Pine martens at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

Iolo Williams addresses the Vincent Wildlife Trust’s guests in the Hafod car park

About eighty people gathered yesterday in the car park beside Hafod Church to witness the unveiling,  by Wales’ premier TV naturalist Iolo Williams, of a curious sculpture. Its designation plaque, as a memorial to Rob Strachan  ‘an inspirational naturalist and conservationist’ might make one wonder whether it would not be more appropriately placed inside the churchyard wall.  However it has perhaps a wider purpose, for it was installed by the Vincent Wildlife Trust whose project is the reintroduction of pine martens into NRW ( National Resources Wales, fomerly the Forestry Commission) woodlands in Wales.  A pine marten and two kits are represented on the sculpture by Grace Young Monaghan.  It is carved from an oak trunk sourced from the estate, though puzzlingly the trunk has been adzed to resemble no British tree. Call me a pedant, but I find this jarring.  Four oak leaves are represented, like a label on the trunk, but why is its bark represented with horizontal rather than vertical fissures?  Has it been attacked by a giant beaver?

Pine marten sculpture in Hafod car park

Project Officer Dave Bavin , his dog, and Iolo Williams pose beside the sculpture

The effigy may serve though to alert visitors to the estate to the slim possibility of glimpsing one of these elegant mustelids in the woods.  In the last two Septembers 39 Scottish pine martens have been trapped, driven by air-conditioned van from Scotland, and penned and then released at Hafod.  Although most of the first batch of introductions in 2015 dispersed or died, one female from this group has produced kits at Hafod, conceived and born this year, and several of last September’s shipment, who will have arrived pregnant, have successfully produced young  this spring.  Most have spurned the man-made box dens provided for them near the release sites, and have instead sought out dens of their own choosing.

Martens are solitary and occupy large territories, so I wondered how the researchers on the project keep tabs upon the animals. I learned that the privacy of these pioneer pine martens is considerably compromised.  First of all, each immigrant is DNA profiled by a lab in Ireland before release.  Fitted out wearing radio collars their presence can be monitored by a volunteer sitting in their car on the forest drives or strolling the woods with a receiver like a TV aerial.  Thus the approximate location can be determined without need of a visual sighting.  Some of the first batch of Hafod-released animals were disinclined to remain and were  found far, far away.  One female eventually settled near Abergele!  Recently, the Vincent Wildlife Trust has also had success with GPS transmitters which can provide researchers with accurate location from much further away.

The martens are also monitored by motion sensitive cameras in the woods.  Now it might seem one would have to wait a long time to see a marten stroll by, but the odds are considerably enhanced by putting out bait.  Martens proved particularly partial to jam sandwiches and peanut butter, and will return regularly to a bait site in front of the camera in order to check whether it has been replenished.  One mother’s successful breeding was revealed when she led her kits into camera range to join the feast.  The same inducements work well to lure the martens into traps so that their health can be monitored, or, before the battery runs out, their collars can be removed or replaced.

DNA technology given further insights.  A fresh scat ( droppings) can reveal the DNA profile of the perpetrator.  Since all the introduced martens have been profiled, a poo sample can even reveal the parentage of a new kit.  For long, the analysis of droppings has been a valuable tool in discovering the dietary preferences of mammals.  To this, modern mammologists can now add the identity and geneaology of the marten who dealt it!

Just the sort of tree hole to appeal to a pine marten

I was impressed by the youth and enthusiasm of the Vincent Wildlife Trust researchers and volunteers who gathered for this celebration.  But even for them, equipped with 21st century tracking technology, the best sightings of these elusive animals are probably those from the daylight and night-vision remote cameras. Some of the highlights of camera trap photography can be found among Vincent Wildlife Trust uploads on vimeo.  Scat is a little easier to find, because martens typically deposit it in prominent positions, on paths or on an eminence like a tree stump.

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New Tricks in an Old Pembrokeshire Garden

by The Curious Scribbler

Last September I visited an intriguing garden at Treffgarne Hall, near Wolf’s Castle. Here stands a large plain two-storey country house built in 1824 and virtually unaltered by its subsequent owners.  It stands on the Landsker line: the division between Norman and Welsh Pembrokeshire, on a windswept hilltop.

 

The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824

The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824

The south facing house looks right out to distant refinery stacks at the coast at Milford Haven 16 miles away.  By the 1960s its fortunes were shabby, with rotten floors and an overgrown garden.  The land, the farm, the outbuildings were serially sold off, until just the house and four acres remained, an unsuccessful country hotel.  This was bought in 2003 by Martin and Jackie Batty and a transformation began.

The walled garden on the hilltop had been embellished by the former owners to contain a hard tennis court in the farthest third, which looks sadly decrepit today.  The rest was, in 2003 a blank canvas of weeds.  But when I passed through the stone garden doorway west of the house I seemed to step into a Chelsea show garden. I found an immaculate formal space of slate paving, parallel rills and four symmetrically planted paulownias, flanked by huge oak pergolas trailed with Clematis armandii.  The design was created with advice from the Julian and Isabel Bannerman,  the designers who used to garden Hanham Court near Bristol.

Within the old walled kitchen garden is a remarkable formal garden

Within the old walled kitchen garden is a remarkable formal garden

It feels highly improbable to step from rural Pembrokeshire into such a space.  Martin Batty described how it reflects his enthusiasm for exotic and tender plants.   His plantings in 2003 included tender South African Proteas, Leucodendron argenteum (the silver tree) , Mexican cactus and giant echiums.  The first  few years were encouraging, but many were lost in the severe winters of 2009 and 2010.  The Echiums have come back from seed, and many other of his barely frost-hardy plants have flourished.  We saw many Southern hemisphere plants,  Bailey’s Purple Wattle from Australia, which flowers here in February, the Rice paper plant Tetrapanax papyrifer, and the frothy foliage of Melianthus major.

he Rice Paper Plant Tetrapanax papyrifer

The Rice Paper Plant Tetrapanax papyrifer

A curiousity was the weird saw-like leaves of Pseudopanax ferox. The lower leaves of this columnar plant are hard and rigid, higher up the plant they will grow soft and untoothed.  Apparently this heterophylly evolved to protect the leaves from the attentions of the now extinct Moas of New Zealand.

Pseudopanax ferox

Pseudopanax ferox

There were other unfamiliar plants: the blue dangling bells of Iochroma grandiflora from Peru, the floppy green fans of leaves of Iris confusa ‘ Martin Rix’ and a Muehlenbeckia (maidenhair vine)  not scrabbling uncontrolled through native trees as we saw it on Herm Island two years ago, but disciplined into a neat tight green mound. There was even a Norfolk Island Pine, Araucaria heterophylla – more familiar in Canary Island and Florida tourist developments.  I wonder how it will fare when it rears its head above the protective wall.

Iochroma grandiflora

Iochroma grandiflora

The rest of the garden is less startling, with lawns and borders, a broad terrace on the south side of the house, and a nice array of low-growing foliage plants in a gravel garden outside the walled garden. However the Battys have enlivened these grounds with some interesting uses of wood.  There is an inviting summerhouse, and what appear to be a pair of elaborate Palladian ashlar gateposts on the drive.

A quiet drive through conventional gateposts? Hardly:

A quiet drive through conventional gateposts? Hardly:

Closer inspection shows them to be carved of timber.  Panels are inscribed as mileposts:  Doncaster 350 miles;  Japan 4000 miles, which reflect the origins of the owners.  Pausing between these posts one reads the enigmatic inscription THE RUINS OF TIME BUILD MANSIONS IN ETERNITY.

timber gateposts. Doncaster 350 miles, Japan 5000miles

Treffgarne Timber gateposts. Doncaster 350 miles, Japan 5000miles

There is also a totem pole, a stack of four animals carved out of the trunk of a former beech tree and erected as a focal point west of the house.  Another, multi-trunked dead beech has been carved in situ in the likeness of a four headed dragon.

Carved in situ, a multi-trunked dead beech

Carved in situ, a multi-trunked dead beech

Here nature has embellished the chiselled scaly necks with bracket fungus and elegant frills of turkey tail fungus.  This colonisation is also the harbinger of the sculpture’s destruction.  But for a few years before the inevitable collapse, art and nature are most harmoniously combined.  Gardeners go to so much trouble for such fleeting returns.

The bracket fungus Pseudotrametes gibbosa favours beech trees

The bracket fungus Pseudotrametes gibbosa favours beech trees

Turkey tail. Coriolus versicolor

Turkey tail. (Coriolus versicolor)is now properly known as Trametes vesicolor and apparently the source of a potent anti tumour drug.

P1100119

The garden is open on certain days under the National Garden Scheme.   See the Yellow book and the free regional pamphlets which will soon appear.

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Amazing Model Mushrooms

Various objets trouves accumulate on my kitchen windowsill, cheek by jowl with the hybrid Dendrobium orchids and some ceramic acorn squashes which I fashioned myself.  There is a piece of lava from Lanzarote, some crystals from the Cantabrians, an ammonite in polished section, and some choice beach pebbles from Tanybwlch.   And the latest addition to the medley are two exquisite  waxcap fungi, Hygrocybe persistens.

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

 

Odd you may think.  It has been mild this winter, but even so.. This little gleaming mushroom of sheep grazed pastures and and un-improved ancient lawns is a feature of balmy summer and autumn, not the rain-soaked pastures of today.   And the explanation is that these Hygrocybe were gathered, not in the field but by a discriminating shopper following the Totterdown Front Room Arts Trail in South Bristol  last year.  They reached west Wales in Christmas wrapping paper.

The artist Jason Lynton must be a man with an obsession, working quietly away to create perfect replicas of the entire canon of British fungi.  His home displayed cases of these amazing sculptures, and shelves of photographic reference books on his subjects.  He works in Sculpey polymer clay. I found this useful explanation in a tutorial on a site called The Bluebottle Tree.com

‘Polymer clay is a type of modelling clay that doesn’t dry in the air and instead is cured by baking in an oven, typically between 230°F (110°C) and 300°F (150°C).  Polymer clay is made from powdered polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plasticizer, binders, fillers, colors, and lubricants. When baked, the PVC particles soften and dissolve into the plasticizer, creating a solid fused mass of plastic. The longer you bake polymer clay, the more complete the fusion will be and the stronger the result.’ I find that Fimo is another brand of polymer clay, made in Germany by Staedtler and was the more familiar name for the product when my children were young.  Sculpey is the American equivalent.

So my extraordinarily realistic waxcaps are replicated in hard and resistant baked plastic! The texture is impossible to discern without touching, the details so authentic down to the delicate gills, the occasional split in the caps, even the crumbs of dark soil apparently clinging to the stem where they were lifted, as if it were yesterday, from the ground. I am told Jason Lynton has one of his fungi on public display, (possibly at Kew?) , but for the most part he is industriously working his way through the mushrooms of Britain, even perfecting the ways to reproduce the wet drops of  ‘milk’ exuded on the gills of the Milk Cap.  A quiet dedication which I find most admirable.

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

Hygrocybe persistens by Jason Lynton

I can find posters and prints by Jason Lynton on the web, http://www.artflakes.com/en/shop/jason-lynton  but nothing about his fungi.  His business card gives an email: m331969@yahoo.com

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Dracunculus a gothick arum

In April I was in Western Crete in the company of a group of botanical enthusiasts. One of the most truly memorable plants, ( not rare, but spectacular) was Dracunculus vulgaris var. creticus The Dragon Arum. I photographed it repeatedly in the scrubby roadside on the Akrotiri peninsula.  As with meeting a group of giraffes on safari, each individual you see seems more unique and and exquisite than the last.

The spectacular spathe of the Dragon Arum

The spectacular spathe of the Dragon Arum

We were all of us equally enthused, exploring among the scrub on the stoney slopes, brandishing i-phones, tablets and cameras, getting in close to verify the alleged powerful and disgusting odour of the flower.

Ruth Griffiths verifies the odour

Ruth Griffiths verifies the odour

John Corfield seeks the Dragon Arum

John Corfield seeks the Dragon Arum

 

Andrew Agnew spotted the first Dracunculus

Andrew Agnew spotted our first Dracunculus

The stem is thick, fleshy, pale, and sinisterly mottled in purple blotches, and rises up to a metre from the poor earth.  The luxuriant leaves are deeply cut into leaflets and mottled in white, while the chocolate-purple coloured spadix extends from the silky purple enfolding spathe.    Certainly a plant which evokes a sense of drama  –  a Little Shop of Horrors sort of plant.

A month later I was viewing a selection of botanical volumes in the Roderic Bowen Library at Lampeter.  And here, blazing out from the page of a magnificent folio sized volume published in 1799 was my newest favourite flower!  The book was The Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton  a ‘coffee table’ book for the gentlemen returned from the Grand Tour of Europe.  The bloom, exquisitely rendered in glowing colour, is framed against the eruption of Vesuvius for added drama.

Illustration in Thornton's Temple of Flora ( 1799) by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Illustration in Thornton’s Temple of Flora ( 1799)
by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives
University of Wales Trinity Saint David 

And the text tends even further towards the gothick than our own impressions.  After some well-selected phrases  ” a horrid spear of darkest jet”  … “a noisome vapour infecting the ambient air”… the author turns to the poetic works of Frances Arabella Rowden to do full justice to the malign possibilities of Dracunculus:

 

by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David

by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

 

Arums are generally poisinous, but the theatrical appeal of this plant has perhaps led to some over-exaggeration.  Dioscorides instead was obviously taken by the sexual connotations of the plant’s appearance for he recorded that “being drunk with wine, it stirs up the vehement desires to  coniunction”.  Not quite so fatal then,  and we don’t really know whether the desires were fanned by the arum or the wine!

I understand that Thornton’s book, in which the 28 colour plates, employing the finest artists and reprographic techniques, bankrupted him as the wealthy clients whom he expected to buy his book suffered financial setbacks through the Napoleonic wars.  It is very tempting to imagine a copy of this book spread open in Thomas Johnes’  octagon library at Hafod, and to picture him and Jane Johnes ogling the illustrations  and sending for a Dracunculus, and perhaps an insectivorous Sarracenia and a night-flowering Cereus (both also illustrated) to grow in their Nash conservatory.  Johnes very possibly did have a copy of The Temple of Flora, but it would have gone up in flames in the disastrous fire of 1807, and there is no record of just what his library contained.  It is thanks to the London Welshman, Thomas Phillips, East Indian Company Surgeon, that The Founder’s Library at Lampeter received a copy of this, and many other rare books in the mid 19th century.

The book, and many others may be seen, by appointment at the Roderic Bowen Library http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/rbla/

There is an online exhibition listing the botanical volumes in the collection.http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/rbla/online-exhibitions/from-herbals-to-floras

Poring over the  exhibition by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives  University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Poring over the exhibition by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

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Two Thomas Weavers of the 19th century

by The Curious Scribbler

In my last entry I reflected upon the phenomenon whereby volunteer organisations seem to be prone to particularly vicious in-fighting.

Seeking respite from the present I found myself in the library looking for evidence of the long-deceased animal painter, Thomas Weaver 1774–1843. Weaver painted handsome four square portraits of  sheep and cattle with tiny heads and a sturdy leg at each corner.   Unpublished correspondence also shows that Col Phelp of Coston, the father of Laura Powell of Nanteos, would have liked to get Weaver, who lived at Shrewsbury, to paint his daughters.  I did not find any evidence that he actually did so, but, through one of those plausible false alarms I found myself reading the obituary of another gentleman of the same name, a certain Thomas Weaver who died in 1852,  who appears in a bound collection of published sermons on microfilm at the National Library of Wales.  This Thomas Weaver, who was buried at Shrewsbury had served as a clergyman for 53 years.

Much of the sermon was to, 21st century readers, almost intelligible, drawing upon references to very obscure aspects of the old testament, and with a fine rolling oratorial style which made it even more difficult to follow.

However when we got to the biographical part it was far more illuminating.

He obtained his ministerial education at Hoxton College in London: and upon receiving a cordial invitation from the church assembling in this place he settled among them as their pastor in the year 1798: not, however, till after some hesitation about such a step, arising from the depressed nature of the congregation, and the somewhat repulsive aspect, spiritually viewed, of some of its members.  His decision seems to have been made under the advice of a ministerial friend, who, in reference to some of those who were least attractive to him, quaintly and quietly said ” Death will soon help you there”.

His ministry, commenced under such disadvantageous circumstances, proved, by the blessing of God, successful.

Did the funeral congregation allow themselves an approving chuckle at this ‘quaint and quiet counsel’? We seem to be far more reluctant, these days, to publicly count our future blessings in the form of the anticipated death of those of whom we disapprove. How, after all, could the Revd Thomas Weaver be confident that the population of Hoxton would not be swelled by an  equal number younger and healthier, yet equally spiritually repulsive individuals,  perhaps even the spawn of his old adversaries?

Judged with hindsight, it seems to me that to leave posterity with a really nice portrait of a foursquare cow is probably a more enduring form of immortality than ministering to the residents of Hoxton.

A Brindled shorthorn cow bred at Calke.  1831 Thomas Weaver, artist

A brindled shorthorn cow bred at Calke.
1831 Thomas Weaver, artist.    National Trust.

 

 

 

 

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A walk at Borth

by The Curious Scribbler

There has always been something reassuringly bleak about Borth.   A treeless ribbon of buildings along either side of a road built along the storm beach.  Some of the cuter buildings are one storey cottages,  fashioned out of rounded beach boulders and roofed in slate, homes of long departed fishermen and mariners.  Then there is the surge of late nineteenth and early 20th century buildings, more suburban in style, detached and terraced houses of two or even three storeys dwarfing the original inhabitants of the bar.  These houses all face inwards onto the road, but the seaward rears of those on the western side are were always battened down come autumn with variously makeshift shutters and boarding designed to keep out the winter storms.  For winter storms regularly lash Borth, bursting over the seaward houses and showering beach pebbles through the gaps onto the road.

And that is why Borth has recently been undergoing drastic alterations,  new sea defences involving great berms of boulders out in the sea, and a huge unsightly reshaping of the foreshore adjoining the southern part of the village.  On summer days a decade ago one could walk through a gap between the houses and immediately emerge onto a natural strand of big rounded beach stones, then descend to a truly wonderful vast sandy beach, punctuated by aging wooden groynes, and lapped by an endless sequence of lazy small rollers lapping on the shore.  We would buy pizzas and eat them on the stones on a summer evening, and then go in for a last dip swimming and bodyboarding before heading home.

But last week it was not a day for swimming, and the second phase of the new sea defences was well under way.  Huge yellow diggers on caterpilllar tracks articulated their giant scoops in the shore and Volvo dumper lorries roared back and forth along the once pristine sands.  The groins were being plucked out by  another machine, like toothpicks from the sand.  A pile of stones destined for another berm reared high as houses, dwarfing the municipal loo nearby.  The shore was entirely churned and dominated by the machines, digging out the peat and clay below the intertidal zone and transporting the excess material up to big waste piles by the promenade.

Diggers parked by the Public Conveniences on Borth sea front.  A huge stone pile awaits its final location on the lower shore.

Diggers parked by the Public Conveniences on Borth sea front. A huge stone pile awaits its final location on the lower shore.

Diggers and dumper lorries at Borth.

Diggers and dumper lorries at Borth.

Clay and peat dug out from the lower shore at Borth.

Clay and peat dug out from the lower shore at Borth.

 

I returned on the Sunday, when the site was quiet.  Inside the security fencing on the upper shore were caches of materials and site waste:  excavated clay and peat, old Victorian  pilings with armoured metal points,  and quarried boulders trucked in from Pembrokeshire. But there was another category of waste : piles of tree stumps, their roots frayed and yellow where they have been torn from the ground, their  bark still scaly and intact though waterlogged.

Ancient tree stumps for the submerged forest, dug out during the storm defence work at Borth.

Ancient tree stumps from the submerged forest, dug out during the storm defence work at Borth.

 

 

Lumps of excavated clay  laced with roots descending from what was once the surface of the forest floor.

Lumps of excavated clay laced with roots descending from what was once the surface of the forest floor.

The trees have come out of the grey clay in the intertidal zone, and are 6000-10000 years old remnants like the more familiar ‘fossil forest’ which gets exposed at low tide on this beach when the sands shift.  They look much fresher that those, perhaps because they have been entombed in sediment rather than smoothed and battered by the waves.  The giant diggers unearthed them when preparing platforms for the new berms on the lower shore.

They are piled up in tangled heaps now, each with a survey label attached, and destined to go off to Lampeter University for carbon dating and other tests.  The old legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod has never seemed more convincing. Judging by the scaley bark, many of these trees appear to have been pine trees, which formed a forest west of Borth when sea levels were lower. And they all look much of an age, and as if some catastrophe resulted in their preservation.

This ancient tree looks like a pine, formerly growing west of Borth village.

This ancient tree looks like a pine, which formerly grew west of Borth village.

 

Was it really a gradual rise of sea level which killed them?  If so, would they not have died standing, and rotted and weathered over the years?  Or was there  a sudden breach of a shingle bar which formerly marked the coastal margin further out to the west, and swiftly brought about their burial in sediment?   If that is the case it’s not a far cry from the old legend of the drunk Welsh prince Seithenyn, who one night forgot to close the sluice gates to the kingdom as the tide rose.

 

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New gardens on the Rheidol Railway

by The Curious Scribbler

For the first time in 28 years, I travelled with members of my family on the Vale of Rheidol Railway, which puffs its way sedately from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge, laden with tourists. My previous journey was described in this blog on February 10 2014. http://www.letterfromaberystwyth.co.uk/historic-derailment-on-the-devils-bridge-railway/

It had been abruptly curtailed on the return journey by its derailment near Nantyronen.

On this year’s journey ours was a special, stopping train, which halted at every station along the route. The passengers, members of the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society and the Ceredigion Welsh Historic Gardens Trust were bent on visiting the latest developments, – newly planted railway gardens at each of the stations and halts along the line.

The whole operation has prospered under the charitable trust which bought the railway from British Rail twenty five years ago. There is a substantial new engine shed with brick built gable ends near the station at Aberystwyth, and an attractive private car park dedicated only to Rheidol Railway travellers. At every halt the station buildings have been smartly restored and painted in the railway livery of cream and brown. At Aberffrwd one can play at stationmaster with the old telephone and ticket shelves in the corrugated iron and pitch pine building. At other halts a newly installed but tastefully gothic corrugated iron shelter protects waiting passengers from the elements. The latest initiative has been to create gardens such as might have been tended by proud stationmasters along the route. These have been planted and tended by local volunteers.

At Capel Bangor we alighted near a raised bed margined by railway sleepers planted with Victorian formality. French marigolds in yellow and orange framed taller plantings of pink cistus and the statuesque Bishop of Llandaff dahlia. The line divides to serve both platforms here, and they are adorned with stout barrels. I particularly liked the one containing a standard bay tree underplanted with brilliant red geraniums which echoed the signage on the picket fence beyond.

Inspecting the trough at Capel Bangor station

Inspecting the trough at Capel Bangor station

 

Capel Bangor Station

Capel Bangor Station

 

Tub on Capel Bangor Station

Tub on Capel Bangor Station

At Nantyronen the French marigolds were to be found again, but this time in long raised troughs along the platform and interplanted with verbenas and other bedding plants.

Nantyronen Station

Nantyronen Station

 

Nantyronen

Nantyronen

 

Troughs at Nantryonen

Troughs at Nantryonen

At Aberffrwd a more ambitious border between the platform and the fence was planted with perennials, Canterbury bells, peonies, astrantia, Erisymum ‘Bowles Mauve’ and Japanese Anemones.

Here the volunteers were distraught, on the eve of the station’s official re-opening by Tourism and Transport Minister Edwina Hart, to find that many of the flowering stems had been snipped off some 10inches above the ground. Close inspection revealed rabbits to be the culprits, apparently reaching up to nibble off the flower stems and eat the flowers.   Hasty replanting with colourful osteospermums filled in for some of the losses. Rabbit repulsion in a rural area remains a challenging goal.

Inspecting the border at Aberffrwd

Inspecting the border at Aberffrwd

 

Rabbit damage

Rabbit damage

Less toothsome to rabbits and very much in keeping with the landscape is the slope on the side facing the platform, which has been planted as a sedum bed, in which the name of the station is spelt out in white painted river stones.

Sedum border at Aberffrwd

Sedum border at Aberffrwd

 

The line divides again here, and it was nice to watch the downward train exchange batons with our driver and continue on its way.

Trains pass the baton at Aberffrwd

Trains pass the baton at Aberffrwd

We paused at The Rheidol Falls stop, to see the azalea planting and a clematis montana which will soon gallop exuberantly along the fence.

Fire buckets at Devil's Bridge

Fire buckets at Devil’s Bridge

We dismounted at Devil’s Bridge to find four red fire buckets planted with gaudy gazanias. After a lavish lunch at the Two Hoots Cafe we rattled back down to Aberystwyth with just a pause at Rhiwfron, the other high altitude stop. Here the visitor looks out northward across the valley to the cream and gold spoil tips of mining on the other side. A hundred years has not diminished its mineral toxicity, and only a few trees have gained foothold on these slopes.

Spoil tips viewed from Rhiwfron Halt

Spoil tips viewed from Rhiwfron Halt

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Kicking a Badger

by The Curious Scribbler

Last week I was out in my pyjamas at one o’clock in the morning kicking a badger in the ribs.  Which may surprise you since I am in general a tolerant animal lover.

The story begins at about 11-30pm when my guests, recently retired to bed, complained of extremely odd sounds from the quiet lane below their window.  Not, they thought, a cat fight, but a worrying assortment of groans, barks and guttural mumblings.  A car had drawn up and then driven on.  Our family dog had barked within the house.  And the strange sounds continued.

Armed with a torch I went out to investigate.  All was silent, but as I approached the entrance to a field gate I saw a great ball of fluffed out brownish fur.  As I approached it, a sleek young stripey-headed badger detached itself from beside it, and slipped under the field gate to run up the field.  The lump of fur though scarcely moved.  It seemed to scrabble forward with its front feet but the hindquarters dragged on the ground and after a few inches it lay still.  I considered the scene for some time, guessing that the injured badger had perhaps been struck by a car.  It was certainly in shock and shivering.

Reporting back to the family, I described the scene and suggested that the large motionless badger would shortly die of its injuries.  Both the practicalities and the ethics of mercy killing a badger seemed daunting, so we went to bed.

But it did not die quietly.  Soon the grunting and groaning resumed and I rose once more, arming myself with a clump hammer, and thinking that if the badger still lay paralysed and groaning I could perhaps knock it on the head and put it out of its misery.  I went quietly down the road with a torch. The sleek young badger was back, sitting companionably with its back leaned against the older animal , and 50 yards down the road by the light of the only streetlight I saw another young badger running towards me.

As I approached the gateway, companion badger again squeezed under the gate and ran up the hill, but this time old badger was on its four feet, moving around a little.  It seemed a bit dazed but showed  no obvious injury other than some blood around its nose.  Perhaps, I concluded, it was making a recovery.  The clump hammer was stood down and I went to bed once more.

Noise abatement was not achieved.  If anything the gutteral squawks and groans increased and at One a.m. came the sound of a heavy body or bodies colliding with our dustbin.  It rattled back and forth, just failing to fall over.

So up I got once more, dragging on jeans and jumper and running down the road.  And there, beneath the streetlight some 25 yards from where my injured badger had been sheltering was it and a young assailant, locked together and snarling, rolling and dragging one another too and fro in the middle of the road.  Doubtless it was they who had almost toppled the dustbin.  So on the principle of siding with the under badger, I kicked the young attacker in the ribs and chased him 100 yards down the road.  My guests lay in bed transfixed by my yells of  ” Bugger off!  You’re making too much noise.”

Returning, I expected to find injured old badger, released and lying exhausted in the road.  But no, his walking ability had clearly returned and I found him stubbornly back at the field gate where I had first found him. Unlike his slighter young associate he did not seem minded to squeeze under the gate, so I climbed upon it, released the farmer’s wire, and opening it wide over the sodden earth, I poked my badger with a stick until it reluctantly went through into the field.  It trudged off alongside the hedgerow, and I went to bed.

I sat up reading websites about badger social behaviour.  Was our field gateway at the margin of two territories?  Was the companionable badger one of its social group, sitting up against him to share fragrance from his rear scent glands.  Was young badger in the road a warrior from the adjoining tribe down the way?

It’s hard to tell.  But at least the young fighting badger did not return after my blandishments, and the old badger was nowhere to be seen dead in the hedgerow the following day.

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The National Plant Phenomics Centre at Gogerddan

by The Curious Scribbler

Plants, mainly grasses, have been being selected and improved at Aberystwyth for almost a hundred years.  Modern experimental oat breeding, for example, began here in 1919 along with experiments designed to improve the properties of forage grasses for sheep and cattle.  In those bygone days the research organisation was called the Welsh Plant Breeding Station (WPBS) and it was directed from 1919 to1942 by George Stapledon, who was duly knighted for his endeavours towards achieving what we now call ‘Sustainability and Food Security’.  In those days it was called ‘Autarky’.  In the Seventies we called it ‘Self-Sufficiency’.  (In any case, all these terms mean producing more, with less dependence on imports and political alliances).

I recently saw some charming photos of the early days of plant breeding at Aberystwyth.  Airy greenhouses contained bevies of women in pretty dresses, meticulously stripping the male parts (the anthers) from oats or other grasses and pollinating the stigmas with paintbrushes loaded with the chosen pollen.  Over the years the Welsh Plant Breeding Station grew in size and importance, moving in 1953 to the Gogerddan estate, of one of the former great mansions of Ceredigion, at Penrhyncoch.  The Queen came to open the new establishment.  The former walled garden of the estate soon disappeared under a complex of modern buildings. 

 

Traditional experimental plots trialling many varieties of rye-grass at IBERS, Gogerddan

 

 In the 1990s after various mergers WPBS renamed itself the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) and then to the bewilderment of many, mutated once more, by merger with Rural and Biological Sciences at Aberystwyth University into IBERS (The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences).  Many still know it by its older acronymns, especially the large local workforce who since its inception found employment in its  glasshouses, fields and experimental plots. Today IGER oats account for 65% of the oats planted in Britain and IGER varieties of rye-grass are contentedly masticated all over the world.  IGER turf has been developed for the particular needs of different sporting venues, and even to grow on vertical surfaces to enrobe green sculptures.

Meanwhile the sophistication of genetic engineering moved on from the days of girls in pretty dresses and now involves the scrutiny not just of new hybrids but of individual genes. And to mark the twenty-first century IBERS has a startling new toy, The National Plant Phenomics Centre, one of the most advanced experimental greenhouses in the world.    

In the National Plant Phenomics Centre glasshouse, plants leave the artificial sunlight for a visit to the measuring chambers.

 

Here in a giant brightly lit glasshouse, plants reside in identical individual pots, moving gently around the huge space on whirring, clicking conveyor belts.  Each pot contains a microchip which identifies its programmed needs. Each plant may have been designated for a personalised regime of water, fertiliser, pesticide.  And each plant is daily monitored.  As its progresses along the conveyor belt it pauses, turns to the left and passes into a chamber like a lift, whereupon the automatic doors close it from view. Inside it is rotated and photographed from four sides and above so that a computer programme can compute its precise enlargement since yesterday’s visit to the chamber.  In another chamber it may be lifted out of its pot to measure the root growth under infra red light, or measured for fluorescence.  Then the doors open and the belt moves on.  Then there is a breathless pause.  The plant pot stands upon a scale by which its weight indicates the amount of water it has lost or used since last it visited this point.  The pause continues, the computer deliberates, and then according to its needs and the experimental programme, a downward angled gun delivers a precisely measured bolt of water to the roots.  There is a further click and the patient moves on, to be followed by another and then another.  There is a remarkable sense of suspense in watching a series of identical plants passing the weigh station, some to be rewarded with a drink of water, others assessed, measured and sent on their way thirsty.

 

This lucky plant receives a squirt of water before returning to the bench

 

The multi-million pound National Plant Phenomics Centre opened very recently. It is a magnificent piece of sci-fi, with all the man-appeal of a train set.  Quietly clicking and whirring belts drive continual motion, not a human in sight.  Watch the You Tube animation here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qBsVP0j70k

It looks as if fewer local jobs will arise from the National Plant Phenomic Centre than from the old techniques of watering cans and trial plots, for it is all controlled by computer from a single work station.  In the animation you will find that the sole operative of the laboratory computer terminal looks suspiciously like superheroine Lara Croft.  The film is accompanied by a mind numbingly repetitive electronic music sound track.  Only in this respect does the animation exceed reality.

 

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Bilberries in the hills

by The Curious Scribbler

Ripe Bilberries ( Vaccinium myrtillus)

August is a rich foraging time and we recently took a break from mushrooming to make a second visit to our favoured Bilberry spot in the Cambrian uplands.

Bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) are the much smaller and tarter wild relative of the supermarket Blueberry  (V. corymbosum) a cultivated form of the wild North American species.  When I was a child, blueberries were unknown in British shops and so bilberry picking was a seasonal tradition, the whole family crouched in the heather and scrub, fingers purpling as we picked off the berries, squishing the overripe ones as we picked. It is a tedious task, as few berries are as much as a centimetre in diameter, and while the largest, ripest ones tumble far too easily through one’s fingers, the slightly less ripe ones cling firmly to the bush.  Unless there is a strong breeze, a horde of buzzing flies soon circle around the picker, and horseflies converge from great distances upon a likely blood meal.

But the outcome was a cascade of small spherical fruit baked with sugar and perhaps some apple in a pie topped with shortcrust pastry.  We liked to compare tongues after a bilberry pie, for the purple pigment stains the skin, and a tongue would remain blue for at least a day after the meal. Once you have had a bilberry pie, blueberries will always seem watery and insipid –  a pale imitation of these mountain fruits.

Finding a good Bilberry spot is a matter of luck and close observation.  At best the shrubs grow as loose bushes about 18 inches tall, but often their growth has been accompanied by regrown oak woodland, and they do not fruit freely in the shade.  On sunny hillsides they grow densely with heather (Calluna vulgaris) and form a low growing carpet of green and purple.  Grazing and hill fires both hold back the size of the bushes and the fruit may be smaller and sparser.  Most of the best spots are probably on forestry land where there has been little or no recent grazing but the trees are few.

A sunny hillside of bilberry and heather

Our two man-hours of picking yielded two and a half pounds of fruit which will freeze from fresh into perfect little black spheres of shot.  Neither flavour nor texture is diminished by the freezing process and I will later layer them with bramley apple and sugar in a generous pie.  If half the health benefits attributed to the milder blueberries apply to these wild fruit then we are also protecting ourselves from the ravages of senility, stroke, heart attack  and macular degeneration of the eyes.  And of course the physical exertion of climbing the hill will have also been very good for us!

 

Bilberries ready for the kitchen

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