Dale Fort Blog Number 47

30 11 2015

Autumn Starlings at Dale Fort

Regular readers (if there are any) may remember Blog Number 18 which was all about the Pembrokeshire Island of Grassholm.



Grassholm is best known as the home of tens of thousands of gannets. It is the third biggest colony in the northern hemisphere with about 12% of the world’s population.

Grassholm is also enchanted (or it was in The Bronze Age) and Bedigaid Fran (well just his severed head actually) and his colleagues spent 80 years there some 2000-odd years ago. How he ended up on the island was at least in part due to a starling.

A detail that was omitted from the story given in Blog Number 18 (see above) is that Branwen (Bendigaid Fran’s sister) started all the trouble via a message sent from Ireland, delivered by a starling. The Mabinogion does not make it clear whether the starling carried a tiny message on its leg, or in its bill, or spoke to him directly. I suspect the latter.

The link below will take you to my video of huge numbers of starlings massing and murmurating and converting all the invertebrates into bird-poo fertilizer in a small corner of Pembrokeshire near Dale Fort.


Many thanks to You’re Not Percy for the starlingy music.

Watch out for the next blog, coming soon.


Dale Fort Blog Number 46

27 11 2015


Scallops: Delicious, expensive, take ages to grow (5 years or more) and extremely vulnerable to scallop dredging.

Scallop dredging involves dragging about half a tonne of steel sledge over the sea bed, churning it all up and provoking the scallops to shoot off (see the video below) and get caught in the dredge.  It catches lots of scallops and pretty much annihilates everything else.

Scallop dredging was banned in The Skomer Marine Reserve (now Special Area of Conservation) some 20 years ago.  There is a fine of £5000 if you are caught poaching them.  The population is still recovering.  Numbers are still climbing after two decades of protection.  The benefits of not being regularly blatted by scallop dredges are good for everything else too.


Many thanks to Andy Davies for the use of his video and to Your Not Percy for the scallopy music.

There is a move afoot to expand scallop dredging in the Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation.  This will not be good news for the scallops or anything else that gets in the way.  Marine conservation is really simple:  If you leave it alone it gets better.

I think if we are going to declare an area a Special Area of Conservation it would probably be better not to plough it to death with steel sledges.  If you want to put your views to The Welsh Assembly Government, you have until February 16th 2016 and you can do so here:


Look out for the next blog coming soon….

Dale Fort Blog Contents 1 to 50

26 11 2015
 Number 46
They’ve got anything up to 100 blue eyes and they’re jet-propelled.  They’re in
danger.  Help them.  Read this blog.
Number 47
Amazing Autumnal starling-related shenanigans at near Steve’s house.
Number 48
Walk around the Dale Peninsula and stay dry.  Part 1:  Dale Fort to Mill Bay.
Number 49
Number 50
More on the history of Dale Fort.  Concerning the building of the present structure.

Dale Fort Blog Number 45

26 11 2015

Autumn Fungi

Some of the creatures in this short video are lichens of course but since fungi are the dominant partner in most lichens I’ve put them in.  Thanks to The Ruff Winkles for the fungal music (Carulli, Opus 34, Largo No.6, available on CD and highly recommended).


“Ahh…”  I hear you say:  “There are some algae that have relationships with fungi where the fungus is dominated by the alga”.

“You are entirely correct” I say:

Pelvetia canaliculata and Ascophyllum nodosum (channeled wrack and egg wrack) in North West Europe are seemingly universally hosts of Mycosphaerella ascophyllii (a fungus).  It betrays its presence when fertile by showing up as little black dots on the fronds of the algae.  Some lichenologists go so far as to claim that P. canaliculata and A.nodosum are not algae but lichens where the dominant partner is the alga rather than the fungus.  What it does show is that living things are always inordinately more complicated in their relationships with each other and with the physical environment than we think.

To this day the language of biology is suffused with expressions like nature red in tooth and claw, survival of the fittest, and so on.  Such ideas have been used by humans to justify all manner of repulsive and vile behaviors.  Living creatures do of course eat each other and those that leave behind lots of offspring tend to pass their characteristics onto the next generation more successfully than those that don’t. However, life is also full of examples of cooperation and mutualism. Our very cells are powered by mitochondria which are probably the result of a conjunction of two different forms of life many millions of years ago. Chloroplasts are thought to have originated in a similar way. Most trees have mutualistic relationships with fungi in the form of mycorrhizae. Fungi grow as nodules on the roots or inside the root tissue and help liberate nutrients that the tree can access. Baby termites cannot digest their food (wood) until they have licked their mother’s bottom and swallowed to infuse their guts with the bacteria that provide the appropriate enzymes.

On that rather disturbing note we end this blog.  Look out for the next one which hopefully will appear before Christmas.

Dale Fort Blog Number 44

3 11 2015

Bill Ballantine

Bill B croppedIt was with great sadness that we learned yesterday of the death of Bill Ballantine.

Bill is world famous for his astonishing efforts for marine conservation. His life was dedicated to the conservation and preservation of the marine environment and he was instrumental in establishing the world’s first no-take marine reserve off Goat Island near Auckland.

The New Zealand Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith said this:

Bill was the father of marine conservation in New Zealand. Our 1971 Marine Reserves Act – an international first – was his brainchild, as was our first no-take reserve at Leigh. He remained a forceful advocate for the protection of our marine environment and leaves behind a proud legacy. The first step that Bill persuaded us to take as a country 40 years ago has to be acknowledged as the seed for New Zealand’s strong reputation today as a world leader in the responsible use and management of our ocean environment.

He was awarded an MBE for services to marine conservation in 1999.

Bill also had a long and happy association with Dale Fort Field Centre which he described as his second home.

In the mid 1950s as a sixth former he worked in his summer holidays at Dale Fort. He helped in the kitchens, he helped in the grounds, he helped maintain buildings, he was knocked out half-way up a cliff by a rock dislodged by the over-enthusiastic boot of the then warden John Barrett.

He is first mentioned by name in by John Barrett’s annual report for 1957 – 58:

Mr W J Ballantine, now of Queen Mary College continued work on gastropods, particularly in relation to exposure

This was a reference to Bill’s work on limpets which ultimately led to his PhD (The population dynamics of Patella vulgata and other limpets, 1961)

Read it here

Almost as a bi-product, his studies led to possibly the most famous paper in the whole of marine ecology:

A Biologically Defined Exposure Scale for the Comparative Description of Rocky Shores

It had been long established that exposure to wave action was a vital factor in determining the patterns of organisms that are so characteristic of rocky shores. Attempts to measure wave action in physical terms were (and still are) fraught with technical difficulties. How then could different shores be compared with regard to this important physical factor? Bill noticed that the shores around Dale were inhabited by different communities depending on how much wave action they received. He determined to visit every shore he could get to on the Dale Peninsula and survey the species there.

He then devised a scale which used the assemblage of organisms on a shore as indicators of the degree of wave action (exposure) that the shore endured. The shore is then allocated a number to indicate its position on the scale. Ballantine’s Scale runs from 1 (= extremely exposed) to 8 (= extremely sheltered).

The scale has had its critics but has still proved extremely useful over the half-century of its existence. It has fulfilled its original aim to provide a means for ecologists to describe easily different rocky shores to one another. It probably appears in more reference lists than any similar paper.

Read it here

After completing his PhD he took a post in 1964 as the inaugural Head of The Leigh Marine laboratory of The University of Auckland in New Zealand.

He returned to Dale Fort every few years to keep an eye on our limpet populations.

In 1968, David Emerson became the second Warden of Dale Fort.

One of David’s first acts was to strike a blow for practical conservation by demolishing the rubbish chute down which all waste had been thrown into the sea. This was a substantial structure made of old railway lines and timber and required serious effort to remove. The job was done with explosives by the army as part of the Military Aid to the Civil Community Scheme. Bill was on one of his periodic visits and helping out when he got clouted on the head by a lump of concrete. He recalled staggering semi-conscious from the top of the cliff through the kitchen door, covered in blood and being told by an irate cook to stop bleeding all over the bloody floor.

I first met Bill in 1986 when I was a new marine ecology tutor and he was on a year’s sabbatical based at Dale Fort and spent largely touring around Britain and Europe campaigning strenuously for marine conservation. I completed my PhD that year and he generously offered to read it and give me some pointers before the viva. He kept it for a couple of weeks and returned it to me with a thick sheaf of clinically precise notes in which picked various aspects apart and (more importantly for me at the time) he talked me through it all and advised me how to defend various points. I shall always be grateful for his kindness and I still have his hand-written notes.

Towards the end of that year Bill probably saved Dale Fort. We were pioneering a Christmas field course, which featured massive log fires (there was no central heating then). One of my jobs was to keep the fires roaring, pretty much day and night. I wandered into the library early one morning to find it full of smoke. Some unknown person had overloaded the grate and a burning log had rolled off and set alight the wooden fender around the fireplace. Before I could react, Bill sprinted in through the smoke bearing a jug of water, he emptied it over the fender and disappeared in a cloud of steam as the flames were doused. Later that morning the course members went for a walk with David.  Bill and I took a break to sit in front of the (back under control) library fire for half an hour to howl with laughter at a old Goon Show on Radio 4.

At that time my intent was to leave Dale Fort after 2 years and get a “proper job”. Bill gave me a long talk about the differences between a job’s seeming status and its importance. It took him a while but eventually even I realised what he was talking about. How could anyone who purported to care about ecology, science and marine conservation, turn their back on the opportunity I had been given?  It worked, because half lifetime later, I’m still here, still learning and I’m still trying my best to promulgate Environmental Understanding for All, what’s more I’m still enjoying it. So thank you Bill.

I last saw him in 2007 on what was to become his final visit to Dale Fort. By this time even he had acknowledged that he was not as agile as he used to be. He asked if I would help him down onto Dale Point to collect his limpet samples. Needless to say he didn’t really need my help at all but it was a privilege to be there. I was also privileged to hear a great truth dispensed in the most amusing way I can imagine. “Is that OK Bill?” I asked (having collected a sample for him). “Let me check Steve” he said “because after all, limpets are my f*****g business”.

He will be much missed.