Tuesday, 25 April 2017

A Century Ago

Sybil Peel was a very special lady; a sharp mind even in her nineties, she would recall in great detail her childhood days in the Peel family house at Sunnyside overlooking Underhill Park in Mumbles. A direct descendant of Sir Robert Peel, she was the last of a truly great line. We became great friends, spending many happy hours over real Edwardian teatimes in her dining room, the walls covered with portraits of the Peel family. There were tales of corncrakes at haymaking time, father going to work on horseback in the town, and skating in winter on the flooded meadow below the house, which is now the local cricket pitch.

An old friend Paul has a late 19th century watercolour of the meadow, with Sunnyside in the background. It’s marvelous. The haymaking scene shows an old horse-driven cart laden with hay, with farm workers gathering and loading the hay just as Sybil described to me decades ago. She remembered everything, and each year showed me the exact hole in the wall by the old lawn tennis court where the spotted flycatcher nested. There were many natural history artifacts in the house; books, paintings and stuffed birds, but best of all were her sister Violet’s nature diaries, written before the Second World War. Of no real value to Sybil, many of these were offered to me, but out of politeness I refused. She did however manage to persuade me to take the case of stuffed Pallas’s sand grouse, shot by her father during the famous eruption of 1888. What a mistake not to have accepted Violet’s natural history diaries, a treasure trove of what the countryside would have been like on Gower in the early years of the last century.

On Sybil’s death Sunnyside was emptied, bought and sanitized by the manger of a local supermarket.  The diaries and everything else disappeared. What irony.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Filling the Vacuum

I have mixed feelings about quarries. We need the stones and minerals they provide, but they can be very destructive to nature. Smaller ones can sometimes give back more than they take, and gravel pits are probably the best example. On Gower there’s a history of limestone quarrying going back centuries. Most were very small affairs on the south coast, extracting limestone to be shipped across the Bristol Channel to Somerset and Devon. All of these have been reclaimed by nature a long time ago, but their legacy remains in the form of small kilns hidden in the landscape, much sought after by historians.

By comparison, the one at Barlands Quarry dates from the second half of the last century, and ceased working only a decade ago. A great chasm of a place, its working are hidden from view, and it now provides peace even though near a main road. Already nature is beginning to get a foothold. Bare ground is soon invaded by common plants; daisies, dandelions, coltsfoot, great masses of buddleia, mats of forget-me-nots and wild strawberries, all beginning to hide the years of disturbance. In the shelter of the wind, and as spring gets warmer by the day, peacocks and green-veined whites give hope for a better butterfly year. 

But it’s the echoing jackdaws that star here. Like a colony of seabirds they enter nest holes in the vertical cliff face, and are never quiet. They’re spoiled for choice, continually carrying nesting material into a myriad of cracks. Peregrines have reared young here in recent years, and I’ve seen them around this year, but there are none today. A pair of vocal ravens mix with the jackdaws; maybe they nested, but it’s too late in the season to check. Swallows from the nearby farm stay well above the ridge, where fully-grown trees perch precariously as though about to fall. Lower down sycamore saplings, 20 or 30 feet high cling to the face, but seem to have a firm foothold; nature’s desire to fill this vacuum carries on relentlessly.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Earth Day

In 1969, a massive oil-spill off the Californian coast inspired the first Earth Day on 20th April 1970. In the words of its founder Gaylord Nelson, it is "designed to activate individuals and organisations to strengthen the collective fight against man's exploitative relationship with the planet". It also coincides with the year I first read Paul Ehrlich's seminal book 'The Population Bomb', which changed the direction of my life, and that of many others.  No treatise of this kind can ever be total correct, and the 'The Population Bomb' is no exception, but it alerted many to the importance of environmental issues, and helped to bring the increase of the human population into the forefront of the debate. The environmental movement has come a long way since then, but the population of the planet continues to increase out of control, and in reality we are losing the war.

As a mark of respect for Earth Day, I must not drive today. It's a long walk of penance to reach a secluded wet spot in the far corner of our common where I find grasshopper warblers each year. Even though I can hear the reeling song, it's always difficult to pin them down. I'm first convinced it's away in a dense copse, but eventually find it no more than 20 yards away singing in the open, and it's very easy to think there's more than one. The soft repeated drawn-out rattling sound, more like a cicada than a bird, seems to come from different directions and unless it moves, it can be impossible to find. It's well worth being patient and even though often described as a small brown warbler, there are subtle dark olive greens on its back, and the colour of its soft pale buff throat is delightful.

After living here for so long, I'm amazed to find a newly marked footpath. Wet underfoot, a world of dense scrub leads to an isolated five-barred gate and I could be nowhere else but Britain. Leaning over the gate, I marvel at the landscape we've unconsciously created, and wonder what will be here after another four decades of Earth Days.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Cuckoo Trouble

There’s a very tall metal post on the edge of the common; I think its some kind of beacon connected to the nearby small airport, but it’s rarely vacant. This morning a kestrel was perched on top and on my way home a buzzard displaced a loud carrion crow. These isolated posts are used all the time, particularly on the estuary, where there’s a series of wooden stakes way out from the shore, probably a relic of the fishing industry. I spotted my first spring osprey of the year on one of these this morning. If there’s a heat haze it’s often difficult to be confident of what’s there, but today’s early cool air presented no problems. Ospreys have been arriving for weeks now and many are already back at their nest sites. We have them on the Dyfi Estuary north of here, and a pair is already busy nest-building. It’s now their third year at this Wildlife Trust reserve, but they still haven’t brought off any young. State of the art visitor viewing facilities are in place, and we all keep our fingers crossed that this year’s birds will stay and oblige.

In Scotland, where there are now about 200 nesting pairs, ospreys are big news and big business. Radio tracked individuals have been followed from the nest to West Africa and back. Yesterday’s news from the Scottish Wildlife Trust reports the first egg laid at the Loch Low nest was between 7.30 and 8.40 am; I wonder what pioneering ornithologists would have made of all this.

Hearing my first cuckoo each year is very special. Soft and distant at Oxwich Marsh, it captures the magic of spring in a moment of pure exhilaration. A few miles away on Ryers Down another, hotly pursued by meadow pipits is soon out of sight. Such a fundamental part of our British summer, it’s hard to imagine the countryside without them, but unlike ospreys, they’re in big trouble. I can't imagine life without cuckoos, a bird woven into our culture in so many ways.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Signatures of Spring

After waiting for what seems like an age, it’s warm, and spring is everywhere in the park at Penrice. They took a while to flower this year, but the snake’s head fritillaries are now quite wonderful. Hundreds nod their beautiful delicate purple heads in the slight morning breeze. There are white ones two; en mass they take one's breath away. Mixed with primroses, celandines, daisies, dandelions and wood anemones, the meadow is covered with spring. A single bluebell flower harks to next month, and another piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is spring.  I’ve heard that nothing will grow under beech trees, but here on this slope the fable is bogus; there are flowers everywhere irrespective of tree or shade.

Wherever I look there are signs of spring. Chiffchaffs in the trees; brimstone butterflies, bumble bees, honeybees search primroses and wood anemones in turn for nectar. A plaintive sounding mistle thrush sings from across the valley, and there are house martins in the sky.  It’s been an odd spring so far, cold winds, late flowers and house martins before swallows; but then nothing is ‘normal’ any more in the natural world. A sense of expectation is palpable with the first two weeks of May only a few days away, when this wonderful part of Gower will be at its vibrant best. 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Long Grove

Wet woodlands are rich in wildlife, and Gelli Hir (Long Grove) is such a place. A mixed broadleaved woodland, it still has remnants of its ancient past. Grading from damp oak, birch and willow to drier ash, sweet chestnut, sycamore and beech, it surrounds a central pond; there’s also alder along the network of small streams, and hazel coppice in places.

On a bright sunny morning, dappled light shoots through the canopy onto moss-covered twisted roots of old trees, providing support for newly emerged wood anemones and wood sorrel, and, looking like clenched fists, young ferns shoot from the woodland floor.

Over the years the Wildlife Trust has put much effort into maintaining the pond and old shooting groves; dams have come and gone, but the final sturdy moss-covered stone solution will last for generations. A thoughtfully placed seat by the bank makes an ideal place to sit and watch. There have been grey wagtails here for the forty years I’ve known the wood; long tails wagging, they fly-catch expertly above the smooth water as it glides gently over the top of the dam. The pond is a stage set, waiting for spring actors to appear and moorhens are already here, carrying dead grasses to a nest site on the island of willows. With a noisy splash, a pair of mallards makes an entrance right; they’re immediately spooked and head for cover. Blackcaps, chiffchaffs, willow warblers, nuthatches and buzzards provide the music, as do all three members of the thrush family singing in turn.

Butterflies patrol sunny glades and the cleared groves. Peacocks, orange tips and a single comma are freshly hatched, and I hear the background buzz of bees and hoverflies. There will be other butterflies in their season, but the real star of these woods is the silver-washed fritillary, but I shall have to wait until June to find one.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Reality Check

We are spoilt for choice of Norman churches on Gower, but the stocky one at Ilston has a special charm. At the edge of the village, at the head of a deep wooded valley, there is peace going back centuries. The bridge by the gate crosses a gentle bubbling brook with grey wagtails, and reaches the sea just a mile or so downstream. The huge yew tree, its trunk standing on a mound of earth and roots, is thought to date to the age of the church. It dominates the ancient building; another, a baby by comparison, stands ready to take its place. Mistle thrushes, coal tits, noisy jackdaws, nuthatches and great tits all make the big tree home, and maybe the tree creeper, silently climbing the trunk has done so too. A great hum of bumblebees and the gentle cooing of woodpigeons provides backing for the music of blackbirds, robins and a song thrush in the village beyond.

God’s acres are havens for wildlife. There are no artificial fertilizers; plants and animals exist free from external pressures. There are no rare things here, just the commonplace, but when summer gets going it will probably be a botanist’s paradise. Snowdrops are finished now, and it’s the turn of lesser celandines, primroses and daisies to decorate the churchyard, whilst newly flowering wild strawberry and ivy-leaved toadflax cling to the limestone church and walls. Set in beech woods carpeted with wood anemones, the old rectory sits on the hill behind the church,  has been in private ownership for generations, and is part of the history of this place. At the back of the church, old lichen-covered 17th century gravestones, many unreadable, lean against the tower; lost from their owners they may stay there for centuries.  

On leaving by the gate a modern reality check: ‘Beware of unsafe gravestones’. How ridiculous is that? I wonder what the incumbents are thinking.