Ecology, Humour

Eye shine — you shine but I don’t

I spend a lot of my time with individuals who see the world through very different eyes.

For a start their eyes shine at night, not with avarice or the holy spirit but with any light that they catch in their eye —

Eyeshine in Welsh Mountain Sheep

Eyeshine in Welsh Mountain Sheep

You see they are a prey species and they stand out all night in the darkest fields uneasily looking out for wolves and rustlers so they need to see in the dark.  One of the adaptions that many nocturnal mammals have made is to acquire a tapetum lucidum, a biological mirror behind their translucent retina, so that light stimulates the retina as it falls upon it and stimulates the retina’s photosensitive cells again as it bounces off the mirror layer heading back the way it came — this helps them to see in the dark.

So when you go out in the field at night with your torch and all the sheep turn to look at you because they think you are something spooky, all their eyes light up with intense pale green light, all directed at you, which is definitely spooky.

Dogs have a tapetum lucidum too — this one shines bright green.

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There’s a sheep behind him.  Foxes have eyes that glow green, different species have variation in their tapetum lucidum and glow differently — hunters who went out lamping for rabbits and foxes (I think it’s illegal so they don’t do it anymore) will tell you they can tell what they are shooting by the shade of the eyeshine, as they charge around in a truck with a lamp on top picking up eye glow and shooting things — very fortunately humans do not have a tapetum lucidum, otherwise more of them would get shot.

Cats are famous for their glowing eyes and that is where I got into trouble.  I spent a happy evening flashing and snapping at our cats, trying to demonstrate their eyeshine and  their strange lozenge shaped pupils that constrict down to a tight vertical slit in bright light — you see one of the problems for these creatures, who are adapted for the dark, is managing bright light.  Mainly they shut their eyes.

Cat dealing with bright light

Cat dealing with bright light


Minutes after this unsuccessful photo-shoot, Midnight (our short haired black cat) started doing something very strange and alarming, kicking his right foot out then grabbing at his mouth with both his paws as if trying to pull something out of his mouth — he did this repeatedly making a peculiar slavvery noise. There wasn’t anything in his mouth or throat, he wasn’t salivating or retching and there was no sign of a bite or sting on his lips.  The other cat and the dog looked worried and followed him round fussing as he repeated his odd stereotyped gestures, like non-verbal Tourette’s Syndrome.  OMG he’s been out and got a head injury, or a brain tumour…   Or epilepsy due to flashing lights.

There then ensued a period of research on the internet.  While the cat twitched, quietly now, on its chair by the fire, the other two animals sat upright on the floor next to him watching anxiously.

By the time my husband had got home I had cracked it — Feline Hyperaesthsia Syndrome…  Can be provoked by stress ( like being chased around the house with a flashlight).  This is a diagnosis of exclusion and mindful of vet’s bills we adopted an expectant policy — we’ll watch and expect it will get better.

It did — for twelve hours or so he looked spaced-out between twitches that gradually got less complicated and with longer gaps between them– first the kicking disappeared, than the grabbing at his mouth, then the licking of his lips gradually stopped and he had a long sleep.  Then he woke up and had a large breakfast and has been fine since.  We didn’t photograph any of this — we thought I had done enough harm.

Returning to the great mysteries of the mammalian eyes that follow me daily —

Horizontal rectangular pupil and fetching eyeshade of pale lashes

Horizontal rectangular pupil and fetching eyeshade of pale lashes

 Why do cats have vertical pupils and sheep horizontal ones?

They both need to be able to restrict the bright light of the mid-day sun.   Cats need very sharp vision, right in front of them and the potential to use a whole cross section of their lens (this has complicated optic reasons to do with putting back together the spectrum that bending light tends to produce), thus they need a vertical slit because they are predators and they pounce on little creatures right in front of them.

Sheep need a more global view of the world, they live on grassland and need to be able to spot movement all around.

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With her protruding eyes and wide pupils, she can see from right in front and to right back along her flanks.  Provided she walks in a slight zig-zag, which they do, she can see all around herself, even in bright weather when her pupils are constricted — she couldn’t do this with a vertical pupil.


Dogs have round pupils like us but can see in the dark — they have reflectors at the back of their eyes which shine but are not so sensitive to the light that they need slit pupils to protect themselves by day — I suspect this is because at night they see mainly with their noses!

Ecology, Humour

Kissing Frogs


Now is the time to look for signs of Spring and here, where there is still snow in the shadow of the hedges, we haven’t seen a bulging bud.  But the birds know something’s up!  They have a sense of anticipation and an irritable awareness of their territory — the robins are scrapping and the chaffinches have started to sing and me?  Well, I go out every morning to look for frogspawn and on the morning after Valentine’s night — there it is!

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Something for our newts to eat.


Otherwise things look quite wintery though the moss is strangely spruced up and vibrant.

It’s making the most of the early sunlight before being caste into shadow by the burgeoning verdure that will soon overwhelm it — the uncurling fronds of the ferns  and bracken and the canopy of oak leaves.

And the lichens are looking shaggy after a winter unfettered by the competition and unbroken by the resting bottoms of weary ramblers.


The wild unicorn on Van Hill still has his winter coat and hasn’t started yet to get his new horn when he will hide in the woods like the moss.

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Ecology, Hill Farming, Humour, lifestyle

Hearts of Oak

‘The measure of a man’s importance is the size and number of his woodpiles’.

I was told this fact many years ago in rural France — it made a great impression — so contradictory was it to the progressive philosophies of my young French friends that I found it oddly reassuring — and still do!

We have woodpiles — burning wood when you have lots of trees is great but trees need cutting down and they don’t go quietly, they have a lot of stored energy and can lash out ferociously.  They need logging and drying and wood burns amazingly quickly so you need loads and plenty of room for storage.  We have an old barn, thirty feet by twenty feet already full of timber.

Last back end (as they say in Lancashire) we culled a Leylandii hedge, grown 40 feet high in a blink of Mother Nature’s eye. We cut off the branches and burned the brush-wood —


— but when the exalting roar of the chain saw had stalled for the last time we were left with a daunting amount of timber — a mountain where our new workshop was waiting to be built.


There it lay until last week when we were taken in hand!

Not by the Forestry Commission or the satellite snooperage of Rural Affairs, Wales (it was nothing to do with illicit romance in the hills) — it wasn’t even our very grown-up children who, though they never tidied their rooms, now worry about the state of their decrepit parents.   No, it was a  young neighbour (well relatively young) who knew that all we needed was a tiny push, a little encouragement.

‘I’ll come and help you on Tuesday — I’ve nothing much on this time of the year — I’ll be with you at midday.’

We refused, we protested, we were tempted, we said he’d have to have lunch (would there be meat? — Yes), he accepted, we capitulated, it was arranged and, in the intervening few days, we got on with what we should have been doing for months!

By the time Tuesday came we had started two new woodpiles and that day something strange happened — tree trunks scudded over the ground, whizzed through the air, crashed into trailers, flattened the saw trestle and just about spifflicated two pensioners temporarily under vigorous new management.

Chainsaws started willingly and logs marched to the music of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice jumping happily onto the new woodpiles.

By evening, by some miracle of effort and teamwork, well mainly one man’s effort (we helped as hard as we could and tried not to get in the way) we had uncovered the bare earth where our new workshop is to be sited.


Temporarily repaired trestle on the almost cleared site — Digger just watched and didn’t help at all.


It’s a miracle.  Just another of the miracles of living here — Thank you David!

One of new woodpile waiting to be sheeted.

New Woodpile


Birds, Poetry, Welsh culture

‘I am a man like you,’ but was he? R.S.Thomas (1913-2000)


Yesterday was one of those days that can’t be wasted — bright winter sunshine, long shadows on crisp all-day frost — a day for adventure.
We have been reading the poems and the entertaining biography, by Byron Rogers, of the Welsh poet, R S Thomas, referred to by Philip Larkin as Arsewipe Thomas whose personality was as fascinating as his poetry which was, though marvellously constructed, at times, patronising and judgemental of the Welsh ‘peasant’ (a strange concept in itself in the second half of the twentieth century).
Thomas’s enigmatic personality has intrigued me since I saw him speak in an interview on the television about Wales and the Welsh language, never had I seen someone’s subject so at odds with his delivery! His words were contradicted by all the non-verbal elements of his speech.

Thomas’s identity seemed caught between two cultures and isolated by  ‘intellect’, education and calling. He was ordained in the Church of Wales, the Welsh branch of the Episcopal Church, essentially the Church of England, viewed with suspicion by many Welsh, the majority of whom attended Non-conformist Chapels.

He was an Anglican priest who had adopted an affected upper class accent though he was born in Cardiff and brought up in Holyhead, North Wales, but he felt Welsh to his core, learned Welsh as an adult and was an outspoken nationalist.

Yesterday in the sunshine, we went in search of clues to his persona, not with much expectation.
We visited his church in Manafon, not far from here —

He was not the first poet to have had the living, the heritage board listed a whole bibliography of bardic priests — R.S. was only the last of many — did that egg him on to write in Welsh — his poetry in the Welsh language never seems to have made the grade which must have frustrated him.

The church was locked but the situation was idyllic with its rectory on the riverside, surrounded by meadows and tall trees.

R.S. Thomas wanted to see the beauty of this landscape reflected in the true Welsh people but they disappointed him seeming brutalised by the harshness of their lives.

You failed me, farmer.  I was afraid you would

The day I saw you loitering with the cows.

Yourself one of them but for the smile, […]

            For this I leave you

Alone in your harsh acres, herding pennies […] (Valediction)

Apart from poetry, Welshness and a preoccupation with the darkness of other people’s minds, oafs and yokels (The Country Clergyman), R.S. Thomas was a bird watcher — I suspect like an old boss of mine who expressed interest in a trapped bird, flapping itself to a frenzy against a closed sky-light — when I asked if he would like me to get the pole and open the window, he said, ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t bother, I can see now, it’s only a starling!’

The starlings yesterday in Manafon were making their presence felt if only by weight of number.  A vast murmuration had settled on tall trees near the church, the wide valley thronged with their chatter.  You could have swept them up from the ground.


We drove in a wide arch through the Banwy valley, skirting snow capped Snowdonia, to Eglwys Fach (Little Church) Thomas’s next parish, arriving at dusk, another church dedicated to St Michael and I am reminded of the lines

A little aside from the main road,

becalmed in a last-century greyness,   (The Chapel)

This was a Welsh speaking area close to the bird reserve at Ynys Hir but a lot of the parishioners were middle class English ex-pats.  In the church yard there are stones inscribed with names that are not Welsh —

Come to Wales

To be buried: the undertaker

Will arrange it for you.  We have

The sites and a long line

Of clients going back….

It ends…  Dirt cheap, a place where

It is lovely to lie.   (Welcome to Wales)

The church was locked — whether to keep God in or keep him out — one cannot tell.

They laid a stone trap

for him, enticing him with candles,

and thought he would come like some huge moth

out of the darkness to beat there…   (The Empty Church)

R.S. Thomas spent a lot of time waiting for God, but then…  The meaning is in the waiting. (Kneeling)  Possibly he was looking in the wrong place.  In his quest he moved ever Westward.

On the next irresistible day perhaps we will follow him to the far west and the Lleyn peninsula.

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Trees behind the church at Eglwys Fach in the last of the sun.