Dissertation Blog entry #2. Survey day 1. 2013.

Day 1

I awoke to beautiful sunny day, perfect for surveying. I prepared my kit and slinging the heavy rucksack onto my shoulders I set off  cycling to The Carrs. The route Google Maps took me one meant cycling passed Concord Business Park in Wythenshawe where I worked for a cable TV company in a call centre for 3 years when I first lived in Manchester. Those days where never ending and I’d pass the time watching the magpies and midges flying around the central court yard I could see from my desk, tracing the sunshine up the wall hoping there’d be some left for me when I got out. I’d like to have been able to ride my bike into the site, around the building and up to me in the past, sat on a bench on his lunch break and tell him everything was going change.

Site 1, Plot 1

I arrived at The Carrs on Styal Road to find some helpful member of the public had pulled up all my Balsam! Calamity! I paced up and down the perimeter of the grassland like a cartoon character scowling. I considered going home. I really needed those two grassland quadrats. I looked over at the dense nettle stands rich with Balsam that I’d discounted earlier on account of them looking horrific. I was wearing shorts and t-shirt.

Screw it, I thought. I retrieved the shirt I had in my bag, put it on with my gloves, tucking the sleeves in. I pulled my football socks up as high as they’d go and went stomping into the nettle patch with my marker canes and tape measure. My knees got it first but after a while the nettles were stinging me through the shirt sleeves and on a number of occasions they lashed against my head as I stooped down to look for species, stinging my face and even in my ear which is tingling as I type now.

Knees raw from nettle sings(That picture really doesn’t do it justice!)

This was my first ‘proper’ organized botanical survey. I’ve gone out looking for interesting plants before and done some stuff with uni but this felt like the first official one. Despite the stings and hay fever I really enjoyed it. Doing botany is different to reading about it, obviously, but you don’t find out how until you’re doing it. I probably could have guessed that Cleavers would do well in a Balsam dominated environment as they can climb, but seeing them wrapped around the Balsam stems gave me a picture for my memory not just of the fact but of the style too. I also found that in no time at all you can spot a Balsam stem amongst dense vegetation easier than you can find their leaves.

Site 1, Plot 1

The highlight of the survey came during the first of my two plots at this site when while on hands and needs looking for more Balsam to remove, a fleck of blue caught my eye. Looking closer I saw, deep amongst the stems of the tall herbs a delicate, creeping plant with small blue flowers. Closer inspection with my hand lens revealed the unmistakable form of a Speedwell. I love a good Speedwell! They might be my favorite flowers. I retrieved my trusty copy of Francis Rose’s The Wild Flower Key and found I had Heath Speedwell growing in my Balsam infested grassland border. Just a little bit. Excellent news! I’ll be very interested to see if it can beat this year’s <1% cover statistic next year.

Survey day 1. The Carrs. Himalayan Balsam. Grassland.

Species identified on this survey:

  •           Himalayan Balsam
  •           Nettle
  •           Hogweed
  •           Cow Parsley
  •           Bramble
  •           Cleavers
  •           Heath Speedwell
  •           Wood Avens
  •           Creeping Buttercup
  •           Rough Meadow Grass
  •           Cocks Foot
  •           Yorkshire Fog
  •           Meadow Fox Tail
  •           Sycamore
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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…