CNCV: Dairy House Farm

Yesterday I was out with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers on a task at a new location for the group. We spent the day at Dairy House Farm, near Winsford; a farm under the higher level stewardship scheme, which as well as breeding livestock also has a farm school.


We spent the day clearing the regrowth of an old hedge line. It had orginally been removed to reduce cover for predators which had been taking the chicks of declining numbers of waders breeding in the wet meadows.

Autumn: Season of migration and mellow thoughtfulness

I wrote this post sitting with my feet up in front of a warming woodburning stove enveloped in a hoody hygga made more nordic by being in a Swedish summerhouse in the middle of the patchwork forest, lake and meadow landscape of Vastmanland. I was there visiting family but I think I would love the place even if they weren’t there – for me the area has a natural magic that has long left most parts of my homeland back in the UK.

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On a couple of days I was there I went for a slow and leisurely cycle around the low rolling scenery, crossing the county border into Dalarna (or ‘The Dales’ in English). At home I can’t go more than a few days without having to head out cycling into the surrounding countryside; if I lived there, I wouldn’t be surprised if I only lasted a few hours before the yearnings for a pedal became too strong to overcome. The landscape of forests broken up by clearings, meadows and small fields, and dissected by rivers and lakes, lack the intensive farming of the lands further south in the country and seem to follow a slower pattern of rural life. The scenes I passed on two wheels are dotted by the deep-red barns, many now well past their best, but also well-kept and equally red farmsteads. These are the typical landscapes of rural central Sweden.

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It’s not just the views that lift the soul, the wildlife amongst the forests and fields is rich and abundant. Out on my cycles here, I had views I could only wish for when cycling the country lanes of Cheshire. I was overflown by a green woodpecker, and pedalled past a crane standing alone in a meadow. I spooked some skittish roe deer which went leaping off through the long grass as I approached and a very orange and fluffy fox came trotting down the road towards me, bounding into the roadside forest when he finally noticed my approach. All manner of small birds flitted across my path as I rode on, and the sheer quantity of fungi at the roadside was incredible (and edible). In the fields, were the last of the summer flowers and in the woods there are the final few blueberries and lingonberries still hanging low on the slowly changing floor, from green to copper to red.

I didn’t actually need to leave the summerhouse, however, to see wildlife I’d be very surprised to see in my garden at home or actually the majority of gardens in the UK for that matter. It’s not unusual to have the feeders and surrounding trees visited by a whole range of birds including treecreepers, bullfinches, siskins, great spotted woodpeckers, hawfinches and most lovely of all, crested tits. The lawns of the summerhouse are also visited by fieldfares, slow worms, adders and roe deer. A short walk away is a lake with a breeding pair of whooper swans with two large cygnets and, if I’m lucky, I can get a glimpse of beaver making watery tracks across the surface, starting their nighttime engineering works.

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On my pedallings I had time not just to look at my surroundings but also plenty of time to think and compare what is here in the Swedish countryside and what we have at home.

Visiting mainland Europe with Brexit very much in the news, I felt a little bit more of an outsider than I did. However, maybe there can be some good to come out of Brexit, maybe it gives us a chance to take a fresh look at conservation. Maybe we can become a nation of ambitious environmentalism, not just preserving what we have and stemming decline but enhancing and rebuilding our lost nature. Maybe there is a chance to build a future where cycling through the countryside in the UK can be as rich as it is in Scandinavia.

Where do we start on such a path? Well, in my concerned amateur thinking, it has to be farming and farm subsidies. Farming, to my knowledge, has the greatest impact on the landscape and wildlife of our countryside. The changes brought about in farming over the millennia that humans have been growing crops and keeping livestock, have transformed our landscapes beyond recognition from what they were when man first arrived to our islands. There isn’t an acre of land that hasn’t been affected by man and the negative affects seem only to be increasing. Despite the efforts of environmental organisations and their supporters and volunteers, the quality of our rural environment has continued to degrade. It is truly frightening to acknowledge that some of the greatest impacts have occurred over the last couple of decades; a time when environmental concern was already well-established. The increasing intensification of farming, with greater use of land, chemicals, fuel and water has pushed out and poisoned all manner of wildlife and their supporting habitats. Against this tide of industrial food production have been a much smaller band of environmental groups trying to reduce the harmful effects.

Maybe now is the time to reflect on the outcome of all this effort by environmental groups in reducing this harm. Despite some notable successes, cleaner rivers and some species reintroductions, for example, we are still losing wildlife and habitats, and we are nowhere near returning to the quality of environment we had even a generation ago. So perhaps there is a new approach to go alongside a new beginning for the UK outside of the EU.

One approach could be to plan the environment of our country on a landscape wide basis, not just concentrating on individual farms or nature reserves but much wider areas. I suggest the following for consideration; that we plan the countryside, in large areas, according to one of three designations:

  • Intensive Agriculture Areas – where the most productive land is prioritised for agriculture and support for environmental schemes is reduced except for measures that affect the environment outside of these areas (e.g. watercourse management) – this essentially would require the withdrawal of the land from environmental schemes and removal of subsidies. Such areas could include the Fens of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk for example.
  • Environmentally Enhanced Areas – where farming is marginally viable with subsidies and greater environmental harm is being done trying to intensify production in these areas. Subsidies would be increased to improve the environmental quality of these areas and enable them to act as buffer zones between the Intensive Agriculture Areas noted above and the Rewilding Areas described below. These areas would be focussed for agriculture, supporting existing rural economies, but working alongside improved environmental standards.
  • Rewilding Areas – where farming is not viable, even with substantial subsidy, agriculture on a commercial basis would be withdrawn and the land left to be reclaimed by nature. This could include the removal of manmade enclosures and invasive species and the supplementing of native flora and fauna to aid regeneration. This approach may result in the reduced economic viability of some rural communities and, in addition to environmental expenditure to support rewilding, there may need to be budgets to support the redevelopment of communities.

The above is just a germ of an idea but one I want to develop further. However, it strikes me that I know one area quite well that may suit such an approach; the Glaslyn Valley. The headwaters of the Glaslyn are up in the heights of Snowdonia where farming, like most upland areas is unviable without significant subsidy, this could be a potential area for rewilding. The floodplain of the Glaslyn would seem appropriate for an Environmentally Enhanced Area, somewhere that agriculture could remain viable with continued support but unlikely to be intensified further without significant additional harm to the environment.

In the title of this post I highlighted autumn as a season of migration, as well as the above mellow thoughtfulness. Well, the start of the autumn migration was more than evident in Sweden; evident in the movement of birds but also evident in the birds that will soon be appearing in the UK. A couple of times I saw large flocks of common cranes gathering in anticipation of the movement south, not to come to the UK but perhaps further south still. I also saw good sized groups of what we in the UK call winter thrushes but are the summer thrushes of Scandinavia; I saw flocks of redwings and fieldfares starting to gather at the end of their breeding seasons, in readiness for the vast movement across the North Sea to the British Isles. Of course, some species have already gone; I’m used to seeing orpreys far more often in Sweden than in the UK but this time I drew a blank. Like the Glaslyn pair and their chicks, their Scandinavian relatives have started their long and arduous journey south, travelling all the way to central Africa to wait out the northern hemisphere winter.

In some ways, this brings to an end another year of the osprey in the Glaslyn Valley, but the year as a whole still has months to go and the winter visitors will soon be returning to the Valley; the curlew and harriers from the moorland tops and the thrushes, geese and whooper swans from far off lands.

Back again…

I feel privileged enough as it is to spend a fortnight each year volunteering on RSPB Ramsey Island but this year I’m luckier still – I’ve just landed for an extra week! It might be a short stay as I’ve arrived a day late, due to strong winds yesterday preventing the boat from running and I may have to leave as early as Thursday for the same reason. However, it’s just great to be back and to see the Island in its autumn colours.

With a day to spare in Pembrokeshire yesterday I spent a few hours touring around parts that I have only previous seen from a distance while on the Island. It was a dark and foreboding kind of day for the most part so the photos below are all in black and white.

CNCV: More birch seedlings

Today I was out for another task with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV). This time we were at one of our favourite locations – Oakmere, a privately-owned site where we have been helping to restore a moss over the past few years.

When we first visited the site, the moss was very overgrown with birch trees and over many visits we cleared the trees all the way to the edge of the moss, opening it up and giving the right plants space to recover and grow. Our tasks there now are focussed on ensuring the birch trees don’t regain a foothold and we spend our days removing seedlings and some larger saplings that have started to re-establish themselves.

It was a lovely summer day today, starting off with blue skies and very little wind. The cloud started to encroach towards the end of the day but it stayed nicely warm. By the end of the day we had cleared a good section of birch seedlings, leaving a large pile at the edge of the moss.

Next time we’re there, in a couple of weeks’ time, I might get another go at one of my favourite conservation tasks – scything – cutting back bracken at the edge of the moss – can’t wait!

I’m not sure what came over me yesterday but I did my first ever batch of baking – and I took the results with me for the mid-morning tea break…

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A final osprey shift

We’re still at the height of summer in the Glaslyn Valley and the picture hasn’t changed much over the last few weeks. The shades are getting a little darker and perhaps plants and leaves, now past their great surge in growth, are starting to look a little worn in places. However, there is still some bright colour out there, with flowers still blooming in the meadows and hedgerows. Up on the moorland tops, the heather is out in bright purple swathes and rosebay willowherb still stands tall along the roadsides.

The birds are quieter now, not the great chorus of earlier in the year but there is still plenty of life being lived. Down in the valley today, the sparrows provided a constant background chirping to my day, joined by the more occasional chaffinch and blue tit. A family of ravens chatted loudly as they flew over and the swallows were darting around in a large group over the river. My shift today had an extra reward with a kingfisher zooming past along the river bank and I could here it on and off throughout the day.

There are signs, however, that we are now in the latter half, or maybe even third, of the summer. The blackberries are starting to fill out, it looks promising for a good crop this year, some of the bracken is beginning to turn and the swifts are departing; one purposefully moved on through the valley as I sat watching from the bridge. The crops are being gathered in the fields, perhaps a little later this year, and the sun doesn’t feel quite a strong as it was in the height of June.

The nest at the top of the tall fir tree out across those wet meadows is a little emptier and quieter than it has been of late. With the three chicks having fledged and their confidence in the air growing, they are spending less time in their natal home and they only seem to appear when there’s a meal in the offing. Throughout the day, there was usually at least one chick in the nest, with three of deliveries of fish from their father. Their mother only made one appearance during my eight-hour shift, mantling when two osprey intruders flew close to the nest and eventually she tired of their presence and chased them off. For once, while I was on a shift, the ospreys flew straight over my head – that’s not happened since my first ever visit to protection back in the early spring of 2012!

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With the end of my final Glaslyn shift comes a close to my busiest time of year. Between late winter and the middle of summer my weekends seem to be filled by all things outdoors and nature-related. From daylong shifts in North Wales or a few hours in the Cheshire countryside protecting the nests of birds of prey, through doing bird surveys at three different sites through March, April, May and June, to the two weeks I spent on Ramsey Island in May and the usual fortnightly tasks with my local group (CNCV). Over 20 weeks or so, it feels my free time has just about all been taken up by conservation volunteering. With so much to do over those 20 weeks, the spring and summer seem to go so fast and perhaps it is actually a good time now to slow down for a bit. I can’t do so for long, however, in only a few weeks’ time I’ll be off to Sweden and then back and straight to a bonus week on Ramsey Island – more volunteering!

The protection site really is a little, rural idil. While the rest of the Snowdonia National Park is in peak season, with visitors sightseeing, hiking, cycling, driving and eating ice creams, all around its many square miles, down a narrow little wooded track, lies a spot that could be a million miles from the bustle of the honeypots. There’s barely any sign of other human life at times when sat by the river; very little road noise and no buildings close enough to overlook. Protection is a little forgotten backwater, where wildlife is exactly that, wild life, and little hindered by the interference of man. This spot isn’t a natural landscape, of course, it has all been touched by our hands; in fact the site used to be much closer to the sea before the wall at Porthmadog was built. But, this small corner seems less touched by man than it’s surroundings and it’s a gem of a spot for those lucky enough to spend some time amongst its trees and meadows.

As I usually do on the nicer days at protection, I finished my shift sat on the little footbridge over the river, feet dangling, watching the water run past, the weeds beneath waving in the current. Getting into my car and driving back up the narrow wooded track, to start my journey home, I said my goodbyes to the valley for another year, and perhaps longer this time, leaving behind the wildlife to continue its passage through the seasons and the colourful painting of the valley to change back to a pencil sketch once more.

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Launching into the year’s highest ebb

We arrive at the peak of the year with the colours still changing on the picture of the Glaslyn Valley. Those deeper, solid shades of high summer are now fixed in the trees and on the grassy plains but there are bright highlights among the different tints of green. This is a time of pinks and purples with the foxgloves dropping the last of their blooms, the rosebay willowherb spreading in great swathes along the roadsides, the prickly thistles standing in the field borders and the vast carpets of heather bringing colour to the hillsides and moorland tops.

This season has been one of contrasts, from the blazing sun under the cloudless blue to the cool, grey covered by the enveloping gloom. We have gone from a dry spring into a downpour-ridden summer with heat followed by chill followed by heat followed by chill. A bright, still and warm morning, turned into a cloud-dotted noon to an afternoon made heavy by a gathering storm. As the dark, brooding masses rolled in from the coast, rumbles of thunder were accompanied the flashes of lightning and walls of rain brought in on strengthening winds. The anger of the heavens skirted around me with only a few drops landing overhead but in the distance, the hills and fields were getting another deluge.

The young of the Glaslyn are growing fast; the badger cubs, now half the size of their parents, are out in the daytime searching for food after the rains have softened the ground. The fox cubs are feeding themselves but still go out on foraging trips with their parents, learning new skills but still finding enough time to play. The otter family is also travelling widely within their mother’s territory using different holts as the river rises and falls with the coming and going of the rains. The young bats are now flying on their own, leaving the protection of the old barn in the warm evenings to catch the midges swarming above the Glaslyn waters. Above the valley floor, high up on the moorlands, the curlew chicks are learning to fly and the young hen harriers are taking to the air but not yet as skilled as their skydancing parents. The young of some of the winter visitors are also flying and independent, the fieldfares and redwings are on to their second broods leaving the earlier chicks to fend for themselves in amongst the Scandinavian forests; it will be many more weeks yet before the whooper swans are on the wing for the first time.

The bird life in the valley is still growing with the last fledglings flitting around the woodlands and drystone walls. Family groups of swallows are chasing around above the fields and skimming low over the river and a young woodpecker calls alarm from behind the branch of an oak tree. There are two jays squabbling as they fly between copses and high above them all is a buzzard calling out as it circles on a short-lived thermal. Along the river, a pair of swans feed on the weed below, reaching deep into the water, risen again by the recent rainfall. Small shoals of fish race from shadow to shadow under threat of the kingfisher sitting, watching, prone on the overhanging branch.

The day brings the final long awaited moment in the nest at the top the fir tree. The last of three chicks, after days of exercising and short hoverings above its home, launches itself into the unknown for the first time. After seeing its two brothers fly over the previous few days, it is the turn of the youngest to put faith in its wings. A short, unsteady and alarming first flight lasts only a minute and ends with a collapse back into the nest – relief for the chick and its watchers.

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As I turned up at protection today Z8 was flapping his wings like nobody’s business and he looked like he might make his first flight at any moment. I didn’t have long to wait but it was with disappointment that I saw him fly only as far as from the nest to the perch, where he stayed for a good long while. Eventually, while my attention was on my report writing and not the TV screen, he made his leap of faith into the air. He flew around the nest, flapping wildly and very ungainly until he eventually landed safely in the comforting bowl of the nest. His brothers had made their own first flights over the past week and with all three now able to leave the nest it brings another mark of success for ospreys in the Glaslyn Valley – three more ospreys fledged from this most significant of nests.

The last two weeks of July and the first two of August, in which we are now, really do mark the high point of the seasons, the country at its highest ebb and a mirror of the lowest ebb at the end of January/beginning of February. This is the warmest time of the year (albeit not in the Valley today!), with the plant life at its fullest. Yes, this moment might not have the burst of energy of spring’s cacophony of new life but it marks the peak of the northern hemisphere’s powers and from where we can look down on the rest of the seasons. With nature’s most intense breeding period coming to an end and the young of the year starting to flourish on their own, it is time for the adults to rest, recover and rebuild their strength for the autumn and winter to come. That being said, the osprey parents still have some fishing to do, to ensure their offspring are ready to make their first journeys south when the autumn does come.