A lot has happened since I wrote this guest blog for Dyffryn Tywi in 2020. I will be creating a blog in response to the proposals for a 60 mile network of electricity pylons through our beautiful valley. The diagram shows just part of the proposed development and I’ve added photos of a few of the actual birds and animals that live along just that tiny stretch. It feels personal – I know these creatures! The Whooper swans overwintering and grazing the fields along with the Canadian and Greylag geese. The Red Kite that nests in sight of the school and directly under the proposed electricity lines. The Great spotted woodpeckers that are predictably hammering away staking their territories now that spring is round the corner…..
The setting sun turning the river pink; three arched windows and a green hill; perhaps a solitary Red Kite or Buzzard soaring overhead, or if it’s late enough a Barn Owl following the river upstream while it hunts. This is how I know I am nearly home.
My love for the Tywi valley and its archaeology, history and wildlife is long standing. The Towy is the longest river entirely in Wales and the floodplain it carves through has been an important transport route since prehistoric times. Of course, it is still an important transport route and the A40 which more or less follows the old Roman road, takes us near the castles in their prominent positions overlooking Llandovery, Llandeilo and Dryslwyn. The A40 departs from the river at the county town of Carmarthen and the Tywi is left to meander down to its broad estuary at Llansteffan, beneath another castle and against the background of sandcastles, ice cream and chips.
The geology of the Towy valley and the fertile alluvial deposits have created wonderfully silty and loamy soils that have fed rich pastures for sheep and dairy cattle to graze upon. The valley is also home a diverse range of wildlife and I enjoy climbing Paxton’s tower to get one of the best views imaginable. After the floods, which are part of the valley’s historic cycle of floods, but are sadly becoming more and more extreme, the acoustics of the whole valley changes and the mass of water softens the noises and creates an eery silence that is quite different to when the waters have drained away leaving just the oxbow lakes, abandoned channels and gravel bars. I have observed and counted wildfowl in the valley for more than 20 years and although I am too recent a visitor to have observed the meadows at Dryslwyn when they were one of the top overwintering sites for White Fronted Geese, I have enjoyed the many Whooper swans, Canada geese, Greylags and a lone Snow goose that occasionally tags along on their migratory journey. I once observed a pair of Bar Headed geese – escapees I am certain!
A recent sighting that has sparked my interest is the Great White Egret – or possibly two Great White Egrets. A solitary member of this species is regularly seen in its favourite spots at Dinefwr, Cilsan, Dryslwyn and Capel Dewi. I have yet to spot a pair but I have certainly observed one whilst I was standing on the bridge at Dryslwyn whilst another member of the Carmarthenshire Birds and Wildlife facebook group spotted one moments later in Capel Dewi. It either flies incredibly fast, or there are indeed a pair of them. I wonder if they will breed? The Little Egrets have been successful in establishing themselves in the valley, and of course heronries have existed in the grounds of old mansions like Newton House and Aberglasney for centuries. Once again, the Towy valley combines archaeology, history and nature; with the largest Heronry in Wales back in the 1970’s existing at the site of the ancient Allt y Gaer hillfort.
I am lucky to live in such a beautiful place and this past year has really brought that home to me. I have been able to walk to the river and see the swallows arrive and nest under the bridge, swooping out to catch insects above the glassy river surface before gathering in September to leave for Africa – and again this year when they arrived back ready to continue this wonderful cycle. In uncertain times like the global pandemic we are experiencing, there is a sense of predictability and safety that comes from watching nature carry on just as it has been. I wonder where the Princes of Dehuebarth thought the swallows went each autumn? Did the Romans marching to Carmarthen look down and see Otters sliding off the riverbank into the safety of the dark waters below? Were Red Kites a scavenging nuisance in the streets of Llandovery back in the days of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan?
Who knows… and that is the beauty of the Tywi valley and what it means to me. An ancient place, that is still very undisturbed if you pause a moment, look, and listen to what is going on all around you.
P.S. It IS two Great White Egrets – yay!!! They have reliably been spotted together.
In my garden is a large oak. I often wonder just how many species are supported by this one tree.
Its roots spread far and wide drinking up the rainwater and helping to keep our village safe from floods. The solid trunk hosts lichen and offers shelter for tiny insects and caterpillars within its fissured bark. Ivy creeps up from below and provides a frost-free environment for treecreepers scurrying ever upwards amongst its waxy leaves. The magnificent canopy provides shade for my garden and then drops its tasty seeds in the form of acorns. In autumn my tree sheds its golden leaves, which provide litter for hibernating hedgehogs and the opportunity for my family to scrunch and crunch and kick through the crispy leaves on a cold morning. No wonder the oak tree holds such a prominent place in the folklore and history of people from all over the world.
Alongside the seasons that arrive and depart with predictable regularity, the tree has its own life cycle that can span many hundreds of years. I measured the girth of my tree and estimated it to be 180 years old. Old and very grand, quite definitely – but certainly not ancient by oak tree standards.
The oak tree is ripe with metaphors. The reminder that great things can grow from tiny beginnings, is the one that first springs to mind for me in the famous ‘out of acorns, mighty oaks grow’. But this beloved tree of mine has held a new significance for me more recently. The very top or crown of the tree has entertained me for years as I have watched the birds – corvids mainly, compete for the best vantage point. My tree has what is known as a ‘stag’s head’ appearance.
There is an old saying that ‘oaks grow for 300 years, rest for another 300 years and then decline for a further 300 years’. Like me, my tree is not yet ancient, but its vascular system is no longer up to the job of maintaining it in its previous glory. In order to preserve the vital parts of the tree, the extremities start to die off, enabling light to reach the inner crown and stimulate new growth in dormant buds. The outer branches are hardy and remain, looking like wooden antlers standing proud and erect – often for decades or even centuries.
My tree still follows the usual cycle of the seasons. New leaves sprout in spring – albeit ones that are closer to the heart. Acorns develop and drop with the potential to provide food or new life. Leaves turn from green to gold and shed on my lawn, leaving the bare wooden structure of the tree looking the same as it always has each winter. As spring returns, the trees energy is placed where it is most needed in the inner crown and the stags head is left as a perch for the birds.
The tree has not died, in spite of unfounded complaints by neighbours that it has become dead and dangerous! It is conserving its energy where it is most needed and providing a new purpose in its final years.
It has taken me a while to write this blog. The natural world has long provided me with rich meaning, both physically as a place to escape to and gaze in amazement, and as metaphor for my life. Like my oak tree, I recognised my own vascular system slowing down, the extremities of both my body and my mind not receiving the nourishment they need to flourish as they once had. Like the oak tree nurturing its new inner crown, I have chosen to place my limited energies at the heart of my being and focus on those core activities, relationships and interests that provide me with the most meaning and purpose. Maybe like the stag headed oak, I will find new purpose in the latter part of my life?
Just like my neighbours who demanded I cut my tree down as it is dead and dangerous, I recognise my own biases in misinterpreting the old and frail as past it or lacking usefulness, and how I may internalise those judgmental thoughts. But like my tree, I am not past it. My ideas still come like the acorns, providing food for thought and potential for growth. Like autumn leaves, I will shed those prejudiced thoughts on what makes a living thing purposeful, and approach winter by hunkering down through the harsh weather ready for new life next spring. And I shall delight in those birds making use of my oak’s topmost branches as they loudly and boldly declare the new usefulness that has come about through the natural dying of the tree.
The United Kingdom is facing it’s first ever red weather warning for extreme heat, and unprecedented temperatures of >40 degrees C are predicted.
News stories give advice on how to stay cool and sleep at night and organisations like Age UK have information sheets available with suggestions for helping our most vulnerable. Of course, a red warning means that EVERYONE, and not just the most vulnerable, need to follow advice about staying healthy in the heat.
What about our wildlife? We can make sure we have areas of shade and water to drink in our gardens and yards, but unlike some humans who are relishing the idea of a suntan and possibly risking their health in a heatwave, animals tend to take extreme weather more seriously and look after themselves without needing to be told what to do!
How animals keep cool:
Humans are animals – and one of the ways we stay cool is to sweat. In extreme heat, our body opens up the blood vessels that are close to the skin. Blood carries heat from inside of our body to the surface, where it can benefit from the cooling effect of sweat evaporating.
You might not realise your pet dog can sweat too. Dogs sweat through their paw pads but it is not as effective as human sweating, which is why dogs use panting as a cooling mechanism instead. This works because of the cooling sensation of moisture evaporating from their mouth and tongue, and exchanging the hot ait from their lungs with cooler air from outside. The Battersea dogs home has some good summer advice for dog owners.
Camels are renowned for their ability to survive the harsh conditions of the desert and contrary to what we may have heard, their humps don’t in fact carry water, but fat. A camel uses its hump(s) to regulate its body temperature. At night when the soaring daytime temperatures drop dramatically, the store of fat keeps the camel warm. In the daytime it prevents the sun from penetrating the camel’s body so keeps it cool. The energy (fat) stored in a camel’s hump is what keeps it going when food is scarce, and this ungualte’s (an ungulate is a hooved mammal) secret to staying hydrated is down to its oval shaped blood cells and not storing water in its hump. A camel can drink 113 litres (30 gallons) of water in 13 minutes and rehydrates faster than any other mammal.
Birds have a variety of ways of keeping cool:
Birds head for the shade, take a dip in cooling water or change their routine to make use of the cooler parts of the day for activity and the hotter times for rest.
You might see a bird panting or doing a special type of movement by vibrating their neck muscles, called a gular flutter. Some birds, including the heron can open their beaks and then flutter the gular muscles in their throat while breathing rapidly. This quickly carries heat out of the bird’s body and brings in cooler air.
Urohydrosis is used by some birds in really hot environments. Birds have a single opening (called a cloaca) for their digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts. This means their poo and wee comes out mixed together. Some vultures and storks excrete their droppings onto their scaly legs to cool them down. It works in a similar way to sweating or panting. The evaporation of the liquid has a cooling effect.
All the above examples are of warm blooded animals and birds that need to keep a relatively constant temperature. Whatever the outside temperature is, they need to keep their internal temperature regulated. Us humans know only too well how a change in body temperature of only one or two degrees when we are unwell can make us feel dreadful and unable to do much at all. That’s why we need to take it seriously when heatwaves are announced.
Cold blooded animals are different. They get their heat from the outside environment and their body temperature can fluctuate as the outside temperature fluctuates. The size and shape of an animal often indicates whether it will be warm or cold blooded. Large animals like walruses, elephants and rhinos are warm blooded because it would be very difficult to heat up an elephant using an external heat source like the sun! Cold blooded animals tend to be long, thin or flat shaped in comparison.
Reptiles can overheat though and need to find shade so they can reduce their temperature when they get too hot.
How plants keep cool:
Animals can regulate their temperature by moving in and out of shade and heat, or doing activities that help them cool down like panting or even pooing on their own legs! But what about those living things that can’t get up and move?
A plants structure can help it survive extreme heat:
Waxy leaves conserve water, and tiny leaves have less surface area for losing water.
Some plants like cacti have no leaves at all which results in a low surface to volume ratio and reduces water loss.
On a molecular level, something quite incredible happens when plants get too hot:
Plants have a group of proteins called heat-shock proteins or stress-induced proteins. These proteins are found in all living organisms, including us, and are produced when cells are briefly exposed to temperatures above their normal growth temperature.
Plant heat shock proteins can protect cells that are exposed to high temperatures.
What about the insects?
Insects are cold blooded so we will find more of them out and about in the warm weather soaking up the sun’s energy. We often take delight in a beautiful butterfly but find the flies seeking shade in our cooler houses are annoying!
Juvenile insects like larvae (caterpillars, for instance) are less able to escape extreme heat. They are less mobile and lack the wings needed to fly away and take shelter in a shady bush (or kitchen with it’s ready supply of food).
Scientists are noting that climate change is having an impact on insects ability to reproduce, and even a slight rise in temperature can have a dramatic effect. Insects are responsible for about 80% of the pollination of trees and bushes on our planet, so it is essential we do what we can to reduce further climate change.
It’s important to remember that every living thing will be affected by the heatwave we are expecting in the UK. Look after your pets, keep those bird feeders and ponds full, create some shady places, water your plants, stay hydrated and why not change your routine to suit the weather conditions, like many of the other animals do.
Rosie, from Pen and Sword Books contacted me to see if I’d like to review this new book. Having never written a book review – and having been away from my own writing for most of this past year due to illness and other reasons, I wasn’t sure if it was something I could do, but I agreed and was sent a copy – and thankfully it inspired me to get back to writing, and attempt a book review too!
The book opens with some statistics: “First there is food. Agriculture in the UK is a £5.3 billion pound industry…… and uses 69% of the land mass”. Given that; this book is incredibly relevant. Agricultural land is such a rich part of our ecosystem, but something I certainly – and probably many others, tend to bypass by jumping in the car and heading off for the more exotic mountain, forest and coastal landscapes. Fields are everywhere. Having recently driven across the whole width of the UK in pursuit of some rescue ferrets (which is another story for another day!) I was reassured to see that the UK is indeed full of natural wonder.
On my journey, I passed through South and Mid Wales and watched the land as it rose up out of the dairy farms and meadows in the Towy valley and into the Brecon Beacons with their misty forest tops and hardy sheep feeding below. The M50 was nothing but 4 lanes of traffic with intermittent hard shoulders that passed through endless fields before joining the M5 and the subsequent motorways I took on my trip to the East Coast of Yorkshire. In the latter part of my journey I was aware of how high up I was, yet how few mountains were in sight – and all the time I was surrounded by fields – red fields, yellow fields, green fields, brown fields, and the occasional grand old Oak or Beech tree standing proud overlooking the bare landscape. But did I see much wildlife? Not really. Gone are the days of motorway journeys being punctuated by kestrels hovering over the verges, or deer grazing in the fields. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there – and Sophie McCallum’s book reminds us that the wildlife we find living their lives in arable land, is indeed secret. We need to get out and look for it – we need to in the words of William Henry Davies take the time to “stand and stare”.
What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. No time to stand beneath the boughs And stare as long as sheep or cows. No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass. No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night. No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance. No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began. A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.
William Henry Davies
The Secret Life of an Arable Field is the type of book I loved when I was growing up. It is a book I want to handle and flick through and sit with and enjoy. The content is factual and not dissimilar to searching for information about various species online, like a glossy hardbacked wikipedia – but having all that information in one place is valuable, and unlike online research, you can lose yourself in the beautiful photographs and get drawn into discovering other related species.
At first I found the book’s lack of personal opinion and emotion quite unusual – I am used to hearing what other people think and feel about the natural world and this book is full of good, solid facts, and incredible photographs – and not much else. It didn’t instantly engage me like some wildlife books but it was a grower. I like that it isn’t preaching. I like that it presents the reader with lots of accurate information and brings together the whole ecosystem of an arable field with the trees, insects, birds, mammals and plants all having equal place in the book – and all arranged in alphabetical order. Going from Poppy, to Potatoes, to Powdery mildew, to Primrose, and then Rabbits gives a powerful message about the interconnectedness of species and how they are all important and play a vital part in the food chain and ultimate survival of all species.
This book is going to be a favourite. It can be picked up and savoured for the top quality colour images, and it can be used to learn more about a particular species. It is not a guide book for taking out into the field, but in these days of mobile phone cameras it is a valuable reference resource to use back at home. I wondered upon first picking it up if it would be a bit random – a collection of nice photos ‘forced’ into a text book – but The Secret Life of an Arable Field is anything but. This book has a powerful message that enables the reader to uncover and link together the various species and realise the importance of them all, and what really makes the field a special place for both human and wildlife alike.
I was not paid for this review – but was sent a complimentary copy of the book. I was simply asked if I would be interested in reviewing the book on my blog – no suggestions were made as to how I write the review or what to include.
As I walked along the track I stopped to look into the ruins of where there was once an old house – amusingly noted to be called Ty Newydd on the Ordnance Survey of 1888! The flower I was hoping to see is often found near human dwellings – it was introduced as a cultivated plant hundreds of years ago and without many insects or other pollinators around in the depths of winter, it doesn’t tend to spread widely unless replanted.
I was on the lookout for snowdrops – one of the first flowers of the New Year. These tiny white flowers have long been associated with purity, light and hope – and were known as Candlemass bells because they bloomed around the time of the Christian festival of Candlemass. They certainly fill me with hope and begin my annual countdown of flowers from snowdrops, to daffodils, to bluebells, then foxgloves and so on throughout the year.
This winter has been different. Many of my neighbours have reported bulbs poking their way through the soil back before Christmas and in fact we photographed our first daffodil at the Botanic Gardens in Llanarthne in late November. I have even seen the leaves and occasional buttercup yellow flower of the celandine that grows beneath the old oak tree in our garden – again, these are flowers we associate with the spring and not midwinter.
I continued my walk across the open field and down into the woodland beyond. I feel blessed that I live in Carmarthenshire where we have so much of the natural world accessible to us from our doorsteps.
A rapid drumming filled my ears. It was one of the resident great spotted woodpeckers – in fact, I am sure it was a male bird. These woodpeckers don’t just hammer their strong beaks against trees so they can make holes to nest in, or to find insects to eat. The males drum against trees, telegraph poles and anything else that will make a loud noise and help them stake a claim to their territory. This territorial drumming takes place in the build up to spring – why not research woodpeckers as part of your home educating – they have backwards pointing toes; extra stiff tails; and tongues that are so long they wrap around their specially adapted skulls. Fantastic characters!
It’s not just woodpeckers that are getting ready for the breeding season, we may soon see frogspawn in our ponds, and the foxes have been barking and calling for a while now. Of course, some of our animals are still deep in hibernation. Not just bats and hedgehogs but other creatures too. Reptiles have a special form of hibernation called brumation that gets them through the short days of winter when sunlight is limited. Amphibians also hibernate, so make sure you crack the ice on your pond when it freezes so that any build-up of toxic gas can escape from under the solid ice. And if you find one of our overwintering butterflies decides to come out of hiding and spread its wings on a warm winter’s day, why not put it safely in a box somewhere safe like a shed or outbuilding until spring – or do what I do and enjoy sharing your home with them.
The days are already getting visibly longer and before we know it, it will be spring. The little snowdrops truly are synonymous with hope – blooming just before the vernal equinox and heralding the new spring and the new year. I wish all of you blessings and peace for the forthcoming year and hope you can share in the beauty and sanctuary of our natural world.
This blog will be featured in the Carmarthen Journal Nature Notes column in January 2021
A distinctive rhythmic hum vibrated my ears into action, and I paused and looked to the sky. I knew this sound, and I knew it could be coming from up to a mile away.
The hum changed in tone and frequency as the wedge of Mute swans flew closer and closer. The noise changed into a powerful but gracefully slow; swoosh, swoosh, swoosh – and I gazed skywards as the elegant birds with necks outstretched and heads pointing towards the lake ahead; passed over me without a sound leaving their beaks.
I smiled to myself because this was the second wedge of swans to fly over that morning. The earlier birds were easily recognisable as Whooper swans and not Mutes. There was no building up of wing noise with the Whoopers – but their raucous bugling and honking alerted everything within range that they were approaching and on a mission!
Swans are truly awesome – how can something so enormous, fly so beautifully – and over such long distances? The Mute swans live in the valley, but the Whoopers join us every winter from Iceland – making a sea crossing of around 800-1400km. Swans are amongst the largest flying birds and have evolved to do this as efficiently as possible – they have hollow bones for instance – this puts paid to the stories of swans breaking a man’s arm with just a flap of their wing. A swan’s wingbeat is certainly powerful, but it is also lightweight and designed for flight and communication, and not as a weapon.
Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher, spoke of nothing being permanent except change. He is also attributed with saying that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. And that perfectly sums up why I have never lost my passion for the natural world. I have never bored of taking the same walk several times a day.
This year has been like no other. The world has been united in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. For many of us, we have found the natural world to be a reliable friend through the uncertainty and disruption that has surrounded us. Many people have rekindled their relationship with the great outdoors, others have noticed for the first time the huge variety of wildlife on their doorstep – perhaps they have spent years working hard in jobs away from their home and haven’t had the opportunity to pause and just notice the diversity of life surrounding them. All have learned first hand, the benefits to our wellbeing of time spent enjoying the nature and wildlife.
Pausing and noticing are two of the most valuable wildlife watching skills I possess. No amount of studying animal tracks, signs, and behaviour; or buying the best quality binoculars or camouflage clothing is a substitute for just getting outside as often as possible. I switch my thinking brain off from planning and analysing and worrying – and switch over to letting my senses lead the way and show me without prejudgment or opinion, what is around me.
This year I watched the small strip of woodland floor that I visit most days turn from leaf litter and the odd bramble; into a carpet of wood anemones that were followed by bluebells; then nettles and new shrubs, trees and bushes. Occasionally punctuated by an early purple orchid, earthball fungus, or phallic and putrid smelling stinkhorn mushroom.
The woods turned shady and dark once the acidic green beech leaves unfurled and filled the canopy – along with the leaves of the neighbouring oak, hazel and rowan; blocking out the sun and providing shelter from the unusually frequent thunderstorms we experienced over the summer months. The months passed and the leaves turned to gold and dropped; and the last few hangers on have just been blown away by the north wind – the same wind that helped those swans on their migration flight.
I watched the swallows arrive at the bridge on 11th April – they nested underneath, and the cacophony of tweets and chirps was almost deafening. It was a successful year for breeding, which I witnessed in the sheer number of swallows gathering together by the beginning of September, to prepare for migration. It was an honour to witness this half of these birds’ lives over here in West Wales – and I wonder if there is someone showing them as much interest now they are back in Africa?
One of my favourite birds is the Tawny owl. I am truly blessed to lose sleep because of the noisy male birds “hoo-hoo”-ing outside my bedroom window in response to the female birds call of “keewik”. Sadly, I was brought an injured owl back in April. It had been hit by a car and my neighbour and I did our best to make it comfortable but it was beyond help and now rests in peace under my oak tree. It’s feathers were amazingly soft and fluffy and quite beautiful as the wind ruffled them – the colours and textures were gorgeous.
I’ve recorded tawny owl numbers for some time and taken part in the BTO survey too. I hoped that the loss of this owl wouldn’t affect this year’s breeding population. Tawny owls spend the winter establishing their territories, that’s why they’re so vocal at the moment in the run up to Christmas. They mate and lay eggs in late winter or early spring, with the chicks hatching around 30 days later, and fledging in May.
In July we started hearing baby animal noises coming from our back hedgerow and the oak tree, we weren’t sure whether they were from a bird or mammal. Gentle chirrups in the dark, that built over the weeks into sounds that were similar to a female tawny owl, but clearly immature. There were two distinct “voices” of what I imagine were two fledgling owls. After a couple more weeks, the voices got deeper and the calls became distinctly female (too-whit) and male (too-whoo). And now, they have joined the other owls in the village and can be heard down the track; in my neighbours garden; on the roof; beyond the back hedge – all vying for territory and making their way in the world.
Many animals live shorter lives than us humans, and this gives us the privilege of seeing them grow, change and develop. I’ve followed a family of magpies nesting near the village school which was closed for the summer. We’ve had blue tits nest in a hole in our apple tree and yesterday I spotted a great tit checking it out. Our oak tree has nuthatches and treecreepers making use of the warm ivy’s antifreeze properties, and our bathroom has a tortoiseshell butterfly keeping warm over winter.
I’ve always been a “noticer”. I’m blessed with senses that never switch off! I can find pleasure in the simplest things, and I gain a sense of safety, belonging, and of my place in the world when I immerse myself in nature. The pandemic has brought fear, uncertainty and unpredictability to the humans in the world, but the swallows still came and went – the leaves still ‘remembered’ to fall – creatures were born and died. The changes we can be certain of still took place; and brought myself, like many people, a sense of hope for the future.
This is the time of year when we may be lucky enough to observe deer during their annual rut. I have been able to hear the blood curdling bellows and groans of the fallow bucks on several occasions this past week as they have strutted around their territories, showing off their suitability as a breeding male. If you are very lucky, you may even get to see the strongest males battling it out head to head, using their magnificent palmate antlers as weapons in a competition to identify who will be the successful choice for the does to mate with.
My best sightings of the rut have been at Dinefwr Park in recent years, although there were many impressive sightings of bellowing bucks to be had at Gelli Aur in years gone by. Fallow deer are the most common deer species in Wales and were introduced to the UK around 2000 years ago but possibly died out after the collapse of the Roman Empire. They were probably reintroduced in the 11th century. Herds tend to be managed so that humans and deer can live alongside each other, and deer parks have been in existence since Medieval times. In Carmarthenshire, a deer park is shown on a map of Llansteffan dating back to the 14th century. Whereas, the Tywi valley herds date from the 18th century and are associated with the mansions of Golden Grove and Newton House – many of the deer around Gelli Aur today are descended from the deer park herd and have established themselves in the surrounding woodland and countryside, providing drivers with the occasional treat (or shock!) on their way to and from work at dawn and dusk.
All the following photos are of deer from the Gelli Aur area – taken in either 2009 or 2011
Fallow deer are the only UK deer to have palmate antlers. The males develop these around 3-4 years of age after the rut is over, the antlers are shed in spring and regrown by the summer, I have yet to find any on my walks but I’d love to have a pair.
The does separate from their herd so they can give birth to their fawns in June, and who can resist the cute Bambi-like youngsters safely hiding away in the bracken, or pronking in alarm before taking flight. The does and fawns return to their herds around July. The terms used to describe members of deer families varies from species to species. Males, females and young are known as stags, hinds and calves in the Red and Sika deer species. Fallow, Roe, Muntjac and Chinese water deer have bucks and does. The young have different names but in our familiar Fallow species they are called fawns.
I enjoy spotting the various individuals in the herd at Dinefwr. They can be told apart by the male’s antler shapes and sizes and by their colouring. Their common colour – a light brown which gives rise to their name ‘fallow’ tends to turn greyer in winter and some individuals are melanistic dark brown/black; others are white with subtle markings; there is another colour combination called menil, which is paler with white spots all year round.
As we enter a couple of weeks of limited travel I will probably miss this years battles between males but I know they have started and have had the pleasure of seeing some photographs taken by a young nature lover Megan George who has allowed me to share with them with you. Thank you Megan.
Autumn is well and truly upon us. I have delighted in those recent dawns full of of mists and mellow fruitfulness. There is something magical, warm and lazy about the light at this time of year and the leaves are beginning to turn to gold, the rowans and rosehips are dripping with red fruit, and the trees and fields are covered with intricate gossamer blankets, woven into perfectly formed geometric shapes and dripping with the early morning dew.
Spiders build webs all year round, but autumn is a fantastic time to see them because their transparent silk threads are often found covered in the seasonal mist and watery droplets of dew. Spiders are often fully grown in autumn and on the lookout for a mate, so we are more likely to see them at this time of year too.
On my morning walks I’ve seen several types of web. The dense garden hedges seem filled with sheet webs – like dozens of silky hammocks waiting for flies and bugs to fall in and get stuck or get knocked onto the horizontal webs by the tangle of threads securing the sheet web to the hedge, grass or low lying bush they are frequently found in.
I love to see the classic orb webs that are synonymous with spiders everywhere. The spider constructs radial threads that act as a scaffold and then adds spiral after spiral of silk until the web is complete, often spending up to an hour building a new web every day. In the UK, these webs mostly get their stickiness from a glue-like coating added to the threads that holds the captured prey in place, but one type of spider uses a special type of silk that acts like Velcro against the bristly legs of any unsuspecting insect landing on these webs.
In recent years, newspapers have been reporting on “Spider season” when spiders are more visible around our homes. They are not all coming in from the cold outside to seek the warmth of our houses – many have been living quietly alongside us throughout the seasons, but are more visible in the autumn because they are out and about looking for a mate. Courtship rituals involve elaborate movements, gestures and dances and the smaller males are often at risk of being eaten by the females.
Not all spiders use webs to catch their prey, some hide and jump out and use a surprise attack. Their eight eyes aren’t particularly good when it comes to locating their next meal and they rely on their sense of touch and the ability to sense the tiny vibrations of insects landing in their webs. Then they’ll trap their prey in a cocoon of silk before injecting poison into it.
In Wales we have around 500 species of spider – some of which are found almost nowhere else in the world. They play an essential part in the diversity of life and sadly many are endangered or even critically endangered. Spiders in the UK pose little trouble to people and whilst I know that some people are scared of them, my world feels a much better place for having them in it and for being able to share the joy of a cobwebby autumn morning.
I could smell the electricity in the air this morning, and my tummy had been warning me of the approaching storm since yesterday evening. I wanted to go down to the woods before the storm started to see what the animals and birds were making of it all. So, Blaze and I took our usual route down the track, Blaze running back and for after her ball. The woods were eerily quiet, the creatures knew what was coming. There was a distant roll of thunder and a few birds squawked and cried before becoming silent again. In the distance a lone farm dog barked.
We headed back home as the occasional huge, heavy drops of rain plopped out of the sky and landed on the track, sending tiny clouds of dust into the air. Blaze was nervy. She wanted to walk ahead – but not too far. She was on high alert and I expect she could sense the electricity; smell the petrichor aroma – that instantly recognisable smell we experience when it rains; and hear the storm as it rumbled around the valley.
We passed the cows in the field alongside the track, and many of them were laying down; the swallows were flying low; and everything seemed to be pushed down towards the earth by the changing air pressure. My tummy continued to rumble just like the distant storm and my husband complained of the pressure in his head.
Each time there was a flash of lightning, I counted the seconds until the clap of thunder came. The storm was getting nearer and fortunately we made it into the house before the rains came.
By lunchtime it was so dark we couldn’t see to read, and I was feeling very, very unwell. Blaze and I sat on the bed and watched the blue cracks of lightning shoot across the sky. I also faffed about on the internet in between the power cuts, researching what I could about how animals “know” what the weather will be like.
Animals have often been attributed with supernatural abilities; ESP; or in the case of Paul the Octupus – an ability to predict World Cup football match outcomes. Our folklore is full of tales of birds and weather prediction:
Hawks flying high means a clear sky. When they fly low, prepare for a blow.
Geese fly higher in fair weather than in foul.
When seagulls fly inland, expect a storm.
Air pressure certainly does affect birds. Swallows, for instance, have sensitive ears; when the barometric pressure drops, they fly as close to the ground as possible, where air density is greatest. Low-flying birds are signs of rain; flying high indicates fair weather.
Studies in the past few years have shown that birds may also be responding to infrasound – those sound waves that humans can’t hear. It appears that some birds may hear the infrasound noise of a distant tornado as the soundwaves travel through the ground. This acts as an early warning signal and enables the birds to fly to safety long before the tornado arrives.
It is likely that animals “know” about approaching weather because of their incredible senses. I don’t think for one moment they can see into the future in a magical way. They can predict the future, but scientifically through using their eyes, ears, and noses. Different animals have different numbers of senses – humans have eight senses, whereas other animals have some extras like magnetoreception, and electroception. As well as that, the senses that other animals share with us can work outside of the ranges humans are used to.
I’ll describe one sense in detail to demonstrate how this works, and I’ll briefly explore some of the other senses.
Bears are thought to have the most sensitive smell. This is essential for helping them survive. Bears often forage for food, and the ability to smell something edible 20 miles away in the case of the Black Bear, or through 1 metre of ice in the case of the Grizzly, means they can conserve their energy and head straight to the food source instead of searching around.
Here’s a diagram showing how different animal’s sense of smell compares:
So how does it work? What makes certain animals specialist sniffers?
There are several things going on. Let’s take Blaze, my dog and compare her to me:
Her nose is a different shape to mine for a start. I breathe in and out through the same airways inside my nose. If I take a big sniff of something and then exhale, incoming scent is pushed out with the exhaled air. To get a really good smell of something, I have to keep sniffing it without breathing out at the same time – try it, have a good sniff of something nearby.
A dog’s nose is more sophisticated in the way it functions. Blaze’s nostrils, unlike mine, can move independently, helping her locate where scents are coming from. When I throw her ball and she doesn’t see it land, her nose goes to work – and I can see her nostrils quivering and sniffing in lots of different directions until she locates the path of the scent. This quivering, pushes the scent further up her nose so it doesn’t mix with new smells coming in – it helps her stayed focused.
Take a look at the photo of Blaze’s nose below or at your own dog or cat’s nose if you have one. When Blaze breathes out, the exhaled air leaves through the slits in the side of her nose, and the swirl of wind created by this exhalation helps send more new scents into her nose.
Smell Receptor Cells
The average dog has around 220 million smell receptor cells – some breeds have many more. A human has only 5 million scent receptor cells. A dog not only has more cells than a person, it has more types of cells. This enables a dog to detect a greater variety of smells.
A dog has another organ for smelling, absent in a human, called the vomeronasal organ.
It’s not just our sense organs that are important in smelling, tasting and hearing the world. The way our brains process this sensory information is important too. Brains interpret and prioritise the messages that have come via the sense organs. The brain also tells the body how to react. So, Blaze’s brain is clearly working differently to mine – she needs to be able to process information that is important for dogs – things like finding food and a mate. My brain processes differently because I’m a human. I need to find food, just like Blaze but I tend to do it with my eyes not my nose. I may wish to find a mate, but again I don’t do it by sniffing them! Of course, there is a huge amount of diversity within the same species too.
Most mammals are dichromats and get their colour vision from two kinds of visual pigment. But humans and some other primates have trichromatic colour vision and can see a greater variety of colour.
Humans can see only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some creatures can see wavelengths of light that are outside of human vision.
It’s difficult to imagine that some animals see and hear things that we don’t. Some owls can see ultraviolet light. Their prey are voles, which leave urine trails behind them that show up in UV light. Elephants can communicate over long distances using infrasound waves traveling through the ground and whales communicate over vast distances in the ocean, while we wander about on land, oblivious to the cacophony below the waves.
People have different experiences of sensory information too. Some autistic people may be able to hear conversations in a distant room or spot the difference between two almost identical objects. Children have sensory abilities that are lost as they become adults. Babies are born with an ability to differentiate between individual faces on monkeys and humans, but by the time they get to around nine months, a process called perceptual narrowing takes place in their developing brain and they can only distinguish the human faces.
Here’s a couple of fun activities to try:
Which is the odd one out?
When adults look at the images of a snail (above) they typically say that glossy snail A and and glossy snail B are the most similar. The matte-looking snail C seems to be the odd one out. But a baby can tell that snail B and snail C are actually more similar.
Have a listen to these sounds. Depending on your age, you may hear one or more sounds from these recordings of different frequencies.
As we discover more about how our own and other animals’ senses work, it’s not surprising that some animals appear to predict the weather. Our human noses aren’t as good at detecting smell as a bear, for example but we don’t need to be. We can hunt and gather food more readily. But we are particularly good at smelling petrichor – the smell released from the earth when it rains. We can smell it in tiny concentrations of five parts per trillion. Being able to smell rain had an advantage for our ancestors that relied on following the rains for their survival.
Of course, once you appreciate the extra senses that animals have – like the birds ability to migrate accurately between its homes using an internal compass; or the sharks ability to detect its prey using electricity, its no wonder that creatures may be seen as magical or possessing special powers. I imagine that humans who have sensory abilities outside of the standard could be viewed differently too – as magical, supernatural or mentally ill, perhaps? People often look to religion and make believe to explain science they haven’t yet been able to understand.
I think it is important to remember that just because I don’t see something like a bird does, doesn’t mean that the bird can’t see it; or is making it up; or is magic.
Storms fill me with the wonder of the natural world and the power of nature is breath-taking. Learning about how the world works and how all the different creatures experience it, is awe-inspiring.
I distracted myself through the thunderstorm this afternoon by writing this blog. All of a sudden, a small tortoiseshell butterfly flew frantically into my face and fluttered around my patterned blouse before crashing against the closed window repeatedly, as if it was in a mad rush to escape. It must have quietly been sharing my room during the storm and it “knew” it was over and it was ready to go outside again. I opened the window to release it and the birds were singing a different song to this morning – declaring to the world that it was safe to come out. We headed off to the local gardens for some fresh air and enjoyed the buzzing of the busy insects catching up on the hours of nectar they had missed.
It’s that time of year when people are considering travel. Of course, 2020 has panned out very differently to recent years; some of us may be reading this in the local paper whilst on our holiday – welcome to our beautiful county of Carmarthenshire! Or perhaps we are planning trips with our families to visit those friends and relations we’ve been apart from for so long. Some of us may decide to stay put this year and keep close to home. Whatever your destination, it is unlikely to be as far reaching or unusual as some of the travels our plants and animals go on.
We are all familiar with the migration of animals like the swallows who will soon be lining up on the telephone wires, ready to head off to Africa – or the inevitable Manx Shearwaters that turn up inland when blown off course on their mammoth 10,000 km return journey from Skomer to South America. I wonder if they are surprised to hear the Welsh language all summer in Wales and then again over winter in Patagonia?
But have you ever considered the traveling habits of plants? How do they get around? Diversity is essential for life – whether that’s the diversity in the ecosystem that ensures we have oxygen and clean water; or the diversity of cultures, neurologies, and races that makes our world a more interesting and productive place. Plants migrate in order to promote species diversity and ensure survival. But how do they do this without legs or wings?
There are two ways that plants disperse their seeds. Autochory, which means spreading seeds by their own means, and allochory – spreading seeds with outside help.
Autochory involves a few familiar techniques. One of the most common uses gravity (known as barochory). At this time of year, the horse chestnuts are beginning to ripen in their hard, prickly seed cases. They’ll either drop when they are ready, or when the wind or a successful clunk from a thrown stick brings them falling to the ground, where the protective seed case opens to reveal a lovely shiny conker. Far more impressive in my opinion is the method known as ballochory – this is the method the ballistic plants use. Gorse is a familiar example, and I delight in those walks on the coast path on a hot summer’s day when the gorse pods dry out in the afternoon sun and with a tell-tale ‘pop’ their seeds are flung out far and wide with a delicious accompanying aroma of sweet vanilla and coconut.
Although trees can’t move themselves around, they certainly make use of animals that can. This is where the various types of allochory come in useful. Unsurprisingly, the use of animals to transport seeds is known as zoochory. I’ve noticed that the berries are beginning to ripen on the bushes and trees, and whether it’s a blackberry being eaten by a hungry badger, or a rowan berry being gobbled up by a blackbird, they share a similar fate. The tasty berry is enjoyed by the creature and the inedible seed passes through their digestive system and is deposited elsewhere – in a handy dollop of fertiliser. We have a friendly squirrel in our village that likes to hang about our oak tree. I’ve been keeping an eye out for it burying acorns in our lawn to keep it going through the colder months. Of course, many of the seeds cached by jays and squirrels go on to take root and grow into new oak trees and help our forests grow and spread.
Not all plants offer their animal hosts a tasty reward. My dog frequently comes in covered in barbed or sticky seeds that have clung to her fur and get rubbed off elsewhere. Some of these will grow into plants, but most get picked off by me – much to her annoyance! They are incredibly sticky and persistent.
The wind helps seeds disperse too. Spring can feel a nightmare time for hay fever sufferers. Pollen is produced in large amounts by trees like the hazel. They take advantage of the lack of leaves and produce catkins full of pollen that can be blown by the wind and hopefully come into contact with female plants. Taking advantage of the wind conserves energy. Instead of putting energy into providing tempting nectar for pollenating insects, they use the energy of the wind instead.
Other plants that make use of anemochory include the maples and sycamores with their ‘helicopter seeds’. Rather than falling due to gravity and bouncing or rolling to their new location, these seeds travel quite spectacularly using the lift from the wind.
Some seeds and fruit can travel for thousands of miles using hydrochory. Palm trees can grow from seeds that have travelled the ocean currents; and closer to home, foxgloves often grow near rivers where their seeds fall and float further downstream to grow in new locations. Some seeds are fragile and lightweight, whereas others have air pockets that keep them buoyant.
Finally, humans have been responsible for dispersing seeds for as long as we have been on this planet. Whether through trading in prehistoric times; or deliberately cultivating in agriculture; or accidentally carrying them with us when traveling the globe. Often humans are responsible for those ‘invasive’ species that were introduced as an exotic or decorative plant but ended up unmanageable and unwanted. Us humans have also been responsible for reintroducing plants, saving species, developing seed banks and ‘seed bombing’.
Whatever your travels this summer, why not take a look at the sedentary plants and trees when you are next outside and reflect on the journeys their species may have been on too.