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Highlights of 2020

For many, 2020 has been a year to forget. For us, however, 2020 was a vast improvement on the previous year (a year in which we received no funding), allowing us to get back out onto our beloved spoil tips and continue our work to raise awareness of these special places.

For the very first time, we have started to explore the invertebrate fauna of colliery spoil sites in Bridgend County Borough - a county in which the biodiversity of its remaining colliery spoil sites has been little explored compared to neighbouring counties. Thanks to invertebrate survey work at Darren Fawr Tip (Blaengarw) and Ogmore Washery (Ogmore Vale), commissioned by Bridgend County Borough Council, we now have a better understanding of the invertebrate fauna of these sites and their importance within the context of their respective valleys and the county borough.

Much of our work this year has focused on Darren Fawr Tip, a large spoil tip (over 90 acres) situated on the hillside between Pontycymer and Blaengarw in the Garw Valley. In the late 1990's, the tip underwent land reclamation involving the levelling and re-shaping of the tips, and the installation of drainage channels. Since then, the tip has seemingly been left to naturally re-vegetate. Today, Darren Fawr Tip supports a complex mosaic of habitats including flower-rich grasslands, heathland, ponds, ditches, scrub, bare ground, reedbed and other habitats (see images below).

As 2020 draws to a close, we thought we'd share with you some of our most memorable wildlife encounters at Darren Fawr Tip this year. Enjoy!

1. Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages)

The Dingy Skipper is a small, rather attractive butterfly with grey-brown wings with mottled brown markings. Like many butterfly species, it has experienced a severe decline in its UK distribution since the 1970's, meaning that it is no longer found in many areas where it used to be present. As a result of this decline, the Dingy Skipper was listed as Vulnerable [to extinction] in The Butterfly Red List for Great Britain (2010). It was also listed as a priority species for conservation in Wales under Section 7 of the Environment (Wales) Act 2016.

Dingy Skipper requires its larval food-plants close to areas of bare ground, which provide warm conditions for egg development. As a result, this butterfly is dependent upon sparsely-vegetated habitats with bare ground. Colliery spoil sites tick this box perfectly, with their flower-rich grasslands with an abundance of Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil (its main larval food-plant), together with areas of bare ground that help to create the warm micro-climates that it requires. This explains why colliery spoil sites are among (if not, the) most important habitats for this declining butterfly in the South Wales Valleys.

Encountering Dingy Skipper at Darren Fawr Tip, therefore, came as no surprise. What was surprising, however, was the sheer size of the population. Darren Fawr Tip supports the largest population of Dingy Skipper that we have seen to date! Watching these beautiful butterflies flying over the grasslands back in May really was a sight to behold.

2. American Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium montanum)

Despite being a non-native species here in Britain (having been introduced from its native North America), there is no denying the beauty of this plant! Having never encountered this plant before, we were struck by its beauty when several patches of it were seen growing on the south-side of the tip back in May. Despite its name, American Blue-eyed Grass isn't actually a grass and is so called because of its grass-like leaves.

3. Bilberry Bumblebee (Bombus monticola)

The Bilberry Bumblebee is arguably one of our most attractive British bumblebees. Found mainly in the north and west of Britain, it is a species of upland areas, being found almost exclusively on moorland in association with stands of Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) - also known as Whinberry in South Wales. Unfortunately this beautiful species is in decline but the South Wales Valleys remain a relatively good area for them.

It is always a pleasure to encounter this bee, and finding a queen is even more satisfying. We were over-the-moon to encounter this queen foraging on Common bird's-foot-trefoil back in August - hopefully she will survive the winter and establish her own colony in spring 2021.

4. Golden-ringed Draognfly (Cordulegaster boltonii)

This large, distinctive dragonfly is a familiar site on colliery spoil tips throughout South Wales. One of our favourites, they are generally docile and inquisitive, allowing you to get up close and personal. While watching this individual (pictured) basking in the summer sunshine on a beautiful June day, we were amazed to see it suddenly dash upwards and catch a bumblebee in-flight. It then returned to the same location and proceeded to eat the bumblebee alive, devouring it in a matter of minutes!

5. Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus)

Darren Fawr Tip is home to at least three species of amphibian, one of which is the Palmate Newt. In spring 2020, we had a wonderful encounter watching several males (such as the one pictured) perform elaborate courtship dances to attract a female. When the female approaches, the male seemingly positions himself side-on and wafts water towards her by vibrating the tip of his tail. Check out videos of this courtship online if you'd like to see it in action!

6. Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Who doesn't love a bee orchid!? Notoriously unpredictable, they can appear in large numbers in some years, and seemingly disappear in others. Colliery spoil sites are generally good places to see this attractive plant, which likes a bit of disturbance. Two patches of Bee Orchids were found at Darren Fawr Tip this summer, one on the north side and another on the south-side.

7. Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Walking through the grasslands one day in early May, we flushed what looked to be a Skylark (though, admittedly, it could have been a Meadow Pipit). To our surprise, we noticed a nest on the ground, made into a slight depression amongst a tussock of grass. Inside was four eggs. Though we are not entirely certain whether this was the nest of a Skylark or Meadow Pipit, having never encountered the nests of either bird before, it was thrilling none-the-less. Unfortunately the nest was located close to a track used by scramblers and other off-road vehicles so it's unclear whether the nest was successful in fledgling young, but hopefully it did.

8. Turdulisoma cf turdulorum

Discovered 'new to science' from a woodland near Bridgend in 2017, this is one of the world's rarest millipedes. Six individuals of this species were found at Darren Fawr Tip in 2020, making Darren Fawr Tip just the 5th known site worldwide for this rare, Welsh-speciality. This is the rarest species known from Darren Fawr Tip to date.

We hope you enjoyed our highlights of 2020! Happy New Year and hope to see some of you in person in 2021!

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