The Otter Bus

Every time I enter the Kingfisher Hide on the little Oxbow lake at Dinefwr Park I wonder if I will be lucky enough to see an otter again. I try to manage my weekly patrol of the Deer Park boundary so that I can eat my lunch in the hide quietly watching and recording the little events which punctuate the stillness. I record the time and the weather and if there is one moorhen or two, and if the resident Mute Swan is there, contemptuously ignoring my presence as usual. In early spring I made this cryptic record:

22 March 2018
11:20 – 11:45 nothing of note.

Most of the time I’m recording the everyday life of quite common species, but there is always the hope of something different and I watch every ripple in the water. One calm September day there was a huge disturbance when, for  no more than a second a large fish broke the surface and crashed back again.

Then came this record:

31st May 2018
12:00 Warmer – sun
12:05 2 herons, otter fishing among the water lilies
12:15 Otter appears again but dives when it seem me. Jay flying west
12:25 Redstart clearly feeding young – probable nest on the far bank. He works a circuit, frequently picking insects from the lily pads.
12:45 Jay very close.
13:00 left

The laconic tone is deceptive. There is a sudden surge of adrenaline when I see the water moving. What’s happening? Could it be? YES! The tone also covers my frustration that I did not have the camera poised ready – not even for the second appearance!

One day the otter would  be back and I would be ready. It took a long time:

22 January 2019
11:35 cold, light rain and Sleet
12:00 big flock of around 80 greylag flying around the lake then landing.
12:15 Kingfisher perched on the tree opposite for a few seconds then flew off east. Moorhen. Second Moorhen converging will they fight? Group of Greylags walking up the grassland beyond the oxbow.Moorhen confrontation but no fight
12:20 2 male Teal fly in.
Advance Guard of Wigeon coming up the rise towards me
12.25 pair of mallards. Geese getting quite close now. One female Teal swimming to the right.
12:35 As I was packing up I saw movement in the water. An otter! I spent a glorious 10 minutes watching and photographing it crunching small fish before it swam off to the west.
As I walked away from the hide the geese all took off – wonderful sound.

It was a sunny day but the mid-winter sun was very low and the otter was directly between the lens and the sun – glaring highlights and deep shadows making it difficult, even after processing, to get full detail in the shadows. There seemed to be plenty of these small fish among the reeds at the edge of the oxbow. That was a significant observation, and helps to explain the title:

“You wait ages for a bus and then two come along together.”

27 January 2019
12:05 cold Still cloudy. Blue tit feeding on Rushes
12:25 four teal fly in
12:30 they fly off, but 4 more appear working the rushes from the west.
12:40 Otter! fishing all along the bank towards the east.
12:45 Cormorant fishing
12:55 Otter returns from East on this side of the Oxbow. It came very close but then must have seen me and did a deep dive.

Cormorant flew off.

This time the light was better though still harsh. The first sighting of a Cormorant actually fishing on the Oxbow is significant I think. This and the return of the otter means there are plenty of fish here at present. 

What a week!





















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Demarchy or Lottocracy

I apologise for this sudden glut of posts after a long period of silence. It’s mostly to do with mood and the creative spark, both being unpredictable.

I was delighted to find this article yesterday. It’s published by Aeon Magazine  and written by Alexander Guerrero who is an assistant professor of philosophy, medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Surprisingly,  he doesn’t seem to know the existing term “Demarchy” for choosing governments by lottery. When I was writing my daft book “The Vandervelde Documents” I explored the idea as an alternative to a system which was already failing us badly, and has now proved hopelessly inadequate. 

Firstly here is the AEON article:

Now here is a quote from my book in which the hero Vandervelde is addressing the first assembly of a new Nation being created in 2062 from the ruins of my fictional Britain:

On the Monday I had to speak again, but it felt different. We were all together now, committed to the concept of Cambria.

 “Ladies and Gentlemen”…..  (I like my dramatic pauses.)

“Democracy has failed….. The great 20th century ideals of universal suffrage, political parties, republics, constitutional monarchies… all these have failed to deliver.“

To my surprise there was a fair amount of agreement evident from the cries of “hear hear” – though there were a few shouts of “shame”.

“They failed for the same reason that autocratic societies failed: to achieve power you had to offer bribes. In autocratic societies it was the chiefs, kings, queens and warlords who offered land and influence to their friends and relatives. In the democracies the party chiefs offered more buying power to the electors, and the only way they could deliver was by stoking up endless consumer cycles of growth and collapse. At least under the autocracies the benefits on offer were quite long term. In the democracies you had to offer money in your pocket now, better times next year, or at the most a real benefit in a few years time. To get elected you had to have influence. If you wanted something to change, you – the business person or pressure group – had to be able to influence the politicians, and so the great lobbying industry developed. Economic growth was the only thing that kept the system going, and that led ultimately to the catastrophe of 44.

We have to do better. My team and I spent 6 years underground working out why we had failed and how we could do better. What we wanted was a system of government in which every person could participate equally. It had to be a system in which the representatives of those people were not influenced by any pressure group or lobby. Those chosen to govern had to be able to make long term decisions without the constant fear of losing power, and they had to be amongst the most able in the country.

That’s a very tall order.

How do we choose a few from a multitude? History records several methods. We can chose by heredity – the offspring of those in power assume power by birthright. We can choose by lot – one person draws the long straw. We can choose by election – we vote for the people we like. We can allow the most powerful to assume control. Variations on these methods have determined most of the governments in our history.

Of all these there is only one which is capable of producing a random and therefore representative sample of the people and that is the one which has for centuries been used in Britannica to choose the twelve good men (or women) and true who decide whether someone accused of a crime is guilty or innocent – the Jury. Actually those twelve may not be good and true. They could all be criminals, or all captains of industry. That is the nature of chance.

Simply to replace assembly elections with a group of citizens chosen at random from the population would have some obvious disadvantages, the main one being that there is no way of knowing whether any of them have the skills and knowledge to govern. However, as the basis of government it has been tried –  twice: once in the Venetian republic, and once in ancient Greece. In both cases it was used in combination with voting. It even has a name: Demarchy, and it is a demarchic system which I want to suggest to you today as being the best way of choosing those who will govern our new nation.

In the Athenian democracy, the first process was an election to choose an assembly. Its officials were then chosen by sortition. We are all familiar with the model of a large group – a Parliament or Assembly, and a smaller group – a Senate or Cabinet. In a demarchic system one of those would be chosen by lot and the other by election.

In the Venetian Republic they apparently had several layers of alternate elections and sortitions. Whichever way you do it, by introducing the principle of random selection you undermine the power of the career politicians and those who lobby them for their own self-interest. To stimulate discussion NRG have produced two draft proposals for you to consider, as you can see on your screens now.



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I’m trying to get to grips with a term which is seems to represent everything hated by those who wish to have nothing to do with the EU – Elites. The word comes from the French elir “to choose”. Elites are the chosen ones, but the best definition of the modern meaning I could find is this:  a group or class of people seen as having the most power and influence in a society, especially on account of their wealth or privilege.

I’ve been reading a book called “Patronising Bastards” by the Mail columnist Quentin Letts.

(The son of Richard Letts and Jocelyn Elizabeth (née Adami), he was born and raised in Cirencester and for a while attended Oakley Hall Preparatory School, which was run by his father.[1][2] He boarded at The Elms School in Colwall on the Herefordshire side of the Malvern Hills. His education continued at Haileybury and Imperial Service College, then at Bellarmine College, Kentucky (now Bellarmine University), before going to Trinity College, Dublin, where he edited a number of publications including The Piranha, Trinity’s satirical newspaper. He graduated with an MA degree in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. At Jesus College, Cambridge he gained a Diploma in Classical Archaeology.[2] )

He describes these elites as follows:

“For decades, Britons have been bossed about by a clerisy of administrators and managers and pose-striking know-alls. The old aristocracy having faded, in came a more furtive elite, driven by the desire to own minds, not acres. They were not interested in buying parkland and vistas. They wanted to control opinion and dictate our attitudes.

It was done on the sly. Of course it was. We are ruled by baby-boomers and the baby-boomer generation-as greedy for power as any of its predecessors – is embarrassed by outright leadership. Material chattels like stately homes can be taxed, so they submerged their swagger. They posed as liberals and dressed as and spoke like Mechanicals – tattoos, mockney accents, crumpled clothes.”

It’s great writing. I grin and grudgingly agree with much of it.  He caustically derides most of the politicians who have governed on our behalf for the last 40 years – from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May, with special scorn for Tony Blair.

What I find much harder to take are commentators like Brendan O’Neil in “Spiked”

“In fact these second-referendum whisperings represent a ripping-up of the social contract of the modern democratic era, which says the public’s view must be taken seriously rather than casually written off by elites who think they know better.”

As a supporter of a second referendum am I one of these Elites? My paternal grandmother was a servant and very proud that 3 of her sons, including my dad, went to Cambridge. Education was something that working people set great store by in the days when Britain was being rebuilt after World War 2. I too went to Cambridge University from a mediocre Swindon grammar school in the 60s, and I was briefly a member of Footlights. However, according to Letts in a caustic article about Emma Thompson and her friends: “Those Footlights people perfect the art of being patrician without ever quite seeming it.” When I was working alone making furniture in a  converted cowshed on a Welsh small holding 20 years ago, even my best customer wouldn’t qualify as a member of the Elite.

The whole issue of education is a real spanner in the works. The possession of a degree was a clear indicator of a Remain vote as was its absence an indicator of a Leave vote. The Remainers are the hated Elite, so does that mean those with a good education are now despised as not being true democrats?  Are intellectuals anti-democracy?

Going back to  the definition of Elite as powerful influential people with wealth or privilege, why don’t these commentators include the leaders of the Leave campaign in this basket. What about Nigel Farage for example? Here’s part of his Wikipedia entry:

His father was a stockbroker who worked in the City of London. A 2012 BBC Radio 4 profile described Guy Farage as an alcoholic[20] who left the family home when Nigel was five years old.[9] In 1971, Guy Farage gave up alcohol and entered the antiques trade, having lost his Stock Exchange position; the next year, endorsed by friends, he returned to the trading floor at the new Stock Exchange Tower on Threadneedle Street.[26]

From 1975 to 1982, Farage was educated at Dulwich College, a fee-paying independent school in south London. In his autobiography he pays tribute to the careers advice he received there from England Test cricketer John Dewes, “who must have spotted that I was quite ballsy, probably good on a platform, unafraid of the limelight, a bit noisy and good at selling things”.

Surely nobody could suggest that Boris Johnson wasn’t one of the elite?

Born in New York City to wealthy upper-middle class English parents, Johnson was educated at the European School of Brussels, Ashdown House School, and Eton College. He studied Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was elected president of the Oxford Union in 1986.

And what about another of the fervent proponents of Brexit? –

Jacob Rees-Mogg was born in Hammersmith on 24 May 1969, the youngest son of William Rees-Mogg (1928–2012), a former editor of The Times newspaper, created a life peer in 1988, by his wife Gillian Shakespeare Morris, a daughter of Thomas Richard Morris, a Conservative party local government politician and Mayor of St Pancras in London. He was one of five children, having three elder siblings, Emma Beatrice Rees-Mogg (born 1962),[12] Charlotte Louise Rees-Mogg (born 1964)[12] and Thomas Fletcher Rees-Mogg (born 1966),[12] and one younger sister, Annunziata Rees-Mogg (born 1979).[13]

Rees-Mogg was raised partly at Ston Easton Park in Somerset

I rest my case.

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Big Brown Birds

Ham Wall is the name of a wonderful bird reserve in the Somerset Levels. There is no ham there and no wall, but the name comes from Anglo Saxon hamm for water meadow, and the wall was probably a bank to control the water.  Where there is water once was peat, and you can see the black soil where the moles have pushed it to the surface. The single track road, straight as a die, tips and humps where the peat has sunk or dried. Accross the road is a big black mound where peat is still being dug.

It’s only 78 miles from Cilycwm – at least it would be flying. By road it’s 128, but much of it is motorway so takes about 3  hours. One plant dominates: if you don’t like Phragmites a.k.a Norfolk Reed then you won’t like Ham Wall, and you won’t think much of its neighbour Shapwick Heath either. Between them they cover an area of 5 square miles, divided roughly one third water, a few patches of woodland and the rest Norfolk Reed. At this time of  year the tops are silver and the stalks pale brown, and if you catch the sun behind them they are fabulous. Silver, brown, fawn, buff with occasional green: it’s a subdued pallet in winter – subtle and very beautiful.

The birds tend to be brown too. At one extreme are the  snipe, so camouflaged as to be almost invisible against the reeds. The female Shoveller ducks too can melt into the background, but the drakes don’t even try.

The bitterns (brown again) have alas also proved invisible on this trip, but you can’t miss the King of the Marsh, the Marsh Harrier in its old 50s British Rail brown and cream.

Nor can you miss the spectacular (though not brown) Great White Egrets, one of our most recent colonisers which have their British headquarters here.

In between are literally thousands of ducks. On the great lake at Shapwick Heath the water is dotted with ducks as far as you can see – possibly tens of thousands. The typical species will be Wigeon, Teal, Shoveller, Gadwal Tufted and Mallard, though Wigeon outnumber all the rest.

So for anyone who loves water birds and is not colour prejudiced, this is one of the best places in Britain. I spent a glorious 2 hours in the “Tor Hide” and took over 300 pictures, of which 90% were of one family of Marsh Harriers. I’ve tried many times to get good clear pictures of these magnificent creatures, but they seem to know exactly how near they can approach the hides so that there is not quite enough light to get the fine detail. They are always just that little bit too far away, damn them. Still, just watching them was fascinating. They had two favourite places in the reeds where they would land, mostly it seemed just to preen, but one of the spots looked like a source of food.

Then they would rise and follow a prescribed route quartering the ground between the hide and Glastonbury Tor before swinging south and east.

I also spent some time at Steart Marshes to the South of Bridgwater,  but there were no big brown birds there. This new, huge reserve is tide dependent, and even though I was there at a normal high tide, only one of the smart new hides had any birds at all in front of it, and that was on some freshwater lagoons. For the main reserve you need to be there at a Spring (extra high) tide. Reminder to self – check when they occur. I did get some nice pictures of Knot flying though –  in the low morning sunlight.

Posted in This Wild Life | 3 Comments

An Alien in the Park

“We have a situation” was how the ever laid-back Rhodri described the infiltration of a different species among the Fallow Deer of Parc Dinefwr. The alien was a Red Deer Stag. He could be dangerous to visitors. He could be a threat to the resident deer, but most importantly he could have created or used a breach in the boundary fence, and the security of that fence is a big part of my volunteer job, so at short notice I travelled to Llandeilo this afternoon to check the boundary, thus freeing Rhodri to do some urgent office work. I suspect he would rather have been walking the boundary, but he sounded grateful.

I started at the South East corner of the park where there is a boardwalk through a boggy wood – a popular area for the visitors and very unlikely to be the source of the breach. Ten minutes later I had checked that section and stepped round the barrier which marks the beginning of the sanctuary area –  out of bounds to the public.

With high pressure, temperatures around 10, no wind, and a light blanket of mist and cloud, you could almost breathe the peace. I was so glad to be there after the excesses of Christmas. The southern end of the sanctuary area is the wildest – two steep valleys lightly sheltered by big old trees and interspersed with small meadows. It is exciting in early summer when the does use the dense bracken to hide their foals, but in mid-winter it is deserted. There is little food here, and the deer seem to prefer to be in the forest areas near the two fields where, on alternate days, the noise of a tractor approaching means turnips: much more nutritious than the winter grass.

The fence looked undisturbed except for several badger runs scraped under it. The ancient moss-covered wall which forms the Western boundary was also undisturbed, but when I came within sight of the middle field I could see a large group of mostly dark coloured does. A quick count suggested 130, roughly what I would expect if this is the whole of what I call the Rookery Ridge group. They began to move up the valley. I trod carefully from tree to tree, until I could see the Turnip Field, and there, unmistakably large and red was the stag. Before I could get a picture he was gone, but I knew where to follow him and having checked the rest of the wall, moved quickly across the open ground to the wooded ridge where the Badger Hide is. This is the territory of the second group which I call the Brown Path Gate group. Their colour is more varied, but how much mixing goes on between the two groups I don’t know. Peering slowly and carefully over a low ridge I saw the does in one of their usual haunts, and then the big fella, towering over the Fallow does, and a gorgeous rufous colour. I’d brought my much lighter 18-400 travel lens for this trip, but now wished I had the big lens to do him justice.

He’s following a small group of does southwards along the ridge – or is he driving them? He stamps and they scatter. He trots one way, turns and trots the other. He’s not happy, and neither are the does who seem afraid of him. They all move away.

With enough pictures taken and most of the boundary checked I go through the Brown Path Gate, out of the deer park and down to Newton House, the Estate mansion. The National Trust offices are there and I expect to find Rhodri at his desk, dealing with his chores. He’s there, nose not quite to the grindstone because he’s chatting to Carol who is the Estates officer for the County. The big question is “how did he get in?” The only bits of the fence I haven’t yet checked are the least likely to be breached. Carol thinks he may have got over the wall.

“There are piles of logs on the other side which he could have climbed up. Red Deer can jump up to eight feet. Our fences are only six” Rhodri thinks the section of railing along one of the public paths is the most likely. I agree.

“You may be right Carol, but I didn’t see any disturbance on this side of the wall which I would expect if he had landed after a huge leap. The railings are much easier. Any idea where he might have come from?”

“I think he’s an escape – there’s a deer farm over by Paxton’s Tower. Or if not, there is a small group of wild red deer on the beacons. Both are east of here.”

I tell them I have some pictures and they both move in to see them on the camera screen. Rhodri notes the very different antler style. Carol is envious:

“I looked all over for him first thing this morning but didn’t see a sign.”

“How old do you think he is?” I ask.

“Three or four years. He’s not fully mature.”

“Right, I’m going to check the last bit of fence. I won’t need the radio. If I see anything out of place I’ll ring or text.”

Just as I enter the deer park again, right in front of the big house I see Rufous again, harassing a group of does and a half dozen mature bucks. Even these magnificent animals look small against the Big Red.

I ring Rhodri and ask him to tell Carol. When I reach the highest point on the East of the park I see him again: restless, unhappy.

He can’t be left here causing havoc. Sadly this will be his last day. Tomorrow at dawn the cull team will track him down. There are worse ways to go.

Posted in Dinefwr Park | 1 Comment