More commonly known locally as Llanfair PG, this photograph is at the seaward edge of the Newborough National Nature Reserve which my mobile tagged as being near to the place with a very long name – actually dreamed up in the 1860’s by an enterprising local wit who thought it would attract visitors to spend their money in the village. The platform tickets on the village railway station probably sold pretty well too.
Back to the photo which is of some dead pines at the edge of the beach, which represent a long ecological story that almost qualifies for ‘shaggy dog’ status. This is one of the largest natural dune systems in the UK, and an incredibly important site for some rare wildlife. The dune system began in the 14th century after a series of violent storms inundated the coastal farmland. The system was stabilised by marram grass and was soon occupied by a huge population of rabbits (introduced by the Normans) that provided a living to the local people who reputedly culled 100,000 a year for sale until the 1950’s. Back in the day, when they weren’t catching rabbits they were weaving the marram grass into saleable items like seagrass mats. Fishing, pilotage through the Menai Straights, farming – local, sustainable, what’s not to like?
Soon after the war, in 1947, a large part of the area was forested with Scots and Corsican pine in an attempt to keep the ever shifting sands away from the village and to create employment in the area to meet a supposed national need. Then, in a well meaning but disastrous intervention in 1953, myxomatosis was introduced into the UK (probably illegally) and rapidly killed tens of millions of rabbits including the ones on the warren. The consequence across the UK was a rapid change in vegetation with huge effects on local flora. The forest, however – apart from the seaward edge – thrived, and it’s one of the few places outside Scotland where red squirrels can still be seen. On the seaward side, the part which is now a national nature reserve, is being managed to preserve the conditions once maintained by the rabbits. The photograph at the top is as good an illustration as I’ve ever seen of the unequal match between human ingenuity and the power of the wind and the sea.
When we talk about climate change and farming practices, and their effect on local ecologies, it’s all too easy to talk in generalised terms, but in reality the effects are nuanced and local. Pointing to the disappearance of a plant most people will never have seen doesn’t have the same emotional impact as a massive moorland fire, and it’s all too easy (austerity?) to take the line that its better to lose a few rare species than to hold back ‘progress’ – whatever that means! Sadly we’re often more willing to relinquish what we don’t value – which is precisely why I’m arguing for living with dirty hands and full-on curiosity.
Finding plants is an emotional experience
Saying that something is worth treasuring because it’s satisfying, exciting – even thrilling – seems pretty puny by comparison with The Greater Good, or The National Interest – whatever political lipstick the politicians and agrochemical industrialists put on the pig they’re attempting to foist on us – chlorinated or not. But here are some photos taken yesterday, along with some taken on September 6th 2017 that – I hope – stand for something important.
Just as we were coming down the steep path off Ynys Llanddwyn I found a tiny little spot with its own microclimate tucked into the side of the path, sheltered from the sea and the wind, and I recognised an old friend, or at least I recognised the leaf. The rule for new botanists is that it really does get easier eventually and after a mighty tussle with the identification keys in Rose – “The Wildflower Key” or even worse in Stace’s “New Flora” the plant will be engraved in your memory along with the associated pain of naming it. In my experience the name will often flee away, but like a familiar face, you’ll know that you know it. In this instance it was doubly complicated in the way that it feels when you meet your neighbour in a completely unexpected place. This particular neighbour lives on the back steps of our flat and I had to do a quick double take when I spotted it on a sand dune 250 miles away. So its English name is Rue Leaved Saxifrage – Saxifraga tridactylides there’s a bit of a clue in the latin name, and it’s a great survivor in urban Bath because it manages to flower and seed before the official chemical street warfare begins.
And that’s a common factor with all the plants that I spotted yesterday – they’ve all learned the art of surviving in a hostile environment. Extreme heat, drought, salt winds and occasional inundation mean nothing to these tough plants which have carved out a niche for themselves on the seashore.
These two, on the left, Danish Scurveygrass – Cochliaria danica and on the right, Sea Spurge – Euphorbia paralias, were the ones I stopped to photograph. Madame sometimes gets restless if I spend too much time rooting around on my hands and knees when we’re suposed to be going for a walk.
Last September I found loads more species I’d never identified in the same reserve, including the extremely priapic looking Round Leaved Wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia, one of the rarer plants I’ve spotted in my short life as an extremely amateur field botanist. It was in the red woodland trail through the edge of the woods (mostly Corsican Pine, I think).
Left – Sea Holly – Eryngium maritimum on the same wall as the Red Goosefoot and Spear Leaved Orache below. This is (I’m sure) Red Goosefoot – Chenopodium Rubrum . The only other plant it could be is Saltmarsh Goosefoot – Chenopdium chenopoidesbut checking the current BSBI list it doesn’t apear there or in Ellis’s Welsh Flora whereas Red Goosefoot does in both lists. What was interesting was that it was growing alongside Atriplex prostrata – Spear Leaved Orache on the same wall, which – I don’t know why – seemed a bit strange. Growing in amongst it is Sea Sandwort – Honckenya peploides, a highly specialized environment, I think, on a sea wall constantly breached by wind and waves.
I had no idea what this fungus was until I spotted a smaller one nearby and I recognised it immediately as some kind of Lycoperdon. I had to wait until I got back to base to identify it as a Pestle Puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliforme – which has an astoundingly thick and long stalk, unlike any other puffball I’ve seen. A very striking find.
Sea Rocket – Cakile maritima
This is Vipers Bugloss – Echium vulgare again on the island. And that reminds me of one of the reasons, contrary to almost all right-thinking botanists, that I cherish the English names of plants. Isn’t there something extraordinarily evocative and powerful about colloquial plant names? “Restharrow” for instance. You can almost see the sweating ploughman trying to extricate the share from the matted remains of the plant. To have discovered all these lovely plants, most of them ‘ordinary’ in my special sense of the word, is to enter a world of poetry and insight. It’s to immerse yourself in an ancient culture where a knowledge of plants and their properties was not some extracurricular stimulation for retired clergy but essential to life and health. “Hedge Woundwort” for instance – does it have that name because it’s used to treat cuts or because it stinks like a suppurating wound? – trust me, I’ve tried it, and it must be an example of the old ‘doctrine of signatures’ which taught that plants carried a clue about their usefulness as a medicine in their appearance or perhaps, in this instance, smell.
Llanddwyn Island is very beautiful and full of surprises apart from plants. There are a number of buildings including St Dwynwen’s church. She was a 5th Century saint. there’s a lighthouse, coastguard cottages, several prominent crosses. The present building is a ruin. The best thing about the island apart from the plants are the fabulous views of the mainland across the Menai Staits. Yesterday we could see the remains of the snow at the summit of Snowdon.
All this, then, in a couple of hours on the reserve, and – as we left – we passed the sad stand of dead Corsican Pine at the edge of the beach. We humans are clever, but not that clever. Ever since the primal forests were cleared for farming, we have tried to alter the balance of nature in our favour. That cluster of dead trees looks like one of the battlefield paintings from the First World War by John Nash, only this time the implacable enemy is not the bomb but the power of the sea and the salt winds. We should learn to be more modest in trying to shape the earth as if we were gods.