Monday 16 July 2018

Salisbury Wildlife and the Avon Valley Nature Reserve

Visiting Salisbury

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire for a few days and fell in love with the place. I was happy to see that wildlife is thriving here, despite increasing declines in species throughout much of the UK.

Cinnabar Moth caterpillars (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Even in the heart of the city I spotted Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) caterpillars on Ragwort. There were plenty of these brightly-coloured caterpillars on plants growing on the riverbank right by the Waitrose supermarket. These larvae have orange bodies, banded with black rings. The adult moth is also a very pretty creature with red and black wings. It flies by day and could easily be thought to be a butterfly. This moths caterpillars eat various species of Ragwort and Groundsel (Senecio species). Although these plants are classed as weeds they are very important sources of life for many additional species, in addition to the caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth. The Buglife charity, which is concerned with the conservation of invertebrates, has reported that over 30 other species of insect depend on Ragwort alone.

Avon Valley Local Nature Reserve

King Arthur Pendragon, Kazz and Chris Stone (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I was in Britain for Summer Solstice at Stonehenge and also visiting my friends, author Chris Stone, and Druid and eco-warrior King Arthur Pendragon and his partner Kazz. Arthur and Kazz live locally and they suggested we could go on a walk in the nature reserve that is on the banks of the River Avon. I love nature, so was happy to agree to their suggestion, and was very highly impressed with what I saw.

River Avon (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The River Avon looked really clean and there were very many fish that could easily be seen swimming in the current. I spotted Brown Trout (Salmo trutta), Minnows (Phoxinus phoxinus), and what looked like Dace (Leuciscus leuciscus).

A Shoal of Fish (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Meadowsweet (Photo: Steve Andrews)

There are extensive water meadows bordering the river too, and in the marshy ground was plenty of Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) in bloom. It has a most amazing perfume that reminds of summer meadows and freshly mown grass, and is a most beautiful herb that is actually in the rose family (Rosaceae).

As well as Meadowsweet, there  were plenty of Creeping Thistles (Cirsium arvense) in flower, and also the very poisonous, but attractive to insect pollinators, Hemlock Water Dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). Kazz spotted a colourful moth feeding on the nectar from this dangerous plant, and she asked me what it was. It was a Scarlet Tiger Moth (Callimorpha dominula), a pretty moth that flies by day, and is of interest because it is unusual for being able to feed. Most other species of tiger moths have no mouth-parts and do all their feeding as larvae.

Scarlet Tiger Moth (Photo: Steve Andrews)

On the thistles I saw several Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) butterflies. This was a good sign because this once common species has been declining fast in the UK over the past few years. There were plenty of clumps of Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) growing nearby, and this is its main food-plant for its caterpillars.

Small Tortoiseshell on Thistle (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Water Voles 

Avon Valley Info Board (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Near a bridge over the Avon there was an information board showing species of wildlife that can be found on the reserve. I was happy to see the Water Vole (Arvicola amphibious) included. This is a British mammal that has become increasingly rare, so it was very good news to see that it is holding its own here. Kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) too frequent the area I learned, and I was not surprised, because it is an ideal habitat with plenty of small fish they can hunt.

Elsewhere in Salisbury

Steve Andrews in Salisbury

 I also went for an evening stroll with Chris around Salisbury and around the area outside Salisbury Cathedral. The atmosphere was calm and peaceful and it was a glorious summer evening. I was really impressed with how there was no litter to be seen, no graffiti, and no damage to trees of the city, unlike elsewhere in the UK, where trees are being felled with the support of local councils. How is it that Salisbury doesn’t appear to have the problems other towns and cities have I wondered? “I would love to live in Salisbury,” I told Chris. “I think you will find properties here are very expensive,” he told me. He also pointed out that Salisbury is a Tory stronghold, and suggested that might have something to do with how it is there. He was right that houses and flats in the city are very expensive to buy and rent, and also that the Conservative party is in power there.

In no way do I support the Tories, but it got me thinking about how it seems that it is mostly Labour councils that are behind the destruction of so many city trees in Britain. For example, this is the case in Sheffield, a city that has made world news with regard to the thousands of trees that have been felled there by Amey Plc with the support of Labour politicians. I haven’t done the research yet but I wonder how many cities have lost their street trees due to corrupt Labour councillors?

Monday 2 July 2018

Walking in the Wentloog Levels Where Wetlands Meet the Sea

Wentloog Levels aka the Gwent Levels are a Wildlife Haven

Marshfield (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I recently went on an epic 7-hour walk in the Wentloog Levels, starting off in the aptly named Marshfield I went to St. Brides where I followed a road to a Welsh Coastal path along the sea wall. I was revisiting an area of important wetlands that lie to the east of Cardiff and extend to the outskirts of Newport. Also known as the Gwent Levels the area bears a resemblance to the Netherlands because it is flat land reclaimed from the sea and traversed by drainage dykes, which are locally called “reens.”

A Reen (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Rare Species

The Wentloog Levels are of great importance because of the amazing variety of species of flora and fauna that live here, some of which including the Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), the Musk Beetle (Aromia moschata), the Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris) and the Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus) are nowadays regarded as rare and declining species. They depend on wetlands such as these for their continued survival. The Great Silver Water Beetle (Hydrophilus piceus) is a very rare but magnificent aquatic insect that is known to occur in reens, ditches, ponds and lakes in this area.

Where Elvers would congregate (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I used to come to Marshfield and the Wentloog Levels as a boy. My father used to bring the family here in his car, and I well remember seeing millions of elvers, the young form of the now Critically Endangered European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) making their way up the reens and climbing and slithering in masses over obstructions caused by sluice gates regulating the water flow and depth. I also remember catching the Ten-Spined Stickleback (Pungitius pungitius) in the reens. They are still there today, I am pleased to report, as are the aquatic plants Frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) and Arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia), the first of which resembles a mini-water lily with rounded floating foliage, and the second plant gets its name from its arrow-shaped leaves. Both of these wildflowers have attractive white flowers, and it was good to see them again in the weedy drainage dykes.

Frogbit (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Arrowhead (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The Seawall and Coastal Path

Seawall and mudflats (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The coastal path has a strong seawall that divides the reclaimed wetlands from the mudflats and tidal waters of the Severn Estuary. Here you will find large patches of saltmarsh, and I stopped to have a look in some of the shallow brackish creeks and muddy pools.

Brackish water where many crustaceans live (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Here I saw plenty of small prawns, shrimps and the occasional crab. These crustaceans survive here waiting for the waters to be replenished by a high tide or rainfall. Interesting plants of the saltmarsh included Sea Lavender (Limonium vulgare) and Sea Arrowgrass (Triglochin maritimum).

Sea Lavender (Photo: Steve Andrews)


On the grassy bank with the seawall at the top and a very long reen at the bottom there were very many Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) butterflies, and I was pleased to see this species seems to be still holding its own, while many other British butterflies are known to be declining fast.

Small Tortoiseshell caterpillar web (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Earlier on, I was glad to see evidence of Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) caterpillars that had spun a web over some nettles. The adults of this pretty butterfly were once very common all over the UK, but this is no longer the case. Another once common but now declining species is the Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus), and I was happy to see one of these whilst walking the coastal path.

Birds of the Gwent Levels

The Wentloog Levels and the saltmarsh of the estuary are ideal habitats for many birds. Reed warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) and Common Reed Buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus) can often be heard singing and the abundant reed-beds of the wetlands are just what these little birds need. I heard and saw a pair of Skylarks (Alauda arvensis). This is yet another species that has been becoming a lot less in numbers throughout Britain, mainly due to habitat destruction and changes in farming.

Notice Board (Photo: Steve Andrews)

A notice board by the seawall called attention to some of the now rare bird species that make the saltmarsh their homes. The Curlew (Numenius arquata) and the Lapwing are two waders that can be found here.

Saltmarsh (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Both were once common but both now have the Near Threatened conservation status. The notice board calls for "Respect for the locals" and asks people to keep dogs under control, and to stay off the saltmarsh where these birds feed and breed.

Private Shooting sign (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I saw another sign that showed that wildfowl shooting was once practiced here, and it was a grim reminder of another way we have lost so many birds.

Coot (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Still common water-birds I encountered on my walk were Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus) and Coots (Fulica atra), swimming on the weedy waterways and ponds.

After many hours of enjoyable but tiring walking in the hot June sunshine, eventually, I found a pathway that led to a main road near the Lamby Way landfill tip on the outskirts of Cardiff. I thought it was interesting to see how nature was doing so well right next to this rubbish dump.

Save The Gwent Levels

Elsewhere, to the south of Newport, the Gwent Levels are threatened by a proposed motorway being built at fantastic cost, not just financially at an estimated £1.5 billion of taxpayers money, but to the very fragile ecosystem of the area it is intended to cut through. The road, if built, will go through five sites of special scientific interest or SSSIs. Welsh naturalist and TV personality Iolo Williams is one of many people trying to stop this madness. He describes the sites as “Jewels in the Welsh crown.” Find out more about the campaign to Save The Levels and help halt this before it is too late! Take action by supporting and spreading the word about CALM (Campaign Against the Levels Motorway).