Tuesday, 25 July 2017

No Heart

The old village of Penrice is set high above Oxwich Marsh and commands a magnificent view over the bay. The six cottages clustered around the stocky limestone Norman church of St Andrew, with its wonderful medieval grotesques, are in immaculate condition. The Penrice Estate gradually bought them back after hard times, and they’re now used as holiday lets throughout the year. There are no permanent residents around the green now, and the heart has gone from the village, some say there is no village. Up to a generation ago, Penrice was typical of many old Gower villages with its own post office, now Bay View Cottage, and shop, now Rose Cottage. The old flat red George V post box is still in use in the wall of Bay View Cottage, but is probably used only for the occasional holiday postcard.

We often come here for a picnic on the bench in front of the church to enjoy the peace, the view of the distant sea, and the wildlife. Swallows feed young from a second brood in a nest in the front porch of Sea View Cottage, dropping faecal sacs as they leave. Great-spotted woodpeckers are busy behind the enormous yew tree in the churchyard. A very pale looking robin, starting its annual moult, bobs about the hedgerow, and a beautiful pair of bullfinches allow me a good five minutes viewing as they preen amongst the fuchsias around the arbour in the garden of Bay Cottage.

Best of all though is the peace of this place. The few people that walk through the timeless village are looking for the same thing as us, but the bench in front of the church is ours for the moment, and they walk on.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Waking Up

From the beach at Oxwich, the contours of Cefn Bryn are lost in early morning mist. There are few holidaymakers about at this time of morning, and just a couple of dog walkers far away at Nicholaston Pill spoil the view of the pristine beach. The only sound is from the gentle lapping of waves and a skylark above the dunes. I’m virtually alone again in this magical place.

I need to look carefully beyond the pill for the famous cliffs at Three Cliffs Bay. The Bay is used in many tourism brochures for Wales and Gower, with photographs usually taken from the main road, from high up on the bryn, or if you are prepared to get your feet wet, from the sea. I can hardly make out the cliffs in the mist, but even on a clear day, the celebrated view looks insignificant from this angle.

It takes about fifteen minutes to reach the pill. A few non-breeding gulls loaf about in the brackish water fanning out over the sand, and the usual pied wagtails dart about catching flies on the sand; otherwise little else moves.

It’s not yet 6am, but out to sea, boats, probably from the marina in Swansea, head west for a days sailing. Some may anchor at the western end of Oxwich Bay and spend the day here, others will venture further afield to Port Eynon and beyond. But it’s too early in the day for the sea bikes to be about. These raucous machines have become popular in recent years, causing noise pollution and disturbance in what should be a peaceful place.

Just a few yards from the pill and I’m in the sand dunes; waking up after a clear still night they’re utterly peaceful. The sweet early morning dew is intoxicating, soaking my boots as I walk gingerly along the path trying not to step on the myriad of delicate grasses. Some bumblebees are out early, and the warming rays of the sun allow a common blue butterfly to take to the wing. It’s best to just sit, look out over the old salt marsh and Nicholaton Wood beyond, and watch the world wake up.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Lots of Summer Left

We get wind here, lots of it, but during the summer, mostly just sea breezes. Even when it’s perfectly still inland, there’s usually a breeze on the cliffs, but evening frequently brings with it calm and peace. There’s a slight chill to tonight’s breeze, and from on my perch high above the sea, there are signs of high summer waning, and the new season creeping in. The purples of heather are beginning to emerge and mix with remnants of yellow on the low-lying gorse, forming a glorious natural carpet typical of some parts of the Gower cliffs in autumn. Elsewhere swaths of mature bracken hide the seeds of nettles and docks, and open patches of tall grasses sway fawn-coloured in the wind. Teasels are mostly left with only purple tips, but great and rosebay willowherb are still in full flower. Blackberries have both flowers and red berries, and the one black berry I taste is still hard and very sour. Buddleia is in full flower in the gardens along East Cliff, but not much-visited by butterflies again this year. There are a few newly hatched red admirals being blown about in the wind, but on this summer evening, there are no other butterflies to be seen.

Stonechats, now independent of their parents, are beginning to lose their spotted plumage and show signs of rusty breasts. It’s the time of year when small birds are difficult to see in the dense vegetation, and even though there are lots of juveniles about, most stay hidden. Many adults have started their annual moult and will stay under cover avoiding predators.

Above Bacon Hole a pair of choughs feeds a noisy full-grown chick, and below, fulmars still wheel about above the sea. There are early signs of autumn, but there’s still a lot of summer left.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

King of the Feeders

A couple of nuthatches returned to the garden this morning. Creeping up and down the branches and trunk of the willow tree, they found the peanut feeders in no time at all. They rarely come during spring and early summer, spending this time breeding in the nearby woods. It’s always a welcome sight when they reappear, and they’ll probably visit us each day now until late next winter.

It’s interesting to see their interaction with the other birds at the feeders. Great-spotted woodpeckers are kings, using their sword-like bills to repel all others at the peanuts. However apart from loosing out to the odd grey squirrel, jackdaws and jays, nuthatches do pretty well. Like the woodpeckers they use their dagger-like bills to easily deter any small bird that dare to approach. Larger birds aside, only blue tits seem to have the guts to land on the feeders when the nuthatches are around, but they’re immediately seen off. Other tit species also don’t stand a chance, and greenfinches, chaffinches and house sparrows lack the courage to even attempt a landing, preferring to hang about on the ground below with the robins and dunnocks, picking up the bits hacked out by the energetic nuthatches.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Broad Pool

Apart from those at Oxwich, there are few lakes of any size on Gower.  History tells us that Broad Pool dates back to at least the 17th century. In mid-summer fringed water lilies cover almost all of the surface, their shimmering yellow flowers, standing proud above the water, look quite wonderful. The lilies eventually cause siltation, and the pond needed rescuing in the 1970s. Owned by the Wildlife Trust, Broad Pool is a haven for dragonflies, and on a bright July day is alive with them.

Although the pool lies in moorland bog, in July the path around is mostly dry, and it’s an easy walk. I find broad-bodied chasers, common hawkers, common and black darters, common, blue and azure damselflies, and there are probably others, but it’s the number of individuals that impress.

Away from the main pool there are five smaller ones, and all have dragonflies and damselflies, and in the adjacent bog, heather, purple moor grass, bog myrtle, rushes and much more. The whole area is alive with aquatic plants, insects and singing skylarks - it’s pure joy.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Ragged Robin

There are always those who criticise. Many years ago, when I was privileged to be Chairman of the then Glamorgan Wildlife Trust, I pushed for the acquisition of Prior’s Wood and Meadow. We were offered half the wood, and the meadow, and this is what we bought. I was not so much bothered about the wood, but really had my eye on the meadow. Since the 1930s, the UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows, mostly to intensive agriculture, and we have not escaped this decimation on Gower, but Prior’s Meadow remains intact. The labour intensive issue of managing the meadow was an issue at the time of purchase, but over the years volunteers have helped the Trust to take off the hay at the right time, thus ensuring its survival.

In high summer, I visit the meadow again. Access is at the end of a path bordering Fairwood Common in the village of Three Crosses, and I must walk through the wet woodland to get there.  It’s damp where the meadow meets the wood, and it was the ragged robin growing on these lower slopes that first caught my eye on a sunny June morning all those years ago. The ragged robin is still here, although many are fading now at the end of their flowering season. There are just a few other places on Gower that I’m confident of finding this signature species.  Other botanical treasures grow here; black knapweed, devil’s-bit scabious, yellow rattle and much more, and there are more than a hundred kinds of vascular plants growing in the meadow.

As I leave, I think of the project to create 60 ‘Coronation Meadows’ throughout the UK which celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. There’s a seed bank here that could be used to create another Prior’s Meadow somewhere else on Gower, and thankful that I persuaded the doubters who argued that the effort involved in taking off the hay from the meadow once a year was not worth it.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Counting Individual Butterflies

In 1977, Mary Gillham wrote in her book ‘The Natural History of Gower’ that “Cliffs as flowery as those of Gower cannot fail to be alive with butterflies in suitable weather”.  She did not predict the dramatic consequences intensive farming, and the use of more lethal pesticides would have on British wildlife.  Butterflies have suffered badly, and Gower has followed the national trend.

Even though it’s an in-between time for some species of butterflies, July should be one of the best months, but there are very few about again this year. Meadow browns and small heaths are normally all over the cliffs by now, and I’ve seen only a handful of each so far this summer. I need to search for the few common blues and brown argus that seek the more sheltered spots in Overton Mere. Both peak during July, but I find only a couple of each on the western side of the little bay. The land directly above the beach, which was once used to grow potatoes, turns out to be a little more productive. There are no small or large whites, both are between broods, but painted ladies, a small tortoiseshell, some skippers, and a fading red admiral all keep low to the ground. But it’s the small numbers that underwhelms me, and again I find myself counting the number of individual butterflies, rather than species.

There is hope. As a result of public pressure, Governments in all four UK countries are now aware of the new family of neonicitinoid pesticides, and the EU has voted for a temporary ban on their use. The half-life of some of these pesticides is measured in many years, and stopping their use might eventually help butterfly numbers to increase. We must see if our government complies with the EU directive, but even then, it may be a long time before we see any marked recovery.