Archives for August 2011

Nature's larder

Rachael Garside Rachael Garside | 11:28 UK time, Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Does anyone go blackberry picking any more?

It seems that the ancient art of foraging is in decline but in these tricky economic times, it makes perfect sense to collect free food from the hedgerows (especially when supermarkets are charging £1.99 per punnet of blackberries)

The hedgerows seem to be particularly well-laden with fruit this year too. I wonder if the early, warm spring (which now seems like a very distant memory) had something to do with it? But whatever the reason, now is the time to be out hunting for wild food.


Blackberries are delicious at this time of year.

Blackberries are ripening at this time of year and if you can beat the birds and insects to them, there's plenty for the taking. There are plenty of things to do with them too - from crumbles to ice cream and delicious smoothies.

Traditionally, they were used to treat colds and coughs and other respiratory ailments. When picking, watch out for thorns, avoid bushes alongside busy roads (pollution) and leave lower-lying berries alone as dogs may well have sprayed them.

Traditional folklore states that October 10 is the cut-off point for blackberrying as that was when the devil urinated on them, so you've still got plenty of time to gather your harvest!

You can find a few recipes for sloe gin on the BBC Food website but here's a simple one for you to try: All you need are 450g/ 1lb sloes, 225g/ 8oz castor and one litre of gin.

Sloe berries in the hedgerows, ready for picking. Image by Rachael Garside.

Sloe berries in the hedgerows, ready for picking. Image by Rachael Garside.

Prick the tough skin of the sloes all over with a clean needle and put in a large sterilised jar. However the king of foraging, Huw Fearnley-Whittingstall says you don't have to do this and that a night in the freezer will break the skins for you)

Pour in the sugar and the gin, seal tightly and shake well. Store in a cool, dark cupboard and shake every other day for a week. Then shake once a week for two months.

It all sounds incredibly simple and if you make it now, your batch will be ready in time for Christmas - now that's what I call forward-planning!

So, go and spend an hour getting your fingers stained purple and reap the rewards. It's also something the whole family can get involved in and the kids will love it.

Happy foraging.

All aboard for a trip back in time

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Rachael Garside Rachael Garside | 07:22 UK time, Friday, 26 August 2011

This is the summer that I unintentionally became a bit of a steam train enthusiast. I've been on three narrow gauge railways in as many months and even though I'm nowhere near being an expert, I can definitely claim to be a convert.

The first trip was back in May on the Welsh Highland Railway, on one of the first journeys to travel the entire length of the newly-revealed track running from Caernarfon to Porthmadog. At 40 miles long, this is now officially the longest heritage railway in the UK. And what a journey! (The Sunday Times has claimed it's the 'sexiest ride in Britain' - I couldn't possibly comment!)

On the day of travel, there were hoards of steam fans on the platform at Porthmadog, waiting to board the train and eventually, after much anticipation, the final whistle blew and with a huge hiss and billowing clouds of steam, we were off!

The first part of this historic journey has been the most controversial - the train tracks cross the main road through Porthmadog town, meaning that the traffic has to stop to allow the carriages to pass. Initial concerns from locals have been 'ironed out' according to the railway's bosses, who point out that the whole enterprise is worth around £15million a year to the North Wales economy - bringing tourists and a small army of volunteers into the area.

The railway was originally intended to carry slate from various North Wales quarries to Caernarfon, but its timing wasn't great and by the time the tracks were built, the slate industry was already in decline and it went into receivership in 1927 after only a few years of operation.

It's taken hard work, perseverance and several large grants - from the lottery, from Europe and from the Welsh Government - to restore the railway to its full former glory. Today, there are an incredible 1000 volunteers helping to run the trains - literally - and to punch tickets and serve refreshments.

On our train, the guard spent his weekdays working in an office in Birmingham and every weekend volunteering on the trains - he was a true fanatic - and the girl who served drinks from the buffet cart told me she dreamt of being an engine driver and despite a lot of teasing from her school friends in Manchester, she was determined to train hard to achieve her goal.

Apparently, you can even find love on the tracks: according to the railway's website - many 'railway romances have led to marriage'!

We travelled through the Aberglaslyn Pass to Beddgelert and on to Rhyd Ddu, taking in a stunning view of Snowdon, wearing its practically permanent 'hat' of white cloud. There are a lot of facts and figures to quote when it comes to steam trains, like the fact that the trains on the Welsh Highland Railway can claim to be hauled by the world's most powerful narrow gauge steam locomotives and that the trains climb an impressive 700 feet on their journey from sea level to the foothills of Snowdon.

Then last month I travelled on the Rheidol Valley Railway - a shorter but no less impressive 12-mile journey from Devil's Bridge to Aberystwyth, on a line which was originally intended to transport lead and timber to the Cambrian coast. And finally, the Teifi Valley Railway, a journey of just a couple of miles from Henllan near Llandysul through the intriguingly-named Pontprenshitw station to Llandyfriog and the river Teifi.

There's something about steam trains that brings out the train-spotter in most people. I think it's that overwhelming sense of nostalgia and a rare chance to revisit the past when the pace of life was that bit slower (and you didn't get people shouting into their mobile phones 'I'll be home in 20 minutes!' or listening to their music with the headphone volume on full). No, today's public transport has never quite lived up to the age of steam...

There's another chance to join me on my steam train journey through Snowdonia on the Welsh Highland Railway on Country Focus this Sunday on BBC Radio Wales at 7am.

Fins off Pembrokeshire coast

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Martin Aaron Martin Aaron | 14:45 UK time, Monday, 22 August 2011

Marine experts say that groups of fin whales are now returning to Welsh waters on an annual basis.

The fin whale is the second largest living animal (growing up to 27 metres in length) after the blue whale and is an endangered species.

Research by the Sea Trust indicates that pods of fin whales are swimming to waters off Pembrokeshire every year, in increasingly larger numbers.

It's remarkable to think that these magnificent creatures are swimming around, just off the Welsh coast during the summer months. Read more on BBC News.

Here are a few photos of the spectacle, courtesy of Richard Crossen and the Sea Trust:

Fin whale off the Welsh coast. Image by Richard Crossen


Fin whale off the Welsh coast. Image by Richard Crossen


Fin whale off the Welsh coast. Image by Richard Crossen


Keep up to date with whale and dolphin signtings here in Wales via Richard's blog - Whales in Wales.

And last week also saw a blue shark being washed up on a beach near Amroth.

The five-and-a-half feet long shark had no obvious signs of injury, so probably died from an unknown illness. It had been seen swimming uncharacteristically close to shore on the previous day indicating that is was unwell, as they are normally found in deeper water.

A dead blue shark near Amroth. Image by Richard Crossen.

A dead blue shark near Amroth on 18 August, 2011. Image by Richard Crossen.

Swords at the ready

Rachael Garside Rachael Garside | 09:00 UK time, Monday, 22 August 2011

How many castles do you think there are in Wales?

It sounds like a pub quiz question but the answer is really surprising - an incredible 634! Meaning you could visit one a day for nearly two years.

Earlier this year, a Visit Britain report revealed that our castles are more popular with foreign visitors than Buckingham Palace - 10,000 tourists would put a Welsh castle at the top of their wish list of places to visit.

There's also a list of the 'Top 10' castles visited in Wales which includes Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Pembroke and Powis.

I recently spent a day taking part in a 'siege' of Caerphilly Castle (you can hear how it went on Country Focus), hosted by the Company of Chivalry and the Bowmen of the Rose - a group of very enthusiastic (and some might suggest, eccentric) people who specialise in historical reenactments in their spare time.

Caerphilly castle by Tim Wood.

Caerphilly castle by Tim Wood.

Men and women who spend all week working as teachers, doctors or for their local authorities, spend their weekends dressing up in chain mail and tights and setting up camp in the grounds of various castles around Britain.

As soon as we arrived at Caerphilly castle, we were greeted by a man wielding a large sword, demanding that we swear allegiance to the king (we'd stepped back in time to the 13th century).

But once you got over the initial shock, you couldn't help but get involved in the scene - all part of Cadw's events programme, to 'enhance' the castle experience.

I had a go at archery, firing arrows at the gruesome sight of a 'traitor's head' pinned to a board and watched the firing of the mighty siege engines - hurling cannonballs into the castle's moat and thankfully missing the ducks!

Cadw used to have an excellent scheme offering children under 16 who were born in Wales, free entry with a special card but sadly the scheme came to an end this year, apparently because of poor take-up but Cadw will still honour existing passes.

The next event at Caerphilly castle will be the BBC Proms in the Park concert on 10 September.

Caerphilly castle on Wikipedia.

In Pictures: Welsh castles

Grey seal pups due

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Martin Aaron Martin Aaron | 09:00 UK time, Friday, 19 August 2011

The first grey seal pups of the year are due any day now and luckily for us, Wales is one the best places in Europe to see them.

Female grey seals start congregating at special sites, called rookeries, to give birth at the end of summer and beginning of autumn and already the first few have made it ashore.

Richard Ellis of the National Trust said, "West Wales is home to 5,000 grey seals and their spread of pupping dates is wider than in any other breeding colony, although scientists are unsure why. Pups can be seen from September to December, with the most visible during October."

Grey seal pup by Top Sausage Lobber on Flickr.

A grey seal pup by 'Top Sausage Lobber' on Flickr.

Despite their name, grey seal pups are born with a yellowish white coat and weigh 15 kilograms. During the two to three weeks they are suckled, the pups put on an incredible 1.4 kilograms in weight, every day.

To ensure visitors to the Pembrokeshire coast don't disturb the seals, the National Trust have issued a few guidelines to follow:

  • Keep well away from baby seals if you spot one on a beach, and keep dogs on the lead at all times.
  • Baby seals are sometimes left unattended while their mothers are away feeding. They will return, so don't assume a lone pup has been abandoned.

The RSPCA also offer some good advice on seal pups.

Some grey seal facts:

  • Grey seals are the largest breeding seals on our shores.
  • Half the world's population of grey seals live in our waters.
  • Seal milk is 60% fat so that the pup can put on as much blubber as quickly as possible.
  • A grey seal bull can be twice the size of a cow, weighing in at as much as 300 kilograms and measuring up to 3.3 metres in length.
  • Grey seals can dive to a depth of 70 metres to find food.
  • Each seal needs around five kilograms of food a day and favourite foods include sand eels, herring, skate, cod and flatfish, but they will also eat lobster and octopus.

The National Trust are offering special guided walks along the Marloes Peninsula to see the first seal pups on Friday, 26 August and Sunday, 4 September. For more information phone (01348) 837860 or visit the website

Messing about on the Teifi

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Rachael Garside Rachael Garside | 10:31 UK time, Thursday, 18 August 2011

Last week I mentioned the Ten Most Wanted, a list compiled by the Environment Agency of the most dangerous species threatening our waterways and this week, I actually got to see one of them in action.

I took the children on a canoeing trip along the Teifi (it's a seven week summer holiday, which means lots of activities are a must).

The Teifi gorge is one of the best examples of tidal gorge in the whole country and has been an important centre of coracle fishing and slate quarrying for hundreds of years, but now the gorge forms part of the Teifi marshes nature reserve.

Canoeing on the river. Image by Rachael Garside

Canoeing on the river.

Our expedition would take two-and-a-half hours and was thankfully instructor-led. We set off shakily from the Welsh Wildlife Centre at Cilgerran, getting used to the paddles and more importantly, the steering, but the water was like a mirror, calm and smooth.

All along the banks, we saw a pretty, innocuous-looking tall, pink flower which the instructor, Rhys, told us, used to be known as 'poor-man's orchid'.

But this was actually Himalayan balsam, a relative of the busy lizzie and the tallest annual plant in the UK, reaching heights of up to 3 metres.

Himalayan balsam

Himalayan balsam has pink flowers and resembles the sweet pea.

It was first introduced into the UK in 1839 and 'escaped' from gardens, taking up residence mainly along riverbanks and marshland.

It's subsequently become a major problem, mainly because each plant can produce around 800 seeds a year, which contain explosive pods.

These can throw seeds up to 7 metres in all directions, allowing the plant to spread quickly, smothering all other vegetation as it goes.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, it also suppresses the growth of native grasses and flora which weakens habitats and leads to erosion of the banks.

This in turn has a knock effect on the wildlife that inhabitant the river bank such as small mammals and birds who rely on native plants to provide food, shelter and habitat.

So, it just goes to show that something you could easily overlook as simply being 'pretty' can do so much damage to the eco-system.

Himalayan balsam growing along the river bank.

Looks can be deceiving - Himalayan balsam growing along the river bank.

Getting rid of it is no mean feat either. Apart from chemical intervention, the only other option is to pull or cut the plants before they flower each year in June.

Apparently, there are even 'Balsam Bashing' parties held by some of the conservation authorities to clear the weed from the riverbanks. It all made for a sobering thought as we paddled our way down stream.

The canoe was a great vantage point to see the wildlife from though - a pair of heron seemed to be following us along our journey, a buzzard flew overhead and twice we saw fish leap energetically out of the water. It happened so quickly that it was difficult to identify them, but we decided it was probably sewin/ sea trout.

At the half-way point, there were the beginnings of 'when are we turning back?' and 'my arms are aching' from the children, but luckily the river did most of the work on the return journey - effortlessly guiding us back to our starting point.

We arrived back with aching shoulders, but as dry as when we started with all the paddles intact - so all in all, not a bad way to spend a day on the water.

If you fancy having a go, you can visit the canoe centre on the river at the Teifi Marshes Nature Reserve, Cilgerran, Pembrokeshire, SA43 2TB or at the Cardigan Bay Active Booking Centre on Teifi Wharf (by the old bridge in Cardigan Town), Cardigan, Ceredigion SA43 3AA. Telephone: (01239) 612 133.

Locals are lovin' it

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Martin Aaron Martin Aaron | 15:03 UK time, Tuesday, 16 August 2011

A giant letter M, similar to the burger chain McDonald's logo, has mysteriously appeared on an island owned by TV writer and animal rights campaigner Carla Lane.

Carla Lane is famed for a string of hit TV comedies in the 1970s and 80s including Butterflies, Bread and The Liver Birds.

The yellow letter M appeared overnight on Saturday on the roof of an old, converted chapel and was spotted by local pleasure craft operator, Roy Gregory who runs his business out of Pwllheli marina.

The mysterious M photographed by Roy Gregory on St Tudwal's East island off Gwynedd.

The mysterious letter M photographed by Roy Gregory on St Tudwal's East island off Gwynedd.

Roy said: "I passed on Friday and it wasn't there, we didn't go out on Saturday because it was too rough, and then when I passed on Sunday I saw it," he said.

Carla Lane bought the island in1992 and the neighbouring island of St Tudwal's West is apparently owned by explorer Bear Grylls.

Do you know how it got there? If so, we'd love to hear from you in our comments section below.

Record attempt foiled by jellyfish

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Rachael Garside Rachael Garside | 09:18 UK time, Tuesday, 16 August 2011

It's not every day you go to the beach and stumble across a world record attempt...

On Sunday I visited Pendine sands for the annual beach meeting of the Carmarthenshire Karate Club (as you do) but at the other end of the beach, father and son team, Don and Joe Wales were attempting to smash the UK electric land speed record.

Crowds of spectators, press and news camera crews had gathered, all watching and waiting to see if Joe could break the previous record set by his father of 137 mph in 2000.

As we watched, the team was returning to the starting point. It was quite a dramatic sight as several trucks and support vehicles shimmered along the sand with their headlights on. But as they drew nearer it became clear that the record attempt had failed.

Joe Wales and father Don explain to the crowd why the record attempt failed.

Joe Wales and father Don explain to the crowd why the record attempt failed.

A very despondent looking Joe and his team came to update the crowds and explain what had gone wrong. Pendine has too many potholes, it seems, which they think may be caused by jellyfish, burying themselves in the sand, waiting for the tide to return.

19-year-old Joe had an excellent first run apparently and would have reached a speed of around 120 mph had he not hit potholes but unfortunately he veered off course and didn't make it through the timing lights.

The young driver injured his neck and the car broke its wishbone (I won't pretend to understand what part of a car that is) and would be taken to Pembroke Dock for repairs.

The electric car is towed off the sands for repairs. Image by Rachael Garside.

The electric car is towed off the sands for repairs.

The crowds however applauded his valiant attempt and the team said they hoped (sponsorship permitting) to be back for another attempt in the not-too-distant future.

'Team Wales' has an impressive pedigree when it comes to setting records. Joe's great-grandfather was Sir Malcolm Campbell who beat the UK land speed record at Pendine in 1924 with a top speed of 146 mph.

Things have moved on a bit since then in the world of speed, but it seems that Pendine, with its six miles of hard flat sands which are hundreds of yards wide at low tide, is still useful for record breaking attempts.

World record attempt on BBC News

The official Bluebird website

A Fruity Dilemma

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Rachael Garside Rachael Garside | 11:04 UK time, Friday, 12 August 2011

Here's a dramatic fact - since the 1950s we've lost 60% of our traditional orchards. More significant perhaps is that with them, we've also lost important wildlife habitats and a part of our cultural heritage. It's a subject I've been looking at in this week's Country Focus (Sunday, 7am, BBC Radio Wales), focusing on a two year project by Gwent Wildlife Trust to restore some of those orchards to their former glory.

I met Alice Rees who's in charge of the project at a rediscovered orchard near the Gwent levels. As soon as we arrived at the site, we saw an owl flying from a nest box in one of the apple trees - which helped to make the point that the orchards are a magnet for wildlife. Because they've always been managed without the use of chemical pesticides or fertiliser, a wealth of wildlife has been allowed to flourish - even the trees that are ageing can retain areas of deadwood; a key habitat for many rare invertebrates.

But the orchards also play an important role in Welsh cultural history. Forget pre-packaged uniform fruit wrapped in cellophane, and think old, traditional varieties of fruit which are a locally distinctive part of the landscape. Also, the Welsh word for orchard, Berllan, is found in many place names, for example Berllan-dywyll, Bryn-y-Berllan and Caeberllan. Something I didn't realise before making the programme is that Gwent was once one of the major fruit growing regions in the UK, with a reputation rivalling that of Kent and Herefordshire.

But there's a very real threat to Gwent's orchards - 90 percent of them have already been lost, mainly through neglect, development and lack of knowledge (not to mentions our fruit shopping preferences). So the project is offering help and advice to anyone interested in planting their own orchard or, if they already have one, how to maintain and protect it. One example is a partnership with Shirenewton School in Monmouthshire which has planted a small orchard with apple and plum trees in their grounds - I met some of the pupils who were really keen to tell me how they'd been involved - and how they were looking forward to literally tasting the fruit of their labours!

Later this year, they're also planting a new orchard in Chepstow as part of the Transition Towns initiative. One species which will gain from all the planting is the rare Welsh noble chafer beetle - a bright green iridescent beetle which makes its home in old orchards and which is struggling to survive at the moment. And think of all the fruit that we're also in danger of losing - apples, pears, plums, damsons and cherries - all also important sources of pollen and nectar for bees of course.

Just the names of some of the fruit varieties make you want to start growing - and tasting - them - Monmouthshire cider apples include the Raglan Redstalk, Twyn y Sherriff and Breakwells Seedling and then the Berllanderi Red, Gwehelog and Burgundy are some of the local perry pear varieties. One person who's put all this to good use is Jessica Deathe who was lucky enough to have a traditional orchard on her Monmouthshire farm and decided a few years ago to start making cider and perry - at first in a tiny garden shed but by today in a purpose built shed on the farmyard, next to the trees. In the interests of the programme, I was duty bound to sample the produce like 'Laughing juice' and 'Bishop's Fancy'. It's hard work, but...

You can find out more by visiting

One more shameless plug: the last part of the series looking at rural crime is on this Sunday on BBC Radio Wales at 1pm (Countryside Crimefighters). In this programme I meet the crew of the North Wales Police helicopter and find out how rogue traders are targeting elderly victims in isolated parts of the Welsh countryside.

Keeping watch for leatherbacks

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James McLaren James McLaren | 12:54 UK time, Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) needs help in recording the movements of one of the lesser spotted visitors to UK shores and is urging everyone from coastal path walkers to sea users, to look out for leatherback turtles.

Leatherback turtle by Mike Daines

Leatherback turtle by Mike Daines

Weighing up to a tonne and measuring almost three metres in length, these incredible creatures are unlike any other reptile in that they can maintain their own body heat up to18 degrees centigrade warmer than even the chilliest of British summer seas.

While leatherback turtle populations face extinction in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, many nesting populations in the Atlantic appear to be increasing.

MCS Biodiversity Programme Manager, Dr Peter Richardson, said it's not clear why the Atlantic Ocean has become the last stronghold for the leatherback turtle: "While conservation action at important nesting beaches is likely to be playing a part, it may also be due to the increasing availability of their jellyfish prey, combined with collapses in the populations of predatory fish such as tuna and sharks."

August is the peak time to see leatherback turtles in UK waters, as they arrive from their nesting grounds in the Caribbean to refuel on our abundant seasonal jellyfish blooms.

So far this year 12 sightings have been reported from south west Wales and England, seven of which have been seen in the last fortnight. "The leatherback is the largest of all marine turtle species and at a distance could be mistaken for a floating log, but if you approach them slowly and carefully, once you see their large reptilian head, massive flippers and ridged leathery shell you can't mistake them for anything else," said Dr Richardson.

MCS has been encouraging the reporting of marine turtles in UK waters since 2001, and leatherbacks make up 75 per cent of those sightings already recorded. To help identify turtles in UK waters, spotters can download The UK Turtle Code, created by MCS with support from Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage. The code describes the different species and how to identify them and who to report them to.

UK and Ireland turtle encounters can also be reported to MCS online at

Wildlife's Ten Most Wanted

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Rachael Garside Rachael Garside | 10:27 UK time, Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A gruesome list of the 10 worst wildlife invaders has been revealed by the Environment Agency this week - the natural world's version of the '10 Most Wanted'. They've concentrated on the species threatening Britain's waterways and top of the list is the so-called 'killer shrimp', which has been discovered in three UK locations - two of them in Wales!

The tiny invader attacks native species like shrimp, young fish and insect larvae and has been known to destroy entire species to the point of extinction. It's been found in Cardiff Bay, at the Egwlys Nunydd Reservoir in Port Talbot and at Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire.

We featured an item on the deadly shrimp on Country Focus earlier this year; I went to meet some of the Environment Agency's staff at their office in Cardiff Bay and they had an example of the shrimp in a test tube - it was tiny! Hard to believe something so small can cause so much havoc and has now been declared aquatic wildlife's 'public enemy number one'. I can remember the staff telling me that calling it a 'killer shrimp' was a bit misleading, because there's no risk to human health or water quality, but it's certainly one way to grab the headlines.

There's even a 'Killer Shrimp Wanted Poster' which has been issued by the very official sounding Non-native Species Secretariat - to help people identify the rogue, and anyone who finds one is asked to email a photo to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology for confirmation. People who use the waterways like sailors, rowers and anglers, are being asked to increase biosecurity measures - the mantra is 'Check, Clean, Dry' - to make sure all equipment is clean and dry before you leave the waterway, to prevent further spread.

But back to the 'Top Ten' and the worst wildlife invaders are costing around £1.7bn a year to tackle, according to the Environment Agency. That's a lot of money. When you read the list, many of the entries, like water primrose (straight in at number two) - don't sound too dangerous but then again, I'm not sure you'd want to get mixed up with topmouth gudgeon or giant hogweed. Here's the complete list:

  1. Killer Shrimp
  2. Water Primrose
  3. Floating pennywort
  4. American crayfish
  5. Topmouth gudgeon
  6. Giant hogweed
  7. Japanese knotweed
  8. Himalayan balsam
  9. Mink
  10. Parrot's feather

So is it safe to go back in the water?

Hidden Gem

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Rachael Garside Rachael Garside | 11:45 UK time, Monday, 8 August 2011

Just spent a few days in splendid isolation staying in a remote cottage on the Hafod estate in Ceredigion. No, I hadn't heard of it either - but what an amazing place to visit! Apparently, at one time (in the early 19th century) it was one of the most popular places in Wales to visit, but by the middle of the last century, it had been almost totally forgotten.

Hafod Estate

Hafod Estate

The estate was the vision of one man - Thomas Johnes who made it his life's work to build an impressive mansion house and improve access to the estate after he inherited it from an uncle back in 1780. He completely renovated the existing house and added lots of additions by the famous architect John Nash - but it was the superb natural scenery that he really wanted to show off.

Landscape historians still describe Hafod as one of the best examples of the Picturesque movement in Europe - when it was fashionable to 'enhance' nature by allowing people to visit and view the scenery, without impairing or destroying it. Thomas Johnes built footpaths to guide people around the natural and impressive waterfalls - including the 'Cavern Cascade' and 'Peiran Falls', down ravines and through woodlands, without tampering with the true wildness of the place.

Peiran Falls

Peiran Falls

The Johnes family left Hafod in 1815 after the sudden death of their only child, Marianme aged just 27. Another real tragedy is that eventually, no buyer could be found for the estate and the mansion fell into disrepair. There were several attempts to sell it, but in 1970 the house was demolished with explosives. Today, all you can see on the site where the mansion would have stood, is a set of stone steps which would have led down from the main house and the stable block, which now houses the estate office.

Hafod is now run by a charitable trust and the estate is managed by the Forestry Commission - but you can still roam around the many footpaths which Thomas Johnes designed and built - some eight or nine miles of paths in total. You can try the Lady's Walk (moderate) or the Gentleman's Walk (strenuous) or do what I did and attempt to swim in the river Ystwyth (freezing!).

Pwll Pendre

Pwll Pendre

The estate is also a haven for wildlife - probably because it's so remote and unpopulated - and home to an incredible variety of birds including red kites, goshawks and sparrowhawks. It's also important in terms of ancient woodlands and rare types of woodland funghi, including Golden Spindles.

While I was away, Country Focus was left in the capable hands of the producer, Pauline Smith who's been out dolphin-spotting in Cardigan Bay as part of the National ... you can find out if she did spot any by listening to the programme on the BBC Radio Wales iPlayer.

So after a week without mobile phone signal, internet or even TV reception - it feels quite strange to be back in the modern world. I'm just wondering when I can 'escape' again....

Nature events this weekend

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Martin Aaron Martin Aaron | 14:00 UK time, Friday, 5 August 2011

Something for the weekend?

  • Friday, 5 August at 8pm: Badger watch at Big Wood, Hendre. Meet at Royal Oak pub, Hendre (SJ 189672). Drinks at Royal Oak afterwards. Bring warm/waterproof clothing. Contact Jonathan Hulson on (07599) 102138
  • Saturday, 6 August from 2pm: Walk along the Dyserth to Prestatyn path and spot wildlife as you go. Meet at the car park at eastern edge of Dyserth, on left of A5151, (SJ 063794). Contact Brian Burnett on (01978) 790442
  • Sunday, 5 August from 2 - 5 pm: Discover pond creatures at Gelli Aur Country Park, Llandeilo, SA32 8LR. Telephone (01656) 724 100 for more details. Parking costs are £2.50 but activities are free.
  • Sunday, 7 August from 2 - 4 pm: Discover the world of dragonflies at the Welsh Wildlife Centre, Cilgerran following a guided walk around the Teifi Marshes Nature Reserve. £3 per person. Please book on 01239 621600 or email

Anyone buying a ticket to the National Botanic Garden of Wales during August will be allowed back in free of charge for seven days after the visit, so worth bearing in mind if you enjoy pottering.

Also, kids go free between 1 - 26 August at all National Trust sites. Just download your voucher and away you go!

If you have any nature events coming up, that you'd like me to mention here, then email them to me at

Last day on the Maes

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Derek Brockway Derek Brockway | 13:55 UK time, Friday, 5 August 2011

Well it's my last day at the Eisteddfod today and I've really enjoyed myself, walking around the Maes, chatting to people and speaking Welsh. I've bumped into Wynne Evans, the Welsh Tenor, a few times too. He is a really nice guy, always smiling and has a naughty sense of humour like me!

Rhyl Flats by Ray Worsnop

Rhyl Flats by Ray Worsnop

Weather-wise, we've been lucky this week. Apart from some rain yesterday morning and the odd shower, it has been dry in Wrexham and we've enjoyed some lovely sunshine including today. Wednesday was the hottest day with temperatures rising to 25 Celsius but since then it has turned cooler and thankfully fresher as well.

The weekend will bring a mixture of cloud, sunny intervals and scattered showers. Some of the showers heavy with a risk of hail and thunder on Sunday.

P>Top temperatures 16 to 20 Celsius with light winds and sea breezes. The wind picking-up on Sunday, especially on the Bristol Channel coast.

Monday will be rather cool with north-westerly winds bringing a mixture of sunshine and showers. Thereafter, it looks high pressure will settle the weather down for a few days but the signs are it will turn more unsettled again next weekend.

The Trefeglwys Show in Powys is taking place tomorrow starting at 2pm. Lots going on - including Novelty Bed Racing, Punch and Judy, dog show and dog racing. If you're going along take a brolly just in case.

Also, the Brynglas-Bryn Bevan Neighbourhood Group are organising a fete/fun day tomorrow at Brynglas Primary School, Newport 12 noon until 3pm.


Welsh public asked to look out for pox in garden birds

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James McLaren James McLaren | 10:42 UK time, Friday, 5 August 2011

Garden owners, nature lovers and birdwatchers are being asked to look out for examples of avian pox which has started affecting garden birds in Wales.

Great tit with avian pox. Photo: Liz Cutting

Great tit with avian pox. Photo: Liz Cutting

Avian pox has been recorded in bird species such as house sparrows and wood pigeons for a number of years, but its recent emergence in great tits is causing real concern as the birds develop more severe symptoms of the disease.

Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the University of Oxford recorded the first occurrence of the disease in Oxford last year. Prior to this, affected birds had most often been sighted in Surrey, Kent and Sussex. The researchers are now calling on the public to report sightings of garden birds with symptoms of avian pox to the RSPB Wildlife Enquiries Unit to help the research team track the spread of the disease.

Avian poxvirus causes the disease avian pox which leads to warty, tumour-like growths on different parts of a bird's body, particularly on the head around the eyes and beak. The disease can be relatively mild in some species, but great tits have been shown to suffer severe symptoms which can prevent them from feeding and may increase their susceptibility to predation.

Wildlife vet Dr Becki Lawson from ZSL said: "We now believe avian pox has spread as far north as Staffordshire. Public reports of sick birds are essential in helping us to track the disease and determine the wider impact it is having on our garden birds."

The virus is spread between birds by biting insects that carry the virus, direct contact with other birds and, indirect contact possibly through contaminated bird feeders. Avian poxvirus is not known to be infectious to humans or other mammals.

Professor Ben Sheldon of the Edward Grey Institute at the University of Oxford said: "We have been studying great tits at Wytham Woods near Oxford since 1947 - the longest running study of its kind in the world - so we were very concerned when we first detected this disease in 2010. We're using our detailed observations to try to understand how this new form of pox affects survival and reproductive success."

Avian poxvirus was first recorded in great tits in Scandinavia in the 1970s and has recently been seen in Central Europe. Funded by NERC, the research team from ZSL and the University of Oxford are now undertaking molecular analysis of the virus to determine whether this new strain in Great Britain is the same as that seen on the continent.

Weekend weather (4 August 2010)

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Derek Brockway Derek Brockway | 13:15 UK time, Thursday, 4 August 2011

It was damp on the Maes this morning; the umbrellas were up with a few people wearing wellies but thankfully the rain has cleared and everyone is looking forward to a much drier and brighter afternoon with a little sunshine.

Yesterday Wrexham was one of the warmest places in Wales with temperatures rising to 25 Celsius, 77 Fahrenheit. I don't think we'll reach that today: 21 Celsius 70 Fahrenheit will be nearer the mark and it's still feeling a bit on the muggy side with a light breeze.

Tomorrow will be a much better day on the whole. I wouldn't rule out spots of drizzle in the north in the morning, the odd light shower in the afternoon but apart from that it should be dry. Variable cloud and a few sunny intervals. The north coast and Anglesey could turn out quite sunny tomorrow afternoon. It will feel fresher everywhere tomorrow with lower humidity. Highest temperatures 17 to 21 Celsius with the wind falling light.

The weekend still looks mixed. Saturday the best day with some sunshine and showers. Light winds and sea breezes.

Sunday cooler with more showers. Some of them heavy and prolonged with a risk of thunder. The wind picking-up too and feeling cooler.

If you're coming along to the Eisteddfod, pop along and say hello. Sian Lloyd and I will be at the BBC Cube around 3pm.

Don't forget you can follow me on twitter @derektheweather for weather updates.

Take care/Cymerwch ofal


Muggy at the Maes

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Derek Brockway Derek Brockway | 13:09 UK time, Wednesday, 3 August 2011

It's another busy day on the Maes and I am sat at my computer wishing I'd worn my shorts! It's warm in Wrexham and feels very muggy or 'trymaidd' in Welsh.

Temperatures here this afternoon should reach 23 Celsius, 73 Fahrenheit with a light breeze. Plenty of cloud and a little sunshine at times.

If you don't like the muggy conditions, there is a change on the way with tomorrow's chart showing low pressure over the UK with fronts bringing moisture and rain.

Once the rain clears, though, it will turn fresher with Atlantic air bringing a drop in temperature and humidity. So, tomorrow we'll see rain and drizzle in the morning, clearing to a much drier afternoon. Temperatures 17 to 20 Celsius with a light to moderate breeze.

Friday looks mainly dry with a few bright or sunny intervals, the wind falling light. Latest thoughts on the weekend are for a mixture of sunny intervals and showers on Saturday.

Sunday more showers or longer spells of rain. Some of the showers heavy with thunder. The wind picking-up, especially on the south and west coast and feeling cool.

Next week looks unsettled and breezy with temperatures below average. We'll see further showers but also some drier, brighter spells too.

Right, I'm off to prepare for the lunchtime weather on Wales Today. Apparently I'm going to be digging myself out of a hole, using a mechanical digger outside the science pavilion!

Cofion Cynnes


Butterfly count extended

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Rachael Garside Rachael Garside | 11:13 UK time, Tuesday, 2 August 2011

It'll come as no surprise to you, to learn, that this year's Big Butterfly Count has been extended for an extra week, due to bad weather.

Butterflies don't like to fly in dull, damp conditions, so in order to get the best results, organisers have decided to continue counting until August 7.

Butterflies, (like hot summers and wildflowers), are something we tend to think we saw more of when we were kids but sadly in this case, it's true.

I interviewed the head of Butterfly Conservation Wales, Russell Hobson, on the programme this week for Country Focus, BBC Radio Wales and he revealed some stark figures. You can listen to the programme again on BBC i Player.

Seven out of ten of our native butterfly species are declining and half are threatened with extinction.

The main reason is loss of habitat - something we often hear about when discussing wildlife but Russell mentioned some simple ways in which we can all help.

There are several plants and flowers we can introduce to our gardens to attract and help butterflies - any nectar producing flowers e.g. such as honeysuckle, hyacinth, hydrangea and geraniums and other insects will also benefit from having these plants around.

This is only the second year there's been a Big Butterfly Count and last year an incredible 10,000 people took part, recording an impressive 189,000 sightings between them.

It's the biggest event of its kind in the world, according to Butterfly Conservation, an organisation that can claim to have Sir David Attenborough as its President. He describes butterflies as the "stars of the British countryside" and adds that "summer wouldn't be summer without them".

small tortoiseshell butterfly. Image by Bracken B.

Organisers are keen for people to report any sightings of the small tortoiseshell butterfly. Image by Bracken B.

Anyone can take part. Just sit in a sunny place and spend fifteen minutes counting every butterfly you see, then post the results online.

I tried it myself recently and saw four small white butterflies, so it definitely works. The results of last year's count provided a Top 10 of British Butterflies.

Top of the list was the small white, followed by large white, gatekeeper, meadow brown, common blue, peacock, green-veined white, red Admiral, small tortoiseshell and the ringlet.

They also discovered that Britain's most common butterfly - the meadow brown suffered a terrible year, but the common blue enjoyed an excellent summer.

this year, though, they're expecting that one of the hottest, driest springs on record will influence the findings as many butterflies will have emerged earlier than usual, but will have found their food sources vanishing as plants wilted and died in the heat.

There are two garden butterflies in particular that organisers would like you to keep your eyes open for - the small tortoiseshell and the peacock, both of which have seen their populations plummet in recent years.

If you seen any butterflies, log the details online.

A special day for weather forecasting

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Derek Brockway Derek Brockway | 16:06 UK time, Monday, 1 August 2011

Today is a special day for the Met Office, celebrating 150 years of forecasting for the nation as it marks the anniversary of the first ever weather forecast appearing in print.

I wonder what Admiral Robert FitzRoy would think of the way we forecast the weather now, using super computers, radar and satellites? The admiral was captain of HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin's famous expedition and also a meteorologist who pioneered accurate weather forecasting.

He also introduced the use of barometers at ports (to be checked before sailing) and introduced 'weather charts' fed by data from fifteen different land based weather stations. I'm sure he'd be amazed at how much things have changed since the 1850's but equally, would embrace new technology in the same way he did, in his own era.

Of course, we don't always get it right, sometimes a forecast is wrong, but on the whole, forecasts are much more accurate these days thanks to advances in science and technology. We also have a much better understanding of how the atmosphere functions.

Hopefully the forecast will be right for the National Eisteddfod in Wrexham this week. I'll be heading up there tomorrow and taking the sun cream and an umbrella just in case.

Sunny intervals are likely over the next few days but I wouldn't rule out a shower or a thunderstorm too. It will also feel humid and close, with temperatures on Wednesday soaring to a sticky 25 Celsius/ 77 Fahrenheit.

Thankfully, it will turn fresher on Friday with winds from the Atlantic bringing some relief from all the humidity.

See you on the Maes!


National Marine Week

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Martin Aaron Martin Aaron | 10:33 UK time, Monday, 1 August 2011

This week it's National Marine Week (30 July - 14 August) and The Wildlife Trusts will be celebrating everything that's great about our oceans - from basking sharks to puffins and everything in between.

This year a 'Petition Fish' campaign is being launched in order to demonstrate public support for our Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Our seas are under increasing stress from human impacts such as fishing, pollution and climate change and experience from around the world shows that MPAs can help fragile marine ecosystems and wildlife recover and replenish fish stocks in the process.

Much of our marine wildlife is in decline - two species of whale and dolphin have become extinct in UK waters over the last 400 years and basking shark numbers have declined by 95%.

Commercial species are also under pressure; in 2009, the EU Commission declared that 88% of marine fish stocks were overexploited.

Wildlife Trusts Wales are now calling for more effective management of existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) as our current sites are failing to meet their objectives (over 36% of territorial waters in Wales are currently designated MPAs).

In addition, the Welsh Government is in the process of introducing a small number of additional MPAs to Welsh waters but the Wildlife Trusts are keen to keep pressure on the UK governments to provide a well managed network of MPAs all over the UK and protect the marine life living there.

Dolphins by Nia Jones, Wildlife Trusts Wales.

Dolphins by Nia Haf Jones.

The Wildlife Trusts are urging everyone to show their support for MPAs by signing an online petition or texting 'FISH' with your name and postcode to 60777.

There are a number of events happening around Wales during National Marine Week for all the family to get involved with so contact your local Wildlife Trust for more information.

Here are a few events happening in Wales:

  • Monday,1 August at 5pm - Cemlyn Seashore Safari: Rockpooling, strandlining and sea watching to look out for some of the weird and wonderful creatures that live on our shoreline.
  • Wednesday, 3 August at 5pm - Bull Bay: Bring your picnic and watch out for porpoises, seals and sea birds from this beautiful spot. We'll be on hand with equipment, information and top tips for spotting wildlife.
  • Thursday, 4 August at 10am - Rhosneigr Seashore Safari: Rockpooling, strandlining and seawatching.
  • Wednesday, 10 August from 2pm - Rhyl Beach: Games and activities exploring the beach at Rhyl to learn about the marine life found there. Meet on the beach opposite the lifeguards station.
  • Saturday, 13 August from 4.30pm - Llanddulas Rare Reef and Rockpools: Explore the shore and discover the incredible honeycomb worm reef and other seashore marvels.
  • Daily land watches for dolphins from New Quay pier, 9am-5pm.
  • Daily morning (11am) beach cleans, to highlight the problem of marine litter. Results of the daily litter picks will be on Facebook as well as sand sculptures and other fun activities to try at the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre.

Simon King OBE, President of The Wildlife Trusts, said: "Our seas are rich in surprising and alien species; fearsome wolf fish, drifting manes of sea kelp studded with blue-rayed limpets which gleam sapphire and technicolour sea slugs."

"National Marine Week is the perfect chance to discover this fascinating world with The Wildlife Trusts. By supporting Petition Fish you are playing your part in creating a network of MPAs, which could ultimately ensure the future health of our seas and sea life."

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