Secret ministry

Long-tailed titsThis morning we stepped out into a bright wintry landscape, every branch, blade of grass and building sheathed in a fine layer of frost. Small birds jostled for position on the feeders, a Robin tetchily chased a Dunnock away from seeds that had dropped to the ground and a Great spotted woodpecker tucked rapaciously into a block of suet.

Light snow has fallen sporadically in recent days but instantly melts as it hits the ground, unlike other parts the country where there have been relatively heavy downfalls. However, we shouldn’t be too complacent as the Met Office is predicting a flurry in this part of Wales by Friday.

On nearby farmland, I have noticed Lapwings gathering in relatively large numbers (a ‘deceit’ is the collective noun for this bird due to its diversionary tactics when protecting young). The last time I observed this happening was two or three winters ago, shortly before a heavy blizzard – so the forecasters could well be right.

One of the great pleasures of mid-winter is watching excitable flocks of Long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) alighting on the feeders amid much trilling and disorder. Always seeming to be in a frantic rush to reach their next appointment, these delightful little passerines with black, white and pinkish plumage (and tails longer than their bodies) flit about in groups of about fifteen. They dangle at peculiar angles from the peanut holders and eat hastily before dashing off in undulating throngs to who knows where.

January is a surprisingly active month for wildlife and those of us who encourage it on our land. The mistletoe, which was grafted on to an apple tree a couple of years back, is now festooned with milk-white berries, hanging like opaque beads on an olive-green sculpture. We have been erecting bat boxes, pruning fruit trees and planting hedges: a mixture of Hawthorn (Crataegus Monogyna), Alder Buckthorn (Rhamnus Frangula), Wayfaring Tree (Viburnum lantana), Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) and Field Maple (Acer campestre) to encourage the maximum diversity of species in years to come.

Last month I placed six English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) plants in the new bee garden and dug a selection of shallots and garlic cloves in to the vegetable patch. Shortly before Christmas, I also planted five-hundred English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) on the margins of our woodland.

This evening the temperature plunged to minus something very cold indeed. As I shut the animals away for the night and collected a basket of logs for our wood burner, a Tawny owl called enigmatically from somewhere just above my head.

There is a sense that nature is waiting patiently for a hint of spring, but for now, we must all keep going as best we can in our own tenacious ways.

Posted in Garden | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How many must fall?

The days are shorter and noticeably chillier. Elders are heavy with berries, squirrels dash about secreting winter food supplies in the lawn and ravens croak mournfully from the leafless branches overhanging our house. There are signs of an industrious mole in our small woodland – the earth pushed to the surface providing wonderful top soil for the garden – and we are wading about our land in a sea of fallen leaves.

I have spent the weekend clearing two patches of land: one to create a bee garden and the other to grow vegetables. Next week I begin work on the mammoth task of planting 250 hawthorn plants to create a wildlife friendly hedge around the meadow.

A few days ago, D’s mother came hurrying out of the communal animal house with news that there was some sort of fierce animal prowling in the goat’s enclosure, which, in her opinion, had probably “escaped from the zoo”!

I was hastily shoved into the building to investigate and the door shut firmly behind me. It quickly became apparent that the mysterious animal was, in fact, a small fox (of the Vulpes vulpes variety), which looked more like an antiquated fur stole with a particularly bad moth infestation than an exotic escapee.

The poor, terrified creature was by now crouched behind a bale of hay, its face a mass of open sores and its tail bald from the tip down. I touched it gently with a stick and it rounded on me, bearing its teeth for several seconds before slumping to the ground and curling up like a pet dog settling down for a snooze.

Only last month, a fox (or possibly several young foxes) raided our chicken run during the night and took about twenty birds. This was made all the more distressing because the new animal house (which keeps everyone under one roof during the night) was designed to be impenetrable. Sadly we hadn’t paid sufficient attention those childhood tales of the ‘wily old fox’.

Much as I’m filled with delight whenever I spot one of these fascinating animals with its thick red coat and bushy tail loping across the paddock, there is nothing more upsetting to a poultry keeper than the aftermath of a bad fox attack – especially if, like us, the hens and cockerels are all home-bred and given pet names like Peggy, Shelly, Worcester and Cornflake.

Nevertheless, foxes do whatever is necessary to survive, and this pitiable specimen was obviously sick or injured – otherwise it would never have permitted a human to come into such close proximity. We instantly suspected mange, a nasty skin condition caused by microscopic mites, which frequently leads to patchy fur loss and frenzied scratching. We also believed it had probably been sheltering in an unused outbuilding for several days as for at least the last week our dogs had been inexplicably barking and running around like loonies, sniffing the air with interest. And therein lay an additional concern: mange is highly infectious, especially to fellow canines.

The time was 4.30 in the afternoon, so we decided to contact the RSPCA for advice. D looked up the local branch and discovered it was open until 5 o’clock, so immediately began calling the number. An hour later, someone answered the phone, asked several questions, cautioned us not to approach the fox and promised to ring back when they had decided on the best course of action. At 6.30 we received the call and were informed that nobody was available in our area, so a vet would be sent over from Chester. The said vet – an exceptionally tall and immensely likeable young man – arrived at 10 o’clock. Armed with all the necessary paraphernalia he quietly approached the fox and attempted to gently slip a noose around its neck, however, it was straight away apparent that he was too late. The fox was dead.

The young vet picked up the distinctly smelly carcass with his bare hands, placed it in a box and took it away for cremation. Before leaving he advised us to treat our dogs with something called Advocate, an anti-parasite medication for sarcoptic mange. I felt surprisingly down that night, which was silly but a very human reaction to the death of a sick animal. I should by now be familiar with the insensitive, if unquestionably charming temperament of the natural world.

At 11 o’clock this morning, as I tugged at a particularly obdurate root, two loud rockets from the Remembrance Sunday ceremony reverberated through the clear blue sky. I stood quietly watching a small flock of Long-tailed tits, thinking about the two World Wars and the millions of people who lost their lives during those dark days. Who could possibly have guessed back then that our greatest enemy would now be environmental degradation?  The latest assault on our flora and fauna is a seemingly unstoppable disease that is killing our native Ash tree – and we are warned that other deadly viruses will follow close behind. As a brassy melody and steady thumping struck up from the village, I couldn’t help but feel that the familiar red poppy with its black centre is perhaps a symbol more relevant now than at any time in our history.

Posted in Garden | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Truly wild at Chester Zoo

Chester Zoo may be globally renowned for having the largest Chimpanzee colony in Europe and an exciting Asian elephant breeding programme among its astonishingly diverse animal collection, but as I discovered on a recent visit, the grounds are home to many native plants and animals.

Living among brightly coloured Village Weaver birds and other exotic species are hosts of Tree and Hedge sparrows, while Moorhens with their fluffy black chicks feed on floating vegetation in the moats and ditches. Within its 110 acres of gardens, numerous British trees have been planted around ponds, hedgerows and visitor car parks. Its Wildlife Garden comprises compost heaps, logs, bird and bat boxes, feeders, vegetables, a herbaceous border and wild flowers, creating the ideal environment for butterflies, beetles and bees to flourish.

Not only does the zoo boast a Green Team – whose sole purpose is to improve environmental policies and practices – but it is also the first UK zoo (only the second in Europe) to be awarded ISO14001, which is an internationally recognised standard for commitment to taking care of the environment.

The attraction actively supports its local community by helping to improve the area of Upton-by-Chester through long-term, sustainable projects, which are beneficial to wildlife. It also takes every opportunity to raise public awareness about the decline of some of the UK’s indigenous species.

In 2010, micro moth expert, Steve Hind discovered the larvae of a Stigmella viscerella (more commonly known as the Plain Elm Pigmy moth) on the leaf of an English Elm tree growing at the edge of the zoo’s land. This find caused great excitement during one of the attractions’ Native Species conservation programme’s regular moth trapping sessions – especially as it was last recorded in the County over 100 years earlier.

Whether it’s releasing hundreds of rare Fen raft spiders into the wild or issuing warnings about the plight of Harvest Mice during cold weather, the zoo’s team is never less than passionate about the survival of each and every creature, however diminutive.

Wherever you stand on the question of whether zoos should exist or not in the modern world (and it’s my opinion that such places are now essential to the survival of many endangered animals), you cannot fail but to be impressed by the conservation charity’s dedication to the preservation of both British and international wildlife.

Posted in Out & About | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Preparing for autumn

Saturday morning was dry and bright: ideal conditions for practical outdoor tasks. I was forming a plan over a cup of tea when a young Dunnock (downy feathers still very much in evidence) careered headlong into the window, knocking itself senseless. Rather than leave it lying on the ground at the mercy of our cats, I placed it on one of the bird-feeding stations. Several tits and a Robin came and went but the stunned bird remained exactly where I had left it for a good hour, looking groggy and extremely sorry for itself. Gradually it recovered sufficiently to fly off into the woods, so I felt quite optimistic that it would make a full recovery.

Relieved not to have a terminally concussed bird on my hands, I got to work on my first ever Pond Weed Bin – an ingenious idea picked up from the Guardian Weekend as a method of controlling stubborn perennial weeds. Parts of our land have been overrun by bindweed and our dry stone wall is at collapsing point with vast fronds of bracken sticking out in all directions. Slow drowning these menaces seemed like the perfect solution.

After much hacking and wrenching, I dumped a sizeable heap of thick-rooted weeds into a tub filled with water and added a handful of duckweed from the pond in the hope of keeping the stench to a minimum. In several months the roots should break down into a “compostable mush” and the water become rich and nutritious (“weed tea” is the way Lia Leendertz describes it in her article). The mixture should then make an excellent fertiliser when diluted and watered on plants.

Butterflies were numerous in the warmth of the early afternoon: Orange-tips, Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells and Large Whites were on the wing in and around the meadow. Sadly, not a single Painted Lady has been seen this year – no doubt the inclement weather is to blame. However, towards the end of August and into the first week of this month a male Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus) was observed feeding on a mixture of sludge and animal waste caked on the grid by our barn. I was vaguely aware that this species is said to come down to the ground to take salts and minerals from muddy drains, but this was the first time I had seen it happen. I snapped a picture of him (see above) using my old and very basic Olympus 4.10 Digital – hence the poor quality of the photograph. A decent camera is going to be at the very top of this year’s Christmas list.

This morning was somewhat overcast and breezy but the rain stayed away for most of the day. I continued clearing the dry stone wall, tugging out great knobbly rhizomes and long fleshy roots from between the rocks. The Hedge bindweed (also known as Bellbind) is deceptively attractive with its pretty white trumpet flowers and heart-shaped leaves. In all fairness, it is highly attractive to bees but unfortunately, twines itself around the stems of other plants, smothering them in the process.

A female Grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) joined me for a time, her pale yellow rump frantically bobbing up and down as she searched for insects in the garden waste. I also found a Seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) sheltering in the ivy, so was careful not to cause too much disturbance in that area. Butterflies were thin on the ground except for a Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria), which came to rest a short distance away, its buttery white eye-spots clearly visible each time it spiralled up into the air.

It rained intermittently during the late afternoon, but no matter, a great deal had been achieved. In addition to my extreme weeding, D had made excellent progress on clearing the culvert and a new bat box was nailed proudly above the main doors leading into the animals’ house. A productive weekend all round.

Posted in Garden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Wall and Wheatear on the wing

The Great Orme rises behemoth-like from the sea and sprawls along the north west of Llandudno as if biding its time before slipping noiselessly back into the water and sinking beneath the waves.

This prehistoric limestone headland is rich in wildlife and history. Accordingly it is designated a Special Area of Conservation, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Heritage Coast and has been managed as a Country Park and Nature Reserve since 1980.

This wonderful old rock holds a very special place in my affections. Not only was I raised in its shadow but my family dwell both on and beneath its ancient crust (my grandparents are buried in the old cemetery at St. Tudno’s Church). Moreover, I was employed here as a park warden – Information Officer to be precise – during the early to mid 1990s.

Last Wednesday D and I joined family and friends for lunch at the Kings Head, which is situated at the base of the Orme, followed by a brief jaunt around the Marine Drive, stopping off at the Rest and Be Thankful Cafe for an ice cream before heading towards the West Shore.

We sat at a picnic table next to the cafe, chatting amiably while gazing out towards the wind farm, which was shimmering pleasantly in the heat. Before long we observed a buff-coloured bird with distinctly white undersides dashing about on the grassy slopes, bobbing its tail in a similar manner to a wagtail. Every so often it would hop in the air or skittishly take flight a few feet above the ground before resuming its frenzied activity. There was no doubt to any of us that this was a Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) – a regular visitor to the headland during the late summer and early autumn.

Presently, a second Wheatear flitted into view, its blue-grey mantle and black wings over a white rump with black ‘T’ shape on the tail quite plain to see. The two birds went about their business, seemingly oblivious to their appreciative audience, providing us with some terrific photo taking opportunities.

Interestingly it is said that the Wheatear’s name derives from a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon descriptor ‘white arse’.

A pair of ravens honked croakily as they performed mid-air acrobatics above our heads, while several jackdaws landed close to our table – their intelligent silvery-blue eyes fixated on the ice cream.

We were entertained for a time by a solitary Wall (Lasiommata megera) butterfly, so named for its habit of basking on walls, rocks and other stony surfaces. This individual, which was feeding on hawkweed, was almost certainly a second (possibly third) generation male. He would perch restlessly on a flower and feed greedily on its nectar before taking off to patrol his territory. He did several circuits as we watched, his rich orange-brown markings glowing handsomely in the sun. Sadly his display was futile. With the exception of ourselves, not a single female was there to admire his impressive performance.

Photographs by © Eve Parry, 2012

Posted in Out & About | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Little black nimbus

This morning, Azure damselflies whirred attractively over the pond in search of small flying insects; tiny olive-green froglets crawled through the undergrowth towards the water and butterflies fed languidly on buddleias, thistles and ragwort as the sunshine bathed our garden in warm, comforting rays.

The scene was very different only four days ago. Following a warm, muggy morning, a distant rumble of thunder was audible as we sat down to lunch. An hour or so later, the sun shone somewhat blurrily but there was no noticeable sign of what was to follow. I was admiring a teneral Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) perched in one of our apple trees when I realised the sky had become a sinister shade of purple. Seconds later, an ear-splitting crack resonated directly overhead and huge hailstones started bouncing off the ground like crazed tennis balls.

This was as nothing compared with the rain that followed. It came in a sudden, rushing deluge, as if the gods were emptying great saucepans of water over our heads. The small stream at the bottom of the garden started to swell with alarming rapidity, finally breaking its banks and surging across the paddock – dragging with it metal troughs, branches and a tangled mess of plant life.

Grace and Betty (the pony and pig) had the good sense to take refuge in a small but raised wooden shelter as the water coursed through the meadow and disappeared into the woods. We were able to rescue them – safe and dry – a couple of hours later, but Spike, our amiable black moggy was less fortunate, being swept up in the violent flow of mud and detritus spewing over the culvert. Luckily he was able to scramble to the comparative safety of a high wall, where we later picked him up drenched, mewling and covered in slime.

Amazingly, our little wooden bridge over the stream was left intact but several large trees came down and the banks of the stream collapsed in a muddy mess. The whole drama lasted less than three hours but the residual debris and damage will take weeks to clear.

My initial concern for the welfare of the flora and fauna was less worrying than I had at first feared – although there were undoubtedly fatalities. It is difficult to ascertain the long-term effects of the inundation on local wildlife, but we shall continue to monitor the situation.

Looking back at my notebook, I see that the weather was dry on 15th July – St. Swithin’s Day. What happened to those 40 days of uninterrupted sunshine, I wonder?

Posted in Garden | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

When the swallows fly low…

We have spent several weekends at Fronalchen Caravan Park on the outskirts of Dolgellau. This small, family run camp site is quite basic but its picturesque location affords magnificent views of Cadair Idris, the old market town of Merioneth and the lush green hills of southern Snowdonia.

Forming part of a working farm near an historical blast furnace and Quaker Trail at the foot of Torrent Walk, our base has been a big field in a tranquil valley, next to the Afon Wnion – the largest tributary of the Afon Mawddach – a splendid spot for walking the dogs.

In spite of our miserably wet summer (described recently by the National Trust as “almost apocalyptic” for certain wildlife), there have been sporadic breaks in the cold, wet conditions – if only for a few hours together. Unsurprisingly, we’ve taken full advantage of these ‘heat spikes’ in what must be one of the most natural and enchanting parts of Wales.

At Fronalchen itself, we regularly see flights of Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooping close to the ground in pursuit of small insects. With their glossy blue backs, red throats and streaming tails, these distinctive itinerants (called Gwennol in Welsh) seem almost to be on a collision course with trees and farm buildings as they perform daring circuits over our heads. Small groups of them can frequently be seen perched on fences and telegraph wires around the site, twittering excitedly, and whooshing through outbuildings.

Even during the worst of the weather, there has always been something to keep us entertained. I discovered a White ermine (Spilosoma lubricipeda) moth sheltering behind a cubicle door in the ladies’ toilet block on one particularly wet and windy Saturday, and there are small flocks of birds feeding close by to keep us amused during the heaviest downpours.

During the relatively brighter interludes I several times caught sight of a Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) butterfly in our damp field – the insect’s chocolate brown wings closing to reveal those characteristic eyespots on its underside.

A couple of weeks ago we discovered the Llwybr Mawddach Trail, an old train track turned walkway and cycle path, which runs for several miles along the south bank of the Mawddach River. We joined it not far from our camp site and ambled into Dolgellau with the dogs to pick up a newspaper. The narrow, open footpath was a botanist’s paradise with avenues of rich vegetation, including Common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), Red campion (Silene dioica), Herb robert (Geranium robertianum), Red clover (Trifolium pratense) and Dog-rose (Rosa canina) growing abundantly after several days of heavy rain.

We picked up the same trail last Sunday, but this time headed in the opposite direction towards Barmouth. This section of the pathway is mainly covered by trees and takes in salt marshes, reed beds, mud flats and the wide sweep of the Mawddach estuary. The foxgloves had by this point almost died off but we recorded a profusion of Common valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) and Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) – to name but three – along the route. We then stopped at the RSPB Mawddach Reserve in Penmaenpool where we had a refreshing drink outside the George III Hotel before turning back.

The high point of my time in Mid Wales (thus far) has been a walk through the dunes at Talybont beach, close to the River Ysgethin. The sandy hills were carpeted with Wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus), interspersed with Pineapple mayweed (Matricaria matricarioides) and Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum). In the sunlight, Six-spot burnet (Zygaena filipendulae) moths were feeding on Birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), thistles and other nectar-rich plants, while a Small skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) darted among the grass stems. My idea of a perfect summer’s day!

Posted in Out & About | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments