Nature Notes by Sarah Hawkes

Brilliant Small Farms… and tiny beasts

Our valley is about farming and farming has made it special. Small mixed livestock farms and market gardens have, down the generations, contributed to maintaining stable habitats for wildlife: Ancient hedgerows, woods, the river, streams and odd corners left for grazing but not fertilised and ‘improved’.

Without our farms the Ceiriog Valley would not be the little piece of sustainable heaven it is.

The great thing about small farms is that they’re good for the environment. They tend to grow a lot of their own feed for livestock, supply their own fertiliser, and use fewer chemicals.

Valley from Selattyn

You’ll have heard that soils are being eroded at a great rate by industrial farming techniques. Ceiriog Valley farmers are pretty in tune with what soil organisms like. Even walking on ‘improved’ grasslands I see sheep droppings full of tiny holes, showing dung beetles are hard at work! Over the course of a few days, beetles digest the dung completely, transforming it to valuable plant food.

Without tiny beasts we’d not have soils and plants. Pity the great monocultures of the plains where soil organisms are being pesticided and starved out of existence and soil structure is failing on a massive scale.

Exceptionally Special Wildlife

Hoverfly – Photography by Will Hawkes

Over the last few years, Will Hawkes and I have seen 15 of the 25 UK species of bumble bee in our valley. That is something special, but there’s more; we have tiny hoverflies, iridescent beetles and fabulous moths, each master of its own way of living supporting our myriad beautiful wildflower species. The amazing thing is that the Ceiriog Valley still has so many of those unique niches that other places have lost.

Take time to look and there are insects galore, each with their own job pollinating, clearing up, transforming, controlling pests… and they feed other animals. Our beautiful Hirondelles (swallows, swifts and martins) swooping around the summer skies, rely on farmers and gardeners to avoid current new generation pesticides (neonicotinoids and newer sulfoxamines) which destroy wildlife’s social order and break the cycles for their insect food.

Summer Sky and Ceiriog Valley – Artwork by Sarah Hawkes

‘Our’ swallows cross continents and different farming regimes to raise their young here on the great variety of summer insect life indescribably valuable as species counts fall worldwide. Then September comes and after a good Welsh breakfast, back they fly to Africa, hoping Africa can return them to us well fed and strong next year.

Less well known, but flying purposefully southwards each autumn with the swallows, are tiny marmalade hoverflies from Ceiriog Valley summer gardens and hedgerows where they keep busy pollinating our flowers and feeding their babies on aphids. More on these tiny migrants another time (or check the Ceiriog Valley Wildlife Facebook Page).

Finally, a wonderful way to help the planet and our valley is to buy and eat local food and support farmers who look after the Ceiriog Valley. McArdle’s Butchers in Chirk sells only properly local meat, Chirk Trout Farm offers tasty local trout, and ask Chirk greengrocer M.G Hughes about their selection of local produce.

Sarah Hawkes

Sarah has lived in the Ceiriog Valley for 18 years where she raised her two boys “with the help of Ysgol Pontfadog and Ysgol Dinas Bran”. Originally from Somerset, Sarah worked at London Zoo before tackling frog and bat protection projects in the UK, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. She is a hugely talented painter of nature.

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