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

Thursday, 15 April 2021

I'm not religious, honest.

Over the Easter weekend I went to church, not because I am religious but because the church grounds at St Michael Llanfihangel Pontymoel is an excellent churchyard for spring flowering plants. The following pictures illustrate the diversity wild flowers present.


Opposite Leaved Saxifrage


Common Dog Violet

Cuckoo Flower

Dogs Mercury

Early Dog Violet

Ground Ivy

Common Primrose

Saturday, 3 April 2021



It was in August 2017 that I stumbled upon a thriving colony of alpine clubmoss beside a track on a tip in the Canada Tips area of the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape. After a visit from the joint county botanical recorders it was confirmed as the first record for the vice county of Monmouthshire and the most southerly population in the UK. Since this time I have made frequent visits to check on its progress and that of a nearby patch of fir clubmoss.

At the beginning of the Easter break I decided that another check of the clubmosses was in order along with quick look at a disused industrial reservoir, now just marshy grassland for a possible marsh clubmoss. While I wasn't lucky enough to find the marsh variety I did find two new patches of alpine clubmoss. The first was approximately 100 metres south west of the original site with the second over 500 metres north. Although marginal, but the new south westerly site is now the most southerly in the UK. 

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Idiot alert

In the midst of a global pandemic there's another epidemic that's taking hold in uplands and upland fringe. Its that of off-road biking. Over the last year I've walked my beloved local landscape and witnessed the damage these idiots are inflicting on the natural and cultural environment. The impact on the landscape is the worst I've known it in my lifetime. From the World Heritage Site at Blaenavon, to the ancient woodlands of Blaenserchan and Graig Ddu and onto the common land of Mynydd Garn -wen these simpletons ride without fear of the law. Some arrive via Transit vans other simply use the highway network despite having no insurance or licence plate. I've seen groups of bikers drinking pints in a local pub before leaving to race up the main road to Brynmawr and Sunday's in Abersychan is a spectacle of speeding, over taking and wheelie pulling. And as for adhering to Covid restrictions, you can forget it. No one that routinely breaks common land and highways law is going to worry about a little thing like Covid.

Yesterday's walk up the Blaenserchan Valley was dogged by the constant background noise of bikers. In convoy, eight bikers raced up banks, rode through ponds and streams and joyfully scrambled through ancient woodland. With the Llanerch Memorial now attracting visitors including young families to enjoy the post industrial landscape the disrespectful actions of these numbskulls is an embarrassment and a stain on the legacy of our forefathers.

With that off my chest there was not much nature on show. An overhead calling raven and a distant green woodpecker accompanied a single coal tit and meadow pipit. On the plant front common whitlow grass and parsley piert were pleasing albeit common early Spring flowering plants.

Parsley Piert

Rosettes of Common Whitlow Grass

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Notes from a woodland walk

Pollarded beech

Motivation is at an all time low. Generating the energy to explore my local patch is a struggle at the moment. Nonetheless a day of sunshine was just the incentive I needed to make my way to Blaenavon Community Woodland. 

This wooded area on the southern edge of Blaenavon is under the ownership of Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and in the recent past was cleared of its larch plantation. The only conifers that now remain include a large stand of lodgepole pine and a small amount of larch regeneration. A useful product of the conifer clearance has been to reveal some of the landscape secrets of yesteryear. One of native woodlands, drystone wall and meadows.

Getting off the forestry haul road and its steady stream of dog walkers, joggers, bike riders and walkers with headphones, is the only way a naturalist can to find and appreciate nature. Birdlife was fairly thin apart from a mobile population of siskin. An early small tortoiseshell briefly alighted in the sunshine before moving on. 

Looking for trees was much more rewarding. The species, their shape and form can tell us a lot about how the landscape and its natural resources were used by farmers in the past. Dropping down from the well used haul road with its silver birch complete with witches broom I found myself in a small patch of beech woodland. On its margin was a scrubby enclosure, bordered by a fragmented drystone wall. Here is a small stand of coppiced hazel, along with an alder managed the same manner. Some individual alders were pock marked with woodpecker activity and on the ground the recent spring like weather was encouraging the green shoots of bluebell to emerge. Here too the smooth bark of the beech trees supported some arborglyphs or tree carvings notched by woodland lovers seeking their own personal space. I find these carvings fairly frequently and often in locations where few people now venture. Whilst none can be classed as special works of art, they are windows into an era when the outdoors was much more attractive to youngsters than it is today.

A former farm track that now doubles up as a public footpath leads from even more derelict farm enclosures and remnant buildings to emerge within sight of the Blorenge Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). A line of equi-spaced sycamore trees mark the way, one supporting the a narrow shelled tree snail. Here too was a fine pollarded beech tree is shrouded by the oppressive lodgepole pine.

Coppiced alder

Coppiced hazel

Line of planted sycamore

Emerging bluebell

Woodpecker activity

Witches broom on silver birch


Sunday, 31 January 2021

The locals


A local lockdown walk along Lasgarn Lane, Trevethin, to the trig point on Mynydd Garn Wen was more memorable for sub zero temperatures and the number of local people who had similar intentions, rather than any wildlife on offer.

The lane itself was treacherous in places. On bends where high roadside hedges prevented the winter sun from penetrating to the surface the overnight formation of ice was a trap for those without sure foot.

The walk itself is always a delight whatever the season. Thick managed hedgerows, fragmented in places by field gates and farm tracks bleeds into moss covered drystone walls flanked by majestic beech trees. The verge between road and field boundary ranged from hedge bank to small grassy margin. A few redwing fed in a sheep grazed field and a nuthatch called from the top of a large beech tree.

Where the roadside margin is wide enough to accommodate some fallen timber I noted some that was sporting the distinctive phenomenon of hair ice. It was only a day or two before that BBC's Winterwatch was talking about the very same thing. Hair ice is produced by a fungus found in rotting wood called Exidiopsis effusa. This in turn results in strands of ice that resembles hair.

When on my knees photographing the hair ice, I became aware of two young lads who had paused from pushing their bikes up the lane. They seemed puzzled by a middle aged man on his knees in the countryside - and who wouldn't I suppose. I proceeded to the mountain gate and the lads cycled past. On the track to the trig point there were walkers and a transit van from whence came three scrambler bikes. There was litter from the evening before's take away and another vehicle that had just arrived containing a family with rabbiting type dogs. Not driving for your exercise had clearly fallen on deaf ears on this occasion.

After visiting the trig point I returned for home. People were still coming up the lane with others like me returning. A seasoned walker with rucksack only just kept his footing as he passed through an ice patch. At a field gate I paused to look for ground feeding redwing in the grassland sward beyond. As I did the two aforementioned young cyclists rode past at speed. The second lad, had clearly thought that seeing me on my knees photographing hair ice, that I was foraging for food, because as he went passed he shouted, 'looking for food are you, you sad bastard'. Local lads don't you just love 'um?

Friday, 15 January 2021

The Pontypool Black Redstart

Lockdown is miserable but necessary. Walks are local, so notable birds are thin on the ground. But news via Twitter of a black redstart in Pontypool that was just over a mile from my home had me considering a different route from my regular walk.

In a way it was refreshing to connect with a black redstart that was more accessible. Most of the few that I'd seen previously were roof top individuals and the only value in taking photographs were for record shots. This one was different.

On arrival at the roadside location - a busy traffic light intersection - two birders were already present. Complete with collective binoculars and camera we were receiving some bemused looks from passers by. The bird itself had taken up residence on a small area of cobbled grey infrastructure between a cycleway and the main Pontypool to Blaenavon road. To my amazement the bird was feeding at ground level hopping between the cobbles, occasionally alighting on the roasdside crash barriers feet from moving traffic. There was at least one instance of the bird flying low across an adjacent road seemingly timed to coincide with the traffic lights turning red. 


Sunday, 27 December 2020

A touch of nostalgia


A few weeks back I indulged in a tiny bit of personal nostalgia. This goes back to the days of weekend bird ringing sessions with Percy Playford and Tom (Gordon) Boyland on the edge of Llandegfedd Reservoir in Cwmbrwch Wood. Sadly neither Percy or Gordon are with us.

I had my first trainee ringing licence as a teenager in the late 1970's, when most of my activities centred on the ringing of pied flycatchers in the half a dozen or so nest box colonies established by Percy. In the early 1980's we moved to set up a ringing station on the southern edge of Llandgedfedd Reservoir. Here on weekends outside of the breeding season we ran regular mist netting seasons in the comfort of a former fisherman's hut donated by Welsh Water. After many years of enjoyable Saturday sessions Percy became ill and our ringing ceased. Following Percy's death Welsh Water moved the ringing station to the north end so a new 'A' ringer could carry on the work. Disappointingly, this was short lived and the hut fell into disrepair and eventually collapsed beyond salvage.

Starting from the reservoir's dam the water level was sufficiently low enough to reveal a discarded suitcase encrusted with the non-native zebra mussel. I wonder what's inside! The footpath through Cwmbrwch wood is sign posted from the dam and is well worn initially but becomes challenging before it emerges into Sor Brook picnic area. Part way through a fallen tree provides a gap just enough to view the location of our former ringing station. Here too, someone has cut the thick stem of an ivy covered tree presumably thinking that it is detrimental to the trees wellbeing.

Emerging into the open grassland of Sor Brook picnic area a couple of raven called loudly from the top of some nearby conifer trees. Turning over some drift wood at the edge of the brook revealed a small European eel. Going back to my ringing days I remember this watercourse holding a significant population of elvers, so it was great to see they are still present.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Woodland reawakening


Boundary stone

It's an area on my local patch that I've neglected over recent times. It's used by motorbikers too frequently to be comfortable so doesn't always confirm to my idea of a peaceful well-being walk. But with lockdown back with us I made the decision to risk the bikers and take another look at this marvelous block of ancient woodland near to Talywain.

This patch is a continuous wooded area that stretches from The British to Varteg and incorporates the woodlands of British Carnau, Graig Wen and Graig Ddu. A glorious mosaic of beech and sessile oak woodland interspersed with lightly grazing unimproved grassland that blends into ffridd habitat as the altitude increases. Boundary stones and dry stone walls mark changes in ownership and the remains of Graig Ddu farm sits within a clearing, above which is enclosed grassland bordered by fine examples of mature pollarded beech. All these trees should measured and entered on to the Woodland Trusts ancient tree register, but to do so would require a significant investment of time.

From Talywain Rugby Club a weathered wooden waymarker says Cwm ffrwd and points this naturalist towards Graig Wen and Graig Ddu. On the approaches to these woodlands is a stone boundary marker and from there the path snakes uphill. Trees here are characteristic of Welsh valley hillsides. Hidden within is a linear pond. Devoid of aquatic vegetation and now accumulating the debris of an autumn woodland, a part visible stone wall suggests this is not a natural waterbody.

Into the sunlight of a glade and another more industrial waymarker takes me to the ruinous Graig Ddu farm. A bench and interpretation board encourages you to dwell and take in the vista of Mynydd Farteg Fawr in the foreground and Mynydd Garn Clochdy in the distance. The farm itself is just a collection of short remnant walls except for an almost complete gable end structure that dominates the setting. Tracks ascend higher and descend lower all bordered by trees that demand the attention of an inquisitive naturalist. But alas on this occasion the light was fading and rain had set in.

On the return my mind drifted to the prospect of more visits and a springtime of redstart and pied flycatcher song.

Sessile oak and beech

Pollarded beech on field margin

Woodland birch


Mature pollarded beech

Unimproved acid grassland with ant hills

Woodland pond

Sycamore at Graig Ddu farm


Sunday, 25 October 2020

We'll keep a welcome in the hillsides

Before the hounds are set on me by my farmer friends I must say that I do have first hand experience of the damage stray dogs can do to livestock. So, I would strongly contest any notion that I'm a townie with a Beatrix Potter image of the countryside. I remember vividly witnessing the attempts of passers by to extract a bull terrier type dog locked on to the face of a sheep. The animal was eventually released but not before it had inflected some serious wounds to the poor sheep. 

The old pit road from Waun afon bog along the lower slopes of the Coity towards the Varteg has become a very popular public thoroughfare. My walk along the very same tarmacadam route last weekend was punctuated by cyclists, runners, family walkers and off road bikes. So it's clear that local famers have had problems with some dog owners who have little respect for those eking out a living from this landscape. Even so, the spray painted message that loose dogs will be shot equally demonstrates an in tolerance to the public who also have the right to use this landscape legally. Surely not all loose dogs worry sheep so it cannot be fair or right to tar all dogs and their owners with the same brush. Its only those animals that have an unhealthy interest in sheep that should run the risk of being shot. 

My excursion from Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve through the ffridd habitat and enclosed grassland of the lower slopes of the Coity was notably for the variety of winter thrushes that were feeding on  rowan and hawthorn berries. Small numbers of blackbird, song thrush were joined by redwing and fieldfare. A pair of stonechat were also present.

Where the natural upland to lowland flow of water has been interrupted by mine workings and farm tracks small pools occur. Here, typical wetland plants including bog pondweed and round-leaved crowfoot are still showing well.

In the distance I could see the Mile Pond a linear waterbody constructed by our industrial forefathers. Deploying my new Nikon Coolpix I picked out a single little grebe and 11 wigeon. Wandering around the disused Coity mine I found a large patch of stump puffball. It was the large landslide on bund that hides the mine from the nearby town, Blaenavon, that made the news during the heavy rain of last February. As I made my way around the mine there was further evidence of the impact of this weather through several substantial rock falls.

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