Beside the sea

Recent storms here in west Wales have exposed all sorts of interesting things along the coast, from tank tracks and evidence of peat cutting in the exposed peat on the beach at Tywyn, to the foundations of the old bath house revealed when part of the promenade collapsed in Aberystwyth.

On Thursday I took the learners attending my ecology course to see another of the features revealed by the storm… the submerged forest at Ynyslas. The stumps of the trees here have been radio-carbon dated and are about 6000 years old. They were drowned when the site they were growing on became wetter and a peat bog formed – preserving the stumps and fallen trees. Subsequently the sea level rose and and the site disappeared under the sandy beach. There are usually a few of the stumps visible poking out from the sand, but at the moment a vast area has been uncovered, providing a rare opportunity to see this amazing preserved ecosystem.

Whenever it is exposed like this it gets a little more eroded, but soon, the sand will cover it again and it will be hidden from view. If you are in west Wales, it really is worth a visit in the next few weeks.

There is a vast stretch of peat on the beach

There is a vast stretch of peat on the beach

Tree stumps emerge from the peat

Tree stumps emerge from the peat

You can see an amazing amount of detail

You can see an amazing amount of detail

Quite fine root systems are visible

Quite fine root systems are visible

Branches and trunks lie where they fell, embedded in peat that is now eroding

Branches and trunks lie where they fell, embedded in peat that is now eroding

Not only is this a fascinating piece of history...

Not only is this a fascinating piece of history…

... it's beautiful too

… it’s beautiful too

 

 

 

 

 

 

When a tree falls…

I’ve mentioned before that I am a trustee for a small local conservation charity at a place called Denmark Farm. We run courses on all sorts of subjects related to the environment, from plant identification to love spoon carving; from vegetation survey to felt-making. Plus we have lovely self-catering accommodation, where visitors can stay in our eco-friendly lodge and get close to nature on our 40-acre site…. ok, advert over…

Anyway, yesterday I was up there at a meeting when one of the members of staff mentioned that a visitor had reported that an oak tree was down somewhere near the bottom of the site. Once we’d finished talking about courses for the coming year, a couple of us decided to go and investigate the tree and see what needed doing. Last week, Wales experienced winds exceeding 100mph, so we were not surprised that a tree had come down. We were not, however, prepared for the shock of what we found  (I went back and took the following pictures today):

The first view

The first view

A closer look, with Mr Snail-of-happiness for scale

A closer look, with Mr Snail-of-happiness for scale (he’s 6 feet tall)

You can see from the second picture, that the ground had come away with the tree… and further investigation revealed that it wasn’t just one tree, but a 35 metre stretch of beech trees growing on a bank along our boundary.

Thirty-five metres further on, you come to the end of the devastation

Thirty-five metres further on, you come to the end of the devastation

We slipped next door to examine the bank from the other side:

A 35m stretch of bank rotated through 90 degrees

A 35m stretch of bank rotated through 90 degrees

A little further along, there was a shorter length down too:

Shorter length of bank over, with Mr S-o-h for scale

Shorter length of bank over, with Mr S-o-h for scale (only two trees in this section)

The beech trees growing on this bank were about 12-14 m (36-40 feet) tall and one that we measured had a trunk circumference of more than 2 m (6 feet):

Measuring the girth

Measuring the girth

All these trees have multiple stems, and we couldn’t get in amongst them to count how many are down, but there are probably 10 in total. However, they are all beech trees and the visitors said that the tree they saw was an oak, so our search continued.

Back along the boundary, we came across another problem:

Pine across the path

Pine across the path

This one is over the path, and is only upright because it is caught in the canopy of adjacent trees:

Being held up by its neighbours

Being held up by its neighbours

But, that’s not an oak either, so we continued our hunt when we went back today. There were quite a number of young trees down too, but fortunately none of our big mature oaks. Sadly, however, we did come a cross two of our smaller, old and very knarly trees that had been blown over. One oak across the green lane:

All taped off so no one walks underneath

All taped off so no one walks underneath

And one hawthorn that narrowly missed the main building:

A few feet taller and it would have been through the windows and roof

A few feet taller and it would have been through the windows and roof

We cordoned off all the dangerous parts, but now there’s lots to be done to make the site safe for visitors and convert the wood into both fuel and wildlife habitat. It does bring home the power of nature… really the pictures don’t do justice to the size and number of trees that are down.

You can read more about it all in my post on the Denmark Farm blog.

Return to Karuna

Nothing is too good for Karuna's ducks!

Nothing is too good for Karuna’s ducks!

I haven’t posted for a few days because, once again, I’ve been teaching an introduction to permaculture course at the Karuna Permaculture Project in Shropshire… three days focusing on how to design robust, resilient and sustainable systems based on the principles and processes that we find in natural ecosystems. The sun shone on us (most of the time), Merav cooked lovely food for us, much of which was grown on site, and we were able to see examples of the things we were discussing all around us, with the opportunity to spend lots of time chatting to people who had created the place and who live there.

Sculptures nestle amongst the trees

Sculptures nestle amongst the trees

In general, I like teaching, but I particularly enjoy it when I am in an inspiring place – and Karuna is one such venue. The project is an amazing series of forest garden areas with surrounding meadows, developed by a single family, with the help of WWOOFers in the summer and occasional other volunteers. It’s hard to describe the diversity of the site, with its fruit trees, herbs, vegetables, specimen trees and  glades, plus a mass of butterflies and birds. In addition, there are some beautiful sculptures to be found as you explore.

The trees around this sculpture were only planted seven years ago

The trees around this sculpture were only planted seven years ago

It’s a young site (only seven years old), but that is hard to believe when you look at it and consider that, apart from some large trees on the edge of the original fields, it was just grazing land when the planting started in 2006. The incredible growth of the trees can be attributed, at least in part, to increasing the fertility of the site and suppressing competitive grasses by mulching around the trees with straw soaked with urine… you see, I told you it was a good source of nitrogen! It’s even more impressive when you discover that the site is at an altitude of about 300m… so it’s not exactly in a sheltered lowland area.

We run a permaculture course there once a year at around this time, but Karuna is a demonstration site as part of the LAND network, and there is a variety of interesting courses run during the summer and early autumn… how about Earth Bag Building (in early September)?

So, here are just a few pictures to tempt you to visit Karuna… perhaps to do a course, to volunteer there, or to book it to use as a venue for an event you are organising…

Camping next to a forest garden area

Camping next to a forest garden area

Vegetables and herbs in abundance

Vegetables, flowers and herbs in abundance

A guided tour

A guided tour

Cucumbers in the polytunnel

Cucumbers in the polytunnel

Exploring the forest garden

Exploring the forest garden

Oh, there’s also a Karuna blog on WordPress here, and a Facebook group here

Water, water everywhere

We live near a town called Aberystwyth… it’s hit national headlines because it’s been rather wet there. After two days of unusually heavy rain the River Rheidol burst its banks, as did many other streams and rivers in north Ceredigion (we live in the south of the county). The rain on Friday was astonishing, and in combination with a high tide on Saturday, many business and homes were flooded and roads closed. I have friends who have been flooded despite living three miles up in the mountains – the water just came over the land as well as along the stream which they are well above in their house. So when you hear people say ‘what do you expect if you live on a floodplain’ then please remember that not everyone affected lives at sea level or very close to a river.

We have lived in the area for 25 years and have never seen anything like this; but then, there are reports suggesting that there may have been 10 inches of rain in 24 hours up in the mountains on Friday! Of course some of the worst affected areas are those at sea level, where there is also a tidal influence. And it is remarkably short-sighted to continue to build on floodplains. First because the risk of flooding is greater there and, second, because these areas have flooded historically, they have wonderfully fertile soil. Surely we should be using this brilliant natural resource to grow things… even if crops get inundated sometimes, people and their homes won’t.

But it’s not just about where we build houses and businesses, the problem with flooding is that it’s really caused by what’s upstream in the river catchment and how quickly water moves through the landscape. If the land is wooded, lots of rain is intercepted on its way down to the ground, so it is slowed in its journey to the surface and may even have the opportunity to evaporate and return to the air. All vegetation intercepts rainfall, but trees with leaves probably do it best because they have a big surface area. Not only that, but trees create deep permeable soils, with their roots penetrating the ground and lots of organic matter from their fallen leaves acting like a sponge. The more wooded the upper catchments of our rivers, the slower the water moves through them and the more buffering there is from flooding. The opposite is equally true – make the ground less permeable and water moves through it quickly, all arriving at the rivers in a very short time and resulting in flooding. So, roads and storm drains and buildings and concrete yards and patios and field drains all contribute to flooding by speeding up the movement of water through the landscape. Grassland is not as good at intercepting water as woodland, and shallow rooted plants are likely to be associated with less permeable soil than deep-rooted ones.

Whilst the latest flood could not have been avoided no matter what the land use in Ceredigion, it could have been reduced if we had more woodlands (especially in the uplands) and a generally more permeable landscape throughout the river catchments. And many of us can do something about this… if you have a garden, you could make sure that the ground is permeable  – so no more patios and paved driveways, consider gravel and grasscrete. Build up the organic matter in your garden – this will help to hold water and be an effective defence against both flood and drought. Install water butts, so that you catch as much of that precious commodity as you can when it’s plentiful and prevent it literally going down the drain. And, finally plant trees and shrubs to intercept the water, root deep into the soil to allow water to percolate down and provide shelter from sun and wind which will dry out your garden anyway.

-oOo-

There are some astonishing photos of the floods  on Keith Morris’ facebook page and more photos and a fascinating explanation of the weather that caused the flooding here.

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