Garden blogs

Farming and Wildlife in March by Peter Beeden


THE ESTATE FARM:  As described in May 2018, the Botanic Garden covers about 568 acres of which farmland is 316 acres including 100 acres of woodland.  There are 25 head of pedigree Welsh Black beef cows and 30 non-pedigree Balwen ewes and their 35 lambs, with the permanent and flower-rich grassland of the Waun Las National Nature Reserve being grazed and cut for hay.

SO FEBRUARY MARKED THE OFFICIAL END OF WINTER, but March is often considered to be ‘the month to be careful of’, isn’t it!  After all, according to an Unknown Poet:

Spring is not the best of seasons.
Cold and flu are two good reasons;
wind and rain and other sorrow,
warm today and cold tomorrow.

And, as Mark Twain – the author of Tom Sawyer and creator of Huckleberry Finn goes even further to say:

“In the Spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours.”.

Perhaps a ‘slight exaggeration’ from Mark Twain, although as a general observation of our Spring weather it does often seem to be generally correct!  But in 2019 the period from the end of February to beginning of March provided us with some warm days with Centigrade temperatures in the teens.  So by end-February, Blackthorn, Hazel and Alder were flowering already in many places, Dandelion, Daisy, Colt’s-foot, Primrose, Germander Speedwell plus several others and even the leaf rosettes of Early Purple Orchid with their large black markings were fully out.

Butterflies were also seen flying at end-February: Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral; all three of which – together with that marvellously yellow Brimstone – are known to hibernate as adults in this country and emerge on sunny days when the temperature hits about 130C.  Probably to these four should now be added the commonly seen in mid-Summer Painted Lady butterfly which – although 10 years ago was known only by its in some years huge migrations[1] to UK from Europe and North Africa –  is recognised as being the most globally distributed butterfly and found in all continents except Australia and Antarctica.  Recent reports suggesting that some Painted Lady adults have been found in hibernation in UK.  Perhaps an evolutionary development enabling colder weather to be tolerated by a few adults or just another sign of global warming?

OK, so these migrant Painted Ladies come into UK and mate, lay eggs and pupate here, but as there are no records of out-migration, do the resulting adults just die here when it gets cold in the Autumn?  Well, apparently scientists from Rothamsted Research have a radar set-up in Hampshire and this showed that in Spring 2009 about 11 million Painted Lady adults flew into the UK and, after breeding here during that Summer, some 26 million of them left in the Autumn heading South. But why had this Autumn emigration not been seen or recorded by humans before?  Well the marine radar used by the Rothamsted Research can pick up insects and records their size, numbers, direction of flight and speed.  The Painted Ladies were flying at altitudes up to 3,000 feet, which is why they were never spotted by humans, and at speeds up to 30mph!

BEWARE!    I suppose that this fine weather at end-February and beginning of March is enjoyable, isn’t it, although a lot of people would rather ‘the seasons did what they were supposed to do’!  After all, was Julius Caesar not warned by a soothsayer:

“Beware the Ides of March”

But when is the ‘Ides of March’?  The Roman calendar is not like the Gregorian calendar that we now use[2] but the Ides is generally accepted as being the 15 March.  Mind you, that was the interpretation by Shakespeare of  the ‘soothsayer’s’ prediction to Caesar in 44 BCE.  Then, when on his way to the Senate, Caesar apparently passed by the soothsayer and jokingly said to him:

“The Ides of March are come”

– implying that the prophecy had not been fulfilled, to which the soothsayer replied:

‘Aye, Caesar; but not yet gone”

So just as the soothsayer warned Caesar in the morning of the Ides of March 44 BCE – even if the morning of Friday 15 March 2019 in the Botanic Garden starts off with fine sunshine, you’d better beware because a blizzard of snow and ice may just occur unexpectedly in the afternoon and early evening of that day – being the Ides of March!

Mind you, by the time this Newsletter is ‘edited’ and then ‘blogged’ by the Editor in Chief  and Peter L-T respectively, the ‘Ides of March’ may be over and the next thing then to ‘beware of’ will be ‘April showers’.

INCIDENTALLY,  APOLOGIES must be offered to one person who actually read the Farming & Wildlife Newsletter, February, for the grave omission that severely offended that reader.   The origin of the name Dandelion was described as coming from the French; ‘Dent de Lion’ meaning ‘Lion’s tooth’ – referring to the deeply toothed, dark green leaves that are in rosettes.  What the February Newsletter failed to impart was the information that the Welsh for Dandelion is Dant y Llew – also meaning Tooth of the Lion.  Clearly, greater care is needed in writing; so as not to offend the reader.  By the way, this reader had mentioned that two of her four hives of honeybees had been out and about in February, mainly feeding on Dandelion flowers.  What she didn’t know however was that although the bees need the Dandelions as an early source of nectar and pollen, the Dandelions don’t need the bees, as their seeds develop without any form of pollination due to this process called apomixis[3] that was talked about in February’s Farming & Wildlife Newsletter !

BUT WHY ARE SO MANY PLANTS FLOWERING AND LEAFING SO EARLY?  Is it because the air temperatures have been so warm during the Autumn and Winter months, or that soil temperatures have just not cooled down since last Summer?   How could we find out and who knows anything about soil temperatures anyway?  After all, many people have a Six’s Maximum and Minimum thermometer hanging up outside the back door, but do you know anyone who has a thermometer in the ground in the back garden?

Well, not many farmers have thermometers in the ground either, but many of them will watch soil temperatures at one or more of the 10 locations in Wales that are coordinated by FARMING CONNECT, under Business Wales and funded by Welsh Government through Natural Resources Wales.  If you follow the link below it will take you to the ‘soil-temperature section and you can choose which of the 10 locations is the nearest to your house or farm.  The nearest soil recording point to The Farm at the Botanic Garden is at 39 feet above sea level in Ty Castell, a small village on the River Towy and just upstream from Capel Dewi.  If you try the link below it will tell you what the temperature was on the morning of 10 March (when composing this newsletter)  at 0600 hours at a depth of 150 mm or 6 inches below ground level[4] – wherein lie the roots of many plants.

From this link you can then not only read that the soil temperature was 7.700 C at the aforementioned date and time, but also you can see a graph of the daily soil temperature during the past year.  You will see that the soil temperature in March 2018 ‘troughed’ to its lowest at some 30C lower than 2019.  In other words – and trying to ‘read’ the graph –  the soil cooled faster and further in Autumn and Winter 2017/18 than it has done in Autumn/Winter 2018/19.  And what about air temperature at 0600 hours this morning?  In Carmarthen apparently it was 40C although because of the wind chill factor[5], it would have felt more like 10C.

COMPETITION AND SURVIVAL:  Over time, we humans – in UK at least – have developed an attitude about competition between humans and how everybody should be treated alike.  It’s particularly emphasised nowadays with different groups arguing with each other and Government as to whether women, men, black, white, gay or otherwise and whatever religion or faith professed, all get the same ‘fair bite of the cherry’ of the opportunities of life. But what about other mammals; do they allow those who are different ‘from those in power’ to prosper?

Let’s look at domestic animals perhaps?  Sheep are ‘herd animals’ and most breeds tend to flock together for protection, and on most farms these days there’s one ram to every 40-50 or so ewes.  There’s an old farm saying:

‘The ram is half the flock’

Of course this is not the numerical half of a flock as sheep do not tend to mate for life and, were a ram to be asked the question – in sheep-bleats of course – Will you love her, comfort her, honour and keep her, in sickness and in heath, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”  then the answer would be an emphatic NO! Asked the same question, the ewe almost certainly would reply in the same way.

Indeed one ram can service 40 ewes easily each year and these can be a flock of different ewes each year.  But, in terms of the genetics of the flock’s lambs – the ram contributes half the genes of those lambs; hence the truth in the old farm saying above.

Put 2 or 3 rams together and the chances are that these rams would fight for domination over the others and for the ‘ownership’ of the ewes and the right to mate with them and for them to have his offspring.  It’s a bit like ‘droit de seigneur’ or ‘jus primae noctis’ – respectively translated as ‘right of the lord’ and ‘right of the first night’, isn’t it – when the lord of the manor had the right to nuptials with a bride of his fiefdom on her wedding night before her rightful husband!

Be that as it may, when feeding a flock of sheep at this time of year with both ewes and rams present – in other words feeding what appears to be a ‘sheepocracy’ – do you think that there is any consideration shown by either the ram for the condition of the in-lamb ewes – or by each ewe for any of the other ewes?  Well  no, it doesn’t happen like that because it’s every sheep for itself, with ewes bashing each other with their heads and horns to get a larger space at the feed trough, rams head butting pregnant ewes in the stomach to get out of the way and if any 2-3-week-old lambs get in the way of either ewes or rams then they are given short shrift as well!

So being kind to other members of the same species – even in a ‘flockocracy’ – is not the normal way of behaving in even domesticated animals let alone in the wild –  it’s just something that we humans do – for some of the time and in some places at least!

AND WHAT ABOUT IN THE WILD – are members of the same species kind and considerate to all their fellows?  Mind you, it’s very easy to write this sort of stuff and to be then accused – amongst other things of course – of anthropomorphic[6].  Let’s come back to that later, eh!

Jane Goodall studied Chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park near the North-Western border of Tanzania with Ruanda for more than 30 years and found that each ape had a unique and individual personality.  As she said in one of her early reports|:

“it isn’t only human beings who have personality, who are capable of rational thought [and] emotions like joy and sorrow”.

She also saw typical human-type behaviours such as hugs, kisses, pats on the back and even tickling as what she described as:

“the close, supportive, affectionate bonds that develop between family members and other individuals within a community, which can persist throughout a life span of more than 50 years.”

OK, so there are similarities between Chimpanzees and humans which is perhaps not too surprising seeing that we share over 98 per cent of the same genetic code.

These findings suggest similarities between humans and chimpanzees exist in more than genes alone, but can be seen in emotion, intelligence, and family and social relationships.

Goodall’s research at Gombe is best known to the scientific community for challenging two long-standing beliefs of the 1980s: that only humans could construct and use tools, and that chimpanzees were passive vegetarians.  Using a grass stem to ‘poke around’ into a termite mound and then pulling the stem out covered with termites to eat, was just the first example of a Chimpanzee using a tool.

But shouldn’t anyone looking at a Chimpanzee’s teeth – as we did earlier in this March Newsletter with human teeth – have realised that Chimpanzees – with Incisors, and Canines larger than humans, Pre-Molars and Molar teeth similar to humans – eat meat as well as fruit and vegetable matter?  Apparently not!  But Jane Goodall realised that not only did Chimpanzees capture, kill and eat Colobus monkeys and share parts of the carcass with other members of the troop, but that  – at times – they showed a tendency towards aggression and violence amongst themselves with dominant females deliberately killing the young of other females in the troop and sometimes even eating those young!

After observing these habits and the situations in which they occurred, Jane Goodall said:

“During the first ten years of this study I had believed that the Gombe Chimpanzees were, for the most part, rather nicer than human beings.  Then suddenly we found that Chimpanzees could be brutal – that they, like us, had a darker side to their nature.”

Then between 1974 and 1978, she witnessed and recorded The Chimpanzee War’ in the National Park; which started with two young pretenders to the ‘Chimpanzee Throne’ wanting to seize power for themselves.  This resulted in years of brutal civil warfare with raids, ambushes and murder.  Apparently, the origin of this war dated back to the end of the 1960s when the males were beginning to spend time only with their own groups but – when they did meet other Groups – these meetings became increasingly aggressive.  These beginnings led to social activity only within their own groups and this carried on for two years before the skirmishes, violent meetings and kidnappings turned into full-on warfare; possibly triggered when one of the groups was itself taken over by a particular male Chimpanzee.   Over the next four years, that Chimpanzee’s group killed all the males in the other group, many of the females too, and took over all of their territory.

This is interesting stuff isn’t it, but what’s it got to do with Farming and Wildlife in the Botanic Garden – or anywhere else for that matter?  Probably not a lot really, except that we were talking about vegetarianism and veganism and how the teeth in the human skull were developed to enable a wide range of food materials to be eaten – both plant and meat.  It then turned out that that the previously thought of vegetarian Chimpanzee, with its teeth so similar to we humans, also has social characteristics and food habits very similar to humans.  The various Reports on the brutal Chimpanzee War of the mid-late 1970s have been confirmed by events elsewhere.  It is suggested that similar to what we see in human communities today, the infighting amongst the male Chimpanzees leading to the war was likely driven by Ambition, Power, and Jealousies.  And all this came about by thinking about human teeth structure!

WHAT DO LAMBS EAT?  Well we’ve talked quite a bit about milk and how young mammals suckle their mothers and then move onto dry and solid food, haven’t we!  But lambs, calves and fawns are a bit different in that their stomachs have to change as well.  At birth, like humans, these mammals have a single stomach – monogastric – but unlike we humans their single stomach develops into a ruminant stomach so that they can ‘chew the cud’ and get the most nutrients out of their mainly grass diet.  So how do they do this?

Well, if you just lean on the gate – like some farmers are reputed to do much of the time during fine weather, of course – and watch some lambs in a field, you will see that even new born lambs will start to nibble on solid food within a week, be it lengths of straw in their bedding or a stem of grass in the field.

A ewe’s milk production peaks after 3 and 4 weeks of lactation. By the time lambs are 4 to 6 weeks old, they may be obtaining as much as 50 percent of their nutrient intake from sources other than their mother’s milk. Often it’s said that ruminants have four stomachs. In reality, their “stomach” has four parts: rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum that then lead on to the small intestine and finally to the large intestine. On the other hand, you and I and all other mammals with only a ‘monogastric digestive system’ have just a simple single-chambered stomach plus the small and large intestines of course.

But lambs and all other ruminants are actually born as ‘monogastric’ and the single compartment of their stomachs is stimulated – usually by lengths of fibre as they ‘nibble’ on dry feeds – grass lengths and food pieces  – and develops rapidly into the four parts of the ruminant stomach.  Young lambs and calves are often ‘chewing the cud’ by 8 weeks of age, although their ability to extract energy from cellulose digestion is obviously much less efficient at that time of their lives when the single stomach has yet to fully evolve into the four compartments, compared to when they approach their equivalent of ‘the teenage years’ and later as an adult ruminant.

People often ask about other animals that eat grass and whether they are ruminants as well and – if not – then how do their stomachs manage to break down the cellulose that grass contains, and for which ruminants must have 4 compartments of their stomachs?  It’s a good question but it’s often awkward to answer isn’t it!  Ok, shall we try now or leave it for another month?  Well let’s explain a bit more about the ‘ruminant stomach’ and see where we go from there, eh!

The Table below is from the Sheep Production Handbook [2002] and hopefully it will ‘add an air of verisimilitude to this otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative’.  In other words, it may help readers to understand what we are talking about!

Capacities of the Compartments of the Digestive Tract of a Mature Sheep
Rumen 22 – 45
Reticulum 1.5 – 2.5
Omasum 0.5 – 1.5
Abomasum 10 – 15
Small Intestine 10 – 12 [80 feet long!]
Large Intestine 1.5 – 2.5

This nibbling of dry food by lambs means that a wide range of micro-organisms get swallowed into the rumen and reticulum together with the ‘nibblings’.  As these micro-organisms multiply and begin to digest the feed swallowed by the lamb, then the rumen and reticulum compartments themselves are stimulated to develop. The Rumen becomes ‘a huge fermentation vessel or tank’ which at up to 45 litre or 10 gallons in capacity for a large sheep is much the same size as the petrol tank of your normal domestic car!  It contains billions of micro-organisms – both Bacteria and Protozoa – feeding therein and breaking down the fibre in grass, hay, silage and other vegetation that non-ruminants have difficulty in using to obtain the essential nutrients of life – protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, etc.

This fermentation  process is continuous, aided by the stirring of rumen muscles, and if you watch a sheep’s stomach there are several rumen contractions with various gaseous rumblings every minute!  There’s also a very large quantity of Methane [CH4] greenhouse gas produced which ruminants get rid of by the normal process of ‘belching’ or burping.  Quite a lot of that ‘belching’ goes on around a flock of sheep or herd of cattle!

It seems surprising that ruminants produce less methane when being fed a grain-based diet and housed in an ‘intensive’ livestock system than when on more extensive grazing on permanent grassland.

The rumen occupies much of the abdominal cavity.  Basically it’s a storage space for all the food that is quickly consumed by the sheep or cow, then afterwards regurgitated and re-chewed, and then re-swallowed in that well-known process that we call ‘chewing the cud’.  If you lean on the field-gate – and wooden gates always seem more comfortable to lean on than do the metal ones – and watch a flock or herd, you’ll see that it’s mainly the livestock that are resting and lying down that chew the cud, usually for several hours a day.

‘VEGANUARY’ AND OUR TEETH:  We talked a bit in February’s Farming and Wildlife about the discussion in the mass media about the benefits for people to reduce or stop consuming  meat/milk products and drinking milk – from both health and environmental points of view.  Irrelevant to this discussion of course but, bearing in mind that when looking at that lovely white bony skull that you found whilst walking in the countryside last week, you can almost always tell what animal the skull is from by looking at the teeth and deciding what the animal ate when it was alive.

You can do the same with birds of course, although with their beaks rather than their teeth – as most birds do not have teeth, do they!  On the Galapagos Islands and with the Finches there, Charles Darwin found that short sturdy beaks belonged to finches that needed to crack nuts or heavy seeds for food, whilst long and pointy beaks were used to poke into cracks in branches to find juicy insects to eat.  Same in this country too: Chaffinches and Sparrows feed on seeds whilst Hedge Sparrows and Wrens feed on small insects.  This is an evolution of beak shape and size to suit the available food material for the different bird species.

Mind you, this evolution business is all pretty long-term stuff, isn’t it – mainly thousands of years rather than hundreds and certainly not tens of years, eh?  Actually not always and, if you read ‘The Beak of the Finch’[7] which is a really easy read about Peter and Rosemary Grant and their family who worked for several months each year for more than 20 years on Daphne Major – one of the smaller of these Galapagos Islands, you will understand why not.  And don’t forget that Darwin described these islands as meaning more to him than any other place in his 5-year voyage around the world.  He once called them  “The origin of all my views”.  And the Grants were able to do what Darwin could not do:  go back each year for 20 years or more and just measure the beaks of the finches, and measure evolution as it actually happened, so as to enable birds to change with changing circumstances – in this case rainfall.

Going back to our teeth: the type and placement of our human teeth is not by accident either, but it is the result of the most favourable adaptation of our teeth to the diet of the modern human.  So we adult humans have four main types of teeth; each with a complementary but different purpose:

Incisors are the 4 large flat teeth in the front top and bottom of our jaws with sharp edges like a knife and designed to tear meat from the bone.

Canines are the 4 ‘pointy’ teeth on either side of the Incisors on both the top jaw and the bottom jaw and are used to hold flesh or meat steady while the incisors rip into it. Shaped in a nail or peg-like structure, they are ideal for keeping things from shifting around in the mouth as the human bites into it with the Incisors. So both Incisor and Canine teeth have evolved to manage meat.

The 8 Pre-molars at the sides of both upper and lower jaws, unlike the Incisors and Canines, have a flat biting surface and their function is to tear and crush food.

The 12 Molars at the top and bottom sides of our jaws are the largest of our teeth with a large flat biting surface and a function to chew, crush and grind food.

Herbivores, because they are plant eaters, have strong and flat molars that are made for grinding leaves but have small or non-existent canine teeth.  Carnivores, the meat eaters of the animal world, have very defined canine teeth for tearing at meat, combined with a sometimes-limited number of molarsOmnivores on the other hand, eat both meat and plant life, and so have to be able to bite meat and chew both meat and vegetation.

So, it would appear that we humans have evolved as Omnivores with functional Incisors, Canines, Pre-Molars and Molar teeth in our jaws.  Our teeth allow us to function as either Herbivore, Carnivore or Omnivore; depending on either:  the type of food available and that we can afford to buy; our preferred taste for meat or vegetable dishes; and whether we have any health or psychological reasons for us to favour eating only meat or vegetables or both.  Whichever  direction we choose for our food intake, we have the type of teeth to enable that food to be chewed thoroughly and swallowed for digestion – until they all fall out with old age of course!

LOOKING FORWARD TO APRIL but not quite in the same way as Simon & Garfunkel sang for the film ‘The Graduate’ with Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson and Dustin Hoffmann as the graduate Ben:

April come she will

When streams are ripe and swelled with rain.


Mind you, The Ides of March will have been and gone and Brexit will – perhaps – have had some decisions made about it.  Farmers may even have an inkling as to whether they will continue to receive farm income support or whether the politicians will continue to ensure that cheap food is available in UK – the latest possibility being an agreement to allow tariff free importation of US food materials into UK – including chlorine-washed chicken and growth hormone reared beef products – hmm, let’s hope not, eh?.

Farmers will probably continue to have uncertainty over their futures until there’s sufficient clarity to enable planning to take place using parameters that appear to be fairly definite – for now anyway!

Huw will be lambing, looking to buy more pigs to rear, and calving of the Welsh Black cattle starts in mid-April.  So it’s a busy time for him even if the weather is fine and grass grows well.  If the weather is not good (and remember the ‘Beast from the East’ in February-March 2018 that happened unexpectedly) times may not be so good for new lambs and calves.  The weather often seems even more difficult to predict than farm incomes, so we will all just have to wait and see, won’t we!

Peter Beeden: 9 March 2019

[1] 2003 and 2009 were thought to be large migration years  – still arriving here in September!

[2] The Gregorian calendar is the most widely used civil calendar in the world. Named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in October 1582. The calendar spaces leap years to make the average year 365.2425 days long, approximating the 365.2422-day tropical year that is determined by the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. The rule for leap years is that every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but the year 2000 was!  For some unknown reason – to the author at least –  this Gregorian calendar was developed as a correction to the previously used Julian calendar!


[3] Apomixis means that the Dandelion does not have fertile pollen but can still produce fertile seed.  See February’s Newsletter for further details and for examples of Parthenogenesis.

[4] The instruments used to measure the soil temperatures at the 10 locations in Wales are PRT100                                                                                                                                       probes set 150mm below the surface.  Readings of temperature are continuous and are logged every 15mins on the ATU outstation which is able to store a rolling 30 days’ worth of data. The data from the outstation is relayed digitally to our telemetry system on a 9x per day frequency.

[5] The human body has a core temperature of roughly 370C. The air around it is usually below 370C – meaning that we lose heat from anywhere not covered by clothing. When it is still we are mostly losing heat by convection. But when wind hits the face the initial heat loss is from conduction and the temperature of the skin can be cooled almost to air temperature. If the skin is wet there will be additional cooling from the evaporation of moisture. The stronger the wind the faster the cooling. The lower the temperature, the more impact the wind has.  The Met. Office calls the ‘wind chill factor’ – ‘the feels-like temperature’! It seems a bit ‘hit and miss to calculate in UK but in the US it’s perfectly straightforward using the National Weather Service’s new formula:

Multiply the temperature by 0.6215 and then add 35.74. Subtract 35.75 multiplied by the wind speed calculated to the 0.16 power. Finally, add 0.4275 multiplied by temperature, multiplied by wind speed calculated to the 0.16 power.   You see – it’s all perfectly straightforward, isn’t it!


[6] Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-humans.

[7] Jonathan Weiner, 1995:  The Beak of the Finch – Evolution in Real Time.