And so, to sleep

For the moment, this blog is taking it easy. Wilder Wales is now out-of-print and I’m working on obat sleepingther book projects.

Drew Buckley and I have plans for a Wilder Wales II, and do hope that there will be a second edition of the first book. Thanks for the kind words and interest that we’ve had from readers of the book and this blog, and our Facebook page (which is going strong).

Hopefully, we will ride again… Fingers crossed.

Rewilding plan – just do nothing

If you know the Cambrian Mountains you’ll probably agree that they could do with a few more trees. I spent the last weekend, but one, there and its big views and dramatic sunsets are inspiring, but it’s a landscape that could do with some TLC.

So, a plan to rewild one hillside just south of Machynlleth sounds interesting, and turn out to be something of a blueprint for the future of the more marginal bits of upland Wales.

For it to happen the charities involved (Coed Cadw, the Woodland Trust, and the Wales Wild Land Foundation) need to raise £150,000 by the end of this month. They already have £200,000, but need to find another £150,000.oak seedling

If it works out the land – 142ha (352 acres) of it – will be the first step towards a grand plan to restore the area’s native woodland.

The land has been on the market for a number of years and  hasn’t been grazed. In the absence of livestock natural regeneration is already happening. The plan is to sit back and let that process continue.

Eventually it’s thought that around a third of Cefn Coch will become open woodland. The mix of oak, birch and rowan should be just the thing for a range of birds and animals, including pine martens.

Find out more about the project on the Cefn Coch page on the Woodland Trust website.

What’s the cost for M4 ‘relief’?

The public inquiry into plans for a new section of motorway through the Gwent Levels has opened for business this week. There’s a lot to say; apparently it’s going to take about five months to hear all the evidence.

In case you’ve missed, the Welsh Government’s preferred route for the planned 15 miles (24km) of ‘relief’ road is for it to cross the levels, and pass south of Newport. Along the way it would need a new bridge over the Usk, and an ancient woodland or two would have to go.

On top of that, trees that were planted to make up for woodland trashed during the building of the existing M4 would also be bulldozed (which doesn’t give me much faith in new promises about compensation for damage done if the new road is built). No surprise that people who care about the environment fans, including Iolo Williamslocals and the Gwent Wildlife Trust.

The Welsh Government reckons its route would cost £1bn, and that it would more than pay for itself by freeing the economy of south-east Wales from the blight of congestion. Opponents say the final bill is more likely to be £2bn – and, of course, damage to a unique landscape.

The inquiry is going to look at no fewer than 22 rival plans. Let’s hope that the Welsh Government is prompted to think again.

So, how much for ‘the best horse’?

You can’t always trust Giraldus Cambrensis (aka Gerald of Wales), the 12th Century clergyman/civil servant who wrote about his travels in Ireland and Wales. Travel writers often put a bit of a gloss on experiences to keep their readers on the hook.

So, you have to take it with a pinch of salt when he says: “Ireland has badgers but not beavers. In Wales beavers are to be found only in the Teifi river near Cardigan.” Not sure about Ireland’s badgers, but it’s interesting to learn a little about beavers and the Wales of 800 years ago.

He might have been wrong that the Teifi was the home of the only population, but I reckon his observation suggests biber-drawingthat Wales didn’t have many beavers left by that time. Which is understandable given that under the laws of Hywel Dda beaver pelts were rated so highly that a single animal was valued as being worth as much as ‘the best horse’.

I do most of my kayaking on the Teifi close to Cardigan. It’s a marvellous stretch of river to paddle, with plenty to see. On just about every trip there are kingfishers and dippers, while from time to time there’s an encounter with an otters.

Beavers would fit in very nicely. Hopefully, Natural Resources Wales will soon approve an application from the Welsh Beaver Project for a trial release of 10 beavers. If it happens, that release won’t be on the Teifi, but is likely to be somewhere in the Rheidol catchment in Ceredigion.

You can have your say about beaver reintroduction in Britain here. I’ve just finished working through the questionnaire myself. It’s part of a project that is being run by the University of Exeter and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

What they’re trying to do is get an idea of how the public feel about reintroduction. That may act as a counter-weight to the landowning and angling lobbies; my guess is that Joe Public is likely to be more positive about the project.

I don’t want to undermine what the Exeter researchers are trying to do, so I won’t critique each point here. But I did find myself responding to questions that I couldn’t really answer in the little boxes provided.

Why should reintroduction happen? For me, it’s because it’s the right thing to do. My feeling is that we should try to make good damage that’s been done to ecosystems is a gut thing. It’s a question of what’s right, and what isn’t.

But when you get drawn into a debate about detail it all gets so… functional. You can’t say that something is right on its own terms, it has to be argued as a ‘good’ in a cost-benefit kind of way.

You know the sort of thing: We reintroduced the birdy or beastie (or whatever) and look how it has boosted the area’s tourist economy. Our B&Bs are doing a roaring trade, so that buys the bird or beast its place in ‘our’ landscape.

I understand why it happens. If you’re dealing with people who know the cost of everything, but are hazy on real value, it helps to speak a language that they understand.

However, my feeling is that when you go down the road of talking about ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ you lose your way. If you’ve a moment, take a look at the transcript of this speech by George Monbiot. It sets out a really cogent argument against a way of thinking that monetises nature.

Mind you, I suppose that’s what Hywel’s lawyers were up to.

Heading for the hills

A moment’s thought on the subject of sheep. Like most reasonable people, I hate meetings and this morning’s session was no exception.

Today’s ordeal was that bit harder to bear because the morning was such a good one. I’d had to drive over the Preselis on the way and they had looked picture-perfect; so much space, sunshine, rising mist and, to add detail, some sheep.

As the meeting dragged on I was busy imagining an escape to the sunlit uplands, and was beginning to put together a blog post; working title: ‘Which farmer?’ However, when I actually sat down to write I had a quick look at Mark Avery’s excellent blog – and found that he’d mostly beaten me to it.

There’s been a lot said, and written, recently about future landscapes, rewilding and what farm payments might look like after Brexit. Clearly farmers have to be part of this national conversation, but all too often that just means giving air-time (or page space) to the NFU.

Mark hits the nail on the head when he says: “Just because a barley baron and a sheep farmer both live in buildings in the countryside called farmhouses doesn’t mean that their business interests coincide.” Farms come in all shapes and sizes.

I’m a rewilding enthusiast and I’m delighted at how quickly that idea has moved to the heart of things. Much of the credit for that has to go to George Monbiot, who argues his case with passion and clarity.

I take George’s point that Britain’s uplands have been ‘sheepwrecked‘, with past over-stocking doing all sorts of damage. But I don’t have much enthusiasm for a sheep-free future that fails to take account of culture and history.

Gareth Wyn Jones does a good job putting the hill-farmers’ case, and it would be good to hear more creative thinking from him, and from OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhis colleagues. Hopefully BBC Radio 4’s new series ‘Against the Grain’, which starts on Monday, will be giving hill-farmers a platform.

Billed as an investigation of the current state of the industry, its presenter is Charlotte Smith of ‘Farming Today’. Over the years she must have met just about every farmer in Britain, so I’m sure the programme will have input from all sorts – not just the NFU barley barons.

Bottled: A New Year whodunnit

So, who left that bottle on the beach? You find lots of plastic on local beaches during the summer, but at this end of the year winter’s storms usually sweep the sand clean. But thereOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA it was, up among the bigger rocks on the high tide line at Newport Parrog.

It has been a good holiday for beaches, and dogs, with just the right sort of bright, brisk weather. We did our Boxing Day family walk and were back again yesterday, the break’s last Bank Holiday, for more of the same.

We chose Newport because it rarely fails to deliver a sunset ‘show’. It didn’t disappoint, but bottle got to me. There was not a speck of sand on it, and it’s colours were sharp, so it hadn’t spent any time in the sea.

Somebody had come to that beautiful bit of Pembrokeshire coastline (and presumably admired the view) and then dropped their bottle, once it was empty. Maddening.

The Marine Conservation Society reckons that plastic bottles litter the UK’s coast at a rate of around 160 per mile. A majority contained bottled water before they were discarded.

I don’t want to get into the Tap v. Bottled debate here; you can read it elsewhere. If you admire high-quality spin I’d direct you to the website of the International Bottled Water Association, which declares on its home page that “the bottled water industry is a strong supporter of our environment and our natural resources”.

The association seems to spend a lot of time taking journalists to task when they choose to say anything that questions our inalienable right to drink water that travels to us in plastic. So, I won’t mention the polluter-pays-principle, or the issues around warm water that spends time in plastic. And I keep to myself any thought about how there is an inherent irony in the fact that a product that is a major litter source is marketed on its purity.

The good news is that when people are told about the environmental impact of bottled water, they appear to rethink there buying habits. And, the psychology involved seems to be that when people get to think that most of us believe that water in plastic bottles is a bad thing, they are more likely to give it a miss.

I reckon this is one of those issues that will take a nudge to get peopleOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA changing their habits. It worked with carrier bags, and could with plastic bottles. A returnable deposit scheme is a ‘thing’ elsewhere in the world, so why not Wales? Read about it here.

PS, this is last night’s Parrog sunset (and I put that bottle in the bin on my way home).

My word, what a lot of starlings

How should you count birds in flight? I know what I’ve been told, but can never get it to work in practice. My best estimates use a scale that runs from one, through 10 to “a xxxx of a lot”; you’ll have to add the four-letter word of your choice because my mum reads this blog.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Today I went kingfisher-spotting at Teifi Marshes, which went well. One kept me entertained by fishing just in front of the hide late into the afternoon, so I stayed put longer than planned.

When I finally left the hide (half frozen) the sun was close to setting – and the sky was full of starlings. There’s a fair-sized roost in the Teifi reedbeds and I’d managed to be in the right place at just the right time.

I know that in theory I should be counting a small group of five birds, or maybe 10. Then, it’s a question of guesstimating how many groups of the same size it would take to assemble the whole flock.

That sounds fine, but doesn’t seem so simple in the field. Especially when birds are moving as much as murmurating starlings do. It makes me doubt bird counts that I do sometimes come across that are suspiciously accurate.

Anyway, it was quite a spectacle for the small group of wildlife-watchers gathered on the old Crymych-Cardigan railway embankment that offers the best viewpoint. There were seven birders (I counted six, plus me), but I’ve no idea how many starlings, but it was definitely “****loads”.

Perfect gift idea (yes, it’s my book…)

How many shopping days left? Who knows. I reckon you’d be better off doing anything other than queueing to get to the mall car park this weekend.

So, here’s a suggestOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAion (and, yes, a shameless product plug). How about discovering the wonders of the great outdoors instead? And when you get back go online and buy your nearest and dearest a copy of Wilder Wales.

I reckon it’s the perfect guide to the best of Wales throughout the year, but then I would say that wouldn’t I? But then Chris Packham says it’s ‘a superb calendar catalogue of the best places to visit’, and Iolo Williams’ review told readers to ‘find a place on your bookshelf for this title if you are exploring Wales – or a connoisseur of beautiful books’.

Its 190 pages are packed with info and truly-inspiring images by award-winning photographer Drew Buckley. Special Christmas price £17.59 (inc. P&P) here.


Now, time to hit the bottle?

Well done Wales, we’re leading the way. The Welsh Government messes up often enough, but on waste and recycling it’s a winner. Welsh councils now manage to reuse, recycle or compost 60 per cent of all waste, compared with England’s 45 per cent.

The Welsh Government was also leading the way when it imposed the 5p charge for plastic carrier bags in 2011. Over night bag use in Wales dropped through the floor and Northern Ireland and Scotland soon imposed bag charges as well.


England took longer. Me and my green string bag were in Hampshire last October when the charge came into force, and the media chit-chat that day was laughable – think Chicken Little.

The sky didn’t fall in, but bag use did take a tumble. Although England’s daft exemptions mean that the change is less effective than it could have been.

And it seems the 5p charge makes a difference. Volunteers who took part in this year’s Marine Conservation Society beach clean-up around the UK found an average of four bags per 100 metres of beach – in 2015 it was 11 per 100m.

So now, how about plastic bottles? Germany and Denmark have a deposit scheme and the Scottish Government says it’s thinking about giving it a try. Maybe an opportunity for Wales to whip in quick.

How do you feel? Choughed thanks

Sorry about the clunky pun, but I couldn’t help myself. Congratualtions to Tony Cross and Adrienne Stratford whose work tracking Welsh choughs has been recognised with a Marsh Award for Local Ornithology (from the British Trust for Ornithology).

When I’ve been in touch with Tony it has been to talk about red kites, but he has other irons in the fire. He and Adrienne have been keeping tabs on the births, marriages and deaths of choughs since 1991. Since they started their mostly-voluntary project they have ringed more than 5,000 Welsh birds.

Using rings in colour combinations, they have been able to pull together what the BTO says is a ‘gold-standard’ dataset about the fortunes of individual birds. One result of following the lives of their choughs so closely is that they have found that a lack of nesting sites is an issue in some areas.

That has prompted an effort to put custom-made nest boxes on cliffs in the right sort of locations, which have gone down well with choughs. You could say that they’re chuffed with them, but shouldn’t.