A short trip to Pembrokeshire

Last weekend I had a short trip down to Pembrokeshire for a spring day visit to Ramsey Island and a first visit to Skomer. Unfortunately, the weather got in the way and no boats sailed to Skomer on the first day and I had my shortest ever visit to Ramsey on the second. As always seems the case, it was a stunningly lovely day when I arrived on Ramsey but the weather from the previous day was still having an effect. Two volunteers were being taken across on the 10:00am boat and I caught a lift, only to be told an hour later that all boats for the rest of the day had been cancelled due to swell and I had to be taken off. My small island jinx this year seems to have struck again; I waited a whole week to get to St Kilda last month but failed due to strong winds.

However, there’s more to Pembrokeshire than simply the islands. I went for a wander along the coast path near to Strumble Head. Despite the wind and rain, the spring flowers were putting on a great show with thrift, spring squill, bluebells, cowslip, primrose and gorse all out on the cliff tops. The flowers were also out in the roadside verges and high hedgerows with the red campion particularly abundant. Pembrokeshire is blessed when it comes to the springtime and when the sun came out there couldn’t have been anywhere prettier on that May day.

I also sampled more of the local Pembrokeshire food, dining at St David’s Kitchen in the evening, including a plate of Ramsey Island mutton, and had great fish and chips from The Shed at Porthgain – the best I’ve had in a very long time.

St David’s was also looking it’s best and the sunset on my last evening was spectacular…

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Pembrokeshire really is a hidden gem; it’s like Cornwall, but without the crowds.

Settling down for a night shift

Standing on the bridge, the day comes to a close, with the last of the light seeping away behind the hills. The water passing beneath me barely makes a sound, only the occasional ripple over rocks and a fishing coming to the surface for a fly caught in the tension. Almost mirror-like, the river is undisturbed by any breeze, the air lies still and the sounds carry true across the meadows

A crescent moon hasn’t far to run before it dips behind the horizon but the stars begin to take its place, picking out diamonds across the deep blue of the night-encroaching sky. The clearness above that earlier brought warmth now lets that heat flow away, leaving a chill to fall onto the land as mist slowly rises amongst the stone walls and stands of rush.

The barks of farm dogs echo across the valley bottom and lambs bleat to ewes in the growing dark. The last of the evening chorus falls silent leaving only the owls calling in the dark and the occasional trill of the grasshopper warbler. A huge burbling moth bumbles past like a flying clockwork toy while I watch out for bats passing over the water and under the bridge.

As I return to the caravan, the cool of the outdoors is met by the last remnants of the warmth from the sun still trapped inside. Pulling the door closed, the day is finally left behind, the light gone until dawn brings the new morning at the end of an eight-hour shift. I sit down on the bench and the screen on the desk casts a glow across the room. Out there in the dark, but shown brightly in front of me, is a nest high up in the tree above the rocky island in the meadows, an osprey female sat brooding over three speckled eggs. Also out there in the dark could be hands eager to place fingers around the contents of the nest.

Having watched over the nest for quite a few years now and having witnessed very little unwanted interference, it’s easy to forget that there are still some people out there who could wish it harm. Within the past fortnight a man from Plymouth was found guilty of disturbing a number rare birds nests, including ospreys, and taking three osprey eggs from Scotland. In addition to doing protection shifts at Glaslyn, I also do shifts protecting a peregrine nest in Cheshire and there were three attempts to interfere with the nest last year. Whilst very much rarer than it used to be, it’s sad that there are still people who would rather harm wildlife for their own gratification rather than leaving it alone and getting enjoyment by simply observing from a distance.

I do wonder if Mrs G is starting to feel her age a bit as during my two night shifts this year she has spent more time asleep than I remember her having been during shifts in previous years. I always used to think how tired she must be even before the eggs hatch as she always seemed to be awake and fidgeting about in the nest throughout each night. Having said that, she’s not the only one who seems to find it increasingly difficult to keep their eyes open in the evenings.

The highlight of my shift was the sky; almost cloudless, it gave me an opportunity to try a bit of star photography…

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My busy time of year

I haven’t stopped today and had to force myself not to go for a run. I got up at 4:45am to go out to do a peregrine nest protection shift followed by the first of two Breeding Bird Survey visits to my grid square on the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge. I then came home and cut my grass and mowed my hair (that didn’t take long) and I did the ironing and polished my shoes while watching the Grand Prix (I don’t watch them very often these days). I then wrote two blog posts (including this one) and researched and booked two hotels for the two nights before my week in the Orkneys in June. I finished the day off with a cycle out into the sticks.

After doing a night shift at the Glaslyn Ospreys Protection Site on Friday and then driving around North Wales on Saturday, I thought I would take it easy after the shift and survey this morning but I just couldn’t help myself.

The survey this morning was a good one with 30 species recorded including a passing hobby; a new species recorded within the grid square and not a bird I see very often. It flew at tree height and then swooped low over the fields and lifted over a treeline and disappeared from view; the seraph shape of its wings was unmistakable.

I think I need to go to work tomorrow for a rest!

Stirring from a night shift

The beginnings of first light starting to seep in through the drawn curtains come into my consciousness, stirring me from the last few hours tucked into the warmth of a sleeping bag. Imperceptibly, the night has been fading on the TV screen too, until the light from outside brings a realisation that dawn is on its way. Slipping out from the warm comfort and putting my feet into my shoes, I stand, stretch and put on my cold and damp jacket. I open the door and the cold air meets my face with a harshness against drowsy skin. It’s unexpectedly cold as I step from the shelter of the caravan; the clear overnight skies have lowered the temperature to levels almost down to a frost. Thick dew wets my jeans as I wander down through the long grass to the little bridge over the river.

Standing on the bridge, the cold clings to me even more, the water below seems to take some of my heat away as it flows past. Smoke-like mists rise from the river’s surface and wash over the neighbouring fields before fading to nothing on what little wind there is. As the light grows further, the scene begins to turn from monotone to spring colour. The clouds are hardly moving across the sky and breaks show through to the pastel blue beyond. Across the sides of the valley, greens are beginning to wash across the woodlands; single trees in ten breaking out into leaf but the others beginning to split their buds.

The birds started their dawn well before I ventured out; the wren is calling loudly from deep within a bush, the song thrush repeating it lyrics from a far off tree, the blue and great tits twittering from across the wall and a cuckoo calling its name from the hillside woods. A blackbird sings above them all, its powerful song coming from the top of the riverbank tree. There is one bird, however, that does not join the dawn chorus; having stirred little overnight, the female sits snuggly on top of three speckled eggs high up in the large nest overlooking the wet meadows. Not far from her, the male sits on the perch waiting for the day to begin and time for a first fishing trip once the sun has risen. The ospreys mark the start of the new day quietly, continuing their vigil, waiting for new life to come to their nest.

This was my first night shift of the new osprey season and a quiet one it was. I don’t think I have seen such little movement on the osprey nest during a shift. For much of the night, she had her head tucked in under her feathers between her wings and I only noticed her once leave the nest for a brief wing stretch. It’s not too surprising though as it was a particularly chilly night for the end of April; I was glad for my thermals!

I didn’t spend the whole night in my sleeping bag I have to add. When I arrived on site for my shift at 10:00pm, the last of the light was slowly fading away and I walked down to the river to see if I could locate any bats with my detector. The moon was incredibly bright and I didn’t need a torch when the clouds cleared; it seemed almost like it was still daylight. It didn’t take long for my detector to do its job and I had a few passes of Daubenton’s flying beneath me and under the bridge. 

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During the course of the night, I periodically went for a wander with a high powered torch, listening and looking for any sign of unwanted activity around the nest. The only sounds I had were those of the night; occasional calls of tawny owls and a grasshopper warbler joined in when the moon was out. There was one call I have no idea what it was. At first I thought it was the harsh hissing of a barn owl but it had a burbling pattern to it and came too frequently and for a sustained period of time.

I’ve got a another night shift in three weeks’ time but it will still be a couple more weeks until the first egg hatches.

Isles of Harris and Lewis: A walk on Luskentyre Beach

Pulling the door firmly closed behind me, I leave the cottage and am buffeted by the keen wind as I move away from the shelter of the building. It was warm inside but now out in the open there is a chill and the breeze cools me as I make my way down the gravel drive to the narrow single-track road. I cross to the gate, lifting the latch and pushing through, closing it behind me again. Down the grassy slope alongside rows of headstones spaced across the short-clipped lawn of the graveyard. All around the gulls are crying their screeching calls, chasing each other and playing in the turbulent air. I approach the second gate, going through, but struggling to close it properly, the two parts not lining up until finally the metal clank of the latch slots into place. 

I’m now out onto the dunes, pale, almost white sand held in place by tall stands of beach grass. In amongst the rolling hills are two grazing ponies, one grey, one white, their long pale manes and tails being gathered up by the wind. One looks up as I pass but it soon returns its head to the grass, pulling another mouthful and slowly chewing away. The going is soft but down a slope I’m soon onto firmer ground of the beach. There is crunching beneath my feet as I step on a shell-covered surface and I have to shade my eyes as the sand blows across the flat open expanse. I turn away and make for the headland with my back to the onrushing wind. Out here, the sands are of differing shades, yes, there is the pale cream and white but there is also steel grey and black mingled in amongst. The wind has created swirling patterns from the different shades, a myriad of shapes set only for a few hours before they are covered by water and eventually renewed with different patterns.

The tide is on its way in but it is slow running and there is still an hour or more until it is at its height.  Depending on the day its waves can break all the way up to the base of the dunes or it can fail to take away the footsteps of the day. As the water spreads across the low flat sands, piping oystercatchers stand as its edge, gradually moving closer inland as the waves slowly make their way towards the land. Sanderling and ringed plover also forage at the water’s edge, scuttling to and fro with the movement of the waves. They take to the air as I approach and drop down a little way further along the beach. They lift several times as I make my way along the water until eventually tiring of my presence and arching around me to move back to where I first met them.

The footing is firm down by the water, the sand made solid, some of it rippled, some of it smooth. I turn past the headland and the wind drops, the waves take over as the dominant sound; this part of the beach is met with strong forces of the sea with great breakers rolling into the sands. A large log is being rolled up and down as each band of rushing water meets the land. The bark has been stripped away and the revealed wood has been worn smooth by this same action over uncounted days.

Behind the beach, the land rises steeply to a peak and as the air rushes up the face of the mountain it condenses, creating great billowing clouds that trail inland. With the light from the dipping sun shining orange on the slopes, the land looks to be alight with flame and plumes of smoke.

Looking out to sea, Taransay looms large but further behind are the great hills and mountains of North Harris, a line of splendid peaks spreading off into the cloud-filled distance, their summits obscured. The sea between me and the far off coast is simmering with the wind, white water breaking away from the beach. As the waves peak, momentary glimpses are seen of rafts of duck, scoters and long tails floating out the winter in relative shelter of the great bay, their calls occasionally being brought inshore on the wind. I listen out for the wildest sound, the divers, but there are none to be seen or heard.

As the sun drops slowly behind the off-shore island, the shadow creeps up the beach, turning the steel shaded sands to a deepening blue and the gold into caramel. Finally, even the top of the peak it unlit and the darkness creeps in, brought on more quickly by the gathering rain clouds. There is one last pattern in the sand amongst the prints of man and dog; unseen a wilder animal walked along the beach, an otter searching along the water’s edge, gone now but its feet and tail gave it away.

I turn for home, up the narrow stream-bottomed valley and up and out into the open, past the small lambing fields. There are the first drops of moisture on the ever strengthening wind and I have to walk more purposefully to counteract the gusts. Eventually, I come back to the view from the cottage, overlooking the cemetery and vast sands beyond.

 

Isles of Harris and Lewis: The Abandoned Village

It’s not a long walk but if you lose the path, it becomes a cross-country bash across the heath and bog. Rising up and around the first hill, the modern day village soon disappears behind and won’t reappear for another couple of hours. Up and down through the wet grass tufts and squelching mass of moss and peat, the going is tough and the strong chilling wind is taking edge off the day; what sunshine appears is soon choked by grey cloud once more. 

A second hill follows and then, once rounded, a boggy plateau. At the end of this small, flat plain the sea begins to come into sight and as the edge appears so do the sheep-clipped smooth grasslands on the slope down to the water. At first there are just two of them, rectangular stands of stone walls with doorways and window openings but as further down the slope I go, others appear along the coast up to the shallowing bay and rocky beach. I pass from one to another, walking into former homes and walled fields, only the stone left, no signs of roofs, doors or window frames. This was a place of people, of farmers and fishermen, of community and family life. Now it is an empty, desolate place, the last signs of people slowly disappearing back to the ground from which they came.

Each time I go to one of these places, I’m visited by an eagle. A white-tail appears from behind the headland to a chorus of alarmed gulls mobbing from above and below. The usually majestic soar is replaced by a buffeted glide low down between the cliffs of the indented coastline. It dives suddenly but pulls up short of the water and then disappears from view around the next rounded promontory. The eagles seem to watch over the abandoned villages, the guardians of their souls and signifying the wild reclaiming these places. The grass is growing over the tumbled down walls of the houses, physically drawing them back into nature but it is the eagles who have taken back the wild spirit of the once populated valleys. 

Ever since my trip to the Isle of Skye two and a half years ago, I have been drawn to the old abandoned villages of the Scottish Islands – largely the result of the Highland Clearances. The Clearances occurred across vast swathes of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and Harris was not immune from the terrible actions of the landowners and their henchmen towards the local inhabitants. In Harris, people were ‘cleared’ from the fertile Machair grasslands of the west coast and given the choice of being shipped to the New World or struggling to survive on Harris’ rocky and almost barren east coast. Many chose the latter and survive they did, living off the sea and what they could grow on the small amounts of good land they had. However, some of the villages, townships, were also cleared on the east coast including the one I visited. Steimreway was cleared of its 80 inhabitants in 1857 but was repopulated in the early 1920s by five families. The last of these families left only 20 years later and the houses have remained empty since. It’s hard to tell which of the houses were from which period of occupation although some are in slightly better condition than others; some walls are almost completely overgrown by grass while the gable ends of some houses remain. 

Throughout Harris and Lewis, there are abandoned buildings, some much older, as a result of the clearances but others must only recently have been left to their own. Walking through one present-day village, there was one house right in its heart that appeared unoccupied, the chimney breast had collapsed but the rest of the house, from the outside, looked reasonably well maintained but empty and unwanted. There are great contrasts across the islands from the neolithic stone circles and roundhouses, the crumbling homes vacated during the Clearances, the lighthouses and their ancillary buildings decaying on the very edges of the land to the currently occupied houses and farmsteads in the villages or standing alone and the modern Nordic-style holiday homes of the west coast, all wood and big picture windows. The populations of the islands may be small but there can’t be many places in the UK where the full breath of human existence in the British Isles is so easy to see.

The blog posts for two walks to such ‘Highland Clearance’ villages on the Isle of Skye can be found by these links:

Isle of Skye – Lorgill: Left only to the Eagles

Isle of Skye – More Highland Clearance Villages

Despite my interest, I still now very little about the Clearances but I have book waiting for me at home that I hope will fill in gaps in my knowledge.

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Isles of Harris and Lewis: The Coffin Road

The land is bare, like in one great sweep a giant hand has wiped away the trees. Bare, cracked rock dominates; the meagre soil that clings on in between the great slabs of stone supports only tough grasses and spindly heather. Spring has yet to reach these parts, out in the extreme far north-west, the islands on the edge, the lands with nothing between them and the new world. In the early summer, the machair is resplendent with flowers and in the autumn the heather blooms across the hillsides, but now, it is a scene of dull browns, made darker by the low, dense cloud hanging heavy over the hills and glens.

On the east of Harris, a small collection of houses intermittently lines the narrow bay. Out on the edge of the water, one of the boulders, tumbled down from the slopes above, has a common seal dozing atop, almost unnaturally straight when a sprawl would seem more comfortable. The wind is light and there are only the merest of ripples on the loch’s surface, a few paddling birds dot around, too far away to distinguish. 

There seems to be a little living to be had here, fishing but not much else; they were sent here from the more fertile west, banished in favour of sheep. The ground is so thin and poor that little grows here but at least there is shelter, protection from the worst of the winter storms surging in from the Atlantic west. But survive here they did, for decades, they lived off the plenty of the sea and what they could meagrely derive from the land.

However, when survival came to an end, as for each one, in turn, it did, they had to return west to be sunk into the deeper ground, so shallow was the soil in the east. Their last journey was across the narrow pass, a rise between the two sides of the island, from the barren to the rich, a reversal from life to death.

The final journey was by hand and by shoulder, starting in the village and ascending up the slopes and through the high valley. There was no well worn path, just rock, stream and mire. The struggle in life became a struggle through death for the bearers, but bear it they did. The solemn procession stumbled, sank, tripped and drenched their way up through the sodden pass. With death coming more in winter than in summer, the task of taking the Coffin Road in the darker, colder, windier months, must have been harder still and some of the dead, so it is said, didn’t make it to the other side, planted on the way, where the depth of the soil allowed.

On cresting the last rise, the view opens up and down below, further still, lie the vast, effervescent sands of Losgaintir. Now, the westerly wind would hit them with full force, pushing their heads lower as they struggled to keep their feet on the uneven ground. Downward they would trudge, still no path and still only treaterous footing beneath. The miles were few but long and energy sapped as the hill began to flatten out and the ground became firmer. Alongside the bay, the procession continued around numerous small headlands until, at last, the cemetery came into sight. Only now for the empty shouldered trudge to return over the hills, with the gulls incessant calls at their backs to hound their departure from their former lands.

The first walk I did in Harris was one I had planned to do when I stayed in North Uist a couple of years ago; there’s a ferry linking the two islands but I didn’t get round to going across for the day. I used the excellent Cicerone book ‘Walking on Harris and Lewis’ as my guide – this is one of a vast series of great books covering many locations with detailed directions and an Ordnance Survey extract for each walk. As I was staying at Luskentyre, a good two and a bit miles from the route, I decided to start from my cottage and extend the walk from almost nine miles to nearly 14. The day started off bright but as I walked along the undulating and twisting road, the cloud closed in with a slight hint of moisture in the air. Joining the route at the far end from the suggested starting point actually made sense to me as it saves the best bit to last and it also gets what is a bit of a unpromising traipse along the route of the former main road between Tarbert and Leverbrough.

Once off the road, you drop down a side road into the old township of Aird Mhighe, the starting point for the Coffin Road. From here there is now a good path all the way across, laid with gravel in places and stone channels for the frequent streams; there are also marker posts at useful intervals. It’s not a particularly hard walk now, relative low-lying compared to many of the mountain walks further north but it’s easy to see how those coffin-bearers would have struggled all the way across without the modern path. There is certainly a sense of desolation as you get to the top of the pass, nothing in sight apart from rocky and marshy hillsides. However, without a solemn duty myself, cresting the last rise through the pass was a delight as the Luskentyre sands were laid out below. The sun had come out as I walked up the track and it dazzled as the tide had gone out to reveal the sands of differing shades of gold, cream, steel. The water, as it laps across the beach is of the most incredible colours, ranging from dark blues and greens to an almost electric turquoise. Heading down the hill as the Coffin Road comes to an end is on a better made track and eventually meets the main north-south road again. I crossed it and walked back along the lane to Luskentyre – views of the beach and its bays all the way home. 

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The Thin Green Line

Sitting in the Protection caravan with drops falling heavy on the roof and streams running down the windows, it’s easy to feel cocooned and shut in away from the unwelcoming outdoors. It’s not warm inside though, spring has yet to make itself felt too much here and the thin walls let the cold creep in barely hindered. An occasional passing steam train rumbles through, shaking the little home on its wheels and disturbing the peace, both inside and out. There’s little to do but sit and wait for time to creep on and the rain and its bearing clouds to pass.

There are now a few more signs in the valley that the season is starting to gather pace, with the chorus of birds stronger than it was. Now there’s a constant calling, yet to be exuberant, but more intense than it was across the meadows and through the woods. The tumbling chaffinch, tunefully repeating song thrush, pipiting pipit, forceful wren, melancholic blackbird, whisping dunnock, drumming woodpecker; they are all joining in now to the expanding orchestra. There are visible signs too, much of the land still looks to be in its winter malaise but here and there, a few pointers to returning life are starting to appear. The bramble and hawthorn are breaking their leaf buds bringing vibrant, bright green flashes to surrounding dark greens, browns and coppers. The primrose leaves are growing out from the undergrowth, the riverbed plants are coming to life but brightest of all, though, is the gorse, with the stunning yellow standing out above the rest.

When the rain finally ceases, I leave behind the shelter and wander down to the bridge over the river. No otter footprints this time and it is running low despite the recent heaving rains. Leaning back on the railings I observe the nearby copse around the craggy outcrop in the middle the wet meadows. There are now two figures perched on branch reaching out from the giant nest. A relief has swept through a group of watchers as first one, then the other, returned to their summer home.

Last week there was some concern that the female osprey wouldn’t be returning this year but just 24 hours after my shift she landed on nest, completing her biannual epic journey between Africa and Wales. She was late back according to her usual timekeeping but given the recent weather, Beasts for the East and all that, it’s not too surprising. It wasn’t until later in the week that her mate for the last three years safely returned to the nest. No one was quite sure it was him as their behaviour was a little different to their first meetings in the last two years. However, they seem to be getting on more than fine and collecting nesting material; in fact they were getting on very well at least five times during my shift.  

It was an interesting shift, watching the newly arrived pair settling into their nest again and making improvements. They made several visits to the neighbouring fields to collect twigs and grass to bolster the nest. On one such trip, the female came within 100 metres of me, slowly drifted down and plucked some grass from the ground. I managed to get a photo but unfortunately it’s a bit blurred.

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I had a visit from the local Police during my stay, just popping in to say hello and see how things were progressing. Despite the great pressures the Police are under across a whole range of their duties, it’s great to see them continuing to take an active interest in this project, and wildlife crime in general. It’s sometimes forgotten amongst the dramas unfolding on our computer screens that the first priority of the Glaslyn Wildlife team is the protection of the nest and birds, and, hopefully, the eggs and chicks they will nurture. There are people, either in the area and further afield, who may wish the nest harm and there are others who could cause harm unintentionally; we’re here with the support of the Police and others to ensure that harm doesn’t happen.

Here in the Glaslyn Valley, across the UK, and beyond, there is a ‘Thin Green Line’ of professionals and volunteers trying to protect the environment and wildlife, without whom our world would be in an even poorer state than it already is. This may be one nest, but it’s a precious one in helping to re-establish a thriving osprey population across Wales.

Easter day survey

A breeding bird survey seemed like the great way to start off Easter Day. I went to my Cheshire Wildlife Trust survey site for the second time this spring and walked from one end to the other recording the birds in each separate area. The Bagmere reserve has a mixture of (very) wet pasture, woodland and fen, providing quite a variety of habitats for different birds.

The weather was just about perfect, with clear, sunny skies, no rain and a very light wind. However, the temperature was in single figures and I can’t quite believe that I still had to go out wearing thermals to do a survey in April! The birdlife also showed signs of the cold weather with the calls and songs still subdued. The only possible spring migrants were chiffchaffs but these could be wintering birds. In the distance, off the reserve, several curlews made their haunting, wild calls; they should be moving up to the  moors but at present will be kept at lower levels by the recent snows.

Again, the willow tits were absent, which is a shame but I’ll just have to see if they appear, along with all the migrants, when I do the last two spring surveys in May and June.

At the end of the survey, I stopped and stood overlooking the fen in the sunshine, listening to a sky lark sing high up in the air above the reserve – just about a perfect 10 minutes of spring.

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