Is it not true that we hill walk because we like the hills?But what do we like about the hills? Why do these places bring us so much joy?I know it’s the exercise, I know it’s the sense of space, we love the views, but it is more than that.
In our everyday lives so many of us are completely detached from nature, we barely notice the seasons passing, the birds callin for the wild flowers blooming. Getting out into the hills awakens our animal brains and reminds us that we are part of a fantastic natural world.
We need, especially when leading others, a greater knowledge, a finer appreciation and a more enquiring mindset about the component parts of nature’s jigsaw. We have a responsibility to share the joys of our environment with others. We have to become the advocates for nature, and the more people who stand up for it the better for all of us. This is more than just conservation this is about why we need to conserve. As a mountain leader, your development is not over when you pass and a key part of your continuing personal and professional development is unwinding the complex world in which we lead other people.
In this series I intend to illustrate our natural world through the features found along popular routes in Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Peak District and beyond. I’ll tease you with tales of lives gone before, of the special qualities of different places, of the rocks and the land forms, all neatly decorated by our very special fauna and flora. I hope to show you what, some of you have been missing and add something to the journeys you take in the British hills.
As we seek to preserve the component parts of nature; we save the birds, save the bees; save the wildflowers; it is easy to forget the links between everything. The the natural world is more than the sum of its component parts and we need to develop an understanding of the concept of inter relationships within our ecosystems. We need to be more mindful of the mine fields manoeuvred when managing the mountains.
I can’t remember the exact moment. I remember looking away, averting my gaze, trying to not be there, just trying to give someone space whilst they worked something out.
It was, most likely, on an assessment or a training course where the person I was working with just needed to be left alone to get on with something, to wrestle with anew concept, to try to understand, or to come up with a dazzling plan.
They would have felt under pressure, my job was to minimise that feeling for them.
I work as a mountaineering instructor in Snowdonia. My job involves teaching people the skills they need to find their way around the mountains. They can be individuals building confidence for their own walks, or walkers wanting to become leaders. I even train the trainers, I’ve been doing this for a while.
So, where doI avert my gaze to? Usually down, down to the ground and was it was then I realised there was whole other world ‘on the hill’ below my feet. A world of nature.
I wasn’t standing on grass. What was I standing on? I’d been walking around the hills for many years now whilst I always appreciated the places I visited, I loved the views, the sense of space, I enjoyed glimpses of wildlife and I thrived on the physical exertion.
I enjoyed the planning, the map reading, the thinking skills involved, but I’d never taken much notice of what I was standing on. When I realised it wasn’t just grass,I determined to investigate; it opened up a whole new world.
A world of wonder, a world of colour, a world of controversy and compromise, a world that needed to be better known, shared, dissected, understood and commented on.
We, as walkers and climbers, absolutely need to know what grows under our feet, to understand it, and learn to comment on why it is so and how it might be. This is the nature of walking.
There is always something to look at. It could be fossils or other rocks with fascinating stories. It could be a rare plant or a simple tree. Maybe there are birds in the hills with which you are not familiar. Maybe it’s a creepy crawly, an insect, a spider or maybe something amphibious - there is always something to look at.
Even in the winter, if it’s not ice and snow then the mosses and lichens shine brightly and lure us on to find their remarkable stories.
As for mammals we are surrounded by common voles, field mice, shrews, moles, foxes and badgers. Here in Wales there are ponies, goats and lots of sheep too. Some of these mammals are rarely seen, you’ll need to learn how to look for signs of their passing, understand where they live, how they feed, the impact they have, their part in the web of life.
This is the first in a series of Walks with Nature. In the coming months I’ll take you on some of my favourite journeys at different times of the year and we’ll learn about what there around us.
If you’re a practicing outdoor instructor, aspiring mountain leader or just interested to know what’s out there, there’ll be something for everyone to help you get the most from the environment, learn to understand it and help to protect it for future generations too.
All you’ll need is a camera, your walking gear, some patience and an eagle eye.
I’d like to think you’ll find my book, Nature of Snowdonia, useful too and should you remain baffled or unsure about how to get started you can always join in one of my workshops or arrange a guided walk for your group.
We’ll mostly be walking in Snowdonia, but I’m always keen to wander further away too, so as the pandemic becomes less restrictive, I’ll be heading further afield to explore different parts of the UK.
For now, here are five things to look for wherever you go hill walking or climbing:
This small yellow flower with four petals is a walker’s constant companion in the hills from April until October. Tormentil is that little yellow flower seen in every grassy area on the hill. It is usually quite low on the heavily grazed hillsides but can reach a metre in height in longer grass as it strives for sunlight and is away from grazing animals.
Although it looks a bit like a buttercup, it is actually a member of the rose family.
A tea can be made from its roots, though it is not a particularly edible plant. However, its medicinal properties are legendary.
It is well known for being a highly astringent herb which has been used as a cure for fever, diarrhoea, burns, cholera, dysentery, sore throats, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, mouth ulcers, infected gums, piles, inflamed eyes, chapping of the anus, cracked nipples, bed-wetting by children and toothache. Its Latin name, however, suggests other properties! Tormentil extract is easily bought from herbalists today.
The raven is easily the most observed bird in the uplands at any time of the year. This large black bird, over 60cm from the tip of its tail to the end of its beak and weighing up to 1.5kg, has a distinctive throaty call rather like a strangled gargle.
Reputedly very intelligent, they build large nests on south-facing cliff ledges. They will kill rabbits and smaller birds, but carrion such as still-born lambs or road kill is their staple diet.
Ravens have their young in early March as there is bounty of food during lambing and they actively seek out the afterbirth or placenta after a ewe has delivered its lambs.
Ravens have successfully increased in numbers in recent years and spread right across the country. The Welsh name cigfran, the meat-crow, is celebrated across Snowdonia by numerous crags named Clogwyn y Cigfran, whilst in England Raven Crag appears frequently.
Take time to admire them in flight, are they playing or displaying? They can roll up side down in mid-flight, a feat few birds, if any can match.
Walkers often refer to this as woolly hair moss. It is found on the tops of our hills and mountains often growing on and around exposed rocks. It is an early coloniser of boulder fields.
Woolly fringe moss dries out in the frequent winds found at altitude and turns grey, but as soon as it gets wet it turns green immediately.
It is easily recognisable from the tiny leaves which taper to a long, whitish hair point.
There are some fantastic displays on some of the slate spoil tips around northernSnowdonia and on the tops of the Carneddau, where it can form distinctive heath vegetation with lichens and low-growing heather.
On the Cairngorm there are places where this is the climax vegetation, and it is an important species in the tundra vegetation of those high tops.
A glacial erratic is a large irregular boulder that can be found perched in the strangest of places. They usually stand out and are present in all of our uplands. Take a close look at the boulder and compare the stone of which it is compromised with the stone of the bedrock upon which it sits. If they are not the same, then this is an erratic boulder.
It becomes an erratic when it has been moved to an area where the bedrock is different from that which the boulder itself is derived from.
Erratics occur when large boulders have been carried on moving ice during the ice-age, or trapped within, and are dumped some way along the glacier’s path. Erratics can be found all over the mountains. A good place to look is at the big boulders along the shore of Llyn Idwal next to Easedale Tarn.
Sheep seem to be ever present in our uplands, they certainly dominate in England and Wales. It’s funny though people do look out for different cattle breeds, but sheep just get known as sheep.
There has been a movement recently to identify the Herdwick Sheep found in the LakeDistrict. You can find more details about this movement here. The ‘Herdy’ has become a symbol of theLake District and there are some great goods marketed under the ‘Herdy’ label.
Schemes like this are essential for upland farms at the moment.
It is difficult to rear the larger sheep that the supermarkets and wholesale butchers require, the land is simply not good enough, so being able to make use of the fleece and add value to the lambs is very important.
More needs to be done to get us wearing and using locally produced wool. There can’t be many people who don’t go all soppy when the see a sheep dog, especially when it’s working the fell rounding up sheep, they are a sight to behold.
Sheep however do bring a darkness to our uplands. Their grazing habits are incredibly destructive to native flora. It’s the way they pick and choose, they always go for the tasty fresh shoots. Plant and trees like heather, bilberry and rowan have no chance of regeneration on sheep grazed land. On the other hand they nibble around the soft rush, the purple moor grass(tussock grass) and you can even see evidence of them spitting out the un-plantable mat grass. These dense, tough grasses have come to dominate our uplands in both England and Wales.
The sheep will hunt out the tastiest of fresh new shoots and leave the unpalatable ones.This leads to a domination of course mat grass, soft rush and bracken on our uplands and this is something we’ll investigate on a future walk in this series.
In our first walk we’ll be heading up Snowdon. We’re deliberately going to go on the most popular route. The Llanberis Path has also been called the most boring route up Snowdon. We’ll turn it into a great walk for you by opening your eyes to the interesting features that previously you might have just passed by.