Despite the early hour, I feel the warmth of the sun on my skin as I lift my face to a cloudless sky. We’ve had a series of those glorious days. Shorts are on, outdoor cafes are bursting with smiles, and thoughts of the approaching summer ease the anxiety of winter’s seemingly endless onslaught.
A herd of free range Belted Galloway cattle graze the side of the road. I spot the smallest of the calves. It must only be a few days and I feel an irresistible urge – the magnetic pull of furry cuteness – to rush for a cwtch. Wisely, I resist. I say, ‘Aww, that’s so cute’, out loud, and clench my fists instead.
Every step I take overloads and confuses my early morning brain. The sound and feel of the ground creaking under my walking boots feels like I’m cutting through the hardened surface of deep snow.
And the smell is that of log fires and roasted marshmallows. Associations that can only boost me, despite the totally disparate scene. Unlike the frosty snow angel delights of childhood winters, the ground here is black as soot. Black, because it’s soot. A moor after a fire.
Located at the junction of the A4118 and the B4271, northeast of Swansea Airport, it is now impossible for anyone to ignore this often overlooked landscape. The charred and blackened wasteland is a dramatic and desolate image that will surely etch itself on the retina of any casual observer.
Today’s survey is different. I came for leftovers. To investigate the toll of this senseless destruction. In the past forty-eight hours alone, large swaths of Cefn Bryn and Fairwood Common on Gower have burned. Across Swansea, Kilvey Hill caught fire, and further afield, Abertridwr in Caerphilly, engulfed in flames.
A traditional management practice with a long history, the well organized and tightly regulated burning of dried grasses and woody plants on heathland can be an effective habitat management technique that helps increase soil nutrients and stimulates new growth.
Burning inhibits succession – preventing productive pastures from turning into less suitable brush and wood. There are arguments on both sides of this hotly debated and complex topic, however, these current fires are anything but carefully scrutinized or tightly controlled.
Spring is a frenetic season for much of our wildlife. Populations live or die by the ability of individuals to mate, raise young, and most importantly survive to adulthood.
As an environmentalist, you always hope to find something. You look forward to recording and reporting sightings, while looking forward to the instant rush of endorphins when a much-anticipated encounter occurs. (This rarely happens).
But this time it’s different. Today I hope, I beg, that I find nothing.
Each step on the scorched ground accentuates the smoke. When I close my eyes, I imagine bathers lighting a barbecue on golden sand. But opening them up, the feeling here is quite different.
Dead reptiles are easy to spot.
In no time, I cautiously give up tiptoe walking and resignedly sacrifice my charcoal shoes. A small pond has withstood the furious assault of the flames, and the blackness of its fringes blends into the green. Cocoa butter floats up to my nostrils as sun-yellow gorse flowers sigh in relief.
I see the first victim of the morning. The charred remains are clearly amphibious, but closer inspection identifies the carcass as a toad. With shorter legs than their leaping frog cousins, toads walk… slowly. Too slowly.
Against the raging fire, the poor guy didn’t stand a chance. The tragedy hits me harder because being only a few feet from a shallow pond, this individual was so close to safety.
Life and death
A short distance away, I find myself skirting the fine line between life and death, darkness and the bustling dancing meadow. A lark springs into the air. Its song is strong, insistent. “Look at me, look at me”. It is a distraction technique to keep predators away from its nest.
That the skylark sings with such unwavering determination gives me hope that this is at least one nest that survived. He flew away only a few feet from the scorched edge of the burn like a common phoenix.
Barely ten minutes after the start of my voluntary meander, I discover a sheep’s skull – horns and all. A creature long dead. It’s an impressive memory, but having failed to bring a bag, I end up carrying it for the two hours I spend there.
I can only apologize if my seemingly sinister appearance, my obscure habit of traversing a dead zone diagonally in slow motion, while repeatedly looking down at the ground (reptiles) and skyward (lark), while brandishing a prophetic sheep’s head, managed to cloud the minds of all who passed me in the incessant column of traffic this morning.
I half-expected a visit from the local gendarmerie, but I guess my altogether less menacing outfit of fleece, shorts and walking boots couldn’t suggest anything other than environmentalist.
My outing became a bit more intrepid than expected, as I repeatedly blundered absentmindedly into more boggy areas, where the crisp tuft jump became my only means of escape. But once you accept that your boots got it, your legs look like a Lowri drawing and are scratched by stray brambles, you’re fine.
I’m grateful for this period of warm weather as it gives me hope that all reptiles were charged enough with sunshine to flee the flames, and potentially the reason for the lack of reptile casualties today.
I can’t say the same for the toad, snails, or golf balls that weren’t so lucky.
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