Penallt Wildlife

The Wildlife of Penallt

In 1985 the Newsletter printed an article by Dr Stephanie Tyler, a parishioner who is now Conservation Officer for Wales for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and whose interesting background includes time spent in Ethiopia and work for the Gwent Wildlife Trust. We reproduce that article here.

Parishioners may be interested to know that the botanical Society of the British Isles, with the help of the County Trusts for Nature Conservation, is carrying out a survey this year of churchyards and the wildlife found in them. Churchyards with their trees, shrubs and grassy areas can be very rich in wildlife, whilst the gravestones themselves provide a marvellous habitat for encrusting lichens. Artificial fertilisers and herbicides have sometimes eliminated cowslips and other wild flowers and butterflies from pastures and meadows. Grassland areas in churchyards, which are generally untreated with chemicals, are therefore becoming an increasingly important reservoir for old meadow grasses, flowers and insects. Where the grass is left uncut until June or July, this will be of particular benefit to wildlife and enable ground-nesting birds to rear their broods in safety. The Gwent Trust is urging those responsible for maintaining churchyards to take nature conservation into account and not to be too ‘tidy-minded’. The odd bramble patch, area of scrub or some long grass is of great value to plants, birds, butterflies and small mammals such as voles and hedgehogs. Penallt Old Churchyard is full of wildlife interest. Snowdrops and then wild daffodils, sweet violets and other spring flowers abound early in the year. By late May, the lovely dusky cranesbill – a rare plant in Gwent- is in flower and the uncommon wood buttercup or goldilocks lines the path beneath the pollarded lime trees. Orange tips, green veined whites and other butterflies are common. Stock doves nest in the lych-gate roof and tree pipits, a summer migrant from Africa, nest in the long grass amongst the graves.

Earlier in 1981 we had written of the Gwent Wildlife Trust Barberry Woods Reserve and of the surveys made: An impressive number of mosses and ferns have been noted – and interesting initials found carved on trees! Badgers, foxes and the occasional fallow deer are resident. For those interested a list of 200 wild flowers in the Penallt area has been compiled. Tawny owls have brought up a family in the old hollow chestnut tree by the church. Species whose distribution is not very widespread include the dormouse, yellow-necked mouse and the glow-worm!

Dr Tyler has now written a most comprehensive and interesting article on the Wildlife of the parish:

Penallt boasts a rich mosaic of wildlife habitats with its ancient semi-natural broadleaved woodland and copses, recent conifer plantations, flower-rich pastures and meadows, old mixed hedges, road verges, ponds and streams and farmland.

Badger setts and fox earths abound in the woods and thick hedgebanks. Small numbers of fallow deer roam the woodland between the Old Church and the Redwern and across towards Whitebrook; amongst the smaller mammals we are fortunate to have dormice still living in the oak and hazel woods. A good bramble layer is a plus for this scarce rodent, whilst nest boxes afford safe hibernating sites for them. Two small predators, stoats and weasels are common, the former turning partially white in the winter. The weasel may sometimes be seen working the stone walls, slinking in and out of crevices in search of mice, voles or other prey, and has been observed using mole runs as underground pathways. The scarcer polecat is seen occasionally, and otters are known to pass by on the river. As they are usually active at night, these animals are seldom seen, but their footprints and scats give away their presence. Unfortunately, the alien mink is much more likely to be spotted. This creature, originally an escapee from fur farms has established feral colonies on our streams and rivers, where it decimates populations of moorhens and water voles. Like that other ‘foreigner’, the grey squirrel, it is sadly here to stay.

Bird life is tremendously rich. The various habitats support about seventy species of breeding birds with additional winter visitors and passage migrants.

The rookery in pines and oaks along the roadside near the Argoed provides plenty of interest in the spring with birds building nests and squabbling over sticks. Buzzards, sparrowhawks and kestrels are common diurnal birds of prey, whilst at night tawny and little owls will be seen, or more usually heard. Sadly, the rare barn owl is now seldom seen at Penallt.

It is the woodland birds that are best represented. Great spotted woodpeckers are frequent, and so noisy when feeding young. The laughing call or ‘yaffle’ of the green woodpecker is a familiar sound. This large, brightly coloured bird is as much at home in old pastures, on lawns or rockeries as in trees, for its favourite food is ants. Smaller in size is the lesser spotted woodpecker, which also breeds in Penallt, but it is inconspicuous and rarely noted. Various tits, nuthatches, tree creepers and the scarce hawfinch nest in woodland areas, but of particular note are two other hole-nesting birds – the redstart and pied flycatcher. Both are summer visitors only, and will breed in nest-boxes; redstarts usually nests in crevices in walls and the flycatcher prefers holes in trees. By the time the flycatchers arrive in the spring, the resident tits have generally occupied the best natural holes but the provision of nest-boxes enables pied flycatchers to find a suitable nest site. Barberry Wood, near the Old Church, recently became a Gwent wildlife Trust reserve and nest-boxes were erected there in 1978, since when a small population of these attractive flycatchers has become established. Prisk Wood, in the Lone Lane area, is also a reserve.

Away from the woods, the occasional pair of curlews or lapwings breed in fields along the top road to Monmouth. Sadly their numbers have declined as the wetter land where much of their food is found has been drained. The hedges dividing the fields on that road are excellent for yellow hammers, linnets, whitethroats and many other birds.

Although the conifer plantations are poor in wildlife by comparison with the native woods, the tall larches or spruce afford cover for nesting buzzards or sparrowhawks, and food for the tiny goldcrest and coal tits. When the conifers are felled, the clearings are favoured places for two birds which are usually only heard at dusk. The reeling of the grasshopper warbler and the strange churring of the nightjar, with occasional squeaks and wing claps are very much sounds of the night in large clearings in conifers near Penallt. On warm sunny evenings, the roding of the woodcock can be heard as it circles overhead, surveying its territory before nightfall.

Mention should be made of reptiles and amphibians, because the old stone walls in Lone Lane and elsewhere in the village are excellent sites to observe two lizards – the common lizard and the strange legless slow-worm, the latter snakelike but completely harmless. Grass snakes are not uncommon –empty egg-cases are often found in compost heaps –and if you are lucky, you may see a grass snake swimming in a pond after small frogs. Toads and frogs still occur in good numbers, although many toads are killed on roads in the spring en route to their breeding areas. In the summer they live alone, often choosing a damp recess in a stone wall to spend the day and emerging at night to feed on slugs and insects.

In May and early June, the large cockchafer or May bug makes itself conspicuous, crashing into lighted windows at night. There are too many other beetles to do justice to them in a short article; elsewhere, in more intensively farmed areas, herbicides and pesticides have taken their toll of insect life, but Penallt is certainly noteworthy for the diversity of insects and particularly butterflies that survive here. The unsprayed woodland edges and hedgerows and agriculturally unimproved flower-rich pastures and meadows, provide food plants for caterpillars, and nectar for adult butterflies. Orange-tips and brimstones abound in the spring; later, common and holly-blues, marbles whites, small coppers, meadow browns, wall butterflies, skippers, speckled woods, and the lovely silver washed fritillary haunt the glades and pastures. Rarer butterflies such as the white admiral still occur in the Wye Valley woods, whilst best loved and most known are the colourful small tortoiseshell, red admiral and peacock. Buddleias and sedums in gardens attract the adults of these welcome insects, but stinging nettle patches are vital for the caterpillars.

For the botanist, Penallt is a mini-paradise. The woods and hedgebanks in the spring are bright with bluebells, red campion, yellow archangel and white greater stitchwort. Wild daffodils, violets and early purple orchids grow in damp woods and by June, foxgloves and a host of other plants decorate the hedgerows. Amongst the specialities are clumps of the smaller nettle-leaved bellflower, patches of pink-flowered bistort, and on shady banks, tutsan with its yellow hypericum flowers. There is a clump too of green hellebore which flowers early in the year, but this is being squeezed out by the invasive patches of alien Japanese knotweed which are spreading down Lone Lane, and choking out more desirable native plants.

It is in the small unsprayed and unfertilised fields that the real gems are to be found. Pride of place must go to the green-veined orchid, a scarce spring-flowering plant found when the cowslips are at their best. By mid-June old hay meadows and damp pastures support such lovely plants as spotted orchids, quaking grass, knapweed, ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle, blue milkwort, ragged robin, meadow sweet, bedstraw, harebells and a host of other treasures. Many of these are to be found up at the Old Church when the grass is left uncut till late June or July and here, too, grows the scarce dusky cranesbill and the strange wood buttercup, with one or more of the usual five petals of most flowers reduced or absent.

Of many hundreds of different plants that grow at Penallt, few people can have failed to appreciate the wonderful ferns – from the lush clumps of hart’s tongue fern in shady, rocky woods, to the delicate maidenhair spleenwort, wall-rue spleenwort and polypodies on the old stone walls. On these walls several other plants flourish – the wall pennywort with its round succulent leaves and spikes of green flowers; clumps of shining cranesbill, the seeds of which are much sought after by bullfinches, alongside its close relative, herb Robert; and the lovely little trailing ivy-leaved toadflax.

All in all, Penallt has much to offer the naturalist. There is always more to be learned about the familiar plants, insects, birds and other wildlife, and it is always exciting to come across the unexpected – a new species, or good views of any animal going about its business undisturbed and unaware of your presence.

[from: Penallt – A Village Miscellany]