Friday, November 25, 2016

Otters as sentinels for environmental health

On Wednesday 23 November 2016, Dr Elizabeth Chadwick talked to the Society about the work of the Cardiff University Otter Project, which she has managed for twelve years. The talk emphasised the otter’s importance as an indicator species for the general health of river ecosystems, and as a charismatic umbrella species that provides a focus for education and freshwater habitat conservation.

The Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), one of 13 otter species worldwide, has an extensive range extending across continental Europe, Russia, China, and parts of north Africa; though in modern times its populations have become fragmented. In the UK, populations dramatically declined between the 1950 and 1970s, with chemicals in the environment (e.g. PCBs and organochlorine pesticides) mainly to blame. However, this protected species has recovered in the UK, and its once-isolated UK populations are again interacting. Nevertheless, by nature it is non-sociable and lives at low densities, so it can be hard to spot in the countryside.

Dr Chadwick explained the different methods used to monitor otters. The main methods used by the Cardiff University Otter Project are the monitoring of spraint (faeces and scent gland secretions) and the post-mortem of dead otters (mainly roadkill reported by the public).

A study of the spraint otters deposit at prominent locations around their territories is revealing interesting information. The spraint contains 432 volatile chemicals, and its smell is unique to an individual. The components of the spraint marking also change with age, enabling adults and juveniles to be identified.

The Cardiff University Otter Project started collecting samples from dead otters in the 1990s, when it would process around 10 otters/year (this figure is now around 200/year due to the otter’s recovery). This large sample bank now amounts to 3,000 specimens that can be used retrospectively for a wide range of interdisciplinary studies. Dr Chadwick described some of the studies that Cardiff University and its collaborators have done with these samples. These include studies on the presence of chemical contaminants over time and the effectiveness of legislation (e.g. bans on pesticides and lead), parasites infecting otters, dietary studies from stomach contents (83% fish), and genetic studies over time as a more contiguous UK population re-established. New areas of study include looking for the presence of micro-plastics and a new wave of emerging pollutants (e.g. pharmaceuticals).

For further information, visit the project’s website:

Report by Stephen Nottingham

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Tremendous Oak


Possibly the biggest or oldest oak in Wales? Whilst out walking near Cwmdu in the Brecons recently my walking colleague, Ian Moody, and I came across a large oak. Whilst the object of our outting was walking we always keep an eye open for any wildlife of interest and have regularly recorded veteran  trees which go on to the Ancient Tree Register managed by the Woodland Trust. Amazingly there may be little or no protection for some of our oldest living things but there are calls for a specific National Tree Register for Wales. As the Woodland Trust comments:
'A national register will help to classify, celebrate, and protect each of Wales’ Trees of Special Interest for the rest of their days. It will also help landowners properly care for these incredible trees by allowing them to access more support through grants and specialist advice.
But the most important reason for a register is to celebrate these incredible and much-loved natural treasures!'

We have recorded 20 trees so far but these have all been veterans. A veteran tree is one which is in its second or mature stage of its life, an ancient tree in its final stage. As a general guide any oak with a girth of more than 6 metres is a possible candidate for ancient. Our oak, immediately adjacent to a public footpath came in at 10.36 metres and exhibited many of the other characteristics of an ancient tree such as hollowed-out trunk and  fallen branches. It was originally pollarded, often the case with many of our oldest oaks.

When we first reported it we did not know if it had been recorded previously so the response from the Ancient Tree Register staff was encouraging:
'This is a most remarkable ancient oak you have recorded in the Brecon Beacons. What a great find and thanks for adding it to the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory... Although the girth could be exaggerated by the trees condition, falling open, it still suggests this is one of the biggest and possibly oldest oaks in Wales.'

Interestingly whilst we were the first to record this tree we later came across an article in Broadleaf, the Woodland Trust magazine, which was about writer Horatio Clare ('Running for the Hills') where he said:
'... a slightly famous oak... It is the most extraordinary tree, partly for its position, high above the Cwmdu valley, with a view across the Brecon Beacons. My brother Alexander, my mother and I moved there after London, and the oak stands at the top of our lowest field so it was the first of our allies, the gatekeeper we passed on our way up the mountain. We used to speculate on whether it had seen the Romans build their camp, or the battles of Own Glyndwr's rising, one of which took place in the valley. The great poet of Tretower, Henry Vaughan, would certainly have seen it when he lifted his eyes to the hills'.

So, if you know of any venerable trees it is worth checking if they are on the Register and, if not, making sure they are added so they will get the attention and protection they deserve.

Text by Bruce McDonald
Photos by Bruce McDonald and Roy Carr

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Pontypool Park

Field Trip, Sunday, 10th July

Text by Bruce McDonald

Photos by Mike Dean and Bruce McDonald

We were hoping for better weather on our return trip to Pontypool Park – our first trip being abandoned because of heavy rain. This time we were more fortunate.

The history of this park goes back as far as 1576 when Richard Hanbury came to Pontypool and started the family dynasty here. Over 100 years later Capel Hanbury bought a portion of land that was to become Pontypool Park. Then in 1694 Major John Hanbury built the first house which was subsequently added to and then completely re-worked in the early 1800s. Part of the house was demolished in 1872 and the Victorian extension added. Finally the park was transferred to the Local Authority in 1920. There is much to see in its 64 acres including ponds, an ice-house, Italian Gardens and higher up the Shell Grotto and, beyond that, the Folly.

Our first objective was to look at the specimen trees in the company of Tony Titchen and despite only walking a few hundred yards from the visitor centre we managed to cover a wide spectrum of different species. We started with Robinia pseudoacacia, named after Jean Robin who was arborist to the French king Henry III. The pods are poisonous and the commonly planted cultivar 'Frisia' never seems to produce flowers. Nearby were Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris, characterised by very short needles – this was the subspecies Scotica. Next Tony talked us through the identifying characteristics of a Lime. It had pale undersides with the bracts on the fruit ‘subtending’. This was the Silver Lime, Tilia tomentosa. Tony distinguished between ‘sprouts’ which emerge from the trunks of a tree and ‘suckers’ which appear from the ground. The flowers were attractive to bees but have been known to kill them.
Our next Lime had shiny leaves that were similarly coloured on both sides and this was X euchlora. It makes a good street tree and provides dense cover – one to stand under if it raining. A Norway Maple, Acer platinoides, provided an opportunity to use Tony’s latex text. Remove a leaf and check to see if a milky substance emerges from the break. The Norway Maple does but Sycamore does not. This can be really useful as the leaves of these two can look very similar. Incidentally the Field Maple, Acer campestre, also exudes latex.

Next some oaks where we had a Scarlet Oak, Quercus coccinea, juxtaposed with a Turkey Oak, Quercus cerris and a Red Oak, Quercus rubra. Tony’s tip for the American Red Oaks is to hold a leaf to the sky – the vein clearly goes to the tip of the leaf. And finally a substantial Tibetan Cherry, Prunus serrula,and this was a Champion, one of several in the park.

After lunch a few of us headed off into the extensive grassy meadows with increasing amounts of sunshine encouraging a host of invertebrates to manifest themselves. Somewhat surprising was the number of Marbled Whites, Melanargia galathe, on display matched by Ringlets, Aphontopus hyperantus, Meadow Browns, Maniola jurtina, Small Heaths, Coenonympha pamphilus and assorted Skippers.

The oaks were sporting the usual collection of Marble Galls, Andricus kollari and a few Artichoke or Hop galls, Andricus foecundatrix, but more unusual was the gall shown in the image which was on the reverse of some leaves of a Purple Beech where the branches had fallen to the ground. Up in the tree it might not have been noticed. The gall is Aceria nervisequa and whilst not uncommon when reported to SEWBREC it was the only record on the publicly-accessible database – one for members to look out for.

At the top is the Shell Grotto with great views over the surrounding countryside but closed to the public as it always seems to be whenever we visit.

Numerous grass-hoppers were disturbed as we walked through the long grass but we did manage to identify a Common Green Capsid, Lygocoris pabulinus. A decent day of weather had guaranteed a good day out.

Bruce adds this correction (19 Sept 2016):
'In the above article (also in the September 2016 newsletter) about the visit to Pontypool park we identified this bug (photo above) as the Common Capsid Bug. We have heard from Rob Nottage that this is Closterotomus norwegica also know as the Potato Capsid. This can be distinguished by the two black dots on the pronotum.'

Friday, June 10, 2016

Aberbargoed Grasslands

A group of around 12 CNS members met at Aberbargoed grasslands on Sat 4 June 2016, for a visit to this ‘urban’ National Nature Reserve (NNR), Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and Special Area of Conservation (SAC) of European importance. The flora-rich grasslands are on a hillside above the valley town of Aberbargoed, and next to the town’s tip.

Once assembled near the recent Education Centre and newly-created pond, the warden Mark Allen gave us an introductory talk. The reserve was established 10 years ago and comprises a mosaic of habitats over 73 ha, including marshy grassland, neutral and acid grasslands, and an area of ancient woodland. This site is above a former mine, and Mark told us how the coal board had to fill in a series of bell pits that had formed ponds, after a horse had disappeared down one. 

No less than 25 species of butterfly have been recorded at Aberbargoed Grasslands (out of a total of 59 species in the UK). The reserve is particularly important for marsh fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia), one of Wales’s rarest butterflies, which favours damp pastures where its larval food plant devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) can be found. The silk webs spun by the larvae are counted in the autumn as a way of monitoring the marsh fritillary population. The caterpillars overwinter buried in the grass tussocks, emerging in spring to again feed on devil’s bit scabious leaves. After pupation, the adults are on the wing for only around 4-8 days.

Although a little overcast, we had great success in finding and photographing marsh fritillary, along with a number of other notable butterflies, such as the small pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria selene), along with an elephant hawk moth and other insects.

Management on the reserve involves grazing using native breeds of cattle, and scrub and pond management by rangers and volunteers. This creates the conditions for a spectacular community of grassland plants to flourish, most characteristically the purple moor grass and rush pasture. On our visit, masses of heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) were to be seen.

An autumn visit is best for seeing the fungi, for which this reserve is also of national importance, especially for waxcaps.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Waterfall Walk near Penderyn, May 2016

Steve Howe led a group of CNS members on a 'Waterfall Walk near Penderyn' on Saturday 14 May 2016. We did the circular walk from the Four Waterfalls car park, taking in Sgwd Clun-Gwyn, Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn and Sgwd y Pannwr, and seeing a wealth of flora and fauna.
Rob Nottage sent this species list from the walk, with an emphasis on the birds we heard and saw.



Great Spotted Woodpecker


Grey Wagtail

Pied Wagtail



Robin – nest of chicks probably this species

Mistle Thrush


Song Thrush


Garden Warbler


Wood Warbler

Willow Warbler



Spotted Flycatcher

Pied Flycatcher

Coal Tit

Blue Tit

Great Tit


Tree Creeper









Grey Squirrel




Green-veined White

Orange Tip

Speckled Wood

Dor beetles

Stephen Nottingham adds these photos:

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sydney Johnson Film Archive: listings

In the previous blog post, Joan Andrews wrote about how Cardiff Naturalists' Society were gifted the Sydney Johnson film archive:

Here is the listing that was made by Joan, Mike Dean and Mary Salter of the material

Summary of collection

1. Audio and video tapes
2. DVDs
3. VHS
4. Cine reels


 NAS - Neath Antiquarian Society

 VJ and VE 50 - Victory 50 years on

1. Cassettes - video + some audio
Eisteddford sites (H8)
Eistedford 1994 (H9)
Eistedford (H10)
NAS??? (H17)
NAS 1995 VE50 ?Victory in Europe 50th Anniversary (H19)
Neath Victory Celebrations
Neath Town- Clive Reed at Pontdulais (Audio)
Joe Evans - History of Coed Cranc?? (Audio)
Neath development (?DVD)
Mayors procession
VE 50 again
A465 - making -2 tapes
VE 50 celebration - another
Local school Gnoll
Reminiscences- Arthur Thomas 1996 (Video)
?? (S21)
Seymour Southwood - interview (Audio)
Neath Valley gunpowder (Video - with Mike)
VJ commemoration (Audio)
St Davids service (Audio)
VJ day procession (Video)
VJ 50 service (Audio)
Neath Antiquarian Society-King Edward Engine, VJ concert (H28)
St Davids Service - master tape -1994 (H12)
VJ celebration -4 tapes - NAS (H21,22,23,24)
Neath civic procession A465- 4 tapes (H30,31,32,33)
Freedom of Neath -4 tapes (H1,2,3,5)
Neath abbey schools (C3)
Jo Hanbury speech (Audio  family)
Neath (?10)
Wedding (S25)
Neath Town - master tape for video projection
Duck Street school - Neath 2000- David Davies (Audio)
Neath & ?Cutty Sark 24 Millenium pilgrimage 1999 (S8)
SIC 4 tapes -unlabelled

The Map that changed the World-William Smith BBC 2001 (Audio -with Mary)
Flight of the condor ? Tom Pritchard - gunpowder work (Audio)

NEATH & S WALES - general interest
SS Great Britain (S22)
Canals of Neath Valley (also on video??)
Tramcar sounds (Audio)
Woollen mill sounds (Audio)
Melin Court 1998 -interview - 2 tapes ??
Neath Canal
Neath Abbey tiles
Neath Canal
Neath & Melte
Aberdulais falls
Neath Abbey woollen mill (Audio)
Making canal lock commentary (Audio - Joan)
Gunpowder commentary (Audio)
Cefn Coed museum (Audio)
Neath Abbey - number 4 (Video)
Melin Court & meadows 1988- Wildlife Trust
Neath gas oven (H15)
Commentaries NARP  ??? (C2) (Audio)
Aberdulais falls -water wheel
Aberdulais, Tower bridge, Hampden Court, Stack Rocks (S6)

NOT UK- includes Scilly
Sicily & Carmarthen vans
Holiday USA 1994
Florida part 2
Hawai -2 parts
Mallorca part 2
Scilly Islands -commentary (Audio- Joan)
Cyprus (?7)
USA 1987 3 tapes (C7a,b,c)
Colorado ? USA 1994 (S8A 7B)
Egypt 1990 (A8)
Turkey - master & Craig-y-Nos (A7)

2. DVD
Local antiquarian interest
Gas Tram -(power point)-diverse conductors
Gas Tram drivers and conductors- (Organiser mode)
Llanelli - birth of a town
Library 2006
NAS  Aug 2001- (Box 1:2;3:4)
Neath Town - Journey into Yesteryear-the Conquerors
Neath Town - The Juggernaut of Change
Pontypool -Watt remains at Glyn pits
Neath Town-  Spare duplicates
Neath Town Jan 2006 copy of Neath Town master-626 pics
Neath Jan2003 back up 7 Neath files

Neath Abbey Monastery (on NAS memory stick)
Welsh History Mar 2006
Melin Court 1989 + commentary Mary Gillham
Neath Abbey woollen Mill 1967 & Glyn neath powder works
Craig y Nos
Natural history - plants & birds
Neath Abbey Ironworks
Geology & Scenery in Neath Valley (CD in paper sleeve)
Rhondda 1877 -disaster at Ty Newydd (CD in paper sleeve)
COLLECTION of pictures on CD's (CD in paper sleeve)

Cornwall Industrial Archaeology
Life of Brunel
Brunel Dock 1882 drawing & GWR at Dock 1930

Hawaiian pilgrimage - John Perkins

Aberdulais church - last service & demolition
The Eisteddfod returns to Neath - NAS
Last borough council meeting
Freedom of Borough 1993 Royal Regiment of Wales
Neath Town
Neath development - road bridge etc

Gunpowder factory
Craig y Nos
Making of Canal lock gates
Melin Court
Neath Abbey Woollen mill + Neath Council
Industrial Archaeology (Mike D to check)
Neath Canal restoration
Neath Valley history
Canals of Neath Valley
History of Neath Abbey

Tower bridge
Kew steam museum

USA 1994
Arizona & Utah 1994
Hawaiian pilgrimage + Local items

A Richards?? wedding

Geology & scenery
Journey in to Fantasy??
Behind the Dark Cloud - Glam Naturalists Trust (Stripe sound)
Behind the Dark Cloud (Optical triangle)
Behind the Dark Cloud (Optical Sound)
A Gower Tapestry
Neath Valley Social History
Country scrapbook
The Hidden Beauty
Dream Island days - Skokholm
Canals of the Neath Valley
A County awakening - Glam Naturalists Trust (a- film and b-master)
A County Awakening -original master film
A County Awakening -
A Coastal kaleidoscope (unmarked)
Canals of the Neath Valley - Tennant
An Island of Birds
Glamorgan Canal
A place to remember (?? where)

Fair Isle
The Kentish Scene

New England
New England
Italian Interlude
Danube Delta
Alpine Glory
Nature in the New World

The collection also contains DVD camera tapes in red and blue boxes (about 30 in each, many unnamed but includes some named - e,g. Sker House), and other DVDs.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Sydney Johnson Film Archive

by Joan Andrews

Sydney Vivian Johnson died on 7 May 2014, at the age of 95. Syd never married but had many friends. He worked for BP Oil, at their former-refinery in Llandarcy, but film cameras were his love.

I got to know Syd through the Merthyr and District Natural History Society, where he was a friend and contemporary of Mary Gillham OBE. Mary at that time worked for the Extramural Department of Cardiff University and, as part of her job, organised expeditions to study natural history. Mary and Syd thus were together on many occasions passing on their own considerable expertise. Syd was a film camera enthusiast and recorded what he saw on varying media as they became available, and showed his films at many local meetings. As well as being an excellent naturalist, Syd was interested in industrial archaeology and recorded many scenes of locally-important industries – especially around the Neath Valley where he lived.

I have two memories to share. Firstly sitting down on Gower with Syd, both trying to take a picture of a fulmar, and Syd warning me just in time of their nasty habit of regurgitation. The other occasion, on the Isles of Arran in Galway Bay, where Syd joined in every walk – but always delicately balancing his very heavy camera up and over the numerous stone walls.

His close friend Mike Jones shared many of his archaeological expeditions, such as a particular visit to an old lightship at Britton Ferry that had served at the D-Day landings. These outings continued almost to his death and usually ended with a fish and chip supper, and in Syd bemoaning that “all his pals were going”.

Members may wonder why the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society is commemorating this man. It is because we were gifted his entire film archive. It is a very mixed bag, with some on very old film stock. Many of the films are of industrial archaeology and mention the Neath Antiquarian Society, of which he was a life-long member. Mary Salter, Mike Dean and I have listed all the material, and we have had two films of good quality digitalised: ‘An Island of Birds’, which we will show at the Monday 18 April 2016 meeting, and one about the Glamorgan Canal. He was certainly the best amateur filmmaker I have known and I hope we can preserve his legacy in some small way. If any members have knowledge of Syd, or expertise in his field, we would really value your advice.

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