At least I’ll still be able to . . . .

Self-isolation holds no horrors for me. It’s what I do much of the time anyway – in the open air.  Until relatively recently it was the fate of all deaf people – that and ridicule. Even though I have a high-tech hearing aid and am not alone, indeed am blessed with a very tolerant wife, the thought of house arrest fills me with dread. A week ago, in that very different world, the threat of all the over-seventies being locked up for 3 months – a fate worse than the virus to me – was receding. 

At least though I would be able to get out in the campervan to some remote spot where I would be safe and I would be no threat to others. Every day I tracked the BBC online weather forecast. (I can’t watch it on live television because of the ridiculous institution of live sub-titling which means the words don’t match the lip movements.) It shows two weeks, but we all know that the symbols at the far end of that period are unreliable and can change dramatically. As we came up to mid-March the daily image of cloud and rain, which had been our lot for so long, was showing a change – dry weather was on its way. Some days the change looked uncertain but the closer we got to the twenty-first – last week-end – the more our hopes rose. It really was going to be dry and sunny!

Joyfully I planned a trip to Pembrokeshire. I would go to the south coast where I might be able to see the first of the migrant birds arriving as the wind swung round to the south. A few weeks later and they will be unremarkable, but what joy to see the first Chiff-Chaffs, Sand Martins and Wheatears. (I do realise that not everyone knows what these birds look like, but bear with me.) By Saturday afternoon I was packed and ready to go, but for the next few days a cold North wind was forecast and it would be frosty at night. I was worried that the heating which had been temperamental recently so I decided to stay closer to home. Pembury Burrows near Bury Port would be a good place – wild open dune-land, a good place for landfall. The names show a fascinating and rare interchange between English and Welsh. Bury is synonymous with Warren, one of the many places where Conies and their youngsters, then called Rabbits, were kept confined by warreners and trapped for their meat. The Welsh word is “twyn” which also means “down” and “dune”, and was part of the name of our first house in Wales, Felin Maestwynog. I kept the “twynog” bit (pronounced too-in-og) meaning “hilly” or “downy” as my email address. So Porth Twyn or Bury Port was where the dunes were.

With all the talk of staying at home, I was surprised to find so many people out and about, mostly walking dogs.

“Look” I said to myself, “it’s the first fine day of the year and it’s Mothers’ Day. Of course I’m not the only one to want to be out in the open air.” As long as we don’t get too close it’s the healthiest place to be.So I walked out in the cold wind and watched a young kestrel flying close to the ground. It’s a Nature Reserve so the young man wandering through the dunes with two lurchers running free was breaking the rules and damaging the wildlife, but then I realised it could have been me forty years ago! All dogs, on leads or not, suppress wildlife, but what can you do? There are just too many of them and they need excercise.

I stayed by the long-silted Pembury harbour, and was out in the early morning, isolated, alone, biting wind on my face, two pairs of gloves, but was thrilled to see this Ringed Plover.

On the long spit of sand where the Pembury Burrows peninsula merges with the sea is a resident colony of Oyster Catchers. I waited a long time to get the perfect shot of them flying, but settled for these: Then it was eastwards, passing Llanelli to the north, and on to the bridge over the Loughor and my favourite spot on the Gower Peninsula – Llanmadoc and the Whiteford Burrows: more dune-land. There were already a few cars in the little car park at Cwm Ivy, and as I walked the two miles to Whiteford Point with it’s lonely rusty lighthouse (see above), I said a passing hello to a few small family groups and solitary walkers, again mostly with dogs. The Cwm Ivy Marsh was created when the 17thC sea wall finally gave way to the pressure of rising water levels in 2013. It is now, according to the National Trust website, a thriving saltmarsh, but it didn’t look very exciting today:

Water levels were still very high after the succession of deluges we have suffered over the past month, and detours away from the flooded path were the norm. The wind was cold but the sun was warm and here was the first Wheatear

(the name is a corruption of “white-arse”).

When, 4 hours later, I got back to the van, the car park was rammed and there were cars backed up all through the village.  All the wonderful places on Gower have kept their magic despite all being within half an hour’s drive of 300,000 people, but the roads are narrow, the van is wide. I made my escape. The internet was full of condemnation of the crowds. The message is “Go home and stay home”. It was Sunday afternoon. Kidwelly Quay was on my way home and I could stay the night there. Trying to escape the many dog-walkers, I walked up the canal and was so happy to hear, see and photograph the first of the incoming Chiff-chaffs, and yes, the name is the song! On the way back I came across an extraordinary tableau. Grouped together on the path were two rats, two blackbirds, a chaffinch, a dunnock and a squirrel. I couldn’t get them all in focus at once though.As the sun set there were still plenty of people, but I sensed that they were taking a last opportunity to be in this beautiful place before returning to their homes and an uncertain and constrained future. In the morning I took some more pictures but then cut short my trip and went home. At least though I can get out into the hills and valleys around us. I can can’t I?

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Last Post from Dinefwr?

On Monday as I drove to Llandeilo the mist lifted in strands and feathers and the sun made the winter trees glow. The thermometer said 3 degrees, but the sun, oh the sun, how warm and welcome it was! When I arrived there was a group of new part-time recruits for the Information Centre and I offered to show them which gates to unlock each morning. We chatted as we walked and I told them the names of the so-familiar fields and woods, all fresh and wonderful to them. The millpond shone like a mirror and I waved them a cheerful goodbye as I went on to the Castle Woods hide and they walked back to the car park. The flood plain was still in flood – water, grass and rushes in a complex pattern – but too much water for the birds, and the duck count was low.

Up on Rookery Ridge (an old name; there are no rooks) I took up station on the shadow side of a tree and set the camera on the monopod. I was not expecting to see any deer – there were no recent tracks here – but after being still for a while the tits and nuthatches busied themselves around me, exploring tiny crevices in the trees, living and long dead.A Jay flew in. There are lots of them here – it’s a good place for acorns. A treecreeper crept up a tree, and as expected, a Red Kite flew out from the group of tall trees to my right. The kite watchers know that if you see them fly into the canopy in mid-March they are looking at nest sites, but no matter from what angle I gazed up into the bare branches, I couldn’t see any of the debris associated with kites nests – those bits of plastic and old rope they like as decoration. I would look again next week.

Suddenly, to my surprise, there were deer: a group of does and a pricket, maybe 10 of them, moving up from Browns Path towards the Fire Tanks; the first time I had seen deer up here this year. Their behaviour is changing. Sure enough, as I moved slowly northwards I could see part of what I call the Brown Path Group which, in winter includes all the bucks older than a year.

It’s not a large group, but difficult to count because it’s hard at a distance to tell which bucks are still with their mothers and which consider themselves one of the big boys. These are the mature bucks; they know exactly who they are and insist on maintaining their dignity even when one of us humans is present. This year there are eight of them and perhaps 20 younger adult bucks. Next month I will be watching to see when the first antler is cast, and in a few weeks they will have lost all their dignity and be hard to tell from the older does.

With a contented sigh I walk down past the Badger Hide and begin my tour of the boundary. As usual the old walls, held together by moss and ferns, have not changed. On the southern boundary the rickety, much repaired fence is still holding. I step over the barrier which Carol and I built last year to mark off the sanctuary area and walk down the steep path to the Kingfisher Hide. Here I have my sandwich and flask and gaze at the water. The lilies, dormant for so long under all that water,  are reaching up to the light. Soon they will cover most of the open water.

Nothing happens for 40 minutes until suddenly a Kingfisher flashes past. It perches over to the left and I get ready to capture a stream of images of it on one of its favourite perches when suddenly it is flying past me again in the opposite direction. I am not prepared and the image is poor. Then I spot a heron making a pretty picture in the long grass and sedge; (see above) worth the wait.

In the early afternoon I trudge up the anthill-pocked slope of Caelan to the elegant copse of mature trees so artfully planted in the 18th century to enhance the view from Newton House. From here I can see the whole Brown Path group following the tractor which is laying a trail of feed beet for them. The big bucks push their way to the head of the queue, but the new staff recruits are here too, watching the feeding, and the does hang back in an anxious group. I watch as the tractor finishes its run and the people wander off. Back in the car park I find them packing up and we chat briefly – “See you next week”.

When I get home, happy after a good day in the sun, I check my pictures, do some jobs in the garden and enjoy my evening meal with Thelma. After the meal I check my email and there is a message from the Director General of the National Trust with the now familiar closure notice.

At first I think that because I work alone and in the open I will be able to continue, but it wasn’t long before I had an email from Amy saying that they must stick by national rules. For the time being, as for all the volunteers, my weekly nature fix is over.

We’ll be back sometime, and things will be different, but perhaps better? All National Trust grounds will be open and free as will those of the other big conservation organisations. Unless the virus gets personal I’ll still be out there taking pictures and writing about it. Please keep in touch.

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A Perfect Conjunction

A week ago I was trudging along a pebble beach in North Norfolk. The morning clouds had been blown away but the biting cold wind was still strong. After what counts a long spell of rain in Norfolk – 36 hours – I was keen to get out and explore the wide-open landscape which is Cley Marshes. This was to be a proper walk so the camera was in my rucksack rather than slung at my side. There is a narrow road from Cley to the beach and a little car park carved out of the shingle. From there a path stretched out in a straight line south, and it linked with a few paths into the wide marshland between the beach and the road – known amongst bird watchers as one of the best places for migrating rarities in England.

With water levels exceptionally high there were few reports of interesting sightings, but there was one regular winter visitor here which, if not a rarity, is certainly special: the Snow Bunting, known affectionately amongst the twitchers as “snobs”. I had photographed these enchanting birds in their breeding plumage in Iceland where they are common, and the pebbles are bigger!

There were reports of a group on the beach here, but I was not specifically looking for them. It’s hard work walking along pebbles and I veered away from the path to an area with some vegetation which offered a better footing. As I approached it did occur to me that this looked like a good place for a snob, but I was still surprised and delighted when a small group of birds took briefly to the air just in front of me. What so delighted me was that I had seen this patch as territory, as an environment. Before that moment all I knew was that these birds liked pebble beaches, but I didn’t know why. Before I saw the birds I guessed that this scrappy vegetation provided food in the form of seeds and some shelter.

It was clear they weren’t going far so I took off my pack and assembled the camera – Canon 90D – and lens – 70-200 f2.8. I slowly moved forwards and was soon surrounded by them. As soon as I hit focus I realised there was a wonderful extra bonus to this bit of habitat: it offered perfect camouflage: food, shelter and safety. These birds nest closer to the north pole than any other and have flown thousands of miles to reach this scrappy bit of beach.

What a privilege to be amongst them.

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What’s the Anser?

No, it’s not a spelling mistake, and there are no philosophical musings here. It’s all about the Anser and Branta families – geese.

AS I drove south from Norfolk (from the North Folk to the South Folk) towards Minsmere, it struck me that I had seen and photographed almost all the geese likely to be seen in Britain in the winter. The most astonishing find was the species I had spent hours chasing in their breeding grounds in Iceland, the Pink Footed Goose Anser Brachyrhyncus. This was the species I had last seen in Britain flying overhead at dawn on a cold December day in 2015. There were thousands of them, a great black cloud rising from the mudflats of the Wash: a sight and especially a sound I will never forget.

While I was travelling in Iceland I looked closely at any goose which seemed to have pink feet, but many Greylags seem to have pink feet too. I finally saw a small group of geese with dark brown necks and knew immediately what they were. It’s no good looking at their feet to identify them, it’s the dark neck which sets them apart. 

So I knew that those thousands of geese moved inland to feed during the day, but hadn’t seen any at the reserves at Titchwell and Cley, and hadn’t given much thought to where they might be, until I happened to glance to my left as I was driving along a busy main road. There was a big flock of something odd looking in an ordinary field beside the road. I quickly pulled in and crept along the hedge. There they were, hundreds of them:There are two common geese which you can see in most parts of Britain. One is the native Greylag Goose Anser Anser, the parent species of all our domestic geese.  

This one was at Slimbridge, but there were plenty in Norfolk too. (The first picture shows Greylags at Cley Wetlands.) One of the fascinating trends in bird behaviour I have noticed recently is that the wild Greylag has learnt from it’s Canadian relative how to live in our cities. They have gone from wild to feral, the reverse of the more normal captive to feral process, as epitomised by the Canada Goose Branta canadensis, a strongly migrant species in its native North America, but one which has adapted to a sedentary and indeed urban life here.

Another rare goose with a confusing name is the White Fronted Goose Anser Albifrons. These really do look like Greylags and it’s no good looking at their fronts which are barred black. The white bit is above the beak – on the forehead. Every time I go to the Wetlands reserve at Llanelli I walk within a few feet of captive White Fronts, but at Slimbridge there is a big flock of the real deal – birds which have flown from Greenland or Siberia to winter in Britain. They were a good half a mile away so I was pleased with this shot.Also much less common are the two “black” species, the Barnacle Goose Branta Leucopsis and the Brent Goose Branta Bernicla. 

The name Branta comes from the Old Norse “Brandgas” – burnt goose. They were at first considered to be the same species, and were believed to spawn from the Goose Barnacle! It must have been very confusing to have been a bird enthusiast in the Middle Ages. To add to the confusion, Barnacle Geese in Britain can have the status of breeding resident, feral resident and winter migrant. These are from the feral population around Slimbridge.

Both species can be seen in Norfolk, with the Brent being particularly noticeable. This is Blakeney Harbour.

Lastly, a Norfolk speciality is another feral goose which has not spread far from East Anglia, the odd looking Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca.

 

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How Welsh do I feel? Some thoughts for “Dydd Dewi Sant” The day of St David.

For the first time since moving to Wales from the West of England 23 years ago,  I am questioning whether or not I feel “Welsh”. What does it mean to feel that you belong in a particular culture, and especially one which has always struggled to differentiate itself from that of it’s ever-looming neighbour, England? The very word stamps its ambiguity on us. It has a long history in various forms of Germanic language from walha to wealas, all holding meanings ranging from “foreigner” to “slave”.

I first learned about Welshness from my teachers at school in Swindon. There is a road in Swindon called Cambria Place and on it is a chapel where my wife’s great grandfather preached in his native language – Cymraeg – the language of Cymru. He had been drawn there by the growth of the railway works, but later many offspring of the South Wales valleys, well educated as a result of a passion for learning amongst the miners, were drawn to the rapidly expanding railway town as teachers. In my Grammar School they made up what I remember as a quarter of the staff, and I was greatly influenced by some special quality which I find hard to pin down at such a remove in time, but I think it was passion. Under the influence of two of them I played the morbid Mr. Pugh in a version of Dylan Thjomas’ “Under Milk Wood” as that year’s school play. I read and absorbed Richard Llewellyn’s “How Green Was My Valley” and The Welsh Valleys became a mythical landscape of dark wet mountains, soaring choirs – close working communities passionate about the chapel and education. On school hiking trips I learnt about the mountains of North Wales and in camp-fire sing-songs learnt traditional irreverent songs and limericks which, I found out much later, were seen as patronising by the inhabitants of those mountains!

It wasn’t hard to love the landscape of Wales, and two of many holiday trips are bright in my memory. In the first a young family, husband, wife and two little girls are on the last stage of a rainy trip from Wiltshire to the Mid-Wales border where they have bought an isolated semi-derelict cottage for £800. As the old Land Rover begins to climb out of Knighton we are engulfed by a dense wet mist, but there is light up ahead and suddenly we climb up into bright sunshine and there is the open moorland and the cottage lightly covered in snow and shining with the romance of wilderness. There are big holes in the roof and the floor is covered with a deep layer of sheep-shit, but there is a big open fireplace and we light a fire, sit on a log and eat our picnic. What does Natalie, the 4 year-old, think of it?

“It’s nice. It’s a bit dirty though.”

A few years later – 5? 10? – I am staying with friends who live near Carmarthen and decide to explore the road north. It looks interesting on the map – through a big forest and then up into the wilds of the Cambrian Mountains, a region I knew only from Winford Vaughan Thomas’ description as “The Green Desert”. The now so familiar village names were wonderfully strange: Brechfa, Abergorlech, Llansawel, Crug-y-Bar. Then, astonishingly, I was in real mountains, steep wooded valleys and high moorland, and nobody knew about it! This surely must be the home of the last remnants of the Red Kite, that ornithological icon of mid-Wales, and, bang on cue, there it was, the forked tail unmistakable: A RED KITE!

Twenty-five years and many visits later this lovely forgotten corner of Wales became my home. I absorbed the culture like a sponge, learning the language and becoming a supporter of “The Party of Wales” Plaid Cymru. In the local Welsh classes we learnt to love an ancient vocabulary nurtured in a land with no cities, a syntax with no direct way of saying “yes” or “no”, and a proud culture of resistance, perseverance, and tolerance. The Nationalism of Wales is about a cultural separation from England. It nurtures the community values of a small Nation, and as such is the political opposite of English Nationalism which, at that time, found its voice in the British National Party. That confusion of Britain with England – the flaunting of the Union Jack as a symbol for England – infuriates the Welsh. I had always disliked the small mindedness of rural Ultra-Conservative England, and saw Wales as a refuge where the more liberal values of England could find a home with the radicalism of the Valleys.

In 1987 Thelma and I bought Felin Maestwynog, a 7 acre small holding near Llandovery. In a bad year for live music, my career in music promotion was on the point of collapse so I returned to my former career as a woodworker. Thelma worked for 4 days a week in Bristol. We acquired a gorgeous lurcher dog called Flash and the three of us were very happy. I was still very emotionally involved in the business of live music, in particular “World Music”, and saw an opportunity to set up a little festival. What began as a few performers in our garden became the Small Nations Festival, “A celebration of the Music of Wales and other Small Nations.” For 10 years a farm outside the village of Cilycwm, (where we now live), became, in early July, the temporary home of some 2000 people who were able to enjoy amazing music from all over the world. I became a minor player in the world of Welsh language music – a culture which by-passed England to find an audience in places like Poland and Brittany.

How proud we felt when S4C, (Sianel Pedwar Cymru) the Welsh language TV channel, chose Cilycwm as the setting for a drama called “Pen Talar” which was a precursor for “Hinterland” with the same stars led by Richard Harrington who played what had to be the most miserable detective ever, and launched “Cyrmu Noir” to an appreciative international audience. I was working on the oak beams for our new/old house in a barn just outside the village where the film crew was based so got to know some of the actors, not least the extras from the village.

So the Welshness I feel now was the product of an admiration for the dense mining communities of the Valleys, a love of wild landscape, and an admiration for the language, music and culture of my adopted home. Increasing deafness had deprived me of music, but I still felt proud to be “of Wales” if not truly “Welsh”.

Then came 2016 and everything changed.

Like most of “liberal” Britain I had seen the EU Referendum as a squabble between rival factions of the Tory Party. To find that the Welsh Valleys had voted en-mass with the bastions of English conservatism was a profound shock. At first I threw myself behind campaigns for a second referendum, but the more I read about the post-industrial areas of Britain, the places that had been left behind as our country became more unequal, the more I began to understand that for many, because of our entrenched “first past the post” electoral system, this was the first chance they had ever had where their votes could actually achieve something. The thing they most wanted to achieve was to give the “elites” in London a bloody nose. The rational argument that leaving the EU would impoverish them even further meant nothing. They felt they had nothing to lose.

Ever since Wales voted for a devolved government I had been a keen supporter. I loved the Senedd building in Cardiff and even more the Millennium Centre with its bilingual inscription by the “Welsh Poet Laureat” Gwyneth Lewis, a friend of a friend I had met in the Cilycwm pub. This beautifully rebuilt part of Cardiff felt like a spiritual home. Now Plaid Cymru has a new and charismatic leader: Adam Price. I read his speeches and loved his insistence that it was time Wales stopped moaning about the English and took control of its own government. He was going all-out for full independence. It was time for Plaid to oust Labour and sweep into power.

 

Of course it didn’t happen. Wales followed England as it has so often in the past and now we have more Tory MPs than ever. The rhetoric is hollow. What has our devolved government actually achieved? I’ve read nasty stories of corruption.   The Welsh language is dying. Is Rugby all we have left?

 

Twenty years ago I knew almost nothing of Scotland. Now, after 4 recent visits to the islands and the far north, it feels more like my spiritual home. Ireland has just given more votes to the Nationalist Sinn Fein than either of the two establishment parties of the centre. Will the contradictions of Brexit put re-unification back on the table? What would happen to Wales if the UK breaks up?

 

This already feels like a decade with more questions than answers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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