The garden is severely stressed. The wider landscape is suffering too. And strangely quiet much of the time. The perfect storm for local livestock farmers, following the very extended winter and cold spring, may indeed be gathering impetus. Pasture cut for silage or hay all around us bleaches with no aftermath regrowth under weeks of strong sunshine, mid to high twenties temperatures, frequently strong winds, and almost minimal rain.
We’ve been in lock down mode as far as water usage goes for several weeks now, having our own spring water supply, and also being conscious of how our healthy and largely unpolluted upland stream, Afon Melinddwr, which crosses through our land twice, is down to a mere trickle.
About two weeks ago we thought we should check the state of our spring water supply, so climbed longevity hill, over the gate and followed the contours across our neighbour’s fields to reach the simple manhole cover. Although a replacement fixture, modern galvanising is clearly of very poor quality. The whole thing had rusted and the cover was fused to the rim. We had to return with screwdriver and jemmy to lever it open. To our amazement and relief, the concrete ring holding tank was at full capacity, and still overflowing – just, but the jug we took up to measure inflow registered only about 220 ml per minute. Repeated 10 days later, this seemed stable, at 250 ml per minute. To save readers the calculations, this translates to about 15 litres an hour, or 360 litres a day. Not much leeway when the average British resident apparently uses around 150 litres of water daily.
I’m sure the fact that our spring is sited on a North facing slope, and that this year these fields haven’t been intensively grazed, has helped hugely in preserving a flow from what is essentially simple surface run off waters. Many neighbour’s wells and boreholes have already run dry. But how much longer will it hold out?
All our washing up brown water is being tipped on the garden. Shared (sequentially) bath water goes the same way. Is this actually rational? Does the detergent inevitably present weaken and damage roots and leaves already at the limit of viability? Without water our blue green plant would soon become a brown, lifeless one. Loos are flushed with bath water.
But still the rains pass us by. Last night forecasts once more hinted we might get some light rain, or even a thunderstorm, but again the brooding dark clouds built to the South and East of us, and nothing fell here. We’ve had just 2 mm of rain so far in July, following a very dry May and June (58.1 mm and 24 mm).
Priority is being given to the very few vegetables I’ve managed to get round to growing this year after the really late freezing weather at the end of winter. Plants in pots are needless to say a liability with no rainfall, but need frequent watering to keep them alive. Increasingly any shrubs which are obviously beginning to wilt also need regular attention. Today Hydrangea sargentiana and 3 Daphne bholuas which were planted early this spring were the latest to have reached near death dehydration, and which were missed by me, beneath the mature tree canopy earlier in the week.
Many of our stalwart perennials, and in particular “tough as old boots” ground cover plants which have hung on for weeks seem to be beyond saving – we simply don’t have sufficient water to do this. Wilting London Pride, Saxifraga × urbium, below. Whether they will recover once the rain arrives, we’ll have to see. If not, our hope is that seedlings from years of fallen seed will quickly regenerate, and cover bare areas with the same mix of plants as before the drought began. Our shrubbery “lawn”, above, has turned from floriferous Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris, and White clover, Trifolium repens, to a solitary Common knapweed, Centaurea nigra, self-sown amongst parched dried dead foliage. Knapweed does indeed seem to be a great survivor in these extreme conditions.
With much of the landscape tinder dry, fires are a real, and growing threat. Earlier this week I even phoned 999 as significant smoke appeared mid-afternoon on the horizon, due East, billowing in pulses from behind the third range of distant hills. Had someone lit a bonfire in these conditions? With all the dead larch around in the local copses and nearby Brechfa Forest, a single drifting spark or ember, would, I’m sure, start a catastrophic fire.
Last night I climbed our hill to check out whether the low cloud filling the distant Tywi valley was indeed cloud, or rather smoke. In the end I was certain it was billowing smoke from a huge hidden fire towards Talley or Salem. Large-scale damage will have resulted from this, I’m sure.
Today small fires broke out near our village in the valley below us, a fire engine alarm broke the silence and then later in the day, the unmistakable haze and smell of smoke drifted through the valley, on strengthening Westerly winds.
This is all very strange for us, we’re getting twitchy, and later what looked like dense smoke to the North of us just turned out to be cool mists, settling over the parched fields, as we checked our spring again and found the level has now begun to fall, although water is still trickling in at much the same rate.
Plan B will now have to begin. All those years of saving polycarbonate bottles and filling them with water, principally for its thermal store properties, will now be brought into play. From now on these will be have to be emptied into our watering cans to try to keep the plants going. My guess is that we’ll have maybe 2,000 litres of water stored in this way around the garden. How long will that last?
Writing about the delights of a garden seems a little forced under such conditions, with much physical hard work simply keeping things alive, and not too much to really delight in the garden. However, the many climbing and rambling roses have thrived in these atmospherically moisture free conditions, even if overall flowering times have been a little shortened.
In this exceptional year, at least our 2 hay sheds, built last year, are full to capacity with excellent hay, our final intensive session at the end of June producing the driest, though not probably the highest quality, crop of the year. The large areas cut in late June just haven’t regrown.
By contrast our first sections cut in mid-May now have flowering plants, grasses and seeds and sufficient regrowth for the sheep in a few weeks’ time. Perhaps an example that the rigid dates for hay cuts laid down to many farmers who are part of agri-environment schemes, isn’t all that rational. For anyone who hasn’t looked into such schemes in any detail (and we haven’t, having a phobia of all things complex and bureaucratic), have a dip into this link, click here. This is an audit review of the early Welsh Tir Gofal scheme which saw 20% of Welsh farmers sign up for detailed farm management plans which allowed generous funding for capital works, in exchange for on farm management changes designed to help the rural environment.
This was replaced by a less generous Tir Cynnal scheme. The one thing I failed to find in a skip reading was a date for hay cutting, but understand that it was often specified as early July at the absolute earliest. This audit highlights, to me, the problems with worthy, prescriptive, desk-based schemes, imposed on an industry like farming where many practical and physical issues, of which weather is just a single example, are completely uncontrollable.
The shepherd’s hut construction has continued in between other jobs, and is now externally nearly finished, though the most critical aspect of fixing the planned polycarbonate folding front windows still has to be completed, after very careful cutting out of holes for the fixings.
Along with another 3 nights away near the coast (see later), the run of dry sunny weather meant I had time to try to study and photograph the wonderful Beautiful demoiselle damselflies, Calopteryx virgo, which populate our stream. Previously I’ve only managed a couple of blurry images as they disappear into stream side trees.
This year, with our stream a trickle, the damsels have been easier to find.
And I’ve learned that the species is misnamed, since it’s the males who are beautiful, flashy, and extrovert in their behaviour. Not their mates, which are much more secretive with delicate brown transparent wings, olive green bodies, and rarely seem to venture out of the riverside vegetation other than for mating and egg laying.
All the references I found told me that this took place between midday and 2 pm, so for 10 days I staked out the stream territories of a few of the possibly half a dozen males that seem to have emerged on the stretches where the lack of stream side trees to the West creates sunny, open water. They seem predictable in their location and behaviour, resting in the dry conditions on a few favoured streamside stones or twigs, wings folded above their abdomens, and occasionally opening them briefly to flash their wonderful colours – either blue or metallic green, depending on the angle of view.
Between such evident display behaviour, probably designed to catch the eye of a female flying past, they take short flights either for food capture, or to deter any other air-borne insect – should it happen to be another male Demoiselle, then the aerial skirmish can last minutes before they separate, and return to their base positions.
Although I saw a single female in all this time, I was beginning to think that this was wasted time, and it was just after I’d worked out that rather than facing the sun, what my favoured demoiselle (because it was easier to photograph) was actually aligning its head towards, was a stream side, potential larval food plant for a female’s eggs of Lesser spearwort, Ranunculus flammula, growing at bank level and with some foliage still submerged in the clear slow running water. At intervals he would take flight and fly over or close to this plant, sometimes even landing on it briefly.
On my last session before giving up, around 1 pm, eventually a female appeared. Immediately the male took off and engaged in a beautiful brief courtship display when the dark coloured wings became a blur, as he fluttered around the female. The German’s call this Schwirrflug (hovering flight), which is wonderfully descriptive and onomatopoeic. He clearly wanted a response. Taking it all in, she seemed impressed, and taking a cue from the balloon found higher up the stream just a few hours earlier, she gave the obvious damselfly response to this fabulously colourful courtship.He duly grabbed her behind the head with his claspers, before taking a nuptial flight for a very short distance where they settled.and after a little more encouragement, took off for a convenient nearby flat piece of ground. Where after further positioning, the familiar wheel shape which all dragonflies and damsels adopt for mating, with the female swinging her abdominal tip round underneath the male’s body and joining for him to inseminate her, was clear to see.
However, the rhythmic pumping actions that then took place, are actually a prelude where the male attempts to first clear out any semen from a previous mating from the female’s genitalia. Only then does he pass his own semen into her tract, from his genitalia located just behind his thorax, thus trying to ensure that she only lays eggs fertilised by him.
Apparently such matings can take place many times a day for much of the 50 to 60 days that adult damselflies survive for.
Once mated, the process just lasting a few minutes, the female enjoyed a typically brief post coital rest, and abdominal flexing, and cleaning.Before the male, who had recovered nearby, accompanied her to the larval food plant where he stood guard whilst she dipped her abdominal tip below the water level to lay her eggs using a special ovipositor, onto the plant surface. Presumably this brief rest allows the semen sufficient time to actually reach and fertilise the eggs in the female’s genital tract, before they are laid.
The eggs will take about 20 days to hatch, and the juvenile larvae require cool and very clean water to survive, largely due to their high oxygen requirements in the water around them. This is the reason why, although they are a species with a huge potential geographical range throughout Europe, they are never found near urban developments, on slower rivers, or in areas of intensive agriculture, where water quality is poor, and oxygen levels low. Click here for a very good article on the Beautiful demoiselle, though some detail has been lost in translation.
Whilst the garden is often a bit short on flower colour in early July, probably because of our focus on spring flowering plants and woodland areas, the meadows are increasingly providing masses of flowers for us and our insect populations to enjoy in mid summer.
This year the uncut section of our wet meadow has been a floral delight. From the last week of June, extensive swathes of flowering Greater Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Lotus pedunculatus, Spearwort and Marsh bedstraw, Galium palustre, have carpeted the area with flowers, taking over from the earlier burst of pink Ragged robin, Lychnis flos-cuculi. The trefoil flowers are in such profusion that they’re a nectar magnet for all sorts of insects.
Now the Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, Bog Pimpernel, Anagallis tenella, Ivy Leaved Bellflower, Wahlenbergia hederacea, and Valerian, Valeriana officinalis, are flowering, and a huge delight is seeing the first 4 flowering plants of Devil’s-bit scabious, Succisa pratensis. Their purple blue buttons popping amongst the general level of grass and flower foliage. We’ll have to hope we can keep the sheep out of this field for long enough for me to save and scatter seed from these pioneer plants.
It’s been shocking to see how even the wet meadow section which was cut in early June and had regrown well, is now withering in areas which seem to follow slight ridges in the land. At least it makes finding grasshoppers easier.The later cut sections, have almost no greenery left in places.
Another minibreak in early July saw us enjoying the wonderful delights of the West Wales coastline, in this fabulous sunshine. Far too many glorious walks and scenes to include, but it surprised us just how quiet some sections of this world class coast can still be.
In particular an amazingly diverse pebble beach at Abermawr, just South of Fishguard, (above) and even better the beach at Traeth Bach, between Llangranog and Penbryn.
Here the scenery is stunning but you do need a sea kayak, or quite a walk to reach it. We parked above Penbryn beach, planning a return to The Plwmp Tart (click here) for lunch, and walked North towards Llangranog, climbing all the way from the car park as views opened up, North and South.
The cove we were heading for came into view, but way below us.As we passed an elderly couple who’d set out at 8.00 am to avoid the worst of the heat, armed with a map from their holiday cottage which outlined a short walk of “gently undulating” terrain, which they thought they’d complete by mid morning. We all agreed that “gently undulating ” was a somewhat benign understatement.
To reach the cove you have to take what the Wild Wales guide describes as a “bit of a scramble” over rocks. I’d say it’s more like rock climbing, and certainly not a route for youngsters or those with active vertigo, since the potential for a fatal slip and fall are very real.
However, the delight was that after making it safely down onto the curving soft sandy beach, with freshly washed multi-coloured sea weed adornments, we had the place to ourselves. Our guide book ranked it as the best beach in Ceredigion, and we could see why. Surrounded by steep cliffs, and with its own island just offshore, complete with sea cave, it’s a truly special place.
Lying down on a hot rocky slab, limbs outstretched, eyes closed, with a warm breeze off the sea, and the gentlest of waves breaking in perfect, rolling stereo sound in the cove’s natural amphitheatre from left to right, 15 minutes spent here was the most relaxing time I’ve had in years. Fiona, my blog post editor, insisted on including this image which captures my state of nirvana.
Pictures taken where it felt safe to hold my swinging camera.
With a group of bumblebee enthusiasts visiting us this week to conduct a survey, it’s great to see the garden moving past its midsummer dip in flowers – the honey beekeeper’s “June gap” So I hope enough bumbles will be around to make their visit worthwhile. I offer these pictures as challenges to find the bumble with the biggest pollen load.
Marjoram and oregano seedlings take some beating, and even better, seem entirely at home in the heat wave!