Newt Season

My first newt season to be precise. I’d been looking forward to it…

I had completed the Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN) course the previous year which taught me Great Crested Newt (GCN) surveying and ID skills (which included ID training in all British amphibian species), and counts as one of the two references I would need in order to apply for a GCN surveying licence one day. But I hadn’t managed to get involved with any newt work before the season ended and my work placement year at an ecological consultancy began in July. I knew there would be newt work come the new season. There’s always lots of newt work said the ecologists.

Newt work has an element of mystery to it. It’s like the breakfast cereal in the advert that the dad tells his kid they wouldn’t like. Ask a newt worker what newt work is like and they’ll tell you the hours are antisocial and the ponds are smelly. There often aren’t any newts at all and you get bitten by mosquitoes they say. And the terrain is annoying to walk on, and you might fall in a pond and…oh and weil’s disease! You might get weil’s disease which in the most severe cases includes symptoms of nausea, vomiting, inability to control physical movements and uncharacteristic violent behavior. Newt work can literally turn you into a vomiting zombie bog creature.

So as I say I’d been looking forward to my first newt season because newts are cool and the worse you tell me something is the more curious I get about trying it. There are two types of people in this world. Ones to who if you say “Try this it’s disgusting” will try it and ones who wont.

Look at this hansom chap  #GreatCrestedNewt

When you actually go out and do newt work you discover that there are pleasures to it which compensate for all of the above and that those same newt workers who extolled its negatives actually rather like it while they’re doing it. I got my first taste of this on a job in Cheshire where Tom, Damien and I assisted Rebecca in several visits to a scrubby area of woodland behind an industrial site which contained a big pond and several little ponds. Our job was to establish population size using terrestrial (checking carpet tiles previously laid out by Victoria and myself on a another visit), bottle (setting bottle traps late afternoon and checking them early the following morning) and torch (surveying the water by powerful torch light after dark) survey techniques.

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Wearing waders – Waders are like having a key to a secret garden. I wish I’d had a pair as a kid. So many times while exploring in the holidays my friends and I would come across a random water body full of who knows what but unable to explore it in our trainers we’d sit on the jetty and just look out (probably for the best).

Waders bring with them a set of challenges however. A leaky wader is as distracting as a mosquito in the ear. The water pressure might mean the wader doesn’t leak until you move into shallower water then it leaks a lot and you try to hurry to a level where the hole or tear is out of the water. Hurrying in a pond is living dangerously.  When you wear waders a lot you get used to them and if you suddenly switch back to wellies you might go marching into a pond up to the knee without thinking about it.

Water Vole surveying

On my first visit to the Cheshire site I discovered the weird world of pond legs. You tentatively try the submerged and obscured ground beneath the water in front of you one foot at a time, like an animal learning to walk. Your arms stick out reflexively in different directions for balance. As you move around your confidence increases and you move faster but then your back foot gets a little stuck causing you to lose balance and your legs suddenly cross themselves in a way that might help, on land. Pond work means you experience that strange other side of yourself that takes over control of your body when you stumble and keeps you upright with a flurry of jerky movements and “wuoOo-uh!” sounds regularly. Most times it works a treat and I’m often reminded of when a flight attendant told me that plains “want to stay in the air”.

#GreatCrestedNewt #GCN #Newt #Cheshire

A right smoothy...

I also discovered the perils of the false floor. You put your foot on it and press down. Feels like the floor so you put your whole weight on it and it suddenly drops, submerging your leg to above the rim of your wader. Water floods in as you sluggishly heave the now very heavy leg out of the pond. I called over to Rebecca and Damien before emptying a pint of pond out of my wader. May as well share the moment I thought. That was unfortunately only 15 minutes into the first pond so I had a wet leg, foot and sock not only for the survey but also during dinner in a local pub. When a member of the public observed me attempting to dry my trouser leg with the wall mounted hand dryer in the toilets I didn’t even bother trying to explain what I was doing.

The traps – Bottle traps if you don’t know are made from clear 2 liter plastic bottles which have been modified so that when a newt gets in it can’t get out. This is less to do with the complexity of the trap and more to do with a newt’s inclination to search for an exit around the side of the trap rather than in the middle. The skill with trapping, which necessitates training and support, is setting the trap such that it contains enough air for the newt to survive. Trap design varies so different techniques may be needed for different traps but for all of them, no air at all and the newt will not last the night and you do not want to find a dead newt in your trap.

It's a trap!

(these are alive by the way)

Another skill to learn is to carry many traps at once. Too few and you have to make repeat journeys to your kit pile. Two many and you become clumsy. I could be imagining it but I’m sure I have stronger fingers now than I did at the beginning of the season. Newt workers hands. I imagine I’d be good at rock climbing now.

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Most important when it comes to traps is your ability to remember where you set them and find them the next day. This doesn’t sound like it should be difficult and with a few simple techniques it is always possible but when you’re setting traps in water deep enough that only a foot or so of your cane is exposed and there are horsetails and various other vegetation obscuring your view you encounter a variety of problems. For example what you could see from a certain angle the night before may be invisible from the slightly different angle the next day. For this and other reasons I have learned that it is not unusual to collect your traps in, count them, and discover you are one short. With so many other variables to consider from balance to wildfowl it is inevitable and that’s why you keep good notes as to how many you have put in, and count carefully how many you have taken out. If you come up short, you retrace your steps and find the one you have left behind.

You never leave without bringing all your traps in. The traps are simple in design but they work. If a newt gets in, it can’t get out. And once in, it attracts other newts, especially if it’s female. That’s why one trap may have none in, and the next, 2 meters away might have 10 in. If you leave the trap in the pond the newts will keep coming and they’ll all die in there. Being too proud to admit you’ve lost a trap would be a very bad quality in a newt worker. If the trap is there, it can be found, you just have to keep looking.

Newt-fest #GreatCrestedNewt #GCN

The other pond life – One of the things I like most about consultancy work is that as well as the species you are there to study you invariably see a host of other creatures too. On bat surveys you see foxes and hedgehogs, on badger surveys you see birds deer.

On newt surveys you see frogs and toads. Frogs are fun, you find them in the traps sometimes. They must have invested some effort to squeeze themselves into the trap only to find themselves stuck. Upon releasing them you have little chance of getting them in the hand, they hop skillfully through your fingers and into the pond where they plop and vanish. Toads I like even more. Their tactic is just to sit in your hand and wait until you get bored and do the plopping for them. Both species go about their business in the ponds as though you aren’t there, or they don’t care that you’re there. As you scan your torch across the surface you sometimes see a toad lounging casually half out of the water on a floating reed stem.

Sexy toad

Then there are the diving beetles. Emerald giants the size of an old 50p but a smooth lozenge shape paddle around the vegetation or rattle in your trap as you empty it.  And the larvae, nightmarish mini monsters, one day to be dragons thrash in the traps. They make me think of that old TV show Land of Giants where people find themselves the size of a key ring and spend an entire episode trying to get away from a cat or off a kitchen table. Dragon fly larvae would have made a great beast if they’d ever found themselves adrift on a pond.

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The peace and quiet – When the traps are in and you’re back doing your torch survey, the sun has gone down and there’s just you slushing carefully through the reeds towards the open water, or along the bank. Maybe it’s spotting with rain but you’ve got waterproofs on and your hood up, torch in hand. The occasional rusting of a coot and the sound of you in the water and your colleagues near by. Your own torch lighting up the water in front of you and one or two others in the distance around the pond. Peace and quiet. Even after a hard, long afternoon of setting traps out, people don’t mind heading back out into the field in the dark because it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the work.

The newts -My first proper newt survey began with frogs and toads as we set out the traps. If the water is clear you see them sat on the floor of the pond, minding their own business. The cloud of silt stirred by your feet washes over them like a macabre aquatic dust cloud, like those created by a fallen building. They don’t move so you must remember where they were and avoid the spot with your feet as you move on.

It was later on the torch survey that I saw the newts, my first glimpse since the CAN course a year prior. The flash of a tail in your peripheral vision like a waved ribbon disappears into the silt as your eyes snap over to it. Another just missed flurry of action and another…then your eyes scan over a shape on the floor and something in your brain sends them back for a second look. Amid the many slender willow leaves, dark and decomposing on the pond floor is a willow leaf with legs. On closer inspection it’s no leaf, and has a rounded head at one end. You shine your torch on it and it remains dead still. You waggle your torch beam back and forth over it and tickle the beast into action, an energy packed split second sends it off like a kite tail in a gale, off into the silt or vegetation. You make a mental note.

If there are many newts on your torch survey you might keep a check score on a note pad of species and gender, or if you have a good memory you might keep track in your head. Someone recently told me their trick for keeping track of having female and males either side of a decimal point. So 24 female GCN, 5 male GCN, 14 female smooth and 19 male smooth would be 24.5, 14.19.

The next morning I discovered the pleasure of checking your traps. Finding newts in the trap you’ve set is good for two reasons: you know you did a good job setting it; and you get to see a newt close up. Newts are awesome! They’re exotic looking and they don’t try very hard to get away from you until you put them back into the water. If you have one in your hand you can look right into their eyes and wonder what on earth you look like to them. Then they clamber over your fingers like a monster in one of those old movies where they filmed tortoises close up to make them look giant.

#Monster

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Newts are like watching Malcolm in the Middle. My favourite changes depending on who I’m looking at. A big male GCN in the water with their crest visible, a big female GCN in the hand, a female smooth creeping through the vegetation or a male smooth close up, they’re all such impressive beasts and after seeing hundreds this season I’m not bored yet. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of several newt projects, some with more newts than others. It’s great when there’re lots, but when there are few you get even more excited finding the odd one in a trap after several ponds or traps with none.

I’ve put in for my licence now so will hopefully soon be a licenced newt worker. I’ve loved my first newt season and look forward to doing it all again next year. With the new eDNA technique being trialled this year it’ll be interesting to see how newt work evolves. I was lucky enough to get to try the sampling process recently. I’ve heard some say that this will be the last newt season as we know it. It certainly has the potential to change the industry but I suspect there will still be need for newt workers to trek through long grass with arm fulls of canes and traps for some time yet.

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I was on a bat survey with Helen the other day. We were walking though a field in Staffordshire on a transect survey when Helen suddenly exclaimed: “Hello! What are you doing here!”. There was a large, female GCN romping through the grass in front of us.

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Repetition, repetition, repetition…

How to get good at ecology by poking badger poo with a stick.

Recently I’ve taken part in a badger based project which necessitated the repeat inspection of 40 badger latrines found within an area of farmland. Prior to this I have had some badger experience including a course on badger set monitoring and badger law, and badger survey sections within wider habitat surveys I have taken part in. So I knew the techniques and signs to look out for but this experience was sporadic.

A few years ago I was talking to an ecologist friend of mine, Richard, who I had met through my uni’s Mentor Match programme, about what I should look for in a work placement. He said I should try and find something really repetitive, doing the same thing over and over again. I remember thinking this sounded like strange advice. Surely he was supposed to tell me to get as much experience in as many things as possible? No. Repetition was his advice. That, he said, was how to get good at something, and then you can tell people you can do it and it’ll be true.

Last year I was on an FSC course at Flatford Mill, (Introduction to Phase 1 Habitat Surveys). I got chatting to a girl on the same course one evening about her experiences in ecology. She told me about a very boring job she’d once had to do which amounted to knocking on doors in a small town and asking to have a look in people’s garden ponds to see if any newts had laid eggs there. She surveyed over 500 ponds in total she told me, and it was so boring. I bet you’re dead good at finding newt eggs now, I said. Oh yes, she said. I can tell if there’ll be newt eggs in a pond almost straight away.

So I’ve spent several days recently on this badger project. I’ve worked two weekends on the trot. Walking around my set route (around 8 miles in a day) checking badger latrines (pits they dig away from their sett entrance to do their badger business in) for badger poo. In this time I have seen countless badger trails, many badger claw marks and foot prints, set entrances and spoil heaps, snagged hairs on fences, and more badger poo than most people will see in a life time, which I have hunkered down next to and poked with a stick scientifically.

There be #badgers

#jackpot

On a CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists) course on invert trapping a while ago someone introduced me to the concept of Target Vision. This is where your brain is looking for one thing in particular within the environment you’re in so everything else gets semi-ignored. I had this while Stacey and I were out on my Wider Butterfly Survey for Butterfly Conservation last year. I was looking for butterflies and she was looking for blackberries. By the end of the afternoon I couldn’t stop noticing butterflies and she couldn’t walk more than a few steps without zoning in on a juicy blackberry. Well now my badger poo target vision has been turned up to 11.

Not only can I spot it but I can age it with some confidence having seen the same poos sometimes for four days in a row.

How helpful for the humble badger to have such a toilet routine. You learn a lot about an animal by poking its poo with a stick. You can tell the ones that have eaten nothing by worms and the ones who’ve been munching down nuts and seeds for a start.

#work

So while the pursuit of badger turds may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, I am very grateful for it. It is one thing learning the signs on paper but it’s been the repetitive experience which means I am now significantly more confident at my badger surveying skills. Repetition! That’s the key.

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I hope you enjoyed this blog. I’m an enthusiastic naturalist who blogs on all things ecology from badger poo to botany. I currently work for an ecological consultancy on a years work placement and will go back to uni at Manchester Metropolitan University for my 3rd year this September. Comments this or other blog entries or just experience sharing are always welcome.

Finding Richard Buxton

I mentioned the botanist Richard Buxton in a recent blog about The Manchester Herbarium which I had been treated to a tour of a week or so ago. The herbarium curator Rachel had told me a little about him and other important botanists who had contributed to the collection. The snap shot description had described him as having been a working class man, a shoe maker’s assistant who had taught himself to read and gone on to write the first flora of Manchester.

In the days that followed this story never strayed far from the front of my mind. I was intrigued by this idea of Victorian working class botanists. People who worked long hours in hard jobs and dedicated their spare time to the study of their local flora.

Photo sourced from Tony Shaw's blog - Link at at end

This guy in particular was interesting due to the idea that he had had a tough life. He lead a humble life from start to finish but during it managed, against the odds to produce a complete flora of Manchester.

My interest peaked I found myself embarking unwittingly on a mini voyage of discovery around this man who had lived and died in Greater Manchester between 1786 and 1865. If you want to know all about him he is an easy man to research on Google. Here’s a brief account of how I came to know more about him…

While writing my blog on the herbarium in which I mention him, I had read the overview of his life on Wikipedia. I noticed that he was buried in St Mary’s Church in Prestwich and I thought to myself that if I were to find myself in Prestwich some time perhaps I could pay the church a visit and see if I could find his head stone. Is that odd? I think it’s a certain kind of curiosity that makes you want to visit a stranger’s grave. Perhaps it’s a desire to add something solid and actual to a subject that until then has just been a concept.

I found out I was to assist Vicky on a Phase 1 habitat survey near Darwen in Lancashire this Tuesday gone. When Vicky and I were discussing where would be easiest to pick me up (she was travelling there from Sheffield) I noticed the line of direction on Google Maps passed through Prestwich and I suggested I get the tram there from South Manchester where I live and wait outside the tram stop.

Further investigation of the map showed me that St Mary’s is a 2 minute walk from the tram stop. I asked Vicky if she’d mind picking me up from the cemetery at St Mary’s instead (and explained why). She laughed. I thought: “Is this odd?” I decided, as I generally do, that it wasn’t.

Come the day I arrived in Prestwich early enough to walk over to St Mary’s with a few minutes to seek out the head stone and take a photo souvenir. On arrival I discovered that St Mary’s, which you can’t see until you’re almost upon it, is actually pretty big. I approached two old chaps at a shed near the gate and told them I was looking for a particular grave and asked if they had any advice on finding it. They laughed and said that there were over 30,000 graves there and that I would never find it. I should give them the details and they’d have someone look up a plot number and get back to me. As I had time to kill I went for a wander first, hoping I might happen across it by chance.

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The cemetery is vast, extending down hill for a couple of hundred meters. It’s one of those cemeteries where you have to walk over grave stones which are laid out like paving, just to get around. You constantly try to navigate around what look most like the feet ends of the stone because it feels rude to walk over the head end.

I couldn’t find it. Vicky called to say she and Tom were outside. I headed back to the gate, via the old chaps who I passed a piece of paper on which I’d written ‘Richard Buxton – died 1855’ and my details. “Richard Buxton the flower guy?” one asked. “Why didn’t you say? He’s over there”

Paid a visit to a Prestwich cemetery to see the botanist Richard Buxton

So now I’d seen his resting place and the stern Victorian photo portrait featured at the top of this blog and on most other websites you’ll find with an internet search. From the photo he looks quite down trodden; staring worried into the middle distance. It’d be easy to think no further on this. It was Victorian times and he was poor, of course he looked like that, but I’d read that one of his favorite flowers was Germander Speedwell…

That’s my favorite flower too and I know how I feel whenever I see it. So my mind’s eye takes the face from the stiff, monochrome Victorian photo and imagines it in colour on a man lying down in the countryside on a warm spring day, pushing apart the vegetation with his callused, shoemaker’s hands and breaking into a smile at the site of some familiar, pretty blue flowers concealed among the grasses.

You don’t botanize miserably. You do it cheerfully or not at all.

I decided to write up the above in this blog. My discovery of the man, my trip to his grave and my thoughts on what might be a misleading photo. While doing some background research I discovered to my surprise that his 1849 book ‘A botanical guide to the flowering plants, ferns, mosses and algae, found indigenous within sixteen miles of Manchester’ is available for free as an E-book here:

https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=o00EAAAAQAAJ&rdid=book-o00EAAAAQAAJ&rdot=1

On reading it I discovered that in place of a preface he writes what he describes as a sketch of his life. He describes his life and botanical work from childhood to the age of 62. He writes wonderfully about the importance of appreciating the beauty of nature, not just in botany but the natural world as a whole. Quite remarkable for a man who taught himself to read and write at sixteen. I could have quoted it all here but I urge you instead to read it. I found it inspiring. He embodies the spirit of a modern day naturalist more than a Victorian botanist. The affection with which he discusses the natural world is quite moving at times.

Here are 3 short quotes. They are not my favourites, those read best in the context of the whole ‘life sketch’, but they illustrate nicely I think that I was right to look past the stern man in the photo. He may have been poor but his life was rich with a passion for nature.

RB1

RB2

RB3

My personal hero of botany. Who’s yours?

Here are some links to other sites/blogs about him…
http://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/is-that-richard-buxtons-nose/#comment-708
http://herbariaunited.org/wiki/Richard_Buxton
http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/richard-buxton-in-prestwich-artisan.html

I hope you enjoyed this blog. I love botany but also blog about various other ecological subjects as I find them. I’m a mature student studying Ecology & Conservation at Manchester Metropolitan University, currently on a years sandwich year work placement at an ecological consultancy. Comments on the blog or just general story sharing are always welcome.

Bat hibernation survey – Pooles Cavern

It’s hibernation season, the time when some bat workers get to go and share, hone or acquire the skills required to spot and ID a bat in a hibernation roost, and collect valuable data for the local bat group records. As you’ll know if you read my recent blog on my experience with South Lancashire Bat Group, it’s far from straight forward and more like something you work on over years than simply learn to do.

That survey had a mix of Whiskered Brandt’s and Daubenton’s. Very useful as they look so similar. I came away from it with a rare air of something like confidence in bat ID.

So I was excited to find out that I was to get the chance to go out on a mini hibernation survey with one of our licensed bat workers here on my work placement. Helen surveys the site at near by Pools Cavern and arranged to take me and a couple of others there one lunch time recently.

I hadn’t heard of Pooles Cavern. It sounds big at first but I knew the visit was to be a relatively short one in comparison to the day spent scrabbling around in the Lancashire mudstone caves so my mind painted a picture of a short, over-hanging rock face next to a road.

My lazy brain always places things right on the edge of a road. On an excursion with some work friends to try and see red deer rutting my subconscious uttered a familiar “Oh right!” as it discovered we were going to have to walk to see the deer and that they would not in fact be rutting in a field next to a car park.

Turns out Pool’s Cavern is a full on show cave. The Wooky Hole of Derbyshire. This happens occasionally with my not being from here, I haven’t heard of any of the famous local places so someone will say “do you fancy coming along on this job to Chatsworth” and I’ll say yes expecting another farm or brown-field site and suddenly there’s a giant country house in front of me with grounds and nobility and everything!

We surveyed a section of the caves. Helen, Tom, Becky, Andy and me. It was good fun, there weren’t many other people there and the caves are a magnificent site, especially when you weren’t expecting it.

We found 7 bats. I say we, none for me. Most were spotted by Tom who clearly has a good eye for it. I can’t decided whether I’m just not good at spotting them in their hibernacula or whether I’d find more if I asserted myself more in getting to have first look at more of the area we’re surveying. I do tend to linger at the back of the line a bit. I’m also seriously considering getting my eyes tested as when others do find them there are times when they’re a little too far away for me to make out the ID features.

But enough excuses…

The group found 7 bats. They were all Natterer’s apart from one brown long-eared and one Daubenton’s.

Here is the best picture of the day. Taken by Andy on his phone. Further proof of how awesome camera phones are these days. This is of the Daubenton’s hanging conveniently in arms reach for this beautiful shot…

Natterers Bat Andy Keen

Now as great as it was seeing this and the Natterer’s (my first experience seeing Natterer’s in the flesh) it took the confidence I’d gained in separating Daubenton’s and Whiskered Brandt’s and turned it on its head. Adding this 3rd Myotis species to the mix upped the game of ID from medium to hard. Like the other two is has pale belly fur and like the Daubenton’s the pinkness of its face is an ID feature. It’s also a similar size to the Daubenton’s. Here are the ID features (courtesy of Steve from South Lancs group following an email conversation about the bat in the photo):

Thick fleshy ears
Ears too short for Natterer’s
Ears curled back – behaviour of a disturbed bat, and a trait of Daub’s (we saw it a lot with captive/rehab Daub’s)
Ears dark in colour, Natterer’s are always pinky
Fur – medium shagginess, Natterer’s would be smoother
Greyish dorsal fur, indicative of juvenile – Natterer’s are more pale brown. (on W/B its very shaggy, and usually dark the base and golden or lighter tips- often visible as the fur is shaggy.)
On the pic there is a small bit of ventral fur above the wing, but not enough. Natterer’s bats have white ventral fur just above the forearm, between the pro-potagium and wrist
No white crescent of fur behind the ears
No reddish forearm (although it is in shadow, I can see its brown, but not dark enough for W/B)
As I write this I notice that the three/four species in question are lined up on the BCT poster by my desk. A reminder that bat ID isn’t supposed to be easy…

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…but that’s part of the fun.

Manchester Herbarium

So I’d written a blog about ferns and was busy peddling it on twitter. I noticed it’d been retweeted by ‘Herbarium Manchester’.

There’s a herbarium in Manchester? Of course there is. There are universities and museums, it makes sense that there would be a herbarium. I followed their twitter @Aristolochia and read their blog herbologymanchester.wordpress.com

Now in truth I wasn’t 100% sure until this point what a herbarium actually was. I thought I had heard the term used to describe a collection of dry moss samples in a shoe box. I suspected what I was dealing with here was grander than a shoe box of moss samples. I imagined Hogwartian rows of Victorian cabinets containing old botanical specimens and curiosities.

Having read the blog it appeared to my delight that it looked as though I was imagining right.

Aside from an interest in botany from an ID and conservation point of view I love the aesthetic of a pressed plant. Especially the old Victorian collector type specimens, mounted in a frame with the Latin name written in neat handwriting. I made my own flower press last year and began collecting samples of plants I encountered in my area, mounting them all in a large clip frame which sat/sits on my fire place and slowly filled up as spring turned to summer.

Some of last years pressings

It was a useful practice of committing names to memory and a reminder of the order in which the species appeared. My technique needs some work but they’ve been an attractive ornament and it’s been curious to watch them yellow as time passes.

I called the Museum to see if it was possible to see the herbarium. I was given the contact details of the curator, Rachel, who I emailed introducing myself and asking, unsure of the precise protocol of the the situation, if I could come and have a look at the herbarium? She replied with a cheerful affirmative and we arranged to meet at the Museum reception on Friday.

On Thursday I was talking to Jacky at work and mentioned I was going. Did you know there was a herbarium in the museum? I asked her. She said she thought she did and that I was in for a treat, that it was up in the towers and full of interesting things.

I arrived on the day and told the lady at reception who I was there to see. She phoned and advised of my arrival. Several minutes passed. I read the information boards by some of the displays. Streams of school children filed in, to the sound of a familiar teacher monolog about them being ambassadors for their school. I followed the drama of an ambulance being called for a man who wasn’t feeling well.

When you’re waiting for someone in this situation you assess everyone who enters the scene and decide how likely it is that they’re a herbarium curator. Now I’ve met Rachel I shall judge future herbarium curators by how like her they are. Anyhow we guessed right that we were one another and set about retracing her steps back to the herbarium. Turns out that she must have left as soon as she got the call saying I was there.

The journey took us first to a lift, out of which came the poorly man with the paramedics who I was glad to see looked OK. We passed through various museum sections, passed mummies and frogs, pottery and spears. We talked about the building, its history, architects and layout. Apparently the different adjoining sections had been designed by 3 generations on the same family…

Then through doors behind the scenes, up old stone stair cases with narrow windows through which you glimpsed portions of a familiar building from unfamiliar perspectives, we finally passed a chair on which was sellotaped a piece of paper with ‘herbarium’ written on it in biro, and into the herbarium its self.

The paper sign on the chair was an ironically contrasting announcement of the world you enter beyond it. My eyes widened and I made a mental note not to outwardly gawp.

I’m a student at Manchester Metropolitan which I’m very proud of. It’s an excellent university but from a historical point of view it is architecturally  unremarkable.  This building though is part of the Manchester University neo-Gothic complex which for a Harry Potter fan like myself is deliciously Hogwarty. The herbarium takes up a sizable section of the loftiest floors of the building. The rooms are long and to return to the Potter metaphor is like a someone has tidied up the room of requirement, placing it’s many and varied specimens in a variety of boxes and cabenets. All cataloged and arranged in order.

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

I didn’t even get to see the whole thing as it’s currently having more shelving fitted. Rachel showed me around and apparently at random removed one of the many green boxes from one of the shelves. Digitalis purpurea. Out of it she produced pressed foxglove specimens that were nearly 200 years old. They were in pretty good condition. In a place like this the most important thing is that they keep it dry. Damp could ruin everything, as could biscuit beetles who apparently also have a fondness for pressed flowers. Thankfully there hasn’t been a serious beetle incident since the 1970s!

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

There are over a quarter of a million specimens here, box after box, full not only of pressings but people’s notes, illustrations etc. The Pintrest boards of the 19th century. Articles so old that everything  is spelled a bit weird and ye olde words like ‘groweth’ take you way back to the rampant botanical collecting era of the Victorians.

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#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

We all know the Victorians liked collecting botanical specimens but it’s hard to get an idea of the scale and lengths they went to until you see a collection like this. And as Rachel said this was a time when hardly anyone went abroad so sending back strange, alien looking specimens sometimes provided people’s only chance of seeing them. Someone had even pressed a Golden Barrel cactus from New Mexico!

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers #cactus #cacti #goldenbarrell

As well as the many green boxes, more curiosities were contained in drawers. Bags of dried leaves, cotton samples, and a fragrant drawer of old medicinal samples that wafted out a cloud of Eucalyptus scent  as it opened…

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

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Around the herbarium are photographs of old contributors and benefactors. Rachel summarized the lives and histories of them as we walked around. What struck me in particular was the description of the working class botanists way back when. Working men who would gather in pubs on their days off after collecting specimens and discuss their physiology and identification. I like that idea. Botany isn’t exactly considered a macho pursuit these day but I doubt those guys had fun poked at them for taking an interest in their local natural history.

One chap, a shoe maker’s assistant named Richard Buxton from Prestwich, taught himself to read using botanical literature and went on to produce A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses, and Algæ, Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester. He had a tough life by all accounts and died in poverty.

Buxton3It shows you though back then botany was accessible to everyone, and my visit to the Manchester Herbarium has given my botanical plate an extra spin. An inspiring look around a less-seen corner of Manchester. As I walked home I noticed that forget-me-nots were in flower amongst the grass verge on Oxford Road. Only a couple though so I left them be…

Hello forget-me-nots! #spring #botany #flowers #Manchester

Thanks to Rachel of the Herbarium for the generous tour. Photo of Richard Buxton sourced from Friends of Chorlton Meadows.

I hope you enjoyed this blog. I’m a mature student at Manchester Metropolitan University studying Ecology & Conservation, currently on a work placement sandwich year at an ecological consultancy, documenting my adventures in ecology here.

Building inspections & sunrise reflections (Placement days 35 to 45)

I had the opportunity to go on a couple of building inspections last week. Usefully, one of these buildings was very suitable and the other averagely so meaning I have bench marks by which to measure future visits. When Sarah and I pulled up at the very suitable building (an old barn) you could see by her face that she knew immediately we were likely to find evidence of a roost there, and sure enough the loft was littered with droppings and discarded moth wings. Apparently the reason for the discarded wings is that medium sized bats like Brown Long Eared are big enough to catch large moths but not big enough to eat them while flying, so they need a feeding roost to hang in while they munch their moth down.

The building of medium suitability was on a farm. When Helen and I arrived there the owner warned us that there was a dog in one of the buildings but reassured us that it was a nice dog. After he left, a horse whinnied. When you’re expecting a dog, the sound of a horse whinnying sounds remarkably like Scooby Doo laughing. There were some very old bat droppings in this place which crumbled to dust between your fingers. Not like the shiny, black jewels of the old barn.

The first rule of a building inspection is: look down before you look up, you don’t want to tread all over your evidence. Building inspections are a bit CSI.

Earlier this week I caught the train to Rochdale one evening for a dawn survey the next day. As the train whisked through the many brownfield sites that separate Oldham and Rochdale from Manchester I was treated to flick-book style animation of a battle taking place between Rosebay Willowherb and Himalayan Balsam. The war for supremacy was at times heavily in favor of one species the other, and at other times it was being thrashed out hand to hand with each occurring equally in saturated fields.

There was a chaise-longue in my Travel Inn room which I sat on eating Malteasers, feeling very opulent while watching TV before an early night/start for the dawn survey. My survey position for this survey was between two houses at the back of the site. I wore a high vis jacket in an attempt to look less scary to anyone who might notice me stood there in the middle of the night. There was very little bat activity. I resisted the urge to count the seconds away in my head. I got to 4 before before I stopped myself but as usual that was enough to trigger this song in my head which remained (not unpleasantly) for rest of the survey…

Over breakfast in the Premier Inn; Chloe, Sarah, Kelly, Vicky and myself discussed the phenomenon of lizards shedding their tails when caught or distressed. It seems as though it isn’t just something having hold of their tail that makes them shed it, but just the stress of being caught at all. We speculated that while it’d be useful to be able to grow back lost limbs, shedding them when distressed would cause all kinds of problems for humans. Imagine if you lost an arm or leg every time you were stressed or nervous. Job interviews, driving, weddings… Lack of sleep leads to some peculiar conversations.

Thursday saw a return to Cumbria. I’m getting to know the site well and was looking forward to going back. This time I was with Helen and Vicky. There was lots to get done. My time was split between helping Helen with water-vole/otter surveys and helping Vicky with hedgerow surveys. It was a humid day and we headed to the hotel, tired and hungry to load up on carbs (the hotel is very generous with its chip portions) before heading back out for the dusk survey.

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As we headed back to the site the sun was setting big and orange. It was eyebrow-raisingly beautiful and we all took pictures on our phones…

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I took up my position with my back to the main road. The setting sun turned from rich orange to polished, red glass and washed the big sky and long clouds vanilla. It began to look more like the far east than the north west.

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Cows snorted and farted in the field next to me, sparrows chirped in the hedge and swallows swooped overhead.

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Calves played at being bulls, butting heads. The sunlight began to filter from the sky. Vanilla turned to chrome, a mist fell across the fields in the distance and the hedge fell silent and the sky empty.

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With my back to the road, passing traffic back lit me, sliding my shadow across the field like a moving target in a shooting range. Pipistrelles arrived around half nine, passing over me on their way elsewhere.

Up at 4am for the dawn survey. The moon was almost full and so bright we cast a shadow as we headed down the track. For this survey my position was at the furthest end of the farm, a good ten minute walk from Helen’s position. Walking through the moonlit countryside I felt like both predator and prey as I kept an anxious look out for the feisty cows which have been the cause of so many reroutes on our walks across the site.

Thankfully I encountered none making it to my stretch of track in one piece, and greeted by a cacophony of bat calls which fizzed and popped from my detector.

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In the distance I could hear a dairy farm starting work, ushering in the cows. Farmers called out: “Come on girl! COOOOOME-on GIRRRRL!”.

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Pipistrelles foraged back and forth above my head.

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My earworn for the dawn survey was Louis Armstrong…

…which I whistled along to as the sky over the farms was lit up by another beautiful Cumbria dawn.

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At six Helen called and I began the walk back to meet her. I sang ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ to myself as I crossed fields and climbed over fences. What I didn’t know at this point but would find out later that day is that my step-father who has been very ill would not last the day and the already rather special sunset and sunrise I’d witnessed would be the last of his lifetime. They are inevitably all the more poignant to me as I look back on my photos. So this blog is for my step-dad, Ken Wyatt, who saw many beautiful sunsets and sunrises in his life, and wasn’t one to overlook the beauty such things.

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Back to Cumbria (Placement days 24 & 25)

Back in the car with Sarah to Cumbria. Journeys always seem to go faster when you know them and we flew through the counties, peaks and traffic in no apparent time at all.

I continued to pick Sarah’s brains for botanical ID tips. I am either coming across as relentlessly enthusiastic or relentlessly annoying.

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The sun was back out after a week of rain and as we drove along hedge lined country roads in Cumbria, what looked a lot like a bat flew across the road and in front of the car for a second or two, in broad daylight. After a moment of me rerunning the image in my head before bringing it up Sarah said: “Was that a bat?!” A rare sight indeed.

Upon arriving on site we cracked back on with the Phase 1 survey we had started the previous week and I was allocated a hedge to work on a species list for…

Red Clover leaf, as evident by the angle (>90°) on the veins from the centre stem

Annual Meadow Grass. Crimped leaf.

#Betony

#Yarrow

#Feverfew

#Dogrose

Heliotrope

#MarshFoxTail

#BlackKnapweed

#Meadowsweet

Once again the Phase 1 took longer than expected and we had to wolf down our dinner back at the hotel. I’d been feeling progressively worse as the day had gone on. It was painful to swallow and my head hurt. I felt pretty rotten. I mentioned that I thought I might be coming down with something as I didn’t want to come across as though I was quiet because I was bored. Sarah said she had noticed I’d gone quiet and suggested that during survey season it isn’t unusual to feel as though you’re coming down with something when in fact you’re just run down.

That definitely sounded like something my subconscious would do so I resolved to pull myself together, put on a happy face and made an effort to say more. I then asked Sarah if she had noticed me perk up which kinda defeats the object but she said she had and inquired what had happened? I said I’d just pulled myself together and stopped being such a wimp.

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A plate of scampi, a glass of coke with ice and a 20 minute power nap and I was feeling markedly better as we headed through the fields to our dusk bat survey site. The cows have young calves and are paranoid and confrontational around people which made getting to the site a challenge. On walking through one field they all started approaching us. We left that field and began walking around the parameter but the cows followed us on the other side so that when we came to the point where we needed to climb over, they were there, so we had to wait until they’d all passed by. Then when we climbed over and began crossing the field they began hurrying over to intercept us. As we reached our point of no return it was clear if we carried on they’d beat us to the middle so we had to hurry back and over the fence again!

With a detour we eventually made it to our survey site and I settled in to watch the sky darken behind a large old ash tree. I’ve discovered I don’t like staring at ash trees. Their pinnate leaves create the feeling of double vision as they cross at different levels. All was quiet until nearly 10pm when we were treated to acrobatic pip foraging as at least 3 bats swooped around us and one another. One flying so close to my face I exclaimed: “WOW!”

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It’s funny the things that go through your head as you stare at the trees and the sky, waiting for the bats. I’ve leaned my brain acts as a randomized juke box with songs appearing out of nowhere and playing on a loop. This night I was treated to ‘Jimmy Mac’ by Martha and Vandellas.

On our way back through the fields we were met by the cows again, headed by the big old white bull with a limp, or ‘Limpy’ as we’ve come to know him. So again we rerouted, through dark fields, over barbed wire, back to the car, to the hotel, and finally I was back in my room and more than ready for the three and a half hours sleep I had before our dawn survey.

No cows to avoid, at dawn I stood on the dirt track watching Sarah’s torch light make it’s way over to a tree in the distance,. When she got to it she pointed it up into the tree, lighting the whole thing up like a cathedral.

Frogs croaked with gusto from the vegetation behind me, lapwings squeaked in the field in front and an owl hooted in the distance. I watched my tree.

Dawn tree 1
Dawn tree 2
Dawn tree 3
Dawn tree 4

Morning doesn’t break smoothly. It comes in surges as though the sun is being heaved over the horizon by an unseen titan before finally rolling down over everything.

Dawn bat survey in Cumbria #PAASvy

The next day we returned to the site to finish the Phase 1. I took the field of rushes, compiling a list of the species in the hedge first then carefully hopping across (and occasionally into) the many, and sometimes discrete, water courses.

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