10 October 2013

RSPB Lake Vyrnwy

Strictly for the Birds.....

Phasianus colchicus
Pheasants are large, long-tailed game birds which were introduced to the UK a long time ago and which have no status as endangered or threatened species - there are estimated to be 1.9 million breeding females in the UK, and the majority are reared for shooting.
So what?
I have just returned from a week as a volunteer at the RSPB Reserve of Lake Vyrnwy, in mid-north Wales.  The reserve is renowned for raptors such as hen harrier, goshawk, peregrine and merlin, black and red grouse, pied flycatcher, goosander, as well as dipper, siskin and redstart, though of these it was only the siskin and a solitary red grouse that I was able to identify. 


Crossbill are abundant in the pines, and I saw a flight of them in the distance; kingfishers frequent the streams and I (think I) saw the flash and tripping flight of one near the boathouse; cormorant, heron, buzzard and raven are relatively common and I know they flapped above my head. Titmice, sparrow, chaffinch scurry round the feeders outside the RSPB shop, and I did see all of those, as well as siskin and a nuthatch.



And I saw pheasant.  Plenty of them. 
So what?
I have been reading Silent Spring Revisited by Conor Mark Jamieson, which is partly a reflection on the progress in conservation, and 'growth of environmentalism,' made since the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.   The gist of that controversial book being that without control of pesticides we will find ourselves in a world without birdsong.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is wither'd from the lake, 
And no birds sing.

 John Keats, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1820
Conor Mark Jamieson explores the development of the various organisations involved in conservation, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (founded in 1889, 'to counter the barbarous trade in plumes for women's hats') and includes details of the achievements, and the setbacks, over the last fifty years.  In his postscript he cites as a triumph of nature the way the Peregrine Falcon has succeeded in breeding in these islands, after a disastrous decline in the 1960s.  There are now over 1,400 breeding pairs in the UK, which is remarkable since it was facing extinction in 1967 when J A Baker published The Peregrine.

The balance of nature is delicate, subject to unpredictable thermals and downdrafts, and as fragile as a blue tit's wing.  At the time of the introduction of DDT and other organochlorines many believed that these were essential in agriculture, and Rachel Carson herself acknowledged the potential and actual benefits of pest control technology.  But even before her book was published, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the UK had announced, in July 1961, that three chemicals linked to bird deaths (aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor) were no longer to be used in farming to treat grain.  Dead birds, their livers filled with toxins, were being collected across the land.
The debate, and associated research, as well as disasters such as the Torrey Canyon wreck, which left thousands of birds choked and drowned in sticky crude oil, began to affect public consciousness, and there was an awakening to the fact that a healthy environment was important.  It was not only about birdsong - that was just one measure of the health of the world we live in.  And it was not solely about DDT, or pesticides, nor was it restricted to the UK or the USA.  Migrant birds came here to nest, but were found to be infertile because of poisons ingested in far away countries.  Hunting, with lime, net and gun, was also having extreme effects on some species.  Drought and habitat despoliation were causing catastrophic decline in numbers of birds, and consequently membership of organisations such as the RSPB and the BTO increased as the public became involved in the issues.

And so, we come back to Lake Vyrnwy......

A small blue boat, CuSO4 crystal coloured, drifted amongst the green boughs of the lakeside trees.  Two men, one standing, the other seated in the stern of the flat-bottomed craft, fished motionlessly, their rods ready to strike.  I could see through the water to the immersed trunks of the trees, to the rocks on the beach below.  The image was etched on my mind as I pressed the shutter to capture it for ever.  The blue, the green, the sheen of the transparent water, the grey hat of the standing fisherman, blazed with a crimson fly, the dark shadows nearer my shore where the grass lapped at the surface of the water - the composition and the detail were perfect. 
Later, we climbed over the hills towards the west and paused to take another shot of a dappled valley, deeply cutting away below us.  The memory card was full, and I fumbled to change it quickly before cloud dulled the sun. 
Later still, at home, the first card would not open.  The image was locked.  Hastily downloaded software did not help.  An 'expert' could not help.  The manufacturer could not help.  The card, and its gigabytes of precious images, including the blue boat among the trees, was lost.  All I had was the engraving on my mind.

That was in July 2012, and the lake was over-brimming, with white water spouting down the face of the dam, thundering overflow flooding the valley below, while the slopes of the valley above were literally submerged, the lakeside trees on tip-toe, their branches lying across the glassy surfaces.  It was the third wettest summer in Wales since records began in 1910.

But I have no proof that I witnessed any blue boat.  It could have been an impression that I dreamed in some way, just as Llanwddyn village, in 1889, became an imprint on the individual minds of those who had lived there, but whose traces were now 84 feet under 13,125 million gallons of water covering 1,121 acres of natural history.  As 260,000 cubic yards of masonry, weighing 510,000 tons, hold back the lake I think of the word "conservation" and how we play games with memory and perspective to suit our purposes.  As C S Lewis said, "What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are."

Or, as Samuel Beckett (in Proust) put it more bluntly, "Our vulgar perception is not concerned with other than vulgar phenomena." 

Which is to say, perhaps, that what you see is not always what you get.....
These images below show what the visitor will see today, more or less.  The steep sides of the glaciated valley cut off by the tranquil waters of Severn Trent Water's dammed lake.  The quaint gothic tower - the straining tower - in the middle hides the plug hole down which swirls the United Utilities supply for Liverpool. 4,900 acres of forested slopes are managed by Natural Resources Wales (previously the Forestry Commission Wales), 11,000 acres are organically farmed, and 5,400 acres are let to tenants.  The principle farm is owned by the Severn Trent Water Authority but managed by the RSPB, who reached an agreement with Severn Trent in 1977 to create a wildlife reserve on 16,000 acres (i.e. the farm and the tenanted land). The Reserve is designated as a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area, and a Special Area of Conservation.


But these images, and the delight a visitor may find in a glimpse of redstart or lesser grebe, do not tell a story; they are but a tiny piece of the picture.

On May 22nd of this year, Sir David Attenborough launched the RSPB State of Nature report. This significant document (or rather documents, as there is one for the UK and a separate one for Wales) gives warning that far more species are declining than increasing in the UK and that a large number of them are threatened with extinction. The causes are varied, but most are ultimately due to the way we are using our land and seas and their natural resources, often with little regard for the wildlife with which we share them. The impact on plants and animals has been profound. 
In Cardiff on the same day, nature presenter and conservationist Iolo Williams made an impassioned speech.  He referred to the moors above Lake Vyrnwy, and the threat to the wildlife there.  "Up on the moors, up on the Berwyn moors, looking at hen harriers and merlin and black grouse and these amazing carnivorous plants, sundews and butterwort, and curlew, the bubbling call of the curlew..... And the hay meadows were incredible places then, full of flowers, full of grasshoppers. That’s what I remember. Swallows and house martins swooping low, feeding on the insects and the sound, the constant sound, of grasshoppers....."    And he recounted how it has changed since his teenage years in the seventies. "The moors, still a few lovely things to see up there. The hen harriers are there, the merlin are there. The curlew have gone. Twenty four odd pairs when I used to live there. Three now. I was talking to the warden. I was up there just yesterday. Three pairs left. The valleys are quiet.

A migrant Wheatear resting on the heather moor

"No point going up there looking for birds now, they are virtually all gone. And people ask me are you angry about that, are you upset at that? Yes of course I am, of course I am. I love the area. I love Wales. And to see this going on really hurts, it really hurts. I say do you blame the man with the plough upon Llanbrynmair moor; do you blame the people who went and stuck the trees in the ground? Do you blame the forestry and the farming for cutting into the Berwyns, for pollution? I say no, I don’t. No, I don’t at all. They have just taken what money was available. They’ve used the grant system to do what they were encouraged to do. That’s all they’ve done. I don’t blame them at all. My anger, and it is an anger, it’s a venom, is aimed at those grey, fat salaried spineless bureaucrats, who sat by and watched all of this happen. People in key positions, who could have made a big difference, who were so concerned with moving up that career ladder, adding to that great big fat pension, rubbing shoulders with the right people, going to the right meetings, saying the right things, that they either forgot about, or didn’t care about, what was going on around ‘em. Those are the ones that I am ANGRY with."
Inspiring. Passionate.
My limited experience of this area informs me that what he says makes much sense, and there is much to worry about, and much to do.  More action, and fewer words and meetings, is required.
But I can also see that none of that is easy.  Having spent a week digging holes to make ponds for wild fowl, making nesting boxes, helping (in a very small way) maintain a complex and diverse reserve, I can understand a little better just how enormous the task is. 

As an illustration, Phytophthora ramorum a fungus-like pathogen of plants that causes extensive damage and mortality to trees and other plants, was first identified in the UK in a garden centre Viburnum tree in 2002.  It was then found in a 100 year old red oak in November 2003. In 2009 it was found to be killing large numbers of Japanese larch in South-West England.  In 2010 it appeared in the Newport area of South Wales.  No cure has been found and there are no effective chemical treatments currently available.  The only solution is to kill or eliminate the host tissue and to stop it spreading.  But it has now been found in the larch of Lake Vyrnwy, and so a massive felling operation is under way.


The cleared area should then not be replanted with larch for at least five years.  This may be good, in a way, but the glut of timber is leading to a depression of the commercial price of larch (red wood) and the lesser need for spruce (white wood) and so plans for clearing some of the Sitka spruce plantations are affected.  Natural Resources Wales claims to have the situation under control, and their spokesman, Gareth Owen, said this with reference to another clearance site at Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian:  "We aim to replace the coniferous trees with about 13,000 oak trees and other native species before next Spring, replicating the ancient oak wood which once covered most of Wales."
All well and good? But the oak trees, if they grow at all on the slopes where the larch have thrived, might just take a couple of lifetimes to mature.  And in the meantime, Goshawk, which like to nest in larch have nowhere to go, and black grouse, which like to nibble larch buds in the spring, will have less to eat.  You could say that Mother Nature has dealt some useless cards here, but then did Mother Nature produce this coniferous monoculture in the first place?
And so back to the pheasants. Nothing wrong with them.  They are colourful to look at and good to eat.  But do we want a Spring where the Ku Klux Klaxon of their starter motor chuckle is the only song to hear?  Bio-diversity needs to be cultivated, protected, enhanced, and allowed.  The RSPB, Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity - with more than a million members and nearly 20,000 volunteers - has over 200 nature reserves in the UK.  It has projects in Africa and Asia, as well as in the southern oceans, and in the UK it is working to manage large areas of countryside as viable natural habitats for birds and other wildlife.  It may not be particularly interested in pheasants, but currently they are a part of this ecosystem, and since one of the big players on this Reserve is the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel, which owns the shooting rights and which is therefore significant in the area's economic and environmental balance, these pheasants must be respected!

The RSPB, both as a macro organisation and at the micro Vyrnwy level, is working, but for every step forward there are hidden roots to stumble over and for every good intention there is someone who may have a different idea.


My blue boat may have been imaginary.  My understanding of what I saw may have been a misinterpretation.  But under the waters of the lake lie the remains of a village.  Under that village lie the Caradoc rocks of the Ordovican period which were laid down under the seas between 400 and 500 million years ago.  At the end of the Silurian age Wales was ruckled up by immense forces and then, a bare million years ago it was smoothed down by glaciers in the Ice Age.  Around five thousand years ago someone dropped a polished stone axe near the dam.  About three thousand years ago a bronze spearhead was left by a stray Irishman in the vicinity.  Some two hundred years before Christ someone lost a spindle whorl in the neighbourhood. 
And he or she may still be looking for it.  
After all, in the grand scheme of things, that was only yesterday.


All we can do is nothing worth
unless God blessed the deed;
vainly we hope for the harvest-tide
till God gives life to the seed;
yet nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

Arthur Campbell Aigner (1841-1919)
The remains of the tallest tree in the UK, stretching out to heaven
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.
John Keats, La Belle Dame Sans Merci 1820

With many thanks to those who made me welcome and allowed me to stay at Llanwddyn as a volunteer at RSPB Lake Vyrnwy.  I hope that this piece may inspire others to support the work of the RSPB and similar organisations.




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