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!

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.

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

An unusual traveling companion: and the things it eats in my car

Morning Everyone, There are advantages in driving a battered old car sometimes as it enables you to carry around with you a collection of various wildlife companions. One such passenger is a small (but extremely ferocious) spider, species unkown I’m afraid, which has lived for several weeks now in the driver side wing mirror just behind the glass. Each morning there is a brand new web stretching from the mirror to the door which gradually disintegrates during the day only to be re-built with admirable persistence every night.

The spider in question is slightly smaller than the one shown here

Yesterday morning while driving to work I noticed that a large fly had become entangled in the web and despite the fact that the whole car was shuddering and vibrating (I had reached the amazing speed of around 40mph) the spider sensed the fly’s struggles and appeared from behind the glass, scurried across the web and administered a quick and effective bite which put paid to any aspirations the fly might have had of living to a ripe old age. It was not really advisable to concentrate too hard on this little drama being played out right under my nose whilst also trying to steer the car in a straight line, so I didn’t quite see what happened next but when I glanced again, both fly and spider had disappeared and the web was looking very tattered. This morning the web had again been re-made and the spider (which I have christened Peregrine) was just visible peering out from the corner of the mirror. To be continued — the further adventures of Peregrine the amazing travelling arachnid and also the Thing that lives under the bonnet

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?

Nature blog: birds and their nests at CAT

by Rennie Telford

Morning Everyone, Nest building is well under way for a lot of birds now and you can see them busily collecting various building materials all over site. The nuthatch which looks as if it is going to take up residence in the bird-cam box above the restaurant is continually carrying out rather unnecessary repairs to the box–patching up gaps and crevices with mud and debris. In natural nest sites like holes in trees the nuthatch is one of the only British birds which will plaster up the entry hole to make it as small as possible to maximise security for its young. Several of the many nest boxes around the quarry are being investigated by all the usual suspects–blue tits, great tits, robins etc and it looks like a bumper year for insects so lets hope lots of successful broods will be raised. I was watching a female Blackbird hopping around in the undergrowth collecting twigs, feathers and bits of leaf but she seemed inordinately fussy and would pick up a likely looking item only to spot a better piece, try to pick that up as well and end up dropping both of them and then gaze quizzically at them, undecided which one to choose. I presume she will build a nest eventually but it may take her some time!