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

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Medicinal botany

I'm very much a morning person and a bit anti-social to boot, so I enjoy getting out and about as early as I can for the best of nature and to avoid people. It was before 6am when I swung into to upper car park at Garn Lakes Local Nature Reserve (LNR) for a short walk around the margins of Waunafon Bog. I was pleased to note no other cars, this meant no people (and dogs), but in the corner of the car park were around half a dozen part opened discarded black bin bags that on closer inspection contained the remains of someone's cannabis growing business.

A stand of crosswort that I've known for a few years is thriving and is now in flower. A few swallow passed over as I prepared to take some photographs and a willow warbler sang from the top of a nearby tree. I had hoped for a singing grasshopper warbler or two but nothing emerged. 

Through the railway cutting that skirts the bog there were at least three pair of stonechat. Here too the sound of calling Canada goose echoed through the cutting. A patch of creeping willow was only now coming into leaf, a sign perhaps of the late spring. Turning for the return journey back to Garn Lakes my first people came into sight. Two young men with terriers and lurchers paused to ask if there was anything about. I responded positively without being too keen to enter into a protracted conversation.

There's a small copse of mature trees that is all that remains of a small farmstead or maybe a building associated with the nearby railway cutting. Either way it's always worth a quick look around. It was surprising for the last week of May to find several stands of daffodil still in flower - most have flowered and died back weeks ago. Peeling back some bark on a fallen ash tree tree I found what appears to be a female rhinoceros beetle taking advantage of the decaying timber. A nearby cherry laurel in full sunlight supported a very confiding barred ant-hill hoverfly.

The rest of the walk produced a pair of reed bunting and a common lizard basking on the recycled plastic boardwalk of this part of the national cycleway route.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Blaenavon cemetery and its hinterland


It was about this time last year, during the first Covid-19 lockdown that I spent some time pottering around Blaenavon cemetery. This is a working cemetery with hundreds of burials, some very aged and interesting, some bland. There is a more traditional churchyard type section with an eclectic mix of headstone features contrasting with the uniformity of active modern day remembrance features equi-spaced to some government standardisation no doubt. But between this sea of the late, nature thrives where the demands of horticultural activities are less clinical. Patches of semi-improved grassland, mature trees and shrubs on the margins that blend seamlessly into the landscape beyond.

I hadn't intended to visit the cemetery, it was the upland beyond that was the calling for this excursion. The lower slope of Mynydd Varteg towards Forgeside was the main objective. Making the steep climb following the access road to a now disused mine, a marshy field with water holding due to the on going showers supported patches of round-leaved water crowsfoot. A male reed bunting showed briefly in some nearby willow scrub. A bund of civil engineering proportions now shrouds all signs of its former industrial activity, an amphitheatre with some remaining bits and pieces of heavy industry clutter. I turned over an oil can, some tin sheeting on the edge of an ephemeral pond and some shards of wood in the hope of a hidden great crested newt, but nothing.

Leaving the mine I made my way across the heather clad coal spoil, rewilding naturally by stealth. A few meadow pipit and skylark were braving the wintery showers. Between the compacted spoil with its dwarf shrub heath plant community there were patches of bog and mire complete with abundant sphagnum capillifolium and some flowering hare's tail cotton grass, now scarred by the actions of bikers. Passing a stand of gorse topiaried by grazing animals and now sodden by the blustery showers I sought the relative shelter of the cemetery.

Through the gate a great spotted woodpecker called and the song of chiffchaff, blackcap and willow warbler could be heard. The grassland between the memorials was awash with flowering primrose. Most of these primulas were the native type with others naturalised cultivars. The graves themselves become the focal point of my attention. Taking time to the read the inscriptions promoted a sense of sadness when weathered headstones commemorated the passing of children. One was aged 5 years 11 months the same age as one of the grandchildren!. Nonetheless for a naturalist these graves some with ornate wrought iron surrounds many shaped by oblong granite, are akin to raised planting beds. Here there are many introduced plants along with colonised native species some spilling over their formally constructed restraints in the the adjoining grassland. A sheep with a lamb grazed contently between the checkered pattern of burials. On the corner of a footpath one of the rarely species of lady's mantle was in flower.

The rain became heavier so I left in search a cup of tea and some 'grub', as they say in these parts. I made a note in my diary to return to burial area as its vastness and variety demands more of my attention. 

Monday, 3 May 2021

Country lanes


Early purple orchid

White comfrey

Its been a few years since I visited St Michael's churchyard at Glascoed. This is the only location I know for early purple orchid. On arrival it was clear that no management had taken place for a while as the grass was rank and tussocky but there was still a liberal scattering of cowslip. Thankfully the early purple orchid were still present but not in profusion - there were just about a dozen in flower. 

Out from the churchyard I took a walk around Glascoed village looking for plants in the road verge and hedgebank. Cowslips were growing in every scrap of uncut grass verge along with some nice examples of false oxlip. Around a bend in the road was a high bank at the foot of a large garden. Here there was a large stand of white comfrey. Had it escaped from a cottage garden or had it arrived by other means? Either way there are few naturalized records for this plant from the vice county. Further on a large badger sett could be seen at the interface between field boundary and road.

Later I took a drive down Cwm hir lane near to New Inn. This is a rural dead end lane with nicely managed hedgerows with footpath links through arable fields. At the base of the roadside hedges where a characteristic community of flowering plants including bugle and red dead nettle along with a patch of greater celandine.

Cwm hir lane

Greater celandine

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. 


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