Friday, 30 May 2014

Penarfynydd Farm

Penarfynydd is a National Trust tenanted farm 4km west of Aberdaron near the village of Rhiw on the Llŷn Peninsula. Twenty years ago the heathland was in poor shape with intensive sheep grazing but today it is looking good with a mixed regime which includes cattle, ponies and a specialist breed of sheep. This is a success story in which both the farm’s economy and a broad range of scarce wildlife have benefitted through multiple partners working as an effective team. Penarfynydd is living proof that farming and nature conservation does not need to be a compromise.

You can read the rest of this blogpost or you can listen to Tom explaining what it's all about:

It is very much a mixed farm where Tom Jones, the farmer, manages 850 ewes, 70 beef cattle and contract rears around 100 dairy heifers.  His wife Sharon also rears pigs which are sold direct through farmers markets and in local shops. Spring sown cereals such as barley and oats are grown for winter feed and when the hens are laying, locals and passers-by on the Wales Coast Path can buy eggs at the farm gate.

The farm has a mixture of improved and unimproved land, which includes land outside NT ownership. The unimproved land comprises two large areas of steep, rough coastal grazing, Mynydd Penarfynydd and Mynydd Graig, with a smaller area of coastal slope at Porth Ysgo.

Importance for Wildlife

These coastal habitats are of international significance and designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). In particular Mynydd Graig is one of the best and largest remaining examples of heathland on the Llŷn, where heathland declined by around 50% between 1920 and 1998¹. On the exposed coastal fringes, whipped by high winds and salt spray, are communities of maritime plants such as spring squill, sea thrift and, clinging to rock ledges, the nationally rare golden samphire.

Penarfynydd and Mynydd Craig are designated for chough with two pairs breeding in the coastal sea caves. They feed on the invertebrates in animal dung and can sometimes be seen guzzling yellow meadow ants whose nests dot the unploughed grasslands. In autumn and winter, when the choughs have finished breeding and form mixed groups, small flocks come to feed on the site. 

These chough have been studied for over 20 years; one of the breeding females was raised in Port Dinorwig, and probably met her partner when he travelled from Llŷn to roost over winter in Snowdonia.

Golden Hair Lichen
 The wonderful mix of heath and grassland, coastal habitats, bracken, flushes and pools makes for an incredible diversity, including dark green fritillary (using violets under the bracken for breeding), adders tongue fern, adder, palmate newt, brown hare, peregrine falcon, yellow hammer and meadow pipit. The striking, bright yellow, golden hair lichen takes advantage of basic rock outcrops, across the ridge of Mynydd Penarfynydd, created during volcanic episodes over 400 million years ago.

As Tom says, ‘it’s designated for just about everything!’

Sheep reductions

Over 20 years ago Mynydd Graig and Mynydd Penarfynydd looked very different; the sites were used all year round and heavily grazed by sheep with vegetation only a few centimetres high.  In winter, as the grasses died back and lost their nutrition, the sheep would seek out the sweet tasty shoots of heather.

As part of a Section 15 management agreement² with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) sheep numbers were reduced and excluded altogether during autumn and winter. In the short term the removal of winter sheep protected the heathland, the structure of the vegetation became more diverse and suppressed heather was released. But this summer-only grazing regime was not enough to keep on top of the tougher, coarser species and the heathland and grassland habitats were becoming engulfed by gorse and bracken. 

As the coarse, unpalatable species spread, sites such as these become less relevant to farms and this is often the point at which these sites become abandoned, or trapped into unsustainable burning cycles in an attempt to clear the gorse and stimulate a flush of grass.  Both the wildlife and farms lose out.


In 2006 10 ponies were introduced to Mynydd Penarfynydd to help tackle the coarse vegetation and nibble on the gorse to keep the heathlands more open.  These ponies, a rare breed from the harsh environment of the Carneddau, are used to grazing on poor quality vegetation and ideally suited to life on Penarfynydd.  Whilst they generate no income for the farm Tom says they pay their way by keeping the vegetation in better condition for sheep. He likes having them around and, although they are shy of adults, they have made friends with his young children. They also keep the turf shorter, which helps foraging chough, and provide the all important source of dung close to the nest sites of the chough.


Mynydd Graig, which has been occupied since the Bronze Age and has medieval field systems, is an enormous site needing a large number of animals to make an impact on the vegetation.  30 Welsh black cattle were introduced in 2009, helped by a Section 15 management agreement with fencing, water supply and bracken control works.  Originally these animals were from the family’s breeding herd but, since taking over the farm, Tom has been tweaking the system. 

Supported by the Llŷn Coastal Partnership³ some fencing for a particularly tricky bit of the coast has been added, a water trough was moved to resolve the problem of cattle creating a quagmire on the coastal path, and an additional trough helps spread the cattle across the site.   The biggest change was a decision to move away from putting cows and calves on the site; Tom now buys in low value store cattle from the uplands and sells them on after one year.  This system is producing good margins with the animals remaining on Mynydd Graig all year without any supplementary feeding.    

Bracken control has helped to increase the area of grazeable land available to both cattle and sheep with sheep on the site during the late summer but removed for the winter. This mixed grazing regime is ideal for chough, heath and the coastal habitats. The cattle help prevent the bracken from returning and have successfully grazed the rank grassland.  They have also made some in-roads into opening up the heathland and, as part of his Glastir agreement, Tom will be experimenting with small-scale burns, to help break-up the vegetation and entice the cattle to graze there and keep even more of the heath open.

Utilising Mynydd Graig in this way has provided an entirely new income stream for the farm which does not place any additional demands on the rest of his enterprise. 

Aberdale Sheep

Although sheep grazing at the wrong time of year can be damaging to heathland it should be part of the mix; sheep are particularly important on coastal grasslands where the diversity of flowers depends upon grazing. Around Llŷn there are numerous examples of coastal grasslands where grazing has been abandoned or is under-utilised. 
Aberdales are prolific breeders

Using the same principles as he applied to Mynydd Graig with cattle, Tom has been looking for ways to improve his margins on the unimproved coastal land at Porth Ysgo.  He is currently working with Innovis, a company which provides Aberdale sheep, a breed which was developed to help farmers make more efficient use of poorer marginal land.  The experiment is working well with 197% scanning rates and savings on feed costs. Because the ewes cannot be grazed on good land, without the risk of producing too many lambs, the Aberdales need to be managed entirely on the marginal land. Even though they are tupped on the least productive ground, the Aberdale flock can still maintain a high output of lambs which is critical to the bottom line.

Rotational Cattle grazing

Strip grazing
Tom has also been experimenting with rotational grazing on his improved land and has produced a Farming Connect (Welsh Government Knowledge Transfer Programme) case study to share his experience with other farmers.  60 dairy heifers graze on 12 acres in total; they graze 1 acre at a time and are moved on every 24 to 72 hours.  This system leads to better soil fertility, healthier plants with deeper roots and better balanced mineral content for animal nutrition and an increased ratio of dry matter quantity to palatability. 

For Tom this means better liveweight gains and greater utilisation of his improved pasture. This style of management also reduces the need for expensive fertiliser inputs. In nature conservation terms the use of fertiliser can have a big, negative impact by adding atmospheric nitrogen to habitats which rely on being poor in nutrients for their diversity and richness. 

The approach

The management of Mynydd Graig and Mynydd Penarfynydd has been supported through a mixture of agri-environment schemes, Section 15 management agreements and capital works such as fencing and bracken control funded by the Llŷn Coastal Partnership. Using Section 15 to top up agri-environment schemes was the key in supporting the introduction of cattle and ponies.

Through working with the partnership the farm has been able to draw on a broad range of expertise for working on the management of designated sites. Most importantly there has been a two way dialogue between the farm and the partnership to develop solutions that work in the real world.

1.       Changes in the extent and fragmentation of heathland and other semi-natural habitats between 1920–1922 and 1987–1988 in the Llŷn Peninsula. Stevens 1992
2.       Section 15 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
3.       Llŷn Coastal Partnership - a long established partnership of statutory agencies, environmental and community organisations; led by Gwynedd Council and including NRW, National Trust and RSPB. Cadw’r Lliw yn Llŷn project ran for four years before the landscape partnership was successful in gaining a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for a range of projects including heathland management and new walks linked to the coastal path.  The HLF has now entered its final year. http://www.ahne-Llŷ


We were just about to sit down for Friday lunch when a weasel ran along the wall and under the kitchen window. With the camera running I walked out the back door, round the corner, and it repeated the move. Was it really a weasel? I slowed the film clip down by half and then by half again and if you watch the film you’ll see there is no black tip to the tail so it can’t be a stoat.  

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Beautiful Lizard at Ugly House

I dropped in to the Ugly House today to see what was new; thank goodness the food and the welcome were as good as ever. The gardens were looking brilliant and I could not resist buying £25 worth of bargains from the plant stand, all in perfect condition and meticulously labelled with pencil on wood.

On the path up to the compost toilet was a basking lizard, incredibly fat with a stubby tail; were baby lizards imminent? Or had it just eaten someone's sandwich?

Further into the woods were a series of beehive boxes marked THN1 and THN2 - Tŷ Hyll Nucleus hives? Apparently they have been left there on the off chance of attracting a swarm. The full scale hives at the top of the woods had increased from 2 to 3. In many places were sheets of corrugated metal and other materials, presumably to attract things like snakes?

In front of the tea rooms was Lisa, with an illustrated hive, taking out the frames to explain cross sections of what goes on inside. More unbelievable than science fiction but clear to understand.

If you would like to learn more about what goes on at Tŷ Hyll there is a bee friendly day on Saturday 31st May with candle making, seed sowing, tree decorating, bee hunt & quiz, bee-friendly gardening advice throughout the day and visits to bee hives and talks on beekeeping. Full details here.

On 30th June there is another event: A Pollinator Friendly Garden Day -
Trees and Shrubs for Bees. Details of this event are here.  

Sea Balls, an unwise choice for egg laying

Among the various odd things found on beaches recently have been numbers of balls of compressed plant fragments. The typical size of the near spherical things is about 8 – 12 cm across. They appear to be composed of interwoven bits of marram grass or fragments of rushes. During the storm surges of last winter the fronts of sand dunes were washed away along with the roots of the grasses and much debris was also mobilised from inundated salt marshes. A likely explanation is that some of this debris became waterlogged and was washed out onto the sea floor. Over time, some was rolled into dense balls by the oscillation of swell waves. 

Yesterday we came across at least a dozen such balls on a stretch of the west coast of Anglesey. Another surprise was that a few of the balls were so dense and waterlogged that they must have stayed put on the seabed long enough for Nursehounds (Scyliorhinus stellaris), otherwise known as Bull Huss, to attach their egg cases to them. A rather unwise choice for a dogfish whose eggs are said to take about 9 months to develop before hatching. 

Blogpost by Ivor Rees, a regular contributor to Natur Cymru.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Bangor to Porthmadog - a 9 day coastal walk of Llŷn

We’ve got this incredible 870 mile long coast path and now the second of 7 walking guides; Bangor to Porthmadog, the Llŷn. This 110 mile section is chunked into 9 suggested days of walking. The other 760 miles of the path are chunked into 68 days making an epic 11 week ramble from Chester to Chepstow.

It looks good, both the path and the book, with a solid feel to it. Stiff covers with folds to tuck you into the relevant pages. There is nothing superficial and glossy about the book which is well researched and written without superfluous adjectives. Photos are stunning and taken at idyllic times just in case you don’t get to experience them in the finest of weather!

The content is well laid out with enough but not too much detail. Lots of pointers to where you can get further information about a story or on practical matters such as where to stay or how to book a boat to Bardsey.  The maps are enhanced Ordnance Survey and there should be no excuses for getting lost.

The book is the creation of Carl Rogers and Tony Bowerman and is published by Northeren Eye Books. The presence of a Natural Resources Wales logo suggests some degree of sponsorship from the government body that created the Wales Coast Path.

If you would like to know more about the creation of the Wales Coast Path there was a brilliant article in edition 45 of Natur Cymru written by Jane Davidson, the minister who conceived and delivered the project. You can read this online here

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Bardsey Lighthouse Optic

For over a hundred years Bardsey Lighthouse has projected a beam of white light 22 miles out to sea; warning ships and in bad weather attracting birds. On one night alone 40,000 birds are said to have landed on the island and each year many die when they crash into the lighthouse.

Andy Godber, Llŷn Operations Manager for the 
National Trust, and the pilot with the 
lens of the optic protruding from the case
But not any more. The old optic has been decommissioned, lowered down the side of the lighthouse and flown to the mainland where it will take on a new life as the centrepiece in the National Trusts’s new visitor centre, Porth y Swnt, ‘Gateway to the Sound’.

The new light on Bardsey will be an intermittent red which will play less havoc on the navigational systems of birds.

The optic weighs a massive 2 tonnes and all 31 sections of it will be reinstalled by a Trinity House engineer, without the float of mercury, in early June.

Today (20th May 2014) is the 500th anniversary of Trinity House being established. The first official record is the grant of a Royal Charter by Henry VIII in 1514 to a fraternity of mariners called the Guild of the Holy Trinity ... "so that they might regulate the pilotage of ships in the King's streams".

Down on the Dyfi

Great day trip down to RSPB Ynyshir and Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust Cors Dyfi reserve at the weekend.

The Dyfi 360° Observatory
52 bird species altogether including 8 species of warbler, Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Treecreeper, Lesser Redpoll (on feeder at Cors Dyfi), Siskin (on feeder at Ynyshir) and of course the Ospreys. At Ynyshir we enjoyed lots of birds, the view over the wetlands from the Ynys Feurig hide, Brimstone butterflies flitting about and a Grass Snake swimming in a ditch near the overflow car park.

The Cors Dyfi reserve is open 10am to 6pm 7 days a week at present, and it only takes a few minutes to walk from the car park along the new boardwalk (past the water buffalos and serenaded by Sedge Warblers) to reach the new Observatory.

The new building and the boardwalk cost £1.4 million, thanks HLF and others including CCW/NRW! Here you are closer to the nest than the viewpoint for the Glaslyn pair at Pont Croesor. The Glaslyn eggs have hatched now but the Dyfi pair were later laying, so birds will be around here until the summer holidays.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Puffin Island 2014

I really enjoyed my visit to Puffin Island with Steve Dodd (RSPB); he’s been ringing and monitoring birds here for over 30 years. It was a master class in how to catch a Shag with a shepherd’s crook and without being bitten. Also an impressive demonstration of plucking a Razorbill off a cliff with a noose on the end of a fishing pole. Essential requirements are a steady hand, a head for heights, balance and patience.

We were there to record a story for Country Focus to find out to what extent seabird populations have been reduced by the prolonged storms of last winter. You can hear the outcome in June, which is when the programme will be broadcast.

The island is owned by the Barron Hill Estate and I am grateful for their permission to visit. It’s fantastic that there is this beautiful sanctuary, close to but free from humans, with no foxes, stoats nor rats. The rats got their come uppance with two tonnes of Warfarin about thirteen years ago. They used to feast on eggs and chicks during the short breeding season then the next nine months of the year they’d turn vegetarian. This kept the vegetation down but these days it’s a struggle to get around; Steve had a machete with him to hack a path through to the Cormorant breeding cliffs.  

Despite being named Puffin Island there are not many Puffins, maybe thirty to forty pairs, but on our visit we saw just two and three more out to sea.  

It was a privilege to be in amongst so many seabirds, it was so perfect I expected to bump into David Attenborough. It was a still day, perfect for sound. If you watch the YouTube film below don’t forget to turn on the speakers or better still put on some headphones – the sounds are more impressive than the sights.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Hummingbird in the Herbs

At last, sunshine and warmth after lots of rain. Weeds putting on a spurt and seedlings impatient to be planted. It was a magical day to be in the vegetable garden. Last year’s kale and swede are now six feet tall sprays of yellow blooms and very popular with the bees.

Beneath a piece of wood a lizard but on reflection it must have been a newt – no scales and didn’t run away. We see lots of lizards but newts are not so common; nearest pond about 30 metres away.

Beneath a slab of slate busy black ants and pride of joy, in amongst the herbs, a hummingbird. Must report it to Cofnod, our Local Records Centre.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Baby Tawny by the Ffestiniog

It was the sort of day for hippos and ducks, but Molly doesn’t mind a bit of rain, so off we went, into the woods with wet bluebells all around.

At the base of an oak was a cute little Tawny owl and I think I caught a glimpse of its parent flying away from the scene. For a few minutes I watched from behind a tree, and then another, but all the while the baby was transfixed, not a move of the head, just the tiniest slit of a motionless eye and its claw set into the moss on the bark. I left it where it was and hope the parent will be back to protect and feed.  

Two summers ago I found a baby Tawny being attacked by crows which I shooed away. I approached that baby and off it flew, into the trees; with dusk approaching it would be safe. For a couple of weeks I followed the progress of that owl and its fellow nest mates as they moved from tree to tree calling out for food. 

As if finding a Tawny was not enough excitement for one day there was a grey coloured Fairlie on the Ffestiniog - Dafydd Lloyd George after a paint job! Is this just an undercoat or here to stay? Rainy days can be good.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Asian shore crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus) in Barry!

On the 2nd May (2014) an Asian shore crab was seen on the shore in front of the power station near Barry, Vale of Glamorgan. This is the first sighting of this species in the UK. These crabs will outcompete our local crabs and are very partial to eating mussels, clams and oysters.

If you see one please take a photo and report it to the 'Non-native Species Secretariat' by email to:

These crabs are native to the Western Pacific Ocean from Russia, along the Korean and Chinese coasts, to Hong Kong, and the Japanese archipelago. They inhabit shallow, hard-bottom intertidal or sometimes subtidal habitat and tend to aggregate at high densities under rocks where they overlap habitats with native crab species. They can tolerate wide ranges of salinity and temperature as well as damp conditions in the upper intertidal regions.

Populations have been established on the north-western and north-eastern shores of the Atlantic Ocean and there have been reports of their presence in the Black Sea and the northern Adriatic Sea.

If you would like to know more about this species here is a link to an ID sheet.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Crossing the Sound to Bardsey (Ynys Enlli)

If you have ever crossed the Sound, or are planning to do so, you’ll be delighted with ‘Across the Sound’. It is the Bardsey Island Trust’s first-ever Yearbook, covering events on Enlli in 2013. It is fully bilingual of course, with lots of excellent photographs including a centre-spread (pages 42-43) of all the islanders (numbering 15); these include the Observatory staff, the Porter family at Ty Pellaf, Christine and Ernest Evans (Rhedynog Goch), their son Colin (the boatman) and his daughter Gwen. There are also three dogs in the photo, but don’t delude yourself that you can take your dog with you if you visit – these dogs are resident!
Different chapters cover topics such as recollections of the years since the Trust’s creation in 1979 (Christine Evans), the farming year (Jo Porter), the Carreg Fawr Project (restoring the paintings which Brenda Chamberlain applied directly to the interior walls of this house), thoughts on Retreats and the spiritual life of the island (Rev’d Susan Blagden) and the work of the Bird and Field Observatory (by Steve Stansfield, in his 16th year as Observatory Warden!). Emyr Roberts, the Trust’s Warden on the island, retired at the end of the 2013 season and there is an appreciation of his work. If you wish to obtain a copy, go to

If you do buy one, it will encourage the Trust to produce another next year. There is of course limited information about happenings each year from 1953 recorded in the Observatory Annual Reports, and in the newsletters and Reports of the Trust since 1979, but these Yearbooks (if continued) will build up into an impressive archive.