From the vaults: Not much to look at (03/12/2012)

A few months back, a participant in the Allt Duine enquiry process stood on the car park at Coire Cas and pronounced that there was little to see. Spectacularly idiotic it might have been but sadly not uncommon; I’ve heard similar observations about the hills of mid Wales from any number of people, and I know that other hill country – the Howgills as an example – are often the object of similarly dismissive comments. It makes me wonder what people are looking for; or if they’re even looking at all. Looking for a place to stick another cluster of turbines isn’t really what I’m getting at here.

I was out in the high ground above Claerwen not so long ago and, as is often the case, it was blustery, intermittently wet, deserted. As I walked I gave some thought to what I wasn’t seeing or, more to the point, what was concealed from view. What was out there watching me? possibly from no more than a few feet away. 

There’s an understated quality about these parts of mid-Wales. Not the spectacular architecture of Snowdon or Cadair Idris, both of which can be seen from the higher tops on those days when conditions allow; but the terrain, the vegetation, the general remoteness allow for a particular kind of biodiversity. Kites and ravens show themselves readily enough, but what about the voles, the polecats, the ground nesting birds, the reptiles and amphibians? They’re there right enough, probably not far from the path; seeing and unseen. If time and weather allow, sitting for a while is the best way to have a chance of finding out, although the aerial patrols by kite, kestrel and – just once – a merlin can certainly discourage activity, and understandably so.

I was reminded of all of this again at the weekend when out walking a couple of stretches of the local canals, punctuated by a diversion across an adjacent top. Reminded because, with the leaves generally now fallen, more activity is coming back into view, particularly in the high branches. Unfortunately a SD card failure meant there were no pictures captured from the walk; it was the first such error I’ve ever had with the camera and a reformat of the card seems to have done the trick.

Long-tailed tits seem to be steadily increasing their numbers; seen in new places from time to time and also in larger flock sizes; rarely still for any length of time though. Similarly, nuthatches are no longer difficult to find and the winter blackcaps appear to have returned to woodlands and gardens.

What was most interesting were the after effects of the recent heavy rains: the Stour had flooded its banks in a number of places to a much greater extent than is usually the case, leaving behind large expanses of surface water and almost creating areas of temporary swampland. It was like having a bit of Louisiana transplanted to the North Worcestershire/South Staffs border country; an alligator or two wouldn’t have looked out of place. The Stour is an interesting habitat itself: it is a shortish tributary of the Severn, flows through Stourbridge and joins the main river at Stourport. There was a time when its upper reaches collected the unfiltered pollution from BlackCountry forges and stamping factories and, for good measure, gathered the discharged dyes and adhesives from the carpet factories of Kidderminster. A few miles downstream and this toxic cocktail spilled out into the Severn, with predictable consequences for wildlife on the middle and lower reaches of the river.

A lot has changed: The Stour was recently named as one of the 10 most improved rivers in England in terms of pollution and kingfishers regularly nest in the steep sandy banks. Pollution, where it occurs these days, is more likely to involve a Red Bull can and a polystyrene fast food carton; unsightly if not quite as noxious as what went before.   

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