Saturday, 28 February 2009

An Additional Training Course

Dear Friends,

Please note an additional course that you are invited to participate in:

'Grassland Monitoring Methodology' run by Rob O'Connor (grassland ecologist).

Date: 25th April 2009

Time: 10:00 am to 4:00 pm

Venue: Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre, Rifle Road, Sale (near Sale Water Park).

As before this course is free for all members of the Friends groups.

This will be another important course for us. There are several areas of derelict, or semi-derelict, grassland in Chorlton Meadows (a 'Meadow' is, after all, grassland by definition!). Our aim is to attempt to restore some of these areas and to do this properly we need to record what species are there now and to monitor changes that occur as we institute management regimes.

Alex Krause has asked me to point out that two of the courses that she has arranged for us are currently under-subscribed. These are:

Peter Hardy's Butterfly Monitoring Course (28th and 29th March)


Liz Blackman's Wild Flower ID course (13th June).

So don't miss out and sign up with Alex asap! Please see the previously published programme for full details.

Alex Krause's phone number is: 0161 881 5639

Her email is: a.krause@manchester.gov.uk

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Holly - A Slow and Stealthy Invasion?

A couple of Christmases ago I had to smile at an article that I read in a newspaper claiming that there was a shortage of Holly. There's certainly no shortage in the Mersey Valley - Holly seedlings are everywhere! Has anyone else noticed?

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a native tree. It is a 'dioecious' species which means that male and female flowers occur on different plants. This means, of course, that the familiar red berries only occur on female trees. It is also quite slow growing and the females don't start producing berries until they are around 20 years old. Holly is also semi-evergreen and retains many of its leaves throughout the winter.

In 'Flora Britannica' Richard Mabey tells us that Holly was (and occasionally still is) fed to livestock. In spite of its prickly leaves they, "...have one of the highest calorific values of any tree browsed by animals, and are rich in nutrients." Oliver Rackham has described Holly leaves as, "iron rations for sheep". Mabey also quotes the findings of a researcher called Martin Spray who found that the use of Holly as cattle food, "was a widespread, if not always well-documented practice up until the eighteenth century. [And] it seems to have been particularly prominent on the grits and sandstones of the Pennine foothills, roughly in the triangle formed by Derby, Leeds and Manchester." Spray also found many 'holly' and 'hollin' place names, and even surnames, in this area.

I don't really know what the Holly invasion means, but could it be that the old countryside is, in a sense, re-asserting itself? If so, there are few animals around to browse on it and in a hundred years time (if there's anything left of the Mersey Valley by then) local people could find themselves living in the midst of a vast, gloomy Holly wood ...

Incidentally, another evergreen species is beginning to appear as well. I estimate that for every 20 or 30 Holly seedlings there is a Yew (Taxus baccata) seedling - and I haven't got the faintset clue what that means!

Dave Bishop, February 2009


'Flora Britannica' by Richard Mabey, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996

'Woodlands' by Oliver Rackham, Collins, 2006

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Hedgelaying at Millgate Fields

At the weekend I, and a few other members of FoCM, went on the two day hedgelaying course at Millgate Fields, Didsbury.
The course was organised and run by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV). The course tutor was Katie Lowry of BTCV. This was the second such course that BTCV have run this year and they are running another one next weekend. Attendees on these courses will receive a National Certificate of Further Education (NCFE) in Hedgelaying.
Hedgerows serve as field boundaries and have been a feature of the British countryside for centuries and, possibly, millennia. A BTCV leaflet, ‘Why lay hedges’, supplied to students on the course, states that: “Hedges were formed in one of three main ways. They were sometimes remnants of cleared woodland, left as a dividing strip. Natural regeneration also produced hedges, either at times of low agricultural activity such as during the Black Death, or when they were protected from grazing animals by dead hedges.
The other way was by actual planting.”
The leaflet also states that, “Hedge planting peaked between 1750 and 1850 when hedges were planted at an average rate of 2,000 miles a year.” These latter statistics refer to the Enclosure Movement whereby rich landowners, seized control of vast tracts of lowland England. Special Acts of Parliament required landowners to ‘enclose’ the land in specific parishes within hedges. Only the rich could afford to do this and hence they ended up owning most of the land in the parish.
After the Second World War many thousands of miles of hedgerow were lost due to agricultural expansion. Although the deliberate destruction of hedges tends to be discouraged now, they are still being lost through neglect or ‘modern’ methods of management such as mechanical flail trimming. Hedges managed in this way tend to deteriorate because: “...eventually the bottom and inner branches die back leading to gaps at the base and in the middle of the hedge. Within 20 years the hedge can cease to be stock-proof and will support less wildlife.”
This brings us to one of the key aspects of hedges which are as vitally important wildlife habitats. Many of our native mammals (hedgehogs, mice, voles, shrews etc.) live in hedges. Also many of our resident birds (dunnock, wren, goldfinch etc.) breed and/or feed in hedges and they are also vital sources of food for many migrants (whitethroats, fieldfares, redwings etc.). Even certain reptiles and amphibians can be found in the vicinity of hedges, especially those near ponds and ditches. In addition hedges are rich in invertebrates. Generally speaking, the older the hedge the more tree and shrub species it will tend to contain and the more native plant species will be associated with it.
Hedgelaying was a traditional craft carried out by farm labourers during the winter months. Many regional styles developed and even hedgelaying tools, such as billhooks, tended to exist in distinct regional forms. Such traditionally managed hedges were thick, healthy and stock-proof.
The hedge that we worked on in Didsbury separates a field containing cattle from a public footpath. It consists mainly of hawthorn shrubs probably planted in the last 10 years or so. My impression was that these shrubs were somewhat older than would normally be the case and the stems correspondingly thicker. Each shrub was trimmed of excess brush from the nearside of the hedge and separated from its neighbours using loppers, bow- saws and pole- saws. Then, using a billhook, a diagonal cut was made in each stem about 10 cm above ground level. The cut left a ‘hinge’ of wood which allowed the stem (the ‘pleacher’) to be laid down on top of the adjacent pleacher. Laid pleachers were held in place and secured by means of vertical stakes hammered into the ground alongside them. We followed the ‘Lancashire and Westmoreland’ style in which a thick hedge is created by laying the pleachers down the centre of the hedge over the stools, at an angle of 45 degrees or more. The stakes were placed in a double staggered row either side of the hedge.
Although this seems like drastic treatment, as long as the hinge contains some sapwood, bast and cambium the pleacher will live. In subsequent years shoots will develop below the cuts and thicken the hedge from the base. The photographs show unlaid and laid portions of the Millgate Fields hedge.
I have to say that I found this task to be extremely hard work. Thick hawthorn stems are like iron and the billhook has to be kept very sharp if it is to make an impression. Nevertheless, I think that I learned a lot and I am grateful to BTCV for running a very interesting course.

Dave Bishop, February 2009


1. ‘How to lay hedges’ - Course hand out, BTCV 2000

2. ‘Why lay hedges?’ – Course hand out, BTCV 2000

3. ‘Other regional hedgelaying styles etc.’ – BTCV course hand out

4. http://www.woodland-trust.org.uk/campaigns/briefingsmore/hedges.htm

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Early Spring Crocus

At the back of Stretford Cemetery, adjacent to Hawthorn Lane, there are several rows of identical tomb stones. They are plain slabs with semicircular tops. On each stone are carved somewhere between six and twelve names. The names are nearly all different and represent members of many different families. The dates on the stones are roughly between 1890 and 1930. My guess is that these are paupers’ graves. They could even hold the remains of the last inhabitants of Stretford’s Workhouse (?)
Every year, from mid-February to early March, one of the burial plots (between two rows of tomb stones) is enlivened with a small colony of exquisite little pink Crocuses. These flowers are Early Spring Crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus). It is possible that these plants could have been planted, on these particular graves, at some indeterminate time in the past but the same species is naturalised elsewhere in the Mersey Valley, in places where it is less likely to have been deliberately planted.
C. tommasinianus is not native to Britain but is originally from the Balkan Peninsula, particularly Dalmatia, which is that long strip of land between the Dinaric Alps and the Adriatic Sea. Dalmatia was once part of Yugoslavia but is now a province of the independent country of Croatia. If you’ve ever taken a holiday in Dubrovnik or Split, you’ve been to Dalmatia.
The ‘tommasinianus’ part of the scientific name commemorates a botanist from Trieste called Muzio de Tommasini (1794 – 1879) who was an authority on the flora of Dalmatia. The name was bestowed on the plant by the Nineteenth century English botanist William Herbert who was an acknowledged expert on the genus Crocus and other bulbous plants. Coincidentally, William Herbert’s ‘day job’ was Dean of Manchester.

Dave Bishop, February 20.02.2009


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

2. ‘A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum’ by E.A. Bowles, Waterstones Reprint, 1985 (originally published 1924).

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Lesser Celandines

Last Sunday (15.02.2009) was a volunteers' day on Chorlton Ees. Not many people turned up but those who managed to make it did a grand job in controlling the birches and brambles which have been invading a site which is rich in ferns and mosses. At the end of the task we walked back along the path which runs alongside the bank of Chorlton Brook and I saw my first Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) flower of the year. I love to see these flowers because they are a sure sign that spring is on its way!

I believe that the poet Wordsworth felt the same way about the Lesser Celandine and wished to have the image of one carved on his tombstone. Unfortunately, the sculptor comissioned to perform this task was ignorant of botany and carved the unrelated Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) instead (as Homer Simpson might have put it - "dooohhh!!!").

An old name for Lesser Celandine was 'Pilewort'. This was because the roots of this plant were thought to resemble a certain painful affliction of the human nether regions and were used to treat that affliction. This is an example of the application of the so-called 'Doctrine of Signatures' whereby it was believed that if a plant resembled a part of the human anatomy it could be used to treat diseases of that part of the anatomy. It is not recorded whether 'Pilewort' worked or not.

The Victorian writer Anne Pratt, who wrote a number of books on wild flowers, did use the name 'Pilewort' but, unsurprisingly for a Victorian, didn't explain the word's origins. She did note, though, that it, "...closes its flowers from five o'clock in the evening till nine on the following morning" - which is probably true although I haven't studied the matter that closely myself.

As the scientific name suggests R. ficaria is a Buttercup - and hence the first Buttercup of the year.

Dave Bishop - February 2009

Monday, 16 February 2009

Snowdrops Postscript

I checked my favourite Snowdrop colony at Stretford again today - and they've appeared! I spoke too soon! I think that their flowering may have been delayed by the cold weather that we've been experiencing lately. I also think that the site may be exceptionally cold. I found another small clump, about a mile away, which was much more advanced and the flowers fully open. This second clump was at the base of a low wall which probably retains heat and is intrinsically warmer.

Still, I'm happy that my Stretford Snowdrops are still there and all's right with the world!

Dave Bishop, February 2009

Friday, 13 February 2009


It’s February so it’s Snowdrop time again!
Hundreds of suburban gardens in South Manchester will be sporting their little patches of Snowdrops this month, but they do occasionally escape into the wild. My favourite colony was in Stretford – but, alas, I couldn’t find them this year. I’m not sure what’s happened to them. I don’t think that they’ve been dug up – perhaps they’ve just died out (?) Nevertheless, I managed to find a little colony near the Mersey Valley Visitors’ Centre at Sale and interestingly, these were the double flowered (flore pleno) variety.
The Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is just one member of a group of around 20 related species in the Daffodil Family (Amaryllidaceae). Galanthus species are found in Europe, Asia Minor and the Near East. They are distributed from the Pyrenees in the West to the Caucasus and Iran in the East and they extend as far south as Sicily, the Peloponnese and Lebanon. It is now impossible to tell the northern limit of distribution because of introduction and cultivation by humans. In the British Isles G. nivalis may be native to certain parts of the south west but this is debatable. At least two other species of Galanthus are occasionally found in the wild in Britain, as garden escapes, but I have not yet found them in the Mersey Valley.In British botanical literature the earliest mention of this plant seems to be in Gerard’s Herbal of 1597 and they don’t appear to have been recorded in the wild until the 1770s. Nevertheless, they have vernacular names – ‘Fair Maids of February’, ‘Candlemas Bells’ and ‘White Ladies’ – which all appear to be connected to the religious Feast of Candlemas (2nd February) and may well pre-date the name ‘Snowdrops’. It is probably no coincidence that they are often associated with monastic sites.
Dave Bishop, February 2009


1. 'The Genus Galanthus', by Aaron. P. Davis, Timber Press, 1999

2. 'Flora Britannica' by Richard Mabey, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996
3. ‘Interactive Flora of the British Isles’ (DVD ROM) by C.A. Stace, eds R. van der Meijden & I. de Kort, ETI bioinformatics, 2004

Sunday, 8 February 2009

FoCM Events Programme - Spring 2009

These are the events that have been confirmed so far - there may be a few more to follow. Please read the notes - they are very important.

Sunday 15th February

Woodland Management conservation task

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park (see Note 1.).

Time: 10:30am - 3:00pm

Saturday 7th March & Sunday 8th March

Event Leading and Health & Safety Course (see Note 2).

Place: Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre, Rifle Road, Sale.

Time: 10:00am - 3:00pm

Sunday 8th March

Clean Up Your Local Nature Reserve (see Note 3).

Meet: Ivy Green car park, Brookburn Road

Time: 10:00am - 3:00pm

Saturday 14th March

Introduction to MapMate (see Note 4) with Stephen Atkins, GMEU Biodiversity Information Officer.

Place: Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre, Rifle Road, Sale.

Time: 10:00am - 3:00pm

Saturday 28th March & Sunday 29th March

Butterfly Identification and Monitoring Methodology with Peter Hardy (see Note 5).

Place: Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre, Rifle Road, Sale.

Time: 10:00am - 3:00pm

Sunday 24th May

Himalayan Balsam Pulling.

Meet: Chorlton Ees car park.

Time: 10:30am - 3:00pm

Saturday 13th June

Wild Flower Identification with Liz Blackman, Cheshire Wildlife Trust (see Note 6).

Place: Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre, Rifle Road, Sale.

Time: 10:00am - 4:00pm


1. There are two car parks associated with Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green Local Nature Reserve. The Chorlton Ees car park is at the end of the cobbled road off Brookburn Road (to the right of Brookburn Road Primary School).

2. This is going to be a very important (and expensive) course for FoCM and we need as many people to attend as possible. We need to be able to work without supervision but the authorities insist that we undertake this training first. The future of FoCM literally depends on getting as many people trained as possible. Please book yourself on the course through Alex Krause (phone number and email below).

3. This is a public event but for people attending the Event Leading and Health & Safety Training, it will be the practical part of the course. Note that Ivy Green car park is on Brookburn Road itself, opposite the Bowling Green pub.

4. MapMate is biological recording computer software package ( http://mapmate.co.uk/ ). We are having a big push this year to record as many plant and animal species on the reserve as possible and it will be useful to know how to get the best use out of this widely used piece of software. Please book through Alex.

5. Peter B. Hardy is a local butterfly expert and the author of a book called 'The Butterflies of Greater Manchester'. Please book through Alex.

6. Liz Blackman has extensive knowledge of local wild flowers and this should help us in our drive to record as many species as possible. Please book through Alex.

To book on courses or to obtain further clarification on any items in the programme please contact Alex Krause (MVCWS Ecology Warden) on 0161 881 5639 or email: a.krause@manchester.gov.uk .

Please bring packed lunches for all events. For outdoor tasks you will also need to wear suitable footwear (boots or wellies) and dress for the weather. All tools, gloves etc. will be provided.

Dave Bishop, February 2009.

Monday, 2 February 2009


When the alarm clock radio woke me this morning the news was full of doom-and-gloom. The man-made economic disaster, contrived by the 'licensed bandits' who our elected representatives have allowed to run the world for the last few years, appeared to be getting worse and our lean-'n'-mean, super-efficient 'civilisation' had apparently ground to a halt because of a couple of inches of snow.

When I drew the curtains the aforementioned snow was much in evidence. So, I decided to take the camera over the meadows to take a few snaps. The first thing I noticed, after stepping out the front door, was that a small hand had scooped a chunk of snow off my car, presumably so that it could be chucked at a friend or sibling - naturally - what else is snow for?

There were a few people about, some, like me, carrying cameras. Everyone seemed to have a smile on their face. One man I stopped to speak to had been phoned by his employer, earlier in the morning, and told not to bother coming in to work because of the weather (!) He had gone for a walk instead and had seen a kingfisher, a sparrow hawk, bullfinches and a woodpecker; he seemed very happy. Another man told me of his rock-climbing adventures in Scotland while his two dogs frolicked in the snow like children. Later in the walk I saw a young mother introducing her two toddlers to, what must have been, their very first snow. And to cap it all the cafe attached the MV Visitors' Centre at Sale was open and I was able to enjoy a nice cup of tea. Snow certainly wasn't a disaster for me (sorry if it was for you ...)!

I've put a few of my snow pictures on the webalbum at: http://picasaweb.google.com/friendsofchorltonmeadows/landscapes .

Dave Bishop, 2nd February 2009