Sunday, 28 September 2014

Discover Where You Live by Cath Dyson

Using a map and compass…

To put together the walks and cycles in ‘Discover where you live’ in the Community Index over the last few months I have used maps, both paper and online.

Ordnance Survey produces the best maps in the world. Fact! For the rural explorer in particular the 1:25,000 really are the best with 4cm to 1 kilometre. To explore Chorlton, the Transpennine Trail to Stockport, Fallowfield Loop and much more get ‘OS Explorer 277 Manchester & Salford’. However when researching  the walks for Community Index I also used Open Source mapping ‘Open Street Map’ which for the densely packed urban and suburban environments can be (though I hate to say it) more useful than the OS map. It is available on desktop, see https://www.openstreetmap.org  and on the iPhone / iPad, download the app Go Map!! And of course the wonderful Google Maps, Street view and Google Earth are fantastic free digital mapping tools as well as the OS Get a Map Digital Services.
People may think that using a map and compass and navigating in general is only for when you are in remote locations. However maps can really help you get to know your local area much more intimately.
Many of us stick to the same familiar routes whether driving, walking or cycling, and feel we know Chorlton, the Meadows, and the area around us well enough. Maps, even of a place as familiar to us as Chorlton Meadows can reveal nooks, crannies, short cuts and paths which can easily be missed if you aren’t looking for them. When researching the event ‘Map reading on the Meadows’ I ran as part of Chorlton Arts Festival earlier this year I ‘discovered’ a pond I hadn’t known was there, and I have lived, walked, run and cycled on the Meadows for many years.

Just from looking at the map square containing Chorlton Ees I know it is flat rough grassland and deciduous woodland dotted by five ponds. You can cycle through this nature reserve on a route which is part of the National Cycle Network. It includes part of a long distance walking route and has a stream with steep sides. There are lots of tracks criss-crossing the Ees but very few rights of way except for on the river bank.
Maps embody so much information about the world around us. From maps you can understand the history of a landscape, its current uses, facilities and features. Engaging with a map, reading its symbols and interpreting the information crammed into every kilometre square gives us a greater appreciation of the world around us and it can pique a curiosity to find out more.

So what does the map tell us about Chorlton Ees? I have already said there are few rights of way. Rights of way are green lines on the map and are key to any walker. They tell you where you can walk. Rights of way are enshrined in law and in many cases reflect historic and sometimes ancient routes. Short green dashed lines are footpaths, boots only; long green dashed lines are bridleways for boots, hooves and wheels.
On the Meadows instead of footpaths there are tracks (black dashed lines) which indicate there is a track on the ground but not necessarily a legal right of way for the public. There are also routes suitable for cyclists marked by a string of orange circles, this tells me this is not a historic route, otherwise it would be a bridleway.

The lack of footpaths and bridleways tells me that this land hasn’t historically been accessed by people on foot, by cart or more recently by bike. Why would this be? David Bishop of Friends of Chorlton Meadows (http://friendsofchorltonmeadows.blogspot.co.uk/) gives us a very big clue, ‘From the late 19th century until the late 1970s agriculture was gradually displaced from the Mersey Valley and what was deposited on the ees was not “rich mud” but the growing city’s effluent in the form of sewage works and rubbish dumps.’ Who would need or want to walk through that?! Knowing this it makes much more sense why there is a dearth of historic routes across the Ees.
Using a map and compass gives you the tools to be your own (urban) adventurer and explorer, to know where you are and get you where you want to be.  It is like learning a new language, allowing you to create your own routes and giving you the key to a new way of understanding and interacting with your environment, local or not. I find it fun to walk paths some created recently, many created by centuries of use and it is empowering to get around under your own steam, using your own two legs and some basic map and compass skills to get from A to B whether you are in town or country.

So get yourself a map and explore the wonderful suburban countryside on our doorstep. If you would like to join me at the next free navigation walk ‘Map Reading on the Meadows’ Sunday 12th October 2014 11am book a place on http://mapandcompass.wix.com/mapandcompassm or email me mapandcompassOL21@gmail.com or text me on 07411 165058.

Cath Dyson, September 2014

Cath Dyson co-organises navigation walks and training, see http://mapandcompass.wix.com/mapandcompass. She is writing a book to be published by Sigma Press, ‘Navigate your Way Around… the South Pennines’  

Friday, 1 August 2014

A New Plan to Restore the 'Jewels in the Mersey Valley's Crown'

When I first moved to South Manchester, in the early 1970s, I soon discovered the Mersey Valley – particularly the Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green areas on either side of Chorlton Brook, and Hardy Farm (collectively referred to locally as ‘Chorlton Meadows’). At that time I was developing an interest in botany and was amazed at the richness of this area’s flora. It soon became a favourite Sunday afternoon occupation of mine to take a field guide down to the Meadows and try to identify as many plants as possible. I soon realised that many of the plants that I was finding were of the ‘semi-natural grassland’ type, and I was aware, even then, that semi-natural grasslands are the richest habitats for wildlife in England, supporting more priority species than any other; a fifth of all priority species are associated with grasslands. I was also aware that grasslands are now among our most endangered habitats – mainly due, in the wider countryside, to agricultural intensification.

Since 1940 we have lost 97% of our English meadows and pastures and there are only 8000 ha left 1.

There were once extensive ‘water meadows’ in the Mersey Valley. Local Farmers deliberately flooded these meadows in the winter months in order to deposit a layer of rich silt which, in turn, produced abundant grasses which were cut for hay in late summer. Such a system would have a required an elaborate and sophisticated system of sluices and drains in order to get the water first on to and then off of the meadows. This system has been almost entirely lost. The local name for a water meadow was ‘ees’. Chorlton’s historian, John Lloyd, wrote that:

“Those who tilled the fields in those past ages were well aware of the need to control the flood waters in the ees and of the benefit of the layer of rich silt left by the receding water. Within the memory of people still alive [in the late 1960s?] the farmer who last tenanted Barlow Hall Farm commented that the sluice gates in the banks were never opened for the first flood of the year for this brought down the rubbish, but the second flood brought down the rich mud 2.”

A more recent local historian, Andrew Simpson, has added more detail on the operation of water meadows:

“[Meadows consist of] grassland that is kept damp by the use of ditches (called carriers) that are worked by sluice gates fed by a river. The land is fed with water up to an inch in depth from October to January for about fifteen to twenty days at a time, before water is run off into the drainage ditches. The land is then left to dry out for five or six days, so the air can get to the grass. The early watering took advantage of the autumnal floods, which brought with them a mix of nutrients and silt which enriched the land 3.”

Andrew also tells us that this was a very skilled job, which the owner of the land, the farmer, tended to undertake himself rather than delegate it to some employee. It required constant vigilance to ensure that, “the water was evenly distributed and that there was no accumulation of weeds.” The farmer also had to beware of hard frosts which “could turn the meadow into ‘one sheet of ice which will draw the grass into heaps which is very injurious to meadows’”. Nevertheless, an early 20th century farmer, Alfred Higginbotham, annually flooded one of his meadows so that the people of the local community could skate on it (there are still local ancestral memories of skating on the Meadows in the winter).

The next important task was haymaking during the summer. The grass was first cut and then left for a few days to partly dry. It was then turned and left for a few more days to complete the drying process. Finally, it was loaded into carts, taken off to be stored in barns and then used, during the winter months, to feed farm animals with. Haymaking was also a highly skilled job and was very labour intensive.

In the course of the research for his book, Andrew came across a mid-19th century haymaker named John Gresty. John lived in a cottage on The Row (now Beech Road) and probably hired himself out to local farmers at the appropriate time of year. John’s most precious possession was almost certainly the key tool of his trade – his scythe. This consisted of an artfully crooked pole, about 5 ½ feet long, with two projecting side handles and a 3 foot long, curved steel blade at the ‘business end’; one of John’s essential skills would have been knowing how to use a whetstone to keep this blade razor sharp. He, and any fellow haymakers, would have swept their scythes through the grass in long arcs, keeping the blades parallel to and close to the ground. The blades were swept from right to left depositing the cut grass on the left.

As a result of this annual management regime, probably acting over several centuries, a distinctive type of meadow evolved (hence the term ‘semi-natural’). According to the National Vegetation Classification scheme 4 our meadows were of the ‘Alopecurus-Sanguisorba’ type (code MG4). This means that they were distinguished by the presence of the grass Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) and the tall herb Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis). The following ‘constant’ species were also present in such meadows (I have indicated the grasses with a ‘g’) 5:

Common Mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum)
Crested Dog-tail (Cynosurus cristatus) g
Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) g
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) g
Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)
Autumn Hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis)
Perennial Rye-grass (Lolium perenne) g
Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris)
Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
White Clover (Trifolium repens)

It’s interesting to note that all of the species on this list are still locally common. In individual meadows, other grasses and grassland species, not on the core list, could often be found.

It’s important to note that MG4 grasslands are now quite rare and tend to be confined to certain river valleys in central England.          

From the late 19th century until the late 1970s agriculture was gradually displaced from the Mersey Valley and what was deposited on the ees was not “rich mud” but the growing city’s effluent in the form of sewage works and rubbish dumps.  Nevertheless, when the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service was established in 1978 there were still some reasonably good examples of semi-natural grassland left on both the Chorlton and Sale sides of the river (although, alas, these were no longer subjected to winter flooding). Sale Ees was particularly interesting because it was still visibly a reasonably good example of an MG4 meadow. On Chorlton Ees there is still a colony of Adderstongue Fern – a curious, and increasingly scarce little plant generally considered to be an indicator species of unimproved grassland (and probably corresponding to the colony recorded from the area by the Manchester botanist, Richard Buxton in his Flora of 1849 6).

After 1978 the management and conservation of these meadows (together with a few more, further west and east) should have been, in my opinion, an absolute priority – but tree planting and the encouragement of ‘informal recreation’ took precedence.  At the very least these areas needed to be cut in late summer and the hay crop taken off, and indeed this happened for a few years. The hay crop was sold to local livestock owners but eventually, for reasons which are obscure, this form of management ceased. Soon the meadows began to deteriorate. Although some Great Burnet still grows on Sale Ees the area is dominated by coarse grasses and is succumbing to natural succession and trees and shrubs are taking over. Chorlton Ees has begun to go the same way but it has been further damaged by a pyromaniac who for a number of years has set fire to it every spring; now it is dominated by Rosebay Willowherb – a plant which readily colonises burned ground.  These precious few acres of historic, local semi-natural grassland are now very severely degraded and could be lost in a few years. I must give credit, though, to the Environment Agency who cleared rank vegetation from two key areas earlier this year.

In 2013 Natural England gave the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit £8820 for a 2 year project to investigate the decline of Mersey Valley grasslands. Now GMEU has a plan to restore many of these grasslands. The plan has been written by GMEU ecologist, David Dutton 7. David’s plan is meticulously detailed and fully costed and is presently the subject of a Manchester Clean City grant application. Nevertheless, if this application is unsuccessful other sources of funding will need to be sought and additional funding could be necessary at some future date.

David’s discussions with Wythenshawe Farm Centre have revealed that they are currently short of hay to feed their livestock in winter and would be interested in taking hay from our grasslands once they have been brought into a mowable condition. Initial costs include establishing this mowable condition, purchase of agricultural machinery and the provision of additional livestock and barn space.

If successful, this project should radically improve the biodiversity of our area, enhance its attractiveness, re-introduce active management and generate income and jobs for the locality through the production of local food.

The project will also provide baseline information on the feasibility of the re-introduction of controlled winter flooding, increase the financial viability of Wythenshawe Farm Centre and act as a template for the sustainable management of similar sites across Manchester.

Forty years ago I was afforded just a glimpse of an ancient landscape; a landscape dominated by flowery grasslands. The green shades of the tall grasses were augmented by the yellows of Buttercups, Dandelions and Common Catsear and the reddish haze of Sorrel. Around the margins of these meadows and on the river banks were great patches of pink Bistort, the creamy, frothy flowers of Sweet Cicely and Meadowsweet and the huge leaves of Butterbur. These precious, beautiful remnants of a, once more extensive, landscape were a tribute to the skill, knowledge and dedication of local farming dynasties such as the Baileys and the Higginbothams and the back-breaking toil of men like John Gresty and his nameless workmates. Then, for decades, I had to watch them degrade and occasionally to watch them being destroyed by people who didn’t understand their significance (and probably didn’t even care). These ‘jewels in the Mersey Valley’s crown’ are presently very faded - but now there’s hope that they can be restored.

  1. The Grasslands Trust Website (http://grasslands-trust.org/current-situation)

  1. Lloyd, J.M., ‘The Township of Chorlton cum Hardy’, E.J. Morten, 1972

  1. Simpson, A., ‘The Story of Chorlton-cum-Hardy’, The History Press, 2012

  1. Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Habitat Account – Natural and semi-natural grassland formations, 6510 Lowland hay meadows (Alopecurus pratensis, Sanguisorba officinalis) (http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/protectedsites/sacselection/habitat.asp?FeatureIntCode=H6510)

  1. Wikipedia article on British NVC Community MG4
  1. Buxton, R., ‘A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses and Algae, Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester’, Longman And Co., 1849

  1. Dutton, D., ‘Chorlton Meadows’, ‘Clean City Grant Application’, Greater Manchester Ecology Unit, June 2014
Postscript: Sadly, this blog thingy appears to have been "improved" in such a way that I can no longer add photos. Anyone know how to do this?

Monday, 16 June 2014

My Speech to the Recorders' Conference

Back in April of this year, the Greater Manchester Local Records Centre organised a Wildlife Recorders' Conference at Manchester Museum. I was asked to give a speech and you can read it below (well it took me long enough to write it!):

"I want to start by introducing you to a great Mancunian – a person who some of you may, possibly, have never heard of.

His name was James Crowther and he was born in 1768, in the cellar of a slum property near Deansgate. Most of his working life was spent as a porter on the canal at Knott Mill. His life seems to have been an extraordinary mixture of hardship and joy. He was an exuberant free spirit and his great passion in life was botany. It was said of him that: “[H]e was characterised by a cheerful, joyous disposition; was the life and soul of any botanical party, and pursued both botany and entomology with the greatest ardour.” He thought nothing of walking 15 or 20 miles, after work, in search of plants. He always received a week’s holiday at Whitsun and used to walk to the Yorkshire Dales. On one of these trips he discovered the Lady’s Slipper orchid.

Another of his finds was the Mudwort – which he found growing on the (appropriately enough) mud by the side of a mere near Knutsford. He told his friend Edward Hobson about this find and Hobson insisted that James take him to see it. In the interim it rained heavily and when they reached the mere the Mudwort was under water. Hobson went off to look for something else but when he came back there was no sign of James. Suddenly the surface of the mere erupted and up came James triumphantly clutching a specimen of the Mudwort!

Another lake which featured in James’s life was the one in Tatton Park. One day he arrived in the park with a home-made contraption – a long wooden pole with brass fittings. He was almost immediately grabbed by two gamekeepers who accused him of poaching fish and dragged him before the owner of the park, Mr Egerton. James explained to Egerton that the contraption was for retrieving water weeds – not fish. Such were his powers of persuasion, and so impressed was Egerton by his knowledge and enthusiasm, that he told his keepers that James was not be molested again and was allowed to enter the park any time he chose.

Gamekeepers were an occupational hazard for James and they invariably accused him of poaching. Once he was chased across 3 or 4 miles of open country and only just managed to escape. On another occasion he, and his friend Richard Buxton, were searching for Cloudberries on the moors above Stalybridge; they strayed onto a grouse moor and were apprehended by an irate gamekeeper who refused to believe that they weren’t poachers. They knew that the rich guarded their land zealously and that the penalties for poaching were severe. On this occasion they finally managed to talk themselves out of a dangerous situation.

James had many friends who shared his enthusiasm for plants and natural history. Two of these friends were John Bland Wood, a medical doctor from Salford and the aforementioned Richard Buxton, who was a poor shoe-maker from Ancoats. Both of these men published floras of the Manchester region and James contributed records to both publications.  Both of these books give us a tantalising glimpse of this part of the country before industrialisation and urbanisation wiped out many of its natural riches.

The confrontations that James and his friends had with gamekeepers reminds us that, from the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, the rich and the nobility contrived to have acts of Parliament passed which allowed them to enclose lands which had formerly been held in common. These enclosures too often had a devastating effect on wildlife and natural habitats. We don’t know what James and Richard and their associates thought about this, but one of their contemporaries did make his views known. This was John Clare, a farm labourer and poet from the village of Helpston - which lies to the north of my home town of Peterborough. John kept a nature diary for a few years and his poetry reveals an intimate and detailed knowledge of his local wildlife – particularly of birds. One of his greatest poems, entitled ‘Remembrances’, describes the catastrophic effect that the Enclosure Movement had upon his beloved local countryside:

Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
 It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked stream cold and chill.

  And since Clare’s day, losses of wildlife have accelerated, especially since the Second World War when so-called ‘agricultural improvement’, and latterly rampant development, have become the norm. Recently, a wide-ranging alliance of wildlife conservation groups published a report entitled ‘The State of Nature’ - a comprehensive audit of what has happened to the natural world in Britain over the last half century. The report was co-ordinated and produced by the RSPB but 24 other bodies took part, ranging from the Bat Conservation Trust to the British Lichen Society.

The report is, essentially, a catalogue of loss. It examines the fates of 3,148 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and plants in the British countryside since 1962. It concludes that 60% of these species have declined in numbers, 30% have declined by more than half and 10% are threatened with extinction. Populations of many species – like the House Sparrow or the Garden Tiger Moth - which were common only a couple of decades ago are now in steep decline. I note, in passing, that such a report would not have been possible without the work of thousands of wildlife recorders, working over decades, to accumulate the necessary records.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by these grim statistics. It’s sad to relate that our species has been wiping out other species for a very long time. It is now, more or less, agreed that when humans migrated out of Africa, between 100 and 200 thousand years ago, they exterminated large animals (mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths etc.) on five continents. A paleobiologist, named John Alroy, told the American journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert that this ‘megafauna extinction’ was a “geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.” But the rate of destruction appears to be exponential and we’re now on the part of the curve where it starts climbing close to vertical; the on-going catastrophe is now perceivable well within a single human life-time. There have been five major extinction events in the history of Planet Earth and we’re now living through the sixth. And there’s no doubt that our own species is causing this one.

But there’s something very odd about this sixth extinction. Others were caused by insensible natural forces – climate change, volcanism, asteroids etc. but what makes this one unique is that it is being studied, in meticulous detail, by elements of the causal agent! I wonder if there’s any evolutionary significance to that fact – I don’t know – ask me again in another 100,000 years!

But there’s more to recording than just cataloguing loss. Sadly, we live in a culture which is currently so uncivilised that it doesn’t recognise, as James and his friends did, and modern people like you and I still do, the value of the natural world for its own sake. We have to justify the conservation of landscapes and habitats by proving that they are notably biodiverse and worth conserving; and that means record keeping.
Everyone in this room understands where James’s mad enthusiasm came from and why he derived so much joy from the natural world. A world sterilised of its wildlife, and containing only humans and their artifacts, would not be worth living in – and would probably not even be survivable. And that’s why we have to stand against the rising tide of destruction. Record keeping may seem a rather mundane and bureaucratic activity – but it’s a powerful weapon in our armoury.

Dave Bishop, April 2014


1. ‘The Late James Crowther, The Naturalist’: Obituary in the Manchester Guardian, Jan 13, 1847 (Thanks to Andrew Simpson for directing me to this remarkable document).

2. ‘The Selected Poems and Prose of John Clare’: edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, Oxford University Press, 1967.

3. ‘The State of Nature’: Report from the RSPB and Partners, 2013 (www.rspb.org.uk/images/stateofnature_tcm9-345839.pdf)

4. 'The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History' by Elizabeth Kolbert, Bloomsbury, 2014

Friday, 9 May 2014

RSPB in the Mersey Valley

Recently Manchester City Council issued the following press release:

Manchester City Council invites the RSPB ‘home’

Manchester City Council and the RSPB are set to develop an exciting new vision to connect people with nature in the Mersey Valley.

The two organisations will work closely with local people and groups at Chorlton Water Park and Fletcher Moss, to explore ways of encouraging people to do something positive for wildlife, reconnect with nature and help look after the Mersey Valley by getting actively involved.

This summer, two events will be held to launch the partnership and celebrate the RSPB’s 125th anniversary, with the organisation ‘coming home’ to Fletcher Moss, Didsbury - the place where the RSPB was founded in 1889, in protest against the barbarous trade in plumes for women's hats.

The RSPB’s Big Wild Sleep Out will take place in June and a 'Giving Nature a Home' Festival will be held in August.

A series of workshops has also been planned to take place throughout the year, allowing local people and organisations to contribute their ideas - and help shape and deliver the vision for the Valley.

Local friends groups and other key stakeholders are being encouraged to form a Mersey Valley Forum, which will be jointly managed by the council and the RSPB.

Councillor Rosa Battle, Manchester City Council's Executive Member for Culture and Leisure, said: “We're looking forward to working with local people and the RSPB, to continue to look after the Mersey Valley and help develop it for nature in the future.

"We want to encourage as many people as possible to get involved with this summer's events, whether it's by trying some exciting new activities, volunteering to help out, or by contributing their ideas."

The RSPB has already started talking to people and collecting information on site, using questionnaires - and will continue to do this until the summer, with both organisations keen to involve as many people as possible in the Mersey Valley vision.

Peter Robertson, RSPB Regional Director for Northern England, said: “I'm pleased the RSPB is returning to its roots to deliver this inspiring project. Recent studies have shown that Britain’s wildlife is in trouble but we know that together, people can make a difference; so we hope to work with the local community to help give nature a home, whether that’s taking action in their own homes or getting out and about in the valley, and lending a helping hand.

"Staggeringly, 60 per cent of Britain’s wildlife has decreased over the last 50 years, and more than 1 in 10 British species are threatened with extinction. In the same period, Britain has lost 44 million birds and 95 per cent of our hedgehogs have disappeared since the 1950s.

"Some shocking statistics have also revealed that children now spend less time playing outside and have less contact with nature than ever before. We believe that being connected with nature should be part of every child's life and through this partnership, we hope to enable this to happen.”

This is very exciting news! The RSPB is the UK's top nature conservation organisation and I'm sure that the Valley's wildlife will benefit enormously from their involvement.

Dave Bishop (FoCM Chair), 09.05.2014

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Male Whinchat on Chorlton Ees

Recently local birder, Pete Hines sent me a link to his You-Tube video of a male Whinchat on Chorlton Ees. This bird is, apparently, a summer visitor to the British Isles. Pete has provided some links, on his You-Tube posting, which will provide you with much more information on this bird. Here's the link to the video:


Dave Bishop, April 2014

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Book Review- 'The Sixth Extinction'

Review: ‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History’ by Elizabeth Kolbert; Bloomsbury, 2014.

On one fateful day 66 million years ago, the Earth’s gravitational field captured an asteroid. It was travelling at around seventy thousand kilometres per hour on a flat trajectory. It slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula and generated a white-hot, supersonic shock-wave which was directed mainly northward. The author of this book quotes a geologist who said: “Basically, if you were a triceratops in Alberta, you had about two minutes before you got vaporized (sic)”. Trillions of tons of sulphur- rich material were blasted into the air, which led to a condition analogous to a ‘nuclear winter’. Whole orders, families, genera and species of plants and animals went extinct – most famously the non-avian dinosaurs. It took the world millions of years to recover from these catastrophic circumstances – but they are probably why we’re here, rather than some descendant of the dinosaurs.

There had, in fact, been four mass extinction events before the one described above. The most devastating was probably the one at the end of the Permian, some 252 million years ago when around 96% of all living things went extinct – although the reasons for that event are not as well understood. When interviewed recently (http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2014/mar/09/elizabeth-kolbert-whole-world-becoming-zoo) the author of this book, Elizabeth Kolbert, stated that life on Earth is “contingent” i.e. subject to chance or unforeseen circumstances. The title of her book is based on the rapidly growing consensus among scientists that we’re now living through the sixth extinction event in the history of life on Earth – and that our own species, Homo sapiens, is directly responsible for it. Our current epoch is increasingly being referred to as the “Anthropocene” because our species is now so dominant and has so modified the planet’s surface and atmosphere that the fate of the biosphere is now in our hands.

Elizabeth Kolbert is an American journalist and author. She is best known for her book on climate change, ‘Field Notes from a Catastrophe’ (2006), and as an observer and commentator on environmental matters for the ‘New Yorker’ magazine. This present book is brilliant, lucid, very readable, scientifically up-to-date, tragic and utterly terrifying. We learn that although certain species, such as the Great Auk and the Dodo, have been deliberately exterminated through over-exploitation in the recent past, more recent losses can be directly attributed to our gross and ruthless modifications of the planet’s surface and atmosphere – in particular there are direct links between species’ extinction and climate change. For example, carbon dioxide is soluble in water and produces a weak acid. As the CO2 content of the atmosphere increases, the oceans become more acidic. This affects the viability of organisms that use calcium in their body plans; shellfish and corals are particularly badly affected. In tropical waters, reefs formed by corals provide ecological niches for thousands of non-coral species; if corals are damaged or killed, all of those dependent species are put at risk as well. Tropical rain forests contain hundreds of different tree species. Each tree species has specific habitat requirements and also provides niches for many other species of plants and animals. As temperature rises, trees which produce few seeds and/or are slow growing are at a serious disadvantage, and, consequently, so are their attendant species. Trees which produce lots of seeds and/or are fast growing can move uphill to cooler climes. But even the latter are still at risk because many rain forests are now so fragmented that there are limited spaces for them to move to.

The much vaunted ‘globalisation’ is a serious problem too. Many organisms have been (often inadvertently) transported around the world and have caused havoc in places in which they do not belong. Currently, Central American amphibians and North American bats are being wiped out by imported fungal diseases.
I took away two surprising ideas from this book:
1. This is undoubtedly the first extinction event in history which is being studied, in meticulous detail, by elements of the causal agent! In her research for this book, Ms Kolbert interviewed many scientists working in the field and accompanied some of them on their field trips. The ingenuity and dedication of these scientists is often astonishing.

2. Time scales can often be difficult, or impossible, to grasp; who can get their head round 66 million years – let alone 252 million years – for example? It is now, more or less, agreed that when humans migrated out of Africa, they exterminated large animals (mammoths, giant ground sloths, moas etc.) everywhere they went. Kolbert interviewed a paleobiologist, named John Alroy, who described this ‘megafauna extinction’ as a “geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.” The ominous fact is, though, that extinctions are currently happening within single human lifetimes. 
This is an important but scary book. Brace yourself and read it!

Dave Bishop, March 2014

Note: This review first appeared in 'Manchester Climate Monthly'. To find out more about Manchester's premier climate journal, you should e-mail the editor, Marc Hudson, on mcmonthly@gmail.com.

PS: I tried to add a picture of the cover of this book to top of this article but, for some unknown reason, this - bleep, bleep, bleep, bleeping - software wouldn't let me!! 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Fallowfield Loop and 'Greening the Greenways'

The Fallowfield Loop (‘Floop’) is an off-road cycle path, pedestrian and horse riding route from Chorlton-cum-Hardy through Fallowfield and Levenshulme to Gorton and Fairfield in Manchester. It is part of the National Cycle Network of routes and paths developed and built by the cycling charity Sustrans. It is part of National Route 6 of the National Cycle Network which, when complete, will connect London and Keswick in Cumbria.

At 8 miles long the Fallowfield Loop is thought to be the longest urban cycleway in Britain. It was previously part of the old ‘Manchester Central Station Railway’, built in the 1890s and closed in 1968.

 The line had lain derelict for many years until the late 1990s, when a group of cyclists started campaigning for its conversion to a traffic free ‘greenway’ across south Manchester. That group, together with supporters from local civic societies and other community groups, formally became the ‘Friends of the Fallowfield Loop’ in June 2001. The route is now mostly owned by Sustrans, a charity which specialises in building off-road cycle routes. They have partly funded conversion of the route, together with Manchester City Council, Sainsbury’s and others.

The overall aim of the ‘Friends’ is to encourage and support all the partners in the Fallowfield Loop route to provide and maintain a first-class community resource and to encourage As many people as possible to use it.

The Floop creates a linear park and wildlife corridor, linking parks and open spaces. It has an interesting flora – some of which may represent all that’s left of the lost, ancient rural landscape of South Manchester. Some of the intriguing plants that I have found, over the last few years, include:

Hedge Parsley (Torilis japonica) – which is by no means uncommon nationally but is very rare in South Manchester – presumably because its precise habitat requirements are now only met by one little patch of ground by the Floop (?)
The scarce, pink-flowered bindweed hybrid Calystegia x howittiorum (although the exact identity of this plant needs to be confirmed).

Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis)

A Sphagnum moss (S. capillifolium)


The presence of the latter two plants suggest that the surrounding land was probably once much boggier – and it’s a miracle, really, that they have survived.
An evergreen, Chinese Honeysuckle (Lonicera henryii). This latter plant is obviously a garden escape – but I’ve never found it anywhere else.

Because of my interest in the Floop’s flora, I was delighted to learn, recently, of Sustrans’ ‘Greener Greenways’ project which started this spring (2013) and is a 3.5 year project that they are running in England on certain sections of their cycling routes. The project is funded by the Esme Fairburn trust and has allowed Sustrans to employ two ecologists to run the project. The outline of the project is in stages, beginning with the baseline surveying of the ecological status of 280 kilometres of cycling routes. The chosen sections are not all that Sustrans owns, or has management liability for, but they represent the majority of its holdings and hence some very significant sections.

The roll out of the programme will allow Sustrans to systematically build up their knowledge of the biodiversity of their greenways. They are aware that many of their volunteers have an interest and expertise in this field and hope to engage with that pool of enthusiasm and knowledge as the projects develops.
Once the 280kms of survey have been completed, mapped and analysed – the findings will inform Sustran’s ecology team and allow them to develop fuller management plans for the designated routes. They believe that this will allow them to make very practical but balanced decisions on work priorities for the routes and the wildlife corridors they run through. In turn, these plans will help to contribute to work plans that Sustrans staff and volunteers will be able to share.
Ultimately, Sustrans would like to recruit Wildlife Champions from their volunteer team and/or the local communities along their greenways. Potentially each champion could take on such a role for any given one kilometre stretch of greenway and help to monitor and to care for its wildlife. Sustrans believes that this will represent a great chance to engage with local communities who, in turn, can help them to enhance and protect some wonderful local habitats.

Initial surveys are being undertaken by a paid ecologist. These surveys will not supersede any work already done by any individual volunteers but they are intended to lead to a Phase One baseline. It should be noted that any additional information, that any volunteer or supporter of Sustrans might have, and is willing to share, would be considered very beneficial by the Ecology team. If you have any of this knowledge and think that Sustrans should know about it then, please contact Mike Dagley* of Sustrans in the first instance (for contact details, see below).
The timetable for the Phase One baseline survey is as follows:

August 13-14th Fallowfield Loop, Manchester
September 17-18th Chester Millennium Greenway

November 5-7th Hadrian’s Cycleway, Cumbria
Later this year Sustrans intend to develop Management Plans and specific recommended actions for each route. As well as informing Sustrans about the more nuanced management of their routes, opportunities will be created to form partnerships with Wildlife Trusts, local conservation groups, volunteers and all interested in making more of the ‘linear parks’ that these routes represent.

*Mike Dagley

Volunteer Coordinator

Sustrans Northwest England

5th Floor, 30-32, Charlotte Street

Manchester M1 4FD

0161 923 6050

0161 923 6053 (direct)

0787 645 3773

Dave Bishop, October 2013


The Friends of the Fallowfield Loop: http://fallowfieldloop.org/