Natural wonders of wildlife monitoring

The work of a ranger is varied; from dry-stone walling to running a children’s event, from digging a ditch to writing up a newsletter and from litter-picking to counting butterflies.  The latter is what I’ll be talking about in this blog, not just counting butterflies but some of the wider wildlife monitoring we do and why.

Counting butterflies, however, is a good place to start.  Butterflies are extremely sensitive to climate, temperature and light levels and as such make a good indicator species for how a habitat is doing; if butterflies are doing well there is a good chance that other species are also flourishing.  We have a number of butterfly transects on the land we manage, my colleague runs one at Lanlay Meadows near Cardiff and I set up two new ones last year, one on the Skirrid near Abergavenny and the other on one of our tenant farms.  The transect on the Skirrid has been set up to get baseline data before we commence a five year plan of woodland management involving coppicing, thinning, conifer removal and opening up the rides.  All of this work will open up the woodland and let more light in, which in turn should promote more flowering plants and mean more butterflies!  The transect is a weekly count from the beginning of April to the end of September, we walk a defined route recording all of the butterflies that we see along the way.  Over the course of summer 2017 we saw green-veined whites, orange tips, holly blues, silver-washed fritillary, gatekeeper, red admiral, meadow brown and lots of speckled woods.

Speckled Wood butterfly

Speckled wood ©National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

silver washed

Silver-washed fritillary

before_after half way up

Before and after; coppicing work on the Skirrid

The work in the woodland started this winter and in summer 2018 we’re hoping to see an increase in numbers and species diversity.  Species like silver-washed fritillary like open glades and rides for flight and shady areas for breeding so we could potentially see an increase in this charismatic butterfly.

We need volunteers who have good butterfly identification skills to help out in 2018, if this sounds like you please do get in touch.

Since summer 2016 we have been keeping tabs on the health of the River Tarell around our offices in the Tarell Valley near Brecon. We have two tenanted farms in the area as well as our base so monitoring the river lets us know if anything nasty or unwanted is leaching into the river.  How do you monitor a river?  By getting to know the mini beasties that call it home.  Many flies have their larval stage underwater living on the rocks and in the sediment, they need clean water and are very sensitive to pollutants making them great indicators of river quality.

Above: caddisfly larvae in their protective cases


Stonefly larvae

The monitoring involves three minutes of kick-sampling the river bed and a one minute large rock search.  The fruits of such labour are put into trays and divided up into eight easily identifiable species (any other species present are recorded in the notes) and counted to get an abundance category for each species.  If at any point a sample falls below our ‘trigger’ level which is set by Natural Resources Wales, then we know there is a pollutant in the river.  By sampling at set points along the way we should also be able to identify where the pollutant is entering the river.  There are some fascinating natural phenomena going on in our waterways, like the caddisfly that builds a protective shelter for itself out of bits of stone.  I love finding them, their cases are beautiful and a real natural wonder.  An interesting fact I always like to tell people is that they use caddisfly larvae to make jewellery, have a look on the internet it is fascinating.

Above: my colleague Jess kick-sampling and sorting the larvae

We carry out lots of other surveys as well to inform our work and to stay in tune with the wildlife that is present on our land; red grouse counts to help inform heathland management, vegetation surveys, red wood ant monitoring, breeding bird surveys and pond surveys.  Too much for one blog!

Kate Jones
Commons Link Ranger



Keeping our meadows special

Hay meadows and other species rich grasslands once made up a large part of the landscape in the UK and played a vital role in our natural and cultural heritage.  High nature value grasslands were found in every parish across the country but since the 1930s agricultural improvements have intensified, along with other developments, and today only 2% remain.  Nearly 7.5 million acres of wildflower meadows have been lost so far and they are still under threat.  What remains has become increasingly rare and fragmented so it is really important we maintain and revive the grasslands we have left.


Cattle at Lanlay meadows near Cardiff

Looking after these meadows involves no chemical inputs, e.g. fertilisers or pesticides, with grazing being the most natural method of managing the land.  As the cattle graze across the landscape, they create a mosaic of different sward lengths, bare ground and micro habitats.  They are also less selective in what they eat and don’t just target wildflowers like sheep do.  This all contributes to maximising the potential for biodiversity on a grazed site.

Trampling creates areas of bare ground, which is beneficial in moderation.  It creates nurseries for seedlings that might not otherwise survive and habitats and hunting grounds for warmth-loving invertebrates and reptiles.

Dung creates a whole ecosystem by itself.  A range of wildlife move into a cowpat to set up home – more than 250 species of insect are found in or on cattle dung in the UK and these in turn provide food for birds, badgers, foxes and bats.

As part of my role I manage three sites, all of which have hay meadows and rhos pasture (wet meadows) among other grassland habitats that are of high nature value.  One of these is Lanlay meadows near Cardiff.

Grazing is an important part of the management of Lanlay.  Without this method of control, the vegetation would soon become rank and we would eventually lose some of the plants that make this site so special.  It has been a challenge to find a grazier for the site as it is small and tucked away, but this year we have finally managed it!


Cattle arriving at Lanlay meadows near Cardiff

The cattle seem to have settled in nicely and are doing a really good job of munching on an invasive species called Himalayan balsam – which has spread through the wet fields in particular and is threatening to shade out lots of our native plant species.  We also cut the hay fields once a year in late summer (mid-late July or early August).  If we did it earlier it would prevent meadow plants from setting seed.  The cut grass is then dried on the field.  Turning and drying the hay on the fields lets more seeds to be shed and afterwards in late summer we allow the cattle in for grazing.

How can you help?
Are you a regular dog walker at Lanlay?  If so you could keep an eye on the cattle for us to make sure they are all healthy and safe.  Please get in touch if you notice any issues on 07483 905537 or 01874 625515.  Training may be available in stock checking if you are interested in monitoring regularly.

National Meadows Day

At another of our sites, Berthlwyd Farm near Ystradfellte (Waterfall country), we are having a free open day in the meadows on Saturday 1st July.  This is a unique opportunity and rare occasion as the farm is not usually open to the public.  National Meadows Day is a celebration of traditional meadows across the country and there will be activities for all the family including bug hunts, soil printing and meadow bingo.  There will also be guided walks, flower surveys and moth trapping.  It’s a free, drop in event so come along and take a look at what traditional, unspoilt hay meadows should really look like – full of colour and life.  For more information check out our Facebook page.

Jess, Conservation and Engagement Ranger





Wildlife isn’t just for Christmas

So Christmas is finally upon us and it looks set to be a bit of a stormy one. Luckily our pic-1winter so far has been rather dry and mild. But our staff and volunteers will be out in all weather, rain or shine, to make sure our sites are maintained and managed properly. Some of the work I have been undertaking this winter has involved path and countryside infrastructure maintenance from revamping signs and re-wiring boardwalks to replacing steps, see the pic of Full Time Volunteer Ellie helping to put in some new steps.

To acknowledge all the good work done this year, and of course to celebrate Christmas, we held our annual staff and volunteer Christmas meal last week. Unfortunately I was unable to attend but I have been assured that a good time was had by all! The weather held long enough for everyone to enjoy a brisk walk in the Brecon Beacons before settling down to a lovely home cooked Christmas dinner prepared by our very own Joe and Stuart. So just to reiterate – a big thank you to all our volunteers for all the hard work you have put in this year!

Other festive events have been going on around our properties too – this week in Coelbren we had a crafty afternoon of making natural tree decorations, soil printing and bird feeder wreaths. Why not try using some natural materials yourself this Christmas? It’s a fun family activity to enjoy together and you will probably find most of the materials on or near your doorstep!

Winter can be hard for wildlife – food is in short supply and finding enough to sustain them through the winter can be difficult. It can also be a good time for you to spot wildlife; leaves have fallen from trees and hedges and birds are preoccupied with their hunt for food.

Try putting out some bird feed and water in your garden and sit back and watch from the comfort of a warm house, safe in the knowledge you are doing your part to help them get through this tough period. Take the time to enjoy nature – take a stroll and listen out for the pic-7drum of Greater Spotted woodpeckers as they start their courtship displays in January.

Over the past 50 years we have seen a decline in two thirds of the UK’s plant and animal species, including some of our once common garden species. There are estimated to be over 15 million gardens in Britain, so managing them for wildlife could be vital for the success of a species. One such species is the hedgehog which appears to have lost 30% of its total population since 2002, and is now thought to be declining at 5% per year. See the pic of a little guy I found in the middle of the road last autumn before going off to hibernate.

Go wild in your garden. One small step can make a big difference!

Something as simple as making a small hole in the bottom of your fence can help wildlife like hedgehogs; this joins up fragmented habitats that are vital for their survival. Or leaving a boarder or corner of your lawn to grow long during the summer will attract more insects which in turn is good for hedgehogs and other wildlife such as birds.

Wildlife isn’t just for Christmas, there are many ways to help them in your garden so don’t be complacent and start thinking ahead now!

Jess, Conservation and Engagement Ranger

Out and about this summer

Hi everyone, I hope you have all been making the most of the summer and getting out and about. We’ve certainly had a busy summer here, and have been making the most of the warm (if slightly wet) weather!

Two of the main activities we’ve completed this summer have been monitoring and recording wildlife at various sites, and getting kids out into the woods and closer to nature. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind but fun and rewarding too.

With the help of our volunteer Ellie, survey work has mainly been focused at Parc Lodge farm, one of our sites which lies on the lower slopes of the Sugar Loaf near Abergavenny. Data has been collected on the flora so that we can analyse different areas of the farm. This will enable us to see if any of these areas have the potential to be managed in a more sympathetic way to improve the diversity of plants. This would mean working with the farmer to find a way to maintain the economic value of the land whilst enhancing it for wildlife.

Below you can see Ellie hard at work with the Sugar Loaf in the background and whilst surveying we came across this Common lizard.

Some of our other sites that have been monitored include fields around Coelbren. Three are of particular interest due to them being entered into the Coronation Meadows scheme. This project is part of the Coronation anniversary campaign to restore the UK’s threatened wildflower meadows due to a staggering loss of 97% of meadows in the last 75 years. The fields were harrowed and reseeded this spring and with the traditional hay meadow management that is being implemented, we will hopefully see a transition over time into a diverse and beautiful set of hay meadows.

Below is a pic of a Painted lady butterfly on a Devil’s-bit scabious at one of our meadows and our quad with the harrow and seed.

On a different note – this summer we also had a series of children’s events in the woods near Henrhyd Falls. Kids these days spend far too much time indoors, playing on their computers or iPads, and these activity days are aimed to give families an opportunity to spend some quality time together outside, learning about the amazing wildlife we have on our doorstep. We had plenty of activities from den building, making natural paints and constructing bug hotels to name just a few. Here are some photos to give you a taste of what everyone got up to…

If you are interested in coming out, keep an eye out for events in October half term which will be Halloween themed. Locations will include Abergavenny and Coelbren.

Jess, Conservation and Engagement Ranger

A volunteer’s-eye view

I’m the new Full Time Volunteer ranger at the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire base and whilst I am here I will be getting involved in a wide range of projects with both the estate and the nature teams.

We have recently been busy maintaining the railings at Clytha, litter picking and

Pond at skyrrid

Early developments of the Skirrid pond

strimming around paths to keep the walking routes easily accessible and looking beautiful. We have also been busy landscaping a nature pond that will be surrounded by a grassland and picnic area at the Skirrid car park. It is early days for the pond, as you can see from the photo and our basic plan below giving you an idea of its location, but we hope to see lots of wildlife within and around it soon, such as frogs, newts and damselflies.

Preliminary Skyrrid pond plan

Basic plan giving an idea of the location


meadow brown

Meadow Brown butterfly

With the nature team I have been busy nature surveying. This includes a weekly butterfly survey at Lanlay where we have found many Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood and Small Tortoise Shell butterflies. We have also done many flora surveys and I have been blown away by how many beautiful plants are within National Trust properties in Wales. Due to careful maintenance and management of the land, especially controlling grazing levels, the National Trust has been able to welcome many plant species back to areas where they have previously been lost.Some of my favourite plants I have seen are: the elegant (pale coloured) Heath Spotted-orchid at Lanlay, the beautiful (deep purple) Southern Marsh-orchid at Coelbren – of which we found a whopping 48, and the primitive looking liverworts and mosses at Henrhyd Falls adding to its majestic atmosphere.


I am very much looking forward to the rest of my time with the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire National Trust team and am eager to learn more about the important land management and habitat conservation work they carry out. I hope that some of you will venture out to see some of the amazing plants and places that I have mentioned above.

Thanks, Ellie
Full Time Volunteer Ranger

New beginnings – mad as a March hare

After a long and very wet winter, we finally seem to be coming out the other side. The


Bluebells at Coed y Bwnydd

countryside is stirring and beginning to come alive with the chattering of birds, the emergence of toads and frogs, the first of the wild flowers sprouting through the cold ground and mammals beginning to wake from their deep winter sleep.

One of the sure signs of spring, if you’re lucky enough to spot it, are brown hares sparring. Once a common sight in the countryside, the brown hare has suffered a decline of more than 80% in the last 100 years. Their breeding season is mainly March and there is a saying – ‘to be as mad as a March hare’. This phrase derives from observing the antics of hares during their breeding season, from rearing up on their hind legs, boxing with each other in the middle of an open field, sometimes with an audience, to jumping high in the air and chasing each other frantically. The brown hare eventually became known as the symbol of fertility, and a sign of spring.

Brown Hare

Brown Hare, laying low in a form, Orford Ness, National Trust Images/Andrew Capell

Easter Sunday is a religious holiday to some and a family holiday to others, but how did the Easter bunny get involved? Easter is originally a pagan festival that celebrated the end of the winter and its symbol was the brown hare which represented fertility and the rebirth of nature following the cold, hard winter. As rabbits are similar to hares and are common, the symbol was changed to the Easter bunny. Eggs, like rabbits and hares are fertility symbols of the past, and so came about the rabbit delivering eggs at Easter to mark the arrival of spring.

With the beginning of the new season my role as conservation ranger will be shifting from the winter work of habitat management and maintenance to surveying and monitoring our wildlife and habitats. This is to ensure the management work is having a positive effect and I will also be delivering events with fun activities that encourage people to get outdoors and closer to nature.

To kick this off the Brecon team will be hosting an Easter event on the Sugar Loaf near


Den building on the Sugar Loaf

Abergavenny on Saturday 26th March which involves a self led Cadbury Easter Egg hunt and a Wild Wednesday event on 30th March and 6th April. During our Wild Wednesdays you will get a chance to tick off some of the 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ activities whilst having a fun family day out. For more info please see our Facebook page or website.

We will be running a variety of different events throughout the year so keep an eye out for updates on our Facebook page or visit the National Trust website for more details.

I look forward to seeing you on an event soon

Jess, Conservation Ranger

Meadow Life

Lanlay is a beautiful site that is comprised of 23acres of hay meadows and rhos pasture (rhos is Welsh for wet, so essentially a wet wild flower meadow). It has a mosaic of different habitats throughout the site so is great for biodiversity and supports a huge variety of wildlife.

97% of our wild flower meadows have steadily declined on a continuous basis since the 1930’s, which consequently has had detrimental impacts on the plant species and the wild life that depend on them. It is therefore vitally important that we preserve sites like Lanlay for the benefit of wild life and for future generations to enjoy.

Lanlay Meadows

Lanlay Meadows

Work on the meadow varies seasonally; a large part of the summer work includes the removal of an invasive species called Himalayan balsam. It is a particularly vigorous species of plant that if isn’t kept in check will take over, drowning out native wild flowers and reducing the diversity of the meadow. With the help of some working holidays, we have been pulling and crushing it in an attempt to control the spread of this species. It is important to crush the stems or it will re-root itself and keep growing. Even local dog walkers have started to get involved – you can often see small piles dotted along the sides of the paths that they have pulled whilst out on their walk.

Pull and crush.

Pull and crush.

I have also spent time monitoring the butterflies on the meadow. Each week I walk a set transect and record all of the species along the way. This information will be fed back to a national butterfly records scheme that is monitoring the fluctuations in butterfly populations throughout the UK. Here are some pictures of a few of the butterflies I encountered.

Some of this summers spots; Green Veined White, Common Blue, Gatekeeper, Speckled Wood.

Some of this summers spots; Green Veined White, Common Blue, Gatekeeper, Speckled Wood.

Winter is busier in terms of habitat management and I will soon be starting to cut back scrub and bramble that has encroached onto the meadow and doing lots of hedge laying.

Hedge laying in progress, earlier this year.

Hedge laying in progress, earlier this year. Want to get involved this season? See below.

If anyone is interested in getting involved, then please get in touch via the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire National Trust website or Facebook page.

Jess – Conservation Ranger