BBC recently made a report on the work and when the work is complete there will some official opening of the site in early 2013.