It’s been a long month here since I last sat and typed a post. A lot has happened and I have to confess that my usual get up and go has been worn down a little, and as often is the case, the weather has been a factor. The official Met Office (M.O.) summary of the last winter provides some concrete data and images to confirm my sense that it’s been one of the toughest I can recall.
Not overall exceptionally cold, perhaps even marginally above the daily average temperatures for Wales, compared with the data for 1981-2010. But the comparison for our part of Wales with this 30 year period is striking, when one looks at rainfall and sunshine. We’ve had about 170% of the typical winter rainfall averaged over that extended period, and only about 70% of the average winter sunshine levels, let alone total solar radiation, when we have cloud cover. For anyone who’s never looked at this sort of detail, the M.O. coloured maps are very enlightening about how different parts of the UK have fared, click here, since for example the very North of Scotland has been 30% sunnier than usual, over this same period!
Of more specific interest to us, were the deluges which we experienced in the third week of February, which dumped more rain in a single week (214.5 mm) than I’ve ever recorded here, and a dramatic 24 hour total of 91 mm on the 20th, which deepened our central track run off channel by 3 inches in places, and once more saw our stream overtop the banks and flood our lower meadow, but unusually the bank was breached for many hours, not just fleetingly.
Since then, we’ve had quite a few dry days, even with sunshine, but a feature has been very low temperatures with overnight frosts, and biting winds. In this regard, I’m going to reference our other favoured weather provider again, Ventusky.com, and their excellent graphic charts showing not just temperature, but also by clicking on the “perceived temperature”, a value which takes into account wind chill. Click here. Thus, for example over the last week, writing this on Sunday morning, March 14th, I notice that last Monday we just managed 5 degrees C, perceived, around midday, but otherwise daytime perceived temperatures never climbed above 2 degrees C, and often stayed below zero all day. This is energy sapping territory, not just for us, but for plant life and bees, and not the best time to have a so far still unresolved issue with our wood pellet stove, which fingers crossed, may finally have been sorted after over 4 weeks and 4 visits. The typical wonders of modern complex technology – great when it works, but a b****r to sort when it goes wrong. Thank goodness we still have a simple log burning stove as a back-up, albeit at one end of the house.
With this back drop, it’s perhaps appropriate to mention the “cold blob”, which I’d never heard mentioned, before a detailed article in The New York Times about 10 days ago caught my eye. I know that very few readers click on links, but actually the graphics attached to this very detailed and readable article are excellent, and really help to explain the issue with the increasing evidence for a slowing of the northern arm of the Gulfstream, and the devastating effect this could have on our climate in Northern Europe and beyond. If I mention that it’s estimated, for example, that the Gulf stream, as it currently works, delivers heat equivalent to about 78,000 times the total amount of energy that Scandinavia currently uses, through its warm ocean water, you’ll see that losing this would be a BIG deal.
This heat comes from warmer tropical water, that’s made its way in a vast, tortuous, but constantly flowing current, from the coast of West Africa, across the Atlantic, up through the Caribbean, around the North East coast of the U.S.A., before one portion or arm of the current, heads back across the North Atlantic towards coastal Northern Europe. The by-then cooling water eventually begins to become denser, sinks and starts to recycle through much deeper and colder currents, back to Africa, to be re-warmed once more.
The article reveals that there’s a developing problem. A vast “cold blob” of water developing South of Greenland, which, unlike most of the rest of the world’s ocean water isn’t warming, (with recent climate change), but is cooling. Probably caused by melting Arctic ice, which as fresh water, is seeping into the ocean and affecting both salinity and temperatures. Thanks to a network of current flow and temperature sensor floats, which scientists have recently strung right across the Atlantic ocean at varying depths, there’s growing data that these gulfstream currents are slowing significantly. Some scientists involved predict that by the end of this century, or even earlier, they could have further slowed by up to 40%, and there’s a real risk that at this level, a sudden tipping point in the whole complex circuit might be reached, and this vast, warming current might then stop completely.
Well, from from studying ice and sediment core samples, the scientists have evidence that just as the last major ice age was ending, and global temperatures were rising, the current suddenly stopped flowing and by removing the effects of all this warm water, temperatures in Britain probably dropped by about 15 degrees C. Within just a few years. Given that the M.O. winter survey referenced above, states that this last year’s whole winter mean temperature, was a surprisingly low 3.5 degrees C, and you see that we’d have a BIG problem. Using the same Ventusky coloured maps, it’s quite easy to pull back for the whole world view and then move the cursor across the map to see what temperatures others at this similar latitude experience, without this vital, current-driven, warming influence. There are other big climate impacts discussed in the article, from the slowing of other portions of the whole Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, of which the northern, Gulf stream arm affecting Britain, is just a small part.
Such a temperature drop, whether more gradual or abrupt would make Brexit issues, or even the Covid 19 impact on life in the UK, seem frankly small beer. It’s left me really scratching my head. I just can’t see any sort of a national strategy, that could handle anything like this. We’re too embedded and sedentary as a species, society and economy, having lost our “primitive” nomadic lifestyles long ago, to adjust to constantly arctic conditions across much of this country, for much of the year.
Personally, I’m guessing the film “Contagion”, created more impact and discussion recently, than at the time of its release in 2011.
Perhaps our politicians should all be dusting off their copies of “The Day After Tomorrow”, released in 2004, and setting up a few brainstorming focus groups to consider a route map ahead, should the current flow data from the Atlantic continue to move in the same direction?
More likely the canny are already on the case. Come to think of it, I note that the undoubtedly very canny Terry Smith, who set up his own hugely successful Fundsmith investment management company about 11 years ago, and is a competent pilot, has recently relocated his home and base to Mauritius (an Indian Ocean island nation, known for its beaches, lagoons and reefs, and beautiful mountainous interior). Possibly not just for tax reasons?
‘Twas ever thus.
Leonard Cohen really nailed it, beautifully, in 1988, ahead of the game, in his song:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there’s gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows…
Like most people, I guess, my response to the above potential change is to try to continue life as best we can. Not really hoping for the best, or fearing the worst, but accepting what comes our way, and struggling to live with limited impact, and leaving the land in a better state than when we acquired it, for as long as we can. Plus through this website, trying to record how nature seems to change locally, from day to day, week to week and year to year, as we face our mundane daily challenges eking out our lives on our 11 acres or so of hillside in west Wales. Which I calculate is roughly the average amount of land available for every two members of the world’s population. (7.8 billion/14.9 billion hectares = 4.75 acres per person).
Indeed if these climate changes were to happen in our lifetime, perhaps they would mirror those of one of my very favourite stories from childhood, which still brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. (An extract below from the beautiful short story “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, but you really need to read or listen to the whole piece):
“Then the Spring came, and all over the country there were little blossoms and little birds. Only in the garden of the Selfish Giant it was still winter. The birds did not care to sing in it as there were no children, and the trees forgot to blossom. Once a beautiful flower put its head out from the grass, but when it saw the notice-board it was so sorry for the children that it slipped back into the ground again, and went off to sleep. The only people who were pleased were the Snow and the Frost. “Spring has forgotten this garden,” they cried, “so we will live here all the year round.” The Snow covered up the grass with her great white cloak, and the Frost painted all the trees silver. Then they invited the North Wind to stay with them, and he came. He was wrapped in furs, and he roared all day about the garden, and blew the chimney-pots down. “This is a delightful spot,” he said, “we must ask the Hail on a visit.” So the Hail came. Every day for three hours he rattled on the roof of the castle till he broke most of the slates, and then he ran round and round the garden as fast as he could go. He was dressed in grey, and his breath was like ice.
“I cannot understand why the Spring is so late in coming,” said the Selfish Giant, as he sat at the window and looked out at his cold white garden; “I hope there will be a change in the weather.”
But the Spring never came, nor the Summer. The Autumn gave golden fruit to every garden, but to the Giant’s garden she gave none. “He is too selfish,” she said. So it was always Winter there, and the North Wind, and the Hail, and the Frost, and the Snow danced about through the trees.”
As the snowdrop season begins to end here for this year, I’m going to include for the last time, another section from my “Confessions of a Galanthophile” talk. In part this references the issue of when snowdrops might have arrived in the UK. They haven’t been here all that long, since like much of the flora of the UK, just 10,000 years ago, a large part of the country was under metres of glacial ice, before the country warmed, and nature could re-colonise the land with greater diversity.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to live through the reversal of this sort of trend?
Or maybe not!
Snowdrops In The UK – History, Myth and Murk
• This book, the accepted snowdrop bible, which is often quoted, says there were no snowdrops in Britain before the late 1500’s because the first reference to them in literature is in John Gerard’s Herbal of British plants in 1597.
• Where Gerarde refers to them as the “timely flowering” or “byzantine flowering bulbous violets”. However, how reliable was Gerarde’s work? There’s now a lot of debate about whether Gerarde’s publication, which was the first proper catalogue of British flora, was accurate or original. Much of the text was filched from an earlier German work, and all but 16 of the over 1000 woodblocks used to produce the illustrations were hired from a Frankfurt printing house, having been used in earlier continental publications, and obviously in an earlier era of European cooperation.
• But how likely is it that snowdrops didn’t arrive in the UK until late Elizabethan times? There were frequent points of contact between Britain and European cultures where snowdrops were indigenous way before Elizabethan times – The Romans arrived in Britain of course. Then the Romans left, we had lots of movement of people and invasions. Abbeys and monasteries were established.• Our local St. Teilo was born at Penally, but because of an outbreak of yellow fever, decamped to Northern France for 7 years, before returning. Did he bring snowdrops back with him?
• There was lots of later Norman influence. Manorbier castle, the birthplace of Gerald of Wales, who travelled widely including to Ireland and France.
• The Physicians of Myddfai close to us in Carmarthenshire enjoyed lots of interaction with places of learning on the continent. Wales had well developed sea trade with both Ireland and Europe for centuries before the 1500’s. So might snowdrops have arrived a long time before the 1590’s?
• The crucial point is because snowdrops are poisonous, and set little seed in most years at least in many parts of Wales, unless a location is close to a river, when they could have been washed down from upstream,
Someone will have moved the bulbs there, at some point.• These are at Frampton Court, right on the Wales/England border by the river Severn.
• The estate’s been in the same Clifford family ownership since Norman times, the land having been gifted to one of William The Conqueror’s knights, and you can stay in the amazing house above, as a B&B.
• We know snowdrops were around here in the early 1800’s because they feature in a remarkable collection of watercolour paintings of the native flora, made by the ladies of the manor around that time, and re-discovered quite recently in the attic. And then published in this book – “The Frampton Flora”.
• So you can see a painting of a double form of snowdrop dated 1839.
• And also a painting of the single snowdrop, described as “Galanthus, Snowdrop”.
• But have a look at the local name at the bottom – Candlemass bells.
• At this point I’m going to mention 2 brilliant blogposts written by Pembrokeshire based Julian Williams, click here. This other JW galanthophile argues that snowdrops were probably introduced much before Elizabethan times, when Britain was a catholic country, by monks or other people, owing to their association with the festival of Candlemass. Candlemas celebrates The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. This was a very important Christian festival across most of Europe and held on February 2nd. It commemorates the day when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem, for Mary to be purified by offering a sacrifice, as was laid down in Jewish law, 40 days after Jesus’ birth. This normally would have involved a sacrificial lamb, but because Mary and Joseph were poor, 2 turtle doves were a permissible alternative.
Julian Williams points out that because of similarities with other pre-existing pagan celebrations around the same date, the use of candles in the celebrations of Candlemas was banned by the Synod of Elvira in AD 306. This ban on “pagan” altar lights, which had previously been a popular symbol of Christ as “The Light of the World” was maintained until 1215 when the then pope revoked it, and candles were once again permissible at Candlemass. But Williams speculates that in a world incredibly cold and dark in early February, priests and monks probably seized upon snowdrops, with their thrusting white candles emerging from barren earth, around the time of Candlemass, as ideal alternative symbols to use in Candelmass services.
• So if you look at Candlemass ceremonies as they currently take place in Italy, the 3 features I’ve mentioned – candles, snowdrops and turtle doves are all still there – even if the turtle doves and snowdrops are sometimes fake and plastic. Williams also includes fascinating insights into how the common name of snowdrops across a lot of Europe reflects these strong religious links to Mary or Candlemass – so we have names like Mary’s taper, Candlemass Bells, and similar names in Germany and France.
• It’s therefore quite likely, I think, that snowdrops first arrived in Britain with priests, monks or others, way before Gerarde’s time, but that because of the religious ferment around the time of the reformation, not just in Britain, but across Northern Europe from the late 1500’s onwards, then any reference to plants with possible catholic links would have been risky – which is why Gerarde, (or indeed the German source of his images?) might have referred to them as Bulbous violets, and not Candlemass bells.
• Many old monastic sites and churchyards in Britain have significant “naturalised” snowdrops around them, confirming these possible origins.
• I should also note that there was a Welsh version of the Candlemas celebration, Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau, pre 1850, which I’m hoping sometime someone will be able to give me more information about. There’s very little on-line in English, about this, click here.
The extreme wind chill of the last week of February meant that I could finish off laying the lower wet hay meadow hedge at last, in dry conditions. Though I needed 5 layers of clothing to stay warm, and unlike any previous such work, found that at the end of a stint of a couple of hours, I hadn’t even worked up a sweat. Quite extraordinary for chainsaw work of this nature and pulling over the uprights, and laying them in, which is a surprisingly physical activity. This is the second time I’ve laid this hedge, having tackled it initially as a hyper-mature line of trees about 12 years ago, and at that time, I opted to leave a few select upright saplings to visually distract from the necessary savagery of the task. But the mainly hazel and willow in this line, are tolerant of such brutality, and respond to such coppicing with amazing vigour. The upshot was that all this time later, I had huge numbers of stems to work with. It’s a satisfying winter task, which the sheep are always delighted to see me tackling, whizzing in and bark stripping any willow as well as chomping off hazel catkins, almost as soon as they hit the ground.
I did have one hairy moment when tackling one of the mature uprights, which by now had grown to perhaps 8 inches diameter. I took a long time assessing which way it was likely to fall, very conscious that any planned escape route, should it not behave, was tricky, given that the hedge is at the bottom of a steep bank, and I was hemmed in at its base with double pig netting and barbed wire. In the end it did misbehave, and I had to leave it teetering, before subsequently pulling it over in the planned direction with Fiona’s help on the end of a block and tackle. The drama wasn’t quite over, since I managed to get our small Goldoni tractor stuck in the ditch whilst trying to bring out the sawn logs. The cavalry, in the shape of our neighbour and his Landrover Defender arrived at dark, to winch the tractor out, but we were then mortified to find that whilst I could get up the track and out of this field, Kerrie’s Landrover couldn’t cope. It slithered and spun. Kerri reckons that slippery, leaf covered, wet grass on a slope are the worst possible conditions to have to negotiate. His vehicle had to stay where it was for a few days until things dried out a bit and with a combination of his winch and a pull from the plucky Goldoni, out he came. Many thanks indeed to Kerri for saving the day. And a lesson for me that it’s rarely worth taking a ‘short cut’ over a shallow but soggy ditch, no matter how wide your tyres are!
However, the timber from this single hedge, supplemented by a couple of felled streamside willows has almost completely re-filled one of our log stores, which proved vital to get us through the last chilly month, with the pellet stove only working intermittently. Since most of the chainsaw work was completed with the Li-ion Stihl saw, that’s a lot of house-warming energy for a bit of tractor diesel and a lot of elbow grease. And after all these years, we’re finally organised enough to cut, split and store the logs where we need them close to the house, whilst they’re still green. How much easier wielding the axe on fresh sawn logs, rather than trying to tackle dried out material. Part of the process of re-learning practical skills which have been lost by many, with no need for such primitive behaviour.
Within the garden, there’s been real, uplifting delight at seeing the wonderful mutual advantage that stems from having not one, but for the first time, 3 honeybee colonies so close to the garden areas at this time of the year. In spite of several periods of a week or more when 2 of the hives have seemed inactive, they’re still all viable as I write. They’ve really had very few opportunities to get out and forage, but on Monday February 22nd the temperature hit 9 degrees C, with only about 30% cloud, and light winds and we had vast numbers of honeybees in the garden, and visiting several flowers which I’ve never seen them visit before – Primrose, Pulmonaria, Chrysosplenium macrophyllum.
This provides a huge extra level of interest for me, and whereas in the past I used to have to chase individual bees around for photography, with these numbers, one’s spoiled for choice. (4 bees below visiting this single small clump of Crocus chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl’)
This was also the day of our first bumblebee sightings of the year, though only fleetingly and not until about 2 pm, by which time many of the honeybees were returning to base. There were briefer opportunities for them again on February 25th, 27th and 28th, but heading into March the chilling wind and lack of sunshine meant almost no bees ventured forth all week, and it wasn’t until Monday 8th when the winds dropped slightly, and Ventusky’s “perceived temperature” hit a dizzy 5 degrees C, that bees were active from all 3 hives once more. Much of the last week since then has seen minimal activity.
So, they’re hanging on in there, but I’m very conscious that with no supplementary artificial feeding, they’re reliant now on dwindling residual stores, at the end of such a long, poor winter, and on any flowers which the garden currently has – there are none locally in the landscape, although distant gorse would be available if the weather was more benign to allow them to fly that far. By now I’d opened up the 2 other died-out hives which had swarms fly in at the end of last June, and discovered that there were no signs of any disease, they’d simply run out of food. All the wax cells were empty of both pollen and honey. one had also had a mouse nesting towards its base.
Such is the tough existence for new colonies in the wild, and why so few (a maximum of around 1 in 6 according to Professor Tom Seeley), survive into the second year, after they swarmed. Perhaps in future years if winters really do become longer, gloomier and wetter, I’ll need to rethink this one, and incorporate a system for providing supplementary nutrition, but I’m still drawn to the work of Dr. Dorian Pritchard, a human geneticist/beekeeper with many years’ experience in keeping and breeding locally adapted, treatment free strains of bees, fit for his Northumberland conditions, click here.
I’d rather encourage the fitter, more locally adapted strains to survive, and have them foraging early on, from the diverse range of flowers in the garden, than encouraging them to stay at home with simple sugar supplements. I’ve spent a few hours, out in the cold pulling out dead bees, lodged head first in the depths of the wax cells, so these two hives and combs are available and ready to be re-occupied come the spring, should any swarms locate them. It’s hugely impressive that all this comb was created in just a few short months from July with nothing, save a tiny wax starter strip running along the top piece of wood.
There’s now no question that if they get any brief weather windows, there are huge numbers of nectar and pollen source flowers, very close to the hives in the garden, for them to access. The virtuous circle is closed, and complete.
This year we’ve had the added experience of honeybees finding their way into the greenhouse on a few occasions through a narrowly opened door and roof lights, and so pollinating our apricot flowers naturally. A frankly tedious job if one has to perform it manually with a feather, as I have in previous years. But listen to the noise, if not their excitement, in the final clip of the short video montage below.
A secondary benefit of this, is that they’ll naturally aid petal fall from the “Tomcots”, which I’ve always found necessary to complete manually in previous years, to avoid fungal rotting of tiny fruitlets. As a back-up for those spells when the bees can’t visit for several days in a row, my trusty little Li-ion Makita blower is brilliant at dislodging petals without blowing off the fruitlets. I used to do this manually and always managed to knock some fruit off. It’ll be interesting to see whether this turns into a bumper year for apricots and nectarines, after the bees’ hard work. Although once or twice I’ve had to usher a few from the greenhouse as the weather has changed, and they can’t always speedily escape.
Whilst discussing honeybees I’ll also briefly link to a unique foreign language film which we watched recently – “Honeyland”.
Full of wonderful colour, light, life, and important messages to ponder about how we live, or don’t, at ease with the natural world around us. You need to grasp before watching this (which we didn’t fully), that it’s a real life documentary filmed over 3 years, in a part of Northern Macedonia, between 2015 to 2018. For those unclear of geography this is a small landlocked country bordered by Greece, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Bulgaria.
The people are real. Their lives are real. But far removed from life in Western Europe as most readers will appreciate from the excellent trailer below. It’s one of the most beautifully filmed works I think I’ve ever seen, so don’t be put off by the title or the fact that it’s subtitled. It really isn’t just about bees, although they are the only source of income for the lead character, Hatidze. The film’s two directors didn’t even understand the Turkish dialect they were hearing as they filmed – the translations and editing took a year of trawling through the 400 hours of footage they captured, whilst the small crew were camped, for 3 or 4 days at a time outside Hatidze’s basic hovel, with no piped water or electricity. Enough from me, watch the trailer and then I hope you’re inspired to see the film, if you haven’t already.
Finally, down at the stream, I’ve added in another example of “large woody debris”, LWD, by felling a hyper mature willow trunk, but leaving it in situ. Hopefully it’ll remain in place for years to come and root at either end. Such tree falls happened lower down our stream in a couple of places, and seeing how they were affecting the flow, I was about to remove them, but just in time was sent some interesting links to the benefits of leaving such material in a stream, to create a greater diversity of flow, depth of water and organic material and gravel build-up, with significant benefits for both invertebrates and fish populations.
These images demonstrate how over time the two existing obstructions have created much deeper pools, compared with much of the stream’s faster rills, and I’ll return to the recently downed tree to illustrate how the stream bed changes there, overtime.
The section of stream below, has clearly changed dramatically in just the last 2 years, thanks to just a couple of extreme rainfall events. For a good over view of the concepts and benefits of LWD, click here.