Monday March 16th dawned clear, cold with a light frost, and sunny for a good couple of hours. Thrushes were serenading, small feathers drifted across the yard, as house sparrows and wagtails built nests.
By 9.30 honeybees were visiting the Hellebores around the garden, their current favourite plant and by 11.30, with sun hitting the opened flowers of the earliest of our Skimmia cultivars in bloom, began to home in on this for the first time this year.
Across the upper pond’s Southern margin, the hatched frog tadpoles, in this bumper year for them, rested in huge black clouds atop the gradually dissipating jelly, complete with just a few white diseased forms.
Lousewort and Snakeshead leaves are appearing in the upper hay meadow.
And yet, for posterity, the world is locking down, borders closing. Pubs, restaurants, sporting and cultural events being cancelled. Financial markets are in meltdown, and self isolation and worse to come is now upon us.
Several weeks ago we’d booked for a seaweed foraging course, organised by local foraging expert Jade Mellor, of Wild Pickings. Click here for Jade’s website. This was to take place at Goodwick, last Wednesday afternoon. We hadn’t realised when we’d booked, that the date and time were carefully chosen to coincide with one of the exceptional low tides, which tend to occur around the spring equinox. This exposes areas of the beach normally hidden from view, and therefore is perfect for finding healthy living seaweed populations.
Jade explained that the weather can often also be a bit stormy at this time, and indeed it was blowing a very cold gale, so all the participants arrived suitably well wrapped up as Jade led us off towards the rocky Northerly margins of the seashore, passing a good clump of Seabeet, apparently a delicious alternative to chard or spinach, en route to the seashore.
We then spent a couple of hours pottering around and finding several distinct forms of seaweed, which Jade was able to identify and give us a little bit more information on how to harvest them, with options for their use.Along the way I spotted what I later identified as a King Ragworm, Alitta virens, a large polychaete worm, which is normally a reddish brown colour and lives deep beneath the sand surface in a U shaped burrow. The worms change colour to take on the greenish hue (hence virens) in spring when they leave their burrows to spawn.
Spawning tends to occur in massed events linked to phases of the moon, and when the Ragworm leaves its burrow, it changes form, becoming an epitoke, a morphed version in which the digestive tract disintegrates, and its multiple pairs of bristly parapods (or legs which give the worm its ragged appearance and common name) transform into paddle shaped swimming appendages, seen more clearly below. A worm of many inches in length, it’s an impressive sea serpent like sight…
And intriguing to find such similarities with the breeding cycle and metamorphosis of the brook lamprey around spawning time which I witnessed in our stream and described last Easter. Click here for more. Click here for much more fascinating information on this King Ragworm, including how it can give an unwary person a significant bite – fortunately being a little disconcerted by its size, I’d used used one of the many empty razor shells along the shore line, to lift the fragile worm.
Another interesting non seaweed creature, was the amazing exposed and floundering sea anemone pair, above. The Snakelock Anemone, Anemonia viridis, is apparently found only on the Southern and Western shores of Britain, and down towards the Mediterranean, and unlike many other anemones doesn’t retract its tentacles when stranded by the retreating tide.
The green colour (viridis) comes from a symbiotic green zooxanthenae alga, which is required by the anemone to remain healthy. These anemones feed by catching small fish in their long stinging tentacles, and breed in spring by longitudinal fission – literally splitting into two, a process which takes from a few minutes to a couple of hours, so it seems that we arrived on the scene shortly after such a division had occurred.
What an amazing find! Click here, for more photos …
Finally in the stone littered exposed sandy expanse of the bay, were hundreds of sand encrusted feathered feeding tubes projecting a couple of centimetres above the sand. Digging down as far as I could with the only tool to hand – a pair of scissors, didn’t get me deep enough to locate the creature, but a whelk harvester working the beach reckoned they belonged to some form of clam.
Complete with our own bags of seaweed samples, we headed back out of the wind for some seaweed themed refreshments which Jade had organised for us, as well as a chance to look through some of her many seaweed foraging books, and some more seaweed species we hadn’t found at this site.
Or so we thought.
About half an hour into our chat over refreshments, an older lady across the table from me with a slight cough commented to her neighbour how she’d been thrilled to be able to watch sea otters recently.
My ears pricked up.
Last week in Vancouver Island…
So what we’d assessed as being a very low risk trip out (as someone with respiratory co-morbidity), suddenly seemed a little more worrying.
We said our thank you’s and goodbyes, and left shortly afterwards. Many thanks though to Jade for organising a great afternoon out. We’ll scan the tide tables from now on for the next low tides and plan another shoreline foray.
At which point, and rather appropriately, how about a bit of levity from this classic?
At last as I write this on the evening of 16/03/2020, the country is finally getting the sort of clear advice and warnings to people that might shock a few more out of their complacency, though too late to restrict the real grip that the virus now has over the nation, and indeed world.
Well done to New Zealand for introducing early travel restrictions and quarantine/isolation, to exploit the natural advantages that should accrue to an island nation in the face of such a global pandemic. The concept of herd immunity is being promoted – all well and good, and something I remember again from pig medicine lectures when an early strategy for tackling the SMEDI virus (Still Birth, Mummification and Embryonic Death and Infertility) involved feeding the placentae of affected sows to the rest of the herd, to confer immunity in the absence of a vaccine.
But those were pigs. Not people.
And severe adult mortality wasn’t involved.
Still at least the current concerns might cure an awful lot of people from unfortunate dodgy social habits like finger chewing and nose picking (and hopefully that’ll include me)…
Now though for a serious suggestion for a University exam question for future generations of bright young things studying any number of biological science courses:
Compare and contrast the historic strategies for managing the following diseases in the UK :
Ash Die Back, Xylella fastidiosa (both plant pathogens, one now in, one currently held at bay across the channel)
Foot and Mouth Disease and Rabies (both animal pathogens, though also zoonotic in the case of rabies)
Human Covid -19.
How to use? I suspect we’ll need a book or two for recipes, but most are packed with trace minerals leached from our lands and agricultural soils, so are useful supplements as well as flavourings to remind us of the coast, and sea, until we next get there.
With the very sad news of the recent death of another friend and fellow Carmarthenshire NGS gardener, Keith Brown, of Cilgwyn Lodge after a long battle with mesothelioma, a reminder of how plants can be wonderful memorials of people.
For any readers unfamiliar with Keith, you can still visit the garden, virtually, which he and Moira lovingly created over 40 years by clicking here. And read how Keith was not only a consummate vegetable grower but also had an interest, and great knowledge about a huge range of plant groups – Hellebores, Clematis and Hemerocallis all spring to mind as just some of his favourites. He was a very popular and widely travelled speaker to gardening clubs over many years and will be very sadly missed by all who knew him. Our thoughts and best wishes are with Moira at this sad time.
Keith never really got into snowdrops seriously and was amused by my developing interest, so it was a huge surprise when he told me about, and subsequently turned up at the garden one cold February day, with Moira clutching an enormous stunning early snowdrop flower. (Keith isn’t in this picture)Did I know what it was called ?
Along with other galanthophile friends Keith knew, we all tried our best to come up with an identification, yet failed. The following year Keith very kindly gave me a few bulbs of this unknown clone, which he’d received via another friend, who’d bought it (he thought) as Galanthus “Blewbury Tart” from a well known snowdrop garden in the Midlands after a visit. Whether it ever gets officially named or not – and I don’t know how one would go about this – it will forever be known by me as “Keith’s Corker”, a name I came up with, which seemed to meet with Keith’s approval.
One of the slides I include in my snowdrop talk illustrates how snowdrops have an affection in many people’s minds as links with loved ones now departed, though the sum paid for the single bulb discussed below is frankly ludicrous.
Keith’s Corker hits all the right notes for me – it has a gorgeous large flower, with wonderful markings. It’s always one of the earliest to flower here, by early January, just when the spirits need lifting most, and it’s clearly very garden worthy and multiplies quite quickly.
I should also mention how wonderful it was to receive a phone call from Avril Bevan recently to say that she’d dug up several small plants of a pale violet double form of our native Primrose for us. Dave had shown us the patch of these pretty flowers growing in very shaded and untouched woodland on a bank above the house at Garthmoel, and since the house is now on the market and under offer, Avril wanted us to have some plants before she moved.
Many will know I’m not generally a huge fan of double flowers, but these are such a perfect colour complement to the native pale yellow primrose and dark Purple Crocus tommasinianus which are in flower at the same time, that I plan to bulk them up, and then gradually work them into different parts of the garden. However long they’ve been at Garthmoel, surviving inattention and overgrowth, and whether they have a name or not, they’ll always remind us now of Dave and Avril. I suspect they might be an old named form of P. vulgaris, so if any reader recognises them, do let me know if they have a cultivar name.
With honeybees now regularly active in the initial swarmed hive housed in the old butter churn, it was time to dismantle the final hive which had housed the third swarm, which had been robbed out, only to be recolonised by another swarm last summer. The hive was full of dead bees, many with heads in empty cells, and to my great surprise quite a lot of sealed honey along with areas of uncapped honey which was turning mouldy. The late swarm had clearly had a chance to lay all this down before the weather turned at the end of September.
Overall there was evidence of a lot of moisture, and I suspect that in this very wet grey winter, the hive was too large for the bees to be able to maintain an adequate temperature and regulate ventilation and humidity. This honey filled box was the middle one of three – I’m sure that I should have removed the upper box, but the swarm had already moved in, before I’d got round to doing this.
In these challenging times, much enjoyment was taken in removing the worst affected comb and salvaging the capped honey, scraped off into an appropriately large Pooh Bear style pottery storage jar. I’ve no in-process photos of just how messy this was, completed on the kitchen table whilst Fiona was away for a couple of days, but the photo below shows the more benign earlier session working on conventional frames from the original hive in February.
Well worth doing and the honey is completely different to that taken from the bees earlier in the year – sweeter, much runnier and lighter in colour. The empty hives are currently being reworked with cork insulation and will be relocated in time for swarm season in late spring to see whether they appeal to any local scouting bees.
The sideboard is now at least well stocked with natural sweetener as we move into the enforced 12 week self isolation heading our way this weekend.
This time of year is always delightful as one begins to see new life emerging, both in flowers, and foliage, but more particularly of all the collected seeds sown last autumn – bulbs, trees, and perennials..
A particular highlight is the minute green first leaves of Hydrangeas, germinating on the compost surface of pots sown last autumn and overwintered in the greenhouse. Five weeks later from when they first appeared, they’ve still hardly grown.
I’ve only ever found one Hydrangea seedling in the garden, and it’s now easy to see why. The seedlings would be so vulnerable to slug predation, and are incredibly slow to grow at this early stage.
However since I only saved seed from a few favoured H. aspera and H. serrata forms, I’m determined to try to grow as many as possible on to a flowering size, in case we have our own unique form to add to the favourite rampant white flowering rambling rose which I spotted growing many years ago as a tiny seedling.
I’m very grateful to the wonders of randomness that come from WordPress “likes” for a previous post (Thanks to Thom Hickey – The Immortal Jukebox, click here) for pointing me to this gorgeously simple and moving song, “Piper To The End” by Mark Knopfler, written in memory of his uncle, a piper in a Northern regiment, who died at the age of 20 at the beginning of World War 2. From the great album, now acquired – Get Lucky.
Perhaps this influenced my own attempt to grapple with my thoughts.
Refracted by the perspective of our rural standpoint.
Surrounded by the natural world approaching spring with typical exuberance after the gloomiest and wettest prolonged winter I can recall.
While the human world now clearly teeters on the edge of a precipice of unknown depth.
( Globally Corvid-19 case numbers now stand at: 167 511 confirmed (13 903 new) 6606 deaths (862 new) WHO situation report click here. The United Kingdom 1395 (251) 35 (14); Wales: 170 (24), 3 ; Hywel Dda Health Board : 11 (1). FTSE 100: 5,151, Dow Jones : 19,898.92.)
Kissed alone by Gods
Before I go, I’ve been a’ digging.
Beneath the sodden turf.
The amorous moles a’ courting,
Along still air filled trails,
Their earthy hills are coloured.
Dullest grey and rust and black,
Dark and long, their tunnels of love,
‘Cross greenest pastures tracked.
Before I go, I’ve been a’ probing,
Beneath the laid low, angled hazel wands,
The leaf strewn vole run loam, here easy
For short and stubby fingers prodding,
Gloved. And holed, in this the perfect fertile
Cool inoculum, for rough ripped clumps of bells,
Long past their Candelmas perfection.
Yet carrying hopes and memories,
Of years to come, and past.
They’ll linger, wilt, revive
In this Welsh watery soil.
Forgive this drizzly toil,
And trauma. Disappear and fade,
Then piercing hearts, and icy ground
Return to brighten future Imbolc dawns.
Before I go, I’ve been a’ drowning,
Beneath the Bogbean, Mare’s tail surfaced
Tension. Tadpoles’ punctuation tricks. Apostrophies
And shifts, from Black Full Stops.
Freed from jellied vice, the pond is taken.
Conquered with amphibian stealth,
Before the sticklebacks flush red.
Before I go, I’ve been a’ flying,
Above the shimm’ring, chatt’ring startled starling flocks,
Which spread, attack the meadows’ slope,
Explosive, manic, twitchy, edgy. Uncontrollable, their
Energy, and massed robotic strutting walk, the
Jerky peppered beaks. Pierced mossy turf
Their calling card, for those who stoop and see.
Now naturally aerated. Then wheeling, peeling
Flee and fly – chaotic synchronised escape.
They’re gone. A thrilling, thrumming “fare well, friend,”
Wing beaten wave of fresh rushed air.
Before I go, I’ve been a’ standing,
Watching, on this morn so chill,
Beside the burdened workers, buffeted, and
Judging wind and safely downed, still
Feel, extravagant, mahogany beneath their feet.
Drag heavy, laden stomachs up and in the
Old churn’s German oaken belly, cranky handle, wax stuffed sweet.
While siblings, stuck with white and orange fancy tights,
Held safe with care and spit,
Bring pretty manna for their sisters’
Growing grubby treats.
Before I go, I’ve been a’ screaming to the wind,
While in some distant Latined Lenten land,
Outside a city wall, a nation’s locked.
Down. Catacombed corridors,
Darkened with the old, and not so.
Waiting, tubed and lying.
Too late for Betjeman regrets, these
Isolates, remote, and dying.
Are in this febrile place and at the end
Beyond wise touch, so
Kissed, alone, by Gods.
Before I go, I’ve been a ‘ burning,
My mind, or so it seems, is flooded,
Full of dreams. Then stopped
Between the acronyms of sudden ARDS,
And frothy, phlegmy COPD.
The ancient alchemy returns:
Four elements; a fourth seal, sprung,
And snared, together, in this
Sombre springtime song.