Lockdown is difficult for most of us, Iolo included, but local wildlife offers the perfect therapy, as the BBC presenter explains in his latest column
I’m sure many of you, like me, will be finding this latest lockdown very difficult. The spring and summer lockdowns were a lot easier as the weather was good and there was plenty going on in the natural world, but don’t let the cold, wet weather put you off as remarkable changes are taking place all around us as I type.
It’s the very beginning of spring, that time when winter finally releases its hold on us and nature starts to change the whole landscape. Snowdrops have been in evidence for some time now, as have some of the later winter flowers such as primrose and daffodil. Already, I’m seeing the small, yellow flowers of lesser celandine appearing alongside the local canal towpath and hedge banks and it won’t be long before the floodgates open to allow wood anemones, dog violets, wild garlic and others to follow.
There are plenty of other signs of spring too. In my garden, singing robins, wrens and blackbirds have now been joined by song thrushes, dunnocks, great tits and mistle thrushes and although my pond is still largely devoid of amphibians, there is plenty of frogspawn about in warmer parts of the country.
For this year’s Winterwatch, I was based at the Centre for Alternative Technology in the Dyfi valley near Machynlleth. Set up in the 1970s to explore a greener, more sustainable way of living, it is situated in an old slate quarry above the Dulas river and although it supports a great diversity of wildlife, I was most fascinated by the creatures that had colonised one of the many tunnels on site.
These were originally dug out by hand around 150 years ago to join different parts of the quarry together. But since being abandoned in the mid 20th century, the tunnels have become a refuge to some fascinating animals. Cave spiders are common in the dark rock crevices, spinning their webs to catch midges and small craneflies that overwinter in the tunnels and any other small invertebrates unlucky enough to be blown in on the breeze.
The tunnels were full of herald moths, a beautiful orange and brown insect that overwinters as an adult in caves, tunnels and cellars. There were also a handful of the less colourful tissue moth, another species that overwinters as an adult and dozens of hoverflies called droneflies, were crammed into small, round holes in the tunnel wall. We were assured that there were no bats in the tunnel (you need a special licence to monitor bats) but on the way out, we came across a lesser horseshoe bat, a Welsh speciality, hanging from the roof of the tunnel. This was our cue to leave.
The River Dulas, which flows past the Centre and into the Dyfi, was in spate for much of the time we were there and this caused the local dipper to seek refuge elsewhere. The current in the river was far too strong for it to dive into the water in search of aquatic invertebrates and visibility was poor as a result of all the silt carried in the raging torrent. However, the dipper found the perfect site to set up its temporary home, along the edge of the Centre’s large but shallow pool. With no current, great visibility and a plentiful supply of food, the dipper remained for several weeks before returning to the riverbank once the flood had abated.
As I type, the pair of red kites that nested in a small woodland across the field from my house is busily adding a few sticks to last year’s construction in between bouts of mobbing the resident buzzards and ravens. Our elderly neighbours have been putting out food for them over the winter and it has been a joy to watch both birds stoop down onto their lawn and grasp the meat with both talons before twisting skywards once more to avoid the tall shrubs. For such large birds, they are incredibly acrobatic and the pair has become the talk of the village over the past 12 months.
There is no doubt that local wildlife has been a welcome distraction to so many people during this dreadful pandemic. Never before have I had dozens of individuals contacting me weekly to ask for help in identifying birds, bees, plants and butterflies or seeking advice with home educating children on the topic of wildlife. This reawakening is to be welcomed and if we really want to learn more about and help our wildlife, why not start now?
Everything from digging a pond, planting native wildflowers, erecting nest boxes and encouraging wild areas in our gardens to joining a conservation organisation and buying local food may only be small steps, but if we all do it, it will make an enormous difference to our wildlife.