Sitting on the sun warmed, ancient hammer-dressed, bluestone chunk that we’d rollered and levered into position years ago for just this event, I was enjoying a divorced moment of reality watching the annual butterfly dance on the Buddleja.
They’ve built in numbers over the last fortnight, surpassing the expected annual ‘Welsh fifteen’ moment, and for the first time ever, probably reached into the hundreds. Benign weather, plenty of nectar from larger Buddleja bushes, and adequate larval food plants nearby, all probably being factors in this year’s success.
They’d begun their autumnal surge with Peacocks, Aglais io.Then Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, Small Tortoiseshells, Aglais urticae, and finally the occasional Comma, Polygonia c-album, and Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas, appeared.And flocks of the common Large whites, Pieris brassicae, in part because a neighbour’s field had been resown again with a mix including a sheep forage swede. Garden visitors from Llanwrtyd Wells yesterday reported a very different sequence of butterfly emergence, with the Peacocks being the last to appear. Why? The latest arrival was a Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui. And all of this activity before the ranks of Sedum ‘ Autumn Joy’ really begins to add to the nectar rush.
This moment of pause and reflection on so much Lepidopteran activity, meant that I had the camera to hand, warmed by the blue stone, as yesterday the roar from the South heralded an approaching jet. These low level fly-pasts are regular, and often seem to precisely target Gelli, but was it my imagination or has the activity increased recently as the clamour for ‘strikes in Syria’ has reverberated around the world, in response to chemical weapon use in that civil war torn country. So by fluke I have an in focus image of a hurtling jet screaming directly over the garden with what seem to be heavily missile laden wings. An aerial predator of gargantuan ferocity.
Global reality briefly impinging on the rural Welsh scene, on the day that a recalled parliament rejected tentative progress by the British government towards some sort of military involvement in that distant land.
One has just seconds to react to such fly pasts. Fortunately of course for us, we know and naturally assume, that they are benign. In war, alert senses would have little protective merit from the annihilation or maiming inflicted with such speed, from above.
Being alert for aggressive threats is, however, part of the daily battle for survival with the surrounding natural flora and fauna. The sight of all these Peacocks had me doing a bit of research on the value of their eye spots as predator deterrents. Recent elegant work in Scandinavia does seem to confirm that they play a significant protective role. At rest with wings closed, the butterfly is a master of disguise, blending in with dead leaf type camouflage. But disturb it, or indeed when it’s vulnerable to predation whilst nectaring on flowers, and those spots are constantly displayed and flashed.Martin Olofsson, from Stockholm University, staged several ‘interactions’ between Peacock butterflies and domestic chickens, including some where he painted over the butterfly’s eye spots. The chickens typically fled the scene when the butterflies ‘displayed’ their wing patterns whether the eye spots were painted over or not. But the birds were much more cautious about returning to the butterflies with visible eye spots, and also use predator warning alarm calls to communicate a perceived threat to other birds. Olofsson concludes that the eye spots therefore induce not simply an aversion to conspicuous patterns, but probably a fear of potential predation. Small birds like blue tits, which will take butterflies on the wing, are presumably similarly influenced by what we perceive to be marks of great colour, intricacy and beauty.Our turkeys are certainly masters of caution and users of alarm calls, and other means of communication. Perhaps in this season of buzzard mewed back-beats, this has helped save all our poultry from the goshawks’ talons – neighbours lost all but one of their outside chickens, including a cockerel too heavy for the bird to carry off, to a goshawk, barely a week after I’d described witnessing the early morning attack in our high meadow.
Even when dust bathing in the trough they’ve gouged out in their run, it’s a communal affair, with many pairs of eyes constantly alert to aerial predation. Their caution with new objects has extended to a basic new feeding trough which I’ve introduced to them. 36 hours later, and I’m still struggling to get them to take corn from within its white plastic perforated drain base.Do they perceive a primaeval giant snake threatening? This caution must be seriously felt, since for now they must be feeling pretty hungry. Even favourite pasta shells and apple cores scattered on the trough’s edge are taken reluctantly!
Other wide open eyes have been spotted on the slate wall outside the front door this week – probably both looking for prey, and potential predators. A pair of common (or vivparous) lizards, Zootoca vivipara.Is that a discarded tail on the wall, bottom right corner ?
I nipped outside on loading up the image and noticing this, and in fact it was just a curved dessicated sprung geranium (Cranesbill) seed pod. Not quite as elegant as the Erodium manescavii seed pods, which are also abundant this year.
In the high flower meadow, I’ve continued to take off more hay and overgrown grass, using a recently acquired 2 wheeled BCS tractor – I’ll write about this a little more next time. Raking the cut grass into wind rows for drying and removal, I found this toad hunkered down into its own protective ‘foxhole’ which perhaps helped it evade the vicious scissor action of the sickle bar mower. But how beautifully camouflaged. I felt that this image could be improved on when the sun came out, so 5 minutes later I revisited the marked spot, only to find that the toad had moved on – presumably wanting to escape from the drying action of the midday heat. Disappointed, I was about to move on, when I realised that it was still there – but it had just moved to one extremity of the 3 inch deep divot, and pressed its nose into the base, and its rear into the air. What finally caught MY eye, was seeing amongst the subtlety of beige and green, the rich tones of its eye.A Sauron like, divorced, suspended, fiery globe.
Watching. Wide Open.
And just today in the tyre garden, an immobile Golden Ringed dragonfly, Cordulegaster boltonii, hanging out on the Verbena hastata flowers.
‘Eyes’ wide open.
What was the predator? And did the likely dogfight exhaust the wounded dragonfly, which was resting to recuperate?
Also wide open, and new to the garden are the adapted leaves of these Sarracenias, or Pitcher Plants. Acquired recently after a fascinating talk on carnivorous plants given to our local Cothi Gardeners Club by a nearby nursery owner, Helen Warrington. Much to my surprise, these plants, which are mainly North American natives, have specialised growing requirements which should be fairly easy for us to achieve – high humidity, a peaty acid growing environment, and constant nutrient free rainwater ot moisture at the roots. They’re supposedly hardy to minus 20 degrees C. The most tricky requirement for us is being able to grow them in full sun, but we’re experimenting with a couple of plants which can be temporarily moved inside for those occasions when fruit, and other small, flies decide to venture indoors. We reckoned that the pitchers are aesthetically more appealing than our previously used, and potentially hair catching, fly papers!
Already it’s apparent that their elegant design, with a tall tube with smooth sides, and fine hairs baited with an insect attracting scent, is hugely successful – flies, wasps and moths all seem to have fallen for the offer, never to escape from that wide open mouth. However, looking on line, I clearly must personally avoid the spurious delights of these plants. Whilst researching more detailed information on their cultural requirements I came upon this site, click here (based in our previous home town), which shows that it’s surprisingly easy to become hooked, (or is that entrapped or even obsessed) with the subtle variations in their colour and form.
I think I should concentrate on snowdrops instead, and driven by an inability to move any of these early in the year due to freeze drying conditions, I’ve at last moved a few bulbs around recently after scrabbling around beneath shrubs and finding a few bulbs which are currently pretty dormant.
But perhaps owning just a few Sarracenias, is a reminder that the explosive adaptive evolution which has taken place over millions of years between flowering plants and pollinating insects to the benefit and diversity of both life forms, has had the odd aberrant branch – developed of course to provide these very specialised plants with an elegant solution to exploiting growing conditions largely devoid of adequate nutrient at root level. Their flowers, which do indeed attract pollinating insects, tend to be produced before the pitchers start to appeal to all those meal ticket visitors, and are held well away from the ‘leaves’.
Much of August was occupied with events and visits, and we returned with Diana to Keith and Moira’s immaculate and richly planted garden at Cilgwyn Lodge. Unfortunately I forgot my camera, so can’t include any pictures, but provide a link to this jewel of a summer garden, which you can access here – the monthly news blog which Keith writes is well worth looking at for a flavour of how spectacular his garden looks.
A day later, and we revisited Annie Hart’s estuary-side garden at Delacorse. Parking in the car park at the base of Laugharne castle (look out for warning signs alerting you to high tides flooding the car park), you can reach the garden by an idyllic walk through woods which line the banks of the (Taf) estuary. This route also takes you past the writing shed and boathouse where the poet Dylan Thomas lived in his last years and composed much of his most well known poetry. What an inspiring location with extensive views out to the South East, and the haunting bird song of numerous estuarine birds, including a curlew – which we haven’t heard for years.
Annie has clearly drawn inspiration from the magical setting of her location to craft a unique garden over the last 20 years. Highlights include her amazing, large productive vegetable plot, which puts my efforts to shame; a fabulous ruin with camomile lawn and tinkling water feature fed with overflow from the old mill pool, stunning herbaceous and shrub beds.As well as a path that leads down onto the salt marsh bordering the estuary. Since we arrived just after one of the high tides which had flooded this area, the air was filled with fresh salty scents.Annie also weaves amazing structures from willow grown in the garden.Annie kindly gave us a couple of her stunning figs and delicious fennel bulbs to try, and we returned in the sunshine, pausing for a light lunch at the cafe on the terrace of the Old Boathouse. Light, and its infinite variety, is always a very precious part of our existence here, and one could imagine its influential role in Annie’s evolutionary garden design process and planting. Was this spider’s silken endeavour, spotted as we walked back towards Llaugharne amongst the dappled footpath light, woven with delight, angst or anguish?
Or simply for entrapment?
Next year is the centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth and a calendar of events to commemorate this is being arranged. If you’re heading for West Wales in 2014, I would recommend a visit to this gorgeous garden and town.
Dylan Thomas’ famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good night”, including the famous final line:
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
This was written in Laugharne as his father lay dying nearby. Click below for a moving recording of a reading of it by the poet, in a voice strangely devoid of the obvious lilt of the local Carmarthenshire accent, in spite of this being the county of his birth and childhood:
We visited the other branch of the (Tywi) estuary, South of Carmarthen, on the way home, at Llansteffan. As the sun moved lower behind the castle, and huge expanses of sand opened up in front of us with the now very low tide level, there were more glorious vistas, and an appropriately special kind of illuminating light.
Finally a record of tomatoes picked from the greenhouse on August 29th as productivity here begins to reach its peak.And some special Gell Uchaf light from the last fortnight: