Carpenter’s Cannibal Salmon




Atlantic Salmon (public domain image)


War loomed large on the front page of the Northern Daily Mail on 1 Sept. 1939. Poland is complaining about being a victim of German aggression and Hitler is making provocative speeches.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science was meeting in Dundee and the anxious committee decided to cancel the remainder of the meeting.   The night trains to London and other parts of the country were simultaneous booked up with all available sleeping accommodation reserved.

Kathleen Carpenter (from Liverpool University) was lucky, because earlier in the day she got to report on one of the first detailed studies of the diet of young salmon (Vol. 110: 81-96, 1940: Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London).  She had examined hundreds of young salmon from the Welsh Dee over a two year period.

Several newspapers ran headlines on the theme of “cannibal salmon” and contained almost identical quotes from Dr. Carpenter:
“The result is to show that the young salmon are wholly opportunists in their feeding, taking greedily any sort of animal food which is available, no matter what its nature and origin.”

“The stomach contents include examples of almost all the invertebrate animals found in the streams, and also such miscellaneous items as a bird’s feather, a mole-flea, ants, spiders and millipedes, many winged insects, portions of the skeletons of fishes, and some unmistakable salmon eggs.”

“The interest of this new record of cannibalism is enhanced by the fact that one parr, which had swallowed five of these eggs, was a prematurely ripe and already spent male, and so may quite possibly have eaten his own offspring.”

The abstract of her scientific paper described the salmon as “indiscriminately carnivorous”- they ate whatever was available at the time.   She considered material from outside the river ecosystem important, especially leaf-eating tree-parasites which fall into the river in the autumn.  For this reason she thought the growth of riparian trees and vegetation desirable. Fish scale readings seemed to correspond to the seasonal cycle in feeding.  In her opinion there is no evidence of loss of appetite at any season but merely variations in opportunity.

This paper was Kathleen Carpenter’s last contribution to the scientific literature.

Three days after the aborted Dundee meeting on the 3rd Sept., Britain declared war of Germany. Presumably Kathleen Carpenter returned safely to Liverpool.  In a review of the pollution of rivers of West Wales in 1944 (which was first documented by Carpenter), Lily Newton remarks in a footnote that a complete set of scientific records were destroyed in enemy action.  There is no acknowledgement of any assistance from Kathleen Carpenter. To add to the mystery Liverpool University archives have no record of Kathleen Carpenter.

You can find out more about Kathleen Carpenter at my International Women’s Day lecture at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here. If you have any records for her in Liverpool during or after the Second World War please get in touch.


Kathleen Carpenter Sets Sail


Everyone remembers the international scientific conferences at the start of their careers. There is the mixture of excitement and trepidation, a presentation to prepare and the logistics of travel arrangements. You may be travelling alone across the world or taking advantage of attending a more local venue.

My father was nervous when I set off across Europe alone by train to attend the Cladocera Conference in Budapest which was still behind The Iron Curtain.  I also have very fond memories of an early morning walk from a croft in the highlands to the local station to catch a train to the Palaeolimnology Conference in the Lake District.

We can empathise with Kathleen Carpenter when she set sail on her career in freshwater ecology. She boarded the White Star Ship, Migantic, in Liverpool on 25th July 1924, en route to the British Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting in Toronto. She had just completed her M.Sc. degree at Aberystwyth University on The freshwater fauna of the Aberystwyth District of Cardiganshire and its relations to lead pollution.

She appeared to be travelling alone and described herself as a scientific investigator on the passenger list. I scanned the occupations of the other women passengers on the same page – domestic, housewife, teacher, manageress. The social history of women was in transition but Kathleen Carpenter was confident about her scientific credentials.

The passenger list was not in alphabetical order suggesting passengers were recorded as they arrived and three lines below Kathleen Carpenter another name caught my eye – William Alexander Balfour-Browne, Zoology Lecturer from Highgate. Freshwater ecologists in Ireland and the UK will recognise this famous name associated with water beetles. After studying zoology at Oxford, he went on to teach at the predecessor college to Queen’s University Belfast and lectured at Cambridge. He was a friend of the Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger who wrote The Way that I Went: An Irishman in Ireland (1969).  Balfour-Browne went on to be President of the Society of British Entomology.

It was fascinating to realise that travel records have the potential to reveal scientific associations. Carpenter and Balfour-Browne may have arranged to travel together and perhaps took the opportunity to discuss their research?  Can you imagine their conversations over dinner or strolling along the deck?  Kathleen would have been a charming travelling companion as her passion for her field is clearly evident in her writing.  Perhaps they discussed their book plans, as in the following years Carpenter published A Life in Inland Waters (1928) and Balfour-Browne produced a Textbook of Practical Entomology (1932).

Are you curious to hear about the other famous scientists who were on the Migantic?  You can find out at my International Women’s Day lecture on the life of Kathleen Carpenter at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here.


The Poetry of Life in Inland Waters

In 1928 Kathleen E. Carpenter, a pioneering freshwater ecologist at Aberystwyth University, wrote the first freshwater ecology textbook in English.

The reviewer in the Journal of Ecology said: “Dr. Carpenter’s book is most attractively written, wide knowledge and accuracy of expression being combined with a very patent love for the scenery and inhabitants of British fresh waters.”

Kathleen Carpenter obviously tried to capture her feelings of love for the inhabitants of fresh water in the poetic author’s preface – read in this sound file.


I will be reading other extracts from “Life in Inland Waters” at my International Women’s Day lecture on the life of Kathleen Carpenter at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here.

Carpenter Country – a Freshwater Landscape


The rain poured down and I had to drive to Aberystwyth. Water was projecting out from between the stones making up the walls on the right-hand side of the road, turning the route into a sleek, treacherous, black river. The Dwyryd had reclaimed its floodplain in front of Plas Tan Y Bwlch. I got other brief glimpses of angry brown river torrents topped with murky white crests – riffles had turned into rages.

When you cross the Dyfi Bridge, north of Machynlleth, you are in Carpenter country. Kathleen Carpenter was a pioneering woman ecologist working at Aberystwyth University in the 1920s. She compared the mine polluted waters of the Ystwyth and Rheidol, “destitute of fish-life” with the relatively healthy Leri, Teifi and Dyfi, with “rich fisheries”.

I was on my way to the National Library Wales in Aberystwyth to consult the papers of Kathleen Carpenter. Every new research subject begins with a bibliography, a literature landscape, so I have listed her publications below.

The weather was unrelenting and I crouched against the wind and rain walking from the car park to the door of the library.  In the welcome warmth and calm of the South Reading Room I was given two slim, fragile, cardboard folders.  The faded yellow folder containing her M.Sc papers was bound by a white ribbon tied in a bow.   Who bound this folder and when was it last opened?

The bow slipped easily and revealed the type written copy of her submission letter (25 April 1923) to The Register of the University of Wales:

Dear Sir,
In enclosing copies of my Thesis for the degree of M.Sc. I beg to remind you of the special decision of the Academic Board last summer to recognise retrospectively my scheme of work on the “freshwater fauna of the Aberystwyth District of Cardiganshire  and its relation to lead pollution,” as recommended by the College for candidature this year.

I enclose cheque for the fee of £8, and also state as required by the regulation:-

(a) that the work has not been and is not being submitted for any other Academic degree.

(b) that the thesis is based upon original investigations, explicit reference being made in the text to any other work which is necessary to quote.

Yours faithfully,

Kathleen E. Carpenter

It was a slight disappointment to find the letter was unsigned but some small, neat, hand-written annotations in black ink on other pages must have been made by Kathleen.

The return journey to North Wales required a detour because the Dyfi Bridge was under water.   Carpenter country was cut-off by the river marking its boundary.

I will be attempting to cross the Dyfi again for my International Women’s Day lecture on the life of Kathleen Carpenter at Aberystwyth University on the evening of 7th March 2016 – details here.

Carpenter, K. E. 1922. The fauna of the Clarach stream (Cardiganshire) and its tributaries. Aberystwyth studies by members of the University College of Wales, 4, 251-258.

Carpenter, K. E. 1923. Distribution of Limnæa pereger and L. truncatula. Nature 112(2801), 9.

Carpenter, K.E. 1924. A study of the fauna of rivers polluted by lead mining in the Aberystwyth district of Cardiganshire.  The Annals of Applied Biology, 9(38), 1-23.

Carpenter, K.E. 1924. The freshwater fauna of the Aberystwyth district of Cardiganshire, studied with especial reference to the pollution of streams consequent on lead-mining operations.  No. 49, File F.G. 1898, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Standing Committee on River Pollution.

Carpenter, K. E. 1925. Biological factors involved in the destruction of river-fisheries by pollution due to lead-mining. Ser. No 84, Rep. No. 77, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Standing Committee on River Pollution.

Carpenter, K. E. 1925. On the biological factors involved in the destruction of river-fisheries by pollution due to lead-mining.  The Annals of Applied Biology, 12(44), 1-13.

Carpenter, K. E. 1926. The lead mine as an active agent in river pollution.
Annals of Applied Biology, 13(3),  395–401. 

Carpenter, K. E. 1926. A Planarian species new to Britain. Nature, 117(2946), 556.

Carpenter, K. E. 1926.  Report on the lethal action of led salts on fishes.  Ser. No. 190, Rep. No. 129, Ref. File F.G. 1655. Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Standing Committee on River Pollution.

Carpenter, K. E. 1927. The lethal action of soluble metallic salts on fishes.  

Carpenter, K. E. 1927. Faunistic ecology of some Cardiganshire streams.  Journal of Ecology 15(1), 33-54.

Carpenter, K. E. 1928. Life in Inland Waters, with especial reference to animals. Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd.

Carpenter, K. E. 1928. On the tropisms of some freshwater planarians. The British Journal of Experimental Biology, 5, 196-203.

Carpenter, K. E. 1930†. Further researches on the action of metallic salts on fishes.  Journal of Experimental Zoology, 6, 407–422. 
Contributions from the Zoölogical Laboratories of the University of Illinois, no. 376.

Carpenter, K. E. (1931). Variations in Holopedium Species. Science, 74, 550-551.

Carpenter, K. E. (1939). Food of Salmon Parr. Nature, 143, 336.

 Carpenter, K. E. 1940.  The feeding of Salmon parr in the Cheshire Dee. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 110, 81-96.


In Berlin – a reminder of Acid Rain


Bullet holes, Neues Museum, Berlin. Photo by Warren Kovach.

The bullet holes in the walls of Berlin are being filled in but they are still very visible.  Residents live with the human history and tragedy around every corner of this beautiful and healing city.  World War 2 divided the city and defined its recent history until The Wall came down.  An encounter with the statue of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, statesman, writer and scientist, in the Tiergarten made me think about the environmental history of the city.

Goethe Monument, Berlin. Photo by Warren Kovach.

Goethe Monument, Berlin. Photo by Warren Kovach.

Acid Rain was the high profile international environmental crisis of the last century.  It was caused by fossil fuel pollution.  Emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, largely from power plants and cars, lead to the formation of acid in the atmosphere.  In many ways Berlin would have been at the centre of the story surrounded by the heavy industry of East German and the growing international political interest in Europe and the Soviet Union.

Scandinavian scientists were the first to make the link between fishery loss and the long-distance transport of atmospheric acidic compounds.  However German scientists demonstrated the damage caused to forestry.  The trees in The Black Forest were dying.  The international scale was further exemplified by the conclusion that the majority of the upland waters in the UK were acidified, with changes in lake and river ecosystems, but convincing evidence of biological recovery is now emerging.

There were also environmental impacts from Acid Rain in urban environments, especially for buildings and statues made of calcareous material, such as limestone and marble.  Facades and statue faces started to crumble across Europe.  Precious objects, like the statue of Goethe, were moved to places of safety.

Political analysts are still debating the definitive reasons behind the eventual agreement of the international Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution Convention which lead to the successful reduction of the acid-forming pollutants.  In the end it proved to be more about European scientific consensus and political unification than division, and this merits study in a climate change context.  No doubt Goethe with his interest in nature and political connections would have been a contributor to the debate but unfortunately he was displaced by time.

The statue of Goethe in Berlin was not returned to its original location until the air pollution was reduced to acceptable levels in the 1990s, and years of careful restoration were required to clean and repair it.  Now the great man looks down and reminds us that human politics and the environment are closely connected.

“In Nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it. “  Goethe.

Uisce Guest Blog – Cwm Idwal: Through History and Heritage by Christopher Stuart Forrest, Bangor University

Every year Bangor University students visit Cwm Idwal to see and discuss the conservation importance of the lake as part of an undergraduate module on freshwater ecosystems. Last year we decided to set a new science communication challenge for the students by asking them to write a blog on the experience.  Christopher Stuart Forrest produced an outstanding article which we are delighted to be able to publish here.  In addition this exercise was described by external course examiners as ‘exemplar’ giving students the chance to combine science and the arts.

We look forward to bringing more students to walk in the footsteps of Charles Darwin at Cwm Idwal. It is evident from this blog that a visit to this site in any weather can be an inspirational experience.

Catherine Duigan & Nathalie Fenner

Llyn Idwal under a cloud roof.

Llyn Idwal under a cloud roof. Photo by Warren Kovach.

Standing above Llyn Idwal this weekend past, I found myself wishing I could simply rest and watch this upland landscape play through thousands of years in a matter of months, to watch the snow fall and the steam rise above Twll Du, Devil’s Kitchen.  Nowhere else have I found a place which provokes such a visceral feeling of wilderness, of the Old World.  I hope my words can portray the pictures of Cwm Idwal as it passes through the seasons.

In the depths of winter, a primeval scene is set.  The frozen llyn, with the ice insulating life below, shifts focus to the apparently bare geology of this amphitheatre.  I am reminded of volcanism; of the time through which the landforms have taken shape to what is now the Idwal Syncline (Fitches and Scott, 1992); of the Welsh derived names known globally for describing the significant periods of formation and deformation: Cambrian, Ordovician and Silurian (Fitches and Scott, 1992; Gradstein et al., 2004; Murchison, 1839; Sedgwick and Murchison, 1835; Ratcliffe, 1977).  I am reminded of the significance the geology this site holds for the llyn; the acid-buffering qualities of the bare alkaline rock of its shallow basins (Duigan et al., 1998; Rimes, 1992), having helped to stabilise the water chemistry over the past 100 years in the face of agriculture and industry (Fritz et al., 1991; Rimes, 1992).  I am reminded that the geology I now present to you was once the study of Darwin; a geology which informed the world (Darwin, 1842).  With annual flowers absent and animal activity reduced, the cwm seems paused, awaiting revival.

In the warmth of spring, the long melted ice reveals the clear, nutrient poor waters of the llyn, the corrie lake, as a window to the past.  The prehistoric fern, the pillwort (Pilularia globulifera); the water horsetail (Equisetum fluvitaile); and the watermilfoil (Myriophyllum alterniflorum) emerge to set an ancient scene.  Engineering the environment are the mostly perennial isoetid communities, an incredibly significant part of such a freshwater system (Murphy, 2002).  Of these, the quillwort (Isoetes lacustris) dominates (Duigan et al., 1998), and has been present at Llyn Idwal for many thousands of years (Godwin, 1955).  It is joined by the rare flowering water lobelia (Lobelia dortmanna); the herbaceous shoreweed (Littorella uniflora); and the annual awlwort (Subularia aquatica).  With their rosette forms and blends of green and yellow leaves carpeting the llyn, the isoetids tolerate the conditions of this soft-water like no other plant species could (Roelofs, 2002).  Indeed, it is under this stress that they thrive (Murphy, 2002; Szmeja, 1987).  Their interactions with their immediate environment, which includes the ability to harvest carbon dioxide from the sediment, respire through the night and readily acquire available nitrates, allow them not just to survive but to maintain the balance of the llyn’s chemistry (Madsen et al., 2002; Roelofs, 2002; Smolders et al., 2002).  One might notice the presence of the floating bulbous rush (Juncus bulbosus var. fluitans), which, though not an isoetid, can too survive through acquiring carbon dioxide through sediment (Wetzel et al., 1985).  The conditions created and maintained by the rocks, the isoetids and the rainwaterfeeding the llyn (Roelofs, 2002) facilitate the survival of an old rare algal species, the stoneworts (Nitella gracilis and N. opaca).  In a lake of different chemistry, they might simply perish (Gomes and Asaeda, 2009).

There is rarity in Cwm Idwal, and a greater number of species than I have cared to mention above; it is incredibly rich in species in the llyn alone (Ratcliffe, 1977).  I do not view its conservation value in scarcity or rarity, however, but in the value placed upon the attributes I have discussed.  I find myself paraphrasing UNESCO in my justification of why Cwm Idwal is so important.  It embellishes Welsh culture and heritage in its geological history; it is forever entwined in global academic development of geological science due in no small part to the ideas of Darwin; its natural beauty is unquestionable; and its plants maintain a representation of Earth’s past, in a significant geological setting (UNESCO, 2005).I hope that I will not be writing again in ten years’ time appealing for protection of the characteristic species, having then become rare.

Darwin, C. (1842).  Notes on the Effects Produced by the Ancient Glaciers of Caernarvonshire, and on the Boulders Transported by Floating Ice, Philosophical Magazine, 21, 180 – 188.

Duigan, C. A., Allott, T. E. H., Monteith, D. T., Patrick, S. T., Lancaster, J.and Seda, J. M. (1998).  The Ecology and Conservation of LlynIdwal and LlynCwellyn (Snowdonia National Park, North Wales, UK) – Two Lakes Proposed as Special Areas of Conservation in Europe, Aquatic Conservation: Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst.,8, 325 – 360.

Fitches, W. R. and Scott, R. (1992).  ‘Wales’, in Treagus, J. E. (Ed.) Caledonian Structures in Britain: South of the Midland Valley, London, Chapman & Hall, pp. 98 – 116.

Fritz, S. C., Kreiser, A. M., Patrick, S. T. and Battarbee, R. W. (1991).  ‘The Causes and History of Acidification in North Wales – Evidence from Lake Sediments’, in Gritten, R. H. (Ed.), Proceedings of Acid Deposition in Gwynedd Conference, Plas Tan-Y-Bwlch, Maentwrog, 16 – 18 March, 1989, Snowdonia National Park Authority, pp. 69 – 75.

Godwin, H. (1955).  Vegetational History at Cwm Idwal: A Welsh Plant Refuge, SvenskBotaniskTidskrift, 49, 35 – 43.

Gomes, P. I. A. and Asaeda, T. (2009).  Phycoremediation of Chromium (VI) by Nitella and Impact of Calcium Encrustation, Journal of Hazardous Materials, 166, 1332 – 1338.

Gradstein, F. M., Ogg, J. G. and Smith, A. G. (2004).  A Geologic Time Scale, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Madsen, T. V., Olesen, B. and Bagger, J. (2002).  Carbon Acquisition and Carbon Dynamics by Aquatic Isoetids, Aquatic Botany, 4 (4), 351 – 371.

Murchison, R. I. (1839).  The Silurian System Founded on Geological Researches in the Counties of Salop, Hereford, Radnor, Montgomery, Caermarthen, Brecon, Pembroke, Monmouth, Gloucester, Worcester, and Stafford: with Descriptions of the Coal-fields, and Overlying Formations, Vol. 1 & 2, London, John Murray.

Murphy, K. J. (2002).  Plant Communities and Plant Diversity in Softwater Lakes of Northern Europe, Aquatic Botany, 4 (4), 287 – 324.

Ratcliffe, D. A. (1977).  A Nature Conservation Review, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Rimes, C. (1992).  Freshwater Acidification of SSSIs in Great Britain.  IV Wales, Countryside Council for Wales, Bangor.

Roelofs, J. G. M. (2002).  Soft-water Macrophytes and Ecosystems: Why are they so Vulnerable to Environmental Changes?: Introduction, Aquatic Botany, 4 (4), 285 – 286.

Sedgwick, A. and Murchison, R. I. (1835).  On the Cambrian and Silurian Systems Exhibiting the Order in Which the Older Sedimentary Strata Succeeded Each Other in England and Wales, London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine, 7, 483 – 485.

Szmeja, J. (1987).  The Structure of a Population of Lobelia dortmanna L. Along a Gradient of Increasing Depth in an Oligotrophic Lake, Aquatic Botany, 28, 1 – 13.

Smolders, A. J. P., Lucassen, E. C. H. E. T. andRoelofs, J. G. M. (2002).  The Isoetid Environment: Biogeochemistry and Threats, Aquatic Botany, 4 (4), 325 – 350.

UNESCO (2005).  Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention [Online], Paris, UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

Wetzel, R. G., Brammer, E. S., Lindstrom, K. A. R. E. and Forsberg, C. (1985).  Photosynthesis of Submersed Macrophytes in Acidified Lakes II. Carbon Limitation and Utilization of Benthic CO2 Sources, Aquatic Botany, 22, 107 – 120.

Art Discovery – Welsh Lake Landscapes by Frank Ward

In March 2014 I went to the National Library of Wales to research a book, The Lakes of Wales by Frank Ward, the discovery of a unique collection of watercolours of Welsh lakes was completely unanticipated. 


The Frank Ward Collection in the National Library consists of two grey cardboard boxes – one large and one small.  I only had a few hours to do my research so I began with the large box which contained his correspondence, the galley proofs for The Lakes of Wales and a scrap book of the book reviews.  However, I knew I had really found treasure when I opened the second smaller box.  Carefully stored inside were an exquisite set of watercolours of Welsh lakes.  Many of the great lakes of Wales are represented – Cwellyn, Eigiau, Gamallt, Hir, Idwal, Padarn, Tegid, Teifi.

The majority of the images occupy a single page but some pages had more than one scene.  As a consequence some of the paintings are only a few centimeters square. Each page was small enough to be carried and painted on a simple clip board in the field.  The colours remain vibrant and were applied with an eye for the detail and texture of the landscape. Only one image contains two small stick-like human figures, but sometimes a house or boat is included.  Clouds often add atmosphere. Each location is recorded in copperplate handwriting.

Frank Ward had a strong attachment to the landscapes of Snowdonia, especially the area around Tryfan which he described as ‘one of the finest mountains in Wales’.  Tryfan features in two paintings; one with Lyn Clyd and the second which is reproduced above.

The artist must have been cold sitting on the mountain side painting this image of Tryfan with Llyn Ogwen and Llyn Bochlwyd.  No doubt more clouds were swirling just above where he sat. He may also have been crafting his entry for Llyn Ogwen in his gazetteer of Welsh lakes which describes this scene:

‘A fine lake in magnificent but very gloomy surroundings at the head of the Nant Ffrancon Pass, near Bethesda, and 10 miles from Bangor.

The ascent of this pass is considered by many to excel in grandeur the better-known Pass of Llanberis. Just before reaching the lake, the valley narrows to little more than the width of the road, which passes almost over the Falls of Benglog. Here the river issuing from the lake plunges in three great steps through huge clefts in the rocks to the head of the valley, 200 feet below. Surrounded by several of the highest mountains in Wales, grouped with a savage wildness, Ogwen bears nearly always a dark and forbidding aspect. Its grandest feature, dominating the lake from every point, is the unique and splendid Tryfan (3,010 feet), familiar to climbers. This beautiful and symmetrical mountain ending in three peaks, its sides sloping precipitously to form a ”knife edge,” rises practically from the water; in fact the road skirting the side of Ogwen had to be cut across the base of Tryfan.’

A photograph of Llyn Ogwen taken lower down but from the same side of the lake is included in the book and entitled ‘The End of a Summer Day’.  Low cloud is visible in the image and perhaps it was taken on the way down from the painting session.

Maybe I should not have been surprised to find these paintings, as black and white reproductions of the Llyn Teifi and Llyn Ffynnon Loer water colours are included in The Lakes of Wales.  But it is great to know they are being safely archived in The National Library of Wales.  I am not an art expert, so a professional critique is yet to follow.  However  I would be very interested to explore any suggestions for making these paintings, part of the environmental history of Wales, more available to the public.  They deserve it.

Crafting a Coracle – Republished

Spring has arrived and painting my coracle is on my list of things to do! Here is the account of how I made it. 

This special blog post was produced for World Rivers Day, 30 September 2012. It was first published on The Welsh View the decommissioned blog of the Countryside Council for Wales.  The text is republished here with permission from Natural Resources Wales.

I arrived in at the Green Wood Centre in Ironbridge feeling quite apprehensive. My experience of large construction projects is confined mainly to using brightly coloured plastic bricks from Denmark. Somehow I was now facing a three day coracle building course equipped with a bag of borrowed tools.Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales] provided one of the first descriptions of a coracle as as near round boat made of willow and covered with raw hides – perfect for fishing and crossing streams. I knew they were used on rivers in Ireland, England and Wales so I guess some subliminal part of my Celtic heritage had played tricks on me when I signed up for the course, part of my summer holiday plans.

Day one – symmetry, slats and spats

Day one focused on making the wooden frame. This was a task  traditionally undertaken by men. Our merry group of coracle makers consisted of two couples, five single men, two young teenage girls [working together] and me.  Nine coracles were to be produced over the next few days. We were drawn from far and wide – Anglesey, New Zealand, London, Cambridge, the Isle of Wight.

Kevin, our teacher, started by presenting us with three blocks of wood and a plank, the makings of the seat – immediately demonstrating to us how to screw the fundamentals together.

Building a basket.

Building a basket.

This simple structure would be the anchoring point for an architecture of thin and very flexible ash slats. Next, we fixed the main ribs, which were used to build up an overlapping lattice of slats. We then attached the near circular rim.

It was a tricky job to coax and massage the slats into a symmetric series of curves and then to nail them to the rim. The objective was to make sure there were no gaps between the overlapping slats. There were certainly a few exclamations as slats snapped while being bent into place.

At the end of the day the elegant wooden coracle skeletons rested on our work tables like giant baskets. Amazingly I had escaped without any blackened finger nails from hammer blows.

Day two – casting the coracle

Fitting the fabric to the frame.

Fitting the fabric to the frame.

Day two was mainly women’s work but nevertheless proved tougher going for me – though it began with finishing the wood work.

I installed three slats under the seat which would confine thrashing fish to the back of the coracle and not have them under the occupant’s feet.

There are accounts of large salmon pulling both boat and experienced fishermen under water!

At this point in coracle construction, women would have taken on the responsibility to fit the cover and to carry out the water proofing process using pitch.

It must have been a tough and unpleasant task dealing with raw hides – but over time these were replaced by flannel, calico or canvas. I draped a single large piece of calico up and over the outside of the basket shape – working to form three pleats on either side of the front of the vessel and four pleats across the back.

To make the shape more hydrodynamic the pleats are reversed to go with the flow of water around the boat. The fabric was pulled taut over the edge of the rim and fixed in place using a staple gun.

Coracles transformed into shiny black turtles by a coat of bitumen.

Coracles transformed into shiny black turtles by a coat of bitumen.

After being on our feet for the first day it was good to have the excuse to sit down. We rested the edge of our coracles on our knees and started stitching up the pleats.

I was foolish to decline the first offer of assistance with the sewing but eventually relented as my fingers grew sore and tired from forcing the curved upholstery needle through the layers of fabric.

Red spots of blood appeared on some of the white calico covers.

The day ended with the application of the first coat of bitumen. We left our coracles looking like a row of giant turtles with shiny black shells.

Day three – afloat!

The pressure was off on day three as we just needed to add some more coats of bitumen, learn how to attach the final trim around the rim and make the paddle.

The highlight, of course, was getting on the water.

Ironbridge Coracle (front); Cleddau Coracle (back).

Ironbridge Coracle (front); Cleddau Coracle (back).

A coracle is a very agile and maneuverable craft and it draws only a couple of inches of water making them ideal for shallow, rocky and boulder strewn Welsh rivers.

We had a gentle introduction to using a coracle on a nearby pond. I jumped at the chance to try out a Cleddau coracle, which has a relatively straight front edge. It is also a heavier structure than anIronbridge coracle.

The trickiest part is getting in backwards, and finding a footing with gives you the balance to allow you to sit back and down on the seat behind you. After that it was more stable than I anticipated and felt like being in a small rowing boat.

I completely failed to master the figure of eight paddle movement used to propel my craft, but happily punted around with one paddle for some time.

Taking my turtle home

Now it was time to go, and I strapped my coracle to the car roof rack. Stuck in a traffic jam outside Shrewsbury and driving through the glorious rolling Shropshire landscape, I wonder how many other drivers noticed that our roof box shape was actually a much treasured coracle on its way home. I made it!

Building a coracle was a rewarding social and creative experience. We helped each other, shared our knowledge of woodwork and thoroughly enjoyed working with a natural material.

We left with an appreciation of the history of coracles and their part in our Celtic heritage. Coracles are a connection between people and their environment.

And for my next challenge? Perhaps some kind readers would be willing to teach me how to fly fish?

The Mysterious Life of a Lake Book #MothersDay

Frank Ward's Lakes of Wales book in Gregynog Library.

Frank Ward’s Lakes of Wales book in Gregynog Library.

Ernest Lakin-Smith –
Hoping he may find
time to explore some
of these Welsh Lakes
in the future!
With all best wishes
from – Cary W. Davies

Christmas – 1937.

You can write a book but after that each individual copy of your book will live a life of its own – a bit like your children. The book may sit unloved by an individual but treasured by many on a library shelf.  It might may live its life with one person and spend generations within one family home.  A book is often considered an expression of love, a gift.

A personal inscription can provide the clue to the life of a book and the hands which held it.

For me finding a copy of The Lakes of Wales by Frank Ward is like meeting an old friend.  I want to say hello and continue the conversation.  Where have you been?  What have you been doing recently?  I was not surprised to find a copy of Ward’s book in the wonderful Gregynog Library recently but this one spoke back to me.

The enigmatic inscription inside the front cover (reproduced above) left me full of questions.  Clearly this copy of The Lakes of Wales was given as a token of appreciation to a respected and busy man.   Mr. Lakin-Smith was not addressed directly as a friend and it seems doubtful that he would have time to explore these lakes.  I can imagine that this book was dropped off with his secretary before Christmas 1937, with no expectation that the giver, Cary Davies, would get to meet the man. Maybe Cary hoped he would find the time and come see the lakes of Wales with her.

So far I have been unable to find out anything about Ernest Lakin-Smith.  Who was he?  Mary, the fantastic Gregynog librarian, did not know who he was either and she said she did not think Cary W. Davies was one of the Gregynog Davies family.  Some of the Gregynog library collection came from the Theological College in Bala, so it is possible that the book found its way to Gregynog from Bala.

So I reluctantly put this copy of The Lakes of Wales back on its shelf and left with a feeling that the life story of this book was still untold but full of mystery.

I would be delighted to hear from readers who can tell me more about Ernest Lakin-Smith or Cary W. Davies.  If you have a copy of The Lakes of Wales, you are welcome to continue the book conversations by reproducing any inscriptions below. 

An Acid Reign – Republished

This week I attended a meeting of the UK and Ireland Lakes Network in Abergavenny.  The keynote address “Remote Lakes: pristine or polluted” was given by Prof. Richard Battarbee FRS (University College London).  He described Llyn Llagi and the Afon Gwy as star performers in terms of acid rain recovery in the UK.  The blog republished below provides additional background to the acidification story in Wales and the evidence of recovery in Llyn Llagi.

This article was first published on The Welsh View the decommissioned blog of the Countryside Council for Wales.  The text is republished here with permission from Natural Resources Wales.  I am grateful to Ewan Shilland for permission to use the photographs.

I still remember the exciting feeling of walking in the doors of the young Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) in April 1992. The post of ‘Freshwater and Peatland Ecologist’ came with a remit to explore the diversity of wetland environments in Wales – bliss!  However all was not well…

An insidious agent
Alarmingly, ‘Acid Rain’, caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the production of atmospheric sulphur and nitrogen acids, was affecting large areas of North America and Europe – including the mountains of Wales.

In CCW Carrie Rimes was putting the finishing touches to her landmark report on the freshwater acidification of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Great Britain.  She showed that on 141 SSSIs (covering > 433000ha), the freshwater habitats were probably damaged by acid rain.  In fact, North Wales was the most severely affected area with over 55% of the total SSSI area potentially damaged.

Wales is particularly sensitive to the acid rain because its geology and soils had little buffering capability.  In addition the impact was being made worse by local land use, especially by conifer plantations, which increased acid and toxic metal run-off.

Over half of Wales’ stream length (approx. 12,000km) was acidified to some extent with corresponding changes in the resident plant and animals.  The species of spectacularly beautiful microscopic algae called diatoms were changing dramatically.

At the other end of the food chain, it was thought that our classic mountain stream birds, the Dippers, were going hungry and moving to less acid streams to find enough of their favourite invertebrate prey.  Deaths of fish stocked into acid lakes were being reported, and natural salmon and trout populations were struggling to reproduce.

Welsh fishermen had good cause for concern and fishing businesses were paying a high price.

The fight back begins
I arrived in CCW knowing that the international scientific and political debate about the causes of acid rain had been brewing since the late 1970’s.  It started with Scandinavia implicating polluted air blown from highly industrial areas in Europe, including Britain, as the cause for fish loss in Sweden.

Llyn Llagi in Snowdonia is one of the lakes monitored by the UK Acid Water Monitoring Network © Ewan Shilland

Llyn Llagi in Snowdonia is one of the lakes monitored by the UK Acid Water Monitoring Network © Ewan Shilland

Indeed, at one stage the UK was being depicted in cartoons as “The dirty man of Europe”, and Norway was threatening not to send the UK its traditional gift of a Christmas tree for Trafalgar Square.  Eventually an international investigative research project between the UK and Scandinavia was agreed, and in 1987 the Thatcher Government agreed to reduce sulphur emissions.

The scientific work evolved into the creation of a long-term monitoring programme called the UK Acid Water Monitoring Network (UK AWMN) to track any ecological responses to emission reductions.  This network includes 2 lakes (Llyn Llagi; Llyn Cwm Mynach) and 2 streams (Afon Gwy, Afon Hafren) in Wales. The UK became a signatory to the ‘Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution’ which required the production of ‘critical load maps’ showing the extent and relative degree of potential damage from acid rain and the potential for recovery if emissions were reduced.

In CCW at this stage my colleague Simon Bareham, Pollution Officer, was working with the other country conservation agencies to develop critical loads maps for assessing the effects of air pollution on habitats.  Simon reminded me recently that map production was a very labour intensive job before GIS!

Recovery and reflection
By the start of this century, sulphur dioxide emissions had declined to 15% of the 1970’s peak, with discernible responses in water chemistry and biology.  It has been a fascinating experience to witness this environmental recovery through access to the data generated by the Acid Waters Monitoring Network – Welsh fresh waters are making a comeback.

The water in our upland rivers and lakes is now less acid but browner.  There has also been a decrease in the frequency of acid events and the release of toxic metal compounds.  The recent increase in dissolved organic carbon (and browner water) is being interpreted as a return to pre-acidified natural conditions.

Some of the most convincing evidence of biological recovery in the UK has been found in Llyn Llagi, Snowdonia.  When monitoring began acid tolerant species dominated the lake’s flora, especially quillwort (Isoetes lacustris), shoreweed (Littorella uniflora) and Water Lobelia (Lobelia dortmanna).  Then in 1993, the sensitive Awlwort (Subularia aquatica) appeared, to be followed by the Water-Starwort (Callitriche hamulata) in 1999, and even more species in 2009.

Some of the most convincing evidence of biological recovery in the UK has been found in Llyn Llagi, Snowdonia © Ewan Shilland

Some of the most convincing evidence of biological recovery in the UK has been found in Llyn Llagi, Snowdonia © Ewan Shilland

CCW has played its part in this story through its support for the funding and work of the monitoring network.  We have also facilitated experiments with the use of lime as a treatment for acidified waters but it has not proved to be the hoped for panacea. We have carried out supplementary investigations of individual upland lakes which were thought to be vulnerable to acidification.

In a recent review of CCW lake survey data for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, we found that out of a total of 63 lakes examined, evidence of significant acidification was found in 25 lakes. In general through our support for research and monitoring in Wales, we have made a significant contribution to the UK and international picture.

New century, new pressures
The lessons learned from the acid rain story are still relevant to the environmental pressures which Welsh fresh waters will face over the next twenty years and longer, especially in the context of climate change.  Wales is not immune to large scale environmental pressures and must play its part in the international responses needed to tackle these issues.

There is hope and evidence that an emission regulation response can work effectively and deliver environmental recovery.  We have also learned that freshwater ecosystems can take a long time to recover or even reverse a negative trend, and we mess with them at our peril.

I will continue to follow the latest monitoring data because of its ability to inform land use policy, especially in relation to the development of forestry.  It also gives CCW the capacity to comment on the state of the Welsh environment.

As sulphur has been cleaned up the role of nitrogen was revealed and its ability to act as another acidifier and polluting fertiliser is a current cause for concern.  Also CCW is supporting the adaptation of the monitoring network to track evidence of climate change.  As an organisation we consider it is critically important to continue to support the collection of key long term monitoring data.

In the context of the Natural Environment Framework, the story of acid rain illustrates how an environmental pressure can alter ecosystem structure and function, and the delivery of ecosystem services.  It is also a powerful example of how environmental monitoring can be employed to assess ecosystem scale changes and health.  Finally it shows it is possible to link chemical trends with biological change.

Some scientists are now saying that our rivers and lakes will not make a simple recovery to pre-acidified conditions because of the persistence and development of new pressures, like nitrogen and climate change.  This make me question whether I’ve really witnessed an environmental recovery in Wales?  It is certain that the acid rain story is not over yet and I wonder what the next twenty years will mean for the fresh waters of Wales?

After all, people are now starting to worry about the acidification of the world’s oceans…our work continues.

See also.
The Upland Waters Monitoring Network
In 2013 the UK Upland Waters Monitoring Network (UKUWMN) replaced the UK Acid Waters Monitoring Network (UK AWMN).

Funded by a consortium led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the UK AWMN was established in 1988 to monitor the chemical and ecological impact of acid deposition in areas of the UK believed to be sensitive to acidification. Over twenty years on, its data-base provides an extremely valuable long-term record of water chemistry and biology which is unique for upland freshwater systems in the UK.