The bluebell woods are one of the most beautiful sights in spring. I was walking and talking with colleagues the other day and as we were exchanging long-range thoughts we entered this wood – everybody stopped talking….
Imagine if you will a high cliff, or a sheer wall on a mountain side, and you get the idea behind this music. It was originally imagined whilst reading “The Shining Mountain”, the incredible and enthralling account of British climbers Joe Tasker and Pete Boardman’s famous ascent of Changabang, a 22,500 foot mountain in the Himalayas of India, in 1976.
Boardman and Tasker climbed the great West Wall using revolutionary climbing techniques, which included sleeping in hammocks suspended from the sheer face with a drop of thousands of feet below them. It took 25 days to complete the climb, a climb that many at the time thought impossible.
A little nearer to home (for me anyway) there are some magnificent cliffs with a sheer drop to the sea below, where peregrine falcons, and large colonies of seabirds nest in spring, and where, standing at the top, it is quite difficult to catch your breath, such is the exhilaration. Pwll Deri is one of those places, as is this beautiful arch and stack further to the south.
The music was intended to capture the drama and majesty of places like this wherever they may be found. But also the sadness I felt whilst reading of Boardman and Taskers subsequent adventure, to climb the North-East ridge of Everest, another route that had never been done at the time. The rest of the expedition were out of the reckoning due to exhaustion, but Boardman and Tasker attempted to complete the ascent on their own. They were last seen alive by their comrades as tiny specks on the ridge before they disappeared into the cloud and were gone forever.
It’s a skylark nest, with four beautiful, tiny eggs in it. Skylarks are birds of open grasslands and they build their nests on the ground, often producing 2 or 3 broods per year. The nests are incredibly hard to find because they are so well concealed from predators.
Skylark numbers have plummeted in the UK by over 90% in the past 50 years as our traditional hay meadows have been replaced by much more intensively managed grasslands that are mown for silage 2 or 3 times a year – the mowing destroys the nests, and so the populations of skylarks and other grassland species have declined rapidly.
This place is different though. This nest is one of around 60 that can be found on a dis-used World War II airfield near St Davids in West Wales. The grassland is managed just like an old fashioned hay meadow, with grazing by cattle in the winter, and hay making in late summer, and with no inputs of chemical fertilisers.
The airfield was once a place where the great Halifax bombers flew to patrol along the Atlantic coast and where thousands of service men and women were housed.
These days the airfield is a place of tranquility and calm and home to wild flowers, butterflies and skylarks.
I have met and talked with some of the men who flew from here at the height of the war, and they couldn’t be happier that this is now a place of peace and where wildlife can thrive. It seems like a wonderful way to honour and remember those that died on both sides, a place of vibrant and colourful life and peaceful quiet.
The weather on the Pembrokeshire coast has suddenly turned beautifully sunny and warm. The sea is sparkling and flat as a pancake, so for the first time since last September we got the kayaks out and went for a little paddle.
Kayaking gives you such a different perspective on the landscape and seascape around you. This sea cave cannot be seen from the surrounding cliffs, and as well as being very beautiful, it is also a special place for another reason which I will elaborate on later.
And with 186 miles of coastline to choose from, all we need is a half decent summer for the first time in years and we’ll be out there exploring once again, I’ll even get the fishing lines out.
The coastal flowers are out, we got sea campion, we got oxeye daisy, we got thrift (or more poetically, sea pinks), it’s all go….
Photo: Mike Alexander
I mentioned in my post “The Old Road to Nowhere” earlier this month that I would be doing more conservation management planning work at a magnificent place in North Wales this week, and so I have. It’s a place called Dolmelynllyn (I can’t even begin to explain here how you should pronounce that, you need to hear it) and I wanted to share with you one of the best features of the estate – the magnificent Rhaeadr Ddu waterfalls (The Black Falls), and once again I am very lucky to have Mike Alexanders photographs for the purpose (the 2 Mikes work closely on a lot of these projects!).
The impressive falls have a drop of around 60 feet and take their name from the slab of black rock over which the water cascades. They are surrounded by our version of a rain forest, the Atlantic Oakwoods.
The relatively warm, wet microclimate has provided perfect conditions for some of the rarest ferns, mosses and lichens in the whole of the UK, making this an internationally important site for nature conservation. The woods are also fabulous habitat for the relatively rare lesser horseshoe and brown long-eared bats.
The seasons bring changes to the waterfalls, from gentle, deeply relaxing summer flows to raging torrents in the heavy rains of autumn, to the occasional deep freeze of winter….
If you keep climbing up the winding path alongside the falls, and make your way up through the woodland, you eventually come up on top where you are rewarded with a wonderful view of the whole estate.
I hope that the work we are doing here will ensure that it remains intact and beautiful for thousands of people to enjoy into the future, and for the special wildlife to continue to thrive.
Last week I was supposed to be visiting Skomer Island for the day with a number of colleagues and friends to discuss management issues. Skomer (Welsh: Ynys Sgomer) is an island off the coast of Pembrokeshire in southwestern Wales and you get to it by boat at the end of the road that passes our house.
It is well known for its wildlife: a third of the world population of Manx Shearwaters nest on the island, and the Atlantic Puffin colony is the largest in southern Britain. These birds spend the autumn and winter months at sea in the South Atlantic and return to Skomer each year to breed in dis-used rabbit burrows (rabbits were introduced to the island as a food source in the 14th century). There are numerous archaeological remains on the island, from stone circles, standing stones and prehistoric houses.
Unfortunately on the day of departure we were being battered by storm force south-westerly winds, and as a result the boat, the “Dale Princess”, was unable to make the crossing safely, so we couldn’t go.
Fortunately my friend Mike Alexander, who gives me all these wonderful photographs to show to you, was the warden on the island from 1976 to 1986, and so he has given me more photos of Skomer to share. I think you’ll agree it is a pretty lovely looking place. I’ll wait for better weather and sea conditions and get over there later in the year.
Sadly I only visited the badlands of North Dakota very briefly many years ago. Even more sadly my camera wasn’t working at the time so I wasn’t able to record the hauntingly beautiful landscape, so I did the next best thing and wrote some music about it instead…..
Of course the music of any landscape is completely abstract, so for every person that can identify with it, there will be many more who cannot – we all have different senses and points of reference, which is a very good thing.
This music is also dedicated to Yellow Bird, Kent, Grover and Dan, “The Wolf at Twilight”
High up on the slopes of the Rhinogau (Rin-og-i), an isolated, rugged range of mountains forming much of the Harlech Dome in North Wales, lies a 19th century gold mining complex. All that remains of the hard toil of the men and women of the time are some deep,cavernous mine shafts which drip with the rain from the mountains, a few ruined buildings and the old track that was used to transport the rock for processing.
Since all the industry left the hillside, nature has quietly taken over again, so that now the only sound you hear up there is the sighing of the wind and the throaty call of the raven in his craggy domain. The noise and disruption of the past is long gone, along with all the stories of the people who worked this land in order to provide a living for their families.
The land is now cared for by the National Trust, and I have had the privilege to write the plan for its future conservation. There’s plenty more to see at this place, and I’ll update you as I go. I’ll be back there next week.
I have been exceptionally lucky recently to have been asked to prepare a conservation management plan for the estate at Dinefwr (Din-ev-or) near Llandeilo in West Wales, which is owned and cared for by the National Trust.
It is quite a difficult task to paint a verbal picture of Dinefwr and it isn’t possible to convey the importance of the place in strictly factual terms. It’s only when you are lucky enough to visit Dinefwr that the sheer unusual beauty of the place strikes you in a way that the words that you have read cannot. It is a very, very special place indeed.
Dinefwr is of exceptional significance for its archaeology, designed landscape and buildings. The present day landscape was set out by George Rice and his wife Cecil with some assistance from Lancelot ’Capability’ Brown in the second half of the 18th century. It has been widely admired ever since with impressions recorded by means of painting, sketching and the written word – it even appeared on a dinner plate, part of a service commissioned by Catherine the Great.
Today the park is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest designed landscapes in the UK. At its centre is Newton House, originally constructed in the 17th century to a simple but elegant design, it was encased in limestone to a Venetian-gothic design in the 1850s.
Trees and open grassland are so important to the appearance and aesthetic qualities of Dinefwr’s landscape and they were deliberately set out as part of the landscape design, with most of the trees planted on the higher ground and the grassland occupying the valleys and the areas immediately adjacent to the house and the main drive.
Archaeological surveys have, inevitably, revealed evidence of earlier landscapes including the defensive structures of an Iron Age fort and most remarkable of all, two overlapping Roman forts. Faint earthworks mark the outlines of tracks and field boundaries that predated the construction of the deer park in the middle of the 17th century.
One of the most significant archaeological monuments in the park is Dinefwr Castle. The 12th century stone buildings and walls seen today apparently replaced an earlier timber structure dating to the 8th century. This castle was the capital of most of west and south Wales in the 12th century so the surrounding woodland and park must conceal evidence of medieval tracks and paths.
The park is well known for its fallow deer and, in particular, its white park cattle – a rare breed restored to the park in 1992 after a long absence, but that can be traced back to Dinefwr from at least 1000 years ago. Both the deer and the cattle are integral to the historic park in their own right, but also because they maintain a complex mosaic of ancient grassland habitats.
One of the most striking features of the grassland in the deer park is the abundance of yellow meadow ant hills, which indicates how undisturbed this grassland has been for centuries.
In some parts of the park there are remnants of medieval woodland featuring many ancient trees that are at least 400 years old. And at its core, this wood pasture is dominated by nearly 300 huge oak trees, including some of the oldest and largest trees in the UK – one, the Castle Oak, is thought to be over 700 years old.
Dinefwr’s ancient trees, important in their own right, are host to a remarkable assemblage of wood decay invertebrates including 400 “saproxylic” beetle species, 26 of which are classified as nationally scarce. More than 160 species of lichen have been recorded in the park, several of which indicate a long history of ecological continuity.
The assemblage of breeding birds at Dinefwr is very impressive, and some of the most important are the lesser spotted woodpecker, an increasingly rare species in the UK, as are the green woodpeckers, which thrive on the impressive colonies of yellow meadow ants, conspicuous by the presence of hundreds of ant hills in the deer park grassland. Other notable bird species breeding in the woodlands include tawny owl, tree creeper, sparrowhawk, tree sparrow, jay, long-tailed tit and pied flycatcher.
On the lakes, ponds and ditches of the Towy floodplain greylag geese, Canada geese, swan, widgeon, goldeneye, heron and snipe amongst many others can been found year round.