Sunday, 31 March 2013

Icy Snowdonia

Successive freeze-thaw and blasting wind created spectacular sculptures. Clumps of icicles like pipes on a cathedral organ. Reeds in sheaths of ice. 

Gravity-defying windswept tendrils
of frozen water. 
Towards the top of Moelwyn Bach the snow, sealed in a shiny layer of ice, crunched beneath our boots as we followed the trails of snowboarders down towards the west.  

At the snow line a lone badger ran down the steep grassy slope into the drifts against the stone wall. We watched from high as it sought the exact spot, dug into the snow and eased its way through the square mesh of stock wire and a convenient gap between the stones.

This is what it sounded like underfoot:

And this is some shaky footage of the badger:

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Wild daffodils – Snowdonia Society expedition

I was hoping to see wild daffodils on the Snowdonia Society's guided walk on 26th March but due to deep drifts and freezing temperatures there was not a wild daffodil to be seen. 

In case you wanted to know, this is what we have missed out on:

Wild Daffodils - photo by Rod Gritten
Yellow daffodil trumpets are a ubiquitous sign of Spring, not only in gardens but also on roadsides, in hedgerows, in fields and in woods. Yet they have none of the exquisite beauty of the rare wild daffodil, the true national emblem. Although our native daffodil is in serious decline, there are places where it has prospered, with a little help from its friends. Rob Collister and Rod Gritten tell the story of a wild daffodil recovery in the hills above the Conwy valley, and the possible roadside return of the native.

One day towards the end of March my wife, Netti, and I were joined by Rod and Julie Gritten for a walk up a wooded hillside above the Conwy valley. It was a glorious sunny day, warm and still, even though there was snow on the hills above and a skim of ice lingered on shady puddles. As we walked across some ffridd pasture, admiring wide views down onto the river Conwy, suddenly we glimpsed a haze of yellow across a small dry valley, through leafless branches on the slope opposite. Over the next hour or so we found wild daffodils growing everywhere over an area of about 400 x 300 metres that could perhaps best be described as wood pasture, even forcing their way in isolated clumps through a thick blanket of dead bracken. But they seemed at their most prolific in damper or shadier spots where the bracken had failed to establish itself. In such a setting we could understand exactly why Wordsworth was so entranced. I think both Rod and I felt a degree of pride as well as pleasure at the spectacle, for it represented the fruition of a successful conservation project.

For me, the story began a long time ago. One day I was out wandering the ancient field systems of the northern Carneddau, investigating its wealth of prehistory, when I came on a green notice board that said “Please do not pick the wild daffodils”. It had been erected by the North Wales Naturalists Trust (now the North Wales Wildlife Trust), but it looked old and faded even then, over 30 years ago, and the rotting stile over the wall seemed on its last legs. With anticipation, I crossed the wall but found not a trace of any daffodils. Over the years that followed the sign grew older, the lettering ever fainter, and crossing the wall increasingly acrobatic, but I did discover a damp corner where a number of daffodil leaves could be found but always nibbled by sheep, with never a flower to be seen.

Then, one spring about seven or eight years ago, to my surprise and delight, I discovered a sheltered re-entrant awash with yellow and took a number of photos to record the scene. However, it proved to be a one-off and over the next few years there were never more than two or three blooms at best to be seen, and often none at all. The land was so smothered in bracken that succulent green shoots must have been manna from heaven to hungry sheep. It seemed to me that if the sheep could be taken off this piece of land for just a few months every year, these delightful plants, smaller and more delicate than their garden counterparts, could thrive rather than simply survive. But how to achieve that? No farmer would sacrifice grazing, however poor, for flowers. As luck would have it, I started to go climbing on summer evenings after work with Rod Gritten, then Senior Ecologist for the Snowdonia National Park. Chatting on a stance halfway up a crag – it may have been Clogwyn y Wenallt in Nant Gwynant – I mentioned the daffodils and Rod’s response was immediately interested and positive. I’ll let him take up the story……

Rod continues…
The notion that wild daffodils, or to give them their rather clumsy Latin name Narcissus pseudonarcissus ssp pseudonarcissus might still survive in the wild was intriguing. Rob took me to have a look late the next January and sure enough, tiny green spears of emergent leaves were forcing their way through the frost encrusted bracken litter. But each one I examined showed the tell-tale nibbling by sheep and it was clear that none of these plants would survive to flower.

At this time, the National Park had its own very successful agri-environmental scheme, Rhaglen Tir Eryri. I discussed the situation with one of the scheme’s Field Officers and he agreed to investigate the possibility of funding a rescue plan. It took some time for me to discover who the landowner was but I was much more successful in tracking down the history of the Wildlife Trust’s involvement. The site had been well known and protected by the Trust but historical changes had occurred: management neglect and decades of winter grazing by sheep had all but obliterated this rare patch of a truly native daffodil.

To cut a long story short, Rhaglen Tir Eryri discussed the management of the site with the landowner, who agreed to let the scheme pay for a new stock-proof fence to be erected around the site, two new stiles and some judicious bracken spraying. The landowner was also in full agreement to exclude his stock during the late winter/early spring. The rest, as they say, is history. A very special place, tucked away off the beaten track, is now awash with the subtle yellow of this lovely plant with its blue-green leaves and diminutive form.

But that is by no means the end of the story. I had been closely involved in a number of high-profile road schemes in the Park being undertaken by Gwynedd Highways and the Assembly Trunk Roads Directorate, and the issue of bulb planting on the new verges frequently arose in the Environmental Liaison Group meetings. I have always felt quite uncomfortable about the ‘urbanisation’ of roadside verges in the wild scenery of the Park caused by the indiscriminate planting of large blousy daffodil cultivars. Why not investigate the possibility of arranging for a nursery to collect seed from the native daffodils in the Conwy valley, grow them on to the bulb stage and sell them back to the Highway Authorities for roadside verge planting? This is a long-term commitment since it takes some seven years to establish viable bulbs from seed but it is not only good for nature conservation but is also good for the local economy. As I understand it, this idea is receiving serious consideration by the Park and the Conwy wild daffodils are currently being DNA tested to make sure they are of pure stock. Let’s hope so – they certainly have all the characteristics of our native daffodil.

Rod Gritten was the Senior Ecologist for the Snowdonia National Park for many years until he left in 2008 to set up his own ecological consultancy. He now specialises in plant surveys.
Rob Collister is a mountain guide, these days working mostly in Switzerland and north Wales.

Cennin Pedr Conwy

Sgwrs rhwng dau ddringwr ar wyneb clogwyn yng ngogledd Cymru sbardunodd y gwaith i achub y genhinen bedr wyllt yn Nyffryn Conwy. Nid oedd angen hysbysfwrdd yr Ymddiriedolaeth Bywyd Gwyllt leol i rybuddio pobl rhag pigo’r cennin pedr ar y ffridd - roedd y defaid yn sicrhau nad oedd blodyn i’w weld fyth ar y safle! Yn ffodus daeth Rhaglen Tir Eryri, cynllun a ariannwyd gan arian Ewropeaidd, i’r adwy. Ar ôl codi ffens newydd, trin y rhedyn a chael cytundeb y ffermwr i dynnu’r stoc oddi ar y tir yn ystod y gaeaf a’r gwanwyn mae’r llethr bellach yn garped o liw melyn ym mis Mawrth.

Ac mae’r stori’n parhau. Oherwydd gofid un o’r dringwyr, a ddigwyddai fod yn ecolegydd gyda Pharc Cenedlaethol Eryri, am yr arfer o blannu cennin pedr gardd ar ymylon ffyrdd newydd fe awgrymodd y gellid meithrin hadau cennin pedr gwyllt Conwy er mwyn eu plannu drachefn yn fylbiau ar ymlyon ffyrdd Eryri. Mae’r syniad wedi cydio ac mae profion DNA wrthi’n cael eu cynnal ar y cennin pedr hyn er mwyn gweld a ydynt yn rhai pur.

Medicinal plants – the history and practice of herbalism

The spring edition of Natur Cymru includes an article about medicinal plants written by Bethan Wyn Jones. This article is published in Welsh and an English version can be seen here. There is reference to the use of nettles in socks as a mean of birth control! Has anyone tried this? 

Another common plant that is used is the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).
This is the famous Digitalis that has been used to treat heart diseases,
 but, as with many other things, it needs to be used in moderation. 
A jot too much and it could be fatal.

Bethan Wyn Jones was brought up in Talwrn, Anglesey, and continues to live there. She graduated in Zoology from University of Wales College, Aberystwyth. She is a weekly contributor on ‘Galwadau Cynnar’, a BBC Welsh radio programme, and has a weekly column about various aspects of the natural world in the Herald Cymraeg, a Welsh supplement in the Daily Post. She has published several books including Bwrw Blwyddyn, Chwyn Joe Pye a Phincas Robin, Natur y Flwyddyn and theDoctor Dail series.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Nature Writing Course

Tŷ Newydd, Lloyd George’s former home and current home to the National Writers’ Centre for Wales, runs nature writing courses each year. The format includes an inspirational naturalist, who wows you with things in the wild, and a leading writer who helps you convert experience into expression.  The next course runs over the weekend starting 19th April 2013. For full details look here.

Tŷ Newydd is close to the sea on the edge of Snowdonia just north of Cricieth. You can't fail but to write a masterpiece!

Nigel Brown and his amazing moths

Sunday, 17 March 2013

National Trust special edition of Natur Cymru

Rhossili by Judith Bridgland
An Overview of the National Trust in Wales by Helen Buckingham, Wildlife and Countryside adviser for Wales, and David Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation.

Llyndy Isaf by Mike Howe and Helen Buckingham

The benefits of bushcraft by Saul Burton, Park and Garden Manager at Erddig.

Getting closer to nature on the Welsh coast by Richard Neale, National Trust Coastal Engagement Project Manager for Wales.  PLUS a short piece in Welsh Tan ar hen aelwyd – cottage restoration.

Wales in miniature - managing designated sites on Gower by Alan Kearsley-Evans, Head Ranger for Gower.

Cutting-edge heathland conservation on Llŷn by Robert Parkinson, Community Ranger for Cwrt, Henfaes and Porth Simdde.

Dormice in the Dyfi Valley by Roy Bamford who has lived in Cwm Einion and worked in conservation and outdoor pursuits for over 30 years. Now, between seasonal contracts for RSPB, BTO and other organisations, he works as a freelance ecologist/consultant, among other things.

Planhigion Meddyginiaethol (Medicinal Plants) by Bethan Wyn Jones, a botanist, broadcaster, translator, author, lecturer and weekly columnist in the Welsh section of the Daily Post. An English version of this article is published here.

Day-flying Moths of Wales - Species to look for in the spring by George Tordoff, a Conservation Officer for Butterfly Conservation Wales. He has been recording moths since being given a moth trap for his 12th birthday.

Barcode Wales. DNA barcoding the native flowering plants and conifers of a nation by Dr Natasha de Vere, Head of Conservation and Research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales and a senior lecturer at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), Aberystwyth University.

The spring 2013 edition of Natur Cymru is now available. Copies can be bought at the National Trust shops at Erddig, Rhossili, Powis Castle, Tredegar House, Llanerchaeron, St David's, Aberconwy House, Dinefwr Park, Dolaucothi, Plas yn Rhiw and Tŷ  Isaf in Beddgelert.

Moelwyn goats alive and well

The Moelwyn gang are proud to announce the arrival of two kids which is twice as many as I saw last year. Each night the kids and the two adult females take shelter on a steep sided slope, thick with gorse, the sort of place where no-one is going to be able to sneak up unnoticed.  While the kids are hidden beneath, the adults munch away on the tips of gorse, one eye checking I’m keeping my distance.

This family has distinctive black and white markings whereas the group beneath the railway line are more mottled grey. Things are not so good below, down to one billy and three females with no surviving kids for at least three years.   

Sunday, 10 March 2013

First sycamore of spring

Spring is in the air: first daffodil, frog spawn and first sycamore - standing proud like a windsurfer. The sheep will have you soon.

Sycamore sick?

A thin trunk of ivy-covered sycamore was threatening our telephone line so six months ago I cut it off. The rest of the tree appears fine but a vivid orange gunk is now flowing out from the stump and dribbling down the side. This has been going on for about two weeks and probably coincides with rising sap.

Sycamore gunk

Does anyone have any idea as to what it might be?

Friday, 8 March 2013

Dwyryd Otter Survey

How many otters are there on the Dwyryd? Whereabouts are they? What is the ratio of males to females? To help build on existing knowledge and gain a fuller picture there will be a weekend survey between 17th to 19th May organised by Ceri Morris through the MISE project - Mammals In a Sustainable Environment.

In addition to the weekend survey, which hopefully will involve at least twenty people, there is a requirement for local volunteers to 'spot check' key sites over the course of one year. All you need to be able to do is identify and collect otter spraints (poo), put them in a bag, freeze them and send to Ireland (Waterford Institute of Technology) for DNA analysis.

This builds on the work that the Dwyryd Otter Partnership and subsequently Snowdonia Mammal Group undertook a few years ago. An analysis of spraints showed amongst other things that otters feasting on seafood could travel all the way to Trawsfynydd before having to poo.

If you would like to take part please contact Ceri Morris by email at:

Meanwhile here’s a film clip of some Dwyryd otters in 2011.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Asulam gets a reprieve

Asulam, a herbicide marketed under the name of Asulox, has been used for bracken spraying for forty years. Last summer I saw a helicopter spraying in the Vale of Ffestiniog and my gut reaction was surely this must be bad for wildlife? But having looked into it, I’m not so sure. I have been told that it is highly specific to bracken (and other ferns) causing no damage to insects. It has also been used by organisations such as the RSPB and the National Trust.

Its use after December 2012 was banned by the EU with no replacement product likely until 2016. Without Asulam, and the use of aerial spraying, it is expected that large areas of the Welsh uplands will be lost to bracken at the rate of about 1,000 hectares a year. The decision was made in Brussels but do the UK government and the various conservation bodies agree with it?

Apparently not and the UK Chemical Regulations Directorate has given emergency authorisation for its use this summer and will do so for future years until the replacement product becomes available.

For in depth coverage of this issue there is a very informative site run by the Bracken Control Group which as you would expect has been campaigning for the use of Asulam.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Celebrate, enhance, protect

When I think of the Snowdonia Society (Cymdeithas Eryri) these are the three words that come to mind - celebrate, enhance, protect. In pulling together a presentation to set the scene as to what we are about, it was easy to think of examples and images to illustrate the celebrating; guided walks to see wild daffodils, evening talks on local crafts, the dry stone walling competition and so on. Enhancing was also simple; footpath maintenance, planting trees, removal of invasive species and even campaigning for a bus timetable!

But when it came to protecting (‘gwarchod’ yn Gymraeg) I had to pause. If you succeed in protecting, there is nothing to point to apart from the absence of the threat. Alternatively, if the actions to protect were not successful, there is a blot on the landscape that you don’t really want to draw attention to.

Finally I thought of an example and here it is in two pictures .... the pylons going underground across ‘traeth mawr’ and the most beautiful view of Snowdon from the Cob. That’s a good example of protecting something priceless.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Shaggy wolf makeover

It’s that time of year, spring and getting ready for the visitors, when our shaggy wolf gets a makeover. Doug the warden waited until the worst frosts were over to avoid snapping the shoots that needed weaving back into the sculpture. It’s now looking smart once more with a tonne of new bark chippings mulching its base. If all goes to plan the picket fence will be moved back to protect people from falling off the cliff and allow children to crawl through its stomach and out of the tail. What big eyes you’ve got grandmother!

Wolf weaving and pruning in Coed y Bleiddiau
Maentwrog National Nature Reserve

Red army on the march

Fifteen years ago Anglesey’s red squirrels were close to extinct, about 40 adults, but today there are estimated to be more than 500. I don’t know whether it’s getting a bit crowded on the island but adventurous reds are storming the mainland, thought to be crossing the Menai Strait on the lower deck of the Britannia Bridge.

Craig Shuttleworth talking to Radio Wales Country Focus
Photo  BASC 
I joined a group of volunteers in the National Trust woodlands of the Vaenol, overlooking Plas Newydd, for a briefing session with Dr Craig Shuttleworth of the Red Squirrel Trust Wales. My fellow volunteers were mainly members of BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation) and that gives a clue to the success of the reds. Part of the BASC Green Shoots initiative.   

Reds and greys can’t coexist – the larger greys from America out-compete the reds for resources. They also carry a disease which is lethal to the reds. For the successful restoration of the Anglesey population a pre-requisite has been the systematic killing of the greys. A population of over 3,000 is now thought to be less than 30. Not everyone approves! A survey indicated 65% approval for culling, 20% no opinion and 15% against.

Culling is by shooting or by trapping and Craig demonstrated best practice with a trap. On the day nine traps were inspected, two contained reds, which were released and scampered free into the trees, and two which contained greys. All traps had been covered with a sheet of black plastic, to keep the animals dry and warm, and covered with leaves for camouflage. To deal with the greys a hessian sack was placed over the entrance to the trap and when the door was opened, the squirrel ran to the far corner of the sack where it was held tight and swiftly despatched with a cudgel to the head. Brutal but quick. 

Red squirrel ready for release
Photo BASC
It’s difficult to know how many reds are present in this bit of woodland but maybe about 20? There are other pockets of reds, including some pioneers in the woods near  Bethesda, right on the edge of Snowdonia National Park. Esmé Kirby, founder of the Snowdonia Society, and who galvanised people into action for the red squirrels, would be very pleased with this progress. The intention is to cull around the Menai Strait and inland to prevent  greys returning to the island and encourage their spread up the Ogwen valley. When will they be in my garden in Ffestiniog? 

Many thanks to the BASC for organising this event. Walking back to the cars I was busy chatting and missed the red that ran across our path.

If you want to know more about the red squirrel project there is a very informative website. You can also listen to Craig talking on the Country Focus programme on Sunday 3rd March.