Gwaith Powdwr

Southern hawker dragonfly (male)

I was struck by how many of the sites I’ve visited during this trip have been reclaimed from industry. Of course most Wildlife Trust nature reserves are habitats that have taken hundreds of years to establish and are now saved for the future, but something the Trusts are very good at is bringing wildlife back to areas that have been used for quite different purposes.

Balistic Pendulum, Gwaith Powdwr
The Pendlum Shed houses a huge ballistic pendulum, used to grade the quality of the explosives produced on site. A canon, set with a charge of explosive was pushed into the hole in the pendulum and fired. The distance it swung would be used to calibrate the strength of the explosive. The heath around this area is now the main nesting site for nightjars.

Gwaith Powdwr, at Penrhyndeudraeth, is one such site. In the 1970s it was the most sophisticated nitroglycerin manufacturing plant of its kind in the world. Production stopped in 1995, and it was decontaminated before being donated by ICI to North Wales Wildlife Trust, Ymddiriedolaeth Natur Gogledd Cymru,  in 1998.

Heathland at the top of the site, overlooking the Dwyryd estuary
Heathland at the top of the site, overlooking the Dwyryd estuary

Due to the security requirements of the site, nature survived undisturbed in parts of the site, the heathland in particular has remained mostly ungrazed and is a haven for species such as adder and nightjar.

Lesser horseshoe bat (image Janice Whittington)
Lesser horseshoe bat (image © Janice Whittington)

Wildlife started to reclaim the rest of the site once the factory was closed, bats moved into the buildings and structures and the site is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its importance for bats, especially the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

 

 

North Wales Wildlife Trust volunteers and site manager at Gwaith Powdwr nature reserve
The volunteers meet regularly on Wednesdays to help manage the site. Today they were clearing paths, making space for visitors and making bat boxes in preparation for Party Penrhyn.

At the end of July, we joined Rob Booth, Living Landscapes Officer at NWWT, and his volunteers for their lunch break. They were busy getting ready for Party Penrhyn, an annual event at the site. Rob told us about the wildlife on the reserve and the work that is being done to encourage more wildlife.

Female slow worm
Female slow worm

The reserve provides ideal conditions for four kinds of reptiles. We saw lizards basking on old wood and bare patches of ground amongst the heather, and were given permission to peak under some reptile monitoring sheets, where bronze-sheened slow worms glinted in the sun before slipping further into the thatch of grass and old bracken. Adders are also to be found in the heathy parts of the site, but sadly not by us, although we searched carefully. In the midday heat they are far too quick for mere humans and would have been off as soon as they heard us coming. (Although snakes don’t appear to have ears, they can in fact hear, by sensing vibrations, including sound waves, which are passed through their jaw to an inner ear.)

Blast wall and building at Gwaith Powdwr
This storage shed has been re-roofed for bats. Many of the buildings are protected by blast walls. One of the volunteers had been researching the history of the site and told us about two serious explosions that had happened in the previous century.

As the reserve is so important for bats, much of the management is aimed at improving conditions for them. Lesser horseshoe bats use the tunnels and there are up to 30 hibernating on site but they don’t seem to breed there. The Trust managed to get a grant to re-roof one of the explosive storage sheds, and are hoping it will become a maternity roost. Since the work was done, brown long-eared bats have bred in there and Rob said that lesser horseshoe bats are already checking it out. The Trust is also working to make the bunkers more homely for bats, putting new doors on to prevent disturbance, reduce light levels and draughts and make them safer from predators.

The woodland on the reserve is particularly good for moths, the Trust  found 130 species in just one night. Where a stream runs through the woodland, the damp, shady conditions are ideal for ferns and mosses.

Ponds were part of the industrial legacy, providing water to help keep the explosives cool (and therefore stable) and also allowing contaminants to settle out of the water. These settling ponds are now a wildlife haven, we saw lots of tiny toadlets setting off on their journey into the big world of dry land, stragglers from the great toadlet exodus that happens during July. The grass snakes that have been seen around the ponds proved elusive, which is probably fortunate for the toadlets. Dragonflies and damselflies darted across the water, rarely settling long enough to have their photographs taken, except by the most patient of photographers. Fortunately I had one with me.

We had such a brilliant time exploring Gwaith Powdwr, everywhere we looked there was interesting wildlife. It is a fantastic example of how a site can be restored after such intense industrial use.

The Green Bongo

Time for another behind the scenes blog post!

Mazda Bongo on woodland campsite
Yes, we are really living in something this small.

P1020816This is our home for three months. (For those, like me, who aren’t good at car taxonomy, it’s a Mazda Bongo.)

problems with a Mazda Bongo engine
Ringing the garage for advice

The Bongo is 20 years old, and needs a bit of TLC. We have had three garage visits so far, one overnight. I think of it as Bongo B & B.

We did have an awning, but pegging it down on granite in the rain each time we moved sites was less than fun, so we posted it to Ellie (thanks Ellie, hope it’s not in the way) and now we are footloose and awning free.

Rain has accompanied us around the UK, but on the plus side, we have seen some fantastic rainbows.

The living space in the campervan measures 2 x 1.5 metres, some of which is taken up by the cupboards, fridge, cooker and sink. The rest of  it is multipurpose.

 

 

Ten tips for sharing a living space of 2 x 1.5 metres for three months.

1. Take turns to move, carefully.

Ducklings at the campsite
Duckling herding

2. Even though there is nowhere for them to go, you will lose things constantly. Don’t worry, you are camping, almost everything is optional. Except the keys. They are here somewhere.

3. Herd any stray wildlife off your pitch before parking.

4. Always check how much water is left before you start cleaning your teeth.

Table in campervan
Not sure where this is going to go

5. You think you know all your travelling companion’s little habits. Believe me, you don’t! You will discover some new ones that you never noticed before. Breathe, pretend you are still blissfully unaware.

6. You will laugh ’til your sides hurt more times than you can remember doing in the past year. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate your life.

Cafe working
Cream tea while you work, perfect!

7. Be restrained with the souvenir shopping.

8. If you’re blogging in the Highlands, you’ll need to visit a lot of cafes. It would be rude not to eat cake.

Hedgehog on Anglesey
The 3.00 am hedgehog

9. Take your phone to the loo, even in the middle of the night, in case there is some interesting wildlife.

10. Relax, pour yourself something cold, and watch the sunset.

Dynamic Druridge

Drurridge Bay

sand dune 2 DrurridgeThe dunes of the Northumberland coast are like no others, driven by the strong sea winds into tall, narrow mounds of sand and constantly changing. “This could look different tomorrow” Steve Lowe, from Northumberland Wildlife Trust told me as we stood beside the dune system along the seven mile stretch of sand that forms Druridge Bay.

coal fragments make patterns in the water on the shore of Drurridge Bay
Coal fragments make patterns in the water where the waves lap the shores of Druridge Bay

Druridge Bay has been shaped by change – the elements, nature and human activity all play a part in creating this fascinating area. Humans have been driving that change for more than 5,000 years. Human footprints found in post-glacial deposits and other evidence, much of it uncovered in a recent archaeological project in which the Trust were partners, date human occupation from the Mesolithic period.

Over time, people changed the landscape from wilderness to farmland. Then the increasing need for coal led to the creation of an industrial landscape with underground and open cast mining. Ironically, this has eventually led to the creation of new wildlife habitat, formed by the subsidence of old mining areas, and restoration of open cast mines.

East Cheving ton nature reserve Northumberland Wildlife Trust
A flowery grass path leads into East Chevington Nature Reserve.
Wetland birds at East Chevington nature reserve.
Wetland birds at East Chevington nature reserve. The grass is full of foraging lapwings.

Steve was showing us round some of the five Northumberland Wildlife Trust reserves that form the core area of the Dynamic Druridge project, which aims to continue the theme of change, restoring, recreating and reconnecting habitats and improving people’s access to the wildlife of the area.

East Chevington nature reserve was restored to create wetland habitats after opencast mining and passed to the Trust in 2003. In their care it has become one of the best birdwatching sites in Northumberland, with huge numbers of birds using the lakes and especially in autumn and winter. A newly planted woodland area provides an ideal place to run Forest Schools, where children can develop confidence through outdoor activities.

Steve took us to the Hauxley reserve next, which is temporarily closed while Northumberland Wildlife Trust constructs the greenest building in the North East. As well as being very environmentally friendly, the amazing thing about this building is that it is being built by volunteers.

Hauxley Visitor Centre architects drawing
The concept design for the new visitor centre. Image by Brightblue Studios

The Trust secured a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to replace the previous visitor centre, which had been burnt down, with an iconic  sustainable building. The project employs a site manager and the Trust staff manage the project but most of the work is done by volunteers. There was a huge sense of camaraderie among the volunteers and the work that has already been achieved was inspiring.

part of the sustainable building at Huxley nature reserve
Duncan Hutt explains how the building is designed to minimise its impact on the environment. Green roofs provide wildlife habitat as well as insulation against heat and cold, and reduce the risk of surface water flooding around the building.

I donned a hard hat and high-vis so that I could go on site, and Ducan Hutt, Head of Estates management at the Trust, showed me around the building. It is designed to minimise its impact on the environment. No concrete is used in the construction, the walls are straw bales rendered with a lime based plaster, timber is obtained locally, much of it from Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s own reserves.

I’m immensely grateful to Steve and Duncan for taking the time to show me what the Dynamic Druridge project is achieving and am already looking forward to coming back to see the completed visitor centre and the rest of the reserves in this beautiful area.

Edited 25.8.16 to correct an embarrassing mis-spelling of Druridge.

A Gannet Extravaganza

Swirling clouds of gannets
Bass Rock, off the Scottish coast, is Europes largest gannet colony
Bass Rock, off the Scottish coast. The entire rock is white with gannets at this time of year.

Clouds of gannets rise up from Bass Rock and fill the air with raucous cries, slicing effortlessly through the air on snow-white, black-dipped wings.

We bounced on top of the water beneath them, heads tipped back to gaze in awe at the graceful circus of gannets above our heads, holding on tight as the RIB (Rigid Inflateable Boat) met the waves with rather less grace.

Following The Wildlife Trusts’ advice on how to see gannets at their best, and a tip from Alan at Scottish Wildlife Trust, we were on a boat trip from North Berwick to Bass Rock, the biggest gannet colony in Europe.

Although they nest in dense colonies, gannets are highly territorial, each making it loudly clear to its neighbour that this is my patch. Gannets return to the same patch each year form long-term pairs, often for life. Bill fencing is a form of greeting behaviour that strengthens the bond between pairs.

As a wildlife experience, this was one of the best, plus being fun going out in the boat. Can’t wait to do it again next time I’m in Scotland.

Spellbound by Orchids

Heath spotted orchid crop
common spotted orchids
Common spotted orchids on the Roadside Nature Reserve just across the road from my office. It is spectacular in July; even driving past you can see the pink flower spikes of the orchids.

When I was growing up, I thought that orchids were exotic flowers, beloved of Victorian ladies in glasshouses and native only to tropical rainforests. It was a revelation to discover that they are found worldwide and that my home county of Kent held more varieties than anywhere else in the UK.

You have to look more closely to appreciate the flowers of our native orchids, but once you do, you will find that they are every bit as enchanting as the showy specimens you might buy from a florist.

bee orchid by Steve Weeks
Pollen poised to rub off onto the back of any bee that visits this Bee Orchid (image © Steve Weeks, Kent Wildlife Trust)

The complexity of orchid flowers is due to their intricate relationships with insects, the structures having evolved to tempt insect visitors, sometimes even luring them with the false promise of a mate, in order to achieve pollination.

Darwin was fascinated by the evolutionary relationship between orchids and insects and it is thought that Kent Wildlife Trust’s Downe Bank nature reserve is the Orchis Bank he used to visit to study this phenomenon and that he immortalised in the conclusion of the Origin of the Species.

Although I didn’t need to leave Kent to try out the next of The Wildlife Trusts’ Top UK Wildlife Experiences, traveling in the north of the U.K. gave me the chance to see some species I’d not come across before, and practice my budding botanical skills.

 

Seabird city

three razorbills crop

Nothing prepares you for the sheer spectacle of 300 ft cliffs lined with thousands and thousands of seabirds perched precariously on the narrowest of ledges with their chick nestled underneath them. Well, that’s not quite true, the acrid smell of a seabird colony greets you a good hundred yards before you get to them. Now that the birds have been nesting for several weeks the cliffs are draped in swathes of guano  (ok, bird poo). Then you hear the cries, screeches and grumbles of the birds as you walk along the grassy path and finally reach the cliff-tops where the air is alive with wheeling kittiwakes, fulmars gliding effortlessly and guillemots, razorbills and puffins darting purposefully from rock to sea and back.

Handa Island (managed by Scottish Wildlife Trust) is home to 56,000 guillemots, counted individually by volunteer researchers painstakingly scanning the cliffs on foot and by boat to note each nesting bird and their chicks. Puffins were also counted this year, 330 were found, showing that the population on Handa is remaining stable, despite concerns about decreasing food in some areas.

We went to Handa Island to try out another of the Top UK Wildlife Experiences, which we are working our way through on our journey around the UK. It was absolutely amazing, the seabirds, of course, were mesmerising. The paths run close to the cliffs at some points, and Geoff, who is a much more patient photographer than me, took some great pictures. Our aim on this trip has been to travel light and take the minimum of equipment, so all the images and film in these posts are taken on an oldish digital camera with no extra lenses, or on an iPhone. (All today’s images are by Geoff Woolley, please credit him if you use any.)

Arctic skua
Being dive-bombed by skuas is part of the Handa experience. The footpath passes close to this arctic skua’s nest. We didn’t hang around for a close-up!

The landscape is stunning, with a dramatic rugged coastline, flower studded grassland and views across the sea to the misty blue mountains of the Highlands.

 

Handa Island is the most magical and awe-inspiring place. We could have spent hours just watching the birds, admiring the rock formations or examining the flowers, but we had to catch a boat back or be stranded on the island overnight.

Boat leaving Handa Island
Leaving Handa Island

Highland ambition

Lake Assynt and castle

 

Moorland at Coigach-Assynt
Moorland at Coigach-Assynt

We think of the Scottish Highlands as being a wild, unspoilt, natural place, but in fact this is far from true. Most of the upland habitat has been changed by grazing, tree-planting and drainage, so that natural habitats are rare. More than half of the species found there are declining, some with a high risk of extinction.

Richard Williams and Boyd Alexander from the Coigach-Assynt Living Langscape Project
Richard Williams and Boyd Alexander from the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project.

Richard Williams and Boyd Alexander have a plan to turn this around. They are running one of the largest landscape restoration schemes in Europe, the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project. This long term project, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, aims to restore wildlife over 60,000 hectares of the Scottish Highlands.

Ben Mor Coigach viewed from Stac Pollaidh
A blanket of cloud lies over Ben Mor Coigach, Scottish Wildlife Trust’s largest nature reserve, viewed here from Stac Pollaidh.

I joined them for lunch at the cafe next to their office at Lochinver, in the heart of the project area. Richard explained that the project involves seven major landowners and several local organisations. They have recently secured a Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Partnership grant, and are just starting to build a team to deliver the work. Having fallen in love with Scotland, I daydreamed briefly about applying to join them, but no, for many reasons, it is not to be.

An example of an Iron Age Broch
The CALL project will excavate and stabilise the collapsed Clachtoll Broch. This is a different Broch, at Dun Carloway on Lewis, but shows the double skinned construction of these mysterious Iron Age structures.

The project is an exciting mix of nature conservation, archeology, training and education. Woodland is an important element of the project; increasing the extent of native woodland will provide new habitat for many threatened species. The project also aims to work with schools to encourage them to use woodland as a classroom for outdoor learning. Working with landowners and local community groups, native woodland will be extended through changes in land management to allow natural regeneration, and by planting of native trees.

 

 

Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery
Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery

How do you get enough native Scottish tree saplings to plant woodland on such an ambitious scale? Boyd took me to meet Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery to find out. Nick collects native tree seeds from local woodlands. Some seed, like willow, needs to be planted straight away, whereas some needs a cold period before it can germinate. These are stored in layers of sand outside through the winter and then brought inside to be planted.

 

Red deer in Scottish Highlands
Red deer are an iconic part of the Highland landscape but are also one of the main reasons for the lack of trees. Grazing animals such as sheep and deer nibble away any tree seedlings before they have a chance to grow.

The trees are sold to landowners who want to create native woodland on their land. They can apply for grant funding to help with the cost of creating and managing new woodland, including putting up extensive deer fencing, needed to exclude deer while the young trees get established.

The Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape is such an exciting project, encompassing stunning habitats from mountain to coast, with fascinating wildlife and a rich cultural heritage. I can’t wait to come back and explore more of the area and see how the project is getting on.

 

Sunset
Sunset over the southern end of the project area