Monday, 4 July 2016

Botanical Trip to Wales Part 3 - 23rd and 24th June 2016

So my Welsh Botanical Trip continued.
If you missed Parts 1 and 2 please scroll down, they're well worth viewing for the rare flowers alone, let alone my evocative, witting writings - ok just for the photos then.

After finishing at Cae Blaen-dyffryn I drove South to Kenfig in South Wales. Unknown to me I had set the satnav to take the easy route so it took about 3/4 hour longer in the school run traffic than it would have had I used my head and gone via the M4!

Added to that, I stopped off en route a few times for a look around (like botanists do).
This was the view South of Ammanford in the hills.

A short way from this area, I descended a long steep hill and a small stream became a river creating bogs along the way. I stopped off at one - I have no idea where I was by now! I had to put wellies on as my walking boots were soaked through from Cae Blaen-dyffryn.

It was worth it though, as I soon found the gem of the bogs, Bog Asphodel.

As you can see it had been raining (for a change) but it had stopped and the sun was now out. There were at least 100 flowering, dotted around the bog.  I have seen these in Kent, but only at one place (Hothfield Bog).

It was great to see them in large numbers as well.

Narthecium ossifragum

No doubt, energy sapped by the constant rain lately, this Golden-ringed Dragonfly didn't fly off as I approached for a photograph. A simply stunning creature.

Cordulegaster boltonii 

Cross-leaved Heath was prevalent in damp places as well. There are several types of Heath plants, but most are limited to one particular area. This species however, is also found in Kent. Leaves are in whorls of four with the white undersides showing well. The white bits are covered in other species, such as Bell Heather for example.

Erica tetralix

Bilberry was another plant I found in the bog edges. This is the edible berry, though I didn't eat it. A month ago there would have been a pinkish globular flower on it.

Vaccinium myrtillus

One thing you can't fail to notice about the uplands of Wales is that every bit of land is grazed heavily by sheep. While this may be good for the Sunday roast, it's not so good for wildflowers as constant grazing means flowers never get the chance to set seed. In olden days, sheep would have been rotated between fields, but in these intensive farming days that practice has long gone. this is why so many species are disappearing in these areas. In my own area of Kent, it is because of herbicides for arable crops. I wonder if we won't be happy until we've wiped out our natural history altogether?

En route, I diverted to a place called Tally Abbey, quite interesting and set within a local nature reserve by a lake. I thought this might be a good place to find unusual species, but of course, the whole reserve was full of sheep!

Onwards South then!

As I drove through the village of Tally I noticed these on the verge, so stopped for a photo. There was a big bunch of these Fox and Cubs growing by the roadside.

They're not native, but seem widespread, though uncommon. It makes a change from the yellow Dandelion like flowers normally seen everywhere.

Pilosella auranticaca

It must rain an awful lot in Wales as there were streams and rivers around every bend in the road. I stopped at a few to see if any new species could be found, but I only found those I had already seen so far.

I arrived at Kenfig nature reserve in late afternoon, with the ranger's office just closed. With no one to ask where to go I had to use the information I had gleaned from planning to find the Fen Orchids in particular. However, at Kenfig there is so much more to see than just Fen Orchids.

 Given that my walking boots were soaking wet, I donned my wellies, which was just as well as there were some very wet areas that my walking boots would not have coped with.

In one of these wet areas were big stands of Greater Water-Plantain, a big straggly plant with tiny white flowers and big upright leaves.

Alisma plantago- aquatica

In a drier area by a bench overlooking Kenfig lake was a stand of Honeysuckle. Being late afternoon, these were already giving off a heady scent. I'm told that the flowers turn yellow when they have been pollinated.

Lonicera priclymenum

Ragged Robin loves it wet and these were no exception. The water was well over shoe level on my wellies as I trod in the watery fen.

While taking this, I slipped off a clip on macro lens and managed to lose it. I then spent an hour searching for it to no avail.

I was pleasantly surprised a week later to find that someone had handed it in to the ranger's office. I doubt that would have happened in Kent, though I am still awaiting its return.

Silene flos-cuculi

 I was now forced to use my 100mm macro lens, which is a very good lens but totally unforgiving with depth of field. So if I move 1mm while taking the photo, the image will be out of focus. Given I had a long walk ahead of me I didn't bring the tripod, to minimise the weight I was carrying around.

There were a lot of these Skullcaps around with their bright blue flowers. They're only about 6-8" tall but I love seeing them, always in wet areas on alkaline or neutral soils.

Scutellaria galericulata

The white blobs next to it are Fen Bedstraw. There are many different types of Bedstraw, but the habitat you find them in will nearly always tell you which species it will be.

Another common plant just coming into flower was the Lady's Bedstraw, a bright yellow spike of tiny flowers. If you crush it, it smells pleasant, and in olden times was used as mattress padding for Ladies.

I suppose the guys had old horse straw......

Galium  verum

As I carried on into the dune system, I came across my first orchid here, the predicable but enticing Pyramidal Orchid. It's hard to ignore these as they are brightly coloured and attractive to see.

This one was unusual in that there is usally a white raised bump at the mouth of the flower, and also the petals are half reflective, appearing pink/white on the camera.

This one was all deep pink.

Anacamptis pyramidalis

I was heading for the managed areas, where they have mowed the shrubs and grasses to create a fine sward to suit Fen Orchids. It didn't take too long to find these areas, but I couldn't find any Fen Orchids for love nor money!

I did find hundreds of  Meadows Thistles, a nice surprise as they are absent from Kent completely. When I photographed them, I thought they were Saw-wort, but they most certainly weren't!

Here's an individual close up. The 100mm macro lens is very good at isolating the subject as you can stop the lens down to F2.8, a much wider aperture than most other lenses. The higher the aperature (which means a larger hole in the lens for the light to pass through) means a lower depth of field. So, at f2.8 the whole background is blurred out, without any editing at all.

Cirsium dissectum

I then came across this giant orchid, it's size alone telling me it's likely to be a hybrid. It is most likely the cross between Southern Marsh and Common Spotted Orchid. The leaves are deeply barred (not spotted as in CSO), the large purple bracts are from the Southern Marsh Orchid and the petal marking are Common spotted. There was a ridge or keel running down the central lobe of the lower petal that is also of Southern Marsh origin.

D x grandis

Not far away was one of its parents, a true Southern Marsh Orchid amongst the yellow Rattle of the dunes.

Dactylorhiza praetermissa

There were many Comon Spotted Orchids as well nearby, but not photographed as I have seen 100s of them before.

 I then found the jewel of the Marsh Orchids, the Early Marsh, sub species coccinea. These have the most wonderful red flowers you could imagine, a vermillion, almost scarlet colouring.

 In Kent, we only get subspecies incarnata, which have  rather dull, nearly all white flowers.

Datylorhiza incarnata subsp. coccinea

Early Marsh Orchids look quite different to the Southern Marsh in that the side lobes of the lower petals are curved backwards, making the flowers look narrow. They still have a raised ridge, or keel down the centre, but have loop patterns like the Common spotted Orchids.

There are differences in the leaves as well, but I won't go into that here.

Another plant of the mowed slacks were thousands of Marsh Helleborines (orchids).

These are perhaps the most beautiful of all with several colours within the petal arrangement.

Only a few were in flower now, but by the time I write this, I expect there to to be thousands in flower there.

And here's why they are so highly regarded. Simply stunning!

It is actually very hard to photograph these usually, as any bright light, like the sun, bleaches out the bright white parts of the flower. However, it was evening now, the sun was low, and the camera has captured the detail even in these white parts of the flower. Beautiful!

Epipactis palustris

The Pea Family didn't want to be left out, and there were numerous Common Restharrow in flower, making carpets of pink in the sandy dunes.

These have glandular hairs that have an off lemon scent. However, before you decide to pick one, make sure it's not a Spiny Restharrow, else you may bleed rather a lot from their vicious spines. Having said that, I've only found those on the North Kent coast.

Common Restharrow is also a common plant in arable fields.

Ononis repens

As I walked on, I found hundreds of orchids and rare plants, but no Fen Orchids.

It reminded me of my search for Musk Orchids on the chalk of the North Downs recently. They just can't be found, being very small and basically green, blending in with all the other vegetation.

So, I resorted to the same tactics I used for Musk Orchids. Every 10 strides I squatted down on my haunches and looked about.
You notice so much more at this low height level.

However, for now, I didn't find any. I frequently had to struggle up to the top of sand dunes to get my bearings only to find I had strayed competely off course. If I had a GPS device I could have foregone this hardship, but without one, I only had a rough idea of where to look.

I did find a few Stinking Iris in the dunes, a beautiful native Iris with a yukky name and no, I didn't smell it.

Iris foetidissima

Time was getting on and the light was fading, I would have to make a start back soon, or risk being lost in the dunes at night. The dunes stretch for several miles in all directions and in the past buried a town!

I continued squatting in the mowed areas to get my eye in and finally.........................

Look how tiny they were!
A pair of Fen Orchids at last!

I had probably walked past several without noticing them. Kenfig has the most Fen Orchids of any UK population and all I could find were two of them.

They are a most untidy orchid and not much to look at, but I had finally found them.

This is the best shot of an individual flower I could get without a tripod, in a sea breeze and in low light!

As you can see, they are a scruffy, untidy flower, but their rarity makes it worth the effort finding them.

Liparis loeselii

After this, I made my way back to the car and had blisters on my toes from walking miles across sand and bog in ill fitting wellies.

I retired to a local motel and enjoyed a pint or two with very friendly Welsh company and went to bed happy! The irony was, I was drinking draught Kentish ale from Shepherd & Neame brewery, a favourite of mine.

Day 3 was the day I would drive home, which is what I should have done after breakfast. However, I really didn't want to leave Wales, it was a wonderful  place to be, so I visited  Porthcawl and RSPB Newport Wetlands reserve and a local nature sreserve nearby on the way home.

Unknown to me, Porthcawl was itself a local nature reserve, with a small area of limestone pavement running into the sea. I took some time to explore here. Above is Thrift, a typical coastal plant.

Above: Armeria maritima

This is an odd combination as it combines a plant form chalk soils and a plant from acid soils.

The chalk loving species is the pink Wild Thyme and the yellow acid lover is Tormentil

Thymus polytrichus &
Potentilla eracta

These look like an overgrown Selfheal but they are in fact Betony. Though also found in Kent, they are uncommon, but there were plenty here.

Note the toothed leaves below the fowers and more than one whorl of flowers that differentiates it from Selfheal.

Betonica officinalis

As I walked back to the car, this Stonechat didn't fly off as I approached. It chirped away and refused to budge. I suspect it had a nest in the bushes and I was intruding. Anyway, I let it be, got back to the car and joined the M4 Eastbound.

My next stop was RSPB Newport Wetlands, a reserve on the Welsh side of the Bristol Channel not far from the Severn Bridges.

I had a walk around that took about an hour. Mostly, the flora was just reeds for the birds, so there wasn't much in the way of plants to be found.

I did find this Cinnabar Moth though, a brightly coloured day flying Moth.

It's caterpillars feed on Ragwort which is poisonous. They seem to be able to store this poison without it affecting them and carry it with them into adulthood. At all stages of its life cycle, this moth is toxic to predators, hence its warning colours.

Tyria jacobaea

Several Large Skippers were skippering about as well. The dark mark across the forewing is distinctive. It secretes a scent from here that attracts the females.

Ochlodes sylvanus

There's no mistaking this plant as a hybrid,  it is a pure Southern Marsh Orchid, of which there were several, some quite tall and full of flowers.

Dactylorhiza praetermissa


This Trefoil didn't look quite right, so I had a closer look. It's leaves were very narrow, meaning it could only be a Narrow-leaved Birdsfoot Trefoil, not rare, but a change from the norm.

Lotus tenuis

Another brightly coloured day flying moth was about, the 6 Spot Burnet moth. This is common on chalk grasslands in Kent, but still nice to see it elsewhere.

 Zygaena trifolii

This is a common plant in damp areas, Greater Birdsfoot Trefoil. It's usually much taller than Common Birdsfoot Trefoil and the upper sepals are mostly curved outwards. The two species don't seem to grow in the same areas either, so once you find one, you'll find a lot!

Lotus pedunculatus

And here is the final photograph of my botanical trip to Wales, a collection of Marsh Orchids and Common Spotted Orchids.

I reluctantly got back into the car and began the long drive back along the M4. In fact, I got back as far as Reading in no time at all, but then hit the London traffic and heavy thunderstorms and crawled the next 60 miles around the M25, London's biggest car park.......

I hope you enjoyed reading about this trip, I really enjoyed the trip itself and writing about it has fired me back up to revisit next year. Perhaps I'll visit the Anglesey area with its renowned nature reserves next year and the Dark Red Helleborines of the Great Orme nearby.



  1. Hi Dave,
    Did you consider Meadow Thistle (Cirsium dissectum) for the Thistle? Looks like a great trip out to Wales.

  2. Hi Gareth,
    One advantage of allowing people to comment on your blogs is that when you get an ID wrong, you get to know about it. I've amended the blog for the correct ID on Meadow Thistle (Cirsium dissectum).

    Thank you