If I’m away for two days on a photographic expedition and come back with one good image I’m very happy. Usually at any one location at any one time there are variations on a theme to be had so one good image usually means two or three others I’m reasonably happy with as well. The above was taken at Llyn Dinas near Beddgelert on a stunning morning early last week. There were a few other photographers thereabouts but at the time conditions here were perfect I was on my own. A couple of other chaps were at the other end of the lake in the murk so I was pleased that I had sat it out for half an hour or so while it cleared and the sun came out. Llyn Dinas must be one of my very favourite locations in the whole of Wales.
And now for something completely different. I have a new website! My old site got hacked and infected with malicious code earlier this year and I was persuaded that I really needed a new one. I compared most of the photographers sites (Smugmug, Squarespace, Zenfolio, etc) but one – The Image File – stood out for me in various ways. It was reasonably priced for up to 500 images and had a high degree of customisation. They offer a site building service which I paid out for. It gave me a start but I am far too choosy to accept any one else’s idea of what my website should look like! So very soon I was on my own. I must say that with a couple of exceptions (were they at trade shows….?) during the six months or more I was putting the site together I found their customer support to be excellent. James or Reuben were often at the end of a telephone or on the email when required. Just what a technophobe like me needs! One further advantage of The Image File was the ability to choose a lab and let the customer order prints directly via the website. I haven’t quite got this down to a tee yet but in time I will. So do log in and have a look; any suggestions on how I could improve it will be gratefully considered.
I spent most of last week in West Sussex. As mentioned in the last post I am very interested in the idea and practice of re-wilding, but there was one thing I couldn’t quite grasp. It is accepted that the climax vegetation over most of the British Isles (most of the planet, I imagine) would be woodland, and it would be to woodland that re-wilded land would eventually revert.. If that were the case I couldn’t understand how there could be a niche – in a world before agriculture – for grassland plants and animals. Then I read an excellent book called Wilding by Isabella Tree, in which she describes the process by which she and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their farm – Knepp – in West Sussex into wildlife habitat where natural processes hold sway.
The secret was to introduce grazing and browsing animals into the equation. In its primeval state woodland would have been kept in check by herds of wild cattle, horses, boar and deer. With the exception of the latter these large mammals have all become extinct, so the answer at Knepp was to introduce the nearest domesticated equivalents and let them roam freely : longhorn cattle, exmoor ponies, tamworth pigs and a selection of wild deer. The result is a continuously evolving mix of habitats which has attracted an exciting range of wildlife. Thickets of naturally occuring sallows are perfect for purple emperor butterflies, such that Knepp now holds the largest numbers of this stunning insect in Britain. Gorse and blackthorn scrub has attracted large numbers of nightingales, so much so that strictly speaking the re-wilding process should be stopped in its tracks and the land declared an S.S.S.I. for this species alone. The fast declining and now very rare turtle dove is at its highest British concentration at Knepp. It’s unlikely anyone would have expected these particular wildlife gains but that is the beauty of re-wilding. It is unpredictable. So I was very keen to see it with my own eyes.
Lets get a few things clear first about Knepp. It never was just any old farm. Knepp Castle is the ancestral home of the Burrell family, “Charlie” is in fact Sir Charles, and Isabella Tree is Lady Burrell. It is said in Wilding that the estate was close to becoming bankrupt thanks to its poor clay soils and other factors before the decision to re-wild it was taken. This may well have been the case, but Knepp also benefits from the properties it leases to small businesses and individuals. So it does have considerable financial advantages which would not be available to many farms.. The estate now runs exceptionally expensive jeep safaris, and has yurts, treehouses and the like for visitors to rent (at a premium), all of which seem to be booked up many months in advance. Knepp has managed to maintain an exclusivity which might be difficult for other similar projects to acquire – even if they wanted to.
Nevertheless Knepp is a truly pioneering experiment in land-use which could be an example for others to follow.
The estate is criss-crossed by numerous public rights of way, so access was easy. Some bridleways were as wide as Welsh B-roads! The land is very flat and one was continually immersed in the landscape. Sturdy pedunculate oaks – such a contrast to the sessile oaks so familiar in Wales – line field boundaries and footpaths, and hedgerows were being allowed to expand outwards and upwards. What must once have been fields of cereals or improved grassland were reverting to scrub en route to woodland. But it was frustrating that there were no viewpoints from which one could get an overall perspective of the rewilded area. To be quite honest Knepp didn’t have the visually exciting qualities that I was expecting, although I’m sure a visit in spring would have been far more rewarding in a wildlife sense. It is also the location of a white stork re-introduction project and although I heard bill-clattering and saw this year’s nest, I didn’t catch sight of an actual stork.
Around Knepp Castle itself is a traditional deer park dotted with ancient oaks and this proved the most photogenic area, especially at dawn on my last morning. A little low-lying fog and mist drifted around amonst the trees and I took my most successful picture there. I’m sure the message is quite clear; but note also the jet trail which I could easily have removed in post-processing. It must be there for a reason!
Otherwise photographic possibilities were few and far between. Skies were almost completely cloud-free for the three full days that we were there, and those really are difficult conditions for the landscape photographer. So I took the time to relax and enjoy the warm sunshine in the knowledge that before too long the rains of autumn and winter would soon be with us.
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In 1965 the Tryweryn valley – north-west of Bala in north Wales – was flooded to create a reservoir to supply water for the city of Liverpool. This was despite a determined and almost unanimous campaign by Welsh M.P.’s and many other Welsh people. Permission for a dam to be built was the result, unusually, of an Act of Parliament being obtained. This avoided the need for local scrutiny through the planning process. Land and properties were obtained by a process of compulsory purchase; the inhabitants of Capel Celyn were forcibly removed and the village submerged. It is not surprising that the whole episode became pivotal in the recent history of Welsh nationalism. “Cofiwch Dryweryn” (Remember Tryweryn) has become shorthand for the English mistreatment of the Welsh nation. The reservoir itself is probably the ugliest in the whole of Wales.
During the run-up to the flooding the Welsh nationalist (and later writer and academic) Meic Stephens drove around Wales scrawling “Cofwich Dryweryn” on various buildings. One, on a ruined cottage in a prominent position by the A487 near Llanrhystud in Ceredigion, survived. It has become a kind of unofficial national monument, despite being partly demolished and rebuilt several times, most notably earlier this year. Following the most recent vandalisation, copycat graffiti quickly appeared in various locations all over Wales. The vandals proved to be their own worst enemy.
I have previously written about Re-wilding – here, for example. The idea was really brought into the public domain by George Monbiot, in his book “Feral” – published in 2013. He lived in Machynlleth (mid-Wales) for several years and what he saw and experienced in the area were very important to his way of thinking. He had explored the hill country around the town and saw how badly it had been “sheep-wrecked”, and how even the conservation agencies were complicit in keeping it that way. In “Feral” he went through the economics of sheep farming in great detail, concluding that without the EU subsidies sheep farming was completely uneconomic. Monbiot said that re-wilding would be a far better use of the land if the farmers were willing to accept it. The farming unions went ballistic! They mistakenly concluded that Monbiot was advocating compulsory re-wilding and that their members would be thrown off their land.
Perhaps if Monbiot had written about sheep farming in the Pennines, for example, where the problems are probably identical, he would have stirred up less bad feeling. The Welsh language is a pretty sensitive subject round here and its heartland is in the farming community. I can understand the sensitivities involved but when the farming community feel most threatened the language issue always comes up. It’s like the nuclear option.
Earlier this year the charity Rewilding Britain announced one of their new projects – Summit to Sea. Based in Machynlleth, the project aims to use re-wilding principles, where appropriate, and agreements with farmers and landowners, to improve biodiversity over a 10,000 hectare area of mid-Wales from the summit of Pumlumon to the coast, and offshore well into the waters of Cardigan Bay. Its “core area” is the Dyfi estuary, already the location of an extensive National Nature Reserve, an RSPB reserve (Ynyshir), and the Dyfi Osprey Project. Alongside the biodiversity aims, the project proposes to create living landscapes where local communities are able to enjoy sustainable lifestyles. It has proved extremely controversial. The farming unions have come out against it, despite the fact that the project is funded to the tune of £3.4m over the first five years. With the future of farming subsidies in such grave doubt following Brexit, why ever would farmers want to look such a gift horse in the mouth? It just doesn’t make sense.
The problem is the “R-word”. Many mid-Wales sheep farmers seem to believe they have an inalienable right to carry on farming the way they are now doing, largely at the public expense. They refuse to accept that the degraded landscapes and wildlife that surround them are the results of their activities – prompted by government policies – over a period of several decades. They do not see why or how they should possibly change their farming methods to give nature a chance to recover. Some – not all – have seen wildlife as the enemy for so long that it is difficult for them to change their mindset. The idea that re-wilding would be compulsory is still propogated by the farming lobby, despite repeated denials.
So there is now a campaign underway to scrap the Summit to Sea project completely. Stickers, banners, and slogans are appearing all over the area saying “no” to re-wilding. One in Machynlleth rather worryingly also includes the “Cofiwch Dryweryn” slogan. Is it their intention to associate re-wilding in mid-Wales with flooding the Tryweryn valley by Liverpool City Council in the 1960’s? One can’t be sure. But there is one big difference: re-wilding will always be voluntary whereas eviction from the village of Capel Celyn was compulsory.
Almost every day brings more news about the speed with which the climate is warming, whether it be forest fires in Siberia, the melting icecap in Greenland, or record high temperatures in Alaska – to name three recent examples. The suspicion is that the climate is changing much faster than was ever imagined. It seems that climate chaos will soon be with us.
Yet north Ceredigion will soon be the venue for a new car rally; possibly the most frivolous waste of fossil fuels that it is possible to imagine. The Rali Bae Ceredigion, due to take place in early September, will see 120 cars covering a total race length of 44 miles in four stages. Roads in the Bontgoch, Pendam/Ponterwyd, Ystumtuen and Nant-y-moch areas will be closed for the day. Cars will slowly proceed from stage to stage on public roads, another 44 miles.
As well as the carbon emissions from the competition cars themselves, those from an estimated 1500 marshals, officials and mechanics required on the day need to be added. On top of that will be the emissions involved from their journeys to north Ceredigion from their homes, PLUS an unknown (but probably considerable) number of spectators. Rally organisers claim that the use of shuttle buses to take spectators to vantage points on the rally route will “boost the event’s environmental credentials”. As if it had any!
No-one who has given their endorsement to this rally can possibly have considered its environmental impact. If they had it would have been a non-starter. The climate crisis is just too serious. And yet rally organisers hope that this rally will become an annual event, “developing and expanding” in future years..
Backers of the rally include Visit Wales, part of the Welsh Assembly Government, which has recently declared a Climate Emergency. Ben Lake MP (Plaid Cymru spokesman on the environment, among other things) is in favour, despite his party strongly supporting the Climate Emergency Declaration. “Without the commitment to action that such a Declaration necessitates, the statement is meaningless”, said Plaid Cymru in May.
Those who seem likely to gain the most financially from the rally include Ceredigion County Council – who narrowly failed to declare a Climate Emergency themselves earlier this year – and Aberystwyth University.
The University will be making a very tidy profit from hosting the rally. Rooms in its Halls of Residence will be rented out to drivers and officials. Space for parking, vehicle movements and servicing, office activity, presentation areas, and catering facilities will be made available. Among the areas commandeered will be the Arts Centre and one has to question how appropriate the use of the Arts Centre actually is. What possible artistic or cultural purpose does a car rally serve?
The University really needs to examine its conscience on the Climate Emergency. They still have investments in the fossil fuel industry, and rally organisers have been quite open about the University’s support – without it the rally just would not happen.
When we are all being urged to leave the car at home and use public transport to save carbon emissions, this new rally is close to being an obscenity. It should not be repeated.
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It has been a quiet time for me recently, photographically speaking. Following a number of disappointments – this one, for example, but there have been others – I am adapting to the idea of being semi-retired as a photographer. It has been a difficult process, but, looking on the bright side, I can now enjoy things, places and events without having to take photographs of them. The postcards are still providing some useful income, and I still have a couple of projects I’d like to get off the ground, but the confidence I used to have is missing. In late April I went to north-eastern Spain and then south-western France for a holiday with Jane. Despite some excellent birding at the Aiguemolls de Empurda in Catalonia I took few photographs; only once did I really regret not having the camera to hand and that was when a little bittern appeared on the edge of a reedbed just in front of the hide, posed for a few seconds and then flew off. If only…….
After a week in Spain we moved on to the Tet valley about 25 miles inland of Perpignan in France. The local town was Prades, where we went for shopping, the farmers market and meals out.. On one visit while parking the car I happened to notice the street name – Avenue du Chants desOiseaux : or Birdsong Avenue in English . How beautiful and how gently surreal! I took a snap with my phone and mulled it over for a day or two before returning with my full kit. I took a series of exposures as cars went past, using long-ish shutter speeds to give a sense of movement, and a narrow aperture for depth of field – in this case the combination was 1/40th second at f14.
The image haunted me for several weeks after I returned to the UK. Do you need to know French to “get it”? How well does an environmental message come through? Or is it too obvious? Whatever could I do with a picture like this? Then I was reminded of the Open Exhibition at the Penrallt Gallery and Bookshop in Machynlleth, the theme this year being “Language in the Landscape”. Perfect! The submission deadline had already passed but Geoff Young kindly allowed me to sneak it in at the last minute. I’ve recently been thinking that certain subjects are more suited to black-and-white, so I converted this before printing. As you can see I’ve also added the colour version to this post; does anyone have any thoughts on the colour vs b&w dilemma, one way or the other?
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A good friend and I have often discussed how good it would be to see golden eagles back in Wales. We have often thought that the area above Nant-y-moch reservoir, in the shadow of Pumlumon, would be one of the best sites in Wales for them. It is remote, quite mountainous and very little visited. One imagines there would be a fair few dead sheep to feed on too. In contrast, the number of walkers and climbers around the great crags and summits of north Wales and the Brecon Beacons are such that golden eagles would probably be unable to tolerate the disturbance. But when other conditions are favourable their nests can sometimes be at “walk-in” locations, as I discovered while doing a golden eagle survey on the Isle of Mull many years ago. So quieter parts of Snowdonia, like the Arenig/Migneint and the Rhinogydd, might be suitable, despite a shortage of cliff or tree nesting sites.
A few months ago I became aware of the Eagle Re-introduction Wales project (ERW). It is based at Cardiff University, and has the backing of the Welsh Wildlife Trusts. It is currently undertaking some pre-feasibility studies to examine whether there would be a niche in Wales for either or both of the UK’s eagle species. For most of its short life, the ERW project has been carrying out its activities very much ‘under the radar’. It expects that re-introducing eagles into Wales will be controversial and is building the case for it in a methodical and deliberate fashion. That all changed recently when a completely separate golden eagle re-introduction project made its TV debut on Countryfile Winter Diaries.
Presenting the proposal was Dr. Paul O’Donoghue, project leader for “Wilder Britain”. They plan to submit their application for a release licence to Natural Resources Wales in July. Dr O’Donoghue is quoted on the North Wales Live website (18th February) as saying –
“If successful, project organisers hope to re-introduce 10 young Golden Eagles as soon as this autumn, though next year is more likely.”
The release will form the model for further releases elsewhere in Wales. He is obviously very positive about their chances of success. The trouble is, any re-introduction project like this has to satisfy something like fifty-three guidelines set out by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). They just don’t happen overnight.
‘Wilder Britain’ is a Community Interest Company, based in St Asaph, with just one director – Dr. Paul O’Donoghue. It was set up on 25th August 2018, and until January 25th this year was known as “Rewilding UK”.
As a result of some of his other recent initiatives, Paul O’Donoghue has become quite a controversial character. He is also ‘Chief Scientific Advisor’ to Wildcat Haven (directors Emily O’Donoghue and Douglas Wilson). This is a fairly well-established project doing good work on wildcat conservation in Scotland; for example catching, neutering and re-releasing feral cats and wildcat/feral cat crosses so that they become unable to reproduce. It is also proposing to re-introduce wildcats from elsewhere in Europe into the Scottish Borders this year – 2019 . On the other side of the coin Wildcat Haven has also entered into an unpleasant war of words with the “official” wildcat conservation body Scottish Wildcat Action. Wildcat Haven has also sued for defamation a very well-respected Green Party Member of the Scottish Parliament. It is believed that the astonishing sum of £750,000 (+ interest) is involved. The court case is due to be heard later this year.
Then there’s the Lynx UK Trust. Its registered address is also in St. Asaph, and its directors are Paul O’Donoghue and Emily O’Donoghue. The Lynx UK Trust submitted an application to release wild lynx into the Kielder Forest (on the England / Scotland border) early in 2018, and it was turned down in December. The refusal was just about as damning as it could possibly have been. Natural England was concerned, among other things, about the project’s lack of financial security, its reliance on volunteers, its lack of liaison with land- owners and managers, the lack of an environmental impact assessment, and insufficient information on the methodology for “acquisition, release and monitoring of lynx”. They had failed to satisfy some of the most important IUCN guidelines. Despite this refusal the Lynx UK Trust now proposes to re-introduce Lynx at three locations in Scotland ………
It appears that ERW got wind of the Wilder Britain announcement and decided to take pre-emptive action. A press release from project leader Sophie Lee-Williams also dated February 18th appears on the BBC News website. In it she says –
“Wales is home to large expanses of potentially suitable eagle habitat but there are many questions we need to answer about the quality of habitat, and whether it can sustain eagles. The project is in the very early stages of development, and a reintroduction is not likely to happen for some time.”
The two projects couldn’t be more different in their approaches.
So what chance does Wilder Britain stand of getting a release permit this year for golden eagles in Snowdonia? My feeling is very little. So little ecological groundwork has been done. Also on their agenda for Wales is the re-introduction of mountain hares – a worthwhile project in itself but which could take years to undertake. One of its aims is to provide prey for introduced eagles. So why not work on this first? Perhaps the mountain hare isn’t sexy enough? While he may be very good at making headlines, in the cold light of day Paul O’Donoghue’s proposals seem to me to amount to little more than an elaborate wishlist. And with the track record he has quickly built up how can the authorities take him seriously?
I would also suggest that his sudden arrival is bad news for rewilding in Wales in general and for the ERW project in particular. It must be hoped that Dr O’Donoghue will soon return from whence he came.
Many thanks to Jonathan Stacey for advice and inspiration.
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As many of you will know, I have been publishing the Wild Wales/Cymru Wyllt range of postcards for over thirty years. Yes! People still do buy them! At an age when most sensible people would be putting their feet up, I might as well continue to fulfil that demand. Little by little I am reducing the level of stock that I hold and to this end my print run is shorter every year. So to counteract this trend, in 2019 I have published an extraordinary fifteen brand new designs – probably more in a single year than at any time in the past. It is thanks to the staff at Gomer Press that I am able to do this at an economical price, and with such exceptional quality. Images suitable for postcards may not require the greatest levels of creativity but they are still a challenge and they keep me on my toes.
So, enjoy these images – and when you go away this year, buy a few postcards at your destination and support a local photographer!
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As I have done so little photography in the last two months I hope you’ll forgive me if recount an incident from spring last year. In early May I paid a visit to Ham Wall in the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury. In a post describing a previous visit I called this magnificent RSPB reserve ‘Heron HQ UK’ : as an example of habitat creation on a large scale it just can’t be beat.
My first morning there saw me making an early start. It was humid, still, and scraps of fog hovered above the wetlands and reedbeds. I wasted little time in making my way to the Tor View hide, joining another early-rising photographer. It can be good to chat to like-minded souls in bird hides and one can sometimes pick up useful info about what can be seen locally. But on this occasion it really was a bit too early for conversation and, besides, a surreal dawn was slowly developing into a stunning sunrise. But he just wanted to talk ….”Are you using Canon, then…..?” Even worse, he wanted to talk about kit. And did he! He proceeded to list his lenses: …the 600 f5.6, the 500 f4 and the 400 f2.8 (…..possibly…..). He carried on in this vein.
Meanwhile a pair of great white egrets were just becoming active in the mist nearby, offering a stunning spectacle to the photographer. But he just didn’t seem to notice. Fortunately a couple of other photographers arrived which took the pressure off me to respond! The sun began to break through the trees, spotlighting sections of the egrets’ brilliant white plumage. I couldn’t believe I was the only one pointing my camera in their direction.
Perhaps backlit birds don’t offer ideal subject matter for the traditional bird photographer. Whatever the reason, the others sat on the other side of the hide and chatted away. The sun rose, dispersing the mist and warming the landscape. I was able to photograph a bittern in flight with the summit of Glastonbury Tor in the background, an image that really sums up Ham Wall for me.
And what of our friend with the car boot full of equipment? I hadn’t noticed him slip away but certainly noticed him return. This time he was pulling a four wheeled trolley loaded with gear. Someone had advised him that thieves were known to frequent the car park and he must have thought it better that he had it all with him.
I’m struggling, really, to conclude this post because the moral is surely so clear to see. There is more to photography than kit.
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I will be running a residential landscape photography workshop from May 9th – 12th at Trigonos, Nantlle, north Wales.
Trigonos is a really excellent venue. For many years it has run a programme of personal growth, yoga and mindfulness workshops, but is now extending the range of courses that it offers. There is a range of accomodation available, and the staff provide very good quality vegetarian food. There is a very relaxed atmosphere around the site. Trigonos is situated on the banks of Llyn Nantlle Uchaf, just a few minutes walk to the western end of the lake, from where one of the classic views of Snowdon can be seen. Nantlle itself is one of the quietest villages in Snowdonia and I have had long conversations with passers by in the middle of the main street without fear of being mown down by vehicles!
As well as being in an excellent location for the photographer of “unspoilt” landscapes, Trigonos is also close to some extensive disused slate quarries, and I expect we will visit a range of locations from the sublime to the derelict. In fact, one of the themes of the Workshop will be the relationship of one to the other. It should have something for everyone.
I’d just like to wish all my readers a happy festive season – whatever their beliefs – and a successful year in 2019.
I have a couple of new projects to look forward to in the New Year, and I’ll talk about those in January.
Apologies for using the same photograph for a second time. Until recently I wasn’t aware how close the links were between the Fly Agaric and Christmas. But ” it seems quite possible that the traditional image of Father Christmas has its real origins in shamanistic rituals involying the red and white fly agaric toadstool”.
There’s plenty more about this on the internet, for example here, from which the above quote is taken.