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Heronries in Carmarthenshire

This is the unedited version of an article I wrote for last week’s Carmarthen Journal.

I have also added some photos and background information that was not included in the article.

I also put the joke back in that the journal edited out – apologies for that!

“Is it a siege or a sedge of herons?” I wondered as I drove along the A40 towards Carmarthen and watched the magnificent grey bird rise up from the flooded fields by the Towy and fly back to the woodland near Whitemill. For me, these familiar birds conjure up imagery of pterodactyls and the link between birds and dinosaurs is easy to spot. The grey heron has a slow, almost lazy flight with its neck retracted in a S shape – this is characteristic of herons and bitterns and is what distinguishes them from spoonbills, cranes and storks which fly with their necks extended.

The Towy valley has provided a good home for herons for centuries and has West Wales largest heronry, which holds about 10% of the area’s grey herons. A surprising number of heronries are found in the grounds of old mansions, probably because of the well managed woodland and conservation work undertaken by the owners. Newton House is noted to have had a “splendid heronry” containing “scores of herons” in the 1850s and there is still an area near the deer park named The Heronry today. Other significant heronries were noted in the Carmarthenshire Bird Report of 1983 near Llwynywermod and Aberglasney mansions.

I wish to thank Dilwyn Roberts for the fantastic information I was able to gather from his report on Heronries in Carmarthenshire that appeared in the County’s Bird Report of 1983

Studying the archived Bird Reports that are kept hidden away in a back room of Llanelli library was an absolute delight. I sat in a corner while the storm raged outside and lost myself in pages of recordings of years gone by.

Herons do move nesting sites and it appears that birds from the Newton House heronry eventually moved downstream to Allt y Wern near Llangathen, but by 1971 this new site was abandoned and 35 pairs of birds relocated to Allt y Gaer near Dryslwyn. By the mid 1970s this was thought to be the largest heronry in Wales with around 60 nests and it was still well occupied in the 1984 survey of the county’s birds with 56 active nests. The reasons for these relocations vary and is thought to be driven by adverse events. The 1928 census of British heronries notes how a large heronry in Carmarthenshire was destroyed during the Great War of 1914-1918 when timber was felled as part of the war effort. The Napoleonic and Armada periods were also significant times for the destruction of heronries. British records go back to the 13th century and some of these recorded nest sites are still in use. I wonder which heronries were in the Tywi valley when the Princes of Deheubarth were founding castles here?

Place names can indicate the history of wildlife in an area and although Creyr isn’t a word seen much on maps (but please do let me know if you have examples), the Welsh word derived from ‘Crane’ is more frequently used. There are numerous place and house names containing ‘Garan’ and many are near water, both inland and coastal. The grey heron is able to feed on both fresh and salt water fish, as well as amphibians and small mammals but these creatures are vulnerable to pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals so it’s important that ponds, rivers and ditches are protected from pollution for the sake of the life within them and for the rest of the food chain.

Herons are unusual in other ways too. They have a special type of feather on their breasts called powder down, which they crush with their feet into granules and spread over themselves. The powder soaks up the dirt from the heron’s feathers, which it then scrapes off with a serrated claw. It also helps waterproof the birds. Powder down is often found in birds that lack preen glands, such as parrots, herons and tinamous – a Central and South American ground dwelling bird.

The Towy valley has flooded every weekend for weeks. This heron was photographed in a field a long way from the riverbank.

As well as the familiar sight of the silent, solitary, riverbank hunter waiting to stab a fish with lightning speed accuracy; herons are often seen standing still in the middle of a field. This puzzled me initially because they aren’t known for hunting worms like buzzards or blackbirds do. Herons don’t have a crop or gizzard to help with digestion and they swallow their food whole. Fish are usually swallowed headfirst and eels are subdued by being bashed against the ground or stabbed with the beak and eaten. The heron’s S-shaped neck has a special vertebrae that enables the bird to strike quickly and forcefully at its prey as well as having a role in making its flight more aerodynamic and in courtship rituals. The heron can take a long time to digest its food so will stand silently to do this. And why so often are they stood on only one leg? The answer isn’t “because if they lifted it up they’d fall over”. Think about how you keep your hands warm when you put them in your pockets. Birds often stand on one leg to reduce heat loss from their exposed limbs.

My favourite view of a heron was at Oakwood theme park this summer. I had taken my son and his friend and it was a wet and gloomy day which meant crowd numbers were low. The boys decided to see if they could have back-to-back rides on the Megaphobia rollercoaster and I volunteered to hold their coats and watch!  As I stood by the boating lake waiting to hear the screams as the rollercoaster dropped, I saw a heron fishing. I watched it for around half an hour and although families walked past me to join the queue for the ride, only 2 people spotted it. One of whom asked their dad if it was a real heron or animatronic. This bird was so used to the clatter of the wooden rollercoaster and the screams of excited and terrified people, it didn’t flinch each time the ride went past and it just carried on watching the lake silently, occasionally moving a little and then suddenly stabbing at a fish. It demonstrated how well animals and birds adapt to the artificial environments humans construct as long as they can still meet their needs for food, safety and somewhere to live. It also reminded me how many people go about their day to day life without noticing the nature on their doorstep and how important it is to share the wonder of the natural world so that when that young girl next sees an unfamiliar bird, she feels inspired to learn about it and not assume it’s a robot! `

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