Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Merry Christmas Everyone!

A very Merry Christmas to everyone in FoCM!

Our second Xmas party went well and 15 to 20 people attended. I have to say that John Agar, our Treasurer, put on a fantastic spread - thank you very much, John!

I don't know about you but I've had a wonderful 2008. I've learned lots of interesting things about the environment, enjoyed lots of healthy exercise and fresh air and met so many great people.

Thanks to Alex Krause of MVCWS for all of her hard work (much of it 'behind the scenes') and to the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) and the Sale & Altrincham Volunteers (SACV) for training, tools, expertise and so much else. For example, Nick Martin of the BTCV gave us some wonderful training courses on Natural History. Those of us who attended these courses are all so much better informed now about everything from Woodland Ecology to Water Plants and Dragonflies. It says a lot about the richness of our local environment that Nick was able to find so many of the organisms, featured in his courses, within walking distance of the venue (Sale Visitors' Centre).

So, thanks to all of you for your help and support in 2008. If you were able to find the time to join us, on one or more of our tasks, it was great to see you and we hope that you enjoyed working with us. If not, your support is still appreciated and maybe you'll find a 'window in your diary' (sorry - what a stupid expression!) in 2009.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

FoCM Christmas Party

We are having a Christmas party on Wednesday 10 th December at the Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre, Rifle Road, Sale (near Sale Water Park).

Time: 7:00 pm to 10:30 pm.

Richard Gardner (FoCM) Secretary will be giving a short talk on water voles. You may find this a refreshing change from the usual discos, crackers and party hats (although if you find yourself overwhelmed by the desire to pull a cracker or wear a paper hat - feel free!).

We are planning to lay on drinks and food so if you would like to attend please email me (davegbishop@aol.com) before Friday 5th December so that we know how many supplies to get in.

Dave Bishop (FoCM Chair)

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Lapwings - Bird Brains Or Not? by Margaret McCormick

Margaret is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable naturalist who I first met when she worked at the MV Visitors' Centre at Sale. Both she and I are members of Manchester Field Club.

In the piece that follows Margaret tells us about some practical Ornithology that she was recently involved with over in the Altrincham area.

The phone rang, ‘Lapwings are using the roofs of Altrincham Retail Park as daytime winter roosts. The BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) need people to count the numbers & as you live nearby, any chance you could do this? Well I’m five minutes walk away so how could I refuse. The plan was to count the birds once a month from October to March.

Lapwings feed at night & normally spend the day snoozing in the fields, keeping a watchful eye out for danger from birds of prey, dogs, farm animals or machinery. Roosting on roofs is something new & not just in Altrincham, & it’s been noted in other retail parks up & down Greater Manchester. Is there a Lapwing grapevine, blog or ESP thing going on?

Off I toddled with a notebook to do my first count. Not so easy as some roofs were pitched, so half the birds were hidden from view. Then there were the passers by…from B&Q, Asda, MFI etc...etc. What was I looking for? ‘Lapwings, I’m counting lapwings.’ Funny looks, much head shaking & temple tapping. I clocked up seventy birds & went home. There had to be an easier way. Later that day, around three-thirty, glancing through the back window I spotted a flock of them rising above the roofs of the retail park. I flew (well nearly) upstairs grabbing my camera on the way. There were two separate flocks circling slowly. Between my house & the retail park is a housing estate but the birds were high enough to get a few good shots before they moved away, some to the west & the others to the south. I ultimately dubbed these two flocks ‘The Carrington Gang’& ‘The Mobberly Mob’ as that was where I later found them to be feeding at dusk.
From the camera then downloaded to the computer (with a large zoom) it was a simple matter to count large flocks at my desk.. As the weeks went by the numbers rose to nearly five hundred birds with the numbers peaking in late December early January. All taking advantage of the central heating from the stores rising to warm the roofs & providing a cosy roost for them during the day. As for me….I too could stay in the warm & not run the gamut of strange looks & head-tapping... Easy peasy!

Margaret McCormick, November 2008

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Birds of the Mersey Valley. Part 1: Too many Magpies!

A couple of Tuesdays ago (04/11/08) I decided to do a count of all the species of birds I saw during a circular walk around the nature reserve.

My starting point was the Turn Moss fields, accessed from Edge Lane. These playing fields are usually teeming with gulls and I must have counted 50+ Common Gulls, along with a smaller number of Black-headed Gulls mixing among them. To their number I added the usual suspects of Magpies, Carrion Crows and Woodpigeons – all seen foraging in the grass. As I approached the tree line bordering Hawthorn Lane I added to my list a Jay flying parallel to the trees before disappearing within.

My walk continued through Ivy Green, here seeing a mixed flock of tits passing noisily through the trees. The flock appeared to employ a kind of leapfrogging system, each outrider overtaken by one behind, a sequence repeated and propelling the flock forwards.

Image taken from Google Earth showing walk.

Eventually I reached the metal footbridge over Chorlton brook. Stopping on the bridge I counted in the surrounding scrub and trees, a pair of Great Tits, Wren, Robin and Blackbird. Continuing through Chorlton Ees I walked by the line of Lombardy Poplars leading up to the old sluiceway, in this stint seeing yet more Magpies, Carrion Crows, as well as the odd gull and Woodpigeon flapping overhead. A new addition to my list was a Cormorant seen flying across the Mersey to Sale Water Park.

Taking a right I followed the sluiceway until reaching the Willowherb filled meadow by the Mersey. This is one of my favourite parts of Chorlton Meadows for bird watching, in the spring and summer a great place to see warblers. Though all long flown to their winter homes, I did count a few stand-in species, namely Dunnocks, Robins, Blackbirds and, although only seen as it took off, the unmistakeable red underwing of a Redwing, which, like the Blackbird, had been feeding on Hawthorn. Like warblers Redwings are migrants, this time winter migrants. To think this same meadow is popular with winter visitors too, the Elder and Hawthorn in particular providing valuable cover and food, seemed a nice trick and further proof of the benefit to biodiversity of these kinds of wild and unkempt meadows. Adjoining this field is a very overgrown and reedy pond. Here I heard another mixed flock moving through, this time including the odd finch or two and, lovely to see acrobatically feeding in the branches of an Alder, a Goldcrest, the UK’s smallest bird.

A highlight of my walk was the cattle meadow next to the weir further along the Mersey. This meadow always retains flooded and muddy patches. Taking advantage of this water I tallied a handful of Shoveler ducks coasting round the surface – all males. Shovelers are very distinctive, having long flattered bills like spatulas. Males are smartly coloured with startling amber eyes, glossy green heads and chestnut flanks. On this same scrape I observed 2 male Teals flutily calling in what appeared to be some kind of display towards a larger number of females dabbling at the water margins. Whatever they were doing their efforts went unrewarded, the females not once raising their bills from the mud. Joining them in the field I counted a pair of Pied Wagtails, lots and lots of Canada Geese, as well as the ubiquitous Magpie, in numbers so vast I gave up counting after getting to around 40! See the previous article for a possible explanation as to why there’s so many.

My walk then took me across the footbridge by the Metrolink line to Sale Water Park. Walking in the woodland around the Broad Eees Dole reserve, I had a close encounter with a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a female, differing from the male by lack of red patch on the nape of its neck. As it ascended an ash, I managed to creep within a few feet, before (a lesson I never seem to learn) spooking it by taking that one step too many, the woodpecker cocking its head at me and swooping an exit. Another disappointment was the view from the hide at Broad Ees Dole – all that was visible a couple of Herons on the furthest of the exposed islets. The water itself was devoid of any ducks or waders. In Sale lake, however, I did tally a pretty varied count, including Cormorants, Great Crested Grebes, Mute Swans, as well as numerous Coots, gulls and duck species, including a solitary male Goldeneye which I observed diving as it moved away from me.

My next stop was the feeding station by Sale Water Park visitor centre. Sitting on the bench in front of the feeders, the first bird I saw was a Nuthatch making a couple of sorties to take peanuts. By this time 3 or 4 Magpies had commandeered the feeders, their bullishness from then on making it difficult for any other birds to visit. In spite of this, at the base of the feeding station could be seen a Dunnock picking up scraps as well a male Pheasant obscured by the bank, its head occasionally popping into view like a solider above a trench. Other visitors to the station, often only scavenging from the floor, were Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Great Tits and Blue Tits.

I next walked beside the brook which connects Sale Water Park to the Mersey sluice gate near Jackson’s Boat bridge. Here I was lucky enough to add to my list two male Bullfinches perched low in the willows, and at the other side of the brook in the field adjacent to the one used for model aircraft displays, what I’m 80% sure was a 1st winter male Stonechat perching and darting from sapling to sapling. Keen to get a closer look I crossed over the footbridge part way down the brook, doubling back then to get to where I’d seen the Stonechat. By the time I got there, however, there was no sign. A near recompense was a second Great Spotted Woodpecker, as well as numerous Blackbirds feeding in the Hawthorn. The colouration of one struck me as odd – though jet black like the male, it had a dark bill, like the female. Odd colourations like this aren’t that uncommon and I imagine all I’d seen was a female with a dark-feathered gene. Just as I was about to move on I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye a Sparrowhawk being mobbed by a Carrion Crow. Turning my head I managed to get a momentary clear look before both dived behind a bank of trees.

Walking into the model aircraft field I noted another large flock of Carrion Crows, all chattering to each other as they milled about in the grass. In the Hawthorn hedges along the field margin I counted the odd Blackbird, but my hope was to see a Fieldfare or another Redwing. My hope was rewarded as a little further along I got a very good view of a solitary Fieldfare, albeit a view that was curtailed by a strident dog walker passing by! It flew to perch on a telegraph pole at the other side of the Mersey. It was still there after I crossed Jackson’s Boat bridge, and I managed this time to get a very clear view of it through my binoculars. I finished my walk, from start to finish taking me just over two hours, by cutting through Hardy Farm and exiting at the Brookburn Road entrance.

Can any of you beat my 38 species counted in a single walk round the meadows? I’m sure you can!

Julian Robinson

Species list (04/11/08)

Black-headed Gull
Blue Tit
Canada Goose
Carrion Crow
Common Blackbird
Common Gull
Great Crested Grebe
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit
Grey Heron
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Pied Wagtail
Tufted Duck

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Crows in the Mersey Valley

Mark Cocker's book, 'Crow Country' (reviewed below) got me thinking about Corvids in the Mersey Valley; which species are present and which are absent?

Eurasian jays are a familiar sight in the plantations on Chorlton Ees and elsewhere. Black-billed magpies are common everywhere - some people might say too common! I am often struck by the large flocks of magpies which assemble on the grazing field next to the cobbled road which runs from Brookburn Road to Chorlton Ees car park. Years ago I met an elderly man, who had lived in Chorlton all his life, who reckoned that magpies are common now because there are no longer farmers with shotguns around to shoot them - as there were in his youth.

There is a large colony of Eurasian jackdaws in Chorltonville. They are often visible from the path which runs past Hardy Farm Community Orchard (ie. the path from Brookburn Road to Jackson's Boat Bridge). Their raucous and excitable chattering amuses me and never fails to cheer me up if I'm feeling a bit down.

Carrion crows are also common. They can often be seen 'hanging about' in ones or twos and, very occasionally, slightly bigger groups.

Rooks appear to be a lot rarer. Our Treasurer, John Agar, tells me that, at one time, there was a large rookery at Longford Park, in the Beech trees adjacent to High Lane. But this disappeared when much of the farmland at Chorlton and Stretford was tipped on or converted into sports fields.

Last year I spotted, what I think, might be a rookery near the motorway at Stretford (see photograph). Unfortunately, my binoculars aren't powerful enough to be able to see the individual birds clearly. Does anyone know if (a) these are rooks and (b) if 'yes', where do they feed?

I'm sure that there are lots of expert birders out there who can answer these questions better than I can. Comments and observations, please!

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Book Review

Crow Country by Mark Cocker, Vintage Books, Paperback ed. 2008 (ISBN 9780099485087), 216pp, £8.99

Yes, I know that several of my previous articles on this blog have had a botanical slant, so why, I hear you ask, am I reviewing a book about birds?

Well, first, this is a very well written book about the British countryside, and that is recommendation enough. But, on a deeper level, it embodies a concept which fascinates me: the idea that common organisms in our environment are often more interesting and more complex than we usually give them credit for (if we notice them at all).

Mark Cocker lives in Norfolk, in the Yare Valley, and he appears to belong to that loose coterie of East Anglian writers on the British countryside grouped around Richard Mabey and Ronald Blythe. His particular interest is in the Crow Family (Corvidae). He tells us that, in Britain, this bird family is represented by seven breeding species: the Eurasian jay, black-billed magpie, red-billed chough, Eurasian jackdaw, rook, carrion crow and northern raven. Within that group he is especially fascinated by rooks and the jackdaws which often associate with them.

Mr Cocker tells us that, for several years, he has been attempting to unravels the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of rook (and jackdaw) nesting and roosting behaviour. His interest was first initiated by his observations of the spectacular displays created by flocks of these highly social birds as they left their roosts in the morning and returned to them in the evening.

In order to answer the questions raised by these displays Cocker has travelled widely both within and outside of the UK. At one point he came across an account by a Scottish woman who recalled that, during her Victorian childhood, she would lie in bed at dusk and from her window watch raucous flocks of rooks pass over the house on their way to their roost. Inspired by this account he embarked on an arduous car journey from Norfolk to Dumfriesshire and then spent an uncomfortable November evening on a wind-swept hillside from which he observed … well, I let you read it for yourself!

As well as being an account of some common, but remarkable and incompletely understood, birds, this book is also a rather profound meditation on Natural History and the naturalists who study it; highly recommended!

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Duckweed Rescue!

In the 19th Century the Manchester region seems to have been well served by botanists. There were three local floras (annotated lists of plants) published during that century: ‘Flora Mancuniensis’ by John Bland Wood (1840), ‘A Botanical Guide’ by Richard Buxton (1849) and ‘The Manchester Flora’ by Leo Grindon (1859). These three books contain many records from Chorlton. One group of plants which were well represented were those which grew in water: Five Pondweeds (Potamageton sp.), eight Sedges (Carex sp.), two Water Milfoils (Myriophyllum sp.) and three Duckweeds (Lemna and Spirodela sp.) were listed, as well as plants such as Floating Club-rush (Eleogiton fluitans), Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale) and White Water Lily (Nymphaea alba) – which are all now locally extinct.

In those days Chorlton was well provided with brooks, ponds, pits and ditches, where all of these choice plants could grow. There were Chorlton and Longford Brooks and several large ponds, such as Sally’s Pond, adjacent to Hawthorn Lane, which was filled in within living memory. The Meadows were also dissected by numerous drainage ditches which were probably associated with directing the water (with its burden of rich silt) from the river and on to the Meadows during winter floods, and off again during the spring.

One area which seems to have contained many flooded pits was that known as ‘The Isles’. This roughly corresponds to the district now centred on the long roads of Nicolas, Newport and Longford and bounded on the south by Edge Lane and Wilbraham Road, on the west by Longford Park, on the North by the Manchester/Trafford Boundary and on the east by Manchester Road. This area seems to have been quite damp – probably because of an underlying layer of clay. It’s highly likely that the numerous pits, marked on the old maps of the area, were created by digging for ‘marl’ (calcareous clay used for liming fields). Later the clay was used for brick making and there were once brick pits and a brickworks in the vicinity of St. John’s Primary School and Ryebank Fields.

Recently, it was announced that a new branch of the Metro Link Tram System would be built along the old railway line which runs from Wilbraham Road (near Morrison’s Supermarket) to Old Trafford (this old track, of course, skirts the eastern edge of the ‘Isles’ district). This line has had forty years in which to develop into a sort of linear nature reserve and wildlife corridor. Mindful of this, GMPTE and their contractors have put mitigation plans in place to ensure that as much of the line’s biodiversity as possible is conserved. Alison Hunt, of West Didsbury Resident’s Association, and I have shared our thoughts on this mitigation, with GMPTE and the contractors, and have been listened to sympathetically.

On Sunday 19th October I thought that, as clearing of the track bed was to start the next day, I would take one last look. It was very hard going – a dense, secondary woodland, mainly of Ash, Sycamore, Willow and Birch had developed along with numerous bramble patches. In addition long sections of track bed were flooded and industrial quantities of fly-tipping had accumulated (especially near bridges). It occurred to me that if this had been an ‘official’ nature reserve it would be long overdue for some management!

In one of the flooded areas I spotted something that I had not seen before. It turned out to be Ivy-leaved Duckweed (Lemna trisulca), which had been listed in all three 19th Century floras. It was a member of Chorlton’s ‘missing’ suite of water plants!
It is not particularly rare nationally but it is a bit unusual and atypical for a Duckweed. Unlike Common Duckweed (Lemna minor), which floats on the water’s surface and can form a dense blanket, L. trisulca floats just below the surface film. I like to imagine that this plant was once common in the flooded pits of the Isles and had somehow managed to cling on to life on the old railway line (well, I suppose it’s possible …).

With some trepidation I rang Katie White (GMPTE Environmental Manager). I knew that the project timings were now getting very tight, and that they were unlikely to be very happy with my request, but asked if I could rescue some of the Duckweed? Katie said that she would get back to me.

Next day I got a phone call from Peter Jones, Project Manager with Laing O’Rourke (part of the MPT consortium building Metro Link), inviting me to the MPT offices in Old Trafford. The day after that I found myself, dressed in hard hat, fluorescent jacket and steel toe-capped boots and armed with a plastic vessel and my trusty ‘Duckweed scoop’ (a suitable kitchen utensil), trudging along the track with Katie, her colleague Vivien Lees and MPT Engineer, Peter Statham. They were all very helpful and remarkably good humoured about it!

We rescued some of the Duckweed and it is now in a plastic washing up bowl in my back garden. I spoke to Alex Krause (MVCWS) about it and she suggested that we quarantine it, for a few months, just to ensure that it doesn’t contain any invasive ‘nasties’ like Azolla (Water Fern) or Crassula (Australian Swamp Stonecrop) – then we can probably introduce it into some of the (newish) ponds in the Mersey Valley.

This has been a very interesting and heartening experience for me. Just a few years ago the old track would just have been bulldozed and my Duckweed, and everything else, would have disappeared. Now there appears to be a genuine willingness to do the right thing and to conserve and enhance local biodiversity as much as possible. GMPTE and the MPT contractors are to be congratulated.
Just think, we’ll soon have an enhanced, ‘state-of-the-art’ public transport system, a functioning wildlife corridor and Chorlton will still have Ivy-leaved Duckweed in its flora.
Dave Bishop, 29th October, 2008

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Caucasian Wingnut Tree - Beech Road Park

Here's a note from FoCM Committee Member, Dan King on an unusual tree in Beech Road Park.

The Caucasian Wingnut tree in Beech Road Park is a particularly fine example of this specimen tree. It is sometimes characteristic of the trunk of this species (Pterocarya fraxinifolia) to divide into two main branches not far off the ground. It belongs to the walnut family (Juglandaceae) and is native to the eastern Caucasus, northern Iran and eastern Turkey. In its native habitat it can reach nearly 100 feet in height, but in northern climates it reaches about 80 feet, with a branch spread of 70 feet. Because of these nearly square proportions and because it is relatively fast-growing, it is prized as a shade tree. In a good year, the tree in late summer or early autumn is a strikingly decorative sight, festooned with its long, pale-green strings of seeds - the fruiting catkins can be from 12 to 20 inches long. Unfortunately, our spring and summer of 2008 weren't conducive to catkin and fruit formation, so this year the strings are fairly few on our Beech Road Park tree. It is also unfortunate that the tree is now overshadowed by having been planted too close to the surrounding horse-chestnuts. If you're planting a tree, make sure you give it plenty of room - think 20 or 30 years ahead! (Caucasian Wingnuts aren't thought to be suitable for most gardens - they get too big.) The species was first brought to Europe by André Michaux, a French botanist and statesman, in 1782, and can be found in many parks and botanic gardens.
Dan King, October 2008

Friday, 10 October 2008

Manchester Parks Survey - have your say!

Manchester City Council are conducting a large scale survey of their parks until 31st October 2008. Many Chorlton Meadows sites are included in the survey, including Chorlon Ees, Hardy Farm and Ivy Green.

Please see this news item for more information:

Have your say on local parks

Residents from across the city are invited to have their say about Manchester’s parks and could win £100 of supermarket vouchers by doing so.

Manchester City Council are embarking on a large-scale survey, asking people about their local parks and green spaces; if they use them, what they think of them and how they can be improved?

Residents are invited to share their opinions in a short online survey running until 31 October 2008.

Councillor Mike Amesbury, Executive Member for Culture and Leisure at Manchester City Council said: "The city's parks are often the first experience of landscape and nature for those growing up in urban areas and it is a major priority for us that people see them as places to relax and to enjoy leisure activities. We welcome any feedback good or bad as despite having more green flags than anywhere else in the country, we are determined to improve our parks even further and strive to ensure that more and more members of the local community can make use of and benefit from their parks."

The questionnaire can be accessed at
www.manchester.gov.uk/parksurvey until 31 October and everyone who takes part will be automatically entered into a prize draw for £100 vouchers for a supermarket of their choice. Reponses can be submitted anonymously.”

Saturday, 4 October 2008

FoCM Winter Programme 2008

As you may know we’ve still got some of the money from the Breathing Places grant for Hardy Farm left over, and we’ve got to spend it by the end of December. Luckily we can find lots of things to do so spending the money won’t be a problem.

Sunday 12th October: Tidy up & removal of summer overgrowth

Sunday 2nd November: Scrub control *

Saturday 8th November: Tool handling course & scrub control **

Saturday 22nd November: Scrub control & fruit tree pruning **

Wednesday 26th November: Scrub control & fruit tree pruning **

Sunday 30th November: Scrub control & fruit tree pruning *

Saturday 6th December: Scrub control & fruit tree pruning **

Time (all tasks): 10:00 am - 3:00 pm except for 12th October task which starts at 10:30 am

Meeting Place (all tasks): Jackson's Boat Bridge

*We will be working with the Sale & Altrincham Conservation Volunteers (SACV) on these tasks. Contact: Julian Fox on 07957355468

**We will be working with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) on these tasks. Contact: Katie Lowry on 07740899539

IMPORTANT: Car parking at Jackson’s Boat is for pub customers only, so, if arriving by car, please park at Mersey Valley Visitors’ Centre car park and walk down Rifle Road to the meeting point.

Teas and coffees will be available for all tasks but you will need to bring a packed lunch. You will also need to wear suitable footwear (boots or wellies) and dress for the weather.

If you need any further clarification on any tasks please contact Alex Krause (MVCWS Ecology Warden) on 0161 881 5639 or email a.krause@manchester.co.uk.


Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service

Website: http://www.merseyvalley.org.uk/
Email: info@merseyvalley.org.uk

Chorlton Water Park: tel. 0161 881 5639
Sale Visitors’ Centre: tel. 0161 905 1100

Dave Bishop (FoCM Chair): 0161 881 6276

Monday, 29 September 2008

Chorlton's History - From Agricultural Village to Suburb - by Andrew Simpson

I've known Andrew Simpson for many years now. Recently, we were having a chat in Morrison's and he told me of his interest in Local History. Subsequently, Andrew has shown me what he has learned so far and I'm very impressed by the depth and ambition of his research. In the article below he introduces his project and its objectives:

It takes very little in the way of imagination to place Chorlton in a rural setting. Stand on the Green and all the features of a country village are there. At one end is the lych gate and graveyard, opposite is a half-timbered pub and on the remaining two sides are the old school and a farmhouse.

But the timbers on the Horse and Jockey are no more than 100 years old, and the farmhouse had been the office of a garage for most of the last half century. Even the lych gate only dates from 1888. And yet despite this, the fact remains that for perhaps a thousand years Chorlton was a village which became a suburb of Manchester in less than forty years.

It is difficult today to picture a landscape dominated by farms, fields and open land, but that landscape is only just passing out of living memory. It is this transformation and the story of the people who lived through it that I set out to record.

During the last half of the nineteenth century Chorlton changed from rural village where people farmed the land to a Manchester suburb. What is remarkable is how late the transformation was in happening. There were working farms around the Green till just before the beginning of the twentieth century. The blacksmith on Beech Road continued to serve their needs well after 1900 and in 1907 it was still possible to stand at the corner of Beech and Cross Road and look across fields to the River Mersey.

In 1845 there were 490 acres of arable land, 680 acres of meadow and pasture and 10 acres of woodland. To the north in what is now Whalley Range there was Holt Wood and to the south there were Barlow Wood and Holland’s Wood. Along the river where the land was low lying and liable to flooding the area was mainly given over to meadow. To the east where today the long roads of Longford, Nicholas and Newport run out towards Stretford the area was full of streams and lakes. This area was known as the Isles and provided more meadow and pasture land. Twenty years later there were still eighteen farms, as well as market gardens and orchards.

And this has been the starting point of my story. What was daily life like for the people of Chorlton? And how did a way of life which had lasted for a thousand years end in such a short period of time? Moreover who were these people who saw their village change but who have been lost to history?

In the last few months their lives have become clearer. There was for instance the Nixon family who from the 1840s ran pubs around the village and looked after the post office in what is now Marmalade. They married into the Gresty family who made their living as farm labourers and lived in one of the last wattle and daub houses close to the old parish church. There were the farming families like the Higginbothams, the Whiteleggs and Haysons who ran farms of varying size. Dominating all of them were the two large landowners who between them owned 80% of the land. Our farmers and indeed all the villagers paid them rent and lived on their land.

We can see the same rural pattern of life as elsewhere. Many farm labourers were hired by the year, lived with the farmer and some were prone to persistent drunkenness that eventually cost them their jobs.

Outside the hours of work the villagers engaged in the village brass band, played on the various bowling greens visited the Reading Room and kept older traditions going till the last quarter of the century. The Brundrett family along with the Hollands, Baguleys and Lunts built the Wesleyan Chapel on Beech Road and sang in its choir. George Whitelegg, publican of the Horse & Jockey was a Poor Law Guardian, who administered those “Poor Law Bastilles” so hated and feared through out the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.

John Gresty was another of these people whose life is slowly coming to light. He was born in the village in 1817 and worked as a farm labourer until his death sometime before 1885. He had been born during a period of economic hardship, reached manhood at a time when agriculture was still the main occupation and entered old age as farming went into decline. As a boy he might have played beside the canal at Stretford and watched the barges heading towards Manchester. In his thirties he could have worked along side the notorious and much feared navvies in building the railway which cut across the fields and ran beside the canal. And in old age he would have talked with villagers who worked in the city and owed their living to manufacture and commerce.

In 1848 it would have been possible to leave the village and walk by the way of farm tracks past fields and the odd house all the way to the far edges of the township. A farm labourer making that journey just before the turn of that century might try hard to remember the landscape and rural features which would have been familiar to him as a child. Much of the agricultural land beyond Chorlton Cross towards Whalley Range was now terraced housing and shops.

But so much has survived. We can trace the changing landscape through pictures, and postcards, the lives of the people through the census material, parish records and land documents and above all by talking to people who remember the last farms and fields.

The next task will be to interview the people who remember this transition. To this end I would welcome any suggestions of people to talk to and nay material whether it be pictures or written records which will help.

Andrew Simpson
September 2008

Friday, 26 September 2008

September by Roger Barnes

Here's a poem from local poet, Roger Barnes. Roger tells me that he derives much inspiration from the Meadows. We share a common interest in the Valley's plant life and we often phone each other with news of new finds.

This poem is from Roger's first collection, 'Some Seasonal Sonnets' (2007).


First fieldfares fly in to find their winter room
pickings a plenty tumbling round the town
fresh fallen apples tempting rosy bloom
one bite and spit and quickly throw it down!

hops high lanterns hanging in their hundreds
where the new green berried bryony grows
hedges hips and haws yellow orange reds
golden rod plumes and Michaelmas daisy shows

mosquitoes and gnats knit days end in dance
thermal thousands throng translucent light
crane flies take their tentative tremulous chance
crows cavort commune with flashy flight

So much manna this mellowing month contains
September salad days are here again!

copyright R.H. Barnes, 27th Sept 2006

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

30th Anniversary Celebrations at Chorlton Water Park

As reported previously, The Friends of Chorlton Water Park and the Warden Service celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the park last Sunday (21st September) - and what a splendid event it was! Well done to everyone involved for a great day out for local families!

For a start the weather couldn't have been better. The warm September sunshine could not have provided a greater contrast with the damp gloom of the last few weeks. A variety of stalls were present, representing everyone from Red Rose Forest and the BTCV to local businesses selling everything from tasteful items with a 'green hue' to food and drink.
During the day lots of small children, and quite a few adults, got to bang drums - which they seemed to thoroughly enjoy. I'm sure that many listeners enjoyed it as well ... possibly ... ?

Moving swiftly on, boat rides were also available on the lake and, judging by the queues, these too were very popular.

Situated at various points round the lake were a series of boards on which were posted information and photographs relating to the history of the site and anecdotes and stories from local people related to their experiences there over the years. One lad actually recalled kicking a football around with George Best and other Man. Utd. players, on the field that was there before the lake!

During the day Mrs Durrant, who had been a GMC councillor in 1978, and had actually opened the park, was given a tour around the lake.

I left the event thinking that the whole day had had a great community feel to it and reflecting, not for the first time, on what a great place Chorlton is to live!

Saturday, 20 September 2008

The Autumn Crocus

If you take a walk along certain sections of the river bank, adjacent to Chorlton Ees, at the end of this month, and the beginning of the next, you should encounter the beautiful flowers of the Autumn Crocus (Crocus nudiflorus). This is probably the flower for which the Mersey Valley is most famous. It is a Greater Manchester Biodiversity Action Plan Notable Species and, in stylised form, it is the symbol of the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service. Nevertheless, it is not confined to the Mersey Valley and tends to occur within a circle drawn around Nottingham, Warwick, Shrewsbury, Preston and Halifax.

First, it may be necessary to clear up a constant source of misunderstanding. There is another plant, in the British Flora, which sometimes bears the name, ‘Autumn Crocus’ and that is Colchicum autumnale. Although C. autumnale looks superficially Crocus-like it is not a Crocus! Colchicums are in the Liliaceae (Lily family) and have six stamens. Crocus nudiflorus, on the other hand, is a ‘true’ Crocus in the botanical family Iridaceae (the Iris family). True Crocuses have three stamens which are much shorter than the feathery, orange stigma (which is, in some species, the source of the spice, Saffron). Colchicum autumnale is called in some books, ‘Meadow Saffron’ – but this doesn’t help matters as it doesn’t produce any Saffron – and you wouldn’t want to ingest any part of it as it is highly poisonous!

Finally, it is very unlikely that that C. autumnale would occur in the Mersey Valley at all. It tends to grow in a few limestone areas – with its main stronghold in Britain being The Cotswolds. The closest place that it is likely to be found to Manchester is Whalley in Lancashire.

It all goes to show that you should never pay too much attention to a plant’s common name – only its scientific (ie. ‘Latin’) name is unambiguous and meaningful.

Crocus nudiflorus, like other Crocuses, grows from a ‘corm’ (a swollen underground stem, forming a storage organ). This particular corm is unusual because it tends to send out horizontal ‘stolons’ (creeping, underground stems); these stolons are rather like those of couch or twitch grass except that they produce new corms at their ends – hence this species is patch-forming.
The other unusual thing about C. nudiflorus is that it produces its flowers in September/October but its leaves in February/March. The leaves are thin and grass-like with a vertical white stripe; as they age they tend to elongate up to about 10 – 15 cm before they fade away.

C. nudiflorus is not a British native but is naturalised here and comes, originally, from South West France and Northern Spain. So, how did it get here? This, it turns out, is a remarkable and surprising story – but first a word about Saffron.

The word Saffron is an Anglicisation of the Arabic word, ‘Zà-ferán’, which refers to the dried stigmas of the Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus). It is the world’s most expensive spice because 4000 stigmas yield only 25g of Saffron. These must be harvested by hand and it takes 150,000 flowers and 400 hours of work to produce 1Kg of dried Saffron. These days Saffron is known mainly as a culinary spice, used in rice dishes, bread and cakes, puddings and soups. In past ages it was believed to have medical uses as well. In 1670 the German Herbalist, Ferdinand Hertodt published ‘Crocologia’, a treatise on the virtues of Saffron as a panacea. He claimed that Saffron could cure plague, melancholia, bites of venomous beasts, toothache and madness and other afflictions and maladies. Another old use for Saffron was as an anti-spasmodic ingredient in herbal remedies to treat malaria (malaria was once endemic to many European countries including low-lying, marshy areas of Britain).

It is only feasible to grow Crocus sativus on a commercial scale in the dry, south eastern corner of Britain and the town of Saffron Walden, in Essex, took its name from this now defunct trade. Luckily, C. nudiflorus is easier to grow in the Britain and its stigmas are also a source of Saffron. So who introduced it?

For most of the first half of the 20th Century the Yorkshire naturalist, W.B. Crump took a keen interest in the occurrences of C. nudiflorus around Halifax. He noticed that, around that town, the plant always grew in the meadows near the hill farmsteads and that many of these were formerly the property of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. More recently the historian Alan Marshall has shown that the occurrences of the plant in the Rochdale/Oldham area also correlate with sites once owned by the Knights of St. John. A list in a document of 1291 comprised 98 holdings which included Middleton, Oldham, Crompton, Milnrow and Healey.

The Knights of St. John were one of the so-called ‘Military Orders’, set up after the Siege and Conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. These Orders also included The Knights Templar and The Teutonic Knights.
Once the First Crusade had ‘liberated’ Jerusalem (ie. indiscriminately slain all the inhabitants, including Muslims, Jews and Christians!) the Holy City could, theoretically, be visited by Christian pilgrims from Europe. But the Holy Land was full of bloodthirsty brigands – mainly renegade (nominally) Christian soldiers and knights who preyed on the pilgrims. The Military Orders were established to protect them. The Knights of St. John also established a hospital to minister to the pilgrims’ medical needs; hence they are sometimes referred to as ‘The Knights Hospitallers’. It is highly likely that the Hospitallers were some of the most accomplished physicians of their day who could draw on European, Middle Eastern and Eastern medical traditions. It’s also likely that they were fully aware of the therapeutic applications of Saffron.

The Knights of St. John were a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean region for nearly 700 years. This history mainly consisted of one long struggle with the forces of Islam, who displaced them first from the Holy Land and then from the island of Rhodes. Their nemesis was the great Sixteenth Century Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (who viewed them as pirates and obstacles to trade). At the beginning of his reign, in 1521, he laid siege to Rhodes and the Knights capitulated the following year and eventually established themselves on Malta. In 1565, at the end of his reign, Suleiman laid siege to Malta. This was one of the bloodiest sieges in history – at its end only 600 Knights remained but Suleiman lost 30,000 troops. Given this turbulent history, and the ever present threat of annihilation, it’s not surprising that the Knights acquired land in Europe, including the North West of England, as a sort of insurance policy. Incidentally, the Order still exists today and are the founders of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade – their ‘Maltese Cross’ emblem is a familiar sight at sporting fixtures and other public events.

To sum up, then, The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem acquired land in the Southern Pennines. They grew the South Western European species, Crocus nudiflorus as a source of Saffron, which they valued for its medicinal properties. I have seen no evidence to suggest that the Knights of St. John owned land in the Mersey Valley so I strongly suspect that our plants were washed down the Pennine watershed in winter floods.

At least, that’s what I thought until, a few years ago, I read an article in a natural history magazine which added a whole new level of complication … but that will have to wait for the next instalment!

Dave Bishop, September, 2008.


1. ‘Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland’ by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter, A&C Black, 2003.

2. ‘The Crocus’ by Brian Mathew, Batsford, 1982.

3. ‘A Handbook Of Crocus and Colchicum For Gardeners’ by E.A. Bowles, Waterstones reprint ed., 1985 (first pub. 1924).

4. ‘Alan Marshall and C. nudiflorus in the Rochdale/Oldham Area’ – personal communication from Diana Downing (Manchester Field Club), 2006.

5. ‘The Knights of the Order’ by Ernle Bradford, Dorset Press, 2nd Ed., 1991.

6. ‘The Monks of War’ by Desmond Seward, Penguin Books, 2nd Ed., 1995.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

30th Anniversary of Chorlton Water Park

This is a message from Tracey Pook, Chair of the Friends of Chorlton Water Park:

"The Friends of Chorlton Water Park have been working alongside the Mersey Valley Warden Service to organise an event to celebrate 30 years of Chorlton Water Park, on the 21st September starting at 10am till 3pm. Chorlton Water Park stands on what was the site of Barlow Hall Farm. Up until the 1950s the farmer flooded the field to increase the fertility of the land. He recalled that ‘the sluice gates were never opened for the first flood as this brought down the rubbish: the second flood brought down rich mud’.Gravel was excavated from the site and used in the construction of the M60 motorway in the 1970s. The gravel pit was subsequently flooded; creating the lake that is central to the Water Park today. Chorlton Water Park is a Local Nature Reserve. It is also a holder of the Civic Trust’s Green Flag Award-recognising the high standard of environmental value and community involvement- and the UK Man and the Biosphere Urban Wildlife Award for Excellence. It has also been awarded the Green Flag award for the past 4 years! To mark this day we have organised the event to include:A display to show the history of the Water park,alongside people's memories. Also caneoing, facepainting, Arts & crafts, tombola, hair braiding, games, Samba performance by Cavendish Rd PrimarySchool children (12pm), Hot food and beverages and various stalls from jewelrey to recycling.There is no admission charge and all activites are free. I really hope you can along and help make this event a success. "

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Mersey Mystery by Ingrid Burney

And now for something completely different (as they say!). Chorlton resident, Ingrid Burney tells us of an eery encounter that she had recently on the river bank.
Be warned! After reading this you will probably have to sleep with the light on tonight ...

Mersey Mystery

[as told at ‘Chorlton Telling Tales’ Storyclub}

It happened last year, last Autumn to be exact. My friend Amy and I had arranged to meet up for a walk by the River Mersey, my favourite local walk. If you don’t know it, it’s about an hour’s walk, starting off through Chorlton Meadows, a nature reserve, and then following the Mersey round, crossing over two bridges to get back to The Meadows and home. By one of the bridges you find a pub, ‘Jackson’s Boat’, and that is where we planned to stop for a bit, walking back before it got dark.

Even though it turned out to be a drizzly, overcast day we decided to go ahead. After all (as seasoned Mancunian walkers) we were well prepared, with waterproofs and boots. However we soon realised that this was not just surface drizzle. This was the kind of drizzle that creeps, surreptitiously, sneakily, into your very skin. Since we were walking with hoods down (after all, how else can you talk properly?) it wasn’t long before our hair and faces were dripping wet. But it didn’t matter. We were engrossed, catching up, putting the world to rights. The ducks and geese by the river didn’t mind the weather either. The cyclists who silently crept up behind us, expecting us to leap out of the way for them, looked as impassive as usual. The runners, their faces concentrated, or contorted (in agony or ecstasy?) seemed unaffected. The dogs were enjoying themselves, as usual, together with their jovial owners. We were about the only people just walking, walking, talking, talking.

And that’s why we didn’t notice. Not until he was right in front of us. And then …he was gorgeous! Tall, dark, handsome and …a smile. To drown in. Dark, sleek hair, luminous skin, immaculate sports gear and trainers …and the smile. But, for me, he was too gorgeous, too handsome – but then, I’ve always distrusted perfect looking men. But even without looking, I knew how Amy felt. You know how it is, when you see someone, and every cell in your body does a somersault before settling down, not quite like before. Well, that was Amy. Instantly smitten. She smiled a smile that was so wide it stretched until it met itself at the back of her neck, as they say. And so it started. She talked and talked, smiled and smiled. He talked and smiled that smile. She talked and smiled and talked and smiled. He talked and smiled.

And I knew it was coming. Maybe before she did. She turned to me and asked,’ Ingrid, do you mind if he comes to the pub with us? ’Well, I was a gooseberry, I knew it. But I was going to be a gracious gooseberry.
So I replied, graciously, ‘Of course, it would be great’. Then I looked at him. I mean, really, really looked at him. And my blood ran cold. I hoped he hadn’t seen. I averted my eyes and hoped he hadn’t noticed.

So, thinking quickly I said, ‘But Amy, I really need to talk to you about something. Would it be ok if we go on ahead and he joins us, say, in about 15 minutes?’ She looked at me, in a ‘What are you playing at?’ sort of way, but shrugged her shoulders, and answered,
‘Yes, I suppose so …if it’s that important’. But she wasn’t happy and it showed. So she explained the situation to her friend, who smiled, and we made sure he knew where the pub was and whereabouts he would find us – Amy was very explicit. Then we turned away – us towards ‘Jackson’s Boat’, him to wander up-river a bit, along the path, to join us in a bit. So we smiled, and hugged and parted.

We’d barely turned round when she grabbed my arm and hissed,’ Ingrid, what was that all about?’
‘Didn’t you see?’ I hissed back. ‘Didn’t you notice?’
‘What was there to notice? He’s gorgeous’
‘He wasn’t wet. There wasn’t a drop of water on him or his clothes.’
We looked at each other. Rats tails of hair. Water dripping down our faces and clothes. Muddy boots.

Then, simultaneously, we turned round, to look at the man.
But of course, he wasn’t there.
We looked along the whole length of the path along the river. He wasn’t there.
The grass on the high bank on the other side of the path showed no sign of anyone having walked through it, and besides, even Superman couldn’t have climbed up in that time.
We looked along the path again, and saw our footprints in the mud.
Our two sets of footprints.
Only two sets of footprints.
Then Amy went pale.

We went to the pub, and we had a drink, and waited, but of course he didn’t show. I wasn’t surprised and I don’t think Amy was either. We chatted about this and that but not about what was really on our minds. Not then. We left early and got home well before dark.

Now, I’m happy to walk along this part of the Mersey in daylight anytime. But maybe, in future, I’ll be wary when I walk on October 31, Samhain (or Hallowe’en), because, this gorgeous man with the wonderful smile, if he wasn’t a ghost, what was he?

Copyright : Ingrid Burney 2008

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Bat Walk, Saturday 6th September 2008

When I looked out of the window at 6:00 pm it was raining again! No-one's going to turn up to traipse around the Meadows, at dusk, in the pouring rain, I thought.

Imagine my surprise, then, to get down to the car park and to find 16 people there! And, as it happens, the rain did hold off for most of the evening.

Jim Taylor of the Greater Manchester Bat Group told us about the species of bat that we were likely to encounter on the site ie. Noctule, Daubenton's and Pipistrelle. He explained a bit about their biology and habits and supplied some of us with hand-held, electronic bat detectors. Bats locate their prey by echo location but the sounds that they emit are very high frequency and hence inaudible to most people (I could sometimes detect these calls when I was younger - but it was like someone inserting a fine needle into my ear drum! I'm rather glad that I can't hear them any more!). The bat detectors reduce the frequencies of these calls and make them audible.

We all walked through the woodland to the river bank and suddenly the detectors chattered into life. The first species we heard was a Noctule (Nyctalus noctula) whose call the detector renders as a rapid "chip-shop, chip-shop!" sound. This was followed by a Daubenton's (Myotis daubentoni) which sounds a bit like a revving motorbike.

As we walked along the river bank, in the direction of Jackson's Boat, we began to detect the rapid, slapping sounds of Pipistrelles (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). At one point we descended some steps to a sheltered spot below the river bank and suddenly the air was full of Pipistrelles and the detectors were slapping away like mad. Jim's powerful lantern beam picked up the tiny bats flitting through the air and also the thousands of flying insects that they feed on.

So, a very successful evening, in spite of the weather. I hope that everyone who attended enjoyed it. I will ask Jim to write a more detailed account in due course.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Reminder: Bat Walk

An evening Bat Walk is to be held next Saturday.

Leader: Jim Taylor of the Greater Manchester Bat Group

Date: Saturday, 6th September

Time: 7:15 pm to 9:00 pm

Place: Chorlton Ees Car Park (end of cobbled road).

Bring a torch and dress for the weather

For more info. ring Alex Krause on 0161 881 5639.

Coppicing on Ivy Green

Some of you may remember coppicing Hazel and Ash, on Ivy Green, on the 18th November last year? Well, the other day I thought that I would stroll over to the site and see what had happened in the intervening 10 months or so. I was quite amazed by what I saw - some of the Hazel, which was cut almost to ground level in November, has produced shoots 6 ft high in just that short time! Of course, these shoots are still quite thin and whippy - but I'm sure that they will thicken up in the next year or two.

Our ancestors were well aware of this propensity of many of our broad leaved trees to sprout from the base when cut down. Coppicing is a practice which dates back at least to the Bronze Age (around 5 - 6,000 years ago) and is probably even older. In 'traditionally' wet parts of the country - like the Fens or the Somerset Levels - archeologists have found trackways, and other structures, buried and preserved in peat deposits. Examination of these remains reveals that they were originally constructed from coppice poles.

Right up until the early years of the 20th Century coppice poles had many uses including: wattle and daub walls, hurdle-type fence panels, tool handles and anything which required long straight poles. Coppiced wood was also turned into charcoal by heating it in the absence of air. Perhaps the most sophisticated use for coppice poles was found around High Wycombe, in Buckinghamshire, where craftsmen, working on pedal-driven pole lathes, in the open air, produced high quality furniture components (chair legs etc.).

Coppicing is a good environmental practice because it lets light onto the woodland floor and allows other plant species to flourish - thus boosting the biodiversity of the site. It also, and this may seem paradoxical, prolongs the lives of the coppiced trees (some coppiced Ash stools may be some of the oldest living things in the country).

If you are interested in coppicing or, or woodlands in general, you might like to read the following books:

'Woodlands' by Oliver Rackham (Collins, 2006)

'Seahenge' by Francis Pryor (HarperCollins, 2001)

'Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees' by Roger Deakin (Penguin Books, 2007)
Dave Bishop, 31.08.2008

Friday, 22 August 2008

Mersey Valley Plants - Part 3, The Twentieth Century

In many ways the modern Mersey Valley embodies 20th Century people's view of the land and its uses: land was there either to grow crops or to raise livestock on or to build on. Any scraps that were not suitable for either of these purposes (because of the possibility of flooding or other problems) was regarded as ‘waste land’ and could have rubble or household waste tipped on it. This view regarded all of the other organisms - plants and animals - that lived on the land to be, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, just a load of weeds and vermin to be exterminated. In the 21st Century I believe that this is still the predominant view (although I’m convinced that the vast majority of people hardly think about it al all). But now there are stirrings of unease - lots of fashionable twittering about ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ (of ten, I suspect, from people who have no intention of changing their own behaviour) and some, not very effectively enforced, laws designed to protect ‘biodiversity’. Occasionally, vaguely scary things happen, such as largely unexplained crashes in the populations of once common organisms such as house sparrows, starlings and small tortoiseshell butterflies. Recently there has even been talk of mysterious maladies affecting bees – and if bees die out what will then pollinate fruit trees and other crops? Where will it all end?

I think I know … but I’m straying too far from the point.

In the first of these articles we saw how the Mersey Valley landscape was shaped by people. They first harnessed the power of the river and eventually used flood waters to create water meadows which were cut for hay or grazed. Higher ground, less prone to flooding, was ploughed and used for growing crops. This landscape was, of course, the result of countless thousands of man and woman hours of back-breaking labour. The fields and meadows would have accommodated a lot of wildlife but the people would have lived in an often uneasy relationship with it. I sometimes wonder if the modern world’s shocking disdain for wildlife is in some way the ploughman’s atavistic revenge against the tares that tangled in the ploughshare or the birds that ate the corn.

Nevertheless, the 20th Century tore this old and carefully nurtured landscape apart in just a few short years - mostly well within living memory. Rubbish tips, sewage works, golf courses and sports pitches all took their toll, followed by gravel extraction and motorway construction. Remaining scraps of meadow were either badly over-grazed by tenants’ livestock or allowed to grow out until they fell prey to local vandals with matches.

In the 1970s decisions were taken to improve the mess that the Mersey Valley had become. Unfortunately the local authorities proceeded with more enthusiasm than knowledge. They failed to recognise that the Mersey Valley was, from an ecological point of view, mainly important for its unimproved grasslands and their rich floras, and obliterated even more of this grassland by tree planting. Planting trees is not a universal solution to all conservation problems and can be counter-productive. Unimproved grassland is a much rarer and more precious habitat than new plantations of trees – no matter how pretty the latter may look! Recently some prominent figures in the fields of conservation and ecology have begun to speak out about the catastrophic losses of grassland; for example George Peterken, OBE one of the UK’s most eminent woodland ecologists, has commented: “As a professional ecologist who has promoted woodland conservation for almost 40 years, I have no hesitation in saying that the priority is now grassland conservation” (quoted in ‘Plantlife’ – the magazine of the wild plant conservation charity – Issue 50, Spring 2008).

Dave Bishop, August 2008

Friday, 8 August 2008

Small Mammal Survey event, Sunday, 3rd August

A big thank you to everyone who attended, and a special thank you to Nick Martin (BTCV) for lending his time and experience. Despite recent rains, we hit lucky and the morning was dry and largely sunny. The turnout too was a great success, with around 20 people in attendance.

Here’s the vital statistics of what we caught on the day.

Trap Species Sex Weight
1 Wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus Female 23g
2 Wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus Male 16g
3 Wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus Female 26g
4 Wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus Female 19g

Only catching wood mice bears out surveying undertaken prior to the event. Wood mice are the UK’s most common rodent and can be found around most habitats, their preferred habitats fields and woodland. See the Mammal Society’s Fact Sheet on Wood Mice for more information:

The traps successful on the day were ones positioned around brambles and woodland margins. The field surveyed proved fruitless, backing up trials done in previous weeks. Though there is a population of field and bank voles, we’ve heard them and seen evidence of their ‘runs’ in the grass, the fact that the field isn’t grazed means that it is not as well-suited as it could be. Similar grassland around Chorlton Water Park (particularly Kenworthy fields and Barlow tip) have shown to have a healthy population of field and bank voles – backed up by the greater kestrel numbers that reside there. One possible reason for this is these area’s rabbit population, their grazing creating the lush, ‘grassy’ habitat preferred by voles.

We did manage to see a bank vole on the day – though sadly one found dead on a footpath.

Please leave any comments as to what you thought about the event, including any similar follow up events you’d like to see run by FoCM in the future.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

More Dates for your Diaries

Dear Friends,

Here are a few more dates for your diaries:

Saturday 9th August

Working with the BTCV to finish off the benches on Chorlton Ees.

Time: 10:00 am to 3:00 pm
Meet: Chorlton Ees car park (end of cobbled road)

Wednesday 13th August

The Amphibian and Reptile Group for South Lancashire will be leading a free training day on reptiles aimed at parks & countryside wardens and rangers (and interested volunteers). This is a great opportunity to learn and develop ways to promote and enthuse people about reptiles and to create a survey network. The training will cover the following:
An introduction to slow-worms and other reptiles
The principles of surveying for reptiles, the value of public involvement and what to do with the information collected
Reptile habitat requirements and habitat management for reptiles
How to set out survey refugia
Practical demonstration of survey techniques
The session will be held at the Mersey Valley's Visitor Centre at Sale Water Park, on Wednesday the 13th of August, from 10am to 3pm. There are limited places - please contact Alex Krause on 0161 881 5639 or email her at(a.krause@manchester.gov.uk) to book your place!

Thursday 14th August

Friends of Chorlton Meadows Annual General Meeting.

This will be held at Chorlton Library at 7:00 pm. All members welcome! If you need more info. please ring me, Dave Bishop on 0161 881 6276.

Sunday 21st September

Chorlton Water Park's 30th Anniversary!

The Friends of Chorlton Water Park are working with the Wardens on an event for the day and are asking people to share their memories of the park. They need these memories by 25th August. For more info. email Tracey Pook and Janet Copley at waterparkfriends@yahoo.co.uk

And don't forget the Bat Walk on the evening of Saturday 6th September (see below for details).

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Plants of the Mersey Valley - Part 2., Botanists

In the 19th Century the “meadows around Jackson’s Boat, Chorlton” were regularly visited and studied by local botanists. The most remarkable of these was the impoverished Ancoats shoemaker, Richard Buxton. Buxton was born in 1786 and taught himself to read and write whilst in his teens. He then taught himself plant identification and became a local expert. Eventually, encouraged by other working class botanists in South Lancashire, he published his book, ‘A Botanical Guide to the Ferns, Mosses and Algae Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester’ (1849). This book is still highly regarded for the accuracy of its records.
Some of Buxton’s friends and colleagues also knew the Mersey Valley and studied its plant life; men like: James Crowther, a warehouse porter of Hulme, George Crozier, a saddler of Shude Hill, John Horsefield, a hand-loom weaver of Whitefield and James Percival, a gardener of Prestwich.

One of Buxton’s contemporaries, but of a different social class, was Leo Grindon, who was born in 1818, the son of a Bristol solicitor. Grindon came to Manchester in his twentieth year and went on to become a popular author and lecturer in botany. In 1859 he published his ‘Manchester Flora’, a comprehensive catalogue of local plants which compliments Buxton’s work. These botanists recorded many interesting plants from Chorlton Meadows. Of particular interest were: Green-winged Orchid, Meadow Saxifrage and Adderstongue Fern. Nationally speaking these three plants are regarded as rare or scarce today and are indicator plants of old, undisturbed grassland.

Buxton and Grindon also recorded large colonies of the beautiful Autumn Crocus. This plant is a native of South Western Europe and is said to have been introduced into England by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. This order of warrior monks and physicians, formed after the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099, were said to have used the crocus stigmas in the treatment of malaria. They had holdings around Oldham and Halifax and I believe that the Mersey Valley plants were probably washed down the Pennine watershed in winter floods.

Working slightly later than Buxton and Grindon was Charles Bailey, a successful Manchester businessman who lived for a while in Whalley Range. Bailey developed an interest in botany after attending evening classes run by William Crawford Williamson, Professor of Natural History at Owen’s College (the forerunner of Manchester University). He collected many specimens in the Mersey Valley and elsewhere in the region. He eventually conceived the idea of collecting a specimen of every European plant from every country in which it grew. Most of this collection was acquired by purchase and eventually numbered some 300,000 specimens!

This vast collection was bequeathed to Manchester Museum, on Bailey’s death, and it is still housed there. In the latter half of the 20th Century it became one of the cornerstones of an important work called ‘Flora Europaea’ – a complete, scientific description of all European plants. The Mersey valley can truly be said to have played an important part in the development of European Botany.

In the 19th Century all of the botanists that we know about were men but, for some unknown reason, in the 20th Century the most notable practitioners were women. Bess Harthan of Stretford studied local plants and fungi for most of her life and was still enthusiastically involved well into her 90s (she died in 1995). She produced hundreds of beautiful and scientifically accurate illustrations which are now in Liverpool Museum. Audrey Franks of Didsbury was an extremely knowledgeable field botanist who contributed to a number of national plant recording projects. Finally, Priscilla Tolfree of Chorlton and Audrey Locksley of Sale are still very much with us and contributing to a number of national and local projects including a projected new ‘Flora of South Lancashire’.

Dave Bishop, July 2008

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Small mammals on Chorlton Ees

Whenever you go for a walk on Chorlton Ees small mammals such as wood mice and field voles are probably not far away but it is unlikely that you ever see one, unless it darts across the path in front of you.

Small mammals form an essential part of any food web or chain. They are in the case of the shrews both predator and prey. Whereas, field voles however are exclusively herbivorous, but you might be able to tell where a vole is by the kestrel fluttering above it on the meadows. While voles are normally found nesting and feeding in the middle of the meadows, wood mice as the name suggests are much happier on the woodland floor and edge where they forage for seeds, nuts and berries. Evidence of their presence can be seen by looking for cherry stones and similar seeds that have been gnawed by the mice.

To gauge the numbers of small mammals on a given area the best way is to trap them in a device very similar to a humane mouse trap that you might have had to use yourself. The traps are left with some bedding and food so if an animal should venture in it is comfortable for the night. Recently Richard Gardner and Julian Robinson from the friends group have been doing exactly this and trying to work out Chorlton Ees small mammal population.

If you would like to see some of Richard and Julian's work, find out more about the small mammals on Chorlton Ees and get the chance to see them a close quarter then come along to a public event on Sunday 3rd, 9am to 11am, meeting at Chorlton Ees Car Park.

For more hints and tips on how to tell the British small mammals apart take a look at this document http://www.erccis.co.uk/mammals/downloads/smallmammals.pdf

Small Mammals on Chorlton Ees

Small mammals are an important part of any healthy food chain or web of woodlands and grasslands like those on Chorlton Ees, yet they are rarely seen, but there are other clues to their presence. Kestrels hovering above the meadows are after their favourite food: (short tailed) field voles. Wood mice do a good job of hovering up all the seeds and berries that fall to the floor. Here are some Small voles and mice also


Monday, 21 July 2008

Plants of the Mersey Valley - Part 1., Times Past

In his book ‘A History of Didsbury’ (1969) Ivor Million speculates that, sometime in the Fourteenth Century, the lords of the Manors of Withington, Northenden and Cheadle joined forces to confine the River Mersey within earthen banks (‘dikes’). They may have done this in order to increase its flow and hence power a series of watermills at various points along its course (archaeologists have recently excavated the remains of such a mill at Northenden) (see Note 1.).

Before reservoirs were built in the Pennines the Mersey carried an even greater volume of water than it does now, and was even more prone to flooding. In his book ‘The Township of Chorlton cum Hardy’ (1972) John Lloyd tells us 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 1972] 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 all the rubbish, but the second flood brought down all the rich mud.” (See Note 2.).

This land management regime of periodic flooding led to the formation of ‘water meadows’ on either side of the river and such a landscape would once have been familiar to many inhabitants of river valleys in lowland Britain (see Note 3.). The resulting rich grassland would have been cut for hay or used for grazing cattle. The plant life in these meadows would have been similar to that in meadows throughout Britain but with a distinctive north western character which is still, just about, visible today (see Note 4.).

The key plants were, and still are, the grasses. Grasses tend to look similar until you get to know them and then their unique characters become apparent. Their names are certainly distinctive and beautiful: Sweet Vernal Grass, Meadow Foxtail, Timothy Grass, Cocksfoot, Tufted Hair Grass, Reed Canary Grass etc., etc. The regular cutting of these grasses allowed other, more colourful, flowering plants to flourish.

One of the first flowers to appear in the spring was the Butterbur. This occurred in largish colonies on richer deposits of silt, on stream and river banks and around the mill races. The flowers are rather peculiar and look a bit like pinkish clusters of tiny shaving brushes. The huge leaves of this plant appear later in the year and have been known to generations of Mersey Valley kids as ‘wild rhubarb’.

Around the time of the year that the Butterbur flowers were appearing, and in similar locations, would be found mats of fresh green leaves like miniature dock leaves. These leaves could be gathered around Easter time and eaten. The leaves were those of a plant called Bistort, which was sometimes called ‘Passion Dock’ or ‘Easter Ledges’. Later in the year Bistort produces spikes of salmon pink flowers which are very beautiful en masse. An altogether coarser plant of banks and silty places was Comfrey with its long, broad, bristly leaves and its tubular flowers in various shades of blue, pink and cream.

In June the meadows were in their full glory, the various grasses accompanied by: Sorrel – another member of the dock family with tiny reddish flowers which, en masse, gave a rusty tinge to the grasslands; Great Burnet – a tall plant with dense, oblong heads of tiny flowers the colour of dried blood; Hay Rattle – a small plant with purple-lipped, yellow flowers protruding from an inflated structure (the calyx) and Meadow Buttercups and several plants with yellow, dandelion-like flowers. These red and yellow colours were complimented by drifts of white provided by: Ox-eye Daisies - big white daisies with yellow centres and Sweet Cicely and Cow Parsley – two members of the carrot family with flat heads of tiny white flowers and delicate, lacy foliage.

The old meadows were dissected by numerous ditches and small streams and these too had their characteristic plants which grew either on the banks or in the water itself: Marsh Marigold with flowers like big, golden buttercups; Meadowsweet with its clouds of strong-smelling, creamy flowers; delicate Water Forget-me-nots with their tiny yellow-eyed, blue flowers; Water Crowfoot with white, buttercup flowers standing above the level of the water; Water-plantain with its spear-shaped leaves and small, lilac flowers and Horsetails with their strange jointed stems.

Dave Bishop, July 2008


1. Peasants were required, under the Medieval Manorial system, to have their corn ground at the Lord of the Manor’s mill. The Lord could then claim a significant proportion of the grain or flour as a tax called ‘Multure’. Hence a mill was an important part of the Manor’s economy.

2. “Ees” appears to be a local dialect word meaning “water meadow”. It may be an alternative form of the word ‘leaze’ which means ‘pasture’.

3. In his book, ‘The History of the Countryside’ (1986), Oliver Rackham tells us that water meadows began to appear after 1500 and suggests that they were, “the supreme technical achievement of English farming.” The success of such meadows depended on the engineering and maintenance of an elaborate system of channels levelled to within a fraction of an inch.

4. I will try to publish as many photographs as possible, of the plants mentioned in this article, in the Picasa Web Album attached to this Blog: http://picasaweb.google.com/friendsofchorltonmeadows/

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Summer Programme, July to September 2008

Alex Krause has now managed to hold all the high level and secret talks with regard to the Summer Programme and now the fruits of her efforts can be revealed:

Bench Replacement and Restoration

The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) is helping us to restore and replace some of the benches on Chorlton Ees and you are invited to participate - a good opportunity to brush up on your construction skills! This task will be spread over four days, which will be:

Sunday 20th July
Sunday 27th July
Wednesday 30th July
Wednesday 31st July

There is no obligation to attend all four of these days - if you can just make one, that's fine!

Days will run from 10:00 am to 3:30 pm.

Contact Numbers for further info: Alex Krause (Mersey Valley), 0161 881 5639
Katie Lowrie (BTCV), 07740 899539

The meeting point is Chorlton Ees car park which is at the end of the cobbled road off Brookburn Road (Note: This is not Ivy Green car park on Brookburn Road itself).

All necessary tools will be supplied.

Small Mammal Survey

Nick Martin (BTCV), Richard Gardner and Julian Robinson (FoCM) will be setting small mammal traps (the humane ones used by zoologists, of course!) the night before. You are invited to find out what tiny creatures have been caught in the traps. Because we need to ensure that these wee beasties come to no harm, and release them as soon as possible, we need to make a fairly early start.

Date: Sunday, 3rd August
Time: 9:00 am - 11:00 am

Place: Chorlton Ees car park

More info. from Alex on 0161 881 5639

Bat Walk

Another journey of wildlife discovery for your delectation! Jim Taylor of the Greater Manchester Bat Group will be leading a Bat Walk. We will be using electronic bat detectors - which can pick up the ultrasonic calls of the bats and distinguish between the different species.

Date: Saturday, 6th September
Time: 7:15 pm to 9:00 pm

Place: Chorlton Ees car park

Because this is an evening event you will need to bring a torch.

More info. from Alex on 0161 881 5639

For all events, please make sure to wear appropriate footwear and dress for the weather.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Report on Beech Road Festival, Sunday 6th July 2008

I remember that last year's festival was wet but, if anything, this year was even wetter (ah, Britain in July - doncha just love it?). Nevertheless, the weather didn't seem to put the good people of Chorlton, and other parts of South Manchester, off - they turned up in droves. It seems that the answer to British weather is British determination to have a good time.

The response to our stall was amazing! Eighty five people signed up and we must have spoken to 100 people at least. Not only that but we shared the stall with members of our esteemed 'sister' group, The Friends of Chorlton Water Park and they attracted many new members as well. It just goes to show how much interest in, and affection for, the Mersey Valley there is out there. We even met a couple who got married over the Meadows! We hope that they will share photographs and memories of their special day with us at some point. Thanks to the Mersey Valley Warden Service for supplying the actual stall and all the trimmings, and thanks to Dave, Rob and Clare for assembling it at the start and dis-assembling it at the end of the day.

At the 'debrief' in the Bowling Green afterwards, John Agar and I didn't manage to decide anything of any particular importance - funny that!
Anyway, if you'll excuse me I must go now and put 85 email addresses into my address book ...

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Beech Road Festival, Sunday 6th July 2008

The Friends of Chorlton Meadows will have a stall at Beech Road Festival. We have been allocated Pitch No. 14 on Chorlton Green. The festival is due to start at 12:00 noon.
Please feel free to visit our stall and have a chat.

The attached picture is of our stall last year.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Report on Balsam Pulling, Sunday 22nd June 2008

A successful, albeit breezy day in which quite a lot of the pesky balsam got pulled up.

Eleven people attended in total - which was pretty good considering what a decidedly 'unsummery' day it was! Thanks everyone!

As you know Himalayan Balsam is a so-called 'alien' plant (from the Western Himalayas). Last week FoCM member David Hume sent me a link to an interesting paper on alien plants; here it is:

Basically this paper questions the current orthodoxy that alien plants are always bad. It also makes the point that some of our native plants (brambles, ivy etc.) can be equally invasive.

Neverthless, in the place where we worked on Sunday, which is just below the river bank on the edge of Chorlton Ees, the balsam has got a bit out of hand. This and other areas tend to be swamped with it - particularly those with, what I suspect are, nutrient rich, alluvial soils. The Chorlton Ees site shades into one with a rich fern and moss flora. It's a good job that the balsam is an annual, and not a perennial, or we would have lost the mosses and ferns some years ago. It just goes to show that questions related to nature conservation are never simple. I suppose that the key principle is to create a mosaic of habitats and, hence, encourage maximum biodiversity.

Finally, the young man in the picture above is Edward Fairhurst. Edward is a big fan of the Meadows and is working towards his Duke of Edinburgh's Award. We wish him every success with that and hope to see him on some of our future volunteers' days.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Welcome to our blog!

In order to develop the blog we would greatly appreciate your input. So please have a look and leave some comments (polite ones, of course!). At present you should think of it as a work-in-progress, with all suggestions for improvements welcome.

What we are hoping to develop is a comprehensive record and archive of our community's experience of our Meadows - one of Chorlton's greatest assets. I know that many of you are wildlife enthusiasts, and you can rest assured that we intend to cover the biodiversity of the area in considerable depth. But we also know that other members of the group, and the community, may have a different perspective or interest - you may be a jogger, a dog walker, a cyclist, a photographer, a poet, a visual artist, a picnicker etc., etc., etc. - we want to hear about your experiences as well. Here's some topics that could feature in future posts:
  • Programmes of upcoming tasks and events
  • Reports on tasks and events
  • Significant plants, birds or animals that you have noted
  • History of the Meadows
  • Childhood memories of the Meadows
  • People associated with the Meadows
  • What the Meadows means to you
  • Amusing encounters or anecdotes
You may be able to think of others - it's up to you!

At present only a couple of members of the committee have access to the blog at an editorial level, but you can still send articles ("posts") to me at my email address: DaveGBishop@aol.com.

It would be best if you could write your post in a word processing package (Microsoft Word, preferably) and send it to me as an attachment.

There is also a web based photo archive associated with the blog. Clicking on the slideshow on the right will take you there, or you can access it direct here: http://picasaweb.google.com/friendsofchorltonmeadows/

We will shortly set up photo albums to cover all perspectives and interests – flora, fauna, volunteering, landscape, fine art, etc., etc.

The committee still needs to develop some sort of editorial policy - but I don't imagine that it will be too onerous (no gratuitous insults or libellous comments allowed - something like that) - so don't let that put you off!

Anyway, please look at the blog and please, please, please let us know what you think!

Best Regards,
Dave Bishop.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Hardy Farm Community Orchard

Members will remember that last year (2007) we received a BBC Breathing Places grant for improving the Hardy Farm site. So all winter we worked with the BTCV to prune the old fruit trees on the site, open up paths and clear scrub. As a finishing touch we built a short section of dry-stone wall to act as an invertebrate habitat (a 'Bug Hotel').

Then we found that we hadn't spent all the money - so we've got a 6 month extension.

The committee tend to think that we need to be clearing more scrub - but what do you think? We're looking for suggestions. If you've any bright ideas - please let us know by adding your comments to this post.

Balsam Bash Sunday 22nd June

Dear Friends,

Where have you been? I can hear you say!

Well, actually I've been engaged in secret, high level talks in an attempt to bring you the MOST EXCITING SUMMER PROGRAMME EVER!!!

Well, actually, Alex has (sorry Alex!) - I just chaired the committee meeting where we decided what should go in the programme (well, they were talks ... weren't they? ... sort of ... people talked ...)

Anyway, the full programme's not quite ready yet but we do have an event coming up this Sunday (22nd June). We'll be pulling that pesky Himalayan Balsam. For those of you who don't know HB is a very invasive introduced weed that tends to clog up the Nature Reserve and we need to pull out as much as possible before it flowers.

This event will run from 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm. Meet in Chorlton Ees car park (that's the car park at the end of the cobbled road off Brookburn Road - not Ivy Green car park on Brookburn Road itself ).

My mobile no. is 07947535691

Best Regards,
Dave Bishop