Memories of May – Sun, Wheels, Bells, Clocks, Hay, Mother. Crash.

How shall I remember May 2018? Certainly not the 30 mm deluge on May 2nd which now seems an age ago. The abiding memory will be, at last, of a lengthy dry spell, with much fantastic sunshine and warm days. Eventually with warmer nights too, after early frosty dawns…

This change in the weather began, as for most of the country, with an early spring Bank Holiday, which nationally was the warmest since this new holiday was instituted. What made it even more special for us was that owing to a last minute cancellation, we had no visitors here. A disappointment, but it did mean for the first time in years we had that rare combination of near perfect weather, and time to steal to enjoy it. With few pressures…

So I took Fiona off for a walk I’d done earlier in the year on my own, when she couldn’t even sit in the car. Beginning at a wonderful stone bridge over the glorious river Cothi just outside Brechfa, where there’s space for a couple of cars to park, it takes about and hour an a half to complete.

The Cothi valley between Llansawel and Brechfa is a delight at any time of the year, and I spent half an hour whilst writing this post trying to find some explanation of the geology or history of why the Cothi suddenly turns through a near right angle, due South, after flowing West, and cutting through a deep wooded valley. But failed miserably to find anything significant.

Click here for the Google satellite view. To find the start point, take the tiny lane just off the B4310, and continue for about half a mile to reach the bridge. The footpath is then very well signposted, with new gates, and takes you North along a charming tributary, before crossing this, and skirting back along the Western side of the Cothi valley, amongst wonderful old forests. Needless to say, in spite of it being a fabulous Bank Holiday Saturday, we met no other walkers.

But there were bluebells aplenty and even a disturbed Small Phoenix moth rested for a photocall on a rotting trunk, abdomen turned up distinctively…Eventually you reach a wonderful, meccano style (i.e. bolted together metalwork) footbridge over the river, which brings you back onto the country lane running along the Eastern side of the valley, which you follow back to the car.

By good fortune we timed it to spot a pair of Dippers, probably with a nest nearby, which flew across the river and did a bit on impressive dipping and diving in the still swift marginal flow.

It was on the return lane that the rural peace and quiet was occasionally disrupted by a few groups of trail bikers, riding slowly up and down the road, visors raised, with quite noisy and smelly machines.

The first group stopped and one rider asked if we’d seen a sign on a tree which they were apparently looking for. Later a larger group appeared from a side track and asked pretty much the same question – Had we seen a number plate up in a tree which they were searching for?

We replied that unfortunately we hadn’t – we’d been concentrating on admiring the fabulous spring flowers along all the verges. He sheepishly said he hadn’t really noticed the flowers, but apparently they were a group from Swindon who were trying to follow a marked trail, finding and ticking off such way markers. What an interesting leisure activity concept. To travel all that way to look for number plates in trees.

And not notice nature exploding and unfurling all around?

Back by the bridge, at last we met a lone fellow gazing wistfully over the bridge and looking upstream to where, apparently, there is a now near derelict property which he used to rent, but which he’d sadly been asked to vacate, by the owner, a while back. He loved the place, even though it required a half mile hike to reach it from the lane, and because the property was tucked into the North facing forested hillside, it saw no sun between November and Valentine’s day. He missed it hugely, and had just walked up to look at its state of repair and wished he could return.

This remains a delightful and beautiful off the map area, well worth a visit, and if you continued by car along this beautiful secret valley, eventually you’d emerge at Pontarcothi, near where the Cothi joins the river Twyi.

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Needless to say the rest of the bank holiday weekend was filled with pottering type work around the garden, rather than just sitting down, and in particular it saw me gearing up to constructing my take on a simple shepherd’s hut type structure to allow a place of dry, and partly open to the air contemplation and Kelly Kettled tea at the top of our upper meadow. We also might even get decent mobile and internet reception up there? More on why this might be later.

This project began with a set of wheels picked up on ebay, sourced and collected from Exmouth last September at the beginning of a brief holiday around Dartmoor. The wheels probably originated from some old Eastern European farm vehicle. The vendor specializes in such vintage components and apparently regularly supplies complete old wooden hay carts and such like for TV and film production companies.A steel chassis was designed (cribbed in style from an image on line), and then welded up for me by the excellent Teifi forge in Lampeter. Materials were ordered and accumulated and a simple design and plan drawn up on the back of an envelope – since lost! The only scrap of paper now involved is a drawing roughed out by Fiona for the gable end fan “windows”. Such is my on the hoof approach to things. Problem solving and tweaking as things progress…

The plan to prefabricate the wall panels and assemble them in situ reached its climax a fortnight ago, when the whole lot was part pulled, but mainly carried up the hill, and the basic frame assembled, amazingly without a glitch, in a single day.

Much remains to be done, including fixing the roof sheets permanently, internal and some external cladding and gable end “windows” and “door” access, but at least this can be done in a more relaxed fashion. Trying to juggle this with ongoing garden maintenance work though is tricky, and inevitably means some things get missed.

The additional dilemma facing us was that we then had an extended forecast period of dry, warm and fairly sunny weather stretching ahead of us. So I started to cut some hay. The problem is that after the very cool spring, the crop at this time of the year is really light. And most plants haven’t produced flowers let alone seed yet. Which is why the strict approach to hay making would be it’s far too early to even think of doing this – many agro-environmental schemes ban cutting any hay fields before early July, to avoid impacting on any ground nesting birds, but there aren’t any of these on our land anyway.

But there is a well known saying about making hay, when the sun shines…

The Sweet Vernal grass flower heads are up, rusty brown. The Pignut fronds are unfurling, and Germander Speedwell and Lousewort are in bloom.  Do we wait for more growth, and risk another typically wet July and August? Or start nibbling away, and at least get some hay in the (Big) Bag? Having cut some on 2 days around midday, around the field edges, my decision seemed justified – this is how cutting hay should be! The stems are actually dry when you cut them – not damp with yesterday’s rain, or heavy with dew, as is usually the norm here. The BCS power scythe blade cut much more cleanly, and didn’t clog once…

The other benefit with sequential nibbling is that it’s much easier to manage physically, and some of the flowers will probably recover and flower later in the year. The first yellow rattle flowers opened last week too, and this is one of the plants I suspect will bounce back from an early trim, and hence extend the season of nectar and pollen for bumblebees later in the year. There are certainly some benefits compared with the conventional radical, cut the field all in one go, which is the normal practice with mechanised hay or silage making these days.

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There are simply too many lovely photos I could share and not enough time or space to process them, but I’ll include a few from 2 fabulous walks we did last Sunday round Nevern, and Moylegrove in Pembrokeshire, which added confirmation to my MAIN MEMORY of May 2018.

Much insect and animal life here has crashed in population numbers this spring.

In Pembrokeshire, the spring flowers were amazing. Many classic natives for bees – Bluebells on woods and banks, and Thrift on the coast. But in over 3 hours walking on a sunny day in mid afternoon, we saw only 3 bumblebees in total, very few flies, and almost no butterflies, though it is still quite early in the year. Just a couple of Orange Tips.

Back home there are bumblebees, though nothing like the usual numbers, and Bee Flies… Other fly numbers are dramatically down.Slug numbers in the garden AND fields have collapsed. Though I have no way of knowing accurate numbers, my guess is numbers have crashed to less than 5 % of normal. 2 nights ago on a warm damp evening at a dusk, I walked round our mown path through the upper hay meadow and counted just 14 slugs in the total of about 330 yards. In the past one could easily have counted 250 over the same distance. I might repeat this slug “transect” at roughly monthly intervals, to check my theory and see how long numbers take to recover.

Predators of small birds (rats, magpies, jays, and even, strangely, visiting cats) seem almost non existent, hence the 2 robin’s nests I’ve found within 15 yards of our front and back doors have survived predation, even though one was on the ground, and the other incredibly open to view.

A pair of Goldfinches are nesting yards from the greenhouse in a less easy to photograph woolly nest just beneath the pruned canopy of an Eleagnus.

A recently fledged chick from one robin nest clearly died overnight in the frequently very cold darkness early in the month. The corpse, unmarked, is still where I found it. Likewise with what may well be a young sparrow chick which fell from its nest beneath the rafters. Unclaimed carrion days later.

We have 3 swallows in our main barn, though I’m not convinced that they’re actually breeding. The winds have still often been from the East or North. Are they all the same sex? No red starts or flycatchers to cheer us this year either.

A few Orange Tip butterflies so far in the garden, and the very occasional Peacock butterfly. I also saw this wonderful pristine Green Veined White, just post emergence on our front wall, as well as a just emerged Small Magpie moth on our entrance rug. But would its wings ever properly inflate?

Yesterday, pausing at dusk from more hay cutting and checking out the many Orchids now beginning to open flower spikes in the upper hay meadow, I even found a recently emerged Mother Shipton moth – only the second I’ve ever seen.

All of this population crash is completely unique in our time here.

Usually some species have a good year, and some don’t. This spring it seems everything has collapsed in numbers, apart from our House Sparrows.

We’ve never heard a cuckoo calling as much as we have this April and May, though not really close by in our valley. Is its constant calling because its hungry, or can’t find a mate? Or is it enjoying the lack of competition in the dawn chorus? Or in some curious way is the fact that a new transmission mast which is probably now active and beaming 4G mobile signals up our valley for the first time having some effect on wildlife? Who knows.

If this population crash is simply the result of the prolonged extremely harsh late winter and spring which I’ve banged on about in my posts before, then I guess numbers will recover. Should such harsh winters becomes the norm, then our long term problems with slugs in the garden in this wet part of the UK will certainly diminish. If however there is an element of population decline because of other issues linked to the late anthropocene epoch, then we should be very alarmed. For the first year, I’m beginning to think in years to come we may not have the happy chatter of swallows to accompany us as we work outside over the summer months.

As regular readers will know, the garden has been developed to be filled with insect friendly flowers for much of the year to encourage a vibrant insect ecosystem. Over the last decade this strategy has worked really well, and year on year, more insects have delighted us with their presence as we work around the garden.

Bizarrely as the garden has perhaps reached its floral peak this last week, with many of our stalwart insect friendly flowers like apple blossom and Geranium macrrorhizum in full flow, the garden is strangely quiet, and still. The insects just aren’t here. If this is what happens after such winters, then in future (short term), the garden displays will probably look glorious for even longer.

But further ahead, seed and fruits set will be reduced, and lack of insects in “the garden”  will be the least of our worries. We were fortunate to be able watch a thought provoking documentary this last week about the lives and landscape of the Faroe islands, “The Islands and The Whales”, at the wonderful Theatr Mwldan in Cardigan. Click here for more. The irony that these remote islanders who, (brutally for many viewers), hunt Pilot whales and cliff nesting seabirds to supply food on these inhospitable islands are now suffering neurological problems from excessive mercury from ingesting such foods, is explored in a very fair and considered film. Living a simple existence removed from the mainstream doesn’t isolate the Faroese from the pollution of the marine environment by much of humanity. Well worth a look if you can download it!So a very strange mix of emotions as the second May Bank Holiday arrived, with gloomier skies and the risk of thunderstorms.Has anyone else noticed such a dire collapse in insect and other wildlife in their part of the world this year ??Finally after some images from the garden, by a pure fluke, the only video clip I tried to capture of the nesting robin is shown below… An unedited 2 minute clip, which captured the first of the fledglings leaving the nest for the first time around 8 am a week ago. By lunch all 4 had flown.

Addendum: As a postscript, I discovered this link, click here, and explanation to a disruptive deep bass thumping sound we both experienced from early on Sunday morning, and again on Monday of last weekend’s Bank Holiday. I nearly mentioned it in the post, when it was written, but didn’t then know ist origin.

We’re indeed grateful that we normally live in such a very peaceful place. What a shame that some have such a poor regard for these rare oases in our busy island. Instead of using the benign sounding “a very large party or similar event with dancing to loud, fast electronic music”, I’m more inclined to go with the old, middle English definition of Rave…

To “show signs of Madness”.

Perhaps an appropriate post, postmodernist phenomenon for our species, now so disconnected from its place in the natural world.

 

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10 thoughts on “Memories of May – Sun, Wheels, Bells, Clocks, Hay, Mother. Crash.

  1. I love reading your posts. With two friends we toured Wales ,early May, from South to North visiting gardens and nurseries starting at Aberglasney and a wonderful nursery called The Farmyard. We were not too far away from your lovely valley. A pity I didn’t realise it at the time. I WOULD LOVE TO HAVE VISITED

    • Hello Mary,
      Thanks for the kind comment, and glad you enjoy reading the posts – actually a poor substitute for being in the garden ( particularly this fabulous May!), but better than nothing, I suppose.
      Maybe we’ll meet sometime if you revisit – Aberglasney is fabulous anytime of the year, and Farmyard is a real treat too!
      best wishes
      Julian

  2. I did not know that fledglings would voluntarily leave the nest at “fluffy feathers on head ” stage. Do they return at nightime?
    I have not noticed any particular dearth of insects this year but we had a mild winter. Our swallows are a thing of the past, so it is all relative.
    Good luck with the bothie. Amelia

    • Hello Amelia,
      Once they’ve flown the nest – at least with the robins – that seems to be it, they don’t return.
      Interesting that you didn’t suffer the declines in insects, and escaped the freezing winds in March.
      Does you comment about swallows mean that they all fly on Northwards? Somehow I thought that some would hang around for the summer in France too.
      Best wishes
      Julian

  3. Another lovely post Julian full of wonderful photos and thoughts. Thanks for the new walk idea…we’ll try it as it sounds perfect. Last weekend we went to RSPB Dinas …the bluebells were amazing. Love the idea of a ‘shepherd’s hut’ …I have a really tiny shelter that I’d hoped I could sit in and watch life slowly pass by…but the sheep have other ideas and turfed me out!! Ssshh don’t tell the slugs where we are as we have hardly any too! The video is brilliant…you should send it to Springwatch!

    • Thanks Marianne,
      The walk is well worth doing, at any time of the year, I’d say. I’d double check on an OS map once you’ve crossed the tributary over a small bridge, as there are a couple of path options – you need the one that takes you close to a derelict stone farmhouse.
      I’m hoping the hut will be just high enough to prevent the sheep joining the shepherds! Interesting that your slugs have crashed too – we did a straw poll at gardening club and 90% of people had noticed the same collapse in numbers – but not everyone – I guess some gardens were more protected from those very strong chilling winds.
      Glad you liked the robin video …I spotted one of the youngsters today on our terrace table, so at least one has made it for now,
      best wishes
      Julian

  4. I too am concerned about insect numbers. We walked in west Devon on a sunny warm day on Sunday and saw very few insects despite the many flowers that were out. In our garden I have not seen the usual late May flush of bumblebees. On the other hand I did see plenty of solitary bees a few weeks ago. The problem is I dont have a very good basline to go on, unlike yourself.

    • Thanks for that Philip, and interesting to hear that even on the South coast there’s a shortage – all of this is, as you say, “anecdotal” isn’t it, but I’ve never been struck by how devoid of insects the garden is when it should be buzzing. Even the Cotoneaster which has flowers opening now, and is usually audibly humming has nothing on it. Having said that yesterday, for the first time, there were significant numbers of bumblebees in the garden. So perhaps things will recover as we move through the summer.
      But I think it might not be quite so easy for the insect eating predators higher up the food chain,
      best wishes
      Julian

  5. Hi Julian, great post, though a little pessimistic? I too have noticed the dearth of insects but have also received far fewer stings and bites! Loved the walk. My kind of territory! Warm regards,K

    • Hello K,
      If you read my next post, you’ll see that maybe I was a little premature… but interestingly there ‘s really no decent monitoring of insect numbers – no money in it, and too complex and diverse a field, so I guess anecdotal observations maybe have some role.
      Interestingly your comment about fewer bites and stings ties in with an Aussie journalist’s line of questioning of Prof Dave Goulson’s piece on declining insect numbers last year… ” So why do we need to worry about fewer insects? Surely that’s a good thing – it’ll mean we get fewer bites!”
      Having just come back from 3 more great walks along Pembrokeshire/Cardiganshire coastline I can report that there are more insects around, though frankly only a fraction of what we’ve had in the garden and fields here in June, so I’m encouraged that all our work in stuffing the garden with insect friendly flowers is indeed paying off,
      best wishes from a perpetually G. H, though momentarily considerably more cheerful – it must be all the gorgeous weather in the West of late!

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