Wednesday, 30 December 2009

2010: UN International Year of Biodiversity

Well, we’re only a day or so from 2010 which you may, or may not, know will be the UN International Year of Biodiversity. You can read more about it here: http://www.countdown2010.net/year-biodiversity. As this website tells us:

“The year 2007 marked a milestone: it has seen the turning point at which more people live in cities than in rural areas. According to UN projections, 85% of world population growth between 2000 and 2010 will be in urban areas. Cities are therefore responsible for the well being of the majority of the world population, which is directly linked to sound biodiversity management. As urbanization is leading to an increase in their size, they also control an increasingly vast area of land. The concept of urban biodiversity is therefore becoming extremely important. As a result, cities need to take up the challenge of halting the loss of biodiversity by taking biodiversity into account in their decision making process.”

So is Manchester taking up this challenge? I’ve searched the Council’s website (http://www.manchester.gov.uk/) and I cannot find a single mention of the UN International Year of Biodiversity. On their associated ‘Wildaboutmanchester’ website (http://www.wildaboutmanchester.info/site/) I did find some stuff about a ‘record breaking’ tree planting attempt earlier this month. Apparently:

Manchester residents assembled in five different locations across the city on Saturday 5 December to take part in the BBC Breathing Spaces Tree O'clock event.
This hour long planting session was part of a nationwide bid, not only to beat the world record for the number of trees planted within an hour, but also to raise awareness about how important trees are to the environment. Events took place in various parts of the city and over 11,000 trees were planted in the hour provided
Councillor Richard Cowell said: "Tree O'clock is a wonderful campaign to spread the word about the benefits of trees to the environment, so it's fitting that we're supporting it here, where tree-planting has always been a top priority.”

Sadly it now appears to be the only priority! Which is odd as tree planting actually has very little to do with conservation. As one of our most distinguished experts on the British countryside, Dr Oliver Rackham puts it:

“Tree planting is not synonymous with conservation; it is an admission that conservation has failed.” (Rackham, O., ‘The History of the Countryside’, Dent, 1986).

Perhaps it’s not so odd if you consider that tree planting is also easy, cheap, highly visible (an important characteristic of a token) and ideal for facile publicity stunts like record tree planting attempts. On the down side it diverts attention from the continuing degradation and destruction of our remaining scraps of local biodiversity and far too often the trees are planted in the midst of our even smaller scraps of species-rich and rough grasslands - which are much more important, in wildlife terms, than a few planted trees. There’s much more to say about tree planting but I’ll finish this bit by reminding the Council that trees plant themselves (and have been doing for millions of years without the Council’s help) and that old trees are hundreds of times more important, in biodiversity terms, than planted saplings, but we’re losing more and more old trees locally at a ferocious rate. The Environment Agency has been doing some work along Chorlton Brook recently. Ostensibly this was to shore up the banks but they, almost casually, cut down many of the large White Willows along these banks, which means that we’ve lost some of the oldest and most valuable trees in the district – and no amount of tree planting will make up for this loss. This, for me, is an indication of the real contempt that the local authorities have for local biodiversity.

So what might be happening to biodiversity, in South Manchester, in 2010? To be quite honest it’s not looking good (in fact it’s looking terrible!). As soon as spring and the bird nesting season arrives, the Mersey Valley will no doubt ring to the sound of motors and engines as contractors of various sorts apply their chainsaws, strimmers, herbicide sprays and heavier machinery to the vegetation of any wild bits they can find left, and the birds will be driven from their nests and the wild plants will be cut down in flower and fail to set seed. As in previous years, if challenged, the workmen will claim that what they’re doing is absolutely necessary and furthermore they have a legal right to do it, no matter how destructive it might be. That’s why I call them ‘licensed eco-vandals’ by the way!

Until recently we had a linear wildlife corridor stretching from Old Trafford to Didsbury. This was, of course the route of the old Midland Railway line closed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s. As we all know this is to be the route for the new Metrolink line. The Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive (GMPTE) made all sorts of extravagant promises for conserving biodiversity along this route but I have to confess that I’m not very impressed with progress so far. Much of the route was/is flooded and these water bodies were/are full of frogs and newts. GMPTE claimed that they would be ‘re-housing’ the displaced amphibians but, apart for a small, cheap makeshift pond in a small field behind Chorlton Leisure Centre, the ponds have not (to the best of my knowledge) materialised yet. I wonder what the amphibians are supposed to do in the meantime? Die, I suppose ... ?
But local conservationists really lost faith in GMPTE’s promises when, in March 2009, they cut down an avenue of mature trees between St Werburgh’s Road and Mauldeth Road West. To the best of our knowledge this avenue had not even been surveyed by independent ecologists so no-one really knows what effect its destruction has had upon the local ecology. Mind you I do question the point of commissioning surveys when you are intending to destroy what the surveyors find!
I have to tell you, though, that GMPTE are going to plant five trees for every tree that they cut down. When I read promises like this I imagine a workman walking into the Sistine Chapel and saying: “We’re going to have to sandblast this ceiling you know. But, never mind, when we’ve finished we’ll give it a nice coat of whitewash!”

And, of course, the fate of Hardy Farm hangs in the balance. For those of you who have been on another planet recently, a massive, floodlit sporting complex is planned for this site - which is rich in birds, plants and insects and contains within its boundaries part of a Site of Biological Importance (SBI). As consultees in the planning process Greater Manchester Ecology Unit stated that:
“The creation of the new sports pitches will result in a loss of botanical diversity and a loss of nature conservation potential.”

And they concluded that:

“The proposed development will detrimentally affect habitats and species in the area by causing direct and indirect loss of habitats. The adjacent SBI will be directly and indirectly affected by the development proposals.”

In spite of this, and many more objections, Manchester City Council Planning Department have decided that they are “minded to approve” this development. The Council Planning and Highways Committee are due to visit the site at around 10:15 am on the 14th January 2010; they will then vote on the matter, in the Town Hall, in the afternoon. Will they take biodiversity into account, in the UN International Year of Biodiversity? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see ...
Still, it’s nice to know that the developer is going to plant some trees if he gets his planning permission!

Dave Bishop, December 2009

Friday, 18 December 2009

Sunday's Volunteers' Day Cancelled

We've decided to cancel Sunday's Volunteers' Day because of the weather (we don't think that it's going to get any warmer!). So see you all in January.

Actually, speaking of January, John Agar and I are going for a walk on New Year's Day (just a gentle-ish stroll to fettle us after the festivities). If you'd like to join us we're meeting at 12:30 at the Ivy Green car park on Brookburn Road. A 'de-brief' in a pub might well be in order afterwards.

Dave Bishop, December 2009

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Kestrel on Hardy Farm

To the left is Thomas McEldowney's stunning picture of a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) hovering over Hardy Farm. I've put some more of Thomas's Kestrel pictures on the Picasa web album - brilliant photos, Thomas!

It's sad to relate that, according to the RSPB, Kestrels have been declining lately and are now on the 'amber' list. Nevertheless, this is probably the commonest British raptor whose habitats include moor, heath, farmland and urban areas. It also likes motorway and major road verges where you've probably seen it hovering and looking for the voles, and other small mammals, which form its prey.

It's thought that the major reason for the decline in Kestrel numbers is the continuing intensification of agriculture and the degradation of habitats generally. As we all know, Hardy Farm is currently under threat - so will we lose our Kestrel's from there as well?

For more information on Kestrels go to the RSPB website (link in panel to the right) or the 'Birds of Britain' website (www.birdsofbritain.co.uk/bird-guide/kestrel.asp).

Dave Bishop, December 2009

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Mink Again

I had another phone call this morning from Amy Glendinning of the South Manchester Reporter. Amy had read yesterday's story about the Mink Invasion and is interested in doing an article about it in the paper. So, if you've had problems with Mink, or are concerned about them, please contact Amy on: 0161 211 2120. If you happen to have any photographs of the 'little blighters' in your garden, she'd be particularly interested in seeing those.

Dave Bishop, 8th December 2009

Monday, 7 December 2009

Mink Invasion!

I had a phone call recently from a Chorlton resident named Martin. Chorlton Brook runs at the bottom of Martin's garden and recently, he tells me, the garden has been invaded by Mink. These creatures appear to be fearless and he has watched them take fish and newts from his garden pond; he is also worried that they may be taking birds and small mammals as well. He is right to be concerned as they have a reputation as ruthless predators.

American Mink (Mustela vison)are members of the Weasel Family (Mustelidae). They were originally bred in captivity, in both Britain and continental Europe, for their fur. Over the years captive animals have escaped and established breeding populations in the wild. Because of their voracious appetites they pose a great danger to our native wildlife.

Has anyone else seen Mink in their gardens and the wider Mersey Valley (I've certainly seen them at Sale Water Park)? And does anyone have any ideas about what can be done about them?

Posted by Dave Bishop, 7th December 2009

Friday, 27 November 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - The Conclusion to Hilda Broady's Journal

This is the undated Conclusion to Mrs Broady's Journal:

When I began the study of my plot I was very apprehensive and rather worried as to procedure, but as the weeks went by, the work became more and more fascinating (and also more time consuming). From what appeared to be a rather dull patch of ground in March, developed a plot of far greater interest than I had ever anticipated, and which produced many specimens of plant and insect life.

Many of the herbs appeared to have a very short season, which may be accounted for by the exceptionally dry weather of 1959. During August, September, and the beginning of October there were numerous fires on the plot. Within four weeks of the first fire, grass and rosebay willow herb had appeared through the scorched ground. Within nine weeks of this fire, 75% of the area affected was covered by grass, rosebay willow herb and bramble.

Some of the grasses, as will be seen from the specimens, grew to an exceptional height of about six feet, and by July it was very difficult to walk about parts of the plot owing to the height of the grass, which hid bramble shoots which were very prolific.

Rosebay willow herb was dominant in the summer months, and some plants reached a height of four feet.

The leaves of the Sycamore trees had suffered considerable damage by aphis, and many were affected by rust.

Between March and November, the only time water was seen in the stream was in late July – probably because the mud had hardened so much that the rain took longer to soak through – and from this time, water was not seen again until November.
Although I only completed a fraction of the work which I should have liked to complete, valuable experience has been gained on which to base future work which I hope I may be able to undertake with schoolchildren.

So that's the final section of Hilda Broady's journal for 1959. As I reported back in the Spring I think that her plot still exists, within the boundaries of Chorlton Golf Course, and is probably looking better now than it was in 1959. I'm still not sure exactly who Hilda Broady was and whether or not she carried on her study of her plot, and of Natural History in general, in subsequent years. If anyone has any more information it would be gratefully received.

In addition, if anyone fancies doing a similar study somewhere locally The Friends of Chorlton Meadows would be very interested in it and would try to help in any way we can. The more we know about local biodiversity, the more chance we have of saving it for future generations. - Ed.

Posted by Dave Bishop, November 2009

Thursday, 12 November 2009


Some of you may have noticed that the Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green Nature Reserve is now equipped with a brand new noticeboard. If you haven't yet seen it, it's sited at the entrance to the Brookburn Road car park.

The front of the board gives some general information about the reserve and the rear of the board (viewable from the adjacent path) gives some information about our Friends group. Here you can find out how to join the group, if you're not already a member, and details of upcoming volunteers' days. We also hope to add information and photographs of interesting wildlife that might be encountered on the reserve at particular times of year.

Manchester City Council supplied us with a grant to purchase the board with and the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service installed it; we are grateful to both of these organisations for their support. The front of the board was designed by Rachel Costigan and Alex Krause, formerly of MVCWS. Rachel and Alex have both now moved on to other posts but we would also like to thank them for their input.

Finally, much thanks must go to John Agar (FoCM Treasurer) who went to a great deal of trouble to make this happen.

Dave Bishop, November 2009

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

8th November, 1959

The leaves were falling fast from the trees, but some still remain on the side of the Sycamore which was affected by fire. On the first plot that was burnt, about 75% is now covered with grass, bramble and willow herb.
There is now about two inches of water in the stream. The plot is beginning to look “messy” as the plants are finishing fruiting.

This is the last dated entry in Hilda Broady's Journal - Ed.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 8th November 2009

Monday, 2 November 2009

FoCM member features on BBC’s Autumnwatch

Friends of Chorlton Meadows volunteer and committee member, Rachael Maskill featured on the BBC’s Autumnwatch programme last month.

Rachael met with Autumnwatch presenter Martin Hughes-Games to discuss bat surveying for the Bat Conservation Trust, which seeks to identify important habitats and gather data on populations. As a volunteer for South Lancashire Bat Group, Rachael is involved with obtaining data for the Greater Manchester area.

To view the Autumnwatch episode and find out more about the the Bat Conservation Trust’s survey, visit:

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Book Review

‘Call Back Yesterday: Northenden Remembered’ by Winifred A. Garner, pub. Neil Richardson, 2nd Edition 2002 (ISBN: 1-85216-147-7), 67pp, £5.75

I found this book in a newsagent’s shop, in Northenden, a few weeks ago. It’s a volume in Neil Richardson’s extensive series on local history. It was first published in 1986 and re-published in 2002. I confess that I bought it for the illustrations, but on reading the text I found it very interesting and affecting.

It is an autobiographical account of a young girl growing up in the Mersey Valley village of Northenden, between the First and Second World Wars. Winifred A. Garner née Payne was born in 1910 and died in 1992. In her book she outlines the lives of her parents and grandparents and then describes her childhood, teenage years and early twenties. The account ends with the birth of her daughter in 1935, two years after she and her new husband had moved into a (then) new house in Baguley. In a sense this is recent history – but it’s already a time that is rapidly passing out of living memory.

The first section of her book describes social relationships which would be inconceivable today. Winifred’s maternal grandfather secured himself a position as coachman-handyman with a well-off Northenden family. One of the daughters of the well-off family married a rich Manchester businessman. When the businessman’s family moved to Marple they took Winifred’s grandfather’s family with them and provided them with a cottage. Winifred’s mother, Deborah, worked as a ‘between-maid’ for the rich family and they paid her medical bills when she fell ill and advanced her education by allowing her to read all the books in their house. Later Deborah secured herself another position, with another well-off family, and this relationship seems to have been equally paternalistic.
Of course, paternalism was probably not always as idyllic as the above account suggests. In fact, at one point Deborah found herself working for a “very bad-tempered lady” – and soon left that employment. In addition, for every working class family who secured themselves a position with rich paternalists, there must have been hundreds who didn’t. But I believe that, when reading accounts such as this, one should be careful not to criticise the past by the standards of the present. By the time that Winifred came of working age these paternalistic relationships had largely broken down, and rather than go into service like her mother, she worked for a number of commercial enterprises in Manchester and Northenden.

Winifred seems to have had a very happy childhood and obviously grew up in the bosom of a very loving family. Both her father and uncle saw service in the First World War – but both returned safely. Winifred recalled spending a weekend sitting outside the Post Office waiting for her father to alight from a bus. Unfortunately, he actually returned on the following Monday afternoon, while she was at school.

Winifred tells us that in her childhood most children were expected to run errands for their parents and other adults. She seems to have relished this aspect of her life – and, if nothing else, it was probably very good for her socialisation. Writing about these errands gives Winifred the opportunity to describe various Northenden shopkeepers and tradesmen and their various wares, services, foibles and eccentricities.
Northenden, like most communities, seems to have had its fair share of eccentrics. One of these was old Tim Bardsley who would sit outside his terraced house in Church Road and wave his walking stick at passing (errand running) children and shout, “I’ll have you!” Winifred imagines him chuckling to himself at the memory of the children’s “scared faces and scurrying legs”. Another was the village constable, PC Scragg, who invited himself to a family party and left with his helmet on back to front!

Through the media of local folklore and events Winifred was also aware of a darker side to life. Eight years before her birth a seventy year old butler shot and killed his ex-employer and was himself shot dead by a policeman. By the time of Winifred’s childhood this murder had attained a prominent place in local legend. Another gruesome murder occurred in the 1920s.A 14 year old lad was abducted from Manchester and stabbed to death in a local wood. She also tells us that people often drowned in the highly polluted* river Mersey: children playing, rowing accidents and suicides. Bodies tended to be recovered from the Cheshire side of the river because the authorities on that side paid more for recovery than those on the Lancashire side!

Winifred witnessed the transformation of Northenden from a rather pretty, rural village to a Manchester suburb and in reading her book we witness her own transformation from a country girl to a rather fashionable young woman who obviously revelled in all the cultural delights that a big city, like Manchester in the 1920s, had to offer.

Sadly, time has not been too kind to Northenden. The major changes began in the late 1920s/early1930s when the neighbouring Wythenshawe estate was purchased from the Simon family by Manchester Corporation and developed into the vast housing estate that we know today (a transformation which Winifred and her family benefited from, of course). Because Winifred’s book ends in 1935 we learn nothing of subsequent changes: the rather brutalist town planning of the latter half of the 20th century, the motorway building which has left Northenden an island surrounded by roads and the river, and the laissez-faire developments of the last couple of decades which have relentlessly filled in many of its remaining open spaces. Still, in a few spots (Ford Lane, Boat Lane, St. Wilfrid’s Church and churchyard) we can still catch a glimpse of the village that Winifred knew and loved.

This is a delightful book, written in straightforward and eloquent prose; highly recommended to anyone with an interest in social history, local history or the Mersey Valley.
You can obtain a copy of this book by sending a SAE to Neil Richardson, 88 Ringley Road, Stoneclough, Radcliffe M26 1ET. I also note that you can buy all of Neil Richardson’s books via the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society website (http://www.mlfhs.org.uk/).

Dave Bishop, October 2009

* Earlier this year, on a walk from Northenden to Didsbury, I was amazed to see huge shoals of small fish (gudgeon?) in the river all the way from the Tatton Arms to Simon’s Bridge. Obviously the river is much, much less polluted now than it was in Winifred’s day. This has to be a very definite improvement!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Michaelmas Daisies

Last week I went for one of my regular rambles. I headed along the river bank towards Urmston, then into Urmston itself for lunch. Because of the lateness of the season it wasn’t a particularly exciting walk, from a botanical point of view, but it was relaxing and peaceful and the weather was good.

I walked home again by following a rather obscure path along the northern edge of the old Stretford tip. There is a dense tangle of willow scrub in this area and the path is very muddy underfoot. About half way along the path I suddenly came upon sheaves of a tall plant with reddish stems and small, whitish daisy flowers. I recognised this plant as a Michaelmas Daisy (Aster sp.). After consulting my Field Guide (ref. 1) I decided that it was Narrow-leaved Michaelmas Daisy (Aster lanceolatus). This is just one of at least six Michaelmas Daisy species and hybrids which are naturalised aliens in the UK, but are originally native to North America. In that continent A. lanceolatus grows in: “Moist soil in New Brunswick to W. Ontario and Montana, S. to New Jersey, Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Missouri (ref. 2).”

There are around 250 species in the genus Aster, many of them North American. We only have two native species in Britain: Sea Aster (A. tripolium) which is, as the common name suggests, a seaside plant, and Goldilocks Aster (A. linosyris) which is a very rare plant of limestone cliffs of western England and Wales.

Two other of the naturalised North American plants that I have found in the Mersey Valley are: Confused Michaelmas Daisy (A. novi-belgii) and Common Michaelmas Daisy (Aster x salignus - which is the hybrid between A. novi-belgii and A. lanceolatus). The name “Confused Michaelmas Daisy” always makes me laugh – but it should be noted that North American botanists tend to use the more dignified name, “New York Aster” (“novi-belgii” = “new Belgium” - which was an early name for New York). I state, with seeming confidence, that I have found these taxa but they can be difficult to identify and can form complex hybrid swarms – so I don’t actually feel 100% confident in my identifications.

Another American species that is naturalised in Britain, but which I haven’t found in the Mersey Valley yet, is Hairy Michaelmas Daisy (A. novae-angliae). Again, North American botanists use a more dignified name, “New England Aster” – which is, of course, merely the English translation of the scientific name. The following passage from the American gardener, Hal Bruce serves to demonstrate the impact that Asters, and related plants, make in the autumn landscapes of eastern North America (ref. 3):

“Until I took a trip by auto to Toledo, Ohio, in late September, I thought I lived in New England Aster country, but on the coast I have never seen the species in the abundance with which it grows from Pittsburgh west. Meadows, banks, roadsides wet and dry along the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes, were bright, whole fields as purple and gold as Byron’s Assyrian hosts with this aster and various goldenrods.”

Aster novi-belgii was introduced into Britain in 1710 (ref. 4). The name ‘Michaelmas Daisy’ refers to the fact that the plant is in flower on the Feast of St. Michael (29th September). It is thought that this name was probably coined after 1752 following the change to the Gregorian calendar. I am guessing that the other Aster species were probably introduced somewhat later.
Cottage gardeners loved to grow A. novi-belgii with Chrysanthemums (ref. 5) but as every serious gardener knows Michaelmas Daisies (at least the ‘old-fashioned’ kinds) can be invasive and prone to mildew – so many must have been thrown out over the years.

A. novi-belgii and other Michaelmas Daisies are now well established on waste ground, roadsides and railway embankments everywhere, along with their American relatives, the Golden-rods (Solidago spp.).

Interestingly, they are rarely condemned as being invasive aliens - but that’s probably because they flower late in the season, when not much else is in flower, and they also represent an excellent late source of nectar for butterflies and other insects. I’ve often wondered if Michaelmas Daisies and Golden-rods have, in some sense, ‘slotted back’ into similar niches to those that they once occupied (not man-made ones, of course). Perhaps before the last Ice Age we had more species of Aster and Solidago in these islands but they failed to return before the North Sea/English Channel opened up ... but that’s just speculation at present.

Dave Bishop, October 2009


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

2. ‘The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Asters’ by Paul Picton, David & Charles, 1999.

3. ‘How To Grow Wildflowers And Wild Shrubs And Trees In Your Garden’ by Hal Bruce, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

4. ‘The Origins of Garden Plants’ by John Fisher, Constable, 1982.

5. ‘The Cottage Garden: Margery Fish At Lambrook Manor’ by Susan Chivers and Suzanne Woloszynska, John Murray, 1990.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Harlequin Ladybirds by Polly McEldowney

The word 'Harlequin' sounds innocuous enough, conjuring up images of a diamond-clad theatrical clown. But the Wikipedia entry reveals the character may have been originally based on a more sinister figure from medieval French passion plays. 'Hellequin, a black-faced emissary of the devil, is said to have roamed the countryside with a group of demons chasing the damned souls of evil people to Hell. The physical appearance of Hellequin offers an explanation for the traditional colours of Harlequin's mask (red and black).'

A slightly less frightening new visitor to Chorlton is the Harlequin ladybird, but it is not without negative connotations of its own. Harmonia axyridis is a new species to the UK, having arrived in the South of England in 2004 and rapidly spread across the country. I have seen it in Manchester for the first time this autumn, and it is quite possible you have too, as it has made a rather dramatic entrance. It is much bigger than most of the other 25 species of ladybird native to the UK, and is rarely seen alone, sometimes aggregating in groups of thousands or even tens of thousands. There have been scenes around Chorlton recently that are reminiscent of the summer of 1976, when unusually hot weather led to an explosion in the population of the 7 spot ladybird, Adalia 7-punctata. A brief stroll round my back garden has just revealed a cluster of 30 on a green surface. The harlequin ladybird's success arises partly from having a longer breeding season than other ladybirds, such as the 7 spot which has only one generation a year. But the harlequin will continue to breed as long as it is warm enough and there is food available, having two or more generations a year. I've spotted harlequin larvae in my garden this week, and it's nearly the end of October. Most other ladybirds will have sought out places to hibernate by now. Another huge advantage is that it is more of a generalist feeder than other ladybirds, which tend to stick to aphids as a food source. The harlequin is a highly effective aphid predator but can also broaden its diet when aphids are scarce, eating the eggs and larvae of other species, including butterflies and other ladybirds. It will even suck the juice from soft fruit.

So, outcompeted and outnumbered, our hitherto common species of native ladybird could be in big trouble. Is there anything we can do? The best thing for now is probably just to monitor sightings on the UK harlequin ladybird survey website. Identification isn't straightforward as there are over 100 colour patterns of the harlequin ladybird. They can have black spots on a red background, or red spots on a black background. The main giveaways are the size (6- 8mm) and the fact that they're wandering round in October. Another common characteristic is an M-shaped mark on the pronotum (the back of the head). Be careful when getting close to them though; they have a defence mechanism where they exude a toxic chemical, 'reflex blood', which can be quite painful to humans. This creature is best admired from a distance!

Polly McEldowney, October 2009

I learned that Polly had an interest in this subject last week and asked her if she would consider contributing an article to the blog. She tells me that she "finally cracked" when she found a Harlequin Ladybird in her hairbrush! - Ed.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Walking the Old Road by Andrew Simpson

The old road must be as old as the township. It ran from Hardy Lane past farms and cottages, cutting through the village before heading off across the flat lands beside the Mersey and onto Stretford. It may always have been a dark and slightly mysterious place.

Any one starting out along the road as it left the village would have to pass Sally’s Pond. The spot is secluded and just to one side of the track. It is easy to feel that something is not quite right about the place. On a wet autumn afternoon with the light fading and the leaves heavy with rainwater you begin to feel very alone. But landscapes change and Sally’s pond was not always shrouded in undergrowth. For most of its existence it was just an open space, a stretch of water more than likely created by farmers hollowing out the clay which then filled with water. Its end was no less mysterious. Sometime in the late 60s it had become a dumping ground for old bikes prams and the odd milk crate and was filled in. The hollow can still be seen through the trees just beyond the stumps. And the stumps themselves have passed into folk memory. My friend Tony and Oliver the son of Bailey the farmer remember freewheeling down to those very stumps on warm summer days and of the time one lad miscalculated and took his bike and body into the stump.

The old road has had many names. Before it arrived at the edge of the church yard it was called Brookburn, beyond the Green it took several more names before becoming Ivy Green and then as it passed out of the village settled on Hawthorn or Back Lane.

Not much moves along it today, but in the past it would have busy. Old farmer Higginbotham will have used it to drive his cattle home to his farm on the Green. Farm wagons would have trundled in the opposite direction on their way to the Canal to offload their produce on the barges heading for the Manchester markets and perhaps collecting a portion of night soil emptied the day before from the city’s privies.
A sight guaranteed to offend the more delicate wealthier villagers who chose the same route to pick up the Dukes fast packet boats. These were still until the 1840s the marvel of the age. Fast and comfortable our passengers could be in the heart of Manchester in just under half an hour.
The walk would also take us past the stone weir built to guard the Duke’s canal against the threat of being swept away by the sudden flash floods which burst the banks of the Mersey. These were awesome events and took the township by surprise. So sudden and unforeseen was one flood in the 1820s that one farmer just had time to unloose his horse from the cart before being engulfed by flood water. And the same storm swept the haycocks of Henry Jackson and Thomas Cookson’s from their meadow land up by Barlow Hall down to Stretford while the fierce winds drove the very same haycocks back a few days later.
Not that the weir proved steadfast. It too was lost in a torrent of storm water and had to be replaced. Today you reach the weir along that part of the track which runs beside the tall banks that separate it from the Mersey and which offer some protection from the danger of flooding.
By the time the old road reaches the weir the journey is nearly at an end. Here the track opens up a little and the curious might stop off at the cemetery. Close to where we walk and about as far away from the church and its respectable dead are the graves of paupers. Their headstones lie in rows of six and reveal that each was a multiple grave. In some as many as six or seven were interred.

There is it seems a close density in death as there was in life. For many would have come from mean humble dwellings of wattle and daub and later cheap brick. Their lives lived out in small places crammed into two or them rooms before old age or poverty drove them into the workhouse and a pauper’s grave.
And as if this was not grim enough, just beyond is another multiple grave. In this case to those who died during the blitz and in particular to the night when the nearby church was hit and those sheltering inside were blown away. So final was their end that many could not be identified.

But the road does not end at the cemetery; it runs a short distance more. First under the arches that carry the railway which arrived at Stretford in 1849. The road occupies just one of the arches, the others are for the overflow from the weir should the Mersey ever breach its banks. This railway arch is wide and shows the evidence that the railway line had been extended. The canal arch with stone facing is still more impressive. Perhaps I suppose because of the volume of water that flows above it. Here and only here beneath this arch is a raised section of pavement, perhaps recognition that pedestrians need some form of protection in the confined space when the farm wagons rolled past.This is where the road ends. Beyond is Stretford. Above just a few yards away on the canal is the Watch House, with its white walls. It is easy to romanticise the old road but for hundreds of years it was one of the only routes in and out of the village. More than likely those bringing the news of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar would have passed on along it into the village as would an obscure soldier fired by missionary zeal to preach the Methodist message about the year 1770.

Andrew Simpson, October 2009
Editor's Note: The illustration is a painting of Sally's Pond, which was not far from the Chorlton end of Hawthorn Lane (on the right hand side if walking from Chorlton to Stretford). The painting was by a local artist called Montgomery. Andrew is not entirely sure who Mr Montgomery was; if anyone has any information on him we would be delighted to hear about it.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

7th October, 1959

A large patch of ground around the Sycamore was smouldering to a depth of about twelve inches, roots of plants could be seen to be burning. As leaves fell to the ground from the Sycamores, many of them could be heard crackling from the heat of the ground. The stems of plants still standing were very dry and brittle to the touch.

I walked along the golf links beyond my plot today and noticed that while the higher parts were brown and dry, the low lying ground was quite green. I took a sample of Sheep’s fescue from the bed of a stream, and while the grass was really green, the bed of the stream had shrunk away from the banks leaving a space on each side. I also took a specimen of fungus growing near some rotting wood.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 8th October 2009

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Autumn Crocuses Re-visited

Last year I posted an article (20.09.2008), on this blog, about the Autumn Crocus (Crocus nudiflorus), which is such a feature of the Mersey Valley, especially the river banks, at this time of year. I related how this species is not native to Britain but comes originally from South West Europe. The conventional theory is that these plants were introduced into Britain by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem – one of the Military Orders, formed after the Siege of Jerusalem. The Knights of St. John were a medical order, also known as the Knights Hospitallers, who may have used the saffron from the Crocuses in herbal medicines. The Knights had holdings in the Southern Pennines, around Halifax, Oldham and Rochdale, and our plants may have been washed down the Pennine watershed in winter floods.

In a later article (12.03.2009) about the Spring Crocus (Crocus vernus) I related the alternative theory that our Crocuses were introduced by the Cluniac monks of Lenton Priory in Nottinghamshire. It’s interesting to note that the Lenton Priory monks had an isolated hermitage near Salford – Kersall Cell in the Irwell Valley. Earlier this year Prestwich local historian, Ian Pringle showed me the unmistakable leaves of Autumn Crocuses in the Irwell Valley near St. Mary’s Church, Prestwich, which certainly lends some credence to this theory.
There’s no reason, of course, why both theories can’t be true and maybe Autumn Crocuses were introduced by more than one religious order.

A lady named ‘Polly’, from the Halifax area, emailed me about my article and she reminded me that saffron not only has medicinal uses but can also be used for dyeing textiles. Buddhist monks, of course, wear ‘saffron robes’ – but I shudder to think how much saffron would be needed to dye a monk’s robe and how much it might cost! Nevertheless, Diana Downing, of the Manchester Field Club, has recently supplied me with a copy of a paper by the Halifax botanists, W.B. Crump and W.A. Sledge (ref. 1); this is a classic paper on C. nudiflorus in England and was originally published in 1950. This paper first proposed a link between C. nudiflorus and the Knights of St. John in the Halifax area. It also suggests, almost in passing, that saffron was used as a textile dye in Britain – and they present historical evidence from Nottinghamshire where C. nudiflorus can still be found. I don’t really need to remind readers that West Yorkshire and Lancashire were, until recent times, extremely important textile areas - so has too much been made of C. nudiflorus as a medicinal plant, and was its most important function as a source of dye for dyeing cloth with?

Leaving aside these baffling historical conundrums for a moment, let’s look at Crocuses themselves and where they come from. The genus Crocus has an entirely Old World distribution, ranging from Portugal and Morocco in the west, east to Russia and China. The majority of the 80 recognised species occur in the Balkans and Turkey, the numbers diminishing rapidly on either side of this area (ref. 2). Much of the area has a Mediterranean type climate with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters and these plants are adapted to such a climate. Many lie dormant in the hard-baked, dry earth all summer and are brought to life by the first winter rains. Some members of the genus are mountain plants and it is water from the spring snow melt which revives them – I have seen the Balkan species, C. sieberi ‘burning’ its way up through the snow on a Macedonian mountainside. Members of the genus flower between September and April with some species being autumn/winter flowering and some spring flowering. I suppose that in Britain (where none of these plants are truly native) gardeners are most used to spring flowering species such as C. vernus and its cultivars or the yellow flowered C. chrysanthus and its cultivars. Autumn flowering species, like C. nudiflorus, can come as a surprise to those British gardeners who tend to think of Crocuses as spring bulbs.

Last Sunday, and one day last week, I spent several hours recording colonies of C. nudiflorus along the banks of the Mersey between Stretford and Didsbury. I found several dozen such colonies with the number of blooms varying from just one or two to at least 100. The most intriguing site of all is on the north bank of the river, adjacent to Withington Golf Course and about a quarter of a mile from Simon’s Bridge, Didsbury. At this point the colonies of C. nudiflorus suddenly give way to three small colonies of a second species of autumn flowering Crocus, C. speciosus (Bieberstein’s Crocus)! These, like C. nudiflorus, are leafless at flowering time but with darker coloured flowers and rather exquisite ‘pencilling’ on the petals (a very handsome plant indeed). Whilst C. nudiflorus is from S.W. Europe (either side of the Pyrenees), C. speciosus is native to the Crimea, the S. Caucasus, Turkey and Iran (ref. 3). I should add that I didn’t find these plants in this locality but they were first found there, in 2006, by the Chorlton botanist, Priscilla Tolfree. I can only speculate as to how these plants arrived in that spot and my best guess is that some gardener threw the corms out near the river, they were then swept up in winter floods, deposited by the receding waters and naturalised (most modern floras include alien species, and C. speciosus is listed in most of them – so it’s probably not particularly uncommon).

My feast of Autumn Crocuses was completed when I went for a cup of tea in the café in Fletcher Moss gardens. Underneath the trees, near the site offices, I saw that the species C. pulchellus had been planted and naturalised in the grass. Although it is apparently easy to grow this species does not appear to be very common, in wild situations, in the UK. For the record it is a bit like C. speciosus but smaller, slimmer and quite pale in colour (almost ‘ghostly’). Like a number of Crocuses it was first named by William Herbert who was a Crocus expert and a 19th century Dean of Manchester.

The left hand photograph shows some fine specimens of C. nudiflorus that I found on the edge of some playing fields near Fletcher Moss and the right hand photograph shows C. speciosus.

Dave Bishop, October 2009


1. ‘The History and Distribution of the Autumn Crocus (Crocus nudiflorus Sm.) in England’, by W.B. Crump and W.A. Sledge, ‘The Naturalist’, October – December, 1950.

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

3. ‘Bulbs’ by Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix, Pan Books, 1981.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Gatley Carrs in September by Peter Wolstenholme

Here is another of Peter Wolstenholme's reports from Gatley Carrs:

As the leaves begin to fall and change colour we realised that by mid month autumn was with us. Early in the month House Martin, Sand Martin and Swallow hawked for insects over open water and the trees, but they have all become scarcer as the month progressed.

Bird song during the month has come from Robins, Wren and Coal Tit, even an occasional burst of song from Chiffchaff, Goldcrest and Blackcap has called. From mid month in early morning there have been Meadow Pipits as they fly south from northern and southern Europe. Bird feeders this month have begun to attract Bullfinch, Greenfinch, and Titmice. Juvenile Goldfinch and Longtailed Tits mirror the effects of a successful breeding season on the reserve.

The pool has attracted Heron, Snipe, Moorhen and Little Grebe. Up to 20 Canada Geese have overflown our reserve on their way to regular feeding grounds such as Poynton Pool. There have been up to ten Mallard on the pool, the males are coming out of drab non breeding, or eclipse, plumage and regaining the brighter colours of autumn and winter. In tall trees along the pool edge Great spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch and Tree Creeper have called and fed. Grey Wagtails have been appearing along the stream edge and there have been a couple of reports of up to three Kingfishers.

Birds of prey this month have included Kestrel, Sparrow Hawk and a pair of Buzzard.
Jays are patrolling the oak trees for ripe acorns and they are now burying them for a later feed as autumn turns to winter.

Insects this month have been a little less obvious than in the brighter sunnier days of summer. Dragonflies have included a Brown Hawker early in the month and several Common Darters over the pool. Butterflies seen have been scarcer but we have had Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Large White and, on the woodland edge, the Speckled Wood.

A recent film on television showed Himalayan Balsam on the upper reaches of the River Ganges in India. The cotton bales, and Balsam, brought in from the orient during the 19th and 20th centuries ended up here on the Mersey and its tributaries so that Himalayan Balsam is now widespread in Gatley Carrs!

By mid month Pinkfeet from Iceland and a few Whooper Swans have already reached Martin Mere on the Lancashire coast, so that soon there may be Pinkfooted Geese winging cross country towards East Anglia over Gatley. Towards month end Siskin appeared, a winter visitor from further north, feeding among the Alders.

Best wishes

Peter Wolstenholme RSPB, Manchester and SK8

Sunday, 27 September 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

27th September, 1959

Several patches of fungi were seen in the stream bed, but the specimens were very small.

Hogweed was still in flower. I broke off an old woody stem of Hogweed and banged it against the tree. About sixteen earwigs fell out of the stem and scurried off, one being taken as a specimen.

I was interested to see that bramble and Rosebay Willowherb were showing through the charred ground near the Sycamore tree.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 27th September 2009

Thursday, 24 September 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Mrs Broady's Journal

20th September, 1959

Several more fires were burning when I visited the plot and I was surprised to see that the grass had begun to grow where the first fire had been; the green contrasted with the charred ground.

As so many Sycamore leaves were eaten away I looked on the underside of the leaves and found many of them covered in greenfly.
Leaves were falling, yet those on the side of the tree affected by the fire did not appear to be falling.

The water pepper stems and leaves had turned a deep red, but a few plants in the stream bed were just flowering. There were several spiders in the undergrowth at the sides of the stream, and many hoverflies about. The bed of the stream was springy and felt quite damp to walk on. I dug into it, hoping to perhaps find some earthworms, but did not manage to dig far owing to the woody roots present.

I'm a few days late posting this entry in Mrs Broady's Journal. This is because I've been spending so much time writing a letter of objection to the Hardy Farm Football Development. That's the problem with the 'Great God Development', in our modern world - it not only robs you of the places you love, it can steal your time as well! - Ed.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 24th September 2009

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Book Review

The Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the fight for medical freedom by Benjamin Woolley, Harper Perennial, 2004; Paperback (ISBN: 0-00-712658-1), 402 pp, £8.99

A couple of weeks ago I walked along the river bank from Chorlton to Fletcher Moss in Didsbury. I found a few interesting plants but my best find was this book in the Oxfam bookshop in Didsbury village.

The author tells the story of one of the most famous of all English herbalists, Nicholas Culpeper. Nicholas lived during the first half of the 17th century – one of the most turbulent in all English history. His life was relatively short but it was an eventful one. He was born the son of a country parson, but his father died when Nicholas was an infant. His mother took him to live with her father, another country parson who was also a Puritan (what we would call today a ‘religious fundamentalist’) and a biblical scholar. Nicholas’s relationship with his grandfather does not appear to have been a happy one. Eventually the grandfather sent Nicholas to Cambridge where he learned Latin but did not graduate. Then Nicholas really ‘blotted his copybook’ by falling in love with the daughter of a local nobleman – a circumstance which had the potential to severely embarrass his grandfather. The couple decided to elope and made their way, by separate routes, to the south coast. On her way to the tryst the girl was struck by lightning and killed. A heart-broken Nicholas was banished to London where he took up an apprenticeship in the Apothecaries trade. For a variety of reasons Nicholas eventually had to abandon his apprenticeship and then got married and set up an unlicensed medical practice with his wife. This practice, which was largely based on herbal remedies, offered “medical help to anyone who needed it, no matter how poor.”

And this was a time when medical help was desperately needed because cities, towns and villages were over-crowded, insanitary and breeding places for countless infectious diseases. People, especially young children, died in droves from everything from chickenpox to smallpox. Periodically plague would appear and wipe out thousands of people (well over 40,000 Londoners died in the ‘plague year’ of 1625 alone).

At the point in Nicholas’s life when he should have been settled another catastrophe befell England – the Civil War. This brutal conflict, a result of the religious, political, economic and social tensions which had been building up for decades, if not centuries, killed more British people, in proportion to the population of the day, than did the First and Second World Wars combined. Inevitably Nicholas was swept up in it and was severely wounded in one of the first battles of the war, the Battle of Newbury in 1643.

Woolley suggests that Nicholas never really recovered from this wound – but he had other battles to fight. Medical practice was controlled by the haughty and patrician College of Physicians. They were concerned that the Apothecaries were undermining their monopoly by treating patients. The Physicians succeeded in licensing the Apothecaries and insisted that they confine themselves to the preparation of medicines only. The only medicines that the apothecaries were allowed to prepare were those listed in a weighty Latin tome called Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, which had been written and published by the Physicians. Nicholas translated the Pharmacopoeia into English, added information on the medical uses of the various preparations, and succeeded in publishing it. This work was a best seller and severely undermined the Physicians’ monopoly. Bolstered by his new found fame Nicholas wrote and published several other works, including one on midwifery and his most famous work, ‘The English Physitian, or An astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation’ (alternative title: ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’). This book, first published in 1652, was to remain in print for centuries. Nicholas died in 1654 aged only 37.

In this book Woolley contrasts Nicholas’s career with that of the most famous Physician of his day, William Harvey. Although they probably would not have had much sympathy with each other Harvey was just as much a rebel and revolutionary as Culpeper. In the 17th century medical orthodoxy insisted that all medical knowledge was contained in the works of ancient Greeks and Romans and, in particular, the works of the Roman physician, Galen. Harvey dared to contradict the Galenic tradition by describing the working of the heart and the circulation of the blood based on his own observations. Today Harvey is regarded as the father of modern scientific medicine whilst Culpeper tends to be dismissed as something of a quack and a charlatan – mainly because of his interest in astrology. Woolley points out that this is not a fair assessment. In spite of Harvey’s discoveries the Physicians still clung to Galenic methods, which involved such harmful practices as blood-letting and treatment with powerful emetics and purgatives. It’s suggested that they may have killed at least two kings: James I and Charles II with their deadly meddling (and they may actually have been implicated in the assassination of the former). On the other hand Culpeper’s work may have involved a bit of harmless astrological mumbo-jumbo – no more irrational than much of the Galenic tradition – but for centuries countless people swore by his herbal remedies and could rely on little else during times of sickness.

One aspect of this book that I found particularly striking was the chapter headings. Each chapter is prefaced with the name of a herb, Nicholas’s description of that herb and it uses, and some modern remarks and observations on the same plant. The twelve herbs are: Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), Borage (Borago officinalis), Angelica (Angelica archangelica), Balm (Melissa officinalis), Melancholy Thistle (Carduus heterophyllus), Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), Rosa Solis, or Sun-Dew (Drosera rotundifolia), Bryony, or Wild Vine (Bryonia dioica), Hemlock (Conium maculatum), Lesser Celandine, or Pilewort (Ranunculus ficaria), Arach Wild & Stinking (Garden Orache = Atriplex hortensis) and Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). I have found nine of these twelve herbs in the Mersey Valley. Some, like Lesser Celandine, are common and found everywhere, whilst I have found Garden Orache only once. Of the remaining three, Sun-Dew was, until the mid-19th century, common on all the Mosses (i.e. peat bogs) hereabouts such as Carrington and Barton Mosses and Baguley Moor - but, with the draining of these areas, is now extinct. Melancholy Thistle once grew up around the Bury area and may still occur in the southern Pennines but I have never seen it in the Mersey Valley and don’t expect to do so. I have not seen Wormwood in the Mersey Valley for many years but it still occurs on waste ground in the city centre.

In spite of the plants missing from the above list many others mentioned in Culpeper’s book still grow around here and it is remarkable to think that, in a sense, we still live surrounded by the ingredients listed in a 17th century herbal!

I note that this book is still available from Amazon. I recommend it highly.

Dave Bishop, September 2009.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Greater Celandine and Sutton's Cottage

Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) is a member of the Poppy family (Papaveraceae). It is quite common in urban areas but rarer in wilder places. It appears to have been introduced, from mainland Europe, at some time during the last few centuries, for its medicinal properties – in spite of the fact that it is very poisonous.

The sixteenth century herbalist, John Gerard gave a good description of it (1):

The great Celandine hath a tender brittle stalke, round, hairy, and full of branches, each whereof hath divers knees or knotty joints set with leaves not unlike to those of Columbine, but tenderer, and deeper cut or jagged, of a grayish green under, and greene on the other side tending to blewnesse: the floures grow at the top of the stalks, of a gold yellow colour, in shape like those of a Wal-floure: after which come long cods [seed pods] full of bleak or pale seeds: the whole plant is of a strong unpleasant smell, and yeeldeth a thicke juice of a milky substance, of the colour of Saffron [i.e. orange]: ...

He then repeats some weird myth about swallows using it to restore their sight and goes on to recommend it for eye problems. This too is a myth and a dangerous one - on no account should you allow any part of this plant anywhere near your eyes! In more recent times the juice of this plant was probably used for removing warts (2) – but I would suggest that if you’ve got a wart which needs removing you should see your doctor.

Greater Celandine occurs in a number of places around the Beech Road/Chorlton Green area, including my front garden on Brookburn Road (where it is ineradicable), an alley at the back of Beech Road and the corner of Beech Road and Wilton Road (around the launderette). The plants in this last location are different from the others because they are ‘double-flowered’. This means that they have more than the normal four petals giving them a ‘frilly’ appearance (see left hand photograph). I have often wondered how these particular plants came to be there – but local historian, Andrew Simpson, may have provided the answer in his description of the dwellings that used to occupy that very spot:

Sutton’s Cottage by Andrew Simpson (3)

Sutton’s Cottage was one of three which stood on the corner of Beech and Wilton Road. It may have been there from the beginning of the nineteenth century and was only demolished in 1891.
It was a wattle and daub building. These wooden houses were constructed from a timber framework. The horizontal beams were grooved so that a wall of branches woven like basketwork was made to fill the void. This wall was then covered with a mixture of clay, gravel, hay and even horse hair. Thatch was used for the roof. Such houses were easy to build and equally easy to maintain, but there could be disadvantages to living in them. If the walls were thick enough then they provided good insulation and kept the interior dry. But the porous nature of walls meant they were damp and crumbling clay meant endless repairs.

According to a Parliamentary report “Many of them have not been lined with lath and plaster inside and so are fearfully cold in winter. The walls may not be an inch in thickness and where the lathes are decayed the fingers may be easily pushed through. The roof is of thatch, which if kept in good repair forms a good covering, warm in winter and cool in summer, though doubtless in many instances served as harbour for vermin, for dirt, for the condensed exhalations from the bodies of the occupants of the bedrooms....

From 1851 and maybe earlier Sutton’s Cottage was home to Samuel and Sarah Sutton. He was from Dean Row [near Macclesfield] and she was from Withington. Their cottage was on land rented by William Bailey and so it is more than likely than Samuel worked for the Bailey family who ran the farm almost opposite. They brought up four children in the cottage and for most of the middle part of the century their neighbours in the other two cottages were the Beastons and the Cravens. Samuel died in 1881 but Sarah survived until 1890. It may be no coincidence that the cottages were demolished a year later. The name Sutton’s Cottage may well be a late addition. Earlier they were known as Laburnum Cottages and before that had no name.
Inspection of a surviving photograph of Sutton’s Cottage (see right hand photograph) shows it to have been surrounded by a hedge and behind that hedge was probably a typical English cottage garden. In one of her books (4) the great Somerset gardener, the late Margery Fish, tells us that, “Double flowers have always been popular with cottage gardeners” and she goes on to describe double Sweet Rocket, double Wallflowers, double Lady’s Smock, double Red Campion, double Stick Catchfly, double Buttercups double Violets etc., etc.
Double flowers are the result of mutations and more detail can be found in ref. 5. Unfortunately, Mrs Fish doesn’t mention double flowered Greater Celandine but it would seem that American gardeners still grow it and it appears to come true from seed (6).

So the question is: are the plants that appear every year, in varying numbers, near the Beech Road launderette, the descendants of those that Mrs Sutton planted in her cottage garden all those years ago – in effect her legacy? Well, given how persistent Greater Celandine is in my garden, it remains a distinct possibility.

Dave Bishop, September 2009, with thanks to Andrew Simpson


1. ‘Gerard’s Herbal: The Essence thereof distilled by Marcus Woodward from the Edition of Th. Johnson, 1636”, Bracken Books, 1985.

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

3. Personal Communication from Andrew Simpson, 9th September 2009.

4. ‘Cottage Garden Flowers’ by Margery Fish, faber and faber edition 1980 (first pub. 1961).

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Memories of Grasshoppers and Crickets by JoAnne Wood

My article about the Grasshopper that I photographed on Barlow Hall Tip (FoCM blog, 23rd August 2009) prompted this response from FoCM Committee member, JoAnne Wood, who has lived in Chorlton all her life:

In response to your recent inquiry on the blog requesting information about crickets in Chorlton meadows I may be able to help.

The photo dated by my father as March 1947 shows the back garden of “Brookfield” 27 Edge Lane Chorlton.

The building originally the old Coaching House has now been demolished and rebuilt.
The pram in the foreground is mine I was six months old when the photo was taken. Beyond the back is the large expanse of field, which is now the site of Meadow Court.

As a child I would play for hours in that field listening to and watching the hundreds of crickets, they would sit in my hand rubbing their back legs together to make that unique chirping sound.
Grasshoppers inhabited the area in abundance as did many other forms of wildlife and I know how privileged I was to grow up with it.

Beyond that field to the right is a large hut belonging to the rifle range on Turn Moss playing fields.
On the left you can just make out the out-building and farm house belonging to Winders Farm on Hawthorn Lane, this was the only building I could see from my bedroom window.

I hope this little bit of local history recorded by my father all those years ago will be of some help in filling in the gaps of Chorlton wild life.

JoAnne Wood, 7th September 2009

I would like to thank JoAnne for contributing her memories and her Dad's photograph. If anyone else has similar memories, that they would like to share with us, please feel free to send them in - Ed.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Moths of Hardy Farm by Ben Smart

I met Ben last Saturday after a meeting about the proposed Hardy Farm football development. He told me of his interest in the moths of the area and I asked him if he could let us have an article for the blog. The following article was in my inbox by Saturday evening - and what an amazing article it is! Who would have thought that such a relatively small area could contain so many moth species!

The Moths of Hardy Farm

If you look for them, this is an area that is full of moths in all stages of their life cycle. Between 2001-2005 I ran a moth trap in one of the back gardens leading to the old playing fields area of Hardy farm. Including the moths attracted to the light trap and those I have found in my wanderings around the area I have recorded over 600 species of moth. I gave up the light trap when I found it was more interesting to look for moths in their natural habitat, often in the caterpillar stage.

Most of the interesting records have been of moths found either on the trees in the old playing fields area, or amongst the low growing plants of the area close to the river.
I have recorded a number of species which have been new for Lancashire, as well as many others which have been unrecorded for 50 years or so.
Examples include the Lead-coloured Drab, a species of macro-moth that feeds on poplars, particularly aspen, in its larval stage. Another Lancs first was the micro-moth Phyllonorycter dubitella which was reared from its leafmine found on the single sallow tree close to the south-west corner of the existing Chorlton and West Didsbury football club.

Many of the smaller moths can be found as leafmines. This refers to the larva actually feeding inside the leaf often leaving a distinctive pattern on the leaf. The adults that emerge rarely wander far from the foodplant, but are so tiny that for recording purposes it is often easier to record the species by looking for its leafmine.
An example of this, found on the willows by the side of the footpath from Hardy Lane to the Mersey, is an even smaller moth, Stigmella obliquella. As the moth itself is only about 2mm long it is very easily missed! Larger moths abound also. Last October (12.10.08) I found a 5cm long Poplar Hawk-moth caterpillar feeding on the same willows. Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillars may also be found in late summer feeding on Rose-bay Willow Herb.

Another interesting moth is Luffia ferchaultella. This belongs to a group known as the psychids. As far as I know the only Lancashire records for this species have been found in Chorlton. It is a parthenogenetic species, in that only the female moth seems to exist. It is also a wingless species. How it is dispersed is unknown but some closely related species are spread via predation by birds, as the eggs of the female can pass through the bird’s gut unscathed, as the larvae can go on to hatch and feed. The larva of Luffia ferchaultella goes on to produce a case which is coated in sand and fragments of lichen and algae, sometimes arranged in bands of colour, and may be found eating algae from the trunks of trees. Another Psychid moth, Narycia duplicella, may also be found as a larval case on the trunks of the trees in Hardy Farm. This species, though, does produce winged adults.

For a small area, this seems incredibly rich in unusual moths that I don’t seem to be able to find in other areas, even those designated as nature reserves. Because most moths live high up in the trees or fly only at night, much of this is unnoticed. However to lose an area like this would be devastating for the biodiversity of the Mersey Valley.

Ben Smart, 5th September 2009

Ed's Note: Ben also sent me the photographs above. The left hand photo is of an Elephant Hawk Moth and the right hand one one is of a Poplar Hawk Moth caterpillar. I will also put these, plus some other photos that Ben sent me, on the 'Inverterbrates' Picasa photo album.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Gatley Carrs Wildlife and Natural History by Peter Wolstenholme

Peter Wolstenholme is an RSPB member with a special interest in Gatley Carrs at the eastern (Stockport) end of the Mersey Valley. We would like to thank him for giving permission to post his report for July and August 2009 on this blog.

Vegetation by mid to late summer is getting rather drab, as spring gives way to late August most of the vegetation is mature and trees and bushes are fruiting. Sloes, Blackberries, red berries of Arum lilies, Sycamores and Horse chestnuts are all fruiting.

Among the dying flowers of the rosebay willow herb there are probably Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillars munching away at the stems of the plants. I have certainly seen these huge caterpillars in past years on the Carrs.

In July there were damsel flies such as Banded Demoiselle and the abundant plants of nettle provide vast reserves of food for caterpillars of butterflies, such as Peacocks, Commas, Small Tortoiseshell, and Red Admirals. Other butterflies this summer have included Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, Large and Small Whites, Holly Blue and Common Blue. A flew Painted Ladies have been noted on the reserve but not the millions seen in some parts of Britain.

In August the most splendid dragonfly present on the reserve - often feeding close to the pond - was the very large brown dragonfly with brown wings - the Brown Hawker (Latin name Aeshna Grandis). It is well worth looking for this dragonfly at this time of the year on sunny days.

Until the end of July the skies above the Carrs were dominated by the sickle winged flight of the Swift and its diagnostic screaming call. During August bird song faltered as Blackbird, Song Thrush, Whitethroat and Blackcap ceased singing. However Robin and Wren sang right through July and August. A pair of Reed Bunting sang and produced a brood of young by the pool. Kestrel and Sparrow Hawk put in brief visits. During August chiffchaff and Coal Tit sang and Wood Pigeon and Collared Dove cooed from the hedgerows.

During August the pool was often a centre of interest as both an adult and immature Heron put in an appearance. A pair of Moorhen had three young and there were also a few young Mallard and Canada Geese. There were Grey Wagtails along the banks of the stream and a few records of single Kingfishers - the bitterness of mid winter apparently meant they made no attempts to breed by the stream around the pool.

The trees around the pool attracted Tree Creeper, Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker. There were also young Long tailed Tits, Goldfinches and Greenfinch foraging in the bushes.

The last day of August found six Swallows feeding over the meadow. Two were adults with deeply forked tails and the others were shorter failed juveniles being fed on the wing by their parents. The same day on a Farm Reserve on the Wirral a Hobby was hawking overhead before its fairly imminent return to the tropics.

The tall stems of the brilliantly flowered Purple Loosestrife were by the pool at month end

As August ends summer migrants are still with us but soon the first winter migrants will be coming through the reserve as autumn comes in September.

With best wishes to you all.

Peter Wolstenholme
RSPB Manchester and SK8

Saturday, 5 September 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

5th September, 1959

There was very little obvious change on the plot apart from the signs of more fires. A number of fires had obviously been started by children, one of these being on my plot. The children had slung a rope over a high branch on a Sycamore tree and were using this for the purpose of swinging over the fire.

My visit finished up being a nature lesson for six other children who wanted to know what I was doing. We identified all the trees in the neighbourhood, and looked at the seeds of different plants. My reward was a large spider, whose web one of the children found.
An unidentified fungus was found growing at the side of the stream and a specimen was taken. The side of the Sycamore tree nearest to the previous fire appeared charred and the leaves quite brown and dead.

The hawthorn haws were becoming wrinkled and their colour dull compared with the Guelder rose berries which were bright red.Whilst the Sycamore and Hawthorn trees appeared dull and dark green, the Oak seedlings still retained their shiny green leaves.

So it would appear that kids were setting fires in long grass 50 years ago - just as they do, all too frequently, today. I suppose that this highly damaging practice will carry on until our culture, as a whole, starts to respect the environment (if that day ever comes).

I wonder if there are any people locally who still remember Mrs Broady's impromptu nature lessons? - Ed.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 5th September 2009

Friday, 4 September 2009

Tasks Programme - Autumn/Winter 2009 - 10

Below is a list of tasks that we're going to have a go at this autumn and winter. We hope to include other events in the calendar, which we will let you know about as they are arranged.

All of these tasks will start at 10:30 am and end at around 4:00 pm - there will be no obligation to stay all day, so if you want to come for just the morning or afternoon, feel free to do so.

For all of these tasks you should make a special note of the meeting place as this will vary from task to task.

Sunday 6th September 2009

Scrub clearance with the Sale and Altrincham Conservation Volunteers (SACV).

Meet: Jackson's Boat Bridge

SACV Contact: Julian Fox (07957355468)

Sunday 27th September 2009

Norway Maple control

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park

Note: Norway Maple was widely planted in the 1970s and 80s but seeds itself around like mad - so we need to remove the seedlings and saplings to make room for other species.

Sunday 18th October 2009

Norway Maple control

Meet: Ivy Green car park

Sunday 8th November 2009

Bramble Clearance

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park

Note that many areas, which were once more diverse, have now been overrun by brambles - we need to cut them back a bit.

Sunday 29th November 2009

Bramble Clearance

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park

Sunday 20th December 2009

Scrub Clearance at Hardy Farm Fruit Woodland.

Meet: Jackson's Boat Bridge

Sunday 10th January 2010

Scrub Clearance around Ponds on Chorlton Ees

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park

Note: The ponds on Chorlton Ees are surrounded by small trees and scrub - we need to open them up a bit to let more light in (and less leaves).

Sunday 31st January 2010

Scrub and Bramble Clearance

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park.

Note: There is a flower rich area at the back of Chorlton Ees car park which is getting overgrown - we need to tidy it up a bit to give the flowers a chance.

Sunday 21st February 2010

Scrub Clearance at Hardy Farm

Meet: Jackson's Boat Bridge

For all tasks tools, gloves etc. will be provided. You will need to dress for the weather, wear suitable footwear and bring a packed lunch.


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

There are two car parks associated with the Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green Local Nature Reserve:

- Chorlton Ees car park is at the nd of the cobbled road off Brookburn Road (by the side of Brookburn Road Primary School).

- Ivy Green car park is on Brookburn Road itself, opposite the Bowling Green pub.


Chorlton Water Park, tel. 0161 881 5639
Sale Visitors' Centre, tel. 0161 905 1100

Dave Bishop (FoCM Chair): tel. 0161 881 6276; mobile: 07947535691 (voice calls only, please).

Posted by Dave Bishop, 04.09.2009

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Bat Walk - Sunday 13th September 2009

Find out all about these fascinating flying mammals on Sunday 13th September when members of the South Lancashire Bat Group will be leading a walk starting at the Sale Water Park Visitor Centre. We hope to see and hear several species of bat present in the Mersey Valley and we will be using bat detectors to help us identify them.

Event details:
Where: Sale Water Park Visitor Centre
When: Sunday 13th September 2009
Start: Arrive promptly for 7pm (we will be leaving on the walk shortly after)
Finish: 9.30 pm at the latest
Anything else: please bring a torch

Tuesday, 1 September 2009


For some weeks now swallows have been gathering, in small groups, on the power lines near the river at Hardy Farm. Presumably they are getting ready for their long migration to Africa. I don't know very much about swallows or about their migrations. FoCM Treasurer, John Agar is a keen birdwatcher and offered to pull together some information on these subjects; below are his findings:

The Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

This instantly recognisable bird is regarded as the harbinger of summer. The arrival from winter quarters is generally early April but the vanguard may appear in early March often caught out by unexpected snowfall.

The favoured nest site is inside buildings. It builds an open nest of mud, cemented by saliva and strengthened with plant stalks and straw. The female lines the nest with feathers before laying eggs (4-5) which she incubates alone, between 14 and 16 days being fed mainly by the male. The young birds leave the nest after 19 – 23 days and are fed by their parents for a while. Two –three broods may be reared during the summer.

In late September and early October the birds form up in large groups ready for their return journey to South Africa. Unlike many other migrants they do not put on large reserves of fat since they feed during their leisurely return flight. They move Southward through Britain and across the Channel at its narrow eastern end. They continue South Westward through France and the Iberian Peninsula and across the Mediterranean. This 2000 Kilometre
(1,200 Miles) journey is completed in about 6 weeks and is thought to be made up of 10 legs i.e. 120 Kilometre a day, each of which forms just part of the birds day.

The birds are then presented with (as are many other migrant species) their most formidable barrier, the Sahara Desert. Many birds perish, however a bird with good food reserves and in good condition can cross the 1,500 Kilometre (930 miles) in a couple of days to reach the rich feeding grounds of the Niger River. Having reached this point the birds are only half way through their journey. Having negotiated this most difficult part of the journey they still face danger from predation by, amongst others, tribes-people who trap them for food. However by mid to late November they will be feeding right down on the Cape of Good Hope.

It is amazing to think that the chick from this tiny fragile egg can, with luck, in 4 – 5 months time be 9,000 Kilometres (6,000 miles) away in South Africa especially as it has never made the journey before.

The return journey in spring is much faster and can take as little as five weeks and is made more to the East. It is only in the last 60 years or so with the advent of bird ringing that accurate details of migration have become known. It was thought that Swallows hibernated in the mud of ponds probably due to their habit of gathering in large numbers in trees and reeds surrounding ponds prior to migration. Indeed it was suggested in 1703 that the birds wintered on the moon!

John Agar, 31st August 2009

Monday, 31 August 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

30th August, 1959

Everywhere the plot was dry and brown, apart from the banks of the stream where some of the plants were still green. The stream had completely dried up, the mud having now quite disappeared. Many of the plants are now seeding, and the plants are bending over the stream. Specimens of different grasses were taken, but on examining these at home it was found that the seeds had already dispersed.

Water pepper provided the one bit of colour with the pink tips of the flowers and the red swollen stems of the plant.

The sycamore leaves appear very dull and dark green, many white speckled, and no longer sticky. The young oak seedlings appeared to be flourishing, the leaves still being shiny and deep green.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 31st August 2009

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Perennial Rocket in Heaton Mersey

Last Saturday (22.08.2009) the regular Manchester Field Club walk was at Mersey Vale, Heaton Mersey. Several interesting plants were encountered including French Hawksbeard (Crepis nicaeensis), Sand Spurrey (Spergularia rubra) and a few other slightly obscure ‘treasures’. As you can imagine this was just up my street!

As it happens I was the walk leader and I had chosen this walk for its botanical interest. I had done a number of reconnaissance visits in the previous few months and knew that a walk with fellow enthusiasts was likely to be interesting and productive. Mersey Vale is a ‘linear’ park so any walk is basically ‘there-and-back-again’. On the return trip I spotted the remains of a plant that I had noted in flower on a previous visit back in June. I had determined that this plant was Perennial Rocket (Sisymbrium strictissimum) – which is, if anything, even more obscure than some of the other species that we found on last Saturday’s walk. It is an introduced plant, native to central and eastern Europe, from France and Italy eastward to Russia and Bulgaria (ref. 1). How it became naturalised in a few places in England, from Durham to Surrey (ref. 2), is not at all clear. Seeing it again jogged my memory. Back in June I had meant to look something up but hadn’t managed to get round to it. So I now found the entry for S. strictissimum in ‘Travis’s Flora of South Lancashire’ (ref.3 –Note that Heaton Mersey may be in Stockport, and hence in Cheshire, but for botanical recording purposes it is in Vice County 59, South Lancashire). The note read: “On land surrounding the Mellard and Coward bleach-works at Heaton Mersey ... First Record about 1890, Bailey (1905)”. An interpretation board near where I found the plant informed me that the nearby modern industrial estate had once been a bleach-works and other members of the Field Club confirmed this.
So it would appear that Perennial Rocket had been growing in that small area for at least 119 years! I wonder how long it had been there before that?

Bailey’ refers to Charles Bailey (1838 – 1924), an amateur botanist who also happened to be a rich Manchester businessman. He took up botany after attending a series of evening classes given by William Crawford Williamson who was Professor of Natural History at Owen’s College (later Manchester University). Bailey amassed a private herbarium containing some 300,000 specimens of mainly European plants which, on his death, was bequeathed to Manchester Museum and now forms an important reference collection. Many of these (pressed, dried, labelled and mounted) specimens were purchased via auctions but he does seem to have done some collecting himself in the South Manchester area. He also seems to have been intrigued enough by his Perennial Rocket find to write a paper about it for the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (Bailey, C., 1905. Notes on Sisymbrium strictissimum at Heaton Mersey, Man. Lit. Phil. Soc. Proc.). I’ve not seen this paper but must see if I can find it in Central Library.

The name ‘Rocket’, by the way, is applied to a number of members of the Cabbage or Mustard family (Brassicaceae). ‘Rocket’ seems to be derived from the word, ‘eruca’ that the Romans used for the peppery, somewhat bitter herb which is now a trendy (although beginning to slip out of fashion) salad ingredient, the scientific name for which is Eruca sativa (or Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa - depending upon which expert you consult): “Just drizzle it with a little balsamic vinegar dressing, darling!”

I don’t know whether you can eat Perennial Rocket (with or without balsamic vinegar dressing) but, as with all wild plants, I’d thoroughly check its toxicity first. On the other hand it is quite rare so that’s another reason for not dining on it!


1. ‘The Wild Flowers of the British Isles’ by Ian Garrard and David Streeter, Macmillan, 1983.

2. ‘New Flora of the British Isles’ by Clive Stace, Cambridge University Press, 1st Ed., 1991.

3. ‘Travis’s Flora of South Lancashire’, Eds. J.P. Savidge, V.H. Heywood & V. Gordon, Liverpool Botanical Society, 1963.