Sunday, 29 September 2013

How Green is My Mountain?

Snowdon does not get the respect it deserves as a national icon and legendary burial site; our offerings to the gods are bags of dog poo, cigarette ends and plastic bottles. Litter picks address the symptoms but not the causes, and the volumes of litter can be massive with over thirty bin bags being filled on a walk down the Llanberis path.

This summer a group of organisations came together under the banner of Wyddfa Lân: Snowdon Tidy to assess the problem and put in place actions to make a lasting reduction of litter on all main paths from the summit to the base.

As part of the fact finding, two litter picks were organised with one from the summit to Llanberis in August and another in September which concentrated on the area around Glaslyn where blown-off rubbish accumulates (many thanks to the Snowdon Mountain Railway for providing transport up the mountain).  In addition a survey was conducted over four days with 160 walkers being interviewed by volunteers on all main paths.  Results from the survey and the litter picks are being analysed to assess the overall volume and visual impact, the most common items, hotspots for litter and worst offenders.

Initial feedback suggests the volume is down from previous years and the suspicion is that this is due to the appointment of Dewi Davies as senior warden for the northern area of the Park and Helen Pye as the warden for Snowdon after a couple of years with no wardens in post. Helen and two seasonal wardens patrol the paths on a regular basis and as part of their patrols pick up litter, especially at the start of the paths; the thinking being that people are less likely to drop litter in a clean area.

Inevitably the single use plastic bottle contributed the greatest volume of rubbish prompting the equally inevitable ‘if you can carry it full, surely you can carry it empty?’ As for dog poo bags, which were prolific at the bottoms of paths, these provoke the most disgust amongst walkers.

During the surveys and litter picks we talked with lots of people and one of the good things to hear, from people doing the 3 Peaks, was that Snowdon was much cleaner than both Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike. Considering we have three times the visitors to Ben Nevis this is quite an achievement.

When people were asked what could be done to reduce littering one of the responses was the provision of bins and recycling points, in particular at Pen y Pass. This is not an oversight but a conscious decision or policy of the National Park Authority; if you bring rubbish you should take it away with you. The vast majority of people respect and appreciate this but some just feel it’s someone else’s responsibility to dispose of or recycle waste.

There is no magic wand or silver bullet solution to reducing litter on Snowdon (and elsewhere) but there does seem to be overwhelming support by the many to address the problem that we think is caused by the few.  What we hope to achieve is for Snowdon to become an exemplar mountain, just as people who climb Cadair Idris might come down a poet, people who come down Snowdon become eco warrriors for a greener future.

We have a long way to go but we are on the way!

Wyddfa Lân: Snowdon Tidy is the name of an initiative to achieve and sustain a meaningful reduction of litter on all main paths from the base to the summit of Snowdon. This includes the car parks and responsible disposal of rubbish i.e. recycling not landfill.

The initiative is supported by the Snowdonia National Park Authority, Cymdeithas Eryri the Snowdonia Society, the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Halfway Café, Natural Resources Wales, Keep Wales Tidy, the North Wales Environmental Outdoor Charter Group, the Snowdon Marathon and Bangor University through the Green Innovation Future Technologies (GIFT) project, the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change and the Welsh Institute for Sustainable Environments (WISE).

Following this initial phase positive improvement strategies to address the problems identified will be implemented in close consultation and engagement with all stakeholders.

We are grateful to have received financial support from the CAE Sustainable Development Fund and also from GIFT (the Green Innovation Future Technologies project at Bangor University) which has been a major catalyst for getting the initiative off the ground.

The Snowdonia Society is leading a group of volunteers up Snowdon on Friday 4th October for the annual end of season litter pick. The Snowdon Mountain Railway is providing a free ride up the mountain for participants. If you would like to take part please contact

A coordinated litter sweep on Saturday 12th October to clean the three highest peaks of Scotland, England and Wales has been dubbed ‘The Real 3 Peaks Challenge’. Supported by the Mountain Training Association, the project will see teams of volunteers climbing to the summits of Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, clearing as much as they can from the summit areas and from the popular routes used. The peaks have been chosen as the 'honey pot' areas but there will also be other clear up events across many National Parks. To find out how you can help and who your local contact is, visit

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Brettstapel! New visitor centre opening at Coed y Brenin

Brettstapel is a wonderful way of using Welsh conifers for construction.  Most of our softwood is used for low value items such as pallets, fence posts and chip board but now it can be used for real. The Brettstapel process was created fifty years ago in Germany and has just reached Britain; not just as an import but with local trees and local manufacturing capability. The first producer and the first customer are both in Snowdonia.

Building work in January 2013
The Coed y Brenin current visitor centre was opened in 2006 and was soon full to capacity; 155,000 people visited last year and more are expected on the back of a recently expanded network of mountain bike trails and other attractions. To cater for its growing popularity, a new building has been created, to house a bike shop with conference and meeting rooms above. This has been built with Brettstapel panels and is being opened by Minister John Griffiths on 27th September.

What is a Brettstapel panel? It’s a set of timber lengths joined one on top of each other in a tongue and groove manner to create a chunky-thick rectangle. Compared to conventional timber framing it uses something like 15 times the amount of timber. Far from being considered wasteful this approach is lauded as a great way of locking up large quantities of carbon.

For a customer such as Coed y Brenin, with impeccable green credentials, this is an important factor. The speed of on-site construction is also an advantage meaning quicker completion and less disruption to the constant stream of visitors.

Brettstapel panel
WilliamsHomes, a timber framing company in Bala, used kiln-dried lengths of Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce to create the panels. Timbers are stacked like a deck of narrow cards and joined together by drilling through the deck and hammering in hardwood dowels. Danish oil and several coats of a flame retardant substance are applied before delivery to site as a finished product needing no further work to the facing surface. The grains of the different types of timber make a pleasing pattern with a pink tinge to the Douglas Fir.

On the cold January day when I visited the construction site the only panels I could see were floor panels – a bit like parquet but eight inches deep!

The Coed y Brenin project is part of an ERDF funded (European Regional Development Fund) initiative to create a hub of activities in central / southern Snowdonia including Antur Stiniog, the people behind the downhill biking above Blaenau Ffestiniog. 

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

iSpot in Wales

iSpot is the Open University’s award winning website which was launched in 2009 to help remedy the gap in wildlife ID skills using a unique combination of social networking, informal access to expertise and accredited learning opportunities. We would like to invite recorders in Wales and other wildlife enthusiasts to find out more about this unique resource and how it can work to support engagement in biodiversity and wildlife recording in Wales.

What can iSpot do for you, your local recording group or organisation?

Sharing of knowledge; the iSpot maps feature allows you to view observations in your area (or further afield) and keep an eye out for interesting sightings and potential new records. You can also provide identifications, help others to learn and engage with local users.

Badges; your group representatives can be badged with your logo, and every time they add anything to iSpot the badge appears and links back to your website, putting local iSpot users directly in touch with the activities of your organisation.  We know that the badges can provide significant traffic back to recording group websites. Over 90 schemes and societies are registered. To see who, have a look here.

As of September 2013 iSpot has 28,000 registered users and over 213,000 wildlife observations (across UK) have been made to date.

Clare Flynn, iSpot Biodiversity Mentor for Wales
Learning and engagement; as iSpot’s Biodiversity Mentor for Wales, I am able to support your organisation in using iSpot as a tool for engagement in identification, both for new recruits or for more knowledgeable volunteer groups I can deliver talks, workshops, attend events or provide online support. We can also support a particular survey or project by providing a forum for publicity, communication and a follow up support system for participants and their observations.

Data; although iSpot is primarily an identification tool, observations made on iSpot do form biological records, which can make a valuable contribution to recording schemes.

iSpot for mobile; we now have an updated iSpot app for Android, allowing you to upload observations from your mobile device and have access to the iSpot online community whilst in the field. Click here for more information.

iSpot keys; these are a novel approach based on Bayesian statistics and are available for mobile. New keys can be developed by users and currently range across a variety of taxonomic groups, covering a range of complexity, from keys aimed at beginners to those only braved by the experts – have a look here.

How else can we help?

We are constantly looking at new ways in which iSpot can be utilised by expert schemes, societies and local groups and individuals. Please get in touch if you would like to discuss any of the above; we’d really like to increase our support of and engagement with the biodiversity community, at all levels, across Wales.

Clare Flynn
iSpot Biodiversity Mentor for Wales

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Mini Fish and Tub Gurnard

For a special family occasion we booked onto a fishing boat sailing from Barmouth, Viking II, skippered by John, the man who also runs the only lobster boat in the bay. It was a great day out, gentle swell, no rain and good visibility.  We had the excitement of two dolphins and their fins breaking water about a mile out of harbour; I wished we had switched the engine off and just watched, but we had serious fish business ahead.

Anchored safely just south of Sarn Badrig, the twelve mile reef running out from Talybont, John told us that the Aberdyfi lobster boat had sunk on the reef down the coast the previous week; less competition.

Ten of us fished away with multiple hooks, feathers, with squid and mackerel as bait, in all the hot spots. The water was at its warmest and the sky was cloudy so conditions were as good as they could be but in four hours, nothing big enough to eat. We caught nine different species and all but the mackerel were returned with tub gurnard the most spectacular (see note below).

Back on land I couldn’t help but think that George Monbiot is right and that the Irish Sea is empty apart from abundant jellyfish. Peckish from the fresh air we sauntered over to the chippy and on the menu, a glimmer of hope, ‘mini fish’. I asked what it was and the answer was a small piece of cod, priced at £1.60 as opposed to £3.25 for a full portion. Sitting on a bench overlooking the harbour I thought this was the right sort of downsizing.

Tub gurnard? Initially I described this as a red gurnard but Professor Ivor Rees, a regular contributor to this blog, suggests from the blue on the leading rays of the pectoral fins, that it is in fact a tub gurnard. Chelidonichthys lucernus = Trigla lucerna. So now you know! Many thanks Ivor.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Natur Cymru 48 - a rewilding theme

Artwork by Rich Edwards.
Prizewinner in the Natur Cymru wildlife art competition 
The theme for this edition is rewilding, prompted by the publication of George Monbiot’s Feral.

Pandora’s Box or future perfect? - Lizzie Wilberforce. Issues around a wilder future for the uplands.

Room for elephants - Andy Jones. More thoughts on Feral.

Optimism rewarded: Cwm Idwal 15 years on - Barbara Jones and David Parker. Returning diversity and attractiveness to an upland site.

Bringing back the beaver - Adrian Lloyd Jones. Progress with plans for a Welsh re-introduction.

One farm’s flora - Neil Ludlow. A Carmarthenshire smallholding in the 1970s-80s.

Fungi ha-ha and fungi peculiar - Pat O’Reilly. Some examples from a fascinating kingdom.

A mysterious moth – the Welsh clearwing - Rhiannon Bevan and Dan Forman. Discovering the secrets of a potential Welsh icon of nature.

Troad y rhod - Twm Elias. Adfer twrbein Tan y Bwlch a'r ystyriaethau amgylcheddol.

Bee Cause – action plan for pollinators - Bleddyn Lake. A campaign for bees and friends.

Green Books - James Robertson, Andrew Lucas

50 Years Ago - John Harold. Moths and mothing – 50 generations on.

Plants at large - Simon Goodenough - Stuart Smith. Hedgerow harvest - Crug-y-byddar.

Discoveries in science - Alan Orange. New lichens from Welsh rivers.

Marine Matters - Blaise Bullimore. Gloom or hope? Marine Conservation Zones update.

Islands - Geoff Gibbs. Two goodbyes. News from Bardsey and Ramsey.

Life lines - Kathryn Hewitt. LIFE Natura 2000 Programme.

Woods and Forests - Rory Francis. Trees benefit bees.

The autumn 2013 edition of Natur Cymru is available now. To ensure a renewable source of Natur Cymru delivered to your door please subscribe here.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Dry Stone Walling, a competition with confoundingly round stones

Friday was miserable, Sunday was stormy but on Saturday sunshine beamed down on the righteous as they toiled away in the Snowdonia Society’s 30th Dry Stone Walling Competition. In recent years the competition has been held near Beddgelert, where the stones are flat, but this year it was at Egryn, just north of Barmouth, where the stones are confoundingly round.

At 09:30 competitors dismantled the wall which was marked out in lengths of six feet for professionals and four feet for amateurs or beginners. A master line was stretched along either side at the base and profile bars banged in to guide the required taper as the wall rises.

Two judges patrolled, conferred and made notes on their clipboards as they marked each element of the walling. Up to 20 points for foundations, 20 for first lift, 5 for throughs, 20 for second lift, 15 for coping, 5 for hearting and 10 for line and batter. There were 5 points for ‘general’ and I’m not sure what they were looking for; maybe good manners?

Volunteers served chunky baps, cakes and mugs of tea out of the kitchen gazebo to maintain energy levels. Spectators came and went and generally came back again; it really does make a great spectator sport.

By 17:00 the wallers had finished, then the judges totalled up the scores and everyone gathered around for the prize-giving presentation. Brian Evans from Corwen won the professional section picking up a cheque for £120 plus the trophy. Terry Thomas from Nottingham won the amateurs section and Rhys Roberts from Tywyn won the beginners section.
Brian Evans receives the trophy from Ed Bailey

Edmund Bailey, President of NFU Wales, presented the prizes and said after the event ‘I was particularly delighted that there was a beginners section so that the old rural skills can be perpetuated. My concern, following the withdrawal of stone walling from the basic agri-environment scheme, is that fewer youngsters will have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and then the repeated practice to become competent wallers.’

The competition was part of the Egryn Heritage Open Day, organised by the National Trust, with many activities including apple pressing, sheepdogs in action, vintage tractors, talks on historic houses and on field names, walks to the iron-age hillfort and guided tours of Egryn.

Edmund Bailey also said ‘Egryn is in such a fine position with all the features of this area so prominent, especially Ardudwy's extensive field systems, that it would be difficult to imagine a better venue. The house and the other attractions added to the enjoyment we all experienced’.

Egryn and the Diamond Apple

On my way to the Egryn open day I filled a bag with green apples from the tree at the bottom of the drive; knobbly, blotchy, firm, bitter and not the sort you’d see on a supermarket shelf. In a few weeks the goats would be around to feast on them.

My apples were poured into a plastic bucket and I felt sure that Richard Neale, the cider expert, would reject them. ‘Just the job Huw!’ as he sliced and chopped them with a shiny garden spade. From here they went into a hopper with wheel-driven teeth at the bottom which chewed them to bits. Thence to the press, topped with bits of wood, and screwed down to release a stream of apple juice through a filter into a vat. The taste was great, not sweet but so fresh.

Others had brought varieties of apples along and they all mixed in to what will be excellent cider this time next year. No other ingredients would be added, just pure apple juice working its magic for six months in the vat before bottling.

We discussed different types of apple and which were best for cider. Richard had brought some Jo Jo’s Delight, the other famous tree from Bardsey, the one for pollinating the Afal Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Apple). Both of these can be supplied by Ian Sturrock who also provides the Diamond Apple, a tree with its origins close to Egryn.

The story goes that the Diamond, a ship sailing from New York to Liverpool with a cargo including apples, struck Sarn Badrig just north of Barmouth and sank in 1825. Locals rescued some passengers, took a liking to the American apples and planted the pips which became the Diamond Orchard of Dyffryn Ardudwy. Descendants from those pips are now sold as the Diamond Apple and have been planted at Egryn, a beautiful and historic holiday cottage run by the National Trust.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Dry Stone Walling Competition at Egryn on Saturday 14th September

It’s the Snowdonia Society’s 30th Dry Stone Walling Competition on Saturday 14th September and will be held at Egryn, just north of Barmouth. This is what the competition looked like a couple of years ago:

As well as relaxing watching people building stone walls you can:
  • Have a guided tour of the historic house
  • Enjoy the spectacle of vintage tractors and engines
  • Take a guided walk to Pendinas, the iron-age hillfort
  • Learn about the Egryn Diamond apple
  • Taste the juice of apples out of Richard Neale’s apple press (bring your own apples)
  • Listen to Rhian Parry talking about the field names of Ardudwy
  • Meet lots of friendly people in stunning scenery
In case you have stumbled across this post and want to know the results, these can be seen here.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? A book review

These days, it seems, it’s all about us. It’s not enough to protect the natural world simply because it’s there, or to ensure our children get to enjoy the wildlife that we can still take for granted. Now, nature has to pay its way, by providing us with ‘services’ and ‘resources’. So, Tony Juniper asks, in a Pythonesque way, “What has nature ever done for us?” And the answer is, like the Romans, really quite a lot.

The chapters take us on a breakneck tour through the natural world, charting how we depend on it and, moreover, how careful management could actually benefit us. After all, why bother to spend millions on carbon capture and storage when the technology already exists. It’s called soil, the ‘indispensable dirt’, as Juniper calls it, that grows more than 90% of our food and recycles our waste into the bargain. Yet more than a third has been degraded in the last 50 years.

After a while, your head begins to swim. Saltmarshes, mangroves, forests, mountains, glaciers, coral reefs, rivers, peatbogs, and even the occasional urban green space are quietly providing us with the essentials of life we take for granted. Species, from coccolithophores to sea otters, by way of vultures, bees, tuna, nettles, frogs and great tits, all provide us with services just by living their lives, which we only notice when they disappear. Did you know that nearly half the oxygen in every breath you take comes from marine algae? No, neither did I.

I half imagine the publisher leaning over the author’s shoulder whispering “Tony, don’t make it too depressing”. So the book is leavened with plenty of positive examples of how careful stewardship has conserved nature and saved money into the bargain. Here, the telephone number financial sums involved can just become bewildering. There are the inevitable tales of ecological vandalism and short-term greed destroying the natural fabric on which we depend, but Juniper’s tone remains admirably positive; it doesn’t have to be this way.

Quite why we seem unable to look beyond the immediate is the subject of the final chapter. Of course, for the very poor, the need for food or shelter can trump long-term considerations. But some attitudes can be truly shocking, like one CEO who commented that, because natural resources are limited, he had to “grab them whilst they are still there”. But, for me, more insidious were those who say, in reasonable tones, that there has to be ‘balance’ between the needs of people and the environment, as if the latter was some abstract ‘other’ to be protected as an afterthought. Marine Conservation Zones anyone?

It’s sad that a simple appeal to do the right thing isn’t enough to protect the environment. But if we have to play the ecosystem services game – and it looks like it’s the only one in town – we have to play it well. With What Has Nature Ever Done For Us Tony Juniper has produce an absorbing and, in the end, optimistic overview of how the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, that should be a must-read for economists, planners, and politicians. But I suspect the response from many of them will just echo that of John Cleese’s Reg from the People’s Front of Judea. “Yeah, but apart from food, energy, chemicals, pest control, flood prevention, climate, freshwater and public ‘ealth...what has Nature ever done for us…?” 

This 324 page softback book by Tony Juniper, was published by Profile Books London in 2013 and is priced at £9.99. Book review by ....

Andrew Lucas

Brood! We have brood!

Towards the end of August two mini hives, each containing a virgin queen, a cupful of worker bees and some fondant (food), were installed in a secluded area of the woodlands at Tŷ Hyll. The idea being that the virgin queens would mate with drones from nearby hives and go on to produce a pure breed of native ‘northern European dark’ bees as opposed to more exotic species less suited to our climate.

This was our first go at mating and there was much anticipation two weeks later when we opened the mini hives to see what had happened. Pete Barrar, from the National Beekeeping Centre for Wales, eased off the roof and lifted out the empty queen cell. It was good that it was empty but where was the queen? Had she been accepted or had she been killed by the other bees? Had she mated and started laying eggs?

Lots of bees were buzzing away as we gazed on through the mesh of our bee suits and then Pete exclaimed ‘Brood! We have capped brood!’ It was a bit like Houston saying ‘we have lift off’. Bees crawled all over the frame and as we watched the queen, with her body longer than the others, she reversed into a cell to deposit an egg, but at that moment a worker walked on her head and put her off her stride.
Brood! We have brood!
Peter Barrar, National Beekeeping Centre for Wales

Frames were delicately reinserted into the expanded polystyrene hive, not very aesthetic but they are strong and with good insulating properties. A slab of fondant, which looked like sticky icing sugar, was cut out of a pack and placed at the end of the hive. Then a plastic sheet was laid over the tops of the frames to encourage the bees downwards so that the roof could be replaced without squashing anyone.

We moved to mini hive number two, perched on a pedestal with a stone on top to weigh it down. There were lots of bees inside but no brood to be seen. This queen was a couple of days younger than the other and maybe she needed a bit more time? Or maybe the process hadn’t worked? Either way we were all elated that we had proved the point that we could rear queen bees.

Pete explained that the queen would have mated maybe fifteen times (i.e. with fifteen drones), over the course of one to three nuptial flights, until her spermatheca was full. This holds something like six million sperm which the queen selectively releases during her productive life. Unlike species from warmer climates such as the Mediterranean, which lay eggs at full speed throughout the year, native queens reduce the number of eggs to reflect the climate and the amount of available forage. In the summer our queen could be producing up to 2,000 eggs per day.

Our mated queen will be used to requeen a colony that needs a new queen, to keep that colony going through the winter months. September is too late in the season for a queen to create a new colony to be strong enough to get through the winter so next year we will start the mating much earlier.  ‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly’ .... for it is then too late to store up honey before the flowers begin to fade.

Thank you to everyone who has helped to make this wonderful act of creation possible and establish a process which will significantly help local beekeepers, native bees and the knock-on benefits of pollination.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Wooden Boulder - why now?

Why did the David Nash Wooden Boulder re-emerge just now? Assuming of course that it’s the original.

On 8th August a large oak tree fell into the river about half a mile upstream from Maentwrog bridge. I stopped to look and thought it was going to be really difficult to clear, but the following day it was gone! There had been heavy rain and a surge of water washed it away.

As it twisted and turned it broke and a large chunk is still upstream of the bridge. The rest of the tree made its way towards the sea and maybe gouged the boulder from out of the mud?

Yesterday I watched the tide come in and within an hour the boulder, which had been sitting in a few inches of water, was totally submerged. From a certain angle it looked like a woman, at least someone wearing mascara above the right eye, a smile of contentment as if in a hot tub; oblivious to the flotsam, jetsam, tin cans and plastic bottles drifting past. 

Ten years or so ago it was reported to be near Ynys Giftan. How did it make it this far back upstream? The tide I watched flooding in was 9.2 metres and didn’t budge it. The equinoctial spring tides on 19th and 20th September will be 9.9 metres, maybe then?

I’m told there’s a chance of seeing a tidal bore on the Dwyryd and I don’t mean me and my tide tables. Not as big as the Severn’s but a distinct wave rolling forward in a surge up the estuary.

There was a tsunami in 1927, a massive tidal wave swept in. A neighbour who lives a few miles inland at the Crochendy Maentwrog (Pottery), showed me the high water mark carved at waist height onto a slate pillar in his barn.