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Sunday, 27 November 2011

Winter Bird Walk - wigeon and willow tit star


A blustery but bright morning at Sale Water park saw six novice bird watchers assemble and set off on a walk where we saw 31 different species of bird. Not bad for the local patch. Our first look at the bird feeders outside the centre revealed a surprise. Two willow tits and a woodpecker on the feeders. I get so used to seeing blue, great and even coal tits on the feeders that the dusky pinkish flanks and the bullish head of willow tit stood out from the crowd. We rambled on ticking off some of the usual suspects such as the greedy blackbirds gobbling hawthorn berries. The bright orange chest of a bullfinch was spotted by about half of us before darting for cover.

After a little detour we arrived at Sale Water Park which was lower than normal raising promise of seeing more wading birds and wildfowl than usual. Unfortunately, no waders but lots of teal, coots, black headed gulls and most exciting of all, a small flock of wigeon were preening themselves at the west end of the lake. We even saw two wagtails; the grey and the pied (one of our number evocatively described the pied wagtail as a 'midget magpie').

The view from Broad Ees Dole didn't disappoint either. Nine herons lined the bank on one side with scruffy and spikey splendour. Three shoveler ducks pirouetted their way round the pools filtering for microscopic life in the water and a gang of teal looked resplendent in the sun. No winter thrushes though which we all put down to the mild start to winter. All in all a great morning's birdwatching in the Mersey Valley.

Blackbird
Black-headed gull
Blue tit
Bullfinch
Canada goose
Carrion crow
Chaffinch
Coot
Cormorant
Goldfinch
Great crested grebe
Great spotted woodpecker
Great tit
Grey wagtail
Heron
Jay
Kestrel
Little grebe
Long-tailed tit
Magpie
Mallard
Moorhen
Mute swan
Pied wagtail
Robin
Shoveler
Sparrowhawk
Teal
Wigeon
Willow tit
Wood pigeon

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Event tomorrow Sun 27th Nov. - Winter Bird Walk


What? Winter bird walk led by FoCM members: Richard Gardner and Julian Robinson
Where? meet at Sale Water Park Visitor Centre
When? 10.30am. Sunday 27th November 2011

Bring binoculars if you have them. Hopefully, we'll see winter migrants recently arrived from Scandinavia and Russia and also some wildfowl on the watery bits of the Mersey Valley.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Wildlife Watch - every 1st Saturday of the month



What's the event? Cheshire Wildlife Watch forms the junior branch of Cheshire Wildlife Trust - nationwide, Watch is the leading club for young budding environmentalists. It is run by trained and CRB checked volunteers and consists of environmental activities for children aged 5 - 15.

Activities are varied and could include bug hunts, butterfly spotting, pond dipping, arts and crafts and games for all ages. It’s FREE but we encourage attendees to join Wildlife Watch to get all the benefits of being a junior member, as well as supporting the work of Cheshire Wildlife Trust. Bring wellies and waterproofs in case it’s wet!

When is it? Every 1st Saturday of the month, 2-3.30pm. Next one: 3rd December
Where is it? Chorlton Water Park, Visitor Centre, Maitland Road, M21 7JJ

For more details contact: caroline.milson@hotmail.co.uk or checkout the Facebook page 'Chorlton Wildlife Watch'

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Metrolink and Biodiversity - Business as Usual


Earlier this summer, because of the ground disturbance in the vicinity of Metrolink’s St Werburgh’s Road tram stop, hundreds of arable 'weeds' appeared on the newly created embankments. The seeds of such plants can remain buried but viable for decades (perhaps even for a century or more) and disturbance, and subsequent exposure to sunlight, caused them to germinate. Many of these 'weeds' (not a scientific term!) would have been familiar to the old Chorlton farmers and their farm workers (they probably cursed such plants - but they were trying to maximise crop yields). There were Poppies, Wild Pansies, Wild Radish, Fumitories and many more. Many of these plants were recorded in the local floras from the mid-19th century and in the local collection in Manchester Museum Herbarium. And it was not just me that appreciated these profusely flowering plants - they were also covered in bees, butterflies and other invertebrates. Nevertheless, when I returned to the same spot, a couple of weeks later, to see if anything else had appeared, I found that the whole bank had been sprayed with herbicide.

A recent paper (ref.1) from researchers at Hull University highlights the importance of such plants for biodiversity. Dr Evans and his team discovered that:
Weeds, which are widely deemed as a nuisance plant, are vital to the existence of many farmland species.

Since many weeds produce flowers and seed, they are an integral part of our ecosystem and together with other crop and non-crop seeds found on farms, they provide food for over 330 species of insects, birds and animals.
The team examined the distribution of berries and soil-surface seeds collected over an entire year. They built up the first picture of its kind showing which farmland habitats are the most important seed producers and how the seed resources change in different seasons.

Dr Evans said: "We understand a lot about farmland birds and mammals, but little about the plants and insects that underpin them. In this study, we discovered not only the importance of weed and non-crop species for many farmland animals but that the vast majority of seed-feeding animals on farms are insects, which are often overlooked by conservationists."

The team of researchers converted seed counts into mass and energy estimates; they found that shed seeds and berries available on a single organic farm can produce a staggering 560 gigajoules of energy.

Dr Evans added: "We show that an increase in farm management intensity can lead to a decline of up to 19% in overall seed biomass and energy, which is presumably why agricultural intensification causes many farmland birds to suffer a 'hunger-gap' in mid-winter. Non-farmed habitats such as woodlands and hedgerows are important for seed resources, but we also show that some farmed areas are too".
The team predicted that increased farming intensity can have large cascading effects throughout an entire ecosystem, which can indirectly affect animals associated with the seeds.

The scientists conclude that farmers can maintain or enhance biodiversity by appropriately managing uncultivated, semi-natural habitats such as hedgerows and woodlands but that even small changes to cropped areas, such as allowing some weed species to grow, could have a huge impact on the quantity and variety of seeds available on the farm and the animals that feed on them. They suggest that rather than focussing limited conservation resources on a small number of charismatic species such as birds, an alternative approach is to understand and manage the complex network of species interactions on farms and to explore ways of incorporating this into policy.

I wrote to Dr Evans and asked him if he thought that his findings might also apply in an urban setting. He did not reject my suggestion out of hand but informed me that he thought that it could merit further investigation. My guess is, though, that all of the Metrolink embankments taken together are comparable in size to an average organic farm.

Besides depriving local invertebrates of sources of summer pollen and nectar, and invertebrates, birds and small mammals of sources of winter food, the destruction of the St Werburgh’s Road population of native annuals and archaeophytes with herbicide had a further consequence. A few weeks after spraying I noted that the bank was now dominated by a plant called Hoary Mustard (Hirschfieldia incana); this is a recently introduced species (an ‘alien neophyte’) originally from the Mediterranean. I suspect that it may be more resistant to herbicides than the plants originally present – and hence, given the opportunity, it became dominant. There are signs that this plant is spreading, with ecological consequences which are, as yet, unknown. It is certainly much more common, both locally and nationally, than it used to be. A recent report (ref. 2) records “massed occurrences” of it in South Hertfordshire – especially by the M25 and the A1M. Referring to the M25 population the author of the report estimates that “tens of millions of plants must have been involved”.

On the day that I discovered the St Werburgh’s Road ‘weed’ bank a passer-by asked what I was looking at. When I told him he said, “Oh, they’ll spray them with herbicide soon!” And, of course, he was right. Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) has made specific public promises to protect biodiversity. For example their ‘Wildlife and Tree Replacement Policy’ (ref. 3) states that:

“The development of transport infrastructure must ensure the protection and enhancement of protected landscapes, habitats and sites; and take opportunities to protect and enhance biodiversity, ...”

I submit that the thoughtless and routine spraying of herbicide at this particular site suggests that TfGM and their contractors are not really interested in protecting and enhancing biodiversity and in reality consider local wildlife to be worthless and expendable; in short: “wildlife policies are for cissies - business as usual!”

Dave Bishop, October 2011

References:

1. D.M. Evans, M.J.O. Pocock, J. Brooks, J. Memmot, ‘Seeds in farmland food-webs: Resource importance, distribution and the impact of farm management.’ Biological Conservation, Sept 2011.

2. T.J. James, ‘Massed occurrence of Hirschfieldia incana (Hoary Mustard) in south Hertfordshire (v.c. 20)’, BSBI News, No. 118, Sept. 2011.

3. http://www.tfgm.com/corporate/environment_policy_documents.cfm

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Wildlife Watch - this Saturday


What's the event? Cheshire Wildlife Watch forms the junior branch of Cheshire Wildlife Trust - nationwide, Watch is the leading club for young budding environmentalists. It is run by trained and CRB checked volunteers and consists of environmental activities for children aged 5 - 15.

Activities are varied and could include bug hunts, butterfly spotting, pond dipping, arts and crafts and games for all ages. It’s FREE but we encourage attendees to join Wildlife Watch to get all the benefits of being a junior member, as well as supporting the work of Cheshire Wildlife Trust. Bring wellies and waterproofs in case it’s wet!

When is it? This Saturday 17th September, 2-3.30pm

Where is it? Chorlton Park, Visitor Centre, Maitland Road, M21 7JJ

For more details contact: caroline.milson@hotmail.co.uk

Monday, 8 August 2011

Hawk-moths of the Mersey Valley

An encounter with these spectacular insects is always memorable. With wingspans of up to 10cm, and brightly coloured markings, they are far from the image of the typical moth as a small, dowdy, brown insect. There are four common resident species here in Manchester, plus one uncommon resident, and a number of migrant species of varying rarity.



Elephant Hawk-moth
Of the four common resident species, this is arguably the most spectacular with its stunning pink and green colouration. Up to a 6cm wingspan and found from May to July, the caterpillars feed on Rose-bay Willow-herb in late summer. There is a smaller close relative, the Small Elephant Hawk-moth, which has a a wingspan of about 4cm, and is far less common.

Poplar Hawk-moth
Probably the commonest of the hawk-moths, and one of the largest with up to a 9cm wingspan, this moth adopts a unique posture with its hingwings held higher than the forewings. This covers a reddish patch on the hindwings which can then be quickly revealed to deter predators. The moth can be seen in June and July.

Eyed Hawk-moth
Another spectacular species with huge blue “eyes” on pink hindwings, which are revealed if the moth is disturbed. Up to 8cm long and flying from May to July, the caterpillars feed on apple and sallow, as well as some other trees.



Lime Hawk-moth
A pink and green tinged moth, more subtle than the colouration of the Elephant Hawk-moth, and with distinctive scallop edged forewings, this moth has a wingspan of up to 7cm. This species flies in May and June. The caterpillars feed on lime, elm, alder, cherry or birch.



All the above are night-fliers but may occasionally be encountered in the day resting on fences, tree trunks etc. They are strongly attracted to light and hopefully some of them will be attending the moth night at Sale Water Park on 30th July!

Hummingbird Hawk-moth
This is a day-flying hawk-moth which may, if you are lucky, be seen hovering and probing its proboscis deep within flowers such as honeysuckle. It is a migratory species which sometimes arrives here in quite good numbers.



More photos of the above species, and of the rare migrant Hawk-moths, can be seen on the UKMoths website at: http://ukmoths.org.uk/index.php

Ben Smart, 2011

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Report on Insects of the Mersey Valley Walk, 03/07/2011


Glorious weather was met with a super turnout, one of the best I can recall for a FoCM event.

The numbers were boosted thanks to the joining of a group of MAD walkers, who tagged on as part of their programme.

Richard and I had chosen a variety of habitats and techniques to try. Indeed, when planning the walk, it was apparent that within not much more than a stone’s throw you could step from meadow, to scrub, to woodland and wetland habitat, all of which have their particular specialist ‘minibeasts’ in residence.

Our first challenge was to survey the ground level dwellers of grassland and scrub, our choice of location the old orchard by Jackson’s Boat Bridge, now well broken into and pedestrianised with footpaths.

A few days earlier we’d secreted around the orchard a few pit traps. These are fairly simple devices, comprising two plastic cups, the kind found on any water cooler, sunk into the ground. The reason for two is so that the inner cup can be removed from the ground smoothly without caving in the hole, which can then be reused for any longer term survey. We poured into each cup a small amount of an alcohol solution so as to quickly drown any fallers-in. Though seeming sound unkind, there is a sound reason for doing this, as in order to get a representative sample it is necessary to quickly stun or kill what happens to fall in. Without this, it is likely that all you’d be left with in the trap would be one fairly fat ground beetle: the top insect predator of the undergrowth, who would have happily fed on any lesser equipped species. Not that it was necessary as the days leading up to the walk were all very sunny, but we placed a piece of plexiglas over the top of the trap, secured into place with tent pegs and tilted at a angle to drain away any rain water from flooding the cup.

We quickly found all 6 traps hidden around the orchard and tipped out their contents into white plastic trays to better observe what we’d caught. All the traps contained some specimens, with most a spattering of small-sized representatives from the arachnids and springtails – two of the more common families which play an important dietary component to larger species. Equally enjoyable during this was the joining of our group of two or three unexpected insect guests, namely a common grasshopper and froghopper, both obligingly seated onto people’s coats, and in the case of the froghopper, onto the rim of the tray, making them easy to be caught in viewing pots.

One of the more impressive specimens, and something we’d hoped to catch, was a species of large ground beetle. The ground beetles are a numerous family, possibly containing many hundreds of species, their individual types only often separated through close observation of such things as the number hairs on their legs. One notable feature of the two we found is that they were all black, including their legs. Other species I’m familiar with, often from turning over logs or old carpet!, exhibit violet or black colourations to their legs or flanks – so, if anyone has any more exact information on the all black species we caught, please let us know.

The next stopping off point was the boggy drainage channel which connects the Mersey to Sale Water Park. This slow moving water is often left undisturbed, the sluice gates connecting it to the Mersey only rarely opened when the water levels get particularly high. As consequence, it’s a rich habitat for many invertebrates. Some of the star groups are the damsel and dragon flies that live out their lifecycles here – and sure enough, we observed in the reeds and grass around the channel a few examples of damsel flies, one of the most attractive a male banded demoiselle, replete with it dark thumb print on its wings.


We then took some scoops out of the channel using pond nets and tipped the contents into our trays. This is always an exciting process as it’s not everyday you come into contact with the invertebrate life of ponds, and when you do I’m always struck by the impressive size and alien shapes that thrive. Species which were observed ranged from leeches, molluscs, including a small fresh waster muscle, pond skaters and water boatmen. However, the best capture was arguably a large, silvery species of diving beetle – seen up close fierce and otherworldly looking.



We rounded off the walk with an exploration of the woodland habitat close to the visitor’s centre at Sale Water Park. Here we all got involved by turning over logs and seeing what we could see living among the dead wood. Slugs were particularly common, with one particularly large example of a leopard slug being particularly impressive. We also found woodlice, lots or millipedes and beetles, all of which play an important role in the breaking down and recycling organic material back into the soil.

Julian Robinson

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Stonecrops




Here’s one for all you fans of the counter-intuitive!

Stonecrops (Sedum sp.) are plants with hairless, succulent, fleshy leaves. These leaves act as water storage organs, hence Stonecrops are adapted for life in dry, sharply-drained environments (sand dunes, rocks, walls etc.). So the odd thing is that three of the Mersey Valley species grow on the river bank, almost at the water’s edge.

The explanation for this, superficially odd, circumstance is that the dry habitats, free from the competition that these small plants would have difficulty coping with, are at the river’s edge.

In some places sandy silt has built up to form miniature sand banks and in others the river banks have been shored up with concrete strips and rafts. These represent almost ideal habitats for Stonecrops, with one small snag, which you may be able to guess – but more of that later.

The three species are as follows:

Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre) – Top Photo

This yellow flowered species is native to the UK. It is the first of the three species under discussion to flower (May to July). The leaves have a peppery, ‘biting’ taste – hence the name (it’s probably not wise to consume any more than the absolute minimum if you decide to test this out).
Biting Stonecrop is relatively common in the UK – usually on walls, rocks or sand dunes. Nevertheless, it is now rare in the Mersey Valley. The plants in the picture were photographed, just below the Princess Road Bridge, on a sandy layer deposited by the river on a concrete raft.

This species used to grow at the base of the brick walls that line the old sewage works channel that runs parallel to the river bank at the edge of Chorlton Ees. Sadly this population was destroyed a few years ago in a ‘tidying-up’ operation. When I complained I was told that it was, “only a garden escape”. This may or may not be true but garden escapes which become naturalised in the wild (and are not invasive) are intrinsically interesting and should not be carelessly destroyed – particularly not for reasons of tidiness!

I can’t find any old records, for this species, from Chorlton and adjacent areas but, in the mid-19th century, the species was certainly present in the Altrincham/Bowdon area.

White Stonecrop (Sedum album) – Middle Photo

This species is also native to the UK, but is restricted in its distribution as a truly native plant. Nevertheless, it is not infrequently encountered as a naturalised garden escape. It flowers from June to August.

White Stonecrop is now, by far, the commonest Stonecrop on the narrow strips and rafts of concrete at the river’s edge. A couple of weeks ago its massed flowers made a spectacular display at the base of the northern river bank about quarter of a mile west of Crossford Bridge - which carries the A56 over the river near Stretford. I noted some small butterflies feeding on the flowers. There’s one of these butterflies in the photograph. I think that it’s probably a Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) – but feel free to disagree with me!

Rock Stonecrop (Sedum forsterianum) – Bottom Photo

Rock Stonecrop is another native plant which also frequently occurs as a garden escape. It’s much less common than White Stonecrop and much more sporadic in its occurrence, but grows in much the same places. It flowers from June to August.
It is generally larger, has much longer slimmer, pointed leaves which are flattened on their upper surfaces.

The snag for these plants is, of course, that periodically they have to endure flooding. You’ve probably seen the Mersey in spate – a rushing, raging torrent which can rise right up to the upper flood banks, completely inundating the Stonecrops’ habitat. It’s amazing that they don’t get washed away – they must have amazingly strong root systems!

What I suspect actually happens that many leaves do break off and are washed downstream. Then, if luck prevails, they will end up on another bit of concrete where they can produce roots and another Stonecrop colony.

Dave Bishop, July 2011

Saturday, 2 July 2011

A Rose by Another Name


Sorry about the title - it's supposed to be a joke. I'm not sure that it works (?) Still. Never mind. Onwards!

In the last article I talked about trying to find the Roses on the list that Leo Grindon published, for the Manchester area, in the mid-19th century. Well, I think that I might have found one of them, and possibly a second - plus one that isn't even on the list.

The one that appears to be more or less definite is the Field Rose (Rosa arvensis). This corresponds to the picture above (although it could be some sort of hybrid, of course). Ironically this plant is on Hardy Farm and I pass it quite regularly (you never know what could be 'hiding in plain sight'!). A couple of key characteristics of this plant are that it has creamy white flowers and the style (the female part in the middle of the flower) is on a short column. An important question is: was it planted in the spot where it grows (as many trees and shrubs were in the 1970/80s) or did arrive of its own accord - perhaps bird seeded? I suppose we'll never know.

Last week I also found, in a hedge in the Albemarle allotments in Withington, a plant with straight prickles - which could be Soft Downy-rose (R. mollis) - but, for various reasons, I'm not sure.

Finally, I've recently found a plant which nearly keys out as Round-leaved Dog-rose (R. obtusifolia). Everything fits (flower colour, sepals, prickles, presence of small, reddish glands on the leaf edges etc.) except that it's supposed to have hairy leaves - and the two specimens that I've found have completely smooth and hairless leaves - baffling!

Dave Bishop, July 2011

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Wild Roses




Roses are some of our most beautiful wild flowers and June is the month in which they bloom. The sight of them always lifts my spirits and when I come across them in some neglected corner of the Mersey Valley I reflect on how something of beauty managed to survive the brutal destruction of our local landscapes, mostly in the second half of the 20th century, and the largely insensitive, and often crass, interventions which followed.

These flowers may be beautiful but in terms of their classification (taxonomy) they are very complex. There are 20 or 21 species (depending on which authority you consult) of Rose growing wild in Britain – some of which are introductions (about 8 species). They exhibit variations within species and the species often hybridise with one another (there are more than 80 different hybrids).

Species and hybrids are distinguished from each other by examining details of their growth habit, leaves, prickles, fruits (‘hips’) and flowers.

How many species are native in present day South Manchester and the Mersey Valley is difficult to tell, and the picture has been complicated by the fact that many Roses (often of uncertain origin) were introduced in the 1970s and 80s. In his ‘Manchester Flora’ (1), published in 1859, Leo Grindon listed four species: Common Dog-rose (Rosa canina), White Dog-rose (R. arvensis), Hairy-fruited Dog-rose (R. villosa) and Downy-leaved Dog-rose (R. tomentosa). Modern authorities (2, 3) now call these respectively: Dog-rose (R. canina), Field-rose (R. arvensis), Soft Downy-rose (R. mollis – the name R.villosa now being obsolete) and Harsh Downy-rose (R. tomentosa). I’m not sure that I’ve sorted these four species out yet and I still need to do more work in order to state, with any confidence, that they are all still present.

In what follows I will describe the Dog-rose – which is still reasonably common around here – and two other British species which can be found in the present day Mersey Valley but which are probably not native in this area and were probably introduced in the 1970s and 80s.

Dog Rose (Rosa canina) – see top photo

This is a plant of hedgerows and scrub and is often an early coloniser of derelict sites around towns and cities.
Apart from its vicious, hooked prickles this is a common shrub of great beauty, elegance and (seeming) simplicity. In fact it is anything but simple! Experts have noted that this species is very variable and can be divided into four groups with a continuous range of variation between them (2,3). There are also a number of hybrids between Dog Rose and other species (ref. 2. lists ten and a more recent book, ref.3. lists eight).

Sweet-briar or Eglantine (R. rubiginosa) – see middle photo

This plant usually occurs on calcareous soils and although it can grow in hedgerows it is particularly characteristic of open scrub of chalk or limestone. Hence, it doesn’t really belong in the Mersey Valley at all! Nevertheless, it is now quite common at the western (i.e. Trafford) end of the Valley where it was probably planted around 30 – 35 years ago.

An important characteristic of Sweet-briar is the little, stalked glands on its flower stalks and leaves. When these glands are gently rubbed or pressed between fingers they release a very pleasant, sweet apple-like scent (hence the common name).

There’s something romantic and quintessentially English about this plant (although it’s probably not confined to England). Whenever I smell that sweet scent I imagine a pretty maiden emerging from a Helen Allingham, ‘chocolate-box’ thatched cottage on a dewy June morning, pausing to sniff the Eglantine growing around the door-frame before hurrying off to milk her cows – all accompanied by Vaughan Williams's, ‘The Lark Ascending’ of course!

Many-flowered Rose (R. multiflora) – see bottom photo

This is one of the introduced species now naturalised in Britain. It is a Chinese species, originally introduced as a root-stock for ornamental rambling roses. Gardeners sometimes throw these out, when they are past their best, and they end up on rubbish tips. A good place to see this spectacular species is on Hardy Farm near Jackson’s Boat Bridge. It’s no coincidence, of course, that Hardy Farm was once a Council tip.

Although the flowers of wild Roses may be beautiful, the hips are more diagnostic. These fruits are present from July to, at least, mid September – so I’ve got a bit more time this year to do a bit more sorting out.

References:

1. The Manchester Flora, by Leo H. Grindon, William White, 1859.

2. Roses of Great Britain and Ireland - BSBI Handbook No. 7, by G.G. Graham and A.L. Primavesi, Botanical Society of the British Isles, 1993.

3. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd Edition, by Clive A. Stace, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Dave Bishop, June 2011

Friday, 17 June 2011

Guided Bee Walk, Sunday 12th June 2011 by Carl Ashcroft




Many thanks to all of the Friends of Chorlton Meadows who in a collective act of optimism braved the torrential rain to take part in the guided bee walk on Sunday 12th June 2011.

While unfortunately not a bee was seen on the walk due to the bad weather, a lively discussion took place covering many aspects of bees, including their anatomy and form, life-cycles and behaviour. As a result, walk attendees should now be able to answer the following questions:

1. Do bumblebees nest above or below ground?
2. How many common bumble species are there locally?
3. Do bumblebee colonies in Britain over-winter (generally speaking)?
4. How many bees might you find in a bumblebee nest?
5. What are the benefits of swarming to the honeybee?
6. What are the costs of swarming to the beekeeper?1
7. What is Varroa destructor?
8. What is propilis?
9. What three things do honeybees collect from plants and why?
10. How many species of bumblebee currently are to be found in Briain?

Some walk attendees asked about books on bees. The following, for me, are the ones which stand out as good, and would certainly provide answers to the above questions.

Benton, T., 2006, Bumblebees: the natural history and identification of the species found in Britain, Collins, London.

This is part of the Collins New Naturalist Series. It is probably the best book general book on bumblebees found in Britain that there is. As with all New Naturalist books, it is aimed at the informed amateur. It also includes robust and thorough taxonomic keys for males, workers and queens for all taxa. Not cheap, probably around £20 for the paperback, but worth it.

Goulson, D., 2003, Bumblebees: behaviour and biology, Oxford University Press.

This is a 235 page literature review of scientific publications covering most aspects of bumblebee behaviour and biology compiled by the country’s leading bumblebee academic.

Hooper, T., 1997, Guide to Bees and Honey, 4th edition, Master House, Regent Publishing Services, China.

This for me is the beekeeper’s bible. If you want to be a beekeeper buy this. Otherwise, it is probably not for you. It is a technical manual.

Intenthron, M. & Gerrand, J, 1999., Making Nests for Bumblebees: a way to save an endangered species, International Bee Research Association, Cardiff.

A little pamphlet which shows you how to make nests for bumblebees.

Carl Ashcroft, June 2011


Postscript

We may not have seen any bees on the day of the walk but a couple of days later local resident, Mark Chamberlain, e-mailed me to report that he had spotted a swarm of honey bees in a Horse Chestnut tree on The Meade in Chorltonville. He asked me if I knew of a local bee expert - and, naturally, I thought of Carl and gave his e-mail address to Mark. Carl had had little experience of dealing with swarms himself but knew of an expert from North Manchester who came down and sorted it out. We don't know what happened next but perhaps the story will emerge in time (?) Mark took a photograph of the swarm the swarm (see lower picture above).

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Ragged Robin


One of my favourite wild flower sites is to the west of Chorlton. I’m not going to describe exactly where it is because ... well, it’s a secret!

I visit my secret site several times a year so that I can observe the succession of fine flowers which adorn it.

My most recent visit was last week when it was decorated with Marsh Orchids (Dactylorhiza spp.) and several magnificent stands of Ragged Robin (Silene flos-cuculi *).

According to one of my favourite wild flower books (1) Ragged Robin is a common perennial plant of wet meadows, marshes, fens and wet woodlands on mineral or peaty soils (I think that the soils on my site are quite complex because, like much of the Mersey Valley, it has been variously stripped and tipped on and generally messed about with). Ragged Robin flowers during late spring and early summer (about now, of course!) and is pollinated by a variety of butterflies and day-flying moths.

Although Ragged Robin is a striking plant, with its fair share of vernacular names, Geoffrey Grigson (2) tells us that it has “few associations”. He quotes the great Tudor herbalist, John Gerard who reported that: “These are not used either in medicine or in nourishment: but they serve for garlands and crowns, and to decke up gardens.” Nevertheless, in another passage Grigson discusses the ‘Robin’ name in the context of Herb Robert (Geranium sanguineum). He writes: “The name Robin, a diminutive of Robert by way of French, seems innocent in its attachment to flowers, but most of the Robin flowers appear to have been linked to goblin, robin and evil ... and snakes, death, the devil, fairies, sex, and cuckoos.” Therefore Grigson appears to have uncovered few recorded associations for Ragged Robin but suggests that the name implies that several sinister associations may once have existed. Mind you the fairies told me that everything would be fine as long as I paid the tithe ... anyone know where I can get a unicorn’s horn?

Richard Mabey (3) reports that Ragged Robin is a declining plant of wet meadows. Sadly, many British wild flowers could be said to be ‘declining’ but this one still occurs in a small number of Mersey Valley sites, including my secret site – which is probably the best of them (anyway, that’s what the fairies told me to say ...)

Dave Bishop, June 2011

References:
1. 'The Wild Flowers of the British Isles’, illustrated by Ian Garrard, text by David Streeter, Macmillan, 1983.

2. ‘The Englishman’s Flora’ by Geoffrey Grigson, Paladin, 1975 (first pub. 1958).

3. ‘Flora Britannica’ by Richard Mabey, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996.

*This plant’s scientific name has changed recently from Lychnis flos-cuculi to Silene flos-cuculi (see Stace, 3rd edition, 2010).

Friday, 3 June 2011

Two FoCM Guided Walks in June and July

For any readers of this blog who are not (probably as a result of my incompetence) on the FoCM e-mail list there are two guided walks coming up which you might be interested in:

1. An Introduction to Bees led by Carl Ashcroft (local bee keeper); Sunday 12th June, meet Chorlton Ees car park (end of cobbled road off Brookburn Road) at 10:30 am.

2. Insect Life of the Meadows led by Richard Gardner and Julian Robinson (FoCM Committee members); Sunday 3rd July, meet Jackson's Boat Bridge at 10:30 am.

Both events are free and no booking is required. Both walks may last 3 or 4 hours but there is no obligation to 'stay the course' (although please let walk leaders know if you decide to leave early so that they will know that they haven't lost anyone!).

More walks and task days are in the planning stage.

Dave Bishop, June 2011

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Book Review by Andrew Simpson


Andrew is a keen local historian and has just written an historical account of Chorlton in the period between 1800 and the mid-19th century. Andrew's book should be available in the autumn of this year.

The Book of the Farm by Henry Stephens (first pub. 1844) new edition abridged and edited by Alex Langlands, pub. Anova Books (Batsford Ltd.)2011, (ISBN 13: 9781906388911; ISBN 10: 1906388911), 304 pp., £25:00.

Recently I walked the meadows in the company of David Bishop, and Ingrid Burney. It was one of those conducted tours that Dave and Ingrid do so well. David provided a detailed description of the plant life we encountered and Ingrid retold old folk tales fitting them into our surroundings.

It is easy to take the meadows at face value and assume that what you see is what it always was. But the land has been altered, by land fill tipping and before that by the construction of a sewage works. In fact even before the start of the walk I fell across someone who remembered living in a house by the footbridge across the brook when his father worked at the sewage farm in the 1950s.

Go back another hundred years and the place was different again. Much of the land was pasture and meadow land and was farmed in small parcels by families like the Higginbotham’s who settled in the township in the 1840s and were still here in the 1960s.

Meadowland as David’s is wont to tell you are perhaps one of the finest examples of how to sympathetically use the land. It is a skilled task and involves regularly irrigating the fields so that they can produce early grass for pasture.

I was reminded of this by the republication of 'The Book of the Farm' by Henry Stephens. I first came across it while watching 'The Victorian Farm' on TV and quickly found that it could be downloaded from Google Books has now been reissued by Anova Books as well as being available on Kindle.

It was written in 1844, and ran to countless editions. It was the manual for anyone wanting to be a farmer. Everything is here from what crops to plant and when to how to make a well, as well as sound advice on hiring labourers, the construction of a water meadow, and the best location for the milk house and cheese room. I learned which materials were best for building a farm house and how much I could expect to pay for materials, as well as the most up to date scientific information on planting wurzels.

It was a practical book and so “the cost of digging a well in clay, eight feet in diameter and sixteen deep and building a ring three feet in diameter with dry rubble masonry is only L5 [£5] exclusive of carriage and the cost of pumps.”

He calculated that that two brood sows could produce 40 pigs between them and that retaining six for home use the remaining 34 could easily be sold at market. So many of the smaller farmers and market gardeners in the township might well keep at least one sow and use it to supplement their income. Nor should we forget that these animals were destined for the table and so the slaughter of pigs was best done around Martinmas in early November because “the flesh in the warm months is not sufficiently firm and is then liable to be fly born before it is cured” and doing so in early November had the added advantage that cured hams would be ready for Christmas.

To read Stephens is to step back into the world that was Chorlton in the 1850s and for that alone it is worth making the effort to get a copy.

Andrew Simpson, May 2011

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Red Tape Challenge - A Dire Threat to Our Environment!

Our very wonderful Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, has decided that ‘too much Red Tape’ is bad for business. In other words Big Business, which can already do pretty well much as it likes, doesn’t want any restraints on its activities whatsoever. Mr Cameron has eagerly launched a ‘crusade’ to help them as much as he can. As you will see below the nasty, troublesome old Red Tape, which is up for review, includes some of our most important wildlife and environmental legislation. If Mr Cameron gets his way he will be able to stand there smiling his best posh PR Executive’s smile while his chums in Big Business strip mine the country and cover it with concrete! What follows was brought to my attention by FoCM’s moth expert, Ben Smart.

The message below is from Dr Martin Warren, CEO of Butterfly Conservation:

“A very worrying consultation has recently been announced by Government which is considering the scrapping of various environmental laws. I am emailing Branch committee members to ask you to express your opposition to this proposal which could do immeasurable damage to wildlife, including butterflies and moths. Please circulate this email to anyone else who might feel the same.”

Further information

“The Government has recently launched a consultation on the proposed scrapping of a whole range of regulations, known as the "Red Tape Challenge". This was launched by Vince Cable on 7 April 2011 in a bid to boost short-term economic growth. Amazingly this includes most of the wildlife legislation that we and our partners have worked so hard to get on the statute books in recent years.

In short, it seems Government is considering getting rid of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, the Climate Change Act, and 278 environment laws (among thousands of laws and regulations). These Acts are essential for protecting key wildlife sites and species from development and have been developed after long campaigns by wildlife NGOs. Scrapping them would results in immeasurable damage to species and habitats, including butterflies and moths.

Environmental regulations fall under "general regulations" on which the Government are inviting comments throughout the process. The Cabinet Office is 'crowdsourcing' proposals for which laws should be scrapped, with Ministers facing a basic presumption that laws and regulations listed in the Red Tape Challenge should be scrapped. Once the nation has had its say, Ministers will have three months to work out which regulations they want to keep and why.

The Government's website invites comments either as an individual or as an organisation, about the need to protect our environment. The website lists the 278 environmental regulations under scrutiny and your comments can be left under 7 broad headings.

My own contribution reads:

The Government has only just signed the new UN target set at Nagoya to halt biodiversity loss and restore ecosystems by 2020. It simply cannot honour this commitment if it scraps its own wildlife laws. Biodiversity is essential to life on earth and needs protection."

The RSPB is also on the case and you can read more here (you'll have to cut and paste this address into your browser because I can't get the active link to work at the moment - sorry!).:

campaigning.rspb.org.uk/ea-campaign/clientcampaign.do?ea.client.id=13&ea.campaign.id=10410

The RSPB website includes an opportunity to send your views to Vince Cable (please try to be polite!).

Dave Bishop, April 2011

Monday, 11 April 2011

Book Review


'Here On Earth: A new beginning' by Tim Flannery, pub. Allen Lane, 2010, (ISBN: 978-1-846-14396-0), 316 pp., £14.99

The Sun, together with its attendant planets, including the Earth, condensed out of a cosmic cloud of gas and dust 4.5 billion years ago. Within a billion years, as the author of this book expresses it: “parts of [the Earth’s] crust had begun to organise into life”. Eventually there appeared microscopic plants and bacteria which split the CO2 rich atmosphere into oxygen and carbon. They also used toxic metals, dissolved in sea water, to speed up the chemical reactions which were essential to their existence. As they died and sank to the ocean floor the toxins were taken out of circulation and concentrated into the Earth’s crust. Hence living organisms modified the planet by making the atmosphere richer in energy (oxygen is a very reactive gas) and the oceans less toxic. The stage was set for life to become more complex.

Five or six million years ago several species of upright apes (hominids) began to appear in Africa. Two million years ago one of these hominids (Homo erectus) managed to migrate out of Africa and to colonise parts of Asia and Europe. Although H. erectus developed stone tools it had a smaller brain than modern humans and appears not to have possessed language; eventually, for reasons which are not clear, it became extinct. Fifty thousand years ago one of H. erectus’s smarter relatives (H. sapiens) also migrated out of Africa. These modern humans made their way around the shores of the Indian Ocean, eventually reaching as far as Australia. Some break-away groups then gradually colonised inland Asia, Europe and the Americas. Much of this story has only recently become clear as a result of genetic studies.

The impact of human beings on the rest of the world was catastrophic. Our fire and tool using, upright ape ancestors caused havoc, wiping out the megafauna (and much else) on five continents. In northern Eurasia, for example, there once existed a place called the Mammoth Steppe. This was a dry, frigid grassland populated by mammoth, woolly rhino, bison, musk ox, giant elk and horse. It took our species a while to adapt to this region’s harsh climate but once we had done so we wiped out all of these giant beasts - basically scoffing the lot! This mass extinction, particularly the loss of the mammoths, had a profound and devastating effect on the region’s ecology. Soon after, humans arrived in North America - which promptly lost 34 genera of large mammals, followed by South America which lost 50. Today we’re just mopping up what’s left - but we are waging this on-going war against Nature war with a ferocity that our ancestors could only have dreamed of. We have drenched the land with poisons and dug up the toxic heavy metals that the ancient bacteria had buried and spread them around again. Most dangerous of all we have extracted vast quantities of fossil carbon from the Earth’s crust and burned it to form CO2 - resulting in increasing climate instability.

In this book the Australian scientist, writer and explorer, Tim Flannery looks at this long and complex story from an evolutionary perspective. He reviews the life and work of Charles Darwin and his ‘Neo-Darwinist’ successor, Richard Dawkins - who reasoned, in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’ (1976), that we and other animals are mere ‘survival machines’ whose sole purpose is to ensure the perpetuation of the genes we carry. He goes on to suggest that the theories of Darwin and Dawkins are essentially reductionist and contrasts those theories with the more ‘holistic’ views of the co-discoverer (with Darwin) of the Theory of Evolution, Alfred Russell Wallace. Flannery tells us that while Darwin, “sought enlightenment by studying smaller and smaller pieces of life’s puzzle, Wallace took on the whole, trying to make sense of life at a planetary and universal scale.” He nominates the remarkable English chemist and planetary scientist, James Lovelock as Wallace’s modern-day successor. Lovelock, you may remember, formulated the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ which suggests that the whole planet, from the core to the fringes of space, is one vast, self-regulating ‘organism’ and that continental plates, volcanoes, the ice caps, the oceans, the atmosphere and living things all play their part in maintaining an equilibrium which allows life to flourish. What humans are doing at the moment is the equivalent of sticking a large screwdriver into the delicate works of an antique clock and stirring it around. Lovelock believes that the coming climate catastrophe will kill 90% of us.

Flannery reminds us that, at this time in our history, we humans are not just ruled by our genes but also by, what he calls, ‘mnemes’ (Dawkins calls them ‘memes’) which are, basically, “ideas which have a living reality in our brains”. Science, religion and philanthropy are all examples of mnemes and they can act for good or for ill. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is another mneme, but so is the wilful mis-interpretation of the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ concept which has often been mis-applied to human societies with disastrous consequences (Nazism or rampant, unregulated Capitalism, anyone?). Mnemes, of course, evolve far faster than genes.

Another concept which Flannery discusses is coevolution. This is natural selection triggered by interactions between living things. Throughout the history of life on Earth countless examples of coeveolution have arisen. Examples include microrrhizal fungi on the roots of trees and other plants and the relationship between the coral polyp and its algal partner. It’s an extraordinary fact that the cells which compose our bodies contain elements called mitochondria which actually power the cells. There is strong evidence that mitochondria were once free living bacteria which invaded the cells of our remote ancestors aeons ago. Incidentally, mitochondrial DNA is only transmitted through the female line and this fact was used to trace the paths that humans took out of Africa.

When considering the future of the planet and the living things (including us) which co-exist with it, Flannery invokes another duality – the competing possibilities of a ‘Medean’ future or a ‘Gaian’ one.
The palaeontologist Peter Ward has advanced the hypothesis that species will, if left unchecked, destroy themselves by exploiting their resources to the point of collapse; this is the Medea hypothesis. The other possibility is a Gaian one. Flannery suggests that our species has already evolved into a ‘superorganism’. If we survive the next couple of centuries we may possibly learn to restore the Earth. And then the planet, through her co-evolved human superorganism, would “be able to foresee malfunction, instability or other danger and act with precision.” My money is on a Medean outcome – but let’s hope that a Gaian future is not beyond the bounds of possibility and that this fine book will help to plant the Gaian mneme in the collective brain of humanity.

This is a remarkable book and if you are interested in the past, present and future of our planet and our species then I know of no finer summary of present knowledge.

Dave Bishop, April 2011

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Chorlton Open Gardens


Chorlton is full of talented and enthusiastic gardeners but their gardens are usually private places. Here's a rare opportunity to admire some of the best those gardens and, if you're an enthusiastic gardener yourself, to swap horticultural hints and tips.

It's also worth noting that gardens can be great places for wildlife - so who knows what birds, insects and other creatures you'll spot whilst visiting some of these little 'private paradises'?

For details of this scheme and how to book, see the flyer above.

Dave Bishop, April 2011

Thursday, 31 March 2011

My Forthcoming Talk on South Manchester Plant Life


I've been invited to do a talk on the Plant Life of the Mersey Valley and South Manchester. The talk is hosted by the Friends of Chorlton Water Park at The Albert Bowling and Tennis Club, 39/42 Old Lansdowne Road, West Didsbury, on 19th April starting at 7:30 pm (it should last about an hour). Entry is free.

Because I retired a few years ago I've had the leisure to explore local plant life in more detail than I have been able to do before. A summary of my talk is given below:

Living plants are the foundation of our local biodiversity and they may provide clues to many historical aspects of our local area, for example:

- Former landscapes and habitats

- Former land uses

- Former economic and cultural practices (e.g. herbal medicine and cottage gardening).

Botanists from South Lancashire and Manchester have played a very important role in the development of both British and European Botany.
Many of the plants that the old botanists knew are (with a few exceptions) still to be found locally.


Dave Bishop, March 2011

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

e-mail Addresses

I've just e-mailed out a message to the membership (a message about the outcome of the litter picking event on Sunday and thanking all of the people who turned up). Every time that I send out one of these mass mailings I get quite a few 'undeliverable' messages bouncing back - mostly as a result of defunct e-mail addresses.

So, if you read this and haven't received any e-mails from me recently, and would like to receive e-mails from me, could you please send me (at davegbishop@aol.com) your most recent e-mail address. Please note the 'g' (my middle initial) in my address - if you miss this out your message will go to a long-suffering gentleman in West Virginia!

Dave Bishop, March 2011

Monday, 28 March 2011

Litter Picking on Ivy Green


Yesterday afternoon (Sunday, 27th March) a litter picking event was held on the Ivy Green part of the Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green Local Nature Reserve (that's the part north of Chorlton Brook). The event had been organised by the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service in conjunction with FoCM.

We know that there's a lot of concern locally about litter but we were suprised, and very gratified, when 22 people turned up for this event! A fanatastic turn-out for what is not a very glamorous task.

In all between 45 to 50 black, plastic bin liners were filled with rubbish. Last month a smaller number of people filled 15 bags - so that's over 60 bags of assorted litter removed from the reserve in a month.

Mainly the litter consisted of:

- Plastic soft drinks bottles.

- Beer, cider and soft drinks cans.

- Beer and spirits bottles.

- Plastic bags - the most unpleasant of these being those containing dog faeces.

- Discarded clothing.

- Various scraps of wood, cloth and paper.

- Miscellaneous 'stuff' - the most surprising being a part of a steel exercise machine and a small safe which had been prised open!

Sadly, among all of the responsible people who enjoy our precious green spaces, there's a sizeable minority of anti-social people who spoil it for everyone else. No doubt, if challenged, those people would whinge about there not being enough litter bins - but they should bear in mind that it costs money to empty bins, and if there were a bin every few yards, I doubt that such selfish idiots would use them.

I must also add that looking at the types of litter picked up it's fairly obvious which types of users are the main culprits.

Over the last few years the local authorities have prioritised access to the Meadows over everything else. But they have to realise that giving priority to access is a 'two-edged sword'. On the one hand it is a good thing that more people are now enjoying the countryside on their doorstep. But every population contains anti-social elements and these people also now have increased access to our Meadows and are threatening to spoil things for the responsible majority. I think that the local authorities are themselves guilty of irresponsibility over this and they are now compounding the problem by cutting the Warden Service even further. FoCM are not happy at the prospect of having to do even more litter picking - that's not why we formed in the first place! If you are as concerned about litter as we are please ensure that you complain long and hard to the Council.

Dave Bishop, March 2011

-

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A Glorious Spring Day!



I woke to a beautiful spring morning today (Tuesday, 22nd March) so decided to go for a walk on Ivy Green and Chorlton Ees to see what I could see. This year the month of February felt like the longest February of my life (probably as a result of the harsh winter) and early March was like more of the same. So, to be out on a proper spring morning felt wonderful! True, we’ve had some ‘spring-ish’ days in the last week or so – but today felt like the real thing at last!

I spotted the following flowers, mainly along the banks of Chorlton Brook: Barren Strawberry, Lesser Celandine, Butterbur, Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, Dandelions, Coltsfoot and Wavy Bittercress. Sections of the banks of Chorlton Brook were clothed in the fresh green leaves of Bistort. I had thought that this highly characteristic plant of this area was in decline, but since FoCM have made a concerted effort to remove Himalayan Balsam from the banks of the brook, in late summer, the Bistort seems to have taken on a new lease of life. It’s possible that the accumulated dead stalks of the Balsam had been inhibiting the Bistort from sprouting in the spring.

Virtually all of the local Willow trees were smothered in catkins. Willows are ‘dioecious’ with male and female catkins on separate trees. You can easily tell the difference between the two sexes as males have pollen bearing catkins, like yellow ‘bottle-brushes’ whilst female catkins are less ‘fuzzy’ and ‘flamboyant’ and are a fairly uniform green. Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera), with its gorgeous display of snowy-white flowers has been in flower for at least a week whilst its smaller, commoner relative, Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is only just opening its smaller, but equally snowy-white, flowers (see top photograph above).

As I walked along a path towards the river I stopped to watch two Toads, one tightly clasping the other, slowly making their way across the path towards the taller vegetation at the side (see bottom photograph). Not to put too fine a point on it, these two Toads were mating. The smaller one was the male who was clasping the larger female in ‘amplexus’ (the technical term for it, I believe). They were probably making their way towards one of the ponds on Chorlton Ees where, having been ... ahem! ... impregnated, the female would lay her eggs. I suspect that these two were stragglers – and if I’d been in the same spot several hours earlier I might have seen many more.

As I moved on I heard a shrill ‘peee-oww!’ cry above my head. Circling above me was a Buzzard and there was another in a tree on the edge of a large open space near the river. I think that the circling, calling bird was the male whilst the one in the tree was the female (any ornithologists out there should not hesitate to correct me if I’m wrong). The male (if it was the male) was very distinctive with a sort of ‘notch’ in its wing (almost certainly the result of a missing feather or feathers). I have seen these birds before and think that they are probably nesting on the Ees – which is an interesting development. They are another addition to our local biodiversity, along with the Herons that, in recent years, have established a thriving heronry in one of the old, fenced off sewage beds near the river.

Several Bumble Bees buzzed among the dry foliage of last year and the new green shoots of this year. I think that they might have been queens looking for suitable nesting sites (again, if you know different, please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). I also spotted three different species of Butterfly: Peacock, Brimstone and Comma. At one pointed I watched, what appeared to be, an aggressive Comma chasing a Brimstone away from its territory.

In the course of my walk I had a look of the sites of our two (relatively) rare ferns: Adderstongue and Narrow Buckler Fern. With some help from the Warden Service, FoCM have been working to improve the habitats of these two ferns. When they finally emerge above ground, in a couple of months, we will be monitoring them and starting an on-going record which will, hopefully, help us to conserve them.

Dave Bishop, March 2011

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Bat Boxes on Chorlton Ees



You may have noticed some (slightly sinister looking!) black boxes on some of the trees on Chorlton Ees? These are bat boxes which we purchased with the money that we obtained from a council grant. The boxes are made of a substance called ‘woodcrete’ (literally a mixture of wood chippings and concrete). They are painted black to retain some heat from the sun.

The smaller boxes provide day-time roosting habitats for bats in our young woodlands which provide few natural roosting opportunities (i.e. the sorts of cracks, crevices and knot-holes which are found in old trees).

Four different designs of box are represented and we believe that these are suitable for the species of bat which have been recorded locally; these include Pipistrelles, Noctules and Daubenton’s bats. Although each box type is not specific to any particular bat species, those species listed above have been observed to show a preference for this range of box designs.

It is hoped that the larger boxes (particularly the flat ones) will accommodate female bats in maternity roosts. Such roosts can contain up to 40 bats plus young.

The boxes were erected by local members of the Bat Conservation Trust who are licensed to work with bats and are insured to climb trees; we are grateful to them for their help (I’m glad that it wasn’t me who had to climb the trees!). The Trust members are planning to re-visit in the autumn of this year to see if any bats have decided to take up residence (this may not happen immediately and we will have to be patient).

Traditionally bats have roosted in old buildings and old trees but these are both disappearing from our urban and urban fringe landscapes. Already this year various agencies have been savagely massacring what few old trees we have left. The construction of the new Metrolink lines, by contractors working for GMPTE, has seen the loss of many older trees with many more to come (their feeble and pathetic promises to plant trees to replace those they cut down are completely empty; a few ‘lollipops’ are no substitute for biodiverse old trees!). I am also getting reports that the Environment Agency has massacred around 20 mature trees on the river bank at West Didsbury – but I haven’t been to check this out yet. In addition the inhabitants of Whalley Range have managed to save some of their old trees from the Council but for how long, I don’t know; once they get an idea in their heads they won’t let a few voting, council taxpaying ‘tree huggers’, or concerns about wildlife, stand in their way.

Naturally we are grateful to the Council for supplying us with grants for things like bat boxes but we wish that they would also do much more for our local biodiversity. Taking wildlife more seriously would be a start as would ‘getting a grip’ on the various agencies who insist on getting their chainsaws and JCBs out every spring so that they can destroy everything in sight!

Dave Bishop & Richard Gardner, March 2011

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Wrong Kind of Trams by Ian Brown

No doubt everyone has now noted the bulldozing of the Lower Hardy Farm SBI by GMPTE's contractors? I've been composing a piece about this but I asked my friend Ian Brown (formerly Chair of Manchester Wildlife) to comment on it first because he gave evidence at the Public Inquiry in 1995. Ian's piece is given below:

After successfully fighting off a plan, in the early 1990s, by U.M.I.S.T., the owners of Lower Hardy Farm, who wanted to fill the site with 23 ft of rubble, to make it level with the adjacent Upper Hardy Farm, for the extension of their playing fields, we were confronted by a plan to damage the site by an extension of Metrolink to the Airport.

In 1995, I attended the public inquiry into this proposed extension of Metrolink on behalf of Manchester Wildlife (a now defunct local conservation organisation). We were objecting on the grounds that the extension would destroy, or damage, a number of sites of importance to wildlife. The main points I made at the inquiry were:

a)That there was no need for a Metrolink extension, to the airport, as this was adequately covered by the new railway link. The airport was only a 15 minute train journey from the City centre; the Tram would take a lot longer than that.

b)That if there was a need for a Metrolink extension then it should be along a route with the best chance of picking up passengers. The planned route runs over several miles of unpopulated Mersey Valley. How much better would it be if it were to run along the Oxford Road/Wilmslow Road corridor. This would take it past the University, the Hospitals, Hollins College, Fallowfield, Withington, Didsbury and Northenden. A few more passengers to be found in those places! There would be less need for busses and the "tram" stops could be synchronised with the traffic lights to ease congestion. I was told that this was not practical as, in some of those places, there was not room for the platforms which the "trams" required and the "trams" were not designed for street running, except where it was absolutely necessary. This brought me to the point, which I was subtly making, that Manchester has the wrong kind of "tram". It should be better described as a light rail system. In most continental European, and some British, cities, Trams have access at pavement level. How typical of Manchester, with its love of White Elephants, to pick the wrong kind of "tram". It was at this point, in the inquiry, that I realised, what I had long suspected, that the people who are running things tend to veer towards the stupid side of stupid!

c)I also gave evidence on the wildlife and ecological importance of the sites which would be damaged, or destroyed, by the Metrolink extension. This included Lower Hardy Farm, which was a Site of Biological Importance. I suggested that, if the extension were to go ahead, the line should be taken along the Upper Hardy Farm side of the ditch, which separates the two "Farms". Then it could cross the ditch, at the last possible moment, in order to bridge the Mersey on the upstream side of the Jackson's Boat pub. This would have avoided the area where some of the more unusual plants, including orchids, were growing. I also mentioned the butterflies on the site. At the time, 13 species had been recorded. This may not sound a lot but, to put it into perspective, a survey at Rostherne Mere National Nature Reserve, at about the same time, found 14 species of butterfly. I, and others, have found that a good variety of butterflies is a sound, and easy, way to assess the ecological health of a habitat(See David Bishop about the importance of wild plants, in this respect). I knew not to put too much reliance on ecological evidence as, at the time, wildlife and wild habitats were not highly regarded by the planning system, particularly in Manchester.
For all I know, this may still be the case. I was relying more on the common sense arguments in a) and b). Common sense, when did that ever come into it?

I left the Inquiry with the feeling that the outcome was inevitable. Manchester wanted its prestige project (another White Elephant?) and was going to get it. Public Inquiry Inspectors are supposed to be independent but, as I attended a number of these farces, you will forgive me if I appear a little sceptical! Best of luck to you all.


Ian Brown, March 2011

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

New Nest Boxes on Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green


Recently, with the aid of a grant from the City Council, FoCM were able to purchase a number of bat boxes and twenty bird nesting boxes.

Ten of the bird boxes have been sited on the Chorlton Ees side (south side) of Chorlton Brook and ten on the Ivy Green side (north side).
The boxes are located both within the woodland and on the woodland edge adjacent to paths and open grassland.

The boxes are positioned so that their entrances face north/north east and this orientation shields the entrances from direct sunlight and the prevailing westerly winds.

There are very few mature trees on Chorlton Meadows because, prior to landfill, they were part of the flood plain of the river Mersey and used for grazing cattle. What is to be seen today is plantation woodland, thirty to forty years old - and certainly no older than fifty years; these trees are too young to have developed natural nest holes. Given good management and a hundred years there will, perhaps, be no need of nest boxes.
In the wider countryside there are fewer old trees available, due, in part, to the modern practise of lopping branches or clear felling trees at the first sign of rot (Health and Safety) thus denying birds of natural nest holes in which to raise their young and provide refuge in the winter months.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and The British Trust for Ornithology give guidance on the size of aperture for boxes depending on what species it is hoped to attract 25mm for Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus) 32mm Great Tit (Parus major) But all our boxes are 32mm as we believe that this provides access to many woodland species. In the wild natural holes in trees do not appear in any particular shape or size.

The value of nest boxes as shelter in winter is illustrated by the fact that sixty Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) have been counted occupying a single box!

By installing these boxes we hope to attract a greater number of species which can only add, especially in spring, to the enjoyment of all who use our local green space. We will add more boxes as funds become available.

All of the boxes have been numbered and their exact locations measured using GPS. They will be monitored to determine which species use them. Sadly we seem to have lost one box already - we think that it has been stolen.

We would like to thank Mark Hackett and Mark Agar who did the hard work of putting up the boxes.

John Agar, March 2011

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Forest Sell Off Controversy continued

After posting the last piece on John Leech and his speech on the Government's forest sell off proposals, I received an e-mail from FoCM member Ben Smart (some of you may recall that Ben is our local moth expert). I thought that Ben's comments were interesting and highly relevant and, in the interests of balance, I thought that, with Ben's permission, I would post our correspondence here (leaving out some of my more intemperate and sweary remarks - none of them directed at Ben, I hasten to add!)

Hi Dave

I know you said to contact John Leech re the speech, but I don’t really think it’s appropriate to have this speech on the FoCM website. The group should not be a mouthpiece for Con/Dem (sic) policies. If this policy was being proposed by a majority Tory administration alone, I suspect John Leech and the rest of the Liberal [Democrat] party, like the rest of us, would probably have opposed it (only guesswork, I know) and would probably have made much the same points that the opposition are putting.

The destruction of a good chunk of the [Lower Hardy Farm] SBI proceeds apace. Standing by the wooden fence on the north side of the Mersey, there is now a wide open track all the way through Lower Hardy Farm, towards Hardy Lane.

Best wishes,

Ben

Hi Ben,

Yes, I struggled with my conscience about this. But so many people spoke to me about it that I thought that I ought to ask John Leech myself. He wrote back to me and explained to me what actually occurred and what his thinking was. I decided that his reply was confidential between me and him (although he probably sent the same letter to all those of his constituents who wrote to him).

But the speech is in the public domain and I thought that it made a lot of sense - and although it is (unavoidably) political I think that it cuts through a lot of the general hysteria that has surrounded this issue. Whilst the sell-off was on the table I really couldn't make up my mind about what I thought about it. Although I believe privatisation, generally, to be ideologically driven madness I've also got little time for the Forestry Commission who have been responsible, in the past, for destroying huge tracts of our woodland.

Finally you mention Lower Hardy Farm. Please remember that it is a Labour Council that has allowed this to happen. They have utterly neglected our local environment and I suspect that they think that the environment, in general, is irrelevant (I've seen it reported that Gordon Brown himself considered the environment to be irrelevant). And in spite of the fact that they label themselves as 'Socialists' (when it suits them) I believe that Metrolink to the Airport is mainly about a toxic mixture of greed, vanity and airport expansion. I fear that they will eventually concrete over everything.

[At this point I expressed some of my own political views, which are not strictly relevant here and included some rude words which I would not like to inflict on our refined and genteel readership ...]

Anyway, I will try to avoid politics on the blog as much as possible ... but, I repeat, the environment is an intensely political subject (as the forestry furore showed).

Best Regards,

Dave

Hi Dave,

This is the actual question John Leech and his colleagues were voting on – I’d certainly have been with the motion rather than against on that one, despite any reservations towards the Forestry Commission. (I see 3 Conservatives and 4 Liberal Democrats voted with Labour).

That this House believes that the Government’s intention in the Public Bodies Bill to sell off up to 100 per cent. of England’s public forestry estate is fundamentally unsound; notes that over 225,000 people have signed a petition against such a sell-off; recognises the valuable role that the Forestry Commission and England’s forests have made to increasing woodland biodiversity and public access, with 40 million visits a year; further recognises that the total subsidy to the Forestry Commission has reduced from 35 per cent. of income in 2003-04 to 14 per cent. of income in 2010-11; further notes that the value of the ecosystems services provided by England’s public forest estate is estimated to be £680 million a year; notes that the value of such services could increase substantially in the future through the transition to a low carbon economy as a carbon market emerges; notes that the public forest estate has been retained in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and calls on the Government to rethink its decision on the sale of England’s public forest estate in order to protect it for future generations.

As to the Metrolink, the system and the developments have been supported by Council, Government and John Leech. I am certain that much the same decisions would have been made whichever of the three parties were in power locally and nationally.
I’ve always, perhaps naively, thought that getting people out of cars and onto public transport must be a good thing, so am somewhat torn on the issue. Nevertheless it is incredibly depressing to be out looking at Lower Hardy Farm at the moment (and the sign telling us that the area has been surveyed for protected species and promising an increased number of trees seems to add insult to injury)!
I totally agree that politics and the environment era inextricably linked. I just don’t like seeing Liberal Democrat party speeches on the Friends of Chorlton Meadows blog, with no critical comment whatsoever. It might be worth at least printing the actual motion on the website so people can decide whether John Leech did the right thing.

Cheers,
Ben

I would just like to add a couple of footnotes to this correspondence:

(1) I am planning to post an article about Lower Hardy Farm and Metrolink very soon.

(2) It must be remembered that many people in South Manchester welcome Metrolink and many of them know nothing and care less about biodiversity. John Leech has a duty to listen to the views of all of his constituents and he has certainly listened, and actively supported, those of us who are pushing for the best mitigation for biodiversity loss possible.

Posted by Dave Bishop, February 2011

Thursday, 24 February 2011

John Leech and That Vote on Forests


I never intended to talk much about politics on this blog but the Environment is an intensely political topic - so it's unavoidable really.

Many people are under the impression that our local MP, Mr John Leech, MP for Manchester Withington, voted in Parliament recently to sell off UK forests. A lot of people have come up to me in the street and asked, "why did John Leech vote to sell off the forests?" (as though it were somehow my fault!). I actually wrote to Mr Leech and asked him why he voted the way that he did. I have now received a reply from him in which he explained that the vote that he participated in was not a vote to implement the proposals set out by Defra, but a vote of opposition brought forward by the Labour Party. Mr Leech spoke in this debate and I re-print his speech below without further comment. If you have any questions, please address them to Mr Leech:

John Leech’s Speech:

(For the Hansard transcript including all interventions please go to: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110202/debtext/110202-0003.htm)

I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in the debate. Although my constituency may not be the most directly affected by the proposals to sell off or lease woodland currently owned by the state, the issue has attracted considerable interest among hundreds of my constituents who are rightly concerned about the impact that such a sale might have. There is little doubt that there has been much speculation, and even scaremongering, about what may or may not happen to public forests. I have received hundreds of e-mails from constituents, some of whom have been led to believe that whole swathes of woodland will be razed to the ground to make way for housing developments, golf courses and leisure clubs.

Other constituents have sent e-mails suggesting that forests are going to be closed off to the public and surrounded by 10-foot fences, but that is clearly not the case. Unfortunately, the Labour party has been complicit in this misinformation and shameless in its attempts to scare people into believing that the future of our forests is under threat. Instead of participating constructively in the consultation on the future of our woodland, Labour Members simply choose to try to score cheap political points by tabling an Opposition day motion to grab the headlines. That is why I certainly will not be voting for Labour's motion and why I will support the Government's amendment, which exposes the disgraceful sell-off of thousands of acres of public woodland by the previous Labour Government without any of the protection being put in place and promised under the coalition Government's consultation. However, I wish to go on record as welcoming the measured comments made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about staff at the Forestry Commission, which should be added to the consultation process.

I will never support the sell-off or leasing of woodland if I think that it will be detrimental to the long-term sustainability of the woodland and its biodiversity, and will threaten the access that people have enjoyed over a long period. What better safeguards will Minister's introduce to protect the land and access to it compared with those that we already have? These forests will outlive all of us in this Chamber today and the public want to know how long these safeguards will be in place. Can I be assured that, whichever organisation might take on the running of a public forest, these safeguards will remain in place for not only our lifetime, but centuries to come?

Guaranteeing the future of the woodland is important, but so, too, is the guardianship of that land in the meantime. There is a real fear that the trend to improve the forests will fade over time. What assurances can the Minister give that the woodland will not just be maintained as it is and that the new owners will be compelled to improve both access and the natural habitat? The public estate enjoys 40 million visits a year, a quarter of it is dedicated as a site of special scientific interest and it hosts a wealth of biodiversity. None of those things should be under threat, and they must flourish under this coalition Government.

One of the big unanswered questions is whether or not the private ownership or leasing of forest land will make the savings that the Government anticipate. I am not convinced that these proposals will save any money; they may end up leaving the Government with a bigger bill to maintain the forests, because the sale or lease of commercially attractive forests will mean that their revenue is no longer available to subsidise the running of heritage and other loss-making forests. That was the only sensible point made by the shadow Secretary of State.

I do not think we should be too precious about the model of ownership of our forests. The previous Government could not be trusted to safeguard the future of the public forests that have been sold off in the past 13 years. It is certainly not the case that the forests would be safer in Labour hands. Many might argue that the future of the forests would be more certain if they were run and managed by organisations such as the Woodland Trust or the National Trust. It is not the model of ownership that we should be precious about but the people, including the staff, and the organisations that might run the forests.

In my constituency, after the previous Labour Government closed my local hospital, Withington hospital, Paupers wood on that site was put up for sale. Like many others, I expressed grave concerns about what that might mean for the future of that relatively small piece of woodland. However, the sale of that land to one of my constituents, Mary, resulted in enormous benefit for the community. That area of woodland, which had not been maintained for years and had been inaccessible to local people, is now available for local community groups to enjoy and for schools to use for outdoor classrooms. The woodland is well managed and is now sustainable for the future. That would not have happened without that sale. It is not simply a case of public ownership being good and private ownership being bad. This debate should be about what is best for individual woodlands and communities and about securing the future of our forests for generations to come.


Posted by Dave Bishop, February 2011

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Chorlton Shafted Again - No Village Green Status for Hardy Farm

Last year six Chorlton residents applied for Village Green status for Hardy Farm. Some of you may remember that in 2009/10 this area was the subject of a fierce planning battle between the vast majority of Chorlton residents and the West Didsbury and Chorlton Football Club, who own the land and had applied for planning permission to convert it into a vast sporting complex with several grass pitches, an Astroturf pitch and floodlights. In this case the local residents won a famous victory and planning permission was refused. Nevertheless, the club keeps coming back for more and in 2010 received planning permission to install floodlights at their existing ground at the end of Brookburn Road – again in the face of fierce opposition. To many of us granting planning permission for this scheme and not for the earlier scheme made little sense. The application for Village Green status was a brave attempt to protect this much loved area of local green space from further damaging developments.

In order to proceed with the application it was necessary to show that the former owners of the land, UMIST, had, or had not, erected “permissive signs” on the land at some point in the past. This question was addressed at a ‘Non-statutory Public Enquiry’, held before Mr Vivian Chapman QC, at Chorlton Irish Club in January of this year. Mr Chapman concluded that UMIST had erected two signs in the 1970s and even though these signs had been grafittied over and had been illegible for a long time they still counted in Law and that the application for Village Green status should be rejected (please take this point up with lawyers and not with me!).
The matter was put before the City Council’s Licensing and Appeals Committee on Monday and the Committee accepted Mr Chapman’s conclusion and rejected the application. Chorlton Councillor Victor Chamberlain represented the applicants before the Committee and I have published his account verbatim below. Looking at the voting pattern shown below I can only conclude that we Chorlton residents have been the victims of petty political point scoring here. But having said that I’m not going to discuss politics any further in this forum and leave you to draw your own conclusions.
In what follows the term, “the Meadows” refers specifically to that part of Chorlton Meadows known as Hardy Farm.

I'm very sorry to report that the Licensing and Appeals Committee have accepted Mr Chapman's recommendation and have decided not to register the Meadows as a village green.

Mr Turley spoke first and said he had very little to add as the item had been considered by a QC and he supported the findings; he encouraged the Committee to support that recommendation.

Thanks to everyone who sent me comments to make at the Committee; I incorporated all of them into what I said. In summary I raised our objections about the lack of signs and their illegibility and abandonment. I challenged Mr Iredale's evidence and the photos from May 2008. I told the Committee that they have a duty to consider the substantive issue in detail. I asked the Committee to give more weight to the evidence of the Applicants and the public; and told the Committee that by accepting the recommendation they would be choosing to disbelieve the direct testimony of hundreds of Chorlton Residents. I urged them to reject the recommendation and reconsider the application with a mind to registering the Meadows as a village green.

Cllr Sheila Newman also spoke she said it would be a shame if the application fell at its first hurdle. She also said she wished the Committee was looking at the wider issue and not examining just one point in the application.


The Committee Members then deliberated.

Cllr Firth expressed concern that this application was being considered only on the signs. She asked what would happen if the Committee recommended further consideration.

The response from Mr Stoney was that there were strict conditions about what was classed as a village green; and because of the signs had existed the officers concluded that the Application was fatally flawed.

Cllr Helen Fisher said that she had lived in Chorltonville a number of years ago and used the Meadows regularly then. She said that in the whole time she lived there she did not see the signs and therefore understood and sympathised with Applicants' and Residents' accounts.

Cllr Chowdhury argued that WDCAFC took over the land in 2009 and so they had a duty of care to ensure the land had sufficient notices. He said that Chapman's report was based on the Balance of Probabilities and so there is an element of doubt which meant he would not be supporting he recommendation.

Cllr Burns asked what the normal way of providing Notices on the land was. He was informed there was no normal way and so the onus was on the Applicants to prove that there were not suitable Notices on the land throughout the period.

A number of Labour Councillors then spoke to say they supported the recommendation and that they do not consider the land meets the defined definition of a village green.

Mr Turley then responded to some of the points and said that it was private land that had been acquired to provide playing fields. He said there wasn't and won't be any attempt to prevent public access. He said the land would be 'improved' as the Club would protect it. He said that the Public will be able to use the fields as long as they don't damage them.

The Committee then voted.

Against the Recommendation (3): Firth (Liberal Democrat), H Fisher (Liberal Democrat), Chowdhury (Liberal Democrat)
Accept the Recommendation (5): Burns (Labour), Carmody (Labour), Longsden (Labour), O'Callaghan (Labour), Smith (Labour)


As I was leaving the Committee Room Mr Turley stopped me and told me to stop trying to 'perpetuate the myth that the land will be fenced off'. I said I had not done this and was against development of this meadow because I felt it was going to be restrictive to normal people being able to use the land and could be harmful to the local biodiversity and botany. He was clearly very bitter about past events.
We then had a chat and he made it quite clear that he is intending to create pitches on the land very soon. He reiterated that it is private land and the Club can do what it wants with the land; but he did express a wish to engage the Community and end the animosity. I said I would mention this to you all and muted that maybe it would be worth initiating regular meetings with the local community to discuss issues at the club. I said this because I attend a quarterly meeting the Chorlton Irish Club has with the local neighbours where they air their concerns, problems and complaints and the two sides work together to solve them. It works well because the Club listens to the local community and takes action based on what they say to reduce disturbance. Whilst past experience of WDCAFC suggests this may not work I would be interested to hear your opinion.

I'm afraid I don't know where we go from here; presumably we could challenge this decision with a Judicial Review. I would happy to meet up to discuss any potential options.


If you are a Chorlton resident and/or a user of Chorlton Meadows, and feel as strongly about this as I do, I urge you to write to both your local Councillor and to your MP. No matter how pessimistic you may feel there is no excuse for doing nothing!

Posted by Dave Bishop, February 2011