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 #5. Survey days 4 & 5. 2013.

Day 4:

I returned to Hale Golf Course for a second day. It poured with rain as I cycled there. Shower rain like in films. I was soaked within minutes. I stood dripping in the petrol station waiting to pay for a bag of Skittles while a man had an argument with the guy on the til. He’d forgotten his wallet and only realised after putting £5 of petrol in his van. The man behind the til wouldn’t accept his trader’s license and mobile phone as collateral as it wasn’t company policy. The man got angrier and angrier. Then another man gave him £5 and he left. I was 10p short for my Skittles. I didn’t bother asking if they’d let me off. As luck would have it they were 10p cheaper at the next garage I stopped at. Hooray!

I arrived at the golf course and was locking my bike up when a man called Richard who described himself as ‘one of the pros’ introduced himself and asked me to lock it up round the back instead. I told him what I was doing there and he took my details to give to a man who apparently does a lot of conservation work on the site. Hale Golf Club seem very interested in the control of invasive plant species.

Site 7, plot 3

I headed into the woods and performed a quick change into a dry t-shirt and cagoule, managing to achieve it without encountering any dog walkers, and headed into the woods, further off the path this time to complete 4 more woodland quadrats. Despite the weather this proved to be a really enjoyable session. I felt quite alone for most of the time, it was lovely and lush and green. Occasionally I’d hear a dog bark in the distance and stop what I was doing, several Balsam stems in hand and see if I could see anyone. It occurred to me  I must look almost Hobbit like foraging around in the woods on my own. Hopefully Hobbit like, not Golum like.

Site 7, day 2

Just as I was leaving I was treated to the site of a big, healthy looking Common Frog hopping through the vegetation. It hopped right up to a  juicy slug and proceeded to eat it on the hop, one half hanging out of it’s wide mouth. This may have been partly due to me trying to take a photo of it which in the end I gave up on the perfect shot and settled for just watching.

Slug for lunch

Day 5:

My first Giant Hogweed day. This presented an exciting variation to the surveys thus far and an extra hassle. I had to cycle the 12ish miles to Geoffrey’s house with all my usual kit, plus wellies. Wellies are both big and heavy. You may not notice it when you’re slinging them in the boot of your car but trust me they’re a right pain to get in a bag on your back. I had to load myself up with my backpacking rucksack on my back. It was heavy and cumbersome and hurt my back to cycle with on. After a few miles I discovered if I undid the waist strap it wasn’t so bad and I got my head down and dealt with the journey one miles stone at a time.

Site 8

I caught my breath and  had my lunch in a field near Geoffrey’s house so arrived on time in good spirits. Sal was there too with overalls, gloves and a visor to borrow to protect me from the phototoxic chemicals in the plant’s sap which I’ve just read can get into the nucleus of the epithilial cells, forming a bond with the DNA, causing the cells to die. Google ‘giant hogweed burns’ and check out the images if you’re aren’t familiar with what this plant can do to you.

Me & Sal Davies

Geoffrey took some photos of Sal and I for an article he’s writing. I asked him to take the above photo for my blog. I think it looks a little bit like I’ve superimposed Sal onto it but I assure you she was there.

I was left to get on on with it. The sun had come out for another beautiful afternoon. I marked out my plots, all of them starting at the boundary of meadow and Hogweed extending 2m into the Hogweed stands. I took my GPS readings, wrote my descriptions etc etc, then I fastened my hood, pulled up my gloves and down my visor and I crawled into the Giant Hogweed.

Site 8

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Site 8

Two things were immediately both obvious and surprising. Firstly there was nothing growing within the Giant Hogweed. There was the odd bramble and some grasses near the edge but between the stems, under the canopy formed by those huge serrated leaves it was a desert. Second, the smell. It smelt gorgeous in there! Like almonds or something it was one of those smells you like so much you keep taking deep breaths through your nose to get more of it. How cruel a trick of nature that something so toxic could smell so inviting. No one had told me about the smell. I’m pretty sure it was coming from the Giant Hogweed because it smelt good in all 5 plots I surveyed. There doesn’t seem to be much on line about it’s aroma and Stace makes no mention of it.

As I pottered about on my own in the meadow wearing my blue overalls and visor I felt like a character in some post apocalyptic science fiction novel wandering through a deserted and beautiful wilderness. Banded and Emerald damselflies flew up from the grass and darted around me as I moved around, attempting to give them plenty of time to escape my wellington boots with slow steps.

Site 8, plot 4

Sal will arrange for the Giant Hogweed to be removed from my plots, so the 5 I surveyed didn’t take too long and I was ready to leave by 4pm. I waded through the long grass of the meadow back to the house to get my bike. Dougie the dog barked at me and I congratulated him on being a good guard dog. It’d been a great day getting so close to these poisonous giants, able to move among them with their leaves brushing off my visor an their huge, hollow stems crunching with almost larynx like tones beneath my feet. They are so impressive. Their flower pods look like cabbages atop 10ft poles and the flowers were covered in bees looting their pollen.

Site 8

But however beautiful and interesting, they are unmistakable invaders. On first seeing the stand of them in the meadow I commented that there is nothing British about them. Their form and size, everything about them screams intruder and if you climb through the stand of them to the river bank you see Giant Hogweed stretching along the river bank off into the distance. Thousands of plants, presumably with the same silent, shaded desert stretching along beneath them.

I put on my pack and headed home. As I turned onto the 62 cycle route it occurred to me I knew the way so no need to Google Maps directing me through my headphones. I put Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyd on and fired down the path in the sunshine. Insects bounced off my face and as the guitars kicked in swallows were darting back and forth across the path.

Free Bird on the 62

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…