Friday, 31 May 2013

Talks from north Wales

I provide illustrated talks in north and mid Wales to groups such as U3A, Rotary, WI, Garden Clubs, National Trust Associations, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, Ramblers and so on. The fee for a talk depends upon the size of the audience and my travelling distance. Current talks on offer are:

Snowdonia and Triglav

Chamois; shammy leather?
In the early 1990s I was living and working in former Yugoslavia as it broke apart into separate countries including Slovenia. I spent many happy times in the Triglav National Park, in the north of Slovenia near the Italian border. To move to Snowdonia many years later and discover that two of my favourite places had been ‘twinned’ since 1993 was a great coincidence. They have much in common; both countries are small with their own languages and mountainous landscape. The talk compares and contrasts these two national parks - we’ve got wild goats, they’ve got chamois and ibex.  We used to have an alpine farming tradition, they still have. We’ve got a few arctic alpines but they’ve got masses.

Not Just a Pretty Place (updated)

Not Just a Pretty Place: Survival in Snowdonia is a book of 32 stories linked by the theme of survival. Some things are thriving whilst others, like the Snowdon Lily, are just hanging on. 'The stories link landscape, people and wildlife into an optimistic view of the future with subjects as diverse as the rare and elusive pine marten, freshwater pearl mussels and local foods.  Underneath the humour and optimism, however, there are serious messages about the viability of our lifestyles' - Iolo Williams.

I am always adding new stories and film clips into this talk to illustrate the central themes of the book i.e. if you heard it a couple of years ago it is significantly different today!

The House on the Black Hillside

We live in an ancient house where the modern extension was added in 1605. Built for a family of minor nobles, tracing their descent from Llywelyn the Great, it’s packed full of history and character. This talk explains the background to the house and the people who have lived in it including the charismatic Colonel Campbell. He brought the place back from dereliction in the 1960s and commuted to work in his private engine from Campbell’s Platform on the Ffestiniog Railway. Also included are the neighbours such as the ghost (the house was used as a location for filming an episode of Most Haunted), William Joyce or Lord Haw-Haw, who allegedly  was resident half a mile away at the outbreak of WWII and the wild mountain goats that roam the mountains and play havoc with some gardens. We have just had the house tree-ring dated as part of the project Dating Old Welsh Houses.

Plas y Dduallt
HuwTubeable in North Wales

This is based on film rather than photo for illustration. I love making short films and have published over 250 on YouTube under the names of HuwTubeable and NaturCymru. A typical talk would include 15 to 20 films of between 1 to 3 minutes which are grouped into themes and separately introduced. The choice of films depends upon what I think the target audience would appreciate; for example, Grass Snake in the Greenhouse might be good for a garden club. The formula works well with a much higher degree of interactivity than  normal – each film tends to provoke short comment and discussion whereas in a conventional slideshow there are usually just  questions at the end. No-one has fallen asleep in this one!

If you would like to make a booking please contact me by email or phone 01766 590272.


Siskin comes 1st in wildlife art competition

The first Natur Cymru wildlife art competition has been won by Chris Wallbank from Llanidloes for his painting of a Siskin. Chris will receive a cheque for £250 kindly sponsored by WWF Cymru.

On being told the results Chris said ‘I am delighted to win the Natur Cymru wildlife art competition and to have my work featured on the magazine front cover. I chose the subject of my entry, the Siskin, because it is a species I associate with the Welsh landscape and one of the first I remember being in awe of discovering close to home. To make the painting, I first set up a feeder outside my window and started drawing whatever it attracted. However, it was the unexpected motif of Siskin gathering amongst the blossom flowers of a wild cherry that ultimately absorbed my attention and made the session truly special.’ Chris’s work can be seen at

Anne Meikle, Head of WWF Cymru, said ‘WWF Cymru is delighted to support this competition. The standard of the entries received has been very high which demonstrates the deep connection that many people in Wales have with nature. It is important to use all media, particularly arts and literature, to bring the joy and wonder of nature to people who may not experience it themselves’.

Second prize has been awarded to Flintshire based artist Sharon Whitley for ‘Puffin’, which is on the front cover of the summer edition, with sand eels in its beak. ‘I love painting wildlife and birds in particular - Puffins are one of my favourite birds and I associate them with the Welsh coastline at this time of year having had the privilege to see them at South Stack’. Sharon’s prize is a £250 voucher towards the cost of a residential art course at Plas Tan y Bwlch - thank you Snowdonia National Park.

Third prize, a trip for two to Skomer donated by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, goes to Rich Edwards for his painting of a Jay’s Feather on Moss.

Fourth prize, a voucher for £100 of materials kindly provided by Ken Bromley Art Supplies, has been awarded to Emma Cownie for her painting of Rabbits.

We will use these and other entries in future editions of the magazine. Thank you to all the participants and sponsors of the prizes. Thank you also to the judges for making the choices – our judges included Alison from Oriel Alison Bradley and Mel Parry who is the designer of Natur Cymru. Last, but by no means least, Mandy Marsh the Natur Cymru Production Manager who has pulled together all 47 editions since its birth in 2001.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Tweeting an Earthquake

Was dawn chorus already under way, as I lay warm and snug, thinking about the day ahead and what it might bring? Then a growling rumble took centre stage. Did the birds stop singing, if indeed they had been mid song? First thought, it must be thunder. But when it carried on, second thought, maybe a Ffestiniog down train? When I reached the window it was silent, no train in sight and now the birds were definitely in full voice.

I settled back into bed and we discussed what on earth it could have been. Being a modern man of the Vale of Ffestiniog I reached for my SmartPhone and Tweeted my #earthquake report sparking off replies of similar soundings from Caernarfon, Dolgellau and Barmouth. 3.8 on the Richter scale on the Llyn Peninsula, the sort of tremor expected in the UK once every one or two years.

All very interesting BUT had the earthquake prompted the birds to sing, were they just tweeting like me? I Googled ‘birdsong and earthquakes’ taking me to an item on the RSPB site If a bird is suddenly awakened by a sudden noise like thunder, fireworks, earthquake, wartime bombing etc, even a sudden shaking of its roosting tree, it may burst into song.’ I guess the only way to check is to set my alarm for 4 tomorrow morning and listen out. 

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Harlech beach clean and feast

A dozen volunteers got stuck into the Portmeirion end of Harlech beach collecting all kinds of rubbish; orange string, green string, blue ropes, chunky ropes, plastic fish netting and so on but maybe not so many carrier bags as in previous years? Or is that wishful thinking that the bag charge is changing behaviour?

Pick-ups ferried sacks of rubbish to the car park with deep, drifting sand making it difficult to exit from the beach. Charging into the dunes the white 4x4s looked as though they were taking part in a trans Sahara rally.

By mid-afternoon sausages were sizzling over charcoal and wildlife guide Brian Macdonald was scanning the shimmering sea through his scope. Volunteers reappeared; must have been the long distance smell of sausages. They brought with them the odd bit of wildlife washed up in the strand line which Brian helped identify. I now know what to call that potato looking thing, a ‘potato urchin’ of course.
Jenny master chef

One of Brian’s specialities is to serve beach suppers with his guests helping gather edible seaweed, shellfish and driftwood for the fire. Today he brought mussels from Llandanwg placing them on racks above sawdust in a smoker sat on the barbecue. While they were smoking away he served mugs of crab bisque, made from one third shore crabs and two thirds edible crab. Chilled white wine was poured and then the mussels were ready, shells split open. Scooping out the orangey flesh with one half of the shell they slipped down a treat. Definitely not al dente.

smoked mussels
All blue sky, Snowdon clear, good company, good food and not a scrap of litter to be seen – job well done. Thank you to you volunteers who gave your time, thank you Jenny and the Snowdonia Society for organising the event, thank you Snowdonia National Park and Natural Resources Wales for laying on transport and thank you to Brian for a gastronomic delight. 

You can find out more about Brian’s wildlife guiding on his website. If you would like to join a Snowdonia Society volunteer event see the website for opportunities. 7th June is footpath maintenance on Snowdon and 15th June is dolphin surveying from the Great Orme.

If Brian was on Desert Island Discs I think he'd take the scope

Friday, 24 May 2013

Big Betws Trees - razed to the ground

Tree surgeons ALFA have done an excellent job in Betws y Coed felling three large trees between the church and Cotswold Outdoors. It’s always sad to see big trees going but from what I understand these need to go. A scan of the trees had shown significant decay in the trunks and one of them had a large split.

Large trees to the left have gone 
Why do I say ALFA Tree Services have done a good job? Apart from being thorough, diligent and tidy in the tree felling, they went out of their way to explain to people like me who question why these beautiful trees have to be felled.

The trees in question are nothing special by way of species, some form of cypressy pine not dissimilar to leylandii. They were planted about 140 years ago when the church was built and don’t belong in the centre of town – it would have been much wiser to have planted something more compact and manageable such as holly or yew.

This time lapse video shows the removal of the  trunks.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Otter Campsite

Otters were on the menu this weekend and when I told a friend I’d be joining in the big survey on the Dwyryd he replied that he’d been at a meeting in Porthmadog in March where the Welsh speech was being translated via headphones. In the middle of the speech several people left the room while he carried on listening. Much later over coffee one of the people who walked out asked him why he hadn’t bothered to go and see the otters. That bit of information had not been translated! Those that did go out witnessed an attack by a dog otter successfully defended by the mother protecting her young cubs in the harbour. What a magic moment that would have been to see.

After the Sunday breakfast briefing we split into groups and set off to our sections of the Dwyryd armed with empty bags for collecting spraint. Five of us had the section from the Maentwrog bridge up to Dol Moch bridge and during the day we bagged 25 samples which will be DNA analysed to potentially identify the sex and the individual otters operating on the Dwyryd.

The hot spot was the Llechrwd Campsite where the stream crossing underneath the main road meets the river; we collected 15 samples in this area. Three young lads camped at the junction of the stream with the river said they’d heard noises of rocks at night time. Maybe it was the otters. Just opposite was a large shelf beneath the bank going in about 4 or 5 feet with many spraints; a safe haven for resting up or feasting on fish.

We ate our picnic amongst the wild flowers and damselflies beside the river with a dipper bobbing up and down on the other side.  Sand Martins nest in the bank and, although we didn’t see any, there are occasional Kingfisher sightings.

What a beautiful camp site with wildlife on the doorstep. I think Dyfyrgi (otter) Campsite would make a much better name than Llechrwd Campsite.    

Here's Mary-Kate from the Snowdonia Society explaining the finer points of bagging the poo!

Royal Voyeur

Typing away I had the feeling that I was being watched. And sure enough I was, by royalty, a queen wasp voyeur. I keyed in ‘lifecycle wasp’ and was amazed. 100,000 species of wasp! My queen was moving slowly, evidently just awoken from her hibernation. I wonder which part of my study she’d been using, maybe a quiet bookshelf? Waking up on 18th May must be leaving it quite late?

Primed with the sperm of a last year’s drone (possibly several) this queen needs all the energy she can get to build her nest and start laying. At the start she is totally self-sufficient producing and caring for batches of sterile female workers which eventually take over the care and maintenance of the nest and the offspring.

Later that day there was a second wasp which emerged in the living room taking position on the rim of a glass of water. Maybe over-wintering close to the log burner had made it dehydrated.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Snowdon - safe and tidy

Helen where Pyg meets Miners
It’s a big old mountain to be in charge of with 400,000 walkers a year. Last year 187 of these had an accident and 8 or 9 were fatal. Helen Pye is the new warden, previously a warden in the Brecon Beacons, with mountain safety as her top priority. I joined her on patrol above Pen y Pass.

Fatalities tend to be participants in extreme activities, well planned and equipped but unfortunate to have an accident. Non-fatalities tend to be annoyingly avoidable, down to lack of planning or provisions and inappropriate clothing. 

As we walked she chatted to people we passed, many of whom were sensibly equipped, but some were ludicrous.  A woman with sunglasses on immaculate hair was indeed wearing boots, but knee-high with four inch heels! Her partner was in all the right gear; would this relationship survive?

Another woman in short shorts and T shirt was wearing a pair of plimsolls. When asked how she found them in terms of support she explained that she’d only worn them to come down but had gone up bare foot. 

A grateful walker hurrying down the mountain handed back the laminated A4 map Helen had given him earlier that day; yes, many people walk the mountains without a map, let alone a compass.

At Bwlch y Moch air-freighted bays of stone were ready for building a dry stone wall to steer all but the intentional away from Crib Goch.  Later and from way below on the Miners Track I watched through binoculars as three walkers crawled over the scary Crib.  

Helen’s other priorities include footpath maintenance and litter. The paths that I was on were in good shape, thanks in large part to Snowdonia Society volunteer workdays, but every now and again a boulder needed pulling out of a drain. The litter situation also seemed under control but Helen explained the wardens tried to keep these main paths as clear as possible, human herd instinct means we are less likely to litter a clean path.

As we walked we stuffed bits of rubbish into our rucksacks and near the end picked up a carrier bag of empty cans and bottles, neatly tied at the handles and stuffed into a drain. ‘Probably Three Peakers’ was the verdict. The sign in the toilets at Pen y Pass reflects their reputation as some of the worst offenders.  Snowdon is typically the last of the peaks attracting the worst of behaviour - TAKE IT HOME!

Friday, 17 May 2013

Have you got the energy to do something about it?

Charcoal maker at work
Rural Wales is being hit hard by rising energy costs.  A recent survey on the Llŷn found that 75% of households are in or at risk of fuel poverty, with the average household’s heating bill 65% higher than the UK average.  There are ways to heat and power homes which are not vulnerable to oil and gas prices and many businesses and families in Snowdonia are starting to use them.  

How much does it cost? Can it pay for itself? What effects has it had? Profiad Ni’s Open Doors Trail features 20 buildings across Snowdonia where visitors can see features like solar panels, heat pumps, biomass boilers, solar hot water systems and more. 

The Open Doors Trail will take place from the 24th to the 26th of May and is preceded by a week of shorter events (18th - 24th of May) including an Energy Bills Drop-in Clinic in Bangor, a tour of Derwydd farm in Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr which generates renewable electricity and a workshop on how to start community or privately owned hydro electricity projects at Plas Tan y Bwlch.  The full events timetable is available at

For my part I will be running a Natur Cymru / Snowdonia Society stall at the Green Shoots Sustainability Fair in Penrhyndeudraeth, Neuadd Goffa, from 10am till 4pm on Saturday 18th May and showing people around at Tŷ Hyll on Friday 24th May. 

Sunday, 12 May 2013

St Francis and the strimmer

My powerful Stihl strimmer helps me keep on top of the garden, eliminating bracken from the steep hillside to the railway and keeping reeds at bay. A bank of green grazing in a sea of gorse and bracken is very welcome to the farmer’s sheep and for the moment there’s a brilliant display of violets.

Where the vegetation is thick, around the edges of the orchard, it’s hard to see what creatures might be lurking in the undergrowth. That’s why the motto in our garden is rake first, strim second; the St Francis approach. 

My reward on a cloudy morning was a slow worm, barely warm enough to move, and a moth perfectly matched to its background of dead bracken and leaves. Can anyone tell me what sort of moth it is?

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Lekking Black Grouse

RSPB volunteer Barry Lynes led me up to the hide at Llandegla on a beautiful May morning to see the Black Grouse. Long before we got there the strange bubbly warbling sound of the males could be heard, quite haunting and surreal. Despite 400 metres between the hide and the lek the males could be seen with the naked eye, the sun glinting on their backs as they dashed around.

Barry focussed in with the scope and we were able to see the full splendour of the seven parading males with their white tail fans and the occasional charge to see off a rival. Now and again a hiss broke the sound of the warbling until by about 7:30 the bubbly sound subsided. The birds probably needed a breakfast after expending so much energy.     

I’m glad I’ve seen them first hand in case they do go extinct. Numbers have declined across Wales and are now confined to a few sites in the north where with intervention and habitat restoration they are on the increase. Friends told me they used to monitor the population near Penmachno – do they still exist there?

As a bonus a Cuckoo flew almost overhead perching on the tip of a nearby tree where it was harangued by a Tree Pipit and forced to move on by its tiny opponent.   

Lekking goes on for much of the year, apart from August when the birds moult, but the lek in April to May is the important one where mates are chosen. Each year the RSPB organise guided walks to see the lek but self-service is also an option; just ask at the visitor centre for directions to the hide. The visitor centre and car park are closed early morning so you might want to find out in advance if you plan to be there bright and early. There's also a small road across the moors with an even better vantage point but best not to get out of your car for fear of disturbing the lek.

Monday, 6 May 2013

A Really Welsh Everest

This May 29th is the 60th anniversary of the first (known) ascent of Everest and to celebrate its many Welsh connections there is an exhibition at St Julitta’s Chuch, next to Plas y Brenin in Capel Curig.  Harvey Lloyd, an Everest enthusiast and Chair of the Friends of St Julitta’s, showed me around and explained some of the connections.

Harvey Lloyd with Norton's ice axe
The mountain was named after Sir George Everest from Crickhowell in recognition of the great work he did surveying and mapping that part of the world in the Great Trigonometric Survey of British India. Previously it had been referred to as Peak XV although for centuries the locals had called it Chomolungma.

Hillary from New Zealand and Tensing from Nepal were the first to make it to the top but it could have been a Welshman. Charles Evans, who went on to become the vice chancellor of Bangor University, was deputy leader of the expedition and, together with Tom Bourdillon, was the first to attempt the summit on 26th May. Problems with their oxygen slowed them down and they had to turn back.

It took five days for the news to get out, two days to travel down to base camp and then a runner to Kathmandu where a coded message was sent to The Times who were the main sponsor. Their correspondent was James Morris, now known as Jan Morris, the only surviving member of the expedition and who lives near Pwllheli.

Having climbed Tryfan a couple of weeks ago I was pleased to see a photo of climbers testing out their oxygen tanks on the north ridge. Irvine from Corwen, who disappeared close to the summit with Mallory in 1924, was the oxygen expert.

The exhibition at Capel Curig will be open Friday to Monday each week and all of the week ending 2nd June from 11:00 to 17:00 and admission is free. It will then move to other locations including Llandudno and Llanrwst.  

For more information about the church and their programme of events visit the St Julitta’s website.