Promoting observation, free range exploration, sense of place and citizen science.







Monday, 27 January 2014

Seven wonders of the valleys: No.1. Acid grassland



Sheep grazed semi-improved acid grassland is the basis of subsistence farming in the south Wales valleys. The upland marginal landscape is littered with agricultural enclosures some with remnant drystone walls topped and gaped with makeshift fencing of wire, gnarled wooden posts, bailing twine and rusty corrugated sheets. Others are slightly more organised with publically funded modern fencing interspersed with lichen and berry clad hawthorn trees. In autumn and winter this is where the fieldfare and redwing ply their trade and where ring ouzel tag along for the sheer hell of it. Meadow pipit are at home in the herbage of the late summer upland meadow and the wheatear flies from fence post to wall and then to fence post again.   

A decent acid grassland often comes complete with the occasional yellow meadow ant mound, and some, such as the one pictured in the above photos at Talywain, are literally crammed with large mounds. For a naturalist these fields are rich pickings, topped with flowering bedstraw in summer the characteristic walking stick dropping of the green woodpecker is a common sight and if lucky the odd adders tongue fern can be found. With grasslands of all denominations under increasing pressure from development and agricultural improvement/neglect I fear that the sight of these quality acid grasslands complete with their 'ant cities' are vanishing as quickly as colony of breeding lapwing. 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Pochard decline musings



It was not too long ago that pochard would be one of the first wildfowl on the team wetland player list. Once a banker for any dedicated Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counter this diving duck is now becoming as scarce as a Monty Panesar boundary. The Birds of Gwent traces its demise, from a bird that once turned in regular century counts (including one of 400) back in the 1970s to one of indifferent presence or absence and  often in single figures when found. This 'dropping down to the bench'  is borne out by my own time series of wildfowl counts from Dunlop Semtex Pond (DSP) and other 'up north' ponds. Nationally its a similar picture. The recent Waterbirds in the UK 2010/11 publication is more candid about  pochard trends. It states:

'The trends for Pochard in both Britain and Northern Ireland indicate alarming declines have occured since the 1990's. In 2010/11 the annual index for Britain reached an all time low with numbers approximately half of what they were twenty years ago.'

This weekend during a count fest that included such auspicious venues as Bryn Bach Park, Beaufort Ponds, Machine Pond and DSP the contrast between that other wetland mainstay the tufted duck, and pochard couldn't be starker. The aforementioned bird was present at all four sites visited with a collective count of 104 compared to just five (5) pochard from only two sites.  

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Perturbators


Whether we admit to them or not we all have prejudices. These will have been fashioned and influenced overtime by friends, family, workmates, politicians, the media and social order. But there comes a time when a free thinking, enquiring mind challenges those mainstream prejudices. Take for example off road driving. I have always viewed this activity as highly damaging to the ecology of our open countryside. From racing up spoil tips, cutting through upland peat bog to the muddying of a footpath through an ancient woodland, a close encounter with those enjoying themselves with machines, has, until recently filled me with tub thumping rage. 'Don't you know access to the open landscape is only for  Berghaus wearing, GPS carrying tourists and not for local people to use for fun'? So does this view stand up to scrutiny and should it be exposed as nothing more than a prejudice designed by middle class professionals to control working class lads from have a bit of relaxation on whats left of our accessible green space? And are their activities really damaging wildlife interests?

There's no pristine wilderness habitat left. All that we cherish and protect for its rich biodiversity has been created and shaped by the actions of man. Take for example those 'highly valued and protected SSSIs' jewels in the crown of the post war nature conservation ethic of which the vast majority are the product of human interventions in the landscape. Llandegfedd Reservoir once a rural idle with wooded streams, wild daffodils and five bar gates whereby wellie wearing, thumb stick carrying farmers could rest for a fag and survey the chocolate box landscape. Now pumped with water to quench the dry throats of Cardiff but celebrated as one of the principal inland water bodies for wildfowl and awarded the lofty accolade of SSSI. Also the Gwent Levels reclaimed from the Severn Estuary used for agriculture,compensation for a barrage and protected by a concrete sea wall. Any threat to this man made SSSI is met by the wrath of conservationists many of whom would happily sacrifice their dignity to lay in front of a road builders JCB. So could it be that contrary to the popular belief that off roading is damaging to ecology, and in the absence of teams of work party conservationists actively diversifying the landscape, that this form of recreation could be providing a valuable ecosystem service by default, and if so what's the supporting evidence?


The impact off roading in Gwent is sharply focused in its coalfield valleys where urbanisation and ribbon development follows the more accessible valley bottoms but thins quickly as the contours narrow. This ensures that valley communities are never too far away from open countryside. On summer weekends and  evenings the throaty sound of motorbikes mix with singing skylark, willow warbler and shouting Welsh mams to provide an ambiance that's uniquely valleys.

Evidence of off roading especially in the uplands is not hard to see. Deeply incised tracks through wet heath and peat, circular patterns on plateaus of part vegetated spoil and hill climbs through scattered ffridd beech woodland the scars are all around. From an aesthetic perspective this is often not a pretty sight but nonetheless is, I would argue, disturbance ecology in action.  Tracks through homogeneous bracken covered slopes increase patchiness and edge habitat for nesting whinchat.  Bare ground maintained and alternated by the variable linear actions of tyre treads are ideal for basking adders and common lizard, for predatory invertebrates such as the green tiger beetle in pursuit of that mottled grasshopper. And in the drier areas the surface breaking actions of a group of tearaways in Wolf Speed jackets offer feeding opportunities for wheatear or if you're lucky a trip of dotterel. Some of the best places for water beetles, palmate newts and odonata such as scarce blue tailed damselfly and keeled skimmer are from water holding wheel ruts thereby compensating for an institutional fear of maintaining standing water habitat.



Now you may think I've lost the plot but it seems I'm not the only one to hold these subversive alternative views. The campaigning geographer and peri-urban champion Marion Shoard in her contribution to the book Urban Wildcapes (Jorgensen and Keenan 2011) cites an example of incidental habitat enhancement. She says:

'  ........attract low-key uses which actually enhance wildlife and wilderness value. Scramble biking produces small-scale disturbance which generates loose friable substrates on the West Thurrock Marshes. This makes nesting easier for rare burrowing bees and wasps , such as the brown-banded carder bee and the five-banded weevil wasp..........'

There are of course undeniable issues with motorbiking in peri-urban environments which shouldn't be ignored. My personal aspiration of enjoying a peaceful walk is often shattered by bikers who tend not to have much regard for other users. They can also play havoc with livestock thereby incurring the wrath of Commoners and in doing so act illegally. And in the brave new world of industrial archaeology free spirited bikers may cause damage to the values society has now placed on these landscape features. However in societies scramble to persecute those enjoying themselves with machines we can easily lack objectivity and overlook some of the beneficial aspects of which one, I would argue, could be nature conservation.     

Friday, 10 January 2014

Of dubious origin

 


This imm White fronted goose was in amongst the Canada geese at Cwmbran Boating Lake yesterday. Its clearly of dubious origin but not something that I've come across in vc 35 before. If it is a feral bird where do they all come from?

Note - thanks to Chris Jones for correcting my initial identification faux pas.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Belgium chocolate


Taking the road from Chepstow to Monmouth yesterday the River Wye was revealed in all its full chocolate brown flooded glory. The adjacent floodplain had done its job by taking excess water leaving a pretty watery landscape of flooded fields. Pulling into a car park in Tintern beside the swirling debris laden river I was soon able to attract a few gulls. One black headed gull was carrying a Belgium ring marked 7T97132.
  

Friday, 3 January 2014

Blue 784 returns



A Turkey sandwich break to a playing field in Cwmbran produced a couple of paddling Herring Gull. One bird turned out to be colour ringed blue 784. This bird was first recorded around the same time last year and from the same locality. Bird was first ringed at a landfill site in Gloucester 2006.  
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