Dissertation Blog entry #6. Final survey day 6 & Lab session. 2013.

I can’t stay away from Hale Golf Course it seems. I had planned on my last survey day being at another site but after I was contacted by a man called Andrew who had been given my email address by Richard I now knew the location of some good river bank sites on the course which is pretty much all I needed to get my 10 plots per 3 habitat types.

As I cycled there yesterday I thought that this was the last chance for me to have a really bad day surveying, and wondered if it was inevitable therefore that I would? As I wondered this my litre of Vimto fell out of the bottle holder on my bike. I rode up onto the pavement and looked back in time to see an articulated lorry run over it sending a purple Vimto fountain arcing onto the pavement behind me. I’m happy to say this is as bad as the day got.

Now knowing the route well I was there in no time and this time had the curiosity of surveying a site on the golf course side of the river. I’ve always assumed that I don’t like golf courses on account of them being so heavily landscaped but I’ve discovered I enjoy the polished aesthetic of the course contrasting with the wilderness of its surroundings. Neatly mown grass with foxgloves peering down at it from the tree line.  I made sure I didn’t make any sudden movements as I passed the golfers. I didn’t want to put anyone off their game and get in trouble.

Site 10, plot 1

The patch I was to survey was out of the way of the green. Some work had been undertaken to remove Balsam but there was plenty left and I wasted no time getting started. My plots were steep and difficult to navigate due to over hanging branches and dense vegetation. I noticed that a couple of bees seemed to have taken an interest in one of the foot holes I was using to climb the bank but thought nothing of it. As I began my second quadrat there were several bees in and around the foot hole which I now realised was their home. At this point, looking at the steep bank, dozens of holes came into focus, each with either bees or wasps entering and exiting. It appeared I had chosen a veritable bee/wasp city to survey along. I tucked my jumper into my trousers and my sleeves into my gloves and doubled my speed. Every time I threw a handful of Balsam up onto the bank I’d quickly scramble away in case the bees caught me at it! If they decided I was a threat there was really nowhere to go but the river.

Site 9, plot 6

Thankfully as I moved along the bank I left the bees and wasps behind and remained unstung. I sat on a fallen tree by the river and ate my sandwiches in the sunshine before retracing my steps, off the course, over the bridge and into the woods for two last quadrats…

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The last two were boggy but rich in species. I finally had some Wood Sorrel to include in the surveys and snacked on their leaves as I did so. Ferns too this time which I am yet to identify but have a pinna complete with indusium in my press awaiting my attention. As I left the site I bumped into Richard and handed him the one golf ball I’d found in the whole survey. “Your members must be excellent shots” I told him. He said no it’s just that I was off the beaten track.

Surveys complete all that was left to do for this first half of my fieldwork was head into uni and analyse my soil samples. I spent last night drying half of my samples out in the oven much to the amusement of Stacey. I arrived at the lab this morning at 09:30. The lab was deserted but for the few staff in over the summer and for the pH testing I was left to my own devices.

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Such a contrast between the survey sites and the lab. As different a selection of shapes and colours as you could achieve if you set out of create a contrast on purpose. In term time  the busy lab sessions are not my favorite part of uni. My dyslexia goes crazy in the bright white of the lab brim full of voices and distractions, but on a quiet day like today there was a pleasant calm and quirkiness to the surroundings that I couldn’t help but enjoy…

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A quick break for a bag of crisps and a wander around the empty university then back to the lab to head out back and use the LECO elemental analyser. Using my dry samples I weighed out 0.1000g, rolled them up in foil and fed them into the machine. The results will be emailed to me at a later date…

LECO analysis

LECO analysis

LECO analysis

That’s me done with my project field work for this year. I’ll repeat it all same time next year and the data comparison will make up the bulk of my dissertation. I went and had a chat with Liz as I’ll be disappearing for a year come Monday when I start my placement. As usual she was encouraging and also gave me more work to be getting on with!

I cycled home in the rain. The last 2 miles of what has amounted to around 200 over the past fortnight. I feel fit, satisfied and totally knackered. Time for a beer I think!

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Dissertation Blog entry #4. Survey day 3. 2013.

No rest for the wicked. Up at 7am for scrambled eggs with Stacey before packing up and hitting the pedals. Saturday, my first of two days at Hale Golf Course. Or rather the woods behind Hale Golf Course to be more specific. I like the ride out to Hale for a couple of reasons. Firstly it takes me through Wythenshawe Park which is lovely. Wythenshawe doesn’t have a great reputation these days and is known more as the largest council estate in Europe than as somewhere with pleasant green spaces, but the park is huge and well looked after with many old trees, vast expanses of grass and an old Tudor style building which I’m always too busy to stop and find out what it is, but it all looks very nice. It reminds you that a deprived area might not once have been and that it might not always be. Secondly the ride takes me through a posh part of Hale where every house looks like a Grand Design and has a name like The Poplars. As you turn into Hale Golf Club you see the sign ‘since 1903’ and you realise that Hale has always been posh!

I arrived there at 10am and locked my bike up outside the shop as I had when I visited the site before. I feel slightly self conscious as I do this wondering if I’m breaching a club rule. I read the rule book to a Bowls Club once while I was working at the bank and it had all sorts of rules like that you had to wear a tie, and no women. Everyone at Hale Golf Club seems very nice though. I didn’t see anyone wearing a tie and there were lots of women. You enter the woods by walking across the first hole. Again you wonder if someone is going to tell you off but they don’t, of course, it’s a clearly marked public right of way. Into the woods I went and relaxed in surroundings I feel better equipped to deal with.

Site 5

I headed to my grassland sites first. As is becoming increasing apparent, things grow faster than I expect and fields that were knee high a couple of weeks ago are now chest high jungles. I made my way to the bit with the most Balsam at the back and in the absence of any floor space set about hanging my stuff on the Willow tree there for convenience…

Research Tree

The Balsam was denser here than the other plots I’d surveyed at the other sites. This will be quicker and easier I thought. I was wrong. Here’s something new I’ve learned about Himalayan Balsam; for ever one large plant there can be a dozen small ones hanging around underneath it. The second line of defense waiting for something to happen to their general so they can spring into action. So the pulling here became a lengthy and precise process like mowing your lawn with a pair of eyebrow tweezers.

Site 5, plot 1

But pluck it I did! I got two plots done in that meadow meaning I now have my target of 10 for grassland Balsam plots. Ten down, loads more woodland and riverbank to go… As I left the meadow I came to a spot where inundated met the as yet not inundated. There amongst the grass, towered over by the mighty wall of the advancing Balsam was the familiar, delicate form of Lesser Stitchwort. It looked both vulnerable and defiant in the face of such floral adversity.

Lesser Stitchwort standing his ground on the Balsam frontier.

My next few plots were on the banks of the Bollin accessible through the woods. This involved some minor acrobatics on my part, surveying at an oblique angle like a goat with a clipboard. I congratulated myself on my excellent balancing skills and noted that I hardly ever fall over. I came across these two plants which I am yet to identify:

Answers on a postcard
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And my surveys included some other new species to the project in Ground Ivy and Red Campion which had been conspicuously absent up to then. I pulled a lot of Balsam on these plots, creating the Olympus Mons of Balsam piles in the woods

Site 6

Then I went looking for some good woodland plots. I tripped on a tree root and went flailing into a large boggy area sending my kit in all directions and covering me in mud. So much for never falling over. The event was witnessed only by a robin who promptly flew away, presumably to tell everyone else.

I completed one more woodland plot. As I did I met a bull dog called Dave who apparently never barks according to his owners, and a couple going for a walk with their little boy who was sat on his dad’s shoulders. They stopped and asked my what I was up to. They were familiar with the different invasive species in the area and interested in the conservation efforts happening which made for an encouraging end to the survey day.  At 5pm I packed up and headed back up the footpath towards the golf course. Daylight unfiltered by the canopy appeared dazzling as I left the woods, munching down a hand full of Skittles to give me the energy to get home.

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Species identified on this survey:

  • Cleavers
  • Enchanter’s Nightshade
  • Bramble
  • Nettles
  • Cow Parsley
  • Ivy
  • Ground Ivy
  • Wood Avens
  • Rough Meadow Grass
  • Willowherb spp.
  • Hogweed
  • Ash
  • Red Campion
  • Blue Bells
  • 2 as yet unidentified higher plants
  • 2 as yet unidentified grasses

Dissertation Blog entry #3. Survey day 2. 2013.

Off to Ross Mill in Hale today to complete 6 grassland plots and 2 woodland plots. Himalayan Balsam the target invasive species again. The weather forecast was for showers so I packed a cag and some water proof paper making my heavy kit bag that little bit heavier and off I went…

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Managed to find the place OK. It’s a quiet, pretty area where you can go a while without seeing anyone. You can hear the motorway but you can’t see it and soon your ears tune it out. I started at the first meadow Sal had shown me. I managed to get 4 quadrats out of it which make up for the loss of 2 at The Carrs yesterday.

Site 2

Straight away I faced a crisis of confidence. There was a plant that looked similar to Himalayan Balsam but was lacking some of its key ID features. Its stem was hairy and its leaves were in opposite pairs not whorls of 3. I know that means it isn’t Himalayan Balsam but that bit of my brain that’s been responsible for deciding what things are for my whole life before I started learning botany kept saying: “But it looks like it”. I tried to call Sal and someone else answered advising that she wasn’t in the office today. I asked them if they knew anything about Himalayan Balsam. They asked what the problem was and I described it badly and they said it sounded like Himalayan Balsam. I called Sal on her mobile, no answer. Poor Sal. I wonder if she regrets putting her contact details on her emails yet? I pulled myself together. It clearly wasn’t Himalayan Balsam so I would ID it later and not pull any of it up. I was made to feel slightly better by the fact that a member of the public who had pulled some Balsam up had also pulled up one of these mystery plants. Just one though. I wonder if they went through the same crisis as me?

Any idea what this is anyone? Hairy, crunchy stems, leaves in oposite pairs.

Sal called me back and I described it. It’s Enchanter’s Nightshade. A few weeks later and it would have a flower stalk sticking out the top with small white flowers on. I learned two valuable lessons here. How to identify Enchanter’s Nightshade in its vegetative form, and for the last time if it doesn’t have the features its supposed to then it isn’t the thing you think it is!

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I headed along the path to the second meadow and set about looking for more Balsam. I saw a few loan plants here and there but not enough to merit a survey plot. And then I saw it, oh boy…

Oh boy #HimalayanBalsam

You go though the same cycle over and over again with Himalayan Balsam. You potter about in patches of it, pulling it up and feeling pleased with yourself, then you turn a corner and get hit by a tsunami of the stuff and realise how bad the problem is. That’s why projects like BEACON are so important. Alien invasives are effectively an army of plants and so require an organised response.

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Just along the path you can see what potential the area has, and also what it has to lose if the army takes more ground…

Site 2.5

This new meadow was more popular with Balsam and with dog walkers and I proved to be a hit with the many dogs that came bounding through. Their reaction was always the same: “Who are you?! There’s not normally a man here! This is our field! …Play with me!”. A Labrador by the name of Fletcher came running back repeatedly causing his owned to come back and get him only for him to reappear doing that excited fake pounce thing dogs do a minute later. The dogs and conversations with their owners provided a welcome occasional break and it felt nice to be able to tell people about what I was doing and why.

Next time I’m taking more food. I’d eaten my one and half sandwiches when I arrived at 11 and I was there til 5. It rained once and I go to try out my water proof paper. It works, more or less. The paper is water proof I’ll give it that but there’s a peculiar interplay between the ink and the paper and the same voice in my head that caused the problem with the Ground Elder wouldn’t stop reacting every time a rain drop rolled off a leaf on the tree over head and splashed onto the paper I was writing on. But the sun came out and stayed out and I got my 8 plots completed.

Site 2, removed from plots 1-4
Site 2.5
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An unexpected bonus of this choice of project is that I get to do a little bit of practical conservation work along the way. There is a lot of Balsam on the sites I saw today but not on my plots and not around them. I couldn’t resist clearing the surrounding Balsam too. They can eject their seeds up to 7 meters so it made sense to remove surrounding plants too and as anyone whose ever pulled Balsam knows, it’s very moreish.

More than 15 species made it onto the survey list today but there were plenty that were just outside the quadrats. Dead nettles and the like. Whilst I was excited to imagine what the plots will contain next year, I was also knackered, hungry and thirsty. I packed up, slung on my kit bag and set off on the long ride home.

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Species identified on this survey:

  • Cleavers
  • Enchanter’s Nightshade
  • Bramble
  • Nettles
  • Creeping Buttercup
  • Meadow Buttercup
  • Grass spp. (to be identified)
  • Ivy
  • Herb Robert
  • Wood Avens
  • Rough Meadow Grass
  • Great Willowherb
  • Hogweed
  • Dock spp.
  • Holly
  • Yellow Pimpernel
  • Ash
  • Grass spp 2 (to be identified)

Dissertation Blog entry #1. Planning.

It seemed to creep up on us, the fact that we had to start our 3rd year project all of a sudden. There’d been some talk of thinking about it but no one seemed to be doing anything about it and none of our lecturers had done their mock-urgent routine yet. You know when you have certain friends who are always late (Frenchi & Carl) so you always tell them to be places half an hour early which results in them getting there on time? The dissertation process is apparently much more subtle.

There’s no big announcement at first, you just notice that staff start casually asking you what you’re going to do your 3rd year project on. Just the one here and there at first but then more and more until your subconscious suddenly adds them all up and decides to add a little sprinkle of anxiety into your conscious. I had my work placement interview coming up and I thought I ought to have an answer ready if they asked me what I was doing.

This was apparently easier for me than a lot of people I knew who literally didn’t have a clue what they might do it on. What I did know is that if I was going to complete a decent piece of work I had to find it interesting, had to be enthused. That meant plants. Having spent a fair amount of time volunteering for the Wildlife Trust over the past few years I am very familiar with the problem of alien invasive plants. I’ve pulled more Balsam than I’ve had hot dinners, and raked tonnes of New Zealand Pygmy-weed from ponds in leaky waders. So I figured if anyone asked I’d say I was interested in doing a project on alien invasive plants. That’s what I said when they asked me in the interview and so now that’s what I’m doing. Project idea: check.

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Luckily that is something I’d like to do a project on and having the decision made meant I could crack on with thinking about it. Next job was to get a good project supervisor. Having read the profiles of many members of staff at the uni I was sure it had to be Liz. Liz, her profile said, was interested in invasive plants, and I’d met Liz and she seemed like a nice, patient person that I could ask stupid questions to and send endless neurotic emails to about my project without her getting too sick of me. After arranging a meeting to pick her brains about plant ecology I popped the question: “Will you be my supervisor?” “I’d love to!” She replied. Supervisor: check.

I’d come up with an idea about testing different kinds of control methods of Himalayan Balsam at the nature reserve I volunteer at. It didn’t seem very substantial and I was concerned that by trying to come up with the whole idea on my own I was missing things. Liz emailed me saying she’d met an interesting woman called Sal at a conference who was heading a project called BEACON (Bollin Environmental Action and Conservation) who’s aims are to control non natives in the Bollin catchment. Liz suggested I email Sal which I did. Sal sent me a list of 14 potential project ideas which they were interested in the potential results of. Number 8 jumped out at me:

8. Survey native flora in areas where non-native species occur to determine the impact the non-natives have on biodiversity.

Giant Hog Weed

This was exactly what I’d been trying to think of. A project about about plants where I could do loads of botanical surveys. I emailed Sal said I’d love to do that one, she invited me along to the office to discuss it and soon I was in rural Styal, taking a tour of some invasive infested countryside along the banks of the river Bollin. Sal has a big task on her hands. The catchment is huge and there is lot of Himalayan Balsam, Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed there. But she clearly knows what she’s doing and is one of those people who appears undaunted by the scale of a project, approaching it cheerfully and methodically.

Her car had loads of soil on the floor of it. I’ve come to associate messy cars with ecological folk. I think if I ever get a lift from an ecologist with a spotless car I’ll feel instantly suspicious of them. She’s been brilliant recommending sites for me to visit, putting me in touch with land owners, lending me equipment…Project to team up with: check.

Himalyan Balsam, Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knottweed

I began visiting potential sites. I’ve cycled all over north Cheshire, directed by Google Maps on my phone through my headphones. This has lead to a number of bizarre reroutes with my phone sending me in huge loops to correct a mistake rather than send me back a few hundred years. After my first day out looking at sites I was exhausted. But I’m getting fitter and the cycling is getting easier. One day I rode out to near Lymn to meet a man called Geoffrey who has water meadow out the back of his house with a Giant Hog Weed problem. He showed me the meadow and the GHW and we stood in the woods and discussed 1990s Japanese economics for 40 minutes (as well as my project). He’s a really interesting guy and his dog is amazing.

On another site visit I locked up my bike at The Carrs in Styal and set about trying to find the Himalayan Balsam Sal had told me was there. It was a very hot day so I bought a lemon ice lolly from the ice-cream van and as I walked along the banks of the Bollin, licking my lolly and looking for Balsam I thought to myself: ‘Life might never get better than this’.

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Now I have all my sites selected. I have borrowed a GPS unit and tape measure from the uni. Tomorrow I conduct my first survey…