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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Towards the North West Frontier

Much of the northern part of Carmarthenshire is badly under-recorded for moths and, to help partially rectify this, part of the north-western area, near Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, was visited last Friday (30/5). The outing was the first of weekly natural history `jollies` that I have with an old friend and colleague, Dr Nigel Stringer.
The first site visited was Rhos Pwll y Gawnen SN291296, near Trelech. I`ve been familiar (albeit irregularly) with this site for over 25 years, since I first spotted it one day in late December 1986. I`d been surveying the nearby Cwm Cych woodland complex for molluscs and myriapods and, driving home in the early dusk of that winter afternoon, I saw a large gorsey heath. Almost immediately, a male hen harrier flew in front of the car and I was also made aware of a group of people with dogs - human harriers pursuing a hare. Recognising this valuable area of unimproved semi-natural rhos grassland in the even-then typical `sea` of intensive Lolium-fields, I put the site forward for notification as a SSSI. Its name is interesting too - `rhos`, of course, refers to the wet, acidic pastures; `pwll` is pond or pool, whilst the last element `gawnen` is `cawnen` with the initial mutation to `g`. `Cawnen` refers to a coarse grass that can be used for thatching - probably Molinia in this case. Much of this part of semi-upland Carmarthenshire would have covered by rhos pasture in the past, and thousands of hectares were lost during the great enclosure and heath-clearance movements of the 19th Century. For example, just look at your Landranger OS maps a little to the NE, and see the large symmetrical fields of enclosure, such as near the appropriately named village of Rhos and elsewhere.

Above: Nigel engaged in mycological investigations at Rhos Pwll y Gawnen, in particular searching for rusts. Note distant improved farmland - typical of most of the area.

It was at this first stop that I realised that I had n`t brought my field collection of variously-sized tubes but, luckily, Nigel had given me a small box of tubes that very day - all was saved! The time spent here was quite brief (about 20mins), but we both appreciated the potential of the habitat. The fair presence of Succisa suggests suitability for marsh fritillaries, though none were seen (but I certainly would not suggest their absence). Plenty of green hairstreaks were a pleasure to see, accompanied by small heaths. A tortricid was later det by Sam Bosanquet as Endothenia marginana (a lousewort Pedicularis-feeder, which makes sense as the host plant was seen close-by).
A lead belle was caught and grass rivulets seen. The first-named is presumed to be that species, given the `tear-shaped` dot on the forewing and the relatively early season date.

                                       Above: lead belle (in glass tube) - note shape of the `dot` on forewing.

            Above: grass rivulet, a much-declined moth that feeds on yellow rattle (as a caterpillar).

Micropteryx aureatella was beaten from broom and, right at the foot of the broom, were buttercups covered in M. calthella. Common heath moths were seen, and a singing cuckoo added to the appeal of this surviving patch of old Carmarthenshire habitat.

                                         Above: Micropteryx aureatella.

En route to our next heathy destination, we passed clumps of Solomon`s seal in hedgerows. I remember Richard Pryce remarking on the relative frequency of this plant in this general NW Carms area.

                              Above: Polygonatum x hybridum....probably old garden `chuck-outs`.

The next halt was on SE flanks of Moelfre (lit. `bare hill`) SN330349, where common carpets were flushed in quntity (at least 20+); common heaths were again frequent amongst the heather (where a solitary green hairstreak was spotted) and with the songs of tree pipits, a cuckoo and the `clac` of stonechats in the background.

                                         Above: some heathy habitat at Moelfre.
                                         Above: mating pair of green-veined whites at Moelfre.
Above: bloody-nosed beetle Timarchia tenebricosa at Moelfre. It exudes a defensive, reddish liquid from its joints when attacked.
Above: also at Moelfre- the `little moth with a big name` - Pseudargyrotoza conwagana.

Our last main stop of the day was at Crugygorllwyn (SN329337) where, as well as more tree pipits, a cuckoo again and nice habitat, a FFY red-necked footman was found amongst many common heaths on the heather. Also seen was the northern hoverfly Sericomyia lapponum (photo below), which is far more localised than its wasp-mimic `brother` S.silentis. I also recorded S. lapponum at Rhos Pwll y Gawnen.

Finally, many of you will be aware that NW Carmarthenshire, along with adjacent south Ceredigion and parts of NE Pembs, is noteworthy for the amounts of Laburnum in the hedgerows. Laburnum (`tresi aur` - golden tressses`) is invariably to be found in the late enclosure hedges, when the transformation of the hill `rhosydd` was taking place. The Laburnum plants, along with more traditional hedging shrubs such as hawthorn were often propagated litterally as part of a cottage industries, with widows and spinsters earning a little cash to reduce their poverty.

                                       Above: a surprise to visitors - one of the Laburnum hedgerows.

[Some micros, still to be looked at, are not included in the above account]. A blog relating to recent moth trapping at Pwll to appear later today....


  1. Aha, so that explains the Laburnum! I was amazed how much of it I saw on the way to Cors Caron on Thursday.

    Note that Steve Coker had Marsh Frit webs at Rhos Pwll y Gawnen last autumn.

  2. Arthur Chater has written about the Laburnum hedges - see Chater, AO (1991) - Laburnum anagyroides and L. alpinum as hedge plants in Cardiganshire, vc46 in Botanical Society of the British Isles Welsh Bulletin 55: 7-14 - may be available on the BSBI website? Also, of course, his monumental Flora of Cardiganshire. William Linnard`s Welsh Woods and Forests (pub. Nat Mus Wales, 1982) contains much info re the minor nurseries that grew stock for the great enclosures of N Carms...and there`s various other refs re the enclosures of the upland ex-commons.

  3. Thanks for the references. I've resisted buying Arthur's Flora as my bookshelves are already overflowing!

  4. Reading this reminded me of what Iwas told in my childhood some 50 years a ago. We lived in that area at the time and what was said by the old folks that the Laburnum was brought back by sailors from abroad and given to some of the estates, who then planted them along the estate boundaries. Should you drive along theCardigan to Aberaeron road you will see them in their glory . I cannot prove the above other than to say that the in those days local news an history was often passed byword of mouth.

  5. Arthur Chater mentions various interesting points in his very informative Flora: eg `a common but fanciful idea is that fenceposts of Laburnum were brought as ballast in ships during the Napoleonic Wars`; `it was widely available as seed in the early 19th C (Davies 1815)`; ....`there is documentary evidence that it was used for hedges in the 1840s`....
    ....must go - putting moth traps out tonight!

  6. Unfortunately Arthur's Flora has sold out, so you're too late George :-( It is a superb reference for botanical matters throughout Wales/W Britain.

  7. Tim RIch lives just round the corner from me...I've seen it on his bookshelves...I'll have to break in and steal it...

  8. You probably know this already George, but Arthur Chater's book is available in electronic form from the Botanical Soc. of Britain & Ireland, which would solve the bookshelf space problem.

  9. None of these suggestions about the presence of Laburnum seem satisfactory to me - returning sailors would only bring pocket fulls of seed at the most, sprouting fenceposts is too far fetched - a handful may grow if lucky, and as far planting along boundaries ... sounds a good suggestion, but surely the land owners farm manager would advise against this because of the dangers to livestock.
    Then we have locals propagating the tree to earn a little money ... but where is the market ? There is the ornamental appeal, but once people realise it is poisonous or that you can easily grow your own from seeds, or by cuttings, the market disappears.

    Laburnum grows in most soils, but I reckon there is a local microclimate or some other condition that that allows Laburnum to spread profusely in areas where it does. As to how it came to be established here in the first place could be down to any of the ideas already given.