Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Corks or screw tops?

The other night I watched a film created by Mike Salisbury (for BBC Natural World) about the cork oaks in southern Portugal.  If you ever see it, you will think twice before buying wine with screw top or plastic stoppers – cork is best, at least for wildlife.

Cork is the traditional way of sealing wine and the bark of these magnificent oaks is harvested every nine years without hurting the trees. A single tree can produce 4,000 corks with workers using sharp axes to cut long lengths which are peeled away, stacked high on a trailer and taken to the cork factory. Biodiversity blossoms in these cork forests with a rich mix of birdlife, 26 species of bats and black pigs feasting on the acorns.

All worked well until something happened ... I’m not sure if it was the lure of EU farm payments resulting in less production or the sudden dramatic growth of wine consumption in the 1980s. But either way the result was that cork producers could not keep up with demand. This period coincided with some dodgy corks hitting the market with dodgy meaning contamination with TCA (TriChloroAnisole), the principal cause of corked wine.  

Enter the plastic stoppers and metal screw tops. Game over? The film shows the work of a passionate man called Francisco keeping his part of the forest alive and productive. New procedures have eliminated almost all incidence of TCA through a double dunk of the raw cork into boiling water. But alas the ease of screw top use is here to stay. It’s just too convenient although wine merchants and supermarkets tend towards cork for their more expensive bottles.

Does it affect the quality? For my own part the thought of that abundant wildlife would enhance the perceived quality beyond all measure.

As for the film, I enjoyed it as an event laid on by the Snowdonia Society. Events in March include an introduction to hand-made dancing clogs with Trefor Owen of Cricieth on 6th March and a guided walk amongst the rare native wild daffodils of Snowdonia led by Rod Gritten on the 26th March.  For more details on either of these events please contact huw@snowdonia-society.org.uk

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Ugly House Beautiful Benches

The walk around the woodlands is a twisted maze of narrow paths, bluebells pushing through and late February snowdrops in bloom. Birds aplenty, not yet competing for nests. Freshly coppiced hazel has made way for more sunlight and opened up the views; the old walls of a terraced garden now plain to see but who built them and when?

Bob the Bench Builder

So much to soak up it’s best to dawdle, no need to close your eyes to think you’re in heaven. And it’s just got better - now you can dawdle on a seat.

Bob 'the Bench Builder' Cole, former chair of the Snowdonia Society, treated us to a woodfest of green bench-making. Using bits of trees from recent thinning and pruning, all part of a Better Woodlands Wales scheme, a series of benches has been built with the help of volunteers.

Tim the tearoom laid on a special lunch for the Friends of Tŷ Hyll (the volunteers) – real tea leaves needed the tea strainer and the home baked cream-jammed scones hit the spot. If you’re a member of the Snowdonia Society you get a 20% discount at this woodland oasis. You also get a generous 20% discount at Cotswold Outdoors. It pays to join the Snowdonia Society! 

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Snowdonia on Top

Following a recent survey to find out people's awareness of and opinions about National Parks in Britain, Snowdonia was at the forefront. Snowdonia National Park was found to be the most famous of all the National Parks in the United Kingdom.

This is the third survey in twelve years to be commissioned by the association representing the family of 13 National Parks in the United Kingdom, the Association of National Park Authorities.

According to the survey by rmgClarity, of all people questioned,

• Snowdonia National Park is the most famous of all of Britain's National Parks (24%), the Lake District is in second place (22%), and the Peak District in third (14%).
• 96% of people in Wales have heard about National Parks compared with 86% in Scotland and 89% in England.
• In terms of importance, 95% respondents in Wales said that National Parks are important, compared to 90% in England and 83% in Scotland.
• 96% of respondents thought that every child should have a first-hand experience of a National Park as part of their education.

The Chief Executive of Snowdonia National Park Authority, Aneurin Phillips, said ‘The results of this survey are very encouraging to us in Snowdonia. It highlights the importance of Snowdonia not only as a destination, but it also confirms how important it is to preserve the qualities that make Snowdonia such a special place. That is why it is our duty as a National Park to protect the landscape and wildlife, provide opportunities for people to enjoy and understand the area, promoting economic prosperity in Snowdonia at the same time. In addition, the survey also gives us guidance on the areas for development. We need to improve people's understanding of the work that the National Parks are doing and develop more contemporary methods of communicating with our audiences. We also need to work with other organizations in order to improve the provision of public transport to and within the Park. The challenge facing us now therefore is to ensure that this work is carried out for the benefit of future generations.’

Castaway for Bardsey

The Bardsey Island Trust is looking for an enthusiastic and self-motivated person to become part of the island community for 6 months this summer. They will be responsible for developing a volunteer programme and providing information about the island to visitors. They will work with individuals and groups on the island and produce leaflets, posters and text for use on the Trust website. The post requires good verbal communication skills in Welsh and English. Period of post: 6 months, 1st May 2013 to 31st October 2013. Annual salary equivalent: up to £18,000, pro rata.

For more information contact post@enlli.org applications need to be in by 12 noon on Friday 8th March 2013.


The Bardsey Island Trust owns and manages Ynys Enlli as an exemplar of sustainable Welsh Island life, with an active island community, maintaining a wildlife-rich environment and enhancing the lives of people - those that live locally and visitors. We aim to maximise the opportunities for people to visit the island, both as day visitors and for longer periods, offering the opportunity to understand the importance of the island, its buildings, its history and its cultural importance. The post of Island Information and Volunteer Officer is a new post in 2013, part-funded by the Countryside Council for Wales. The purpose of the post is to increase the number of volunteers contributing to the running of the island and the Trust and to provide information to a wide range of audiences about the importance of the island and the work involved in running it.

You must be able to take a full part in the life of the island, becoming a member of the island’s community and a member of a team. This will mean working closely with other members of the island’s community and you must be ready to respond with the appropriate assistance to other sectors of the community when others require your help.

This is what the island looks like on a summer's day:

Friday, 8 February 2013

Wild Things in Snowdonia

The fourth episode of Wild Things explores plant life in Snowdonia looking into our rainforests, the deadly threat of Rhododendron Ponticum, and the plight of juniper berries on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa. It will be shown on Channel 4 at 8:30 pm Monday 11th February.

Dr Trevor Dines from Plantlife Cymru
With help from Plantlife, the Botanical Society of the British Isles, the British Lichen Society and the British Bryological Society, as well as Bangor University and Treborth Botanic Garden, Wild Things opens up a completely different view on the world around us. The series has been produced by Caernarfon based TV company CwmniDa. Last week’s episode looked into London’s plant life including ‘chewing gum lichen’.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Gummed up Guillemots; Lessons for Wales

For several days last week the mainstream media ran vivid reports on Guillemots and Razorbills coming ashore in Dorset and Devon with their feathers gummed up by a “mystery” substance. There were speculative statements that it could be Palm Oil, so with the wonders of internet search engines this led to a marked jump in hits on an earlier Natur Cymru blog about Palm Oil lumps being mistaken for ambergris. More useful however might have been checking out websites that deal with the transportation of the range of vegetable oils.

Some interesting experimental releases of such oils were done in France to plan for accidents. Palm Oil itself has a pour point (the temperature at which it melts) well above our winter sea temperatures. In the experimental releases it was observed to form a scatter of small lumps, so it was a rather unlikely cause of the problem. Several of the other vegetable oils have lower pour points, but they have been found to polymerise in seawater as decay sets in, rather than forming the sticky mousse emulsions that crude oils frequently do.

After a vessel carrying Sunflower Oil capsized off Anglesey the fresh oil spread as a very thin slick. When reaching the shore it gave rocks the appearance of having a thin coat of varnish. Being non-toxic it did not cause limpets to drop off and it soon vanished. More surprising to those of us then new to vegetable oil spills, it sometimes formed elastic sheets at the edge of some high shore rock pools and turned into thousands of little lumps like pieces of discarded chewing gum. As it went rancid an aroma of less salubrious chip shops hung over a few beaches.

A problem in the recent South Coast incident was that in the absence of a ship reporting damage to its tanks, or perhaps to a tank on a container ship, no one seemed to know what the mystery substance was for several days. This had consequences both for tracing the likely source and for anyone attempting to treat wildlife casualties. Seen from a distance just through media reports, the process of getting even preliminary scientific analyses to type the substance seemed to be rather slow. This delay just added extra hype to the “mystery” and the report that it was a refined mineral oil still seems rather non-specific.

There are lessons in this incident for authorities in Wales, particularly for those responsible after 1st April when Natural Resources Wales (NRW) goes live. It is to be hoped that NRW will have adequate capability to get analyses of strange substances affecting wildlife done promptly without having to prevail upon the goodwill of distant laboratories in England.

In practice samples need to be collected and processed for two rather different purposes. The first one, to find out what it might be, needs to be done quickly and can be based on whatever can be got to a suitable lab. However duplicate or triplicate samples may also need to be taken that have to be much more carefully stored and properly sealed as forensic specimens. There are already established protocols for handling oil samples in case of subsequent legal proceedings.

To end, here is a cautionary tale. Many years ago at sea we happened to pass a mile or two from an oil drilling platform where well testing was taking place. This involved flaring off the flow of oil. From a distance with binoculars, in addition to clouds of black smoke billowing up from the flare, “rain” was visible dropping from the flame. Later that day and at a distance down tide of the platform we came across a mass of small black and slightly crisp oil pellets on the sea surface. A sample was picked up and, in due course via HM Coastguard, was sent for analysis. The lab reported that it had the characteristics of heavy fuel oil. This delighted the PR side of the oil company, though the operational people did admit that there had been incomplete combustion and modifications were made to the flare. The fractions of the oil burnt as it was sprayed through a flare would have been similar to the fractions taken off during refining.

This article was written by Ivor Rees

Polecats and Corks

Two outstanding wildlife films will be shown on Wednesday 20th February starting 7pm and introduced by their creators.

MASKED RAIDERS The Polecat Story.  Created by Geoff and Heather Gartside and narrated by Mike Salisbury. This dramatised film tells the story of how, by the end of World War One, polecats were brought to the very brink of extinction in Britain. What could have caused such a rapid decline and what is happening to the polecat today? The answers are intriguing!

Using dramatised re-constructions and little seen archive material, this film beautifully documents the intense, long running battle between gamekeepers and polecats. It's what almost caused the polecat's demise as a British mammal and their recovery from that dire situation is a story of survival against the odds.

CORK - Forest in a Bottle. Created by Mike Salisbury and narrated by Monty Don.  The Cork Oak forests of Southern Portugal, the Montado, form one of the most significant and beautiful wildlife areas in all of Europe.  Without coming to any harm, Cork Oaks can be stripped of their bark every nine years to be made into the billions of stoppers we use to close our wine bottles. The economic value of traditional cork production has protected this ancient landscape and its rich wildlife until today but more and more use of plastic stoppers and metal screw caps could bring huge changes.

This film follows a season in the remarkable natural history of the Montado and in the life of cork farmer Francisco Garrett who cares passionately about conservation.  He asks whether the future of so much wildlife could rest on the seemingly trivial choices that we might make as consumers of wine.

Wednesday 20th February at Y Caban , Brynrefail, Llanberis.

Two-course meal: £10 and booking is essential. Serving 6pm.
Watching the films: donations on the door (suggested minimum donation £3 for members, £5 for non-members).

Contact Snowdonia Society for more details: 01286 695498 info@snowdonia-society.org.uk

Monday, 4 February 2013

Sorry but no, it is not ambergris

Not Ambergris but Palm Oil
Walking an Anglesey beach after recent gales and noticing a few lumps of a waxy substance reminded me of the several occasions in the past when similar lumps were brought in to the Bangor University marine lab in Menai Bridge by people suspecting they had found ambergris. Used as an ingredient for some expensive perfumes, ambergris is highly prized. Sometimes it sells for over £250 a gram. It always seems rather bizarre that a constituent of cosmetics applied to high maintenance human females should originate in the intestines of a sperm whale. It is secreted by the whales as a waxy substance to limit injury to the lining of the gut by the beaks of the squid they eat. When freshly ejected it is said to have a faecal smell but, after months or years of floating on the sea, microbial and photo degradation in the presence of salt-water results in lumps that are usually grey and have a musky aroma. Currents, wind and waves disperse the lumps so they may wash up far from the regions of the ocean where the sperm whales were feeding.

On the west coast of Anglesey this autumn, and quite frequently in the past, lumps of a waxy substance have washed up. A bit like ambergris these lumps are greyish white on the outside, but they are bright yellow inside. Some lumps may be quite large so they would be worth a small fortune if they really had come from a whale. Their origin, though seeming mysterious to beach walkers, has a much more mundane explanation.

As well as ships carrying the crude oil, refined fuels and chemicals passing Welsh coasts, there are others carrying various vegetable oils in bulk. These go into a range of products including processed foods, biofuels and soap. Among the vegetable oils imported to the Mersey ports are derivatives of palm oil. Following initial separation, one fraction of palm oil becomes solid and waxy at the ambient temperatures of our seas. It therefore needs to be warmed before it can be pumped from the stainless steel tanks in the specialised ships. To expedite this, heating starts while the ships are still on passage. With thermal expansion and in rough weather some of the cargo may ooze out of access hatches or vents. This then may get washed overboard becoming the waxy lumps that wash up on beaches. The lumps get pecked by birds and other shoreline scavengers but even so they may take months to disappear.

As with mineral oils, it is probably microbes that are ultimately responsible for breaking down such materials man spills into the marine environment. While not having the charisma of sperm whales and the mystic of ambergris, marine microbes, with their huge biodiversity and capacity for providing ecosystem services, should not be overlooked.   

This post was written by Ivor Rees.