Thursday, 29 August 2013

Wooden Boulder back on the Dwyryd

It’s back on display in the Afon Dwyryd, on the bend with an island, opposite Bryn Mawr. At least I’m assuming it’s the real McCoy and not a replica knocked up in someone’s garden.

It all started in 1978 with the base of a large oak tree being carved into the shape of a boulder, somewhere on the banks of the stream that flows down through Coed y Bleiddiau. It was washed by floods or pushed downstream until in 1994 it was stuck by the bridge at Bronturnor where it got a helping hand from the Council. For years it moved up and down the estuary until disappearing from sight about 10 years ago. Had it gone out into the ocean? Or was it stuck in the sand?

There have been reports of it being seen since 2009 but this is the first time I have ever seen it. The river is a dynamic place; where will it be after the next downpour in the mountains? There is more background on this work of art on the Kew Gardens website.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

‘Tis the season for fungi forays

‘Tis the season for fungi forays and signs are it’s going to be a good one. On 28th August Cynan Jones took us from Beddgelert through fields and woods to The Mushroom Garden at Nantmor.  

After a briefing at the main bridge we walked along the river bank, past Gelert’s grave, across the main road into the fields and then into National Trust woodland. Along the way were plenty of specimens to be examined and explained with a dollop of local folklore. There was even an impressive steam train.

Why is it that people in Wales and the rest of Britain know so little about fungi compared to continentals? Some blame the Methodists for being killjoys, telling ordinary folk that fungi were the work of the devil. Another theory is the rush to industrialisation which took people off the land into the towns with fungal knowledge lost in a couple of generations.  But it’s never too late to learn.

Cynan himself got going as a student at the Plas Tan y Bwlch fungi course, which is run each October, and this year he is going to be a guest tutor on the course. Correct identification of mushrooms is an important decision and with 30,000 different species it sounds a bit daunting. But Cynan explained that there are only fifteen really tasty ones and only fifteen really poisonous ones so if you concentrate on these as opposed to the other 29,970 it all becomes more manageable. As a rule of thumb, learn one tasty and one poisonous one each year. We were reassured to know that Cynan had been studying for fifteen years.

We looked at a wide range of mushrooms and picked some tasty ones to take back for eating. In looking for mushrooms we were encouraged to search near natural obstacles such as path edges with rocks beneath, the sort of place a mycelium might grow up to, decide it could go no further, find no food and die, hence the need to sprout a fruiting body for the sake of the next generation.  There were lots of different species either side of the riverbank footpath down the Aberglaslyn Gorge. 

At The Mushroom Garden, a farmyard with open barns and a couple of containers, Cynan explained the need to get into the head of the mushroom.  On the right was the summer container where bags of woodchip, impregnated with shiitake or oyster mushroom spores, were kept in summer conditions for about eight weeks. Once they develop the ‘popcorn look’ it’s time to whip them next door to the autumn container with much cooler temperature and shorter daylight. In panic at the prospect of death, they are ‘shocked’ into fruiting and Cynan and family harvest 100kg a week.

Some go fresh to posh restaurants and to local markets, others get converted into more durable products such as dried mushrooms, mushroom powder or Umami powder. Other products include mushroom caviar and pickled mushrooms both of which make good starters. Umami chocolates, in the shape of mushrooms, made by the Llan Ffestiniog chocolatier, are highly recommended.

To finish up Cynan did us a fry up. Chanterelles, followed by porcini then shiitake. Our eyes and taste buds were open to a new world. Thanks Cynan for a great event and also for contributing an article to the autumn edition of the Snowdonia Society magazine which has food as its theme. For more information about The Mushroom Garden and its tasty products have a look at the website.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Virgin Queens at Tŷ Hyll

Apidea with virgin(?) queen
Two mini hives, each containing a virgin queen and some workers, have been delivered to the woodlands at Tŷ Hyll to mate with local drones. Bees can be seen going in and out of these small hives but has the queen mated? 

We hope to find out in a week’s time when we check to see if she has started laying eggs; this normally happens three to four days after mating. This is highly skilled conservation work and there is an overview of what’s being done on the Ugly House (Tŷ Hyll) website.

If mating bees is not your thing, the home-baked scones with jam and cream are highly recommended!

Coastal Otter Project

Have you seen a coastal otter? Your help needed

In the next issue of Natur Cymru you’ll be able to read all about the Welsh Clearwing moth in an article by Dan Forman and his colleague Rhiannon Bevan. Dan is Director of the Swansea University Ecology Research team (SERT), and moths are not the team’s only interest.

After decades of declining populations, otters have made a remarkable recovery. They are highly adaptable mammals, able to exploit a wide range of habitats, but our knowledge of their coastal activity is currently limited.

SERT are conducting a survey and your time and help would be much appreciated.

Purpose of the survey:

  •  Begin to record the distribution of otter activity in coastal areas in all areas of Britain.
  •  Raise awareness of use of coastal areas by otters in Britain. This includes sandy beaches, dunes, docks, salt marshes, estuaries and rocky shorelines.
  •  The information need not be recent as any sightings over the last 30 years are useful to us.

Please supply:

  •   Location: please try to as specific as possible ­­­– a grid reference is ideal but don’t worry if you cannot provide one.
  •   Date (day, month and year)
  •   Approximate time of day
  •   Details of what you saw. Please include as much information as possible. Did you see the otter on the beach, on rocky areas, or in the sea? How many otters did you observe? Have you seen them at this location before?

Please send any information to:

Dan Forman, Coastal Otters Project, Department of Biosciences, College of Science, Swansea University, Singleton Park, Swansea, SA2 8PP

The Autumn issue (No 48) of Natur Cymru will be available in mid September.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Wall Browns on the Great Orme

Family visit to the Great Orme today, pleased to find several Wall Browns flitting round at the summit; the photo was taken by my daughter Alison. The Walls were settling on the limestone rock ridge, not greatly disturbed by the visitors who were arriving by car, tram, cable car, bike and on foot.

This species has suffered a severe decline in many areas but seems to be holding its own on the North Wales coast. Of the open ground members of the ‘Brown’ group, only the Wall and the Small Heath have two generations per year. A few tatty Meadow Browns are still flying at the end of August, but the other browns have been and gone (except, of course, the Speckled Wood). The Wall, with its bright golden wings, could be confused with the Comma but the latter is unlikely to be seen in the same habitat and also lacks the Wall’s bold patterning and eye-spots.

Friday, 23 August 2013


Shortly after my first visit to this tiny Channel Island in 1990 I read an article in The Economist titled ‘A failed coup in Sark’. A Frenchman had arrived by ferry with an assault rifle and 260 rounds of ammunition. Clad in combat fatigues he pinned his demands to the island notice-board setting a deadline after which, as rightful Seigneur of Sark (his words), he would be taking over the island, its airspace and territorial waters. The notice, in French, warned that resistance would be met with force and that the island would be returned to France. He was arrested by the constables and sentenced to seven days imprisonment which had to be served in Guernsey as the Sark gaol, possibly the smallest in the world, is too cramped for more than an overnight lock up.

La Seigneurie Gardens
By 1066 Sark was part of Normandy and to this day islanders owe allegiance to HM the Queen as ‘Duke of Normandy’.  After a violent period, in which control ping-ponged between pirates, the English, the French and then again the English, the island was granted to Helier de Carteret as a feudal land holding in 1565 and that’s how it remained until the 21st century. Helier was the first ‘Seigneur’ with responsibility for defending the island and to achieve this he divided the land, three miles long by one and a half miles wide, into forty tenements and leased all but one as feudal holdings. The incoming families were obliged to provide a man and a musket to defend the island and, apart from a brief spell of Nazi occupation, the island has been successfully defended against all comers, including that Frenchman.
Sark taxi

This summer we spent an idyllic week of cloudless blue skies on the car-free island where transport is by foot, by bike, by pony and cart or one of the 90+ tractors. The nearest thing to a car is a mobility scooter and to get one of those you need the doctor to sign off genuine need.

We revisited favourite spots including La Seigneurie and its gardens which were blooming better than I remember. Since 2009 it’s been managed by a trust and the Seigneur has moved out to a smaller residence whilst a wealthy couple has taken on the extensive restoration of the house in return for a ten-year lease. I think we met the temporary ‘dame in residence’ throwing corn to the elderly male dove; the sole survivor in the dovecote to have escaped attacks from a growing population of peregrine falcons. Being old he flies below the tree line, fairly safe from falcons, albeit very lonely. There are of course no neighbouring doves to socialise with as the Seigneur is the only one allowed to have a dovecote. Another ‘droit de Seigneur’ is to be the only person allowed an unspayed bitch on the island.

Until recently his most lucrative feudal right was ‘la Treizième’, a payment of one thirteenth of the purchase price of any of the 39 tenements. But I believe this has been swapped for a £25,000 a year pension and these days taxes on property transactions go to the island’s coffers as opposed to the Seigneur’s.

Being an island there is only a subset of the mainland wildlife with foxes and badgers absent. So too were hedgehogs until the 1980s when the Dame, the wife of the Seigneur, introduced them to control slugs and other garden pests. Unfortunately they didn’t stop in the gardens and several ground nesting birds are now absent from Sark. 

Land slip beneath La Coupée
We enjoyed a cruise hugging the coastline around the island seeing puffins, guillemots, cormorants and lots of gulls. The high cliffs were impressive, lots of patterns and colours including a splash of green malachite; yet fragile in places. The underlying rock on big Sark is two billion year old gneiss whereas on little Sark it is granite. Between them is La Coupée, a narrow causeway a hundred metres high, at both ends of which are faults where the rocks have moved creating a crush zone of loose rocks in between. In time the sea will erode away this causeway making an island of little Sark. In recent years volunteers have had to re-route the steep cliff path down from the causeway to the beach at least three times as landslides took away the steps. It’s worth the walk to the beach, a great place to watch the sunset. 

George our skipper and guide took us onwards to the island of Brecqhou, one of the Sark tenements, which was purchased by the Barclay twins in 1993. Their presence is quite pervasive with a gothic looking castle for home which reputedly cost £80m to build. They also own several properties on Sark including four of the six hotels which have been lavishly developed and are good but expensive. Despite it being mid July in perfect weather they all seemed fairly empty.

The modest residence of the Barclays
Vineyards are another big change with something like 15% of the island now planted out. Locals are sceptical as to whether the venture will work, questioning the wisdom of planting in this unpredictable climate ... ‘why don’t the French grow grapes in Normandy?’ and ‘where are the sheep expected to graze?’ - I’m sure the added value of wine will exceed the added value of sheep.  I met a local man employed to insert stakes, for supporting the vines, into the tough rocks ..... ‘Some people say it’s a monoculture but all sorts of wild flowers are sprouting up between the vines and the hedgerows are being left to grow’. From my own experience I have never known such an abundance of bees, beetles, butterflies and other insect life.

Marine life seemed to be thriving, as far as I could see from above the water, and I enjoyed a chat with a local fisherman as he unpicked his tangle net clearing out mainly seaweed and spider crab.  That morning he’d landed eleven Dover Sole, two Plaice and three Seabass. Typically he sets his tangle net at 8pm and collects at 5am but the majority of his fishing is by line from a small boat, mainly for Seabass. ‘Some days I can catch and sell as much as £600 but then there are days when I can’t get out of harbour. I’m not getting rich but to be out on the sea watching the sunrise while I do something I love, that’s priceless’.

Reasons to be cheerful
While my wife and son tried their luck with rod and ragworm I enjoyed watching a colony of gulls as the parents urged their young to take their maiden flights. Some wouldn’t budge and those that did seemed to spend hours in the sea working out how to get back onto the cliffs. An occasional bird of prey would  cause uproar in the colony, a few flying high as if they were reconnaissance planes feeding back intelligence to ground control, others swooping low over the water to protect the stranded young.

So what’s all this got to do with Natur Cymru? One of the early settlers on the island was Saint Magloire who arrived in 565 AD with 62 monks from Mt Saint Michel – he was from Wales! Another connection I was pleased to make, when looking through a book of paintings titled ‘Art for the Love of Sark’, was a series of paintings from Sark by Kim Atkinson; the Artists for Nature Foundation had run a project in Sark a couple of years ago. Kim of course has contributed several front covers for Natur Cymru.  

I think anyone who likes Natur Cymru and wildlife would enjoy a visit to this otherworldly island.  There is lots of information on the Sark website if you would like to plan a visit.   

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Cool goats on Sark

Goats are amongst my favourite animals, especially the Moelwyn gang of wild goats. But on holiday in Sark, walking on a quiet slope above the Adonis Pool, I found a really laid back group soaking up the sunshine.

In the background is the small island of Brecqhou with £80m of Barclay Brothers' castle perched on top. A bit like Disneyland.

The Ugly House Insect Hotel

Tŷ Hyll (the Ugly House) is a showcase for honeybees doing pioneering conservation work to create a plentiful supply of local queens; but what about the other 2,000 different species of insect that might be living in the grounds? Many insects are declining in numbers, such as bumblebees and solitary bees, and could do with a helping hand. To that end we have built an insect hotel designed and supervised by Rosie Barratt from the North Wales Wildlife Trust and assisted by two students from Bangor.

Our hotel is a luxurious, five-storey affair set into the hillside with a south facing aspect overlooking the Ugly House and the Afon Llugwy.  No expense was spared in obtaining the materials with five discarded pallets, begged from a local builders merchant, creating the main structure. You can tell it’s a Welsh hotel as it has a slate roof with what looks like a bit of pond liner beneath to keep the bug beds (not bed bugs) nice and dry.

If you want to build your own I can strongly recommend enlisting Rosie’s assistance. But in case she is not available here below are some instructions borrowed from a Wildlife Trust website.

Where to site your insect hotel?

Many invertebrates like cool damp conditions, so you can site your habitat in semi shade, by a hedge or under a tree. Putting the habitat close to other wildlife features, such as an overgrown hedge, a shrubbery or a pond will make it easier for small creatures to find it. Not all creatures like to be in the shade: solitary bees like a warm sunny spot, so put tubes for bees on the sunniest side of the habitat, or put them elsewhere in the garden. Choose a level, even surface: the hotel may end up fairly heavy, so will need a firm base. 
Drilling bug beds -
cunningly camouflaged so as not to alarm the bees

The basic structure

Old pallets, preferably the same size,  are ideal for the basic structure; the more you can use recycled or reclaimed materials the better. The hotel does not need to be more than 5 pallets high. If you place the bottom pallet upside down, this should create larger openings at the ends, which can be used for a hedgehog house. Although the structure should be stable, you might want to secure each pallet to the one below.

Filling the gaps or furnishing the bedrooms

There are many different ways to fill the gaps in the structure, here are some suggestions:

Dead wood - this is an increasingly rare habitat as we tidy our gardens, parks and amenity
woodlands. It is essential for the larvae of wood-boring beetles, such as the stag beetle. It also supports many fungi, which help break down the woody material. Crevices under the bark hold centipedes and woodlice.

Holes for solitary bees - there are many different species of solitary bee and all are excellent pollinators. The female bee lays an egg on top of a mass of pollen at the end of a hollow tube, she then seals the entrance with a plug of mud. A long tube can hold several such cells. Hollow stems, such as old bamboo canes, or holes drilled into blocks of wood, make good nest sites for solitary bees. Holes of different diameters mean many different species can be catered for. You can make a home for solitary bees by collecting old canes or pieces of hollow plant stems, then placing in a length of plastic drain-pipe or a section from a plastic drinks bottle. You can also build a wooden shelter, similar to a bird box. Solitary bees like warmth, so place your habitat in a sunny spot. Bees use differing ways to seal their egg chambers: look out for canes blocked with dried mud or bits of leaf. 

Frog hole - stones and tiles provide the cool damp conditions that frogs and other amphibians need. Amphibians also need a frost free place to spend the winter; this could be in the centre of the hotel.

Straw and hay provide many opportunities for invertebrates to burrow in and find safe hibernation sites.

Dry leaves provide homes for a variety of invertebrates; this mimics the litter on the forest floor.

Loose bark - beetles, centipedes, spiders and woodlice all lurk beneath the decaying wood and bark. Woodlice and millipedes help to break down woody plant material and are essential parts of the garden recycling system.

Crevices - many garden invertebrates need a safe place to hibernate in through the winter. Our insect hotel has many different types of crannies and crevices that different species of invertebrate can hide in over winter.

Lacewing homes - lacewings and their larvae consume large numbers of aphids, as well as other garden pests. You can make a home for lacewings by rolling up a piece of corrugated cardboard and putting it in a waterproof cylinder, such as an old lemonade bottle.

Ladybirds and their larvae are champion aphid munchers! The adults hibernate over winter and they need dry sticks or leaves to hide in.

Bumblebees - every spring queen bumblebees search for a site to build a nest and found a new colony. An upturned flowerpot in a warm sheltered place might be used.

Nectar producing plants - why not plant some nectar-rich flowers in the hotel’s garden. These provide essential food for butterflies, bees and many other flying insects.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Snowdon Tidy!

Three years ago I took part in an October litter pick from the top of Snowdon down the Llanberis path and 36 of us each filled a black bin bag. Last week I joined another but smaller group and we could only find enough to fill seven bags. Where has all the rubbish gone? 

The Abandoned Soldier
The Snowdon Mountain Railway had kindly offered us a ride up the mountain on the works train leaving at 08:00. Also on board were the staff for Hafod Eryri plus a group from the Abandoned Soldier; their mission to take a sculpture to the summit to raise awareness and campaign for better treatment of wounded servicemen. Relative to USA we offer less care and support.

Gloves, bags and litter pickers were issued but in high winds these can be tricky to use, especially for fiddly bits of rubbish. For me gloves and bending worked best. Around the summit the main items were small, apart from an inside-out umbrella; tops of plastic bottles, stirrers, little milk containers and countless cigarette ends which take ages to degrade.

The first section of path was relatively clear with just a few items clinging to the top of the cliff in wind-sheltered spots; a volunteer was discouraged from pursuing litter too close to the edge. How far would a sweet wrapper fly from here?

Where the path goes under the railway it was a bit more productive in finding litter with plastic bottles now in the mix. As we picked the litter we shouted out the items to Jenny, our leader, who recorded the pattern. The idea is to identify the main items and locations to see if there is a particular group of litterbugs we can tackle.

At the halfway point we were into slush puppy and poo bag territory; there must be an optimum amount of exercise to trigger canine bowels and on the bottom half of the path I picked up 7 or 8 knotted bags. Would it be better if dog owners slung the unbagged poop off the path to mix with the sheep droppings? Plastic straws worried me. I must have picked up at least 40 but where were the containers that went with them? Probably some miles away to the north east.

Along the way we chatted with walkers full of support for what we were doing and several with imaginative and painful suggestions for dealing with offenders. What was surprising was meeting people who had recently done the Three Peaks; Ben Nevis is reported to be the worst, Scafell Pike is bad and Snowdon the cleanest by a long way. Walkers along the Snowdon Ranger and the Pyg Track reported seeing almost no rubbish.

So where has all the rubbish gone? I have heard that the National Park wardens are making an effort to keep the paths clean and in particular the bottom sections; the mentality being that litter breeds litter and people are less likely to throw things into a clean area. A few weeks before us had been the Snowdon Race and maybe someone had organised a litter pick after that? 

I feel quite good that Snowdon is considered the cleanest of the Three Peaks but there is still much work to be done to get the mountain into a suitably pristine state and to change the litter behaviour. A group called Snowdon Tidy (Wyddfa Lân) has been formed to assess the problem and put in place actions to sort it out and our day was a part of that project. The next event will be a litter pick in September, in an area away from the paths where we suspect lots of items get blown into. In addition litter surveys are being conducted on four afternoons through the summer.  At the end of the season two major litter picks are planned: on 4th October the Snowdonia Society will aim to get 60 people up Snowdon and on 12th October there will be another event titled ‘The REAL 3 Peaks Challenge’ which will collect litter off all three Peaks.

Snowdon Tidy is supported by many individuals, the Snowdonia National Park Authority, the Snowdonia Society, the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Halfway Café, Natural Resources Wales, the GIFT (Green Innovation Future Technologies) project at Bangor University and the North Wales Environmental Outdoor Charter Group.  We are grateful to have received £990 of support from the CAE Sustainable Development Fund.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Butterflies (and butterfly watchers) looking up!

Our butterfly transect counts (done for Butterfly Conservation) got off to a late start this year. Our walk starts just up the road from our house in Llanfairfechan, and goes through woodland (3 sections), a small field (usually grazed by ponies) which is good for thistles, leading to a small car-park with brambles (1 section), then 3 sections leading up-hill past oaks and ashes (Purple Hairstreak territory, binoculars needed!) onto open sheep-grazed fields. On the way down we cover Section 8 along a narrow road with good nectar plants on each side.

Dark Green Fritillary on Creeping Thistle
Methodology suggests starting on the first warm day from April 1st (week 1) or even earlier if warm enough. This year we started on May 5 (week 5), when the temperature was 16 deg, and the butterfly count was 5 – three Green-veined Whites, a Comma and a Peacock. We have managed to do counts in all but one week since week 5, but numbers and diversity have mostly been very disappointing. By week 18 things were improving, with 8 species recorded, and today (temp 22 deg) has been outstanding – 9 species, total count 82, with a further 4 species in or near our garden.

The stars this afternoon were 2 Dark Green Fritillaries, 3 Purple Hairstreaks and a cloud of mud-puddling Green-veined Whites. The Fritillary is not uncommon in N Wales (easily seen at Newborough, for example) but we only get odd ones on our transects (not even annually) and I don’t know where they come from. The Purple Hairstreaks inhabit the canopy of oaks, where egg-laying takes place, but they will come lower down to seek out honey-dew on ashes, or occasionally to take nectar from brambles. The mud-puddlers are male G-v Whites, seeking out salts (sodium etc) to replace those lost during mating. I’ve never seen such a cloud of white butterflies in Britain before, although it is a common sight in warmer places.

Mud-puddling Green-veined Whites
Today’s list: seen on transects (in addition to species already mentioned): Comma, Small Tortoiseshell, Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Large Skipper and Speckled Wood. Plus in/near our garden: Large White, Small White, Peacock and Red Admiral. Let’s hope those migrant Painted Ladies are heading our way! Anyone interested in starting weekly butterfly counts, or in submitting butterfly records to their local Recorder (who will be really delighted!), should go to the Butterfly Conservation web-site.