Monday 30 January 2017

The Coal-yard

The Coal-yard That Became Housing

Restharrow - Ononis repens (Photo: Public Domain)

Today, I am going to write about somewhere my family called “The Coal-yard.” It was on the other side of the railway line and railway bank behind where we lived. As a child fascinated by nature, I used to go there to look for wildflowers, butterflies, moths and once common reptiles. The coal-yard was a wonderful unrecognised nature reserve because it supported so many species of wildlife. It was presumably viewed by the local authorities as little more than waste ground, of no use now the coal mines were no longer a thriving business and British Railways were no longer using it. What was once my coal-yard was destroyed and became a site for housing and a short road, together with the almost obligatory lawns.
All of the wildflowers and wildlife have gone, including the common lizards that lived there.

Small Copper (Photo: Public Domain) 

I recently blogged about habitat destruction and natural environments that I have seen destroyed and vanish locally. The same picture is happening globally. Just think about how many woods, fields, ponds or other wild places that have gone from the area you live in. I am sure you will know what I mean.

Here is a poem I wrote describing the coal-yard and what was once there.

Common Lizard (photo: Public Domain)

The Coal-yard of my Vanishing World

The coal-yard has long gone,
Once there were wildflowers in the abandoned sidings,
Pink restharrow, golden bird’s-foot trefoil and purplish tufted vetch
Added colour to the picture
And nectar for the bees and butterflies;
Small heath, small copper,
Common blue, grayling,
Wall brown, meadow brown,
Small tortoiseshell, and the day-flying burnet moths,
Once added their beauty on the wing,
Flitting from one floral delight to the next,
Basking in the sunlight.
Lizards sunned on sleepers and anthill mounds,
Slow-worms slithered under rusty corrugated iron;
Catch them if you can, and I often did.
It was a boy naturalist’s paradise,
Over the railway bank,
A secret heaven,
A pasture of delights.
Now apartment blocks, a cul-de-sac
And manicured lawns are the replacements.
Plums and apples fall in season
And rot on the grass,
Where tenants leave them,
And passers-by pass by.
People are starving elsewhere in my vanishing world.

About the Butterflies
Several species of the butterflies mentioned are now recognised as being in a serious decline in numbers throughout the UK. The small heath (Coenonympha pamphilus) is, as its name implies, a small butterfly and fairly inconspicuous with its yellowish-brown wings. It likes a grassy area and its caterpillars feed on various grasses. It was once very plentiful, and although still widely distributed, many of its former colonies have gone.

The wall brown, or simply wall butterfly (Lasiomammata megera) was once very common but has suffered serious declines, although Climate Change is thought to be a reason behind its disappearance. Like the small heath, its caterpillars feed on grasses, so lack of food-plants is not a problem for these species.
Small Tortoiseshell (Photo: Public Domain)

The small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) was once one of the most common British butterflies and was found in a  wide range of habitats, including our gardens. Over the past decades, however, it has experienced a dramatic slump in its number. This is not adequately explained because its food-plant is the stinging nettle and there are plenty of these plants about. It is thought that changes in weather brought about by Climate Change are negatively affecting this pretty butterfly.

Sunday 29 January 2017

My Vanishing World

Endangered Species in a Vanishing World

Llandaff Weir (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Throughout my life I have been very sadly watching the natural world being destroyed bit by bit, pond by pond, forest by forest, field by field, habitat by habitat. Most of this is done in the name of ‘development’ and ‘progress’ and even in the name of safety, e.g. when trees are felled for being potentially dangerous and ponds are drained because a child could fall in and drown. These are the sort of reasons given for destroying part of the natural world, and each part that is destroyed was the home for many species of animal and plant.

As a child and teenager who delighted in the wonders of nature I was discovering, I never dreamed that once common birds, animals, insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians and wild flowers would become rare or even endangered species. But this has happened. Here in the UK, the decline in wildlife is truly alarming.

Small Tortoiseshell, a once common butterfly (Photo: Public Domain) 

The honeybee is having problems all over the world, and the new term “colony collapse disorder” is in use to describe their decline. Once common butterflies, like the small tortoiseshell are no longer frequently seen. The numbers of the house-sparrow and starling have dropped drastically. Both these birds used to be seen all over cities and towns and were regular visitors to most gardens but not now. The common lizard isn’t common. Ask yourself this: when did you last see one? Perhaps you have never seen one! The hedgehog, which used to be often seen in gardens, and often seen as a victim of road-kill is not even seen dead on our roads. There are so few hedgehogs about they are not there to get killed by traffic any more. The European eel that I remember seeing in their millions as elvers coming up rivers and streams each year is now listed as a critically endangered species.

Habitat Destruction

Habitat destruction is a massive part of the problem, and it doesn’t have to be tropical rainforest that we need to worry about, although of course the destruction of our jungles is a very alarming threat to the world’s wildlife and ecosystems. Natural environments much closer to home are continuing to be destroyed.

Llandaff Weir

Where elvers once climbed (Photo: Steve Andrews)

In Llandaff and Fairwater, in Cardiff, where I was brought up, there used to be many places where you could find newts, frogs and toads. In other words, there were a number of ponds available for them to breed in. I remember a large pond behind what was then Waterhall School in Fairwater but that has long gone. Right next to Llandaff Village is the River Taff and Llandaff Weir. When I was a boy there were two ponds on the river bank that supported newts, frogs and toads. There were also sticklebacks, as well as various pond snails, water beetles and dragonflies and damselflies that called these ponds their home. Both ponds were destroyed many years ago. The ground was bulldozed flat or made into embankment. Where did all the amphibians go when they returned in spring to find their breeding pools gone?

I went along to Llandaff Weir recently with my friend Roger and we were looking at where the ponds used to be and also at the river and the weir. I remember when the elvers used to leave the water and slither their way up the wet concrete and stonework at the edge of the weir. There used to be so many that it was easy to fill a bucket by putting one under the mass of wriggling elvers and dislodging them into it. Every rock in the river would have an elver or elvers under it. This was normal. Now this species is in such small numbers it is listed as critically endangered, as already pointed out.

As a  matter of interest, the River Taff was terribly polluted when I used to go there as a boy back in the early 1960s. The water was black with coal dust from the mines up the Valleys, it foamed with detergents washed down in drains and the mud was also black and had an awful stench. No water plants would grow in the river. Amazingly though, there were minnows, bullheads, stone loaches, sticklebacks, and roach, all to be easily found doing surprisingly well at that time. The minnows and bullheads were the biggest I have ever seen, and this was really surprising because both these fish like clean well aerated water. I think the reason the fish thrived despite the terrible pollution was because of the vast numbers of tubifex worms that lived in the mud.  I used to carry this mud home and put it in a container and let it dry out. The pink or red worms would form into tangled balls as the mud dried out. This made them easy to remove, and after washing them they were ideal live food for the many tropical fish I used to keep.

I don’t know what fish live in the cleaner River Taff as it is today, although I do know that salmon and sea-trout can be seen jumping at Blackweir which is another weir a mile or so downstream. The river has improved in many ways but at the same time it has lost a lot. It has lost at least two ponds that were once on its riverbanks.

This story illustrates well the reason why it makes a great contribution to wildlife conservation if you have a garden pond. The more garden pools there are the better because they can serve as a partial replacement for the ponds that have been destroyed.