Goodness, the longest day already ! Where DID that Spring flit away? It seems only a week or so ago that I was munching my way through the sickly chocolate of Easter. But then, doesn’t each year bring forth such exclamations from me when the realisation dawns that only 187 days remain until it is Christmas… Spending those few weeks away meant I was catapulted back into a ‘full bloom’ countryside and garden. Many were the hours it took me to recover the pathways through my own woodland garden and cut away the bramble to allow entry to the various sheds and barns. I am always astounded at the rate of growth of bramble. one day, when I am retired, I am going to just sit by an emerging bramble and watch it grow, it surely must make a metre a day ! Of course, with full bloom comes full insect coverage too. Midges emerge around 7 pm and that is the time to be thinking about heading indoors, unless that is one is protected by the exhaust fumes of a strimmer. I find the strimming activity is a useful end to the day, it allows another hour of outside enjoyment as the evening sun lights up the western side of my wooded grounds. Horse flies are not deterred by carbon monoxide so long sleeves are very necessary. My absence also meant I arrived back to dozens of fledglings chirping in the bushes and flitting hither and thither. Redstarts seem to love it around here and I have three pairs within a stone’s throw. Pied Flycatchers return each year to two particular bird boxes I have in the hazel trees which abound in my hedgerows. I am lucky to still have a small flock of House Sparrows which return each summer to nest in the open eaves of my roof. Here too the best of my summer visitors choose to nest. They are always late arriving and each year I watch the skies as April turns to May hoping they will make it across the thousands of air miles they have to endure. At last they zoom in, like fighter jets amidst the more ponderous tits and Dunnocks, the very pinnacle of aerobatic display. Swifts are fast but alas are fast disappearing from our skies, I spend an inordinate amount of time watching them of an evening, worried this may be the last summer… It is a sad fact that for much of our woodland environment, not just here on this old estate, it will be the last summer. The continuing onslaught of diseases such as phytophthora ramorum and lophodermium, pine weevil, spruce bark beetle all of which are devastating conifer plantations and phytophthora kernoviae killing ornamentals such as rhododendrum, azelias and camilia is scary. The broadleaf woodlands are suffering too with ash die back (chalara fraximus) the big concern but alder phytopthora is creeping along rivers and streams. Oak processionary moth is a cause for concern as it poses a major public health threat, beech is facing nothofagus, chestnut is facing the Japanese gall wasp and there are many beetles which have arrived from foreign shores beginning to make their presence felt. Depressing indeed. Unfortunately, in my part of the world, nothing is quite so devastating as the human factor in the form of the dear old pheasant shoot. The current gang of gamekeepers seem to know no bounds when it comes to countryside devastation. Since they arrived eighteen months ago, they have been happily smashing through woodlands, sequestrating permanent pastures, most of which are classified habitat land, cutting huge trackways across field and through woods. They have grabbed tens of acres from besieged farmers to plant cover crops and have erected massive pens throughout the estate to house the fifty odd thousand vermin they will shortly release into the countryside. They seem to have no regard for stewardship, for countryside nor landscape and they certainly have no regard for neighbourliness. Permissions which farmers would have to get to carry out the kind of destruction this bunch of wreckers wreak are simply overlooked. Much of what they do would, in normal circumstances, require planning permission from the Local Authority but they seem to ignore that fact, happy that if any fines or contravention orders are issued they will fall to the landlord not them. Money is at the forethought of everything, lots and lots of money from people who have more of it than they do sense or notion of what constitutes obscene. Now whilst I personally abhor both the process of management of this activity (as the release of the plague of pheasants causes massive ecological damage throughout the area) and the absurdity of the shoot itself (to say nothing of the obvious cruelty) I take the view that as we live in a free society (at least the thousands trying to cross the channel seem to think so ) people can do as they please. Whist I’m not totally in agreement with Wilde’s “try everything once” (I know the exceptions !) I accept and enjoy freedom of action and choice and folk can choose to spend their money as they wish, as long as they do it legally ! Alas the legality of land plunder which this roguish group have undertaken has finally ended. I returned from the U.S. of A. to be greeted by numerous emails and telephone messages alerting me to a particular act of vandalism being perpetrated on an ancient oak wood in the west of the estate. I was concerned last year about the erecting of a pheasant pen in that particular wood and brought it to the attention of both the agent for the landlord and the manager of the shoot. I was even more concerned when an earth moving machine began to cut a track through the wood. Nothing was done. This time the pheasant pen has trebled in size, dozens of oak trees have been cut to allow the erection of the fence. Worse still the earth mover was back and was cutting a zig-zag track of outlandish proportion down the steep slope. This, so I was told, was to enable the game-keeper to drive his ATV through the wood to deliver feed to the pheasants rather than have to carry the sacks ….
Now that particular woodland is very old, it is typical of sessile oak woodlands growing on steep valley sides throughout Wales. The ecology within is distinct and is actually protected. It just so happens that this particular piece of woodland, Allt y Gest, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the highest form of legal protection a piece of land can be given under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. To do damage therein or carry out any activity that affects the woodland is a criminal offence and carries a heavy fine and results in the perpetrator acquiring a criminal record. It is clear that the officers of Natural Resources Wales (NRW) are reacting to the extensive and irreparable damage and it is to be hoped that penalties are forthcoming. That, of course means the land owner will be in some serious trouble and therein lies the issue. The persons responsible, which are clearly the gamekeeper who actioned the destruction and the machine operator who carried out the work were unaware, or so they claim (despite the fact I told them on more than one occasion !) but ultimately it is the responsibility of the land owner who should have been aware of the status of the woodland and not leased it to them in the first place. For some inexplicable reason this was not done and now we have a rather serious event which has further driven a wedge between the operators of the shoot and the local community which includes several organisations who value the woodland and respect its status. Unfortunately the land owner has found himself at the centre of this event and may pay a heavy price.
Whatever happens to the people involved in this crass act of environmental vandalism it does not change the damage that the woodland has suffered. A thousand years and more of ecological history has been catastrophically changed forever, the woodland floor cannot be reinstated, the cut down trees are gone forever and the thousands of pheasant feet and tonnes of manure they deposit will so alter the remaining areas of natural woodland as to render it a different place. Shame on all of them.
Unfortunately the Allt y Gest woodland is not the only SSSI to be affected. The river Cammarch (a tributary of the Irfon which itself enters the Wye at Builth Wells) is also a protected site along its length and damage to it or its immediate banks is forbidden. That doesn’t seem to have concerned the gamekeepers who have merrily enclosed a large length of the river by creating a huge pen which straddles the watercourse and fences in thousands of pheasants on an adjacent marshy area, the water from which drains straight into the river. Regardless of the legal status and protection, one might be forgiven for assuming common sense and care for the countryside might have prevented that course of action ! The fine gets bigger ! But at least this can be rectified by removal of the fence and a ban on similar creations.
I hope this action takes place sooner rather than later. Already the plague is arriving and being let loose in the pens. They will decimate all life in those fenced areas and the river-side pen is of particular concern as the wetland part of it is full of insects and amphibians with the young froglets and newts just emerging from the many pools therein, they will face extermination as will the seeds of the flora that is just coming into maturity. I find it incomprehensible that in this day and age such absurdity exists. Can you believe also that, despite all the problems that has already beset the woodland and ornamental plantings I mentioned above – for example the mansion will presently lose its grand rhododendrum and azelia displays as phytophthora has been found there – the land owner has allowed laurel to be planted throughout many of the oak woods. That despite it being a prescribed ‘not allowed’ plant and despite the fact that he gets public money from the Welsh Assembly Government for careful management of his woods ! It is all quite unbelievable to me and many others who have to farm and live on this estate. Bad as all the above may be there is a matter of even graver concern which we all await the outcome of. A number of raptor carcasses have been found in and around the area. Buzzards are as much a part of the oak woods and countryside as are the trees and grasslands. They soar on the thermals and swirl around the skies as their mewing echoes through the valleys. They, along with the Red Kite have done well in the wooded valleys of the Cambrian mountains but the numbers around here have noticeably reduced. Everyone involved in caring for the environment in these parts, from the green tourist businesses to the ‘twitchers’ and walkers are concerned that something is amiss. We await, with some trepidation, the results of toxicology testing.
The whole of this area is especially popular for Green Tourism holidays. Only last week thousands gathered to watch the annual Man V Horse cross country event; next door to the estate is a very successful mountain bike centre with various courses set out in the woodlands. Walking and bird watching bring hundreds of people to stay and wander in the area. Even the land owner benefits from people coming to stay in the self catering or bed & breakfast facilities of the mansion. Now I am not suggesting for one moment that those activities can in any way match the levels of money to be made from the shoot but it is for sure no fines will result and neighbourliness will benefit. It is sad to hear the despair in the voices of the tenant farmers and the folk who live close-by. They are not used to shouting aloud their concerns or anger but I detect a definite change of attitude in these hills. The worm is turning, “enough is enough” is the now oft heard expression. Maybe we needed to suffer these extremes of damage in order to change things for the better, lets hope so. I want to enjoy a few more years of solitude and peace on the “idle hills of summer, sleepy with the flow of streams”… Once all this darned walling is finished that is, but there’s a bit to do yet. No depressive moaning next time, I promise, just more tales from the land and works of Welshwaller. I have actually been building you know !!
The diary of Great Uncle Dick has been absent from the last post but here is the news fro the front for June 1915:
Thursday June 3rd. King’s birthday. Review and Salute in Hergest Square.
June 4th. 2 parades. Rather long day. Adjutant’s parade.
June 5th. 2 parades. Half day off. On quarter guard at night. 2 hours on, 10 off.
June 6th. On quarter guard. Very hot. Lovely singing from Ron Conservicus (?)
June 7th. Route march. Terrible hot. Many fell out. No sense in march.
June 8th. Adjutant’s parade. Very hot. Only shirts worn. 5 feinted as drill commenced. Treating us like dogs.
June 9th. Much rain and lightening. 2 parades. Rolle came back.
June 10th. Route March at 4a.m, 10 miles !! Parade in afternoon. M&D at night.
June 11th. Capt. Thormel (?) marched us 4 miles to duty. Stayed all night. Awful marche through Popperingher.
June 12th. 2 parades. Marched at night, Trenches held by KRR. Clinton and Maid wounded on road. We had been treated like dogs in the rear.
June 13th. Ration party out through communication trench.
June 14th. Easy day. Awful Poor rations. 4 of us at night went to a cottage to snipe dogs.
June 15th. In trenches. Guard at night. Easy day.
June 16th. Rolly Jones killed. Heavy firing at Ypres.
June 17th. In trenches on carrying party. Ammunition and water. Lie Slaves.
June 18th. In trenches. Went to house to keep guard. Relieved by Welsh and Cheshire.
June 19th. Cameout to bivouac in woods. Slept in open. Changed bivouac. Rotten time.
June 20th. In bivouac. Other company digging at night.
June 21st. C.O.’s inspection on parade. 2 hours in hot sun – daft. Digging at night. Rotten time. Rotten officers.
June 22nd. Feeling unwell, feinted 1st time in life. parade 12.30.
June 23rd. 12.30 parade. Rotten time getting dressed.
June 24th. 1 parade 12.30. Digging at night. Communication trench. Capt Steel killed.
June 25th. Scavenging wood at night in pouring rain. Worst than trenches. Awful night in bivouac.
June 26th. 19.30 parade. Changed bivouacs to go into reserve. Our battalion manned trenches, relieved by Welsh.
June 27th. Orderley man. Digging at night. Rotten time. In water up to knees.
June 28th. Relieved to be in trenches.
June 29th. In trenches. Digging at night.
June 30th. In trenches. Digging at night.
Thursday July 1st: In trenches. Listening patrol at night Many narrow misses.
July 2nd. In trenches. On sentry at night.
July 3rd. In trenches. Working day-time in woods. Narrow escapes from Shells. Relieved by Welsh.
July 4th. On sentry as soon as out of trenches. Marched to lower bivouacs.
July 5th. Bivouac. Marched at night to huts.
July 6th. Went 6 miles in shorts. Came back, went for bath.
July 7th. General’s inspection. Booker away from camp. Absent
The months of heavy shelling and the terrible conditions in the trenches coupled with poor food and senseless parades is showing in the writing of Dick. He gets himself into trouble soon !