Saturday, July 28, 2012

Natur Cymru Board visits Gilfach

The Natur Cymru Board attended the company's AGM in Llandrindod Wells recently, and then continued to the Radnor Wildlife Trust reserve at Gilfach Farm, just north of Rhayader on the A470. Here lunch was taken - see picture. From the left: David Parker (Chairman), Ivor Rees, Huw Jenkins (Development and Marketing), James Robertson (Editor), Mandy Marsh (Production Manager) and....(extreme right) Delcie Simkin (Company Secretary). In the background is the longhouse which was restored after the Radnor Trust bought Gilfach - see page 9 in the latest Natur Cymru (#43).

Part of the longhouse is open every day as a small information centre (with toilets). There is also a Visitor Centre which at present (summer holidays) is open from Wed - Sun from 1030. Tea/coffee and other light refreshments, also sales goods, books and information. See the Gilfach Farm website for details of special activities in the holidays.

After lunch the group walked down the road to the Otter Hide and then along the river, looking for otter spraints (droppings) and the Globeflowers which grow here. The Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterflies were (sadly) finished for the year, as they fly in June and early July. The valley is an excellent place for seeing Red Kites, and of course the Gigrin Farm Feeding Station is only a short distance away, on the other side of Rhayader.

The Gilfach scarecrow
Two final thoughts: 1. If you have never been to Gilfach - you must go! AND 2. - the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust is running a campaign to reach their target of 1,000 members - why not help by joining? You do NOT have to live in the county! You can join up by visiting the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust website.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Great Gloworme - Llandudno

There’s a road in Llandudno known as ‘Millionaire’s Row’, so named because of its luxurious houses with huge gardens that overlook Conwy Bay.  But it’s flush for another reason, there’s a resident with more bling than Joan Collins, who prefers to ‘shake it’ with bright green bioluminescence! 

Photo by Geoff Wedge
As dusk falls on the Great Orme, hundreds of little lights appear on the western slopes of this prominent limestone headland.  The glow-worm or tan fach diniwed [innocent little fire], does indeed produce a green/yellow fire in the tail segments of her abdomen, but innocent they are not!  Glow-worms only feed during their larval stage [about 90% of their life-span], feeding on slugs and snails which they paralyse with poison.  Their jaws are sharp and sickle-shaped and each time they pierce the skin of its victim, brown toxic fluid is pumped down the hollow mandibles into the snail's body.  The poison is produced in the larva's intestine and digests proteins, a single bite may be enough to halt a Grove snail, but larger Garden snails may need ten times as many bites.  As the poison acts on the snail's nerves and muscles, the victim is slowly digested into a 'soup' which the larva can lap up.  Throughout most of the meal the snail is paralysed but still alive; its heart rate rises rapidly after the first bite and begins to fall as the poison takes effect.  But glow-worms are merciful, the partly eaten snail has then been known to recover and crawl away.

Photo by Geoff Wedge
In June, a glow-worm workshop was held on the Great Orme by the North WalesWildlife Trust and Robin Scagell of the UK glow worm survey.  It was a fascinating insight into the ecology and conservation of one of our least known insects; its presence being an important indicator of old-growth grassland.  The UK glow worm survey began in 1990 and before the survey started, it was said that there were fewer than one hundred sites where glow worms could be found in the UK.  The survey has shown that there are in fact hundreds of sites throughout the UK where they can be seen, and more sites are reported every year.  The workshop was followed by a field survey, undertaken by four groups who surveyed different areas of the Great Orme.  74 glowing females were recorded in one area and one group reported males and females.  It is only the females that glow, she crawls up a grass stem and gently shakes her abdomen from side to side, hoping to attract a flying male.  She will do this for 2 to 3 hours, every evening for a few weeks in June and July until she succeeds in attracting a mate.  She will then move underground, lay her eggs and then die.

Orme at dusk  - photo by Jenni Cox

According to the survey, glow-worms are widespread and relatively abundant in the UK, but I regularly hear old-timers saying ‘When I were a lad there were glow-worms everywhere’, but Robin Scagell points out this may not always be accurate; “They may have been seeing just the good years. Historical records of large numbers are few and far between. But in our village, we have recently had reminiscences of glow-worms in hedgerows where they are now absent. The place has become more urbanised, and streetlights have increased.  Streetlights are often blamed. But I know of continuing populations in places which are quite brightly lit, even right below streetlights. That is not the full answer.   Changing land use is probably the most significant factor, plus the use of chemicals on the land. But railway lines are popular with glow-worms, despite being regularly treated with herbicides.  Desiccation of the landscape may be another factor.  In a drought, larvae will find few snails at a crucial time, leading to a population drop in the next and subsequent years, which they could take a long time to recover from, if at all.”

Over two hundred have since been recorded on one slope and there are recent reports of activity on the Little Orme, Holyhead and the Lleyn Peninsula. “The nature of the Great Orme itself, which is essentially an unmanaged landscape, is important. Most other sites where glow-worms are found are subject in some way to human interference such as changes in land use or grazing patterns. But paths probably look now much as they did in the past, so any changes in glow-worm numbers are more likely to be due to natural causes than humans -- who are constrained in this case to a path only a few inches wide!”  Records of glow-worms are extremely useful in determining population trends, identifying ‘hot spots of biodiversity’ and informing conservation management plans.  Records can be submitted online via the official survey website -

This article was contributed by Jonny Hulson, secretary of the Clwydian Branch of North Wales Wildlife Trust.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Badger for sale

This original oil by Chris Chalk was commissioned for the front cover of the summer edition of Natur Cymru. The theme of the edition is the Wildlife Trusts in Wales hence the badger against a summery background ..... which looks somewhat different to the summer I’m enjoying!

The original is available unframed direct from the artist for £195. Chris can also supply it as a limited edition print.

Thanks Chris for a great cover.

Silver studded blues threatened by bad weather

There’s only one colony of silver studded blues in Snowdonia and that’s at Hafod Garegog National Nature Reserve, between Porthmadog and Beddgelert. It’s one of only six sites in Wales and the only site in the UK on wet peatland, but this summer of wet weather could wipe it out. 

They need the help of black ants. The females lay their eggs singly on stalks of heather where they detect suitable ant pheromones. Next spring the resultant larvae are either picked up by the ants or crawl into the nearest ants’ nest, where they enjoy a warm and humid environment, safely protected from predators, with the ants collecting protection money in the form of a sugary secretion. Larvae crawl out of the nest to feed on tender shoots of heather before pupating, sprouting blue wings (or brown if they are females) and flying off to mate.

At Hafod Garegog they can usually be seen in July and the first half of August with individuals living for just a few days. Without warmth and sunshine they won’t mate and that would be a disaster from which they can’t recover. These butterflies are weak fliers so there is no chance of new blood flying in from another colony, such as the Great Orme. 

On Sunday 15th July there was a rare moment of good weather and we were fortunate to see them flying (see film below). But David Wilkinson fears their numbers are significantly down.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Socks and sea squirts

Carpet sea squirts (Didemnum vexillum) from Japan are moving around the world, presumably hitching rides on boats. In the UK there are currently nine known sites from the Solent to the Clyde, including Holyhead Marina. But Holyhead is the only site where pioneering action is being taken, by the Countryside Council for Wales, to repel the invasion.

They are bad news for our native species, likely to out-compete and smother them in a colonial carpet, hence the name carpet sea squirt. The commercial catalyst for taking action at Holyhead is the proximity and threat to the rich mussel beds of the Menai Strait from which five times the annual UK consumption is exported.

Leathery piece of carpet sea squirt
Considerable work has been done over the past couple of years to eradicate the squirts and I recently met up with the team of eight divers surveying the marina. The good news is that the vast majority of the squirts have been killed off with just a few surviving patches confined to chains that anchor the pontoons to the ocean floor.

The next step is to treat the chains before this season’s larvae are released and this will involve wrapping 150 chains in polythene and bleach. Typically the chains are about five metres long and the bleach powder will be packed into socks – about three socks per chain. So, if you are serving at a shop where someone approaches with a trolley of 225 pairs of socks, you will know that it’s not some sort of fetish but conservation in action.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bees at Tŷ Hyll – a queen’s love nest

The Ugly House is no longer an office but don’t call it a café! After much thought it was called ‘Ugly House Tearoom’ with its Welsh name ‘Pot Mêl Tŷ Hyll’ conveying its beekeeping credentials. Upstairs above the cake-filled tearoom is an interpretation centre explaining as much as you would want to know about bees in a way likely to hold the attention of both young and old.  

Margaret Thomas and Pete Barrar with hive on hive carrier
Outside there has been a lot of volunteer effort to make the gardens and woodland friendly not only to people but to wildlife and bees in particular.

During my visit the first hive was delivered by Pete Barrar, from the National Beekeeping Centre, to the top of the woodland. The intention at Tŷ Hyll is to specialise on creating a reliable source of native queens.  

Currently it is difficult to source native queens which can lead to beekeepers buying queens (delivered by post!) from countries such as Slovenia, Mexico or South Africa. These bees have not had 30 million years to adapt to our local conditions and are more prone to disease thereby threatening the well-being of beekeeping in Wales.

So virgin queens will be created down the road at Furnace Farm (Bodnant Welsh Food) and brought here to mix and mate with thoroughbred drones safely tucked away in a valley unlikely to be visited by any foreign bees. A secluded love nest for the queens.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Bodnant - not gardens but food

The butcher, the baker and the candlestickmaker, rub a dub dub, are all on site at Bodnant Welsh Food. Furnace Farm, ‘home farm’ of the 5,000 acre estate, most famous for its gardens, has been repurposed into a showcase for Welsh produce. I didn’t see candlesticks being made but I did meet people at the new National Bee Keeping Centre, just across the farmyard from the shop. There is also a dairy, making amongst other things, fancy ice creams squeezed out of Italian machinery.

During the press event rain poured down on contractors racing to finish work ahead of the royal opening on 9th July; the show must go on. £6.5 million has been invested, about half by the owners (Michael and Caroline McLaren) and half by Welsh or European government, creating sixty jobs. It is hoped that there will be 200,000 visitors a year and this is what it looked like on the day:

For me my highlight was a sausage-making lesson from Miles the master butcher. Not any old sausage but a breakfast chipolata made with rare breed Gloucester Old Spot pork and Miles’s secret seasoning. No artificial collagen casings but traditional sheep’s intestine stuffed with a state of the art hydraulic sausage filler.

As well as a top class restaurant, complete with executive chef Peter Jackson, president of the Welsh Culinary Association, there is a tea room in a cow shed and a beautifully equipped cookery school. Sandy Boyd is managing director, probably the only non-local to be employed, who brings to the table his experience at Chatsworth and in setting up the Ludlow Food Centre.

Good luck - it looks and tastes great.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Winter Talks

I provide illustrated talks in north and mid Wales to groups such as U3A, Rotary, WI, Garden Clubs, National Trust Associations, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, Ramblers and so on. The fee for a talk depends upon the size of the audience and includes 2 or 3 annual subscriptions (worth £16 each) which the organiser usually raffles to the attendees plus some recent back editions of the magazine. There is no charge for travel costs. Current talks on offer are:

Snowdonia and Triglav

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

Not Just a Pretty Place

Not Just a Pretty Place – Survival in Snowdonia is a book of 32 stories linked by the theme of survival. Some things are thriving whilst others, like the Snowdon Lily, are just hanging on.  “The stories link landscape, people and wildlife into an optimistic view of the future with subjects as diverse as the rare and elusive pine marten, freshwater pearl mussels and local foods.  Underneath the humour and optimism, however, there are serious messages about the viability of our lifestyles.” Iolo Williams. In the talk I select 8 of the stories that I think will most appeal to the audience.

The House on the Black Hillside

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

HuwTubeable in North Wales

This is a new formula based on film rather than photo. I love making short films and have published over 250 on YouTube under the names of HuwTubeable and NaturCymru. A typical talk would include 15 to 20 films of between 1 to 3 minutes which are grouped into themes and separately introduced. The choice of films depends upon what I think the target audience would appreciate; for example, Grass Snake in the Greenhouse might be good for a garden club. The first time I gave this talk it worked very well with a much higher degree of interactivity than  normal – each film provoked short comment and discussion whereas in a conventional slideshow there are usually just a couple of questions at the end.

If you would like to make a booking please contact me by email huw.naturcymru@btinternet.comor phone 01766 590272.


Monday, July 2, 2012

A visit to the Dyfi Biosphere Reserve

An intrepid band of members from North Wales Wildlife Trust braved heavy rain, road works on the A470 (and even a minibus with wet seats!) on Saturday to visit two jewels of the Dyfi Biosphere Reserve, namely Cors Fochno (Borth Bog) and Cors Dyfi. The latter is perhaps better known (at this time of year) as the home of the Dyfi Ospreys.
Cors Fochno is a fascinating raised bog on the edge of the Dyfi; the centre of the peat dome is indeed 9 metres above the floor of the original forest which covered the floodplain. Part of the western side of the bog was ‘reclaimed’ when the Afon Leri was canalised after 1820; in Natur Cymru #17 Mike Bailey describes how these fields were restored to the Bog around 20 years ago. On Saturday Mike (CCW Site Manager) gave us a conducted tour along the boardwalk at the northern edge of the reserve; much of the rest is best seen from a hot-air balloon! He showed us otter tracks over the path, and produced a floating board covered in water vole droppings (see photos). Mink are now largely absent from the site (Mike thinks the otters may have seen them off) and the water voles are back.
After lunch at the picnic tables at the Ynyslas Dunes Visitor Centre (the weather had relented by then), we headed back towards Machynlleth on the A487 (more road works here) to see the Ospreys at Mont Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Cors Dyfi. Emyr Evans writes about this site in the latest Natur Cymru. An adult brought in a fish to feed the surviving chick - two had died earlier in the season and this one had to be fed by hand for a short while, as it was too weak to hold its head up. It's doing fine now (see their website). A water buffalo dozed in the marsh, while Siskins and a Redpoll took seed from the feeder in front of the hide.

What a day!
Mike with the Water Vole platform

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Thanks and inspiring nature walks at Dinefwr Festival

Huw, I'd like to thank-you for all the energy you put into Natur Cymru including administering and getting sponsorship for the 'Inspired by Nature' competition. I'm delighted to win and very appreciative of WWF's cheque. I had a great day out at Dinefwr - naturally I took both of the nature walks. On the morning one, led by Horatio Clare, we made a pact with William Hazlitt's quotation "not to talk of trival things" as we walked down past the locked deer park and into a meadow which was recovering from intensive farming. It was high with crested dog's tail, yorkshire fog, seeding yellow rattle and many other plants.

Swallows swooped and shaved us. A charm of goldfinches flew and foraged.We paid our respects to an ancient hollow oak and Ray Woods introduced us to the mix of lichens mosses and ferns it supported in different niches. Down on the flood plain it felt as though Horatio had summoned the West Wind by reading Shelley's Ode. A soggy buzzard tilted out of it and turned back into the woods clinging to the castle crag. The wind blew the clouds away for a while and about ten ravens came tumbling out to play.

The afternoon walk up to the castle with Ray Woods and Lizzie Wilberforce was a fascinating introduction to lichens and the astonishing inter-relationship and symbiosis between plants and fungi which left me inspired and hungry to know more about a whole new dimension to Nature.

Inspired by Nature prize giving at Dinefwr

Chris Kinsey was presented with a £500 cheque from WWF Cymru as the winner of the 2012 Inspired by Nature competition.  Gillian Clarke, both judge and presenter, said of The Hawk Moth Effect, the winning entry: ‘.... it wasn’t pretty or decorated, it was exciting, the prose ran, it had muscle, it had information, it had a story ....’ You can hear Gillian’s words in her own voice in this short film: 

In second place was John Harold with an article titled How I fell in love with the frog lady. His prize was a £500 voucher for the residential nature writing course at Tŷ Newydd. The first two articles will be published in the autumn edition of Natur Cymru.

Left to right: Liz, Chris, Gillian & Eloise 
The other prize winners were Eloise Williams who won an overnight trip for two to Skomer Island (sponsored by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales) with an article titled I carry your heart with me. In fourth place was Liz Fleming-Williams who won a dolphin survey boat trip for two (sponsored by Dolphin Survey Boat Trips) for her article Snow on a Raven’s Wing. In fifth place was Rob Collister who won a meal for two at the Glasshouse Café in the Wildlife Centre at Cilgerran (sponsored by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales) for his article In my backyard.

Ann Meikle, head of WWF Cymru, was unable to attend but sent this message of support:  ‘one of WWF's objectives is to inspire people to care for nature. At the same time, as more and more people around the world live in cities, it is important to use all media, particularly arts and literature to bring the joy and wonder of nature to people who may not experience it themselves. It is in that context that we are always pleased to sponsor this prize’.

David Parker, Chief Scientist for the Countryside Council for Wales and Chairman of Natur Cymru, said:  ‘Natur Cymru is an independent magazine of record about the wildlife and nature of Wales linked to the way we manage the countryside and to people, both local communities and the many visitors to Wales. A distinctive feature is the use of original art for the front covers. I would like to thank all the sponsors of the competition. I would also like to thank The National Trust, Literature Wales and Coracle for making us so welcome at Dinefwr Park and the first Literature Festival for Wales.’

A final thank you and welcome to all the people who became subscribers to Natur Cymru at the event. I hope you enjoy your quarterly read about what makes the nature of Wales so special. Final, final thank you to the BBC for laying on such environmentally friendly travel ...

Taking time out to travel to Dinefwr