Camping Trip to Ynys-hir

From slow worms to beavers, jellyfish, ospreys and nightjars: leader of the Spalding Wildlife Watch Group, Eileen Pearson, reports on their camping trip to Ynys-hir nature reserve and the surrounding area.

In late July 2019 four families and five leaders set off on our latest camping adventure to travel to RSPB Ynys-hir on the southern border of Snowdonia in Wales. Gwerniago camp site, where we stayed, is also a working sheep farm but we didn’t see any sheep they were up in the mountains. When the tents were up some people explored the small wood adjacent to the campsite where we discovered some plants that no one present could identify, later identified by John Love as pennywort. On return to the campsite we enjoyed tea prepared by our congenial and hard working cook (leader) Andrew Smith.

That evening our adventure began in earnest. Those who felt like a walk set off to explore more of the surrounding area in a bid to get to the River Dyfi. Plants including enchanters nightshade, honeysuckle, red campion were spotted on the banks adjacent to woodland. We did get to the River Dyfi which was pretty impressive. Some people returned up the hill back to camp when the ground became rough and wet, but two leaders Stewart Clark and John Love carried on with some of the children and parents.  Well worth it, for there they discovered evidence of beavers, chiselled branches with teeth marks of what could only be beavers. One boy, Jack, brought evidence back with him, a branch to let everyone see. What a start to our wildlife break.

Some of the children helped cook breakfast, under supervision of course, and after washing up we set off to spend the day at Ynys-hir. Only one family wasn’t a member of the RSPB, but the lady who gave us our talk before we set off for the day waived the charge. She told us that the reserve was 800 acres and that on the far side there were nightjars. The day cost us nothing apart from an ice cream or drink afterwards, as a picnic lunch was provided, yes, you’ve guessed by our cook Andrew Smith.  

The weather was a bit dull and overcast to begin with though warm. We saw more interesting plants uncommon to our group including marsh St. John’s wort, wood sage, yellow pimpernel and gypsy wort as well as many plants that are common to us. The leaves of the pennywort plant we had seen the previous evening turned out to be edible which were deliciously refreshing. Of course, you have to be very sure of plant identification before you decide whether any part of a plant is safe to eat. Some of our party were more adventurous tasters than others even when assured of the safety. Ravens flew over, but it’s true when wildlife watching if you’re looking the wrong way and there is no call to alert you, it’s easy to miss. We saw a huge patch of fungi, in various stages of growth and decay, but none of us who saw it could identify it, fascinating.

the most interesting find of the afternoon was a very pregnant slow worm

Those who did go on the afternoon walk were rewarded with sightings of common lizards, but the most interesting find of the afternoon was a very pregnant slow worm. Stewart Clark and Terry Unwin spotted this. One of the children, Adam, pointed out the queen in an ants nest. There were lots of Canada geese around, and quite a lot of birds in the estuary, too far away to identify. Not many butterflies on the wing though.  We were told common redstarts and pied flycatchers were high in the canopy but we did not see them. 

On our return we ate ice cream and drank tea at the Visitor Centre while watching the birds at the birdfeeder. Nick Ingram had heard some people talking about a Beaver Conservation Project in the area that accepted pre-arranged visits. He took the initiative and asked for details which he was given. Thanks to him were able to phone and arrange a visit for the following evening. This is a fine example of not needing to be a leader to contribute to the overall wildlife watching for the group. Well done Nick, we were all so glad you were there and acted quickly to secure those details. 

After a full day everyone was glad to relax and pleased to do justice to the evening meal, again prepared by Andrew and his team.

The following day took us to the Devil’s Punchbowl. This was advertised as a 45-minute nature walk but the steps, all 675 of them, were very steep and slippery. It was difficult to concentrate of anything around oneself other than the dramatic waterfalls, the children and keep one’s balance. Thank goodness for handrails and the vigilance of all leaders and parents in keeping an eye on all of the children, not just their own. One iconic Welsh plant we were aware of was the bilberry sometimes known as the whortleberry. A moorland plant with delicious small black berries, the foragers among us got stuck in. As many of the plants well out of reach we did not consider our foraging detrimental to the species as a food plant for wildlife or the plant itself.

By chance we stopped at Canolfan Ymwelwyr for our picnic lunch, this is area where the red kites gather in numbers, they are fed on a daily basis, the website can be found online. We did not stay to watch as we had to be back to visit the Beaver Conservation Project, but I understand red kite feeding time is quite a spectacle.

We set out in great excitement to see the beavers, only one or two of us had ever seen them before. The drive up the mountain road felt long and, as a passenger closest to the edge, unnerving at times. Although it was only about 3 miles I was glad I was not driving. At last we arrived, only a few other people were there, so good views for all. 

Sharon Girardi, Project Manager, kept her voice low when telling us about the beavers so not to startle them if they were nearby. She explained how beavers benefit the countryside with their dam building, the damage that overgrazing by sheep can cause and the benefits of planting 50 acres of woodland creating the Wild Wood. This not a conifer plantation it is deciduous. 

Everyone was so excited when the male beaver came into sight. The beaver family consisted of a male, female and teenager. A short time later the female made and appearance and then the teenager. The children were thrilled to see them, adults too. The beavers are fed every evening at the same time to give visitors a good chance of seeing them. We were shown chiselled branches, the handiwork of the beavers, and it was exactly the same as some of our group had seen along the banks of the River Dyfi that first evening, though there have been no official releases. It had been suggested we take sweetcorn for the beavers as a treat as it was a favourite of theirs!   

They ate the sweetcorn as well as carrots and apples. Their favourite leaves are aspen and willow, two of the many varieties planted in the Wild Wood. Being out of season it had to be frozen sweetcorn, but hey, if you can chew through trees, frozen sweetcorn probably isn’t such a big deal. 

This establishment is quite isolated so they grow fruit and vegetables using principles of permaculture (working with rather than against nature). The range of fruit and vegetables they are able to grow is truly remarkable, so is the poly tunnel housing the young plants for much of their produce. We were all very pleased and happy we had seen the beavers and learned so much about the ecology of Blaeneinion. A fish and chip supper finished the evening off nicely. 

The following day was action packed from morning until night, if that’s what you wanted. Our morning outing was to the Aberdyfi Beach. The weather was beautiful. Before we reached the shoreline we saw a line of large jellyfish about 24cm across all along the tide line. Initially we thought they were compass jellyfish, but looking at the identification charts they were more likely to be moon jellyfish. 

As well as the moon jellyfish the children caught compass and barrel jellyfish, and sea potatoes. This was in addition to many shore crabs, shrimps and blenny. When the crabs were released it was easy to see why the collective term for them is an army or colony, they did appear to be marching into the sea. The children had a wonderful time and thoroughly enjoyed their close encounters with all the sea life they found. For some of them being able to catch the jellyfish and study them in large buckets was the highlight of their day. There are six species of jellyfish that regularly visit the Welsh coast, their stings are reported to be mild, but our children were supervised and forewarned not the touch the tentacles and therefore forearmed.

In the afternoon we visited the Dyfi Osprey Project where we were lucky enough to see adult ospreys, Monty and Berthyn, male and female and their three youngsters which have now fledged. This is a Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust project. What a treat for all concerned as many of our party had never seen an osprey before. The viewing scopes were excellent and everybody however short of tall had a good view.  We saw water buffalo grazing, but due to the heat and the fact we had been out all morning, after the obligatory tea, cake and/or ice cream we returned to Gwerniago.

The evening outing was back to Ynys-hir to see if we could see and hear the nightjars. Not everybody went but those who did were rewarded with sightings of the nightjars and a little churring, but not as much as earlier in the season. Only the hardiest of us stayed until well after dark and glow worms were then displaying. Another success as the majority of our party had never seen or heard nightjars, a real wildlife treat to watch their aerial ability when catching insects, such agility of turns and swoops.

Those who chose to stay behind reported a pleasant peaceful evening in good company.

Where are we going next year?

All good things must come to an end and the following day our trip came to an end, but not before the question was asked "Where are we going next year?" It’s always a pleasure to be asked that question. After breakfast, tents were dismantled, vehicles loaded and we all went our separate ways, but what a fantastic Wildlife Watch trip.  What a fantastic team to make it all possible. We have a wide range of expertise in our group. It just goes to show with a really good team, a Wildlife Watch group can do anything, go anywhere and see the most amazing creatures, maybe a once in a lifetime sighting. What an experience and on a shoestring budget (children were subsidised, their food and entrance fees paid for by the group).

Being in a Wildlife Watch group can be a magical experience for children, their relatives and the group leaders.

We are considering trip to the Dorset coast next May who knows what we will see and hear there.

Members of the Spalding Wildlife Watch Group

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