Sunday, 31 December 2017

A National Park?

As the nation’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and not having the protection afforded by National Park status, I often marvel at the way in which Gower has survived. Until planning laws were tightened in the 1970s, the peninsula was open to many types of threats. It is still vulnerable to some extent, but as protecting the environment is gradually seen to be more important, it becomes safer. Over the years, Gower has escaped a multitude of enterprises, often supported by local planning authorities. Had it not been for the large landholdings of Gower Commoners, The National Trust, and The Wildlife Trust, it may have succumbed. The untiring efforts of The Gower Society to protect the AONB had a great impact, and were pivotal at times. Pioneering individuals such as Neville Douglas-Jones and Jo Hambury played a huge part in Gower’s early protection by forming the Glamorgan Naturalist’s Trust, now part of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. Many other dedicated individuals have played their part. Images and profile are important, and Harold Grenfell has spent a lifetime photographing all aspects of the peninsula, whilst members of the Gower Ornithological Society have diligently recorded birds for more than half a century.

As in most parts of these islands, much biodiversity has been lost, and at the eleventh hour there seems to be an understanding of the value of our wildlife heritage. Superficially Gower’s landscape is little changed, but pesticides and modern farming practices have greatly depleted its wildlife.

Many threats remain, and the beauty of our scenery seems secure in the short term, but without a radical change in land usage, we may never again see the abundance of wildlife many of us remember just a generation ago.  Designating Gower as a National Park could help secure a better future for this magical place.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Scott of the Antarctic

We’re blessed with lovely little Norman churches here, and one of the most beautiful lies in the village of Rhosilli, near the tip of the peninsular. The village, perched high over the Atlantic, seems to be defined by the old church, with its ancient, stark, perpendicular tower looking directly out to sea. But it’s not just the church that gives this place a special feel. Inside its cold limestone walls there’s a magic, marble plaque on the north wall dedicated to the memory of Edgar Evans, who accompanied Captain Scott on his epic journey to the South Pole. Evans was a native of the village, and was particularly remembered recently on the centenary of the day Scott and his team reached the Pole.

The mile-long walk from the village to the coastguard lookout hut passes old dry-stone walls, recently repaired, and safe for another hundred years. To the north is the sweep of Rhosilli Bay, an icon of the Welsh landscape. Its three miles of golden sand shines bright in the winter sunshine, and with no wind, the pastel-blue sea is like a millpond, dotted with white specks of gulls and black lines of common scoters. A raven stands sentinel on the cliff edge, others croak overhead signaling the beginning of breeding. I had hoped for an early fulmar, but there are none; they’ll be here in a week or so to take possession of their traditional ledges. To the south of the stone walls is Rhosilli Vile, a medieval field system, where vegetables are still grown for local markets. Its fields lie fallow now, but will soon be busy again as the new season begins.

At the headland, Worm’s Head dominates the view. An island at high water, it looks majestic, alone and still, merging perfectly the land and sea. Peering down into the clear water, a grey seal slides gracefully beneath the surface of the sea, reminding me once more that I’m privileged to live in such a truly beautiful place.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Fallen Apples

I know its cold when redwings arrive on the village green. There are never great numbers, and they spread themselves out, some feeding on the frozen ground, but most turning over the leaf litter by the hedgerows close to the common. It will have to get much colder before fieldfares join them, but even when they arrive, we usually only get a few.

I wrap up and head off for a favourite field in west Gower in search of golden plovers. It’s raw, but with little wind, bearable. Why particular fields attract plovers each winter is a mystery, but the stubble is alive with hundreds of lapwings, black-headed gulls and golden plovers. I choose my preferred farm gate high up above the field, and with the light behind, start to count. Starlings invariably mingle with lapwings in winter, and at least 600 feed amongst the lapwings and golden plovers. These remote open fallow fields are always a good bet for birds of prey and sparrowhawk, buzzard and hen harrier, all turn up within a few minutes.

Winter finch flocks are well formed now, and the Natural Resources Wales (formerly Countryside Council for Wales) puts out seeds for finches in the yard of a deserted old farm nearby. Amongst the chaffinches, I pick out brambling and yellowhammers, but also a few reed buntings and tree sparrows. These declining little sparrows nest in the boxes put up on the trees surrounding the farm buildings, and never seem to stray far from the farm.

I arrive home to watch a single male blackbird defending the small area underneath the bird feeders, and news from my daughter that there at least 30 fieldfares gorging on the fallen apples in her Shropshire garden. I can’t decide which is best, fieldfares in the frozen north, or the blackbird in the slightly warmer south.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The Battle for Cockles

When I was very much younger, I thought of common sandpipers as summer visitors, and I suppose that’s still true. In recent times however, as the climate has changed, more have overwintered. On winter days I love to sit with a flask of hot coffee by a small inlet of the Burry Estuary and watch the few birds that use the muddy shore only about 20 yards in front of the car. As the tide ebbs, the birds arrive slowly. I can always guarantee great views of black-headed and common gulls, which come down to bathe and preen with a few herring gulls, and nowadays little egrets are invariably there too. So close to the car, they’re a delight, as they dance about feeding in the shallows. Mallard and teal on the other hand are much more wary, and never seem to have the courage to get near.

Each winter I often find the odd common sandpiper here, which usually stays on the oppose bank feeding amongst the redshanks. There’s often a single lapwing too, and since I visit about every two weeks, I guess it’s the same bird each time; it’s odd to see just one lapwing.

The great flock of oystercatchers, now at least 10,000 strong, is way out on the mudflats feeding on cockles, but even at this distance I can hear them. Two cocklers trudge through the muddy river in front of the car, shattering the peace. They’re off to compete with the oystercatchers, and continue the long-standing feud between man and bird as to who has the right to gather cockles on this estuary. The birds have been doing it for much longer, and so probably have more right.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Spirit of Christmas

There are sometimes days in winter when it never really gets light.  Low, dark grey cloud hangs over everything, and even though its well after midday, the murk looks like it’s not going to lift again. We’ve had this weather for the last few days, the roads are damp, cars are dirty, and there’s a distinct feel of gloom in the air. The beach is the best place in this kind of weather.  There’s virtually no wind, the sea is grey and calm, and I can’t see very far offshore, but the gentle waves washing onto the sand lifts the spirit as I crunch over the thousands of shells littering the tide line.

At Blackpill, the children’s paddling pool is fenced off for winter cleaning, or is it because of one of those imponderable health and safety regulations. In any event it’s empty of water, there’s nobody doing any work, and it seems to be doing nobody any harm. A couple of hundred yards towards Mumbles, a young man with a telescope watches the waders and gulls in the very poor light as they gradually creep closer with the tide, and I stop to chat. He’s a postgraduate student from the University, studying the decline in birds in the bay. I try to tell him what it was like decades ago, and wonder if he really believes me – such is the change I’ve noticed in my lifetime.

As the murk descends even more, and darkness falls, cheery festive lights appear in windows in the shops and houses at Mumbles. Away from the beach the spirit of Christmas is in full swing in the busy village, alive with shoppers eager to get those last minute essentials for the days ahead. Shopping is not my forte, and I prefer not to linger, so I head back along the peaceful shore to the sound off waders feeding on the invisible mud.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Rare Moments

There are no raging rivers on Gower, just tiny brooks and gentle streams, whose waters eventually reach the open sea, or the Loughour estuary in the north.  A few are dry in fine summers, but most have some water at all times of the year. The one I know best rises on Pengwern Common, passes through Ilston, and reaches the sea at Three Cliffs Bay, and even in mid-winter never runs deep. 

The little ford above the village guards the entrance to the Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Ilston Quarry, and is too deep to cross at this time of year without wellington boots.  For a full 20 minutes I sit in the car by the ford only forty feet away from a dipper, perched on the edge of the tiny waterfall downstream of the fast flowing water. In summer I come here to listen for their fluty song, which sounds almost tropical against the burbling of the stream. Moments like this, alone and so close to a dipper are rare.  A pair of male mallards flies low above the glinting stream, causing the dipper to bob and change its position a little to reveal its white flashing eyelid.  Opening the car door isn’t enough to end these precious minutes, and I need to walk closer before he finally moves a few yards downstream.  There may be only two or three pairs of dippers on Gower, and until our rivers were cleansed there were probably none.

Thursday, 21 December 2017


After a period of extreme laziness, I decide to get out the mist nets this morning and see what I can catch. Bird ringing satisfies a basic human hunting instinct, and there’s always a sense of anticipation and adrenaline flow when approaching the net. I was once obsessed, spending hours in the field, but gradually gave up in favour of more sedentary pastimes.

My return is not spectacular. No great treks through deep marshes, or setting up hundreds of feet of nets on beaches in the dead of night; just a single net in the garden, with the simple aim of seeing how many goldfinches I can catch. The first time at a site is often the best, since the birds are unaware of the net, and if conditions are right, a good catch is usually guaranteed. I haven’t ringed in the garden for years, and so all the birds will be new.

Setting up early before the birds arrive is the best tactic, and with everything ready, including coffee in the garden shed, I wait for the early arrivals. Invariably it’s the robin that succumbs first, and true to form it drops gently into the corner of the bottom shelf. Dunnocks too are early risers, but the tits are never far behind. It’s difficult to decide just how many individual birds use the garden, but a morning’s catch always produces many more than can be seen on the feeders at any one time. Fifteen blue tits, 6 great tits, a couple of coal tits and 10 chaffinches kept me busy, but I need to wait a while for the goldfinch catch which yields a satisfying 15 in all. There are also odds and ends, a single wren, blackbird, song thrush and goldcrest all now carry my mark, and will add new interest as I look out of the window in days to come.