Wild lockdown

by Iolo Williams, 23rd November 2020

Fungi forays, estuary birdlife and beautiful oak trees help made lockdown 2.0 an enjoyable experience for Iolo and the Williams family

Another lockdown and once again, we had to make do with being confined to our local area and making the most of the wildlife on our local patch. Luckily, early winter is as good a time as any to see a variety of creatures, we just have to wrap up that little bit warmer.

It’s been a wonderful few months for fungi throughout the country and the Williams household has had many a tasty meal enhanced by wild chanterelles, penny buns and oyster mushrooms this autumn. Our lawn played host to several colourful species of waxcap as well as fairy ring mushrooms and a few that I have yet to identify.

Fly agarics, those red toadstools with white spots that you often see illustrated in children’s books, were plentiful in the mid-Wales birch woods this year, as were the wonderfully named turkey tail fungus and King Arthur’s cakes. There are so many out there, it will take a lifetime to learn them all but I thoroughly enjoyed the splash of colour they brought to the Borders woods and fields this autumn.

I made yet another trip down to Pembrokeshire recently to film for a new BBC Wales series to be aired in 2021. One of the county’s hidden wildlife gems is the Nevern estuary by Newport and an early morning visit invariably pays dividends. 

It’s not as well-known as the Dee, Severn or nearby Cleddau estuaries but the bridge allows you to get closer to the wildlife. Small numbers of wigeon and teal gather here, as do wading birds such as curlew, lapwing and oystercatcher but it’s also good for more unusual species.

Stand on the bridge looking upriver and you should see a kingfisher. When I was there a few weeks ago, a female spent more than 20 minutes perched on a fallen log before plunging into the water and emerging with a small fish, giving excellent views to the handful of dog walkers and joggers who had joined me. On a previous visit, I had been lucky enough to watch a female otter work her way along the river bank, diving continuously in search of food. Despite waiting patiently for several hours, I didn’t see the otter on this occasion but I was rewarded with distant views of a female goshawk being mobbed by two ravens.

It has been a fantastic autumn for acorns with some of the larger oaks sagging under the weight of this seasonal harvest. Grey squirrels have seized on this autumnal bonanza and everywhere I’ve visited recently has been overrun with them. Our local squirrels have been busily caching the surplus acorns in preparation for winter, a time when food will be hard to find.

The key species in helping oak trees to spread is the jay. It is said that one jay can cache up to 11,000 acorns, often burying them out in the open where they are not shaded by other trees. The birds can carry 9 acorns at a time, 8 in a gular pouch in their throats and one in their beaks, and critically, they bury them at a depth of 1.5cm, the ideal depth for germination. Once again, nature shows us how species that have co-evolved are in complete synchrony.

In preparation for this year’s Autumnwatch, I went to a static caravan near Ponterwyd to film a pine marten that had been coming to get food from a bird table. I must admit that I travelled more in hope than expectation as so many such outings end in failure. This time, however, everything went incredibly smoothly and just an hour after putting out peanuts, peanut butter and custard creams (a mid-Wales pine marten delicacy!), a beautiful male marten emerged out of the shadows.

I watched, completely enthralled, as the stunning animal devoured all the food that had been put out for it. After so many years of searching for these elusive mammals, I had to pinch myself several times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. It will certainly go down as one of my most memorable Welsh wildlife experiences and was a welcome boost in a year that has seen so many tragedies

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