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



It’s a woods life for me

Picture 1

Developing the forestry track

Hi, I’m Morgan a full time volunteer with the woodlands team for the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire National Trust.  It’s been a busy six months or so since I moved here from Northamptonshire so hopefully I can give you a bit of an insight into working and living in the Brecon Beacons.

A lot of my working time has been the development of a forestry track in the conifer plantation at Pont ar Daf.  Those of you who have walked up to Corn Du or Pen y Fan in the last six months may have walked past the woods if you took the Storey Arms or Pont ar Daf paths, you may even have heard the chainsaws.

Picture 10 (1)

The finished result

The aim of the project was to increase the length of the original track, allowing a full circuit of the woodland to improve future access and management.  The long term management of this woodland involves felling coupes (half hectare blocks) from the inside working outwards, with a replanting scheme of native hardwoods (60%) and natural regeneration of conifers (40%).  This is a 50 year plan, showing there are no quick fixes in woodland management.

Picture 2

Morgan working hard

I was straight into felling in my first week under the watchful eyes of Stuart and Tim, the woodland rangers.  I had the chance to get stuck into much bigger trees than I’ve ever felled before and quickly became comfortable and more efficient in the routine of felling and neatly stripping down trees of their branches, ready for extraction.

Once the felling was completed, we began extracting the timber.  Each tree has been graded and, depending on its quality, was cut to length to be sold, ending up as saw mill logs or fencing stakes for example.  Whilst extracting timber, a local contractor helped level the ground, install drainage pipes and stone the track.  The drainage in particular being vital in an area where there is such high annual rainfall.  Being so important, they required suitable protection on both the inlet and outlet sides, using large stones in a dry-stone wall style to retain the earth and stone behind it – especially with heavy forestry machinery using the track.  Below you can see the use of both the natural stone we uncovered whilst digging the track and recycled kerb stones.

Picture 3

Outside of work, I’ve been lucky enough to live in the Tarell Valley.  The diversity of wildlife found in this fairly wooded valley has been a pleasure to watch in my spare time.  With so many areas to explore from the front door, I’ve been spoilt for choice.  The conditions at these higher altitudes provide different habitats for species I have never seen in the lowlands of the Midlands such as the golden ringed dragonfly, wood wasp and regular dipper sightings on the Tarell river.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Carno wood, where the National Trust has done a lot of positive management over the last 25 years.  It provides a lovely display of bluebells earlier in the year and is bursting with breeding birds in spring – many of these have travelled from Africa to nest in Britain, including willow warblers, chiff chaffs and wood warblers.  I’d really recommend trying to visit this woodland, early spring mornings are almost deafening with the vast array of birdsong.  Seeing the seasons change and the wildlife that comes and goes with those changes has been a privilege.  The pictures of the stream below show the variation in flow rate after a period of heavy rain in early March and over a month of unseasonably dry weather in late April.

Joining the team here has been a fantastic experience, I’m learning and improving my skills every day and hopefully it will result in gaining future employment in woodland conservation and forestry.  I’d recommend a position like this to anyone considering a similar career path.

Cheers, Morgan

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

Stop looking and let your senses take over

Bluebells 009a

Coed-y-Bwnydd bluebells

Whilst we have been busy encouraging you to go and see the bluebells at sites such as Coed-y-Bwnydd (Woodlands at Coed-y-Bwnydd article) and on the Skirrid (article on the Skirrid) with a good dose of images, what these don’t share with you is all the other senses you can only experience by getting out there.

This struck me recently after a recent walk around Coed-y-Bwnydd after installing a new information board by the main gate – more here on our Facebook page.  Walking around to see the progress of the bluebells; experiencing the cool and the warmth as I caught the sun’s heat that was waking the bluebells in between the dappled shade of the emergent leafs on the trees.  More so was the smell of the bluebells, growing stronger as the clusters of flowers got denser.

The smell of different trees is something I have been aware of for quite a while as a forester whilst we are felling or again as we process the timber into sawn wood or firewood.  A selection of smells, some trees are fruity like citrus or a watermelon, others are more plain like school dinner mashed potato and oak just smells like oak and nothing else.  The flowers and blossom that are now present on the trees are also intense and sweet, particularly hawthorn and burr cherry and especially gorse on a hot day.

Not all smells are so welcome, silage is a divisive one (that I like) and some go out of their way to smell bad, like this Stink Horn fungus.


You can’t see how bad it smells, but you can see how popular it is with the flies

As you walk around, the sound of the birds builds and builds.  The distinctive call of the cuckoo is one that people listen out for.  At the start of the month we heard their return to the Upper Tarell Valley from where we are based and heard through Twitter of their return to the Sugar Loaf at the end of April (how odd does that phrase sound?).

There are a few tastes out there too for the forager right now, but the real bounty comes at the end of the summer as everything comes into fruit.

Stop looking at pictures and start being part of the scenery, close your eyes and see what you discover.

Tim – Woodland Ranger

Time for lunch?

My plan was to develop the seldom used over flow car park at Clytha into a much more user friendly area. The first job was to remove the old barrier and replace with some much more functional gates.

Custom made gates copying the estate style.

Custom made gates copying the estate style.

These would allow the public to access the picnic area but restrict vehicle access. A local engineering firm made up the gates using an existing pair as a template.

Bit of pruning back and digging required to fit.

Bit of pruning back and digging required to fit.

The opening had to be enlarged to allow for the bigger gates and the new posts needed to be concreted in to carry the weight of them

Gates in and benches in.

Gates in and benches in.

Allan, one of my Volunteers, has made up some picnic tables which I’ve sited at the near end. The rest of the area I’ve left to grow wild to encourage more wildlife and wild flowers. My hope is this will become a great little spot to sit and have a picnic.

Finished and waiting for you.

Finished and waiting for you.

Enjoying the flora and fauna as well as the local wildlife!
Have a look at our Clytha walks to build up that appetite.

Cheers, Simon – Area Ranger

Signs of Spring

What with the new lambs and fine weather we’ve been having over the last couple of weeks it really feels like spring has arrived. Today whilst walking in the Tarrell Valley near Libanus I saw some swallows and heard a cuckoo, both for the first time this year.

The National Trust is responsible for looking after a number of sites across the Brecon Beacons and Monmouthshire, not only by maintaining public access, but also through our nature conservation work.

April 01

One of the habitats that is a key feature of Lanlay Meadows, in the Vale of Glamorgan, is grassland. The meadows are just beginning to come to life. The wildflowers that grow here attract a whole host of insects throughout the spring and summer- bees, butterflies and moths. Birds are nesting in the hedgerows and the mature trees are coming into leaf.

Some of the meadows are classified as neutral grassland. As spring moves into summer, look out for all sorts of hay meadow species like knapweed, Devils bit scabious and stitchworts and hawkbits as well as wood anemone and marsh marigoldsaround the field edges. In the rhos pasture (also called marshy grassland) you will find yellow flag iris and a variety of different rushes.

Cuckoo Flower

Cuckoo Flower

Now is the time of year when we see the results of all our management throughout the year. Every summer, we put a lot of effort into pulling Himalayan balsam, an invasive species that grows very quickly and colonises large areas of the meadow, especially close to the water courses, and out competes the native species. At the end of the summer the meadows are cut then ideally lightly grazed with cattle or ponies. The livestock are then removed in the winter when the ground is very wet to avoid the soil and vegetation getting poached and damaged. Over the winter is when we carry out management of the scrub to stop it encroaching onto the meadows, out competing the grasses and flowers and drying out the soil. This mainly involves cutting brambles and blackthorn on the field edges. All this work means that each spring and summer the rich biodiversity of the meadows is maintained for the value of wildlife and visitors.

We are always interested in any biodiversity records or information about all our sites, so if you are a keen recorder do let us know about anything you see!

Community Engagement Ranger