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 ...