What for most of the year is a shallow grassy pond: a summertime nursery for thousands of tadpoles, transforms with the onset of winter and through the interaction of ice and organic decay, into an intensely complex time capsule. Over successive nights the water freezes from the surface down. At each freezing stage bubbles of gas rising from the decaying plant material below are trapped under the last ice layer as the water in the new layer freezes around them.
As the land rises up from the valley of the Wye northwards from the Black Mountains; one modest step on its accent towards the high moorland tops is an elongated hump of bracken covered common land known as The Begwns. To the casual visitor it may appear to be a sheep infested, bracken covered, featureless piece of un-cultivated land suitable only for pony trekking and dog walking and therefore not worthy of any further investigation. A position that those of us who visit the Begwns every day with our dogs, or ponies, are happy to encourage; because you have to spend time with the Begwns to understand it richness and beauty. Groups of disgruntled tourists would only get in the way.
You have to get to know the Begwns over time to discover its qualities. The most obvious, if you walk up to its highest point, a dizzying 410 meters above sea level, to the circular dry stone wall that surrounds a plantation of conifers; is that you now have a panoramic view that takes in the Black Mountains in the south, the Brecon Beacons in the west, the high moors to the north that in turn lead, eventually, to the Cambrian Mountains and in the far distance to the east is England, or what used to be a bit more of Wales until it was stolen by William of Normandy.
One outstanding benefit of this elevated 360° platform is as a weather observatory. The Wye Valley with the Black Mountains behind can produce some spectacular temperature inversions, particularly in the autumn. Massive cloud fronts roll in over the Brecon Beacons and sit brooding over the Black Mountains sometimes for days. We have watched the rain fall in huge sweeps through the valley whilst the sun warms our backs from clear blue skies in the north east.
The Begwns acts as a huge sponge throughout the winter, absorbing massive amounts of water that percolates through its thin soil into the bed rock below. From here it emerges as spring fed ponds; winterbournes that may last for months or disappear within a few days; and the deep cut brooks and streams that manage to survive all year and have over centuries carved wide, deep, gullies that disappear into steep woodland dingles then on into the Afon Wye.
I will be posting more about the natural history of the Begwns and the dingles later. If you would like to see more photographs of my local area please visit my web site: haresonthehill.co.uk
A beautiful walk with the dogs this morning up through Clyro Dingle, which is a short walk from the house. There are five of these steep sided secret places within a mile or two of the village. Each has been cut to the bedrock by water and each still carries water from the hills down into the River Wye.
Much as I love our dogs they do not make good companions when I’m trying to make photographs, so I have learned to leave the gear behind and just enjoy the walk and their company. I do take my iPhone, which comes in handy when I see something interesting and want to record it for a later visit – without the dogs. Such was the case this morning: two excited dogs, water and the time to explore further up stream than we have been before. Sam our Labrador loves water and tends to charge on ahead and disappear; but in a confined space like the dingles I can generally tell where he is by the noise, and if he finds something scary: pile of rocks, odd shaped stick, a shadow, he is always back very quickly. Millie our 14 year old Terrier is, by comparison, stoic. She doesn’t see the point of water except for refreshment. She is a very agile, fit, little dog who enjoys a walk and exploring new territory, but prefers dry land to water. Having to follow me this morning produced a look of silent suffering as we trudged, splashed and slipped our way up stream. Her thought bubble clearly saying “I love him but he is a complete idiot”.
Millie has a habit of standing on anything small that you might be studying. I found what I thought was a Yellow Nettle and was kneeling to get a better view, when she comes trundling past and true to form tanked all across the poor plant, which was surprisingly robust considering it had just had 10 kilos of dog on it.
These places are unique and so important for the preservation of species. Fortunately our dingles still seem to be clean: the water smells fresh and there is no evidence of farm slurry or poisoning by pesticide run-off. Places like this will only remain safe if those responsible for the headlands above behave responsibly. Fortunately a large area of the hills above is owned by the National Trust (God bless’em) so no risk there. All the surrounding farms grow sheep and most seem to favour permanent pasture over the questionable benefits of the annual ploughing and resowing with rye grass regime favoured by so many lowland farmers. So hopefully we will be exploring and enjoying these wonderful little oases of wildness for a long time to come.
“They smelled the strings,” said Manson and he said, “I’m going to have a beer.”
Sometime ago I came across the work of Ross Goodwin and his extraordinary WORD.CAMERA project. The extremely talented Mr Goodwin has developed a free web application which, when you capture or upload a photograph to it applies algorithms to determine the objects and concepts present in the image and then produces a text passage in response to what it has identified. It is very clever with obvious images of ‘things’ but when presented with more complex, less obvious, images ‘things’ can get really interesting. Take this image of sand and mud washed by a beach stream; the algorithm does very well when generating nouns to describe what is there but when it then attempts to write a short piece of prose poetry based on the image we move quickly into the sureal – or the world of William Gibson, I’m not sure which is odder.
WORD.CAMERA has, I think, considerable potential as a keyword generator, producing a much wider range of nouns than I would ever come up with – not all useful perhaps, but an interesting way to stimulate how I think about my images and much more fun than using a theasarus.
On a previous visit to WORD.CAMERA using a very different image it gave me the word ‘Woodsy’ which I treasure.
nature, outdoors, fabric, snow, no person, desktop, wear, pattern, mountain, geology, art, abstract, color, eruption, wave, rock, desert, texture, stone, volcano
A no person, a desktop, and a pattern.
“They smelled the strings,” said Manson and he said, “I’m going to have a beer.” “How do you know?” “Well, I can’t believe he was the sixty-new Commander.
A texture, a rock, and a nature, a predator’s meaning to the dark, Now the doctor is real lady and not blood in his hands.
I last posted here on 28th June 2015, just after we had moved to Wales.
The time since then has been well spent. We ripped out much of the ornamental elements of the garden – roses on sticks particularly; dug in loads of well rotted organic manure and this summer our garden has rewarded us not just with fruit and vegetables but more importantly a huge increase in biodiversity. When we first arrived there we’re very few birds in the garden and hardly any insects. Removing yew hedges and replacing them with espaliered apples and pears (old varieties) and letting the herbs grow in the lawns so that the nectar loving insects could feed has transformed the place.
The time has also been well spent with a camera and I plan to post on that subject much more in the future months. In the meantime if you are interested some of my landscape work can be seen on the new web site also called, not surprisingly: Hares on the Hill
There are hares in Somerset apparently, but I have yet to see one. Stephen Moss in his book Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: the natural history of an English village, reckons that you need to go very slowly to see a hare – he happened to be on a bicycle when he saw his first March hare. I have read Stephen’s book, plotted the location on a map (we live a few miles away) and walked very slowly through the fields for months, but despite all this effort I have not seen a hare in Somerset.
It has taken a trip to the Cairngorm National Park and the local knowledge of Steve Reddick who runs Highland Wildlife Safari to fulfil my hare ambition. Going out with a wildlife guide was a new experience for us as we normally just grab a map and go walkabout. But on this occasion it was obvious, even to us, that if we were going to find anything interesting in a very large and mountainous national park we were going to need some local knowledge.
Steve has been an enthusiastic wildlife watcher for decades and has been guiding visitors in and around the Cairngorm National Park for the last eight years, so rather than give him an unrealistic list of wants we deferred to his considerable local knowledge and asked him to show us ‘his’ Cairngorms. The plan was to visit several spots that he thought might be interesting and just see what, if anything, showed.
It never really gets dark in the highlands of Scotland during the summer so we took the opportunity that early light brings by starting out at 4.30am, much to the evident disbelief of the dogs who would only be tempted out of their beds by the prospect of an early breakfast. With the dogs very comfortably installed on Willow’s big matt in the back of the 4×4 and the cabin full of waterproofs, thermos flasks, sandwiches and what seemed like a disturbingly large amount of camera equipment (How did we end up with all this kit?) we headed up into the mountains and the high moorland in search of Black Grouse.
With spring and summer so late starting this year the courtship ‘lek’, which normally occurs through April and May had extended into June so we thought that there was a very slim chance of seeing a few males still at it. They ‘Lek’ all year, but the crucial time is the spring and probably the only time you will see them doing it. For the rest of the year they disappear and are rarely sighted until the following spring lek. Despite sightings a few days before and with three pairs of binoculars on the job we couldn’t even find a single Blackgame just practising. Despite the initial no-show, by lunch time we had watched and photographed Crested Tits, Red Squirrels, a Slovenian Grebe and a pair of Osprey. Encouraged by our mornings efforts and surprisingly chipper considering the early start we decided to head up into the Findhorn Valley, eat our sandwiches, and spend the afternoon looking for Golden Eagles.
The Findhorn Valley is a massive glacially formed river valley that starts where the river rises in the Monadhliath Mountains above Strathdearn. The River Findhorn is fed by numerous tributaries as it tumbles over rock and gravel towards the Moray Firth at Findhorn Bay. The valley is stunning, unfolding from wild and mountainous moorland to rocky tree-clad gorges ending, finally, in a few miles that would once have been tidal salt marsh and are now flat farming land before the sea. The guide books say that in the summer it is renowned among salmon anglers for … ‘its pools and streams’ that ‘produce exhilarating salmon fishing from the first springers through heavy runs of grilse in May and June to a steady supply of summer and early autumn fish’. I can’t help thinking that if much of the fishing was done by wolves, rather than wealthy business men who take the fish out and leave nothing, the entire ecosystem of the valley would benefit? The chances of any kind of reintroduction anywhere in Scotland looks, for the foreseeable future, unlikely. All attempts so far have been blocked by vested interests and ignorance.
So, hares, the reason for this post and not Golden Eagles, as promised earlier, I am already five paragraphs in and the hares have had barely a mention. I have always had a huge respect for the wildness of these creatures without really understanding why – and I still don’t. Throughout history the hare has been written about, hunted, sacrificed and revered in effigy as an embodiment of our relationship to the wild. Sadly in the last hundred years or so our relationship with the hare has been emblematic of our fracture with nature – very few remaining in too few places.
The photographs are of European Hares, not Mountain Hares as we first thought. European Hares have a black stripe along the top of the tail and are slightly bigger than their mountain cousins.
Despite the efforts of mankind and the climate to eradicate these beautiful creatures from our shores, the Little Egret seems to be making a successful comeback. We see these medium-sized all-white herons, with their distinctive yellow feet and black legs regularly on the levels. This one was hunting around the Victorian reservoirs at Litton and despite my best efforts, proved difficult to photograph. According to Birds Britannica… “the species is still most common as an autumn and winter visitor to sites in south-west England, like the Exe and Tamar estuaries.” In Britain it was a rare vagrant from its 16th century disappearance until the late twentieth century, and did not breed here. There are now small breeding groups in England and Ireland; the first being recorded on Brownsea Island, Dorset in 1996. Since then it has been moving northwards and was recorded as breeding in Berkshire for the first time in 2007.
The Little Egret was probably common across much of England in the 15th century, but became extinct through a combination of over-hunting in the late mediaeval period and climate change at the start of the Little Ice Age. The inclusion of 1,000 egrets, among numerous other birds, in the banquet to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York at Cawood Castle in 1465 indicates the presence of a sizeable population in northern England at the time, and they are also listed in the coronation feast of King Henry VI in 1429. They had disappeared by the mid 16th century, when William Gowreley, ‘yeoman purveyor to the Kinges mowthe’, “had to send further south” for egrets.
Further declines occurred throughout Europe as the plumes of the Little Egret and other egrets were in demand for decorating hats. They had been used for this purpose since at least the 17th century but in the 19th century it became a major craze and the number of egret skins passing through dealers reached into the millions. Egret farms were set up where the birds could be plucked without being killed but most of the supply was obtained by hunting, which reduced the population of the species to dangerously low levels and stimulated the establishment of Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889.
By the 1950s, the Little Egret had become restricted to southern Europe, and conservation laws protecting the species were introduced. This allowed the population to rebounded strongly; over the next few decades it became increasingly common in western France and later on the north coast. It bred in the Netherlands in 1979 with further breeding from the 1990s onward.