Life in the countryside gathers pace – new shoots poke through the woodland floor, the days lengthen and the birds sing to find a mate before Valentine’s Day. One can sense the pace of life changing at the farm – the woodland floor feels alive again, frogs begin to lay their eggs in ditches and pools and one February day, as if my some magic signal, the birds come to life and the air is filled with birdsong as the birds chose their mates for the coming season.
Pussy Willow Salix capreaPussy Willow, also known as Goat Willow or Sallow Willow, is the earliest of all our willows to flower, and the silver (female) and gold (male) catkins are put out before the leaves. To some, the emergence of pussy willow catkins are spring's earliest harbinger. The tree is not considered a good source of timber as its wood is both brittle and known to crackle violently if burned. The name ‘Goat’ derives from the spring foliage being a favourite food of goats and it is sometimes called Pussy Willow after its soft silky catkins. The Pussy Willow rarely grows to more than 20m. In 'The Sound of Music' when Marta is asked what one of her favourite things is, she replies 'Pussy Willow' (during the song 'My Favourite Things'). There is a legend associated with the Pussy Willow. Once upon a time many little kittens were thrown into a river to drown. The mother cat wept and was so distraught that the willow trees on the bank felt compassion and held out their branches to the struggling kittens who clung to them and were saved. Ever since that time, every spring, the willow trees wear gray buds that feel as soft and silky as kitten tails. That is why they are called "Pussy Willows".
Purple Crocus Crocus albiflorusCroci grow along the farm drive in front on the holiday cottages. A tiny purple or white or yellow head valiantly poking through the layers of winter leaves are a sure sign of nature cycling around into another spring. The crocus is native to central Europe but has become naturalised in Wales.
Robin Erithacus rubeculaSt Valentine's Day on February 14th was commonly thought to be the day by which all birds had chosen their mates. Surprisingly many have - but for others it is still too early to be sure of a successful partnership. I think the robin in this picture is still on the market going be the effort he was putting into his song, in a rhododendron bush a stone's throw from the holiday cottages. Having sung alone through January, robins are joined by other birds in February - the energetic song of the male chaffinch, the liquid song of the blackbird which becomes more sonorous as the month progresses and its breeding time approaches.
Common Gorse Ulex europaeusGorse is a very prickly shrub that rarely grows more than 3m high. It is one of the few plants that flowers in mid-winter at Plas Farm and has been in flower since January. The flowers have a distinctive coconut-like scent and are sometimes used to make perfume. The monk colony on Caldey Island near Tenby do just this. Many kinds of birds live and feed within the safety of dense thorny gorse bushes. It is a particular favourite of the stonechat.
Welsh Mountain SheepThe British Isles has many breeds of sheep, some recently introduced and some having existed for centuries. The Welsh Mountain sheep can be termed as an umbrella description to describe many breeds indigenous to Wales. They are hardy, easy to manage, excellent mothers and the meat is of course world famous. You will see many Welsh Mountain Sheep grazing the fields around the holiday cottages at Plas Farm. The ones in the picture were looking for some hay to eat as the fields were covered in snow. Unfortunately for them, all I had was a camera.
Common Frog Spawn Rana temporariaOur native frog emerges from hibernation in February. Spawning usually takes place in early March, though occasionally the frogs will emerge sooner and spawn as early as January. As the climate is warmer in South Wales than much of the rest of Britain, frogs at Plas Farm tend to spawn in February. The females are ready to spawn immediately after hibernation and the animals enter into amplexus very soon after arriving at their breeding ponds. Aplexus is the mating position of frogs and toads. The male "hugs" the female and waits for her to lay eggs so that he can fertilize them. Amplexus can last for hours, or sometimes even days. While the frogs are in amplexus, the female swims or hops away from danger, and the male gets a piggy-back ride. The spawn is laid in clumps and typically consists of 300 - 400 gelatinous eggs containing black embryos with a white spot. The very young tadpoles are black but soon become speckled brown in colouration making them distinguishable from the permanently black tadpoles of the Common Toad. You are sure to see masses of frog spawn at the farm in February - look in the ditches that surround some on the fields and even in pools of water that stand in the ruts made by tractor tyres!
Snow ScapeThis picture was taken from a field on the hill behind the hoiliday cottages. It is the view from the farm to the north - Mynydd Allt-y-Grug and the upper Swansea Valley. The clouds are pregnant with more snow.
Mature Common Ivy Hedera HelixIvy, an evergreen vine, is a very noticeable feature of the landscape at Plas Farm at this time of year. When young, ivy leaves have three to five glossy lobes in the classic "ivy" shape. Plants remain in juvenile form for at least ten years. When mature, as in this picture, the leaves are more triangular to diamond shaped. Mature portions tend to be more upright, producing flowers on the tips of vines in the autumn, which are insect pollinated. Dark blue to black berries mature in late spring, which are then spread by starlings and robins. The seeds have a short dormancy and germinate quickly, even in dry, shady conditions. It has two growth stages – firstly it grows along the ground and up a tree, secondly it puts on mature foliage. The mature foliage continues to grow & put on weight over the years till it has smothered its host completely. Ivy is extremely long-lived; one plant in France was estimated to be over 400 years old.
Silver Birch Woodland Betula pendulaThis woodland is part of the Plas Farm trail and has a very mystical atmosphere. It is predominantly a mixture of silver birch and Welsh oak. Sheep graze between the trees so there is only grass and moss under foot. Known as the 'Lady of the Woods' the Silver Birch Tree is said to have a protective influence and is symbolic of new birth, fertility and purification. The Silver Birch Tree is a beautiful tree with a certain grace about it and its distinctive silver bark makes it a popular gift for Christenings and silver wedding celebrations.
A cold snap can mean waking to find the countryside covered by a neverending blanket of pure white snow – and we have plenty of hills for toboganning! Check the Welsh holiday weather for February.