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

Monday, 30 December 2019

Heritage hawthorns

Heritage in the South Wales valleys is one dimensional. Ask any layperson what they understand by heritage and I wager their response will be framed around our industrial past. Yet heritage comes in many forms and whilst I understand peoples affection to coal mining and the valley towns that grow around the employment that the winning of natural resources brought, for me my heritage is rooted in nature. 

There are of course strong links between industrial heritage and nature. Some of the most biodiverse habitats occur on areas formerly despoiled by mineral working. Coal spoil tips, redundant reservoirs and quarries all conspire to create a landscape that can tell us much about the regenerative nature of the natural environment as it does about mans short sighted drive for a society based on carbon.

With such a focus on the industrial revolution it can be easy to oversee that there was a worked agricultural landscape that pre-dates heavy industry. To find evidence of this one needs to look at the landscape with a different eye. This can be done through the medium of trees. Therefore my recent, new found quest to record notable, mature, veteran and ancient trees had me searching the disused farmsteads and field patterns of Blaenavon for evidence. 

Along with dry stone walling, hawthorn field boundaries were common place in the uplands of South Wales. Whilst stone walls have fared better it can now be difficult to find extensive field margins of hawthorn - nowadays replaced by fencing. All that often remains are remnant features. But it is these natural artifacts that will often contain some of the more aged trees that I seek. And its these remaining features that I believe are as important to the story of Blaenavon as the Ironworks or Big Pit.

A couple of hours in the field towards Pwll Ddu provided enough evidence that notable hawthorns can still be found. The tree illustrated below measured approximately 2 metres in girth. All hawthorn trees over 1.5 metres girth are regarded as ancient trees.

Whilst I was able to measure the above tree, others that appear to be more aged proved to be just out of reach on private land. I was only, therefore, able to view and photograph from adjacent common land. Below are some of the images to whet the appetite.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Recording trees

Despite the advent of Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) and Felling Licences I feel trees have little effective protection. Any sense that a tree is a health and safety risk it will be dealt with in swift time, so any additional protection must be well received. A small step in the right direction came last year when the publication of Planning Policy Wales Edition 10 introduced a requirement for planning authorities to consider trees listed on the Ancient Tree Inventory when arriving at their decisions. However the inventory is only as good as the information it contains, so it came as no surprise to find that there are no trees at all listed for my local patch in the upper Afon Lwyd valley - nothing between Pontypool and Blaenavon. So in an effort to alter this I spent a hour walking around the Lasgarn Wood with tape measure and camera.

The good thing about recording trees at this time of year is that notable individuals can be easily picked out in a woodland landscape devoid of its foliage. Although the Lasgarn Wood is an ancient woodland it was worked for its limestone during the industrial heyday and thereby lost most of its mature trees. However, some remain on its margins and it was these I sort to record.

Measuring the girth of trees is easier said than done. Securing the tape measure at approximately 1.5 metres on uneven ground is an acquired skill. Nonetheless I measured two beech trees, I considered worthy of a closer examination.  The first measured around 5.28 metres with the second being 4.63 metres. These will be added to the inventory is soon as possible and will start me on a journey of recording notable, veteran and ancient trees on my patch.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

After a fallow period

A series of regular autumn visits to the River Usk in Newport Town Centre has produced next to nothing in terms of rarer gulls and birds carrying rings. In fact the numbers of larger gulls has been disappointingly low. This week has seen a bit of a turnaround in ring reading fortunes with a British ringed black-headed gull from Tintern and a couple of Canada goose from Cwmbran Boating Lake.

As is often the case with Canada geese the two birds at the boating lake were very confiding, following anyone who with a packed lunch. Although one bird had its ring on upside down - something I know ringers are keen to avoid -  I suspect both birds were ringed at Llangorse Lake. I will report all three birds to the BTO as soon as I can and report any interesting information here or on my @valleynature Twitter feed. 

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Lone wolf naturalist

True naturalists are inquisitive, looking for nature where others don't or won't. Searching for nature in the most unlikely locations is the modus operandi of those who's aim is to broaden our knowledge of species distribution in order to inform conservation priorities. I am no exception, I struggle with some nature hotspots such as the Newport Wetlands where comfy conditions and many eyes remind me of 'shooting fish in a barrel'. I find this model of nature study to be akin to a reduced sized Mars Bar, wholly unsatisfying, so I avoid. I am a lone wolf naturalist!

Last weekend I went on the prowl along the saltmarsh on the margins of the River Usk near to the Newport Transporter Bridge. Walking from an access point close to Newport Van Sales I followed the saltmarsh at low tide towards City Bridge, sniffing out nature on the way. I was hoping to find a new niche location for gull watching but, although all common species were present numbers were low. At low tide the river reveals an indicator of people's opinion of it. A muddy settlement of hundreds of tyres has created a reef that in turn has trapped tree trunks, 45 gallon oil drums, parts of cars and shopping trolleys that will have been deposited into the river, not by chance, but by design. A single curlew briefly alighted, before continuing under the transporter bridge and out of sight.

I am unfamiliar with the wildlife of saltmarsh. Needless to say that the trusty bat detector picked up more long-winged conehead and field grasshoppers were widespread on the dry upper reaches of the marsh. Plant wise sea aster was common along with lyme grassSandhoppers were also numerous under discarded material. 

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 are 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.

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