The nature of CAT – an interview with the woodland team

We are extremely proud of our biodiversity here at CAT and are very lucky to be surrounded by such rich habitats every day. We caught up with Alex Chadwick, a Conservation Development Assistant and part of the woodland team here at CAT, to learn a little bit more about how the site is managed for nature and to find out what wildlife to look out for at this time of year.

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Losing yourself in Woodland Management

Last week a small group of enthusiastic woodland women and men learnt many of the skills needed for managing and sustaining woodlands. The week-long course involves some classroom time, but predominantly takes place outside in the woods, here on site and in other nearby woodland projects. The course will run again this year from the 27th – 31st Oct 2014, so don’t miss it.

Bob Shaw shows the students how to measure a standing tree
Bob Shaw shows the students how to measure a standing tree

This course covers both practical and theoretical aspects of managing a small wood, using as an example the Coed Gwern woods, managed by CAT. By the end of the course, participants will have the foundations to confidently approach issues around managing their own woodland and will have gained knowledge of woodland craft such as pole lathe turning. One smiling student on the course said that the course is ‘full-on, with a great mixture of practical and lecturing throughout the day – usually ending up tired and dirty but full of questions’.

A student learns the art of pole lathe turning

The course includes charcoal making, which can be used to add nutrition to the soil by slowly releasing its embodied energy back into the earth instead of being burnt off rapidly as usually occurs when burning wood. All types of organic matter such as kitchen waste can be placed inside an old oil drum and set alight, producing the aromatic biochar. Participants also get a chance to learn a low carbon, efficient and flexible approach to timber extraction using cob horses. The course is taught by expert woodsman Bob Shaw, who has over 10 years experience of Welsh woods, assisted by CAT’s woodland manager Rob Goodsell, with a special appearance from horse-logging professional  Barbara Haddrill

Students pose in the mid afternoon sun
Students pose in the mid afternoon sun


There is also the opportunity for those interested to be tested on what they’ve learnt and to be awarded a certificate level 3 accreditation from the Open College Network. Katherine, a full-time CAT volunteer who attended the course said, ‘The certificate gives me the chance to make a personal handbook on woodland crafts and techniques to use after CAT – it can also act as a kind of portfolio for future jobs’.

Nature Blog: what to look out for this summer


I was inordinately pleased to be greeted by the sight of a pair of Grey Wagtails as I drove into CAT this morning, down by Bottom station. People have kept telling me they are always to be seen there, but it’s the first time I’ve spotted them here – it is particularly pleasing because although they are reasonably widespread in Wales, numbers countrywide have dropped in recent years and they are now on the Amber list of endangered birds. You can always tell a Grey Wagtail by its bright yellow and grey plumage – not to be confused of course with the Yellow Wagtail with its bright yellow and grey plumage.

I’ve never got round to making a list of all the species of birds that have been seen in and around CAT but it must be pretty lengthy by now. Something else to look out for over the next month is the annual appearance of the spectacularly clumsy Cockchafer (or Maybug as it is also called) – you know those weird and wonderful looking flying beetles with mini TV aerials on their heads which spend most of their time crashing headfirst into windows and walls, ending up lying upside down on the ground, before groggily righting themselves, shaking their heads and setting off again only to repeat the whole process. And of course the swallows are back from their holidays in Africa – the swifts will be here soon – so much to look out for over the summer. Enjoy it all while you can – winter comes round fast enough!

Nature Blog: Yellowhammer onomatopoeia

Rennie, CAT’s resident naturalist, enjoys the abundance of birdsong at CAT.

Well, this is the last Monday morning that I’ll be trudging up the garden steps, mentally preparing myself for another day at the coal face and it’s a lovely bright sunny day – for the moment at least. Yet again I am struck by the proliferation of bird life we have here – especially noticeable at this time of year when the dawn chorus is in full swing. In just the short walk from the Cabins to the staff lunch room I saw two Dunnocks engaging in a little bit of intimate courting, a pair of smartly plumaged male Chaffinches squabbling for the attentions of a singularly bored looking female, a beautifully orange billed Blackbird singing his heart out from the branches of a tree and the flash of white as a Treecreeper flew off from one of the trees by the lake.

...not a yellowhammer, but rather a nuthatch.

Over the last few weeks, the Eco Cabin’s feeders have been visited by Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Nuthatches, Green finches, Siskins, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Robins, Grey Squirrels and a mangy looking ginger cat. And then of course up by the smallholding as Grace, CAT’s woodland and natural resources co-ordinator, pointed out, Yellowhammers have been regular visitors. Incidentally don’t believe the bird books which tell you that the Yellowhammer’s song sounds like ‘ a-lttle-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese’ – whoever came up with that originally must have been under the influence! Admittedly, it has a long drawn out note at the end but it might just as well be described as like ‘ I’m-itching-like mad- and-got- fleeeeas’ or any other such phrase. In fact, post your suggestions for an onomatopoeic phrase which best fits the Yellowhammer’s song below.

Nature Blog: nesting Wrens


CAT’s resident naturalist Rennie on nest-building wrens.

This is a great time of year to observe bird behaviour without too much effort, as lots of them a busy courting and nest building, tending to be so preoccupied with these activities that they don’t take too much notice of us and lose some of their wariness. Also, the trees are not yet in leaf so all the hectic avian comings and goings are easier to watch.

A couple of days ago Roger (CAT’s gardener) and myself noticed a wren outside the staff lunch room. He was busily collecting moss from one of the tree stumps and flying off to the back of the solar display building and disappearing under the eaves where it was obviously constructing a nest.

Wrens’ nests are beautiful structures made out of twigs, grass and mosses in a complete ball shape with just a tiny hole at the front for access. They blend into the background so well they can be extremely difficult to spot. The wren (dryw in Welsh) is unusual in that it is the male bird who builds the nest – in fact, he will often build several nests -and then proudly shows them off to his chosen female who selects the best one in which to set up home. She will then sometimes tweak it up a bit with a few blades of grass or some twigs before concentrating on egg laying and rearing her brood.

The male helps with feeding the young but also will do the rounds of his other nests keeping them in good condition, and often installing a second or even third female in them. Wrens often raise a second brood and will usually move to another nest to do this as the nests for some reason seem to get heavily infested with parasites to the extent where it can be a severe health hazard to the young. Obviously, the more nests the male can build the more successful he will be in passing on his genes in the form of lots of healthy offspring.

Nature Blog: understanding the blackbird’s song


One of my favourite bird songs is that of the seemingly ever present Blackbird (Aderyn Du or Mwyalchen in Welsh) with its lovely rich flute like quality. Although the so called dawn chorus in the spring is a wonderful start to the day, the sound of a Blackbird singing at dusk has a special sort of summery quality to it, so it was really heartening to hear one of our many resident birds giving a defiantly optimistic solo performance from one of the trees on the south drive as I left the quarry last night in the gathering mist. Of course the main sounds you hear from the Blackbirds at this time of year are the agitated alarm calls as they dash frantically around the place warning each other of real and sometimes imaginary dangers. If you have a good musical ear, and with a bit of practice, you can distinguish between these alarm calls which vary according to the percieved threat — the call warning of a ground predator such as a cat or a fox is markedly different from the one which tells other birds that an airborne danger in the shape of a hawk or owl is around. The call when a Blackbird is startled by the unexpected appearance of a person always seems to me more of an annoyed and exasperated scolding than a real alarm call – but then I do have a bit of an unscientific habit of putting a rather anthropomorphic slant on things at times – I will have to try and kerb it. Coming soon- the tale of Arthur the Tick and his adventures in a jungle of grey hair.

Nature Blog: hibernating toads


The log supply in my woodshed has been dwindling steadily and on a dark, wet morning I found myself having to rummage in the far recesses to find some wood to top up the log basket. As I fumbled in the corner where the last remaining rather sorry looking logs were stacked, my hand closed on something that felt very un-log like – it was cold, with a rather rubbery feel and it twitched a bit.  When I drew my hand out into the open I discovered I was holding a very handsome but rather bewildered looking Toad. It sat on my hand blinking myopically at me and then assumed that characteristic resigned attitude as if to say ‘well what happens now?’

I love toads – this one had found what it probably thought was toad paradise to spend the winter in – a dark, secluded, leaky, damp, home under some half rotten logs with plenty of succulent woodlice to snack on if the weather became mild enough for it to wake up from its hibernating state, only for me to quite literally tear the roof off its world. Feeling rather guilty I carefully replaced George (as I instantly christened him) back into the corner, restacked the logs around him and left him in peace. (Of course George might have been a Georgina).

Toads rejoice in the wonderful scientific name of Bufo bufo, which I think suits them much better. Dilapitated sheds and outbuildings are havens to a wide variety of wildlife in the winter and it’s well worth taking a look round yours to see what you might find. Mated, hibernating queen wasps often see out the winter months in cracks and crevasses in wooden walls –some Butterflies like the Peacocks and Tortoiseshells spend the winter in their adult form up in secluded corners with their wings closed hiding their bright colours and merging almost unnoticed into the background and I was once lucky enough to find a group of around twenty or so two-spot ladybirds clustered in a corner of my workshop –a nice decorative little addition until they departed in the spring. Philosophical thought for the day – there are wonders all around us – all we need to do is look – it costs nothing!

Meet CAT’s geese


At CAT, we have five webbed-foot friends. They’re not friends with each other, however; rivalries between ganders Bernard and White Face have resulted in the two being kept separate. White Face, shown here, has a bit of a reputation for being unpleasant.
















Keeping geese is part of our sustainable woodland project. The geese graze on a field which is to be planted with nut trees, providing us with eggs, nuts and timber. While we used to keep goats, in recent years we have replaced them with geese to demonstrate to visitors other options for keeping animals, which can be more sustainable. Ruminants, such as cattle and sheep, produce methane and can be an inefficient way of extracting calorific value from the land.

Nature Blog: signs of Spring


Morning Everyone, welcome to the first Naycher Korner of 2012 on a bright, crisp January morning. I’m the eternal optimist and even though it’s a bit on the parky side there are lots of signs of the approaching spring all around us at present. The quarrelsome and noisy rooks down by the station in town are already busy repairing and patching up their nests in the rookery in the trees near the bridge. In mild winters they are one of our earliest breeding birds and sometimes lay eggs as early as February although a sudden cold snap can cause them problems. Aside from the ubiquitous Robin which sings all year round, I heard the lovely rich song of a Blackbird this morning and they have been very noticeable of late as they charge around the place setting up their territories. Quite a few spring flowers are beginning to make a rather earlier than normal appearance as well –I noticed what I think were Butterburrs this morning on the way to work. In my book winter officially ends at midnight on February the 28th- and yes I know it’s a leap year this year but let’s have an extra day of spring rather than an extra day of winter – although having said that it’s been a really mild one so far.

The joys of foraging for mushrooms


You don’t have to look far these day to see the evidence of the resurgence in popularity of foraging, especially for wild mushrooms. Celebrity chefs wax lyrical, identification books sell well, and mushroom identification courses such as the one happening at CAT this weekend attract many interested in learning about fungi.

The attraction is easily understood; there’s so much about the pursuit that is intrinsically likeable. It’s nice finding food for free. It’s nice finding food in the wild. It’s nice traipsing through the great outdoors and appreciating what can be found there.

Still, it’s not without its risks. The popularity surge that mushroom hunting has undergone has left some quarters concerned that novices will endanger themselves by consuming incorrectly identified fungi. Is foraging something that should be left to experienced professionals?

Jamie, one of CAT’s current Biology volunteers and a mushroom enthusiast, doesn’t think so. The fundamental thing – which is common sense, really – is that if you don’t know what it is, or if you’re not sure, don’t eat it. Keeping in mind that obvious edict, foraging for mushrooms is an accessible pastime.

In order to make a good start, Jamie recommends investing in a larger mushroom identification book, as many mushrooms foragers come across don’t feature in the the smaller guides. It’s also advisable to head out after a few days of dry weather, as the damp changes the colouration of fungi and makes them harder to spot.

Considering a little etiquette is also important. For obvious reasons, it’s not a good idea to leave an ecosystem bereft of its fungi. Some forums encourage mushroom hunters to photograph, rather than remove, a specimen they’re unsure about, while others remind foragers to tap the mushroom after picking so it releases its spores.

The mushroom season, which runs from late Summer to early Autumn, is rapidly coming to a close. This year’s mushrooms came quite early, and it’s getting harder to predict when they’ll be at their most plentiful.

Around CAT, there are still some mushrooms nestled in the hills. We’re lucky to be in such a biodiverse region, and though by no means an experienced forager myself, I spent an enjoyable morning this week spotting dewy mushrooms peeking out from clumps of grass.

As Jamie says, the appeal is similar to that of an Easter egg hunt.