(Still) shooting itself in the foot……..

The Upper Llyfnant valley (with newly bulldozed tracks)

Living in west Wales as I do the issue of gamebird shooting has rarely raised its unpleasant head. I knew there was a shoot on the Dyfi estuary but it didn’t really seem like a problem. That all changed in a big way over the summer.

Cwmrhaiadr had been farmed in a fairly wildlife-friendly way for decades, is much loved by local people, and is stunningly beautiful. It consists mainly of the Upper Llyfnant valley, which runs north-south along the Ceredigion / Powys boundary, a few miles from Machynlleth. The river then swings westwards and flows into the Dyfi estuary. It is short but sweet. At the head of the valley is Pistyll-y-llyn (“waterfall of the lake”), down which the infant Llyfnant plunges from the Cambrian Mountain plateau into the lowlands. The farm was purchased by a businessman from Essex, who sold the shooting rights to a Shropshire-based company, and began turning the valley into a commercial game-bird shoot. New roads were bulldozed throughout. It was lockdown so few people knew what was going on.

The valley has been renamed “Dyfi Falls”. The cost of a day’s shooting? A staggering £2640 (+ VAT).

The moorland at the head of the valley is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); this includes the cliffs and steep hillsides at the head and upper reaches of the valley. Another SSSI lies a few miles downstream. It is deciduous woodland, a remnant of the “temperate rainforest”; rich in lichens, bryophytes and invertebrates. It would be susceptible to changes in the quality of the water running through it, and the air surrounding it..

In their early publicity the shoot company (Cambrian Birds) boasted about releasing 40,000 birds or more (pheasants and red-legged partridges) into the valley. Imagine that! Although this figure seems to have disappeared from their website they have never denied it. Certainly if you walk there (or anywhere within a few miles) you are continually tripping over pheasants, and I saw flocks of partridges totalling at least fifteen hundred birds. The shooting industry itself has estimated that only 35% (on average) of released birds are actually shot. At Cwmyrhaiadr that leaves 26,000 to die of starvation, predation, disease, parasites or being run over by cars. And of the estimated 57 million released annually in the UK – yes, you did read that correctly – 37 million will die similarly unfortunate deaths. One may view the shooting of birds for pleasure as unpleasant but these figures show that in every way the industry has a callous disregard for living creatures.

Now, regarding the SSSI. It is quite clear to anyone visiting the valley that the gamekeeper (under orders, no doubt) has placed most of the feeding hoppers as close as possible to the SSSI boundary. A trail of feed has illegally been laid – inside the SSSI – along the footpath from the valley bottom to the top of the waterfall. Cambrian Birds’ publicity states –

“The steep sided valleys will allow us to present high-flying birds flying straight back to their home at the centre of the estate”

And on their social media pages they excitedly tell us –

“Can’t wait to see these [pheasants] flying off the tops of those hills!”

The trouble is, those hills are the SSSI and (supposedly) protected from the release of non-native birds. Cambrian Birds may be (largely) respecting the letter of the law but certainly not the spirit. Or as one planning officer I spoke to put it:

They are very good at pushing the boundaries“.

For many years the RSPB has been equivocal about gamebird shooting. It accepted that in agricultural lowland Britain woodland was retained for the rearing and release of gamebirds. This provided habitat for many other species of wildlife and would otherwise probably have been felled to increase agricultural production. However the Society now recognises that the nature of gamebird shooting has changed, saying in a recent report –

there are substantial negative environmental consequences from the industrialised form of this shooting, including the direct and indirect impacts that released birds can have on other wildlife. ” 

It has now told the industry that if it does not put its house in order within 18 months – reducing the quantity of birds released, for example – it will call for statutory regulation of gamebird shooting. The RSPB is a powerful organisation and this may bear some fruit. But we should also remember that the landowning class has its own political party which is currently in power with a very large majority.

Meanwhile the pressure group Wild Justice is pursuing a legal case against the government in the High Court, arguing that it is failing in its duty to protect native species in the UK from the excesses of the shooting industry. . The industrial quantities of non-native birds released into the countryside amount to “a very serious ecological assault” upon it, Wild Justice says. The biomass of pheasants and red-legged partridges released every year “exceeds that of all native UK birds put together“, it adds. The Court case will be heard in early November.

What of the shooting industry itself? The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) portrays itself as the voice of the reason in the debate. It has a series of “guidelines” for the industry, for example, and a “policy” of zero tolerance over the killing of birds of prey. As for the RSPB’s new position on gamebird shooting, the BASC says –

 if the RSPB really wants to regain some good will and positive influence with the shooting world, they would do well to start formally recognising and celebrating where and how things are going right.”

The problem is that this has been the RSPB’s position for many years already. Self-regulation has failed to keep the shooting fraternity in check. Raptors continue to be killed on shooting estates, for example, and many believe that the industry is completely out of control. Hence the RSPB’s change of heart. So will the shooting industry begin to mend their ways? If the example of Cwmrhaiadr is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding “no”.

Edit: Prior to the Wild Justice case reaching Court DEFRA has agreed that pheasant and partridge releases should be subject to licensing. However, at present this only seems to refer to wildlife sites designated under European legislation (ie SPA’s and SAC’s). How it relates to SSSI’s and the wider countryside is not clear. And the statement may not relate to Wales, either, which has its own rules and regulations.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the Follow button.

Bird/land rides again

Bird/land is showing again this summer, at Plas Brondanw, between Penrhyndeudraeth and Beddgelert in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park.

Set in a stunning location, Plas Brondanw was the home of the late Clough Williams Ellis – creator of Portmeirion,  the surreal Italian-style village on the Dwyryd estuary. The gardens at Plas Brondanw have been open to the public for many years but this is the first year the house has opened its doors. It is a very different venue to those at Machynlleth and Aberystwyth. Each room contains maybe 6 or 8 works, punctuated by windows which overlook the gardens and the surrounding landscape. But I think they work well there.

The official opening is on Sunday 30th – details above – and I will be giving a talk on Sunday August 13th, at 2.30 pm. Places for both events genuinely are limited. Opening hours for the exhibition are Wednesday to Sunday, 10.30 am until 4 pm. The exhibition closes on August 28th.

Edit: In the first paragraph I wrote that Plas Brondanw is in the heart of the National Park. It certainly feels as if it is, but in fact it’s on its edge. North and east of Porthmadog the National Park boundary diverts inland to exclude the village of Penrhyndeudraeth and the low-lying farmland drained when the Cob (the causeway to Porthmadog) was built just over two hundred years ago. One can only imagine the exquisite beauty of the area before it was drained. Even now at big spring tides on still days the mountains are reflected beautifully in the flooded Glaslyn River. And who knows, in these times of sea-level rise and “managed retreat” the day could come again when this land is fully tidal again.

 

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, scroll down to the bottom and click Follow

As seen on Springwatch…..

Swallow’s nest (with flash)

Last week we hurtled down to Pembrokeshire in the heat. Jane had an event to attend in Haverforwest and I wanted to do some bird photography in the Marloes area. We had an evening boat trip lined up too, which took us into the bays on the north and south coasts of Skomer Island amongst all the seabirds.

I headed out with my long lens on Wednesday morning and spent some time around the Deer Park. There were two family parties of chough in the area and a group of adult non-breeders. After a couple of hours I headed back to Lockley Lodge for some coffee, and then into the nearby Marine Nature Reserve building with its illuminated displays and pilot whale skeleton. The main attraction for me here was the swallow’s nest built into the eye socket of the skull, which had earlier been featured on Springwatch. I was delighted to find four large, bouncing, baby swallows being fed frequently by their parents, despite regular interruptions by human visitors. There was another swallow’s nest in the ladies toilets next door, apparently, and I had previously seen a couple in the gents; so I guess this particular pair was more discerning than some of the others……

Adult leaving swallows’ nest (no flash).

Unless the doorway was almost blocked the adults took no notice of people at all; and with the nest at little more than head height this was an opportunity not to be missed. I set up the tripod in the corner of the room and attached the camera and long lens. But boy, was it dark! Even at 3200 ASA I was exposing at slower than 1/100th second. It would be nice to think that I could capture the young gaping excitedly (but without moving) on the nest while the adult hovered artistically beside them with food but it just wasn’t going to happen. Time for Plan B.

Flash.

I never use flash. I don’t have a flash gun and my 5d3 definitely doesn’t have one built in. Maybe the 6d (back in the van) had a built in flash? It was worth a try; but no joy. Then there was the little Panasonic GX7 which I carry around with me when I can. Yessss! I was in luck. After a long time fiddling around with menus I finally worked out how to use it. You press the button and the flash pops up. Surely it can’t be that easy…..?

With the 5D3 and other SLR’s (I imagine) you press the shutter and keep pressing – the result being a burst of images which capture the action at up to 12 frames a second – although the 5d3 is rated at 6 fps and seems slower than that. With the GX7 it’s one frame at a time; that is, in this situation, one frame each time the parent brought food for the young. Fortunately the feeding visits were coming thick and fast and I never had long to wait. I wouldn’t say I’m totally happy about any of the results, however. Technically those with flash are much better, but I didn’t quite get the composition right on any of them. Those without might be artistically more pleasing but those conditions were really was pushing the camera beyond its limits, even one as capable as a 5D3. It was difficult to process any of the images to any meaningful extent without degrading the image even further into unusability.

Nevertheless it was lovely just to watch the young begging enthusiastically for food, and the adults bringing it in so fearlessly. I love swallows and it is a source of sadness that they no longer nest in our garden shed.

 

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, scroll right down to the bottom and click Follow.

Bird/land opens at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Page1

These are exciting times as my exhibition Bird/land opens at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. It’s in the Photography Gallery (Gallery 2) on the top floor and is showing until August 27th. Opening hours are as follows:

Monday – Saturday 8 am > 11 pm; Sunday 12 noon > 8 pm; Free entry.

It’s an expanded version of the original exhibition, with eight new small single images and nine new triptychs. I must say it looks very tasteful in there. So if you’re in mid-Wales in the next couple months do drop in and have a look around!

I’ll be giving a talk in the Arts Centre’s cinema at 5.30 pm on Thursday July 14th. Entry is free of charge.

For a sneak preview of the work, go to my website and click on the Bird/land gallery, or click on this link.

 

For background to the exhibition click here to link to my Blog.

 

To follow Tales from Wild Wales please scroll right down to the bottom and click Follow

More from Cwm Idwal.

Rowan, Ogwen Cottage
Rowan, Ogwen Cottage

Last week I posted about my eventually successful visit to Cwm Idwal in Snowdonia. But alongside the story of the photographs there was a quite different narrative running in parallel.

On my first visit to the Cwm, amongst the huge boulders below Twll Du, I came across some small brown birds. I quickly twigged that they were twite, which, strangely enough, I had been reading about the previous evening. As far as British birds go they are probably the supreme example of the “little brown job”. Visually there are no distinguishing features at all unless you can see the pale pink rump patch, but they do have a distinctive twanging call, which confirms their identity. At first it was just a couple of birds, then a juvenile begging food from a parent, then a bird leaving a possible nest site and finally a flock of 15 – 20 birds.

On my return to Idwal Cottage I looked around for someone to report my sightings to. There was no-one but a girl from the National Trust, who “thought she had heard of twite” but that was it. While I drank my coffee I noticed the nearby organic burger van, whose owner, Gwyn Thomas, the local farmer, was conversing with customers. My partner has worked with him so I went over for a chat. Eventually I brought up the subject of my  sightings. To my surprise and delight he is quite an authority on twite! Along with several other farmers in Nant Ffrancon he grows a seed crop for them to feed on during the autumn before they move down to the coast for the winter. I’m sometimes not a great admirer of farmers but this man is a star!

During our conversation a car drew up alongside and the driver came over. I recognised him but couldn’t put a name to the face. Gwyn left me with him and a tentative conversation began. I wondered aloud if I had seen him on TV. “No, I work on radio…” he replied. Not really a great help! “I did a book with you!” he added. It came to me in a flash. It was Dei Tomos, the author with whom I had worked on the Welsh version of “Wales at Waters Edge”. I buried my head in my hands in embarrassment! To be fair though, it was hardly a collaboration and we had only met once, and he couldn’t place me at first either.

The social aspect of my weekend continued the following morning. Back at Ogwen Cottage after a third unsuccessful visit to the Cwm, I was drinking coffee by my van. A familiar figure appeared. It was Martin Ashby, owner of Ystwyth Books in Aberystwyth, and one oldest and most valued friends. He was with his mate Nigel Dudley and just about to set off on a long walk up in to the Carneddau. I reluctantly turned down their invitation to join them.

On my return home I reported my twite records to the BTO Officer for Wales, Kelvin Jones. He told me that twite are declining steeply in Wales, and there is a project going to try to reverse this. Apart from the feeding project mentioned above birds are being ringed on the coast in winter in the hope that sightings in summer of ringed birds can reveal more about their movements. Although I had not seen any rings it seems my sightings had been the first this summer! The rarest breeding bird in Wales may actually now be twite, he said. (Does that make them rarer than osprey,  I wonder……)

Just a note on the photograph above. While dull, cloudy conditions are usually the kiss of death for most “big” landscapes, they can be ideal for details within the landscape. This lovely rowan tree was just below Ogwen Cottage.

To read more about Gwyn Thomas and his work in Cwm Idwal, click here.

 

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, scroll down to the bottom and click Follow

 

What do photographers do all day?

Black grouse, north Wales
Black grouse, north Wales

Over the winter I’ve seen a couple of episodes of the TV series entitled “What do artists do all day?”. Each programme featured a particular artist and showed them doing the sorts of things an artist might do. Like, well, painting, for instance. But what about photographers?

I’ve spent quite some time this week trying to get my PC to work more smoothly, with some success, I think I dare to say. It certainly wouldn’t make good TV but I spend so much time at the computer, and I imagine the same is now probably true for most photographers. A far cry from the days when you exposed a few rolls of film, put them in an envelope, and waited for the transparencies to come back. Oh, then there’s updating the website, writing the blog, invoicing customers, emailing contacts…..the list is endless.

How come I found myself, yesterday, pulling the vacuum cleaner apart and putting it together again, of all things? One of my most crucial pieces of equipment is the camper van. It’s my home from home and enables me to be on location first thing in the morning when so much top quality wildlife and landscape photography is done. And with the passage of time you just have to do a bit of spring cleaning. Banal, I know, but true……. and one thing leads to another……..

To give an example of how indispensable the camper van is, though, a couple of weeks ago I had another go at photographing the black grouse lek which I also wrote about here and here. I drove up the previous evening, parked up nearby and settled down for the night. It was clear and frosty so by sunrise a thick layer of ice had formed on the inside of the windscreen! At 5.15 am I could hear the birds’ bubbling and hissing calls as they began displaying nearby. But it was still more or less dark, and I had plenty of time to make some tea and observe the birds with binoculars while the day gradually dawned.

It became apparent that there were more birds present than on any previous visit, and they were taking up stances over a wider area. Having said that the amount of activity was rather variable. Some birds actively jousted with their neighbours, while others looked a bit bored. It was as if they may have been young birds which knew where they needed to be, but didn’t know what to do when they got there. As a whole the birds seemed to be rather nervous and at one point all suddenly swept away. A couple of seconds later a sparrowhawk briefly landed on the deserted lek site. One wonders if the grouse would be less easily distracted at the peak of the breeding season in a couple of weeks time. A little later two greyhens (female black grouse) also flew in, which provoked an extra burst of activity from the lekking males.

It was inevitable that on a still morning such as this extraneous noises like the rapid firing of a shutter would be heard by the birds. In anticipation of the “action shot”a shutter burst would begin just as two birds sized each other up. One could imagine how strange, and possibly distracting, this might be from the bird’s point of view.  On the other hand it was also noticeable that during a lull in activity a car engine starting (for example) might  provoke the birds into briefly displaying more vigorously.

This was my seventh visit altogether to the lek site and it was probably the best. Being a weekday there wasn’t too much disturbance as  impatient birders and other photographers came and went. Despite bright sunshine the light had a soft quality to it thanks to some atmospheric mistiness, and this was ideal for photographing these high-contrast, black-and-white subjects.  The winter yellows  and ochres of the vegetation and a layer of hoar-frost made for an attractive landscape in which to set the birds; so much so that I’m planning to include a set of three images from this visit in my forthcoming exhibition. It was also a pleasure and a privelege to be able to watch this fascinating spectacle.

So what do photographers do all day? It can really be almost anything from the sublime to the ridiculous.

 

To follow Tales from Wild Wales scroll right down to the bottom and click Follow