Llanelli Naturalists Newsletter - April 2001 - No 5
As a few years have now passed since the publication in 1997, of Andrew Lucas’ book ‘Mammals in Carmarthenshire’ and since also in that book he had expressed his intention to provide an annual update for the Llanelli Naturalists, it seems appropriate at the present time to present an overview of recent developments in our knowledge of the county’s mammalian fauna. Andrew’s book performs a valuable service in providing us with a baseline to which future findings can be related and which can suggest areas for further research. Inevitably there have been far greater developments in respect of some species compared with others and these are very often the result of positive targeted work rather than merely the receipt of fresh observations by the mammal recorder. Probably few developments would take place if the recorder relied solely on the submission of records as these are quite sparse and generally come from a few dedicated and methodical observers, though there are occasionally new contributors, perhaps motivated by an article in the press, such as can be found in Denys Smith’s ‘Nature Notes’ published in some of our local weeklies.
It should not be surprising then that this article focuses on a few species only, and anyway it would make tedious reading to treat every species one by one especially if there is little to say. The species so emphasized are largely those on which a fair amount of work has been done, and continues to be done, and which are often species highlighted by the Biodiversity Action Plan process operating at a national and local level. The formation of the Carmarthenshire LBAP Partnership and the production of LBAPs are developments that have begun since the appearance of Andrew’s book and have exciting potential in drawing together all interested parties to seek ways of conserving both habitats and species which are of local or national importance. The mammalian species which are given priority status by the BAP process at both a national and local Carmarthenshire level are: water vole, brown hare, otter, dormouse, pipistrelle, greater horseshoe bat, other bats, red squirrel and pine marten.
The last of these, the Pine Marten Martes martes is perhaps the most elusive - and glamorous. As Andrew has stated in his book, work began seriously on this animal in the county in 1995 when the Vincent Wildlife Trust commenced intensive survey work (coupled with publicity) in the large blocks of coniferous forest at Brechfa and Crychan where there had already been reliable sightings. Up until 1996 the work of John Messenger and Johnny Birks had produced 35 records with a ‘confidence score’ of 5 or over (out of 10) and a total (including historical / literature records) of 51 for the county plus a small part of Brecknock.
Of these, seventeen related to Brechfa and Crychan forests and mostly involved evidence in the form of scats or droppings. Survey work continued in these forests and a key figure here and one to whom I am indebted for the following information has been Tony Braithwaite. From 17 June 1997 to the present day he has continued to survey within Brechfa Forest, looking primarily for scats. He found two certain marten scats and three more doubtful ones in the first year. Since then he has carried on but incorporating also another survey technique: the laying out of a scat line using fresh droppings produced by captive martens. This has been done in the hope that a wild marten would ‘counter mark’ next to these scats. This has not really worked out but Tony’s persistence in the face of what must have been considerable discouragement eventually brought its reward when on 25 May 1999 he actually saw a pine marten in the western part of Brechfa Forest. This was but one of a number of sightings in this area. One was seen about a hundred metres from Tony’s site in March 1998 by Mrs Lloyd Rogers who is accustomed to riding her horse in this part of the forest. A scat had also been found nearby by Tony in November 1997 and c.1km. away, in 1994, by Rob McDonald, carrying out survey work for Paul Bright (CCW contract ). Steve Pocock had seen a marten about 1100 metres distant in September 1997.
The animal that Tony saw was a male in early summer coat: it could have been the same animal that left extensive claw marks going for a distance of three metres up a dead tree that had fallen against a cliff which Tony had found earlier on and which had encouraged the setting up of a baiting station nearby using a device to collect hairs in front of 6 x 15 inch square tubes baited with scats from a female marten. A scat was in fact found about 15 metres away from the baiting station, but against all expectation and after DNA tests had been carried out it was found to be a polecat’s. However the footprints that Johnny Birks had discovered in the same area were confidently assigned to a marten and seemed to belong to a male. After trying to keep tabs on the animal in this way for a period of two months or so the trail went cold. However, Mrs Lloyd Rogers has again had the good fortune to see pine martens in the same area while riding her horse: two animals were seen rolling around together on the ground on 15 May 2000, the difference in size indicating a pair. The same observer had another sighting of a singleton this time on 19 May 2000. On the following day (20th May) Tony visited the site again and found a line of footprints in the mud, which he recorded on video. This part of Brechfa Forest does seem to be of genuine importance to martens: there have been at least two other reliable sightings in the vicinity of Afon Pib and Brechfa village: both were recorded by different observers at around the same time as Tony’s marten, in April and late May/early June 1999 and were seen at a close distance - one of them in an oak tree apparently being mobbed by crows.
Pine martens were also being recorded in Crychan Forest at this time. At Cwmdyfnant SN905430 (actually in Brecknock) on 1 April 1999, three farm workers including Brian Jones saw their dog chase a marten into a tree where it stayed watching them for about three minutes or so. Brian gave a good description including details of a yellow-white throat patch and a 11” bushy tail. On 1 September 1999 Tony, accompanying Chris Strachan who was carrying out transect surveys for VWT, discovered a possible scat (which was too dry for further DNA analysis) and a footprint in this same area just inside Brecknock and where unfortunately a large part of the forest is being clear felled. A pine marten has also been observed by Forest Enterprise ranger John Dodd near Esgair Berfedd (SN8437) in the Carmarthenshire part of Crychan on 18th October1999 and quite near the spot where one had been seen earlier in 1993. He saw it early in the morning sunning itself in a larch tree by the side of a track.
These observations have stimulated yet further attempts to get to grips with the animal. VWT put up 10 nest boxes designed for martens in Crychan and the same number in Brechfa together with temperature probes and data loggers to determine if anything has visited them. Aside from this comparatively intense activity in these two ‘core’ areas, there have been records from other parts of the county and these are most interesting when they occur in clusters and over a period of time.
In Nantgaredig (SN4920) John Hodgson reported a sighting in 1996. In January 1997, former gamekeeper Malcolm Bessent observed a marten near Golden Grove, Llandeilo, which crossed from one tree to another, his pointer having pointed it out. Then there are records from the B4300 at Nantgaredig by Mrs Susan Morgan-Jones where she saw one crossing on two occasions about 6 weeks apart in Autumn 1998. She had good views of an apricot bib and had in any case previous experience of working with captive martens. Also in autumn 1998 one was seen by John James who had been contracted by Welsh Water to mow the grass at the pumping station also at Nantgaredig: this prompted the erection of 10 more boxes (made by John) courtesy of Welsh Water in the woodland around the site. Finally nearby at Dryslwyn on the B4300 a pine marten apparently ran down a tree after a commotion and into the road where it was hit by a car (6 February 1999): this was seen by a woman from North Wales who was on holiday and walking along the road. Unfortunately, Tony Braithwaite could not find the corpse in a subsequent search which took place three weeks later. This seems to be the last record for that area and it could be that it was the one animal that was responsible for all sightings.
There have been clusters of both sightings and scats in other places such as Pembrey Forest and the Bethlehem/Trap area. It seems there is a chance that the pine marten could turn up almost anywhere and not necessarily only in large coniferous tracts with which it has been perhaps too closely associated. There is currently a vigorous debate about the proposal to reintroduce the pine marten to parts of England and Wales. Normally re-introductions are only considered in areas where the animal has become extinct and as this brief summary has shown this is far from being the case, at least in Carmarthenshire.
Staying in the same area of large and exciting carnivores the closely related Otter Lutra lutra continues to be reported regularly and in increasing numbers and by a lamentably more common type of record: the road casualty. It is thought that the number of road casualties (nearly always fatalities) has increased about 10-fold in Wales since the 1980s. Horrific as this is, it does serve as an index of the rate of recovery of this magnificent animal since the lean times of the 1970s. Perhaps together with the near parallel recoveries of Peregrine and Red Kite this ranks as one of the best things that has happened as far as Welsh wildlife is concerned. Most records of the animal are in the form of spraints and these have been found on nearly every river of note in the county as well as along streams and ditches which are too insignificant to be named or indeed indicated on even large-scale maps. However, these records can give a misleading impression in that one otter can leave many signs and occupy a large home range, and single animals also probably leave many spraints as they explore or disperse through the wider landscape. Sightings of otters become more and more frequent and today a reasonable percentage of the human population of Llandeilo, for instance, has probably seen an otter on the river. Given a certain amount of patience and persistence anyone is quite likely sooner or later to get a glimpse of the animal on the Tywi, which has both a good population and, due to the open uncluttered character of the landscape, gives good scope for observation. Breakfast time seems to be quite productive when it comes to looking for otters!
Otters are commonly associated in people’s minds with marine or coastal habitats due to the extensive television coverage of animals in the Shetland Isles etc., but there has not been much information about them being found along the Carmarthenshire coast. Otters certainly use the tidal reaches of the Tywi and tracks have been found in saltmarsh mud occasionally leading to large holes which are often found in this habitat but which are, because of their location in the tidal zone, presumably used on a very temporary basis! A well-used otter highway was found in October 1999 going over the seawall and down onto the saltmarsh where the Swan Pool Drain drains into Kidwelly marsh. Otters are usually found on low-lying rocky shores, so it came as a considerable surprise to find fresh spraint in two of the sea caves at Wharley Point (14th Jan.1999), also bearing in mind the need for otters to be near sources of fresh water.
Few animals are more explorative than the otter and they are, for instance, very quick to find ponds and lakes that have been excavated for landscape or conservation purposes: they chiefly use these sites in late winter/early spring when frogs and toads are spawning – and tell-tale signs – eg amphibian skins and spraints are found along the edge. If one wishes to encourage otters, then the banks of these ponds, especially if associated with a stream, would be worthwhile places in which to construct log pile holts. If well made and well sited these constructions are readily taken to by otters. Geoff Liles and Louise Midgley have made a study of a sample of fifty log pile holts in Wales, in catchments where there were known to be healthy populations. No less that 60% were found to have been used by otters and a high percentage of these (at least 50%) contained bedding. However, as yet there is no evidence that the use of bedding material is equated with natal dens and so there is no firm proof that any have been used for breeding, and even finding juvenile hairs in the bedding would not in itself prove that the young had actually been born there. One such holt constructed at Ffairfach, under the Tir Cymen Scheme, by the writer in the winter of 1994, was examined by Louise in 1998, and a substantial couch in an excavated depression containing otter hair (and ticks!) was found in one chamber and a pile of spraint in another. The holt was reconstructed but unfortunately, soon after was swept away by the too dynamic stream against which it had been placed.
As numbers of otters increase, so do records of daytime sightings. As the animal is no longer hunted perhaps it may become bolder. An otter was seen in summer sunshine on the Tywi near Llandeilo in August 1998 and a day or two later a family party was seen on sunny afternoons over two days near Llanegwad by Candace Browne and the writer. Another family of four (probably a mother with three cubs) was seen by the writer the next year on 28 September 1999 following a ditch leading off the river at Ffairfach at 4.15 in the afternoon. On 27 April 2000, a probably young animal was actually seen from the house (on the Bethlehem road at Ffairfach) porpoising up the Tywi at 2 o’clock in the afternoon: it was likely to be the same animal seen at the same spot from the same window, this time travelling downstream, at 8.00 am the following morning! However, apart from these and a few other instances, most daytime sightings tend still to be in the winter months when there are less people about.
Finding an otter killed on the road is upsetting enough but when it is found to be a lactating female, then there is even more cause for concern. One such was found in the middle of March 2000 near Taliaris, but it was more than seven days later when a cub was recovered and taken to a fairly recently established centre near Brecon for rehabilitation: its less fortunate sibling was found later – dead. This cub was named “Laurel” and was about four months old (weighing 2lb. 7oz.) so was able to take solid food immediately. It was penned with another young otter and they settled down together after a very short space of time, playing tug-of-war with a fish, etc. It stayed here from March 15th to 28th when it was taken by Geoff Liles to a further rehabilitation centre in the New Forest. It is hoped that ultimately it will be reintroduced to its natal river. The centre in Brecon has received ten young otters over the past three and a half years or so, four of them last winter. Anyone finding a young otter should try to make sure that it has been genuinely abandoned before “rescuing” it: mothers and cubs commonly become separated for short periods of time in the natural course of things. If the cub is thought to be abandoned, for instance, it is still calling in the same place the following day, then the first step should be to contact RSPCA. (Gareth and Jane Jones, pers. comm.).
Some authorities, e.g. David McDonald, consider that the increase in otter numbers is linked to a decrease in the number of Mink Mustela vison. It is generally accepted that the numbers of mink have declined substantially over recent years evidenced by fewer tracks and other signs being seen, and animals themselves being seen less often: naturalists, anglers and Environment Agency water bailiffs all concurring in this view. As well as in South and West Wales, the decline has also been observed in the South-west and North-west of England. The losses could also be due to disease or the unsustainable number that the population had reached. They are still said to be common in North Wales (Geoff Liles, pers. comm.).
A decline in the numbers of mink is unlikely to be mourned, especially by the Water Vole Arvicola terrestris whose catastrophic collapse nationally is partly attributed to this species. Decline has been particularly noticeable in the middle sections of river catchments, which mink seem to favour most. In Wales, water voles appear to have ‘retreated’ to headwater areas or coastal levels and marshes.
Substantial research has been directed to the water vole in the county over the past 5 or 6 years and there are significant changes to record since Andrew’s account. Interest in the water vole was perhaps stimulated by the population in the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Centre at Penclacwydd, Llanelli, where the writer, Jan Crowden and the then Wildlife Trust’s Reserves Officer, Liz Flood, went to educate themselves in 1994 looking at the abundant signs left by the animals in and around the reserve. Soon afterwards Louise Midgley began a study of water voles at this site, which later included the recolonisation of the area that has been excavated and modified to form the new Millennium Wetlands extension of the reserve, also known as the Swannery. In the event, water voles were very quick to reclaim the area (coming in from the outside) and take advantage of the new pools and banks that had been created. This process still continues and the writer enjoyed some close views of a water vole swimming around in a pool on a sunny March 7, 2000, and also the sight of many burrows that had been excavated. Research into the water vole is currently being continued at Penclacwydd by Dan Foreman and others.
In the spring of 1997, Louise, with Rob Strachan, ran a training day at Penclacwydd. Walking there from the station, the writer was pleased to observe numerous signs along ditches to the northeast of the Centre between Bynea and Berwick Roundabout. Though not a new site, nothing had been recorded in writing. This area has subsequently proved to be extremely good for water voles. During survey work undertaken for the Environment Agency by the writer and Candace Browne in 1999 (Matthew, 2000), no fewer than 67 latrines were found in a 150 metre section of one of these ditches. This represented a very high level of activity, the writer later discovering signs (latrines, feeding remains, burrows, etc) throughout the area between Trostre Works and Loughor Bridge. Water voles were found to be using a variety of habitats ranging from rich environments such as reedbeds to quite minor roadside ditches containing very little water. The use of sub-optimal habitat suggested pressure on the population, with animals forced out into these poorer areas. This can be explained in two ways, perhaps acting together – an increasing population on the one hand contending with, on the other hand, habitat losses resulting from the substantial amount of new development of roads, etc. in the area. Some survey work in the Llanelli area was continued in 2000. Though more still remains to be done, things look encouraging with signs of water vole being found in about nine 1km squares so far.
Andrew was right to draw attention to the Afon Dafen or New Dafen River where water voles were recorded in the 1980s. They are still there and seemingly in quite large numbers. It could even be (though details of hydrology in the area need to be fully understood) that this is, together with its sister the Dafen Pill, the principal watercourse or chief lifeline for the water vole. From these two watercourses the water vole can in theory disperse through virtually the whole area. However, there is, of course, intense pressure, in this locality, on the ‘natural’ environment from urban industrial, residential and other development and many of the watercourses are culverted for considerable distances (underneath roads and railways etc). It is not known as yet to what extent these subterranean sections act as obstacles to the passage of water voles and hence the potential of such structures for isolating populations.
It was found that where there was suitable habitat eg reedbeds or wet rushy fields, the water vole could stray quite far from water courses: latrines (of adult and juvenile voles) were found over 30 metres from the nearest ditch. The presence of such habitats could well partly explain why the water vole is doing so well here and underlines the fact that they should not be confined merely to linear watercourses where they are more vulnerable to predation. For these reasons, any further loss of wetland habitat should be resisted.
It is interesting that the water vole seems to be doing well in a built up area (the same has been noted in other parts of the UK) and the animal could be promoted as a flagship species for the urban wildlife conservation movement. It is certainly a jewel in the crown for Llanelli’s wildlife even though other exciting species occur in the area, such as otter, dormouse and greater horseshoe bat. The Llanelli area could well harbour the strongest population of water vole in West Wales.
Water vole surveys in 1999 for EA Wales also took in the grazing marshes and wetland habitats between Laugharne and Pendine. Here water voles were discovered using the ditches intersecting the grazed pastures. Here they were confined to the linear habitats and seemed to be concentrated in a ditch network at a distance from the main water carrier, the Railsgate Pill, perhaps partly due to the greater fluctuation of water levels in this stream combined with the disturbances caused by management operations. The survey was able, to some extent, highlight preferences shown by the vole and hence revealed ways in which the population could be bolstered by sympathetic and achievable management. For although widespread, and found in ten 1km squares, judging from the number of burrows and latrines, vole numbers seemed low. Only 57 latrines were found which can be compared with the 67 found in just 150 metre stretch of water at Berwick roundabout! One very puzzling feature of this survey was the paucity of signs within the MOD range at Pendine (DERA) where, because of the richness of the wetland habitats, one would have expected water voles to be more numerous. Only a woven nest and the odd burrow was found and subsequent visits have failed to yield much more – although there are physical difficulties in surveying this extensive wetland site. This rural area and its water voles, makes an interesting comparison with the situation found in Llanelli.
The third lowland survey to be carried out in 1999 encompassed the lower reaches of the Gwendraeth Fawr and tributary streams such as the Swan Pool Drain and associated wetland habitat near Pembrey including Bevan’s Pond, Ffrwd Fen, etc. Here, although good habitat seemed to be present, disappointingly, no evidence of the water vole could be found. It was last recorded in 1994 by Louise Midgley in a ditch close to Ffrwd Fen but she could not find it there the following year. It is painful when the realities of a national statistic - 94% decline in numbers predicted by year 2000 (e.g. Driver 1998) are brought home by the evidence of a local extinction.
Louise Midgley has extended her research into upland areas of mid-Wales and Snowdonia where she has found more apparently flourishing populations in forested areas, which significantly are fenced off from livestock. Little is known about the fate of the water vole in the upland parts of Carmarthenshire, where on the basis of looking at maps, there seems to be little that can compare with the habitats found in Snowdonia. On the ground the writer has only found evidence of probably extinct colonies (abandoned holes) along upland streams – actually just in Brecknock . One of these sites was found along the River Tywi above Llyn Brianne, about 2 years ago, where the river, for a small section, flows quite slowly through a forested area. Similar observations were made along Nant Cerdin, a tributary of the Irfon, also in Brecknock. Burrows were found but no active signs such as feeding remains could be discovered then or on subsequent visits. A mile or two further up the Tywi the characteristic incisors of the water vole were found on the bank, next to a kestrel pellet. It is certainly possible that the occasional populations may survive in the uplands and there is a recent record (16/5/99) from Geoff Williams of an animal seen on a streamside on the south side of Mynydd Llanybydder but there has not yet been time to investigate this site further. The outlook for such small isolated populations is however fairly bleak. The site where Louise recorded the animal near Harford (included on Andrew’s map) now no longer holds them. There was also apparently a population on the southern slope of Mynydd Du near Rhosaman but it is doubtful whether this remains extant. Low lying coastal areas are likely to be where any new populations are still to be found.
Mirroring in reverse the retreat of water voles to coastal areas is the withdrawal to upland areas on the part of the Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris in Carmarthenshire. A desktop study and collation of records undertaken for the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) in 1999 (Matthew and Bevan, 2000) showed quite graphically the shrinkage in distribution that has occurred in Carmarthenshire and elsewhere between the 1980s and 1990s (also shown in Andrew’s distribution map of the species). However, the number of records went up from 56 for the 1980s to 62 for the 1990s. In contrast to the general rule, a picture of the distribution of this species is entirely dependent on records submitted by others (very often forestry workers or members of the public seeing animals crossing the road while travelling in their cars). The red squirrel, especially where it occurs in low numbers, is extremely difficult to actively search for as it leaves no definitely characteristic signs as its dreys and feeding remains in the form of stripped cones are not safely distinguishable from those of greys’.
Recent surveys have served to endorse Andrew’s statement about the remaining core areas being the large forests of Crychan, Tywi and Brechfa and supports his somewhat gloomy forebodings about its future. One population that had not come to light before Andrew wrote his book is the one that has been reported in the 1990s from woods to the north of Carmarthen, roughly from Alltwalis to high ground to the south west of Drefach Felindre. This came as quite a surprise and was previously only really known to those working in the forestry industry. It is impossible to make any statement as to its health or any predictions about its future. Geographically it can be supposed to be connected to Brechfa Forest. There are indications of retreat within Brechfa Forest itself (16 records in the 1980s and 10 in the 1990s) to areas at its northern, eastern and western ends. The animal is obviously influenced by the large scale fellings that are taking place at the present time. In Crychan Forest, observations tend to be clustered around two separate locations – around Esgair Berfedd (an area that has had a high percentage of Norway Spruce planted, a favourite tree of the red squirrel) and around the Sugar Loaf (SN8342) where a number of people including Jamie Bevan (on 6/1/98) have been lucky enough to see it in the vicinity of the picnic site – or perhaps even more often crossing the main road to Builth Wells. There are plans for further surveys in Carmarthenshire and neighbouring Brecknock, making use of hair tubes in which the identifiable hairs of the red squirrel are left behind.
The problems that the red squirrel faces are nearly entirely due to competition from its American cousins. Conservation effort should focus on any competitive advantage that the red squirrel might possess, and one may possibly be an ability to survive (rather than flourish) in poor habitat such as Sitka plantations (many of the recent records of the animal have come from poor, less diverse plantations). Otherwise well-intentioned efforts to diversify habitat by planting additional species could tip the balance in favour of the grey squirrel. This is almost certain in the case of large seed bearing hardwood species and may or may not be the case with coniferous species (eg Scots pine is another favourite tree of the red squirrel, but perhaps from evidence given by the huge quantities of stripped pine cones at Crychan Forest it is also greedily devoured by the grey!). To prevent access to a plantation by greys is not a realistic option as with or without connecting broadleaved corridors they are almost certain to arrive being quite capable of dispersing over open ground.
For the Dormouse Muscardinus avellanarius the outlook seems rosier. The dormouse has continued to be recorded at new locations since the publication of ‘Mammals in Carmarthenshire’. Most of these have again occurred within the triangular ‘stronghold’ formed by Carmarthen, Llanelli and Llandeilo. Jan Crowden has found it to be present in a number of copses, woods and hedgerows in the environs of the National Botanic Garden of Wales at Middleton Hall. A number of nestboxes have been put up and the Garden has carried out some conservation work such as the creation of a new hedgerow to link woodlands holding dormice. Jan has also found the tell-tale chewed hazel nuts at Nantycaws, Carmarthen, in riverside scrub and woodland at Cwmgwili (SN5710) and in woodland and hedgerows at a farm near Carway where it is also hoped to erect more boxes. The main area of Jan’s researches has however continued to be in the Llwyn-teg (Llannon) area with signs being found in over 5 x 1km squares – again in hedgerows and copses as well as woodlands. The nestboxes which she has erected in this area have proved to be productive. Boxes adjacent to the Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Rhos Cefn Bryn have been used for breeding in every year since 1995, culminating in the production, in August 2000, of 8 young, by the second female to breed in these boxes. Seven young were found in a nestbox at nearby Cwm in 1997 and they appear to have been born in late August/early September. High numbers of young must be a good reflection on the nature of the habitat, the weather itself not too favourable and in some years causing young to be born later. Even when born late, young seem to be able to put on sufficient weight before the commencement of hibernation.
This breeding success helps to corroborate the model of dormouse distribution in the county formed in the writer’s head over the past few years. This model regards ancient woodland predominantly along river valleys and mostly in the south east of the county as being the traditional ‘core’ areas of the animal enabling dispersal to younger smaller woodlands, scrub, hedgerows etc. Since the time that traditional woodland management has largely ceased, these latter habitats have become more productive and diverse in terms of the flowers and fruits required by the dormouse, whereas in large mature undisturbed woodland the environment has become more uniform due to competitive processes leading to the domination of one or two species and the suppression of the productive understorey and field layers. While in some areas (but evidently not Rhos Cefn Bryn!) dormice are vulnerable and can disappear, these same areas can be re-established or re-occupied at a later date, as animals again disperse through the all important hedgerow/treeline network. It should be noted that no dormouse site in the county has been found further than 1 km from ancient woodland. There have been signs of comings and goings in this way at various locations eg Llwyn-teg, Middleton Hall, the area of Tregib Wood near Llandeilo, etc. These movements around an area are undertaken not by individual animals, which, in order to acquire an intimate knowledge of their environment tend to be sedentary, but by generations which die out in some places and colonize others. This is a classic example of ‘metapopulation’ dynamics and it is interesting that the dormouse is often found in the coalfield area in company with a totally unrelated species with the same dynamics – the marsh fritillary butterfly.
It is pleasing that apart from an infilling in the main area, records have come from well outside – to the north and east: and these too don’t explode completely the writer’s theories! Dormouse nuts were found in Autumn 1998 by Candace Browne and the writer whilst carrying out river habitat surveys along the Gwydderig at Halfway, virtually on the border with Brecknock (SN828328). The writer later in March 1999 went on to find signs in Crychan Forest, gratifyingly while carrying out field work for Paul Bright’s dormouse survey of Wales, including some nuts found near the 250 metre contour, equal to the previous county altitude record in the foothills of Mynydd Du and the Sawdde catchment. It is interesting that the Crychan supports other sun-loving, rain-hating ‘southern’ species such as the nightjar and the dingy skipper butterfly, for instance. Whether this is because it has a well drained substrate or whether it may be in a rainshadow area or a combination of both is not clear. It could be that there is a good population occupying woods and hedgerows between these two locations – they are likely to be connected to populations found in Brecknock.
There have still been few records from the north and west of the Tywi, with observations like the occupied nest in a compost heap at Llansadwrn and reports of dormice at Hafod Bridge nearby, being rare. The Tywi presents no barrier to dormice north of Llandovery but it does seem to be effective in restricting dormouse distribution in the west. An unexpected finding has been of dormouse signs at the eastern and western ends of Brechfa Forest especially as the area had been searched quite thoroughly before! Dai Jermyn, the surveyor responsible, has been carrying out the fieldwork for a Wales-wide survey organized by the Vincent Wildlife Trust over three winters or so from 1997. He has found dormice at other sites in the north of the county but like everyone else has found nothing in the west. The methodology employed in the VWT survey was to search up to 10 sites (in ancient woodland) per 10 km square until the first dormice signs were found. Approximately 250 sites were surveyed in this way in the county with 1700 in Wales as a whole. Almost half the dormouse records involved ancient replanted woodland (i.e. coniferous sites) and the other half in ancient semi-natural woodland.
When carrying out dormouse surveys, the surveyor soon develops a ‘search image’ and an instinct about which woods, hedgerows or scrub are likely to contain dormice if in a known area. A recent example of this was when in October this year the writer while looking for marsh fritillaries in the Gorslas - Llyn Llech Owain area, investigated a promising hedge and was soon rewarded by finding freshly opened nuts. This hedgerow was connected to a steep valley woodland nearby which also contained dormice as did another area of scrub a kilometre away. The Dormouse Survey of Wales organized by Paul Bright for CCW and People’s Trust for Endangered Species was designed to avoid bias. Woodland of different age and size classes in different landscape types was sampled. The writer helped to carry out the fieldwork in south and west Wales in the early part of 1999. One hundred and one woodlands were visited in four counties and in only seven were signs of dormice found. The survey, if nothing else, served to underline the important fact, which can be forgotten as the number of records grows, that the dormouse is genuinely rare. Even in known areas it is very patchily distributed.
A shortcoming of all the above surveys is that they are based on finding evidence in the form of freshly opened hazel nuts, so they are of no value in woods and hedgerows which do not contain hazel and are of limited value where the hazelnut crop is poor - and in many woods hazel has been shaded out by the canopy species. The first national Mammal Society Dormouse Survey 1975 to 1979 organised by Elaine Hurrell and Gillian McIntosh (Hurrell and McIntosh, 1984) relied on a variety of evidence including, apart from opened hazelnuts, woven nests, which provided nearly a half of the records. As these are often found in bramble it underlined the importance of this species as well as hazel.
The writer has only once found a dormouse nest in an unexpected locality. This was in very much non-dormouse looking habitat in a short section of untrimmed roadside hedge in a trimmed hedge/grazed pasture landscape at Gwynfe SN703214 in April 1998. However, it was noted that there were arboreal connections to a tree-lined valley which is part of the Sawdde catchment, a known dormouse area. Other nests found by the writer have usually been in bramble, but also in honeysuckle, a larch tree, a privet hedge and an old bird’s nest. Recent work has shown the importance of scrub and bramble for dormice (eg Eden, 1999) and it may be profitable to look at similar habitats in this county. An interesting live sighting occurred in June or July 2000 in the Nantycaws area when an animal was seen motionless on a branch as brambles were being weeded away from newly planted trees: it showed no resistance when handled gently. Dormice are known to ‘freeze’ when they feel threatened: it had probably been disturbed from its nest in the brambles.
Ian Morgan reports that Mr. Oswin Thomas of Trimsaran used to find dormouse nests in his youth – and they are still found in this locality today. Interestingly, Mr. Thomas gives another indication of the animal’s erstwhile ‘commonness’ by citing the local Welsh name of ‘barthodyn’ (pl. barthod), the general name being ‘pathew’ with a local East Carmarthenshire / Glamorgan alternative of ‘bathor’.
Another mammal that has seemingly retreated to upland areas, away from intensively farmed lowland areas is the Brown Hare Lepus europaeus. The retreat may have taken place at a time later than that given for the Tywi Valley by Andrew where “they all but disappeared in the early 1970s”. In fact the writer and others occasionally saw the hare at a few places in the Tywi floodplain, including Castle Woods, Llandeilo, in the 1980s. The best place did appear to be Dryslwyn and the writer observed a hunt with a beagle pack in operation here in 1986. The last hare the writer saw in the Tywi Valley was observed from the top of Dryslwyn Castle about 10 years ago. It was a rather symbolic picture with the silhouette of a hare in the last light of a winter’s day hopping forlornly to and fro on a little piece of land isolated by the winter floods. It refused to take the plunge during the period of observation and while the light lasted.
The disappearance from the Tywi Valley should be seen as a retreat from intensive pastoral farming with up to three silage cuts being taken a year from the best land. The hare is still seen quite regularly in low-lying country near the coast where there are unimproved grasslands and less intensive agriculture. They are regularly seen in Pembrey Burrows and in Pembrey Forest. For instance Ian Morgan saw hares in both places in May 1998 and Mr. Oswin Thomas noted one near Ty Newydd on Mynydd Penbre in 1998. Ian also saw two on Pendine Marshes north west of Witchett Pool, also in May 1998. There are recent records from Broad Oak and from the Cothi Valley near Brechfa (Julian Friese 15/4/97) and Tony Braithwaite reports hares at Cynghordy and at Crugybar, both in June 1998 and in the Twrch valley near Ffarmers in October of the same year. David Foot saw one on two occasions in June 1997 at Taliaris. Two more hares were seen by CCW’s Tir Gofal staff in the Cothi Valley in May 2000. Hares are also commonly sighted at Cae Blaen Dyffryn, an SSSI between Harford and Cwmann, for instance by David Foot in June 1998, and are also seen quite regularly in the Trap-Bethlehem-Gwynfe area. They may use woodland sites more than is commonly realized. A hare was flushed from its form close to the edge of a wood near Bethlehem on 1st March 2000 by the writer who later found, on 23rd Nov, a form with no hare but droppings in rank grassland abutting Mynydd Cynros near Cwmdu and Talley, the sort of ffridd habitat with which the species is now commonly associated in the county.
The hare then still seems widely but sparsely spread across Carmarthenshire with, as for most species, few records from the west, but they rarely seem to occur in numbers higher than two: larger groups seem to occur elsewhere, in areas of arable or mixed farming, practices rarely met with in Carmarthenshire. One hopes that this is a species that could benefit from agri-environmental schemes, such as Tir Gofal, under which unimproved Molinia grassland is conserved.
There is not much to report on bats since Andrew’s book came out and little intensive survey work has been undertaken, although a few people contribute to the National Bat Monitoring Programme of the Bat Conservation Trust. Tom McOwat reports that the Greater Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus ferrumequinum is regaining its numbers and reoccupying some of the former sites left vacant over the past few years. The species does not have a large presence in the county, however, and many of these sites are caves and similar sites that are used by single males through the summer and autumn as well as for winter hibernation, and which are visited by females for mating. Some individuals have been noted that have undertaken journeys from Kidwelly to one of the main nursery roosts at Stackpole in Pembrokeshire. If there is a nursery colony outside Pembrokeshire it is perhaps more likely to be on Gower than in Carmarthenshire.
The diminutive Lesser Horseshoe Rhinolophus hipposideros is really only found wintering in small numbers in caves in the western part of the county (at about three sites). This species often remains active through the winter as a consequence of the mild weather of South-west Wales. There is just a chance there could be a colony somewhere in the county.
Hibernation is just one of a variety of uses to which underground sites are put by bats of all species. As well as night roosts in the summer these sites are also the scene of “swarming” behaviour in late summer and autumn when a lot of the mating activity takes place. Harp trapping at the entrances can show the species that are involved. At Greenbridge cave (SN220091) Tom picked up what was almost certainly a Leisler’s bat Nyctalus leisleri on his detector. This is a species that has not been recorded in the county previously. Also while using a harp trap at Herbert’s Quarry (SN7318) about two years ago, Tom recorded Nathusius’s Pipistrelle Pipistrellus nathusii, a species which is known to use caves, unlike its more familiar British cousins. Both these species are further characterized by their producing sounds from a perch (T. McOwat, pers. comm.).
Hibernation is not profound, leastways in the case of the Pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus & P. pygmaeus . A pipistrelle took up residence behind a fascia board at the writer’s home in the winter of 1998. It often left its perch to go hunting or to take up some other abode. Its absences would last for from a few hours to a week or so and it would also stay for a week without moving. As winters tend to be mild and seem to be getting milder it is often worthwhile for a bat to wake up and go foraging for gnats etc.
There have been reports of large breeding colonies (of around 1000) of Pipistrelles but these haven’t been investigated yet: it could be that more than one colony is involved at these sites. At the moment the Llangunnor roost mentioned by Andrew is still the record holder with 523 but hopefully this record will be broken in time. A good rule for distinguishing between the two pipistrelle species, apart from the differences in their ultrasound ranges, is the preference shown by the species ‘broadcasting’ at the higher frequency to gather in larger maternity colonies. A problem could occur if the other “45khz” species becomes undervalued or under-recorded because of its smaller colony size.
A difficulty in counting bats was demonstrated in 1999, when the annual count of the colony of Natterer’s Bat Myotis nattereri at Derwydd was undertaken on 13th July. An astonishing total of 395 had emerged by half past ten whereas previous counts have usually been in the region of 170 – 200. Although the count was later in the year than normal it seemed too early for young bats to have joined their parents on evening forays. Peter Smith who has made a study of the species considered it unlikely that the colony had been joined by another which was an alternative explanation: also unlikely was the idea that the colony had experienced an overwhelming reproductive success the previous summer! Numbers counted in 2000 were back to normal at 195. Looking back over our records it seems that the Brown Long-eared Bat Plecotus auritus colony which also uses the mansion and is always counted on the same night also experienced a considerable increase that year: 56 – 66 (20 – 30 is normal). Hence it does now appear probable that the numbers in each case included juveniles and that breeding was early that year: but it still looks as if each mother had successfully reared a baby! The year 2000 was also the first time the colony was counted twice (195 on 16th June and 174 on 29th June) the discrepancy in numbers perhaps explained by some mothers staying in to suckle newborn offspring.
It had not been apparent from the flight behaviour that any of the Natterer’s bats in 1999 were inexperienced but a demonstration of the speed of learning on the part of bats was given to the writer that summer. A pipistrelle with a swelling on the left knee, a slightly torn lateral membrane and a small hole in the wing membrane but with little other damage was brought in for care and assistance in the spring. On 12th May there appeared to be a swelling on one side, under the wing. On closer inspection this proved to be a baby bat already partly furred and so born a few days earlier! The previous year two other bats that had been brought in before the usual time of ‘confinement’ had either aborted or given birth to dead young and then died themselves perhaps due to stress. On this occasion, though an early birth, both mother and young fared well: the baby’s forearm measured 19.5mm on May 19th when it was about twelve days old, 24mm on 24th and 29.5mm by June 6th. The growth rate compared favourably with that given in the literature of 1mm per day. Although the mother had more or less recovered by this time and a great deal of consideration had been given and advice sought on the matter it was felt inopportune to reintroduce them to their colony at that time especially as they had been away for awhile and were probably out of ‘sync’ with the other members.
Later in the summer the baby was weaned (on to mealworms) and given the opportunity to fly on its own around the living room in the evening. The bats had to be exercised separately because of the difficulty of keeping an eye on both of them at once. The baby required very little practice and on its third flight was already quite proficient in avoiding the beams and so on. Later on, both were allowed to fly at the same time, as it was necessary to be sure that they were able to stay in contact with each other. This ability was amply demonstrated by the youngster landing on the same curtain that its mother had chosen. Perhaps surprisingly the mother sometimes showed an interest in returning to the small cardboard box that she had clearly come to regard as home – by flying in ever decreasing circles around it- and once actually landing back inside. It was interesting that she could identify it from the outside and had probably formed a sound-picture of the box-space. The great day of the release came in September and could not be delayed any longer as the young bat had things to learn about the environment, real food, etc, before the approach of winter. They were taken back to where the mother had come from, Cilycwm vicarage. However the colony didn’t seem to be in residence here and may well have been based somewhere else. After a brief circuit the mother decided on a direction and flew off and it was a great relief to see the young one follow her. In the circumstances a better resolution couldn’t have been hoped for.
There isn’t the space to tell of the other bats that have been in care, all pipistrelles, with the exception of the Natterer’s bat that lived for two years before dying without warning - as is the way with bats - in July 2000.
Daytime sightings are always interesting and usually involve pipistrelles, more commonly in the winter or spring. A pipistrelle was flying round in a woodland glade containing a pool in sunshine in the afternoon of May 7th 2000 at Aberglasney Gardens near Llandeilo. Another flying around at midday on August 25th 1998 settled on Llangadog Bridge and stayed there in the rain from at least 1pm. to 6.30pm. A Noctule Nyctalus noctula was seen flying round above a knoll near Rhandirmwyn one winter afternoon. On April 28th 1999, Ian Morgan observed a noctule drinking and hunting insects over water at Pistyll Quarry, Llandybie (SN623168). It was flying in warm sunny weather at 5 pm. and offered close views of its golden brown pelage. Perhaps more unusual was a sighting by the writer of a Daubenton’s Bat Myotis daubentonii hunting midges, as they were mating or egg-laying on the Tywi at Ffairfach, in the daylight of the evening of 2nd April 1998: the bat settled near the top of the river bank and calmly went to sleep.
As Andrew has mentioned, there is still an awful lot to learn about the county’s bats. For instance, there is still no record or exact location of a nursery colony for the Daubenton’s bat, a fairly common species. Rare species like the Barbastelle Barbastella barbastellus may occur as may the Bechstein’s Myotis bechsteinii. Something of a breakthrough in locating and identifying these species has been made in the past couple of years or so and so there is hope: particularly encouraging was the discovery, in summer 2000, of the former species in Pengelli Forest, in neighbouring Pembrokeshire. The Serotine Eptesicus serotinus has been recorded recently on Gower (T.McOwat, pers. comm.) and hopefully it is only a matter of time that this species will show itself for certain in Carmarthenshire.
Apart from the Biodiversity Action Plan species described above, other mammals are of no less interest and of at least equal importance considering for instance their value in the food chain and other effects on the environment. One species that intrigued Andrew was the Yellow-necked Mouse Apodemus flavicollis. A scatter of additional records has been reported in the past few years. Alan Clarke found a dead one near his home at Taliaris on 11th May 1999: it was a male with enlarged testes and was found to weigh 32gm when weighed the following day by the writer. He has seen the animal on a number of occasions in that area over the last eight years or so. A dead animal was found by the side of a track in Crychan Forest (SN846365) by Tony Braithwaite on July 9th 1999. Another dead animal was found at Broad Oak by Julian Friese in October 1999 and another he recorded nearby on 31st January 2000 was brought in by a cat.
The writer took part in the Yellow-necked Mouse National Survey organized for the Mammal Society by Aidan Marsh in November 1998. Forty longworth traps were placed in woods over two nights. Four woods in the county were surveyed in this way but the species was located at only one, at Penrhiwiau Wood just inside the Brecon Beacons National Park (SN663236) where two animals, weighing 34gm and 19gm respectively, were captured on different nights. This is an ancient woodland site but otherwise there is nothing much in the records to suggest an association between the species and this habitat in the county. The survey did serve to indicate its rarity when compared with the Woodmouse Apodemus sylvaticus. Out of a total of 320 trap-nights only two produced Yellow-necked Mouse, whereas the evidently much more common woodmouse numbered 61. Nationally 489 were caught compared with 3107 woodmice. The survey did demonstrate the abundance of the woodmouse in some woods, e.g.21 captures out of 80 trap-nights in one wood.
Another species that is probably not that rare but only recorded very patchily and nearly always dead is the Water Shrew Neomys fodiens . David Poulter recorded this species near his home at Idole but it managed to escape Andrew’s book! Tony Braithwaite has supplied a number of records in or around his home in the very north of the county (SN6749) - three records in 1999 - and another for Brechfa Forest (SN499342) on 26th May 1998. Allan Clarke has seen the animal at Taliaris (alive!).
Other live records have come as a result of using live traps. In autumn 1999 and spring 2000 the National Road Verge Small Mammal Survey was carried out, overseen by Lincoln Garland based at Bristol University. A contributor to this survey was Mike Jenkins who put out his twenty longworth traps alongside the busy A40 at Whitemill. Although some way from water, two water shrews were caught: a quite large specimen weighing 13gm on 10th October 1999 and a smaller one of 8gm being caught both days 9th and 10th. The larger one in particular was characteristically ferocious!
The writer also took part in the survey putting out traps at three locations. On 20th April 2000, a water shrew was caught about 20m from the Afon Dulais at Halfway (SN6430). One could hear it moving around as the trap was approached and the writer cautiously weighed it in the catching bag rather than risking an extraction by hand! It weighed 12gm and was a handsome beast – black with white marks on the ears and above the eyes while the white undersides had a lemon tinge around the margins and on the throat. While carrying out the water vole surveys already mentioned at Pendine, the writer discovered a couple of large caches of the pond snail on the bank of the Railsgate Pill: the snails had been attacked and eaten probably by a water shrew especially as one of the caches was immediately outside a flattened oval hole of the right dimensions. This could be a useful field sign in the absence of very many others (a deficiency that also applies to yellow-necked mouse).
It is really only possible, due to considerations of space, to make passing references to other mammals, such as the always under-recorded perhaps undervalued Hedgehog Erinaceus europaeus. Upwards of 28 have converged on a feeding station in a garden in Llanelli! The owner has viewed them through night vision glasses and has seen the hedgehogs take precedence over visiting foxes which tend to lurk in the background until they have finished eating! The hedgehog probably finds an urban or suburban location with large gardens a more agreeable environment than open country where it is perhaps more exposed to predation from the badger.
The Badger Meles meles has been disgracefully neglected in this article but there has been nothing much new to report. Jan and Keith Crowden continue to respond to badger callouts which usually involve road casualties. Badgers occur at high densities in the more fertile parts of the county such as the Tywi Valley where main setts do seem to be sited approximately 500m from nearest neighbours (the figure given in literature for high density areas). The valley evidently has sufficient advantages to encourage badgers to sometimes build their setts away from cover and in the valley bottom where there is possible danger from flooding. In perfect habitats, such as the former Dynevor estate, groups can be found even closer together at 300m distance: and here hedgehogs have not been recorded! Road casualties continue to be depressingly common: they often occur in such numbers and regularity on the same stretches of road that the nearest located setts could not be expected to sustain their numbers if there was not a degree of movement between social groups. It does appear that it is usually the male (the more explorative of the two sexes) that is involved in these accidents. However in spring 2000, the writer found two lactating females that had been killed on the road and in one case an attempt was made to locate abandoned youngsters at the nearest sett: this met with no success as it was probably too early in the year (March 1st) and cubs would have been too small to make it out of the sett. Regular guided badger watches used to be conducted immediately outside Llandeilo and the practice was revived for one night in August 2000. It was gratifying that so much delight was expressed at the sight of rather distant and shadowy animals and it is surprising how many people have still never seen a live badger. One can still attend badger watches organized by the National Trust in the Deer Park at Parc Dinefwr.
A Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus has once again made it up the Tywi: Mrs Hooper saw one from Dryslwyn Bridge on 30th October 2000 while the river was in flood after the heavy downpour of the day before. Given the time of year it may have been following salmonid fish migrating up the river to spawn.
There have been a few (under a dozen) records of the Weasel Mustela nivalis at widely separated locations but scarcely anything of the Stoat Mustela erminea. What is happening to this species? Records are urgently requested.
There has been nothing further to report on the Harvest Mouse Micromys minutus since the discovery of nests at Ffrwd Fen recorded by Andrew Lucas. Its bones have been known to turn up in owl pellets, particularly Barn Owl pellets as this species hunts over open country, so anyone coming across such pellets in an area where there is rough grassland is invited to inform the writer so that arrangements can be made for their examination.
There are a few items in the curiosity category to report. Andrew prophesied the recording of Risso’s Dolphin Grampus griseus in the county and this has come to pass. An animal washed up dead on Cefn Sidan Sands in 1987 was hesitantly identified as a Narwhal and buried so that its bones could be subsequently identified. When exhumed in 2000, they were determined as a Risso’s Dolphin, but a big one, sixteen feet long which was reported in the Llanelli Star of Oct. 12th 2000.
A Red Deer hind Cervus elaphus was observed in a field between Laugharne and Pendine at SN281094 on 28th November 2000 and reported by Noel King. It is presumably an escapee of about 20 years ago, or a descendant of an escapee, – perhaps from the wildlife park at Pendine.
‘Big Cats’ are still around, perhaps the descendants of the ‘Beast of Brechfa’ that occasioned so much interest a number of years ago. In the summer of 1999 a creature answering the description of a puma was seen near Rhydargaeau and reported to the writer by people to whom he had gone to collect a bat casualty. Later in the same year, on 6th October, Denys Smith saw a similar animal on Mynydd Llanfihangel Rhosycorn (SN513353). There had been stories in the local press of big cats in this area some time previous to this.
A record that didn’t make it into Andrew’s book was one of an animal which ran up the drive at Mrs. Strange’s home outside Carmarthen. It was a long-tailed, rounded creature substantially bigger than a cat, grey, with a banded tail that was trailed behind. This was on 11th January 1994 and sounds like a Raccoon Procyon lotor.
Bright, P.W. 2000. Status and Woodland Requirements of the Dormouse `in Wales. CCW Science Report 406.
Driver, A. 1998. Preface in Strachan,R. ( 1998 ) Water vole conservation handbook. English Nature, The Environment Agency and the Wildlife Conservation research Unit, Oxford.
Eden, S. and R. 1999. Dormice in Dorset: the importance of hedges and scrub. British Wildlife Feb. 1999. pp. 185 – 189
Hurrell, E. and McIntosh, G. 1984. Mammal Society dormouse survey, January 1975 - April 1979. Mammal Review 14,no.1: 1 – 18
Matthew, N. R. 2000. Water Vole Surveys 1999: Solva, Laugharne/Pendine, Lower Gwendraeth and Llanelli. Unpubl. Report to Environment Agency Wales
Matthew, N. R. and Bevan, J. M. S. 2000. The Red Squirrel in Wales: a Preliminary Study. CCW.