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.

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.

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.


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.

Will anything stop the driven man?

Have you been following Mark Avery’s one-man campaign against driven grouse shooting? If you haven’t, visit his blog to catch up on latest developments.

Dr Mark (pictured below) has kept at his fight down the years and has refused to be fobbed off by nonsense like Defra’s Hen Harrier Action Plan. Against expectations he managed to get no fewer than 123,077 right-minded members of the public (actually that’s 123,076 right-minded people, and me) to back his petition to get driven grouse shooting debated he-manin Parliament.

That debate happened in Westminster Hall this week – you can read Hansard’s report here – and it sounds as though it was a bit of a disappointment. Few MPs bothered to turn up, and those that did were the sort of people you’d expect to support the rich man’s hobby, like south Carmarthenshire’s Simon Hart, who used to be the Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance.

By the way, if you are a voter in Mr Hart’s constituency you might like to ask him how much time and effort he puts into representing you. He always gives the impression that he is much more engaged with Countryside Alliance business.

Back to the debate; the tone of contribution from the pro-shooting MPs seems to have been the usual ‘we know best’. As ever, those who oppose blood sports are dismissed as townies who have no right to a say about what happens beyond the outer suburbs.

The shooting lobby definitely reckons it won on the night. But Mark Avery won’t have any truck with that – he’s planning for the next battle, saying the only way forward is ‘upwards and onwards’.

Secret life of the high-flying swift

Most years ‘our’ swifts turn up on cue. For a dozen years or so I’ve made a note of the date of the first sighting, and it’s usually around May 5.

One pair usually nests in the roof space over our bathroom, while two or three others use the neighbouring houses. It’s harder to say when they leave.

This summer a group of 10 or so were around each evening until early August, then they were gone. What happens next?

They just keep flying. For the youngsters, leaving the UK is possibly the start of years on the wing, until the time comes for them to raise young of their own.

For their parents, departure is the start of a 10-month flight. They won’t come to earth again until they come back to look for a nesting site the following May.

In the past the theory that the swift’s life is one of near-constant flight has been the best-guess about where they go, and what they get up to. Now a Swedish study has put flesh on the bones.

Seven swifts were tracked over two years. Three never stopped flying, while the others only landed for a night or two now and again.

Amazing. Ten months soaring free, then two listening to me singing in the shower.

Keta, Wikimedia


Count maps flutter-free summer

This was the year when my butterfly-counting was supposed to have done a ‘quantam leap’. Or, I suppose, you could say take flight.
I’ve been doing my bit for Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count for years, but decided this year it was time to give up on scraps of paper and blunt pencils and start using the charity’s app.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sadly, though the app is good, 2016 wasn’t as good for butterflies. I’ve had my phone handy whenever I’ve been out and about, but there hasn’t been much for it to do.

Across Britain the weather wasn’t that bad, but the survey results show a Wales-wide collapse in many species’ populations. For example, small tortoiseshell numbers were down on 2015 by close to half.

Most others species saw downturns that were between 30 and 40 per cent. One or two did buck the trend – most notably, red admiral and large white.

Sadly, records show the sharpest drop in numbers has happened in Wales, although England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all experienced something similar. You can read a break down of the results here.

The strange thing is that 2016 had the sort of weather that would usually have been good to butterflies. It was warmer than average and fairly dry.

BC admits to being mystified, saying that the very mild 2015-16 winter may have had a negative effect, or perhaps it was the cold spring. Or, maybe pesticide use is really beginning to take its toll.

Brexit’s threat to the lie of the land

All those castles rather give the game away, don’t they? When William the Conqueror’s friends and relations wound up in Wales they weren’t coming to enjoy the view.

Now you may be wondering why I’m on about the robber barons of another millennium, but bear with me. Today, we learned who is currently getting the best out of the CAP payments system.cilgerran

Huge sums of money go to landowners largely for doing not much more than owning land. Apparently, the top 100 shared no less than £89m.

The lucky 100 are a mixed bag, but its no surprise that ‘old’ families seem to do very well from this hand-out. A couple of years ago two economists looked at how surnames relate to wealth, and it turned out that people with Norman names are still doing better than the rest of us centuries after their ancestors’ land grab.

On the whole, a Baskerville, Darcy or Mandeville is likely to be better-off than a Bowen, a Davies or a Morris. No surprise then that as you look down the list of those getting the biggest slice of the farm subsidy cake there are plenty of dukes, earls and the like.

Take the Duke of Westminster, whose distant ancestor was William I’s chief huntsman. Many generations later the current duke’s farming company chases subsidy, winning a handsome £437,434 in the latest hand-out.

You can find out how much your neighbours have had in recent years by visiting the website of the body that co-ordinates UK payments. It lets you put in a postcode and then up comes names and numbers, so I now know that in my postcode area alone 70 recipients share no less than £1.2m.

Brexit means Brexit, and it also means that this sorry system has to change. The situation was summed up nicely this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme by the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin. If you weren’t up before 7am you can catch up with it here on the BBC website (fast forward to about 35:00).

In a few mintues of chat he takes you from the wine lakes and butter moutains of the 1970s to the current (crazy) arrangement, which sees landowners get paid by the acre. He also explains how that has pushed up land values, which prices many wannabe farmers out of the market.

Of course, things are going to change with Brexit. And optimists look to a future that serves the majority of people far better; for example, George Monbiot says we can bring an end to what he calls the ‘unembarrassed robbery of the poor by the rich’.

It would be nice to think it could happen. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed – but maybe not holding my breath. The current arrangement is a system that has served people who have know exactly when to pull up the drawbridge.