Promoting observation, free range exploration, sense of place and citizen science, through the field notes of a naturalist.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Rural petty criminals

The peri-urban environment or 'edgelands' that is that interface between the urban and rural is home to the petty criminal. Whether it is fly-tipping or off-road vehicles driving on common land, these marginal areas are accessible and off the radar for law enforcement, and as such relatively risk free to the perpetrators. A brief recent stroll around the rural margins of the Varteg provides a case study.

There's always been a bit of a fly-tipping hot spot as you turn off the main Varetg to Blaenavon road towards Red Ash. A hundred or so metres is just sufficient distance to be out of sight allowing enough time to empty the contents of your vehicle, have a cigarette, drink in the vista of vast Mynydd Garn Clochdy, then make your getaway. More recently the local authority has erected signage suggesting the presence of a covert camera and the worst of the fly tipping at this spot at least has now been displaced. Nonetheless, there are lasting signs of previous dumping in the form of non-native species. Species such as monbretia, listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act as an invasive species and therefore illegal to allow to grow in the wild, remains a lasting and increasing legacy. I suspect that organised clean-ups of fly-tipped areas, either by statutory agencies and/or volunteers tend to focus, understandably, on removing the unsightly environmental appearance of domestic waste and maybe overlooking the fact that garden and builders waste especially can contain species that have well documented ecological implications.

I've discussed both the positive and negative ramifications of off road activity in the edgelands through previous postings on this blog - so I won't rehearse them again. Those who indulge in this past-time claim to be having fun and do not understand the impacts they have on peat bogs or the livelihoods of common land farmers. Nevertheless, even if they don't know why their activities are causing a problem they will know its illegal. But just like fly-tipping its a risk free activity. You can ride your bike or drive your 4x4 all over the upland landscape with little fear of being caught. Furthermore, insurance, MOTs and road tax don't feature as part of the running costs of an off-road vehicle, why would you bother as the chances of being caught a next to nil. I wonder how I would fair, if, when walking the hillsides I was injured by unlicensed vehicle? The opinions of some locals to riding on common land is evident by the amendment to this warning sign.

Finally, an example of the links between the two aforementioned illegal activities. The image below was taken on the lower slopes of Mynydd Farteg Fawr. It was a significant distance from any accessible road or track so could only have been accessed by a 4x4 vehicle. This for me demonstrates that if you are willing fly-tip you won't worry about breaking other laws to achieve it!

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

A fleeting glimpse

For a while, along the road that separates the upper part of Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve from Waun Afon bog, I shared a conversation with a dog walker. Among the chit-chat was some interesting  information about a family of little owl that was present a few months earlier. We parted ways, and as I pushed through the increasing willow shrub at the southern end of the bog's railway cutting a chiffchaff could be heard. A party of about 20 hirundine, mostly swallow but with an odd house martin passed overhead.

The cutting, with its remnant limestone chipping base juxtaposed against a wider acidic landscape of heathland and semi-improved grassland is worthy of closer botanical examination. A stand of brightly coloured common toadflax caught my eye and further on towards the top of the cutting a small patch of hare's tail clover, a species I've not note recorded locally and one that is rather surprisingly listed on the rare plant register of Monmouthshire (vc35). A couple of Aaron's rod stood proud covered by about 30 hairy sheildbugs, Here too bird activity increased, a single whinchat on a telegraph wire, along with numerous meadow pipit, a couple of flyover skylark and at least two families of stonechat. Willow warbler, wren, blackbird, goldfinch, great and blue tits, a single greenfinch were also noted.

Beyond the cutting I took the route of the now disused mine road. No longer taking vehicles but increasing popular with dog walkers. A spray painted message warned owners that 'loose dogs will be shot'. Nonetheless I saw one off its lead as its owner walked head down scrolling through his phone. What did we do before mobile phones?  There were also fresh tyre tracks evidence of the on-going state of rural lawlessness in the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape.

Around the top of the bog a single mature ash tree sheltered a memorial bench, to who I do not know. Several cyclists were now using the mine road as I climbed upwards to reach a small pond with its rusting overflow pipe. A single emerald damselfly alighted on the broad leaved pondweed that covers around half of the pond, there were also a couple of ovipositing common hawker dragonfly. Standing on this lofty perch I had a panoramic view of the bog and its industrial landscape in the distance. It was a bold action but I decided not to return whence I came preferring to take a line through the middle of the bog as my return journey.

Before I entered the bog with its unpredictable terrain I paused on an area of coal spoil, a flattened pan like feature that was sheep grazed but supported extensive carline thistle and small cudweed. I pulled out my trusty bat detector, not really expecting any significant orthoptera activity but was surprised to pick up yet another singing long-winged conehead. The range expansion of the species in recent years has been nothing but amazing. I stepped off this area of short vegetation onto the purple moor grass dominated bog entering an area that proved difficult to transverse - I stumbled on several occasions before reaching the otherside. There was little to see on the bog, no flowering plants except the odd tormentil. However, I did watch a male hen harrier rise from the bog and move southwards and quickly out of sight - a fleeting glimpse. The bog is well know as raptor hotspot, so not a major surprise to see this bird but a smart male never fails to impress. 

Back at the railway cutting there seemed to be more warblers passing through the bracken. It was hard work getting across the bog, but one that I was satisfied I'd achieved. And just as I had started a chiffchaff called as I passed a disused farm outbuilding.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Penhow Quarry

Its been a few years since I pottered around this site. Penhow Quarry is an extensive yet shallow disused quarry on the eastern outskirts of Newport. Access is unofficial but judging by the well worn paths and the presence of a couple of dog walkers it seems to be tolerated.

A late August visit is not the best time to be recording flowering plants, but a few commoner species we still showing making the visit worthwhile. Large-flowered evening primrose was numerous as was the quarry favourite yellow wort. There are at least three small ponds present with some developing lush vegetation including gypsywort. On the bare mud was marsh pennywort and shoreweed.

The day was hot exacerbated by the bare ground micro climate. I hadn't brought my sweep net with me so invertebrate recording was limited. However, I had popped my trusty bat detector in my naturalist kit bag that once deployed readily picked up long-winged conehead. The ponds were well populated with common odonata, including common blue and emerald damselflies along with common darters, a couple of emperor dragonflies and good numbers of hawkers that refused to settle to allow identification. In addition the only bird of note was a vocal hobby.

All in all a very worthwhile visit to a location that demands more addition. Noted as one to visit more in retirement.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Bracken armageddon

Once The British was one of my regular 'go to' sites. A combination of marshy grassland, bare coal spoil and developing heathland provided an excellent environment for getting to know local birds. Whinchat, stonechat, tree pipit and even grey partridge were frequent. These days a substantial part of the site is choked by shoulder high bracken and semi-mature trees. Whilst whitetroat, willow warbler and redpoll still occur the change in habitat has been dramatic. 

This change has not only affected the community of birds but the characteristic heathland plant life that was once present is even harder to find. Petty whin is one species that is no longer present. That said a dedicated search can still reveal plants such as bog asphodel, bog pimpernal, marsh cudweed and the regenerating coal spoil tips are now supporting a good population of bell heather.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

A churchyard in Caerleon

A couple of weeks ago I wandered through St Cadocs churchyard in Caerleon. A nice churchyard that fits the now characteristic model of mature trees, including some nice veteran beech trees, and closely mowed grass. There were however some interesting wild flowers but these were marginalised, largely restricted to the edges, where the mower cannot reach.

Some of the unweeded, aged graves were crammed with red valerian a few displaying the leaf roll gall of the now spreading valerian psyllid Trioza centranthus. Widespread around the graves and the bases of trees was stinking iris. I suggest this has been introduced to this churchyard and is now doing very well as a result. I don't record caper spurge that often so it was pleasing to see one tall individual that has escaped the parishioners mower. It was pleasing to see a colony of honey bees in residence in the church and were clearly being tolerated, when once the services of a pest control specialist would have been deployed.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Important Pond Area?

My interest in ponds and other wetland features as part of the general landscape diversity of the South Wales valleys is evident from previous blog postings. A cluster of ponds around the Blaenavon landscape represents, in my opinion, the best example of wetland habitats outside of the Gwent Levels. Alas no one seems remotely interested about this apart from me.

However, a weeks leave from work enabled me to indulge my passion for the ponds that are the so much a product of mans careless use of the land. Many nestle between and betwixt the coal and sandstone spoil tips that in themselves support the most southerly population of alpine clubmoss in Wales. Furthermore a fingertip search of these dumpling tips can produce further finds such as adder's tongue fern and fir clubmoss. More time and more effort will no doubt reveal other notable species but until then bask in the glory of the attached landscape photos from the Blaen Pig area of Blaenavon.

Friday, 21 June 2019

In praise of weeds

There's a whole industry around the control of nature and in particular weeds. Just visit your local do-it-yourself store or garden centre for a host of tools and chemicals designed to cut, spray, strim, and pull weeds out of our lives. Some weed killing tools are even gun shaped, locked and loaded, marketed at men as a battle cry to deal with these rouge, pernicious, space invading plants. Local authorities even deploy resources to ensure peoples contact with weeds is minimised, for there own safety and to reduce townscape scruffiness. Society won't rest until they're all gone and everything is neat and tidy. Yet without weeds we have no pollinators, and in an urban environment that is so hostile to nature, weeds represent a challenge to the norm. They are a persistent annoyance, a wasp that won't go away on a summers day, yet resilient pioneers, they are urban ecology in action and we should view with a different perspective and embrace them!

Travelling around the urban conurbations of Gwent I've developed a keen eye for weeds. Whether it be a road verge, a forgotten corner of a car park or just the pavement/wall interface, looking for weeds is front and centre of an urban ecologist's modus operandi. With this in mind I spent an hour or so last weekend exploring an interesting brownfield site in Newport, looking for weeds.

This urban clearing was once a supermarket, now purged of its buildings its ready and awaiting for Newport's regeneration renaissance. As it waits, natural regeneration is well and truly underway. I did't expect rarity as these young habitats lack the maturity of an ancient woodland ground flora. Yet this site was brimming with species richness and biomass. Below are a few of the wildflowers that are colonising this concrete plateau.

Wall barley

White campion

Smooth tare

Scentless mayweed

Purple toadflax

Red clover

Prickly lettuce

Wild carrot


Cut-leaved cranesbill

Common poppy

Common vetch

Common mallow

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Common Wintergreen

The objective of this visit to Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve was to check on the fortunes of a  large stand of common wintergreen now thriving at the site.

At the Black Ranks I rambled around the fragments of species rich grassland that has filled the gaps and margins of this now demolished row of cottages. There were a few burnet companion moths and common blue butterflies on the wing as I made my way towards a large mound of fly-tipped material. A couple of south marsh orchid were flowering just on the edge of the rubble and a stonechat called in the distance. The mass of assorted plaster, brickwork and paint pots contained evidence that its origin was local to Blaenavon, demonstrating that some still have no respect for its status as a World Heritage Site and the impression this gives to visitors arriving along this highway gateway. 

Crossing the busy, 'I'm not slowing down for anyone' road I arrived at a super little meadow of marshy grassland with a couple of ponds to boot. Here ragged robin and southern marsh orchid were dominant, but the most numerous flowering plant was grass vetchling. Moving on towards the edge of the upper conservation lake the peace and tranquility of this nature reserve was punctuated by the raucous sounds of laughter (mainly male) emanating from a large marquee in the grounds of the nearby Whistle Inn pub. The lake itself supported 17 adult Canada Goose with 10 youngsters in tow, a pair of nesting coot, a male tufted duck and a single little grebe

The margins of this lake are now becoming densely scrub covered, the open aspect that was formerly  home to water ladybird and eyebright spp. is disappearing under a sea of willow. Nevertheless patches of eyebright remain and the monkey flower still prevail. It was a challenge to push through this scrub but rewarding at the same time, I sometimes wonder way I never encounter anyone else doing the same thing! Am I the only naturalist that explores beyond ones comfort zone?

I eventually found the common wintergreen, some spikes were in full flower others not, and there are hundreds on non flowering rosettes. Here too were heath and common spotted orchids.

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