When you live in one of the wetter parts of our planet it is no good saying “90% chance of precipitation today — I think I’ll stay at home!”
You have to buy decent wellies (with grip) and really good waterproofs and embrace the rain.
Never more so than in the glorious autumn when the quality of the light enlivens the golden palette of the forest floor, set rustling by busy squirrels. The sky between the trees is streaked with flashes of blue from nutting jays.
In the tops of the trees flocks of foraging siskins chatter.
But look under foot!
Nature’s bounty: you could fall over this one — something nice for supper! Fried in butter.
Also Field Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) in profusion but my camera battery was flat so I’ll have to describe the wide ring of domed white delicacies, growing in our field where the sheep shelter, they have pink to brown gills (the mushrooms) so are not Avenging Angels or Death Caps (their gills are white) but beware the Yellow Stainer (Agaricus xanthoderma). These are one reason why you should always forage mushrooms by pulling them out to include the base which can give valuable information for identification. When you bruise a Yellow Stainer, as you might expect, they stain yellow and the flesh at the base is unmistakably bright yellow. They look very like their delicious and innocuous cousin but will make you very sick (thank you U-tube for saving us from that!)
Our Field Mushrooms were a little more watery than the ones you buy and had a faint tang of aniseed — very tasty with butter and lemon juice and no tummy ache!
Here’s another you should not eat: the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)
At a distance, in shade, we thought this was a cricket ball.
The woods are magic at this time of year but beware the little people:
When you have lived in a place for a long time you can become accustomed to its variety, even as its flora and wildlife change week by week. Showing it to someone new is an opportunity to throw off that familiarity that blunts your perception and see through refreshed eyes.
We have been playing with a new bat detector — a little gizmo that lowers the frequency of the otherwise inaudible echo location calls of bats into the audible range producing a sound we can hear and a pattern we can recognize and use to identify the species of bat as it flashes past.
Around our house in Wales we have recently identified pipistrelle, common and soprano, and noctules. The sopranos have higher pitched calls peaking at 55kHz, common ones at 45kHz. The detector makes one much more aware of their presence especially in the trees where there is much more activity than we had thought. It helps to demonstrate just how many and how busy these airborne insectivores are.
To aid identification one individual stopped by in my bedroom. He seemed very torpid and I was able to transport his sleeping body to the woodshed where he rested for a suspiciously long time.
Further investigation confirmed his extremely poor state of health and we buried him.
The following week the local bat group came to look at the colony of bats that have recently occupied our neighbour’s log cabin. They came armed with state of the art bat detectors, deck chairs, counters, tea, coffee, biscuits and insect repellent.
445 Soprano pipistrelles exited the roost that evening which led our neighbours to seriously ponder the possible toilet arrangements of their new tenants.
Thus, despite our own personal experience, soprano pipistrelle bats would seem to be thriving, at least in Wales.
I really want to see choughs in the wild. Delicate crows with fine scarlet beaks and feet. There are choughs on Bardsey Island, Enlli in Welsh .
Here is a wikimedia map of Wales to show the location of Bardsey Island, in the Celtic Sea, a couple of miles from the tip of the Llyn Peninsula.
Below is what you see as you set out from Porth Meudwy.
I had waited 4 days for the sea conditions to be suitable and now they were — I was off to hunt the chough.
Colin the boatman, a local farmer, told us that this year was the first for thousands of years in which no one had overwintered on the island. Not so many years ago the population was about 80 — now they are mainly summer visitors.
As we arrived the tide was coming in and the grey seals on the beach were starting to bob around in the rising water, the larger ones, I guess male, lolling in the ripples making a soulful siren call which reminded me of the spiritual reputation of the island where 20,000 saints are said to be buried — Celtic saints.
Until the time of Henry VIII there had been a monastery on the island and it was a place of pilgrimage, three visits to Bardsey were equivalent to one to Rome. Presumably punters paid well for such potent indulgence and being buried there was de rigeuer for anyone with ambitions of canonisation!
The boatman told us to climb the mountain for the views and I did — no one else did. It was steep and painful and the only other people I saw there were two separate elderly ladies who were staying on the island, both walked with sticks and addressed me in Welsh, pointing out the landmarks. You can see the Mountains of Wicklow and the Mountains of Mourne in Ireland on a clear day. I could see Cardigan Bay all the way to Pembrokeshire and the nearby Llyn peninsula with Snowdon in the distance and the burrows of the Manx shearwaters but no choughs. “What, not seen a chough! They are usually here — must be nesting.”
By 3pm the waters around the island were getting choppy and the trusted boatman would not risk our precious lives to view the puffins from the sea but seeing our disappointment he kindly took a detour and showed us the Ynes Gwylan Puffin Colony on the two little isles off Aberdaron.
As we approached the plump little birds started whizzing overhead showing the white flashes of their flanks as they flew ahead of us to land in the water and dive for sand eels.
Safely back on land I drove to the tip of the peninsula where I had been told that choughs hang out but all I found was a hungry herring gull and a farewell view of Bardsey Island.
Several years ago a couple of sections of hedge near here appeared to have been wrapped in the biggest cobweb I had ever seen. The sections were about 3-4 meters long — the length of a farm gate. At first I thought it was something to do with planning permission — as when farmers or developers wrap a section of hedge in green plastic netting to stop birds from nesting while they wait for permission to root it out for a new entry. Closer examination revealed something more interesting!
The net appeared to be a huge, quite robust, cocoon in the safety of which thousands of caterpillars were devouring the hedge.
Apocalyptic!” thought I, “That’s the end of that hedge and maybe life as we know it.”
But no, that section which was mainly bird cherry looked dead but the web eventually disappeared and the hedge recovered.
This year the phenomenon has recurred, this time in a hedge that is mainly holly with bird cherry growing through it and the caterpillars of the Bird Cherry Ermine Moth (Yponomenta evonymella), for these are the culprits, have ensheathed most of the bird cherry but left the holly unscathed.
The caterpillars are thriving protected from predatory birds and they appear to have eaten much of the foliage within their web nests already but below you can see them spinning new web to enclose more food.
Now we must wait for them to pupate and later for the adult moths to emerge — a ghostly white night-flyer with rows of black dots, an echo of the caterpillars…
They are successful as a species — they’ve developed a clever biodegradable protective wrapper for themselves and they don’t even appear to come back to the same trees twice, they protect their food source — little eco-warriors.
Cameras are a constant source of disappointment to me because they rarely see what I see.
When I see the three dimensional majesty of the mountain peaks that surround me as I stand in wonder on the plain, the camera sees only the actual sky-line which is surprisingly flat.
Eyes are much better — they inject emotion. They integrate with the other senses to capture the euphoria of a landscape — the freshness of the breeze, the perfume of honeysuckle and hay, the buzzing of the bees and the birdsong. The vibrant greens of a valley re-awaken ancestral stirrings that draw us still to fertility and shelter.
Yesterday I drove to Rhyd in Snowdonia, it was a wonderful spring day — such a shame that the photos could not capture my mood (even if I had remembered the UV filter). These are the best of a bad lot.
What’s this? A fritillary? No — look at those eye spots, it’s a wall butterfly (Lasiommata megera).
They live in short grassland especially where the sward is broken by rocks, furrows and walls (they like Wales), they are seen on grassy railway embankments and green verges, usually alone. Perhaps you’ll see a male flitting along looking for a female or resting with its wings folded together, showing the mottled grey underside, camouflaged on a rocky outcrop. This one was enjoying the May sunshine with its wings outstretched on the edge of a country lane that has a wide verge (the long acre) waiting to flutter up to waylay a passing female.
Their numbers are dwindling and they represent a high conservation priority as, although widespread in coastal England and Wales, they are rapidly declining. Rare now in central England it was presumed due to loss of habitat because of building and changes in farming, less grazing and the use of insecticides to protect arable crops. But there may be another reason: there is evidence that warmer temperatures are causing generations to hatch out too late in the year to survive.
About three years ago everyone here was complaining bitterly about the council not cutting the verges regularly anymore. This year the verges are blue with a resplendent crop of wild hyacinths, self sown or grown from dormant bluebell bulbs which lay waiting for a reprieve from incessant mowing. It’s an austerity bonus! Good for bees!
As our lonely wall butterfly flits off to find a mate it reminds us of the enormous value of our 937 square miles of verges in the UK — twice the size of Exmoor and the New Forest put together — let’s mow them all just once a year and stop spraying and, while we’re at it, please can we turn off all the street lamps!
I have been on the track of John Nicholl who was born in Kirkcaldy on the east coast of Scotland, in 1829, he was my great-great-grandfather. He started life as an apprentice rope-maker (my great granny, who I remember well, had told me he had been a sail maker — not a growth industry at that time — the first commercial steam ships coming into service as the ink on his indenture dried!).
When he was old enough he went to sea, initially on coastal vessels but by 1863 he had become a ship’s master and was sailing to the East Indies (China and Islands of the South China Sea), the US, Canada and South Africa –what a time to be travelling the world but not without its risks!
When I was a child I was told that he commanded a tea-clipper, a sister ship of the Cutty Sark and this may well have been the truth. He certainly commanded the Roslin Castle for 3 years, then the Wemyss Castle, a 700 ton, 183 foot vessel with a wooden hull on an iron frame with two masts. The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, until that time the valuable trade in tea from China was conducted with fierce competition taking the perilous route around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope through the dangerous waters of the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Navigating by the stars!
In 1875 he took command of the Aberlady and sailed to South Africa but on 11th November 1877 it was in the Java Sea (South East of Singapore) that disaster struck — the ship was lost in the Gaspar Straits after it struck the Alcest Reef which was named after another famous sailing ship that foundered there in 1816 while taking a diplomatic mission to China (the story of their shipwreck, the marooning of the crew, battles with pirates and eventual rescue is told in Voyage of His Majesty’s ship Alceste by John Mcleod MD, surgeon of the Alceste). The captain of the Alceste was court-martialled but exonerated and later knighted.
My great- great- grandfather was not so fortunate though he survived with at least part of his crew and somehow they got to Singapore where the shipwreck was reported. The loss of a valuable ship, cargo and possibly members of the crew was taken very seriously and he could not have been entirely exonerated by the enquiry which suspended his master’s certificate for 6 months from 11th February 1878 — from the records it seems that for several years he did not work as a master again though until his death in 1885 he continued to serve as a mate on ships bound for the Baltic, British North America, Greenland and Iceland, Spain, Portugal and the Azores and to the West Indies — less romantic destinations on ships which seem to have been larger, iron clad steam ships.
He died at sea in 1885 from cholera aboard a 176 ft steam dredger, the Espana, manufactured in Glasgow and bought by the Valencia Harbour Board. John Nichol was, in fact, registered as it’s master, whether he was delivering the vessel or working it for the Harbour Board is not clear. He was 57.
During all his voyages he was married to Catherine (nee Condie) who stayed in Kirkcaldy bringing up their ten children. The eldest girl Catherine died at the age of 17, possibly from tuberculosis.
Two of the sons lived into their eighties having obtained good educations (probably thanks to the tea boom) and moved to London. They went into partnership with each other as stock brokers — a safer way to make a living.
At least two other sons of John Nicoll went to sea. Wemyss Erskine Anderson Nicholl (what a name! I want to find out more about him.) He was drowned at the age of 47 when his ship, the Queen, was torpedoed by a German submarine in WW1, he is buried on Tower Hill in the City of London. Another brother, John Mitchell Nicoll is lost from the record after the age of 24 in 1882 when he had qualified as a first mate. Did he also die at sea or in some foreign port or maybe he left his ship in Canada or Australia or South America to start a new life in the New World — I shall have to start searching farther afield.