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: 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.

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.

Recording the seasonal events that show the impact of climate change on wildlife….

… is the purpose of the Woodland Trust’s new Nature’s Calendar website. We’ve been exploring it since it’s suprising finding that British blackberries seem to be declining. The purpose of the website is to get volunteers recording seasonal changes that will show the affect climate change is having on British wildlife.

As they say

Nature’s Calendar is the home For thousands of volunteers who record the signs of the seasons where they live. It could mean noting the first ladybird or swallow seen in your garden in spring, or the first blackberry in your local wood in autumn.

If you have the time and the inclination this sounds like a very interesting crowd sourcing project to get involved in.

British Wildlife Centre

Investigating sand dunes ecology with school children from Welshpool.

Last tuesday, I spent the day on the beach with a lovely group of primary school children from Welshpool. We were at Ynyslas investigating the sand dunes – something the class had obviously done a lot of preparation for as questions like “is this Marram Grass?” and “why is it called eggs and bacon?” (birds-foot-trefoil) proliferated.


The class was able to carry out a number of very basic scientific experiments including testing whether soil from CAT retained water better than sandy soil from the dune. They also found loads of different flora and fauna on the dunes as well as the range of natural and manufactured things that get left along the high tide mark. They also got to think about why it is important to protect sites like this one and what managing them involves.


The project, which involves CAT educators partnering with the staff from the nature reserve, is an example of how diverse the education on offer at CAT is. Our education staff, all qualified teachers, have backgrounds in engineering, design and technology, primary schools, environmental science and more.

Ynyslas, 17-02-06

Mushrooms propagation or how to grow valuable protein resources

My name is Ariana, I am a long term volunteer in the biology department and today I would like to tell you more about our recent forays in the realm of fungi, that special kingdom not quite plant not quite animal.

Mushrooms are divided into different categories according to the substrate they live on; saprophytic mushrooms that break down organic matter and replenish the soils, parasitic mushrooms that colonize living organisms and mycorrhizal mushrooms that form symbiotic associations with plant roots.

Aside from performing important functions in nature like decomposing and recycling nutrients, mushrooms have a wide range of applications very useful for humanity. In Europe they are most famous for their culinary use, whereas in the East they are most widely employed in medicinal use; in Japan most cancer treating drugs are derived from mushrooms, and in China a huge variety are sold dry as health tonics.

Mushrooms have also been successfully used as barriers for excess nutrient in a process known as mycofiltration, as cleaning agents for toxic pollutant contamination (mycoremediation), and as inhibitors of undesired plant growth (mycopesticides). Mushroom propagation is a low impact very accessible technology that can be adapted to a range of climates, skills, time and materials available.

To propagate mushrooms here at CAT we use, an incubator to keep a stable warm temperature so that the original culture becomes established, an autoclave for sterilization of cheap grains (which the culture can use as a food source to get stronger), and a variety of woody wastes from CAT as substrate for mushroom fruiting.

Hardwood logs plugged with mushroom spawn have been part of the displays of the biology department as an example of ways to grow valuable protein sources on a shady corner of a garden or a forest. This year however, we are conducting experiments to increase the viability of the crop, and hopefully establish a production system that might allow us to do some more research on other exciting applications of fungi. To start with we are collecting different waste products from the many activities that go on at CAT (glass bottles and coffe grounds from the restaurant, bits of straws and hemp from the graduate school, woodchip and sawdust from the building department, cardboards…) and testing them for their suitability as substrate for oyster mushroom production, a species that will be a welcome addition to the restaurant kitchen.

Stay tuned for fruiting developments!


Growing up: A new age for forest gardening?

by Chloe Ward
Forest gardening offers an environmentally sound way of growing without the back-breaking work. But has it has it lived up to expectations?

Working on the forest garden
I remember clearly the moment of my conversion. 1991 saw the publication of Forest Gardening – the launch of a new way of growing food. It was the most environmentally sound system you could imagine. A vision of food production that was not just low impact but actively beneficial. The idea was enthralling to an aspiring ecological grower. It gave a new direction for the future. I was instantly seduced. Robert A de J Hart (1913-2000) was inspired by the home gardens of the tropics such as those in Kerala, India, in which a wide variety of food plants grow in a small space, above, below and around each other in an organised tangle, similar to the natural forest that grows nearby. It made perfect sense. Why grow crops in one thin layer spread over the earth’s surface when nature makes use of vertical space right up to the tree canopy? Robert set about developing a system of three dimensional food gardening for the temperate environment. He designed a garden comprising a mixture of edible plants: trees and shrubs with bushes below and a ground layer of perennial or self-seeding plants below these. Read the rest of this article here This article was first published in CAT’s Clean Slate magazine.

Nature corner: the slow-worm

by Rennie Telford

Morning Everyone, As I was going down the garden steps yesterday, I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye and looked down to find a handsome male slow-worm which had left the safety of the undergrowth and was making the hazardous journey across the path to the other side. For a normally unobtrusive creature it seemed to be doing everything it could to attract attention, it was zig-zagging along the ground in a rapid writhing motion and the sun was reflecting brightly off its beautiful metallic bronze skin. When it reached the other side of the path and started to disappear into the dead leaves though it really came into its element, it slowed right down and as it burrowed under the leaves it became perfectly camouflaged, occasionally lifting its head and flicking its tongue in and out as it explored its surroundings. Slow-worms (of which there are plenty around site) need to be secretive as they are preyed upon by just about everything you can think of, cats, badgers, hedgehogs, rats, mice, owls, thrushs, chickens and even snakes. They are in fact legless lizards and like lizards have a tail which breaks off easily which can be an effective escape mechanism, leaving a somewhat bewildered predator holding a portion of slow-worm as the main bit makes a hasty retreat. The scientific name reflects this-Anguis fragilis. Another form of defence they have is the ability to eject a foul smelling liquid if handled roughly although I have only experienced this once, normally they seem very placid creatures and although I don’t advocate handling wild animals unnecessarily, there is something wonderfully tactile in the cool, smooth feel of a slow-worms skin. Fascinating creatures.

PS. Listen out for the drumming of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker as you come up the south drive, it has realy been giving it some the last few mornings.

A Homebrewing Medley

By Rennie Telford
Morning Everyone, The hedgerows and fields are a blaze of yellow at the moment with dandelions at their flowering best so I took the opportunity at the weekend to pick a couple of bucket fulls to make this years dandelion wine.

A lovely yellow dandelion, soon to be turned into wine (image courtesy of marissabracke)
A lovely yellow dandelion (image courtesy of marissabracke)
Then I decided to pick some gorse flowers and mix them together, thus making, I suppose Dandyorse wine. Here follows Rennie’s quick recipe for those of you out there who are not winemakers. Collect flower heads (as many as you like) and put in bucket, add one gallon of boiling water and leave for a couple of days, stirring occasionally. Strain onto some washed sultanas add juice and zest of a lemon and a mug of cold black tea. Add some winemaking yeast and leave in covered bucket for a few days, stirring now and then. Strain into another bucket and stir in a packet and a half of sugar, then pour into a demi john and fit a cork with an air lock. Leave somewhere warm to ferment out–when it stops popping air bubbles de-cant into another demi-john and leave under your bed for a few months. Then invite some friends round-drink it all, enjoy it, act extremely childishly and fall over. By the way did you know that Gorse flowers sometimes squeak when you pick them?