The ‘Maiming of the Shrew’ – and one or two others.

I should warn you from the outset that this week’s outpourings have a rather ‘X’ rated content (Parental Guidance at the very least).  I have had some upsets at work, partly outside my control but partly my own selfish fault.  I mentioned just a couple of weeks ago, how I have to be very careful when disturbing piles of stones, not to disturb animals who may be sheltering therein.  Especially at this time of year, when animals are settled-in for the long cold winter, it is important to go carefully when moving heaped soil or grass or stones or whatever.  The penalty for not so doing is a guilty conscience that comes with the realisation of the damage that one’s actions have done to nature.

Hopping quietly by.

Careful lifting of stones gives a chance of escape, and life; not doing so results in death and maiming..

I grew up with a respect for nature, a reverence for the secret  world of animals, a fascination for wildlife in all its form.  There are no obvious reasons for this in my upbringing.  Neither my parents nor grandparents had any influence in this, indeed they operated in the world of farming and food where death (of nature) was an everyday accepted activity, be it picking fruit, butchery of home raised poultry, elimination of vermin such as mice, rats and foxes or ‘discouraging’ birds, such as house sparrows and crows, from pinching newly planted seeds (this went far beyond the ‘Scare Crow’).  My obsession, for such it was when I was young, can only have come from elsewhere, within or without, nurture or nature.  I am fairly certain it has a foundation in my DNA, in my gene memory, but it also was greatly nurtured in my first school where the Nature Table and twice weekly ‘nature walks’, with enthusiastic knowledgeable teachers, gave light and voice to those dormant instincts.  Exploration of the natural world was my childhood passion and indeed, of my faithful friends with whom I grew and played.  We had two major benefits, a safe environment in which to indulge our passion, be it day or night, and a nearby dis-used canal which literally teemed with wildlife.  Yes, the Canal Bank Boy (as I was often called) had his very own ‘safari park’.  I reckon that by the time I was seven or eight I knew most of the aquatic life that was to be found in the clear waters of the Monmouthshire canal,  I knew too the majority of  the birds that occupied the adjacent woodlands and fields.  I was less good at plants and trees though that came later, but by the age of ten I certainly knew where and when all of the creatures of that habitat were to be found.  For some strange reason – strange that is because most of my peers indulged – I never ever got into collecting bird’s eggs, but then I never took to smoking in secret places either (nor anywhere else, I should add) again, strange given that the majority of my friends and school chums smoked, certainly from the age of ten onwards.

Of all the creatures of that aquatic and woodland environment the ones I really wanted to ‘find’ or catch, were the amphibians.  Frogs, Toads and Newts always but always fascinated me.  The annual appearance of spawn, gallons and gallons of it, which suddenly appeared even when the water was still frozen, was magical (I was much older before I got to see a frog ‘laying’ the spawn) but this was as nothing compared to the gradual emergence of legs !  The change from the tadpole which lives below the surface, to the froglet that climbs out and breathes air was astonishing to me.  Toads however were my most favourite, ugly and pointless (or so it appeared) they moved slowly, never hopping mad, just crawling gently away.  They were rarely seen in the water – indeed they only venture ‘in’ for a quick bit of mating then off to go again – and were thus mysterious as well.  Finding them under stones in our gardens or in the woods near the canal only added to their allure for me and I, alone amongst my group of friends, could happily pick them up and move them to safety if and when they were encountered.  I knew nothing of their life cycle in those days and thus was guilty of assuming they should always be taken back to the safety of the water !

That early interest stayed with me and eventually I learned as much as I could, indeed as much as is known (there is still much to discover) about the life cycle and habits of our families of amphibians.  What was little known was where Toads,  Frogs and Newts spend most of their time when they are away from water.  I have been fortunate in being able to contribute much to that gap in the years I have been walling.  It is commonplace to discover toads in walls, frogs do appear but very less often, newts too are fairly frequently found.  What always amazes me is the altitude and distance from any obvious pond or ditch where the creatures appear.  I have encountered them high in the uplands. above the 1000ft (300m+) contour and even up to 1400ft.  Clearly they are using the walls (and indeed the debris of fallen stones alongside old walls) as good shelter and protection from predators but so too it must indicate their preferred food is readily and plentifully available.

A Toad in the hand is worth two in the bush

Who's a pretty boy !? This is another one safe.

These creatures will find sanctuary in any dark recess which offers some shelter from the wet and cold winter.  Thus it was no surprise that in my current work place I should be encountering these four legged friends.  The stone which I have to use has been in a pile, mixed with earth and grass,  for longer than I had realised.

Also, as it was a pasture there was never a thought in my mind that the great pile would be occupied.  I should have my bottom spanked !  Because the stone was so in a mess I took to using the farmer’s mechanical digger to spread the stone and separate it from the soil.  The job is a long job anyway and as the stone is some way from the wall line it adds greatly to the time factor. Time, as they say, is money, and indeed it is in my work.  I get paid for how much I put up and I therefore don’t need to be losing time carting stone or digging it out of a pile of earth.    A 5 ton mini-digger speeds things up.  The trouble is it lacks the care and discerning mind of a nature loving waller.  Once it had done the first ‘spreading’ I was pleased as it revealed the stones I needed and it dragged them closer to the wall.  The consequences were soon apparent, within a few minutes of lifting stones I found the first victim.

A mini digger murderer

Machine, mud, stone and ....

Cavities in the stone pile, especially when there is earth in the pile, is where toads will hide.  Those cavities are easily found when man-handling stones,  I am well trained in lifting stones so as not to cause any collapse.  When I had my faithful Cocker Spaniel, Molly, with me there was never a problem in knowng where animals were in the stone piles.  She would sniff out voles, mice, newts and toads, hiding deep beneath such piles.  As I gently removed the stones and debris her excitement would mount, indicated by an increasingly frenzied wagging of her tail.  She never actually caught any of the animals, the voles she would have liked to eat but toads, no way.  I always made sure voles escaped and picked up any other creatures and put them into a safe part of the wall.  Today, I just have to be more careful, and I normally am.

This is what a machine does to a poor Toad

This is what being lazy and using a machine causes. The right back leg is nearly amputated, the left leg was paralysed due to a broken back. He was still crawling away, anxious to escape, but life for a Toad this badly injured was an impossibility.

The first one I found was a shock; still able to crawl it looked at first as if it had got away with it.  Closer examination showed the awful extent of the damage wreaked by the mini-digger.  A paralysed left leg, a three-quarter amputated right leg and an impossible life expectancy.  Unable to crawl very quickly thus unable to get to food, in pain, evidenced by the saddest squeak I’ve ever heard, my punishment was to have to put it out of its misery.  You would not believe how difficult I find such an act, especially when I am responsible.  Within a few minutes more maimed toads were found – I was astounded just how many had been in the pile, it was not an abvious over-wintering site, or so I thought.

Dead Toad - the result of a mini digger

Mangled by man, the result of being lazy. Let that be a lesson to you - it is to me !

Fortunately I did find a number of live, undamaged creatures too, frogs and toads.  But it got worse as the day wore on.  The extra building speed I achieved was no compensation to me, I felt upset the whole day and took my guilt home with me.

If I had been high on the hill digging out stone or stripping a collapse, I would have been alert to the possibility of animals within.  Because I was not concentrating, seduced by the domesticity of the site, its newness and artificiality, I forgot all that I know, all that I teach, all that I am forever harping on about;  walls are a hugely important habitat area as is the debris that surrounds them !

Regular readers will know that my favourite all time creature of this land of mine is the Short Tailed Vole, the cutest yet saddest animal in creation.  It sits firmly at the bottom of the food chain, devoured by all the predators above them.  I have tried, in my years of working, to save as many as I have been able, though knowing full well they are a necessary sacrifice for the well being of other animals.  Amongst their predators are some of my other favourites, Owls, Foxes and the Mustelidae.  You can well imagine then my shame when I came across the limp squashed body of one of these furry little beauties, buried in the newly moved stone and mud.

Dead short tailed vole

Killed in Action - my action. A poor little Vole, squashed by my mini-digging antics.

So, people, do me a favour, don’t do it !  I have had to endure a very guilty conscience and continuing upset as more and more of the little bodies are uncovered in the building of the wall.  Of course the other consideration is that I have destroyed a very important over-wintering habitat, clearly it was regarded as most suitable by toads, frogs and voles.  Thus far no newts have appeared nor lizards or slow worms, fingers crossed !

The rain and wind is making the job heavy hard work but I am gradually getting it up.  The mix of geology is not causing the wall to look makeshift, as I had at first feared.  Once I have forgiven myself this error that has cost a lot of lives, I will be pleased with the finished article.  But, what a stupid ass I’ve been…

I mentioned last week that I needed to get going on some winter restorations (and promised or threatened to bring some of it to you this week), and I have made a sort of start.  I have moved some items into a position where things can begin to happen.  I also visited a couple of places where artefacts are to be found, though thus far nothing new has been purchased – watch this space !

Nuffield tractor awaiting attention

Tractors litter the place here, this Nuffield Universal 3 of 1959 vintage is my next target, or it is until something else takes my attention !

Whilst I had my aspiring tractor driving farmer from Carolina with me I moved a number of the wheeled artefacts into positions where restoration could begin.  The tractor collection is always in need of attention and I am determined to get at least one done this winter.  There are some other wheeled items that are also in line for some restoration this winter, such as the Martin Bonser truck which spent its life in Hackney in London as a parks and gardens utility.  I aquired it many years ago from a little village outside Ammanford in east Carmarthenshire, how it got there is a long story !  I have a certain affection for three wheeled vehicles and trucks, perhaps I feel sorry for them, not quite the complete item, or something like that.  In my collection are several Martin and Wrigley three wheel utility trucks and an early ATV and a quaint little road truck which spent its life as a milk float in Newport, Mon.  The Reliant Ant TW9 is nowadays quite rare, although those of you who holiday in the Greek Islands will be familiar with them.

Three wheeler utility from London

The Martin Bonsor is worth restoring, in fact a company has been set up to do just that and sell the finished articles for around £3000 ! All I need is a complete Kohler K181T engine...

I need to get stuck into these larger items as the ravages of time will overcome me and them.  Mostly the work required is in-house renovation, mainly stripping and re-painting the frame and running gear.  The Bonser has an incomplete engine, a powerful 11hp Kohler K181T, but replacing the parts is too expensive, it’s cheaper to buy a complete replacement engine which can be got for less than half the price of the bits I need for the original.  Of course, with petrol now costing about £7.50 a gallon, running these little trucks is no longer economically viable, but they are great for shows and running around the smallholding or stable yard.

The Ant is a three wheeled truck of Reliant origin.

The little Ant is a funny little truck but is a good economical workhorse. This one is from 1978.

I am becoming slightly more circumspect about my ‘collection’ of vintage artefacts.  I realise that not everything is going to be able to be restored, either because I don’t have the necessary technical skill or because the cost of the parts required and the time it will take is not justifiable in terms of the final value of the article.  It is true of most restorations, whatever the subject, that the time invested plus the cost of the parts etc., will never be recouped from a subsequent sale.  It is definitely the case when it comes to restoration of tractors or Land Rovers that it is cheaper to go out and buy one ready restored than to carry out the restoration oneself.  But where’s the fun in that !  Nevertheless, I have decided (with some pressure from sensible friends – who clearly have no idea what a sacrifice they have asked of me ) to start to dispose of some items, if only to fund the restorations I am going to do.

Bike with engine in the back wheel

This Cyclemaster engined bicycle dates from 1950, it is being sacrificed for the greater good.

One of the (treasured) items I have decided to let go is an unusual ladies cycle dating from the 1940s.  it is fitted with an ingenious device, an engine which is fitted within the rear wheel.  It comes with a number plate and required a road taxation payment.  By releasing the clutch once speed had been increased to a sufficient level, the engine was bump started and took over the driving, not quite a Moped, but I’m sure it must have been a very welcome addition to those old big wheeled bicycles.

I’ve been getting back into Landscape Archaeology too, another academic course is dominating my spare time and much of any other time at the moment.   It’s hard, once such an interest emerges in you, to not let it dominate.  For me it’s even more difficult given that everywhere I work and go, there is something to see or wonder about.  The current work site is in the old Welsh Kingdom of Deheubarth and there’s not many places where the landscape doesn’t have a relic relating ot history or pre-history.  Just outside the little village of Bethlehem, on the crest of a hill, is an interesting standing stone, one of a line in the vicinity.  The view of it and from it out over the Tywi valley and the land north west of the river is quite something.  I caught it in some sunshine t’other evening so stopped by.  As one looks out over the river to the small hills beyond, most of which have ditch and bank defended enclosures on their summits, pre-history comes into focus.  Behind lies the massive Iron Age fortress of Garn Goch, the land of the Silures.  The Tywi is thought to have been the border between them and their near neighbours, the Ordivices (mentioned recently in my posts about  ‘Dinas’) and yet, now I have begun to examine the view of the other enclosures from this point, what is called ‘line of site’, I am wondering if that is so.   A project being undertaken by my old university Prof. Ray Howell, is plotting these line of site hill forts to see if there is a pattern.  It is something I am going to get into in that area of the Tywi valley.

Bronze Age standing stone near Bethlehem in Carmarthenshire.

The probable Bronze Age stone marking a prehistoric boundary or route-way, stands alongside the Llangadog to Bethlehem road.

So November passes and we move towards the end of the year, the start of the new year on December 22nd, when the sun starts moving back north and the days begin to lengthen.  The Royal Welsh Winter Fair takes place and will be a place for meeting old friends and catching up on the latest news affecting the Farming community here in Wales.  A time to for getting into the Christmas spirit and start thinking about what pressies to get and what food to eat.  Lets hope, as December slips in, we don’t have a repeat of the last two winters; the Winter Fair last year was a white out and the snow stayed for over six weeks………   Walling jobs need to be completed PDQ methinks !


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