Thursday, 30 April 2009


Pignut (Conopodium majus) is a member of the Carrot Family (Apiaceae). Members of the Apiaceae have flowerheads called ‘umbels’ – these are a compound flowerheads in which all of the flower stalks arise from the same point. Often the lengths of the flower stalks are so arranged that the outer stalks are longer than the inner, so that all of the flowers are level. Actually, Pignut has a compound umbel - which means that each primary flower stalk terminates in a secondary umbel on which the little white flowers are carried. The plant’s stems arise from a rounded, brown, underground tuber, which is edible for both humans and pigs. The leaves are finely divided and the lower ones are often quite flat to the ground, appearing to form a lacy ‘mat’ around the plant.

Pignut is a plant of woods and rough grasslands and, in some parts of the country, is still quite common. In the Mersey Valley it is now rare and, until quite recently, I had only seen it twice. It used to grow (would you believe?)on a patch of grass by the side of Chorlton Precinct on Barlow Moor Road, and I used to admire it, on spring mornings, as I waited for the bus to take me to work; unfortunately, it is long gone from that site. It also used to occur in Southern Cemetery – but recently that has been subjected to a brutal ‘tidying-up’ regime and is much less biodiverse that it used to be and, as a result, I have not been able to find a single Pignut plant.
I had been about to write Pignut off as extinct in the Mersey Valley – and then found two populations in the space of a few days! The first was in the grounds of Abney Hall, near Cheadle, last Friday (24th April). It was on my list of things to look for there and I spent a couple of hours searching for it. I was just about to give up, and leave, when I stumbled upon a little colony of it. The second population was in and around Barlow Wood, on the edge of Chorlton Golf Course. Hilda Broady had noted its presence there 50 years ago (1) and on my visit, last Monday (27th April), I was delighted to see it there in some abundance – probably the best population that we’ve got left.

I found my Pignut populations by theorising that the species was never a plant of the Mersey Flood Plain but occurred instead on the river terraces. Of course, in South Manchester, nearly all of the river terraces have been built on and most of that habitat is now lost. I think that it’s important to stress that Pignut was once a very common plant, for example Richard Buxton, in his Flora of 1849 (2) described it as “abundant” and Leo Grindon, in his Flora of 1859 (3) stated that it was “abundant everywhere”. Many a country child round here would have been familiar with the taste of Pignuts – perhaps well into the 20th Century. I can’t help thinking that this is the way the world will end as common species disappear, one after the other, from parish after parish - drip, drip, drip - as we busily erode that world around us.

Oh yes, and if you find any Pignuts, please don’t dig them up just to taste the tubers – not only is it illegal to dig up wild plants unless you have the permission of the land owner – but we can’t afford to lose the few that we have left!

Dave Bishop, April 2009


1. “A Study in Chorlton Meadows – Diary, Notes & Drawings of Specimens” by Hilda F. Broady, 1959 (unpublished).

2. “A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses and Algae Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester” by Richard Buxton, Longman & Co., 1849.

3. “The Manchester Flora” by Leo H. Grindon, William White, 1859.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Strolling and Story Telling - An Entertainment for Chorlton Arts Festival

As part of Chorlton Arts Festival, Ingrid Burney and I will be leading a walk on Chorlton Ees. Ingrid will be telling stories connected with our Meadows and I will be pointing out plants and other wildlife of interest. You may remember Ingrid's spooky tale, 'Mersey Mystery' which was posted on this blog on 13th September 2008.

Date: Sunday 17th May

Time: 3:00pm

Meeting Place: Ivy Green Car Park (on Brookburn Road opposite the Bowling Green Pub).

The event should last about one and a half hours.

Hope to see you there!

Dave Bishop, April 2009

Monday, 27 April 2009

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

I’m a day late posting Hilda Broady’s entry in her journal for 26th April 1959. The reason for this is that I had an opportunity to visit Barlow Wood today so thought that it would be interesting to compare what’s there today with what was there 50 years ... and one day ago. First, Mrs Broady’s journal entry:

It poured with rain today but I made a very brief visit to see whether any effect had been made on my stream. To my disappointment there was merely a little mud in the lower part of the stream bed, but numerous small flies hovering in this part.
The tree was in leaf half way up the tree, and I now recognise it as Sycamore. The numerous shoots mentioned on my first visit are also Sycamore shoots, many of which are in leaf.

Interestingly (not to mention soggily), it poured with rain on the morning of 27th April 2009 as well – some aspects of our climate don’t change much!

You may remember that Barlow Wood, and Mrs Broady’s plot, is now within the boundaries of Chorlton Golf Club and that there is no public access to it.
A few weeks ago I met Ted Brooks (the bird photographer – see FoCM blog 24.03.09 ). Ted told me that he was a past Captain of Chorlton Golf Club and I mentioned to him my interest in Barlow Wood. Ted suggested that I contact Ian Booth, the Club Secretary, and Mr Booth very kindly allowed me access to the grounds of the Club today.

To be quite honest I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had seen the wood very briefly about 20 – 25 years ago as the guest of a friend of mine who was, then, a Golf Club member. At that time it had seemed a bit sparse and a bit tired – so I wasn’t prepared for the astonishing transformation! Here was a very healthy looking piece of ancient woodland. There were, as in 1959, many Sycamores (some of them quite old) but also thriving populations of Oak, Hazel, Willow and Birch. Many parts of the woodland floor were carpeted with Bluebells and nearly all of the spring plants that Mrs Broady mentions were present in abundance (plus some that she doesn’t mention). Her stream now drains the Golf Course and is full of water. It seems to me that the whole area is in much better shape now than it was in the 1980s and probably the 1950s.
I think that I may even have identified Mrs Broady’s ‘plot’ – see the photograph above.

I would like to thank Ian Booth for giving me access to the wood and to Ted Brooks for the introductions. I would also like to thank Chorlton Golf Club and their grounds staff for treating Chorlton’s only remaining piece of ancient woodland with such sensitivity. It is through their stewardship that this unique habitat has survived into the 21st century. I’m sure that Hilda Broady would be thrilled!

Oh yes, and if you’re interested in golf (as opposed to my mad enthusiasm for plants!) you can find out more about Chorlton Golf Club at: http://www.chorltoncumhardygolfclub.co.uk/

Dave Bishop, April 2009

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Sweet Vernal Grass

Sweet Vernal Grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) is one of the first grasses of the year to flower.

As grasses go it's a fairly dainty little thing - but you shouldn't have much problem finding it on Chorlton Ees and in many other places.

It is loaded with a chemical called 'coumarin' - which gives new mown hay its characteristic smell. Like all good things, coumarin is only good in small doses. In high concentrations it has a pungent, bitter-almond scent. Someone once told me that Sweet Vernal Grass was sweet tasting and good to chew. Nevertheless, when I tried it, I found it revolting. The sensation was if someone had coated the mucus membranes at the back of my nose with bitter-almond oil - definitely not recommended!

Dave Bishop, April 2009

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Wood Ghosts ?

There’s an intriguing line in John Lloyd’s history of Chorlton (1). He writes that during the 7th Century Anglo-Saxon period and after: “The ancient forest of Arden occupied both sides of the Mersey, the principal trees being oak and willow.” In stating this he appears to have been echoing an earlier writer, Thomas Ellwood, who published a series of articles on Chorlton’s history in a journal called ‘The Manchester Gazette’ in the 1880s (2); and Ellwood was probably echoing an earlier writer, and so on ...

The word ‘forest’ should always be treated with caution. Most people assume that a ‘forest’ is a ‘big wood’ but those people would probably be surprised by Oliver Rackham’s (3) assertion that, “the word Forest does not imply woodland”. In fact, in medieval England, a ‘Forest’ was a hunting reserve and a place for deer. Such hunting reserves could be on moorland, heath or fenland but some could be partly or even heavily wooded.

John Lloyd goes on to state that ‘Ard’ means ‘tree’ and, hence, if “the forest of Arden” existed it may well have been wooded. He also asserts that the ‘Hardy’ in ‘Chorlton-cum-Hardy’ is from ‘Ard-ea’ meaning ‘wood by the water’.

Shakespeare enthusiasts will know that the Bard set his play, ‘As You Like It’ in the Forest of Arden. And there is, of course, a Forest of Arden in the playwright’s own native Warwickshire, although the original work on which the play was based was set in the Forest of Ardennes in what is now Belgium. Perhaps, then, ‘Arden’/’Ardennes’ is just an old, generic name for a wooded forest (?)

The history of woodland in Britain is highly complex and be-devilled by myths. One writer who has done much to sort out this history and dispel these myths is Oliver Rackham and, if you’re interested, I highly recommend his recent book, ‘Woodlands’ (4). What is reasonably certain is that the post-Ice Age landscape with its ‘wildwood’ was heavily modified and reduced by the time Romans and Saxons arrived – even though they are often accused of chopping down all the trees.

In more recent times there certainly seems to have been some woodland in the Mersey Valley – although it couldn’t have been described, in any way, as heavily wooded. Recently, local historian Andrew Simpson (5) has stated that, for example, Chorlton, in 1845, had 680 acres of meadow, 490 acres of arable land, but only 10 acres of woodland. Probably, this 10 acres consisted of Barlow Wood near Barlow Hall, woods along the banks of Chorlton Brook, including Hough End Clough (some of which, at least, was technically in Withington), and a few other scraps, some of which may have been plantations. The last point is important: an ‘ancient wood’ is an ecosystem in which trees predominate but are not the only organisms present; trees, fungi, invertebrates and plants of the woodland floor all interact in a complex web. A ‘plantation’, on the other hand, is just a collection of planted trees – which may never attain the complexity and diversity of a wood that has evolved naturally over a long period of time; you can’t plant an ancient wood!

Given this background it’s surprising, then, that ‘classic’ woodland plants still seem to be present in the Mersey Valley flora. Examples are the beautiful Wood Anenomes (Anenome nemorosa), pictured above, which I photographed a few days ago on the river bank adjacent to Northernden Golf Club. Other examples, which I have found over the years, include Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus), Ramsons (Allium ursinum) and Great Woodrush (Luzula sylvatica).
My romantic imagination likes to picture these plants as ‘ghosts’ of old woodland – persistent and lingering traces of a vanished world – woods from which most of the trees have disappeared. In some cases this may be true. Some of the older hedgerows could be woodland remnants. For example, the north side of Hawthorn Lane (the old boundary between Chorlton and Stretford), although heavily replanted in recent years, contains Bluebells and Wood Sage (Teucrium scorodonia). And hedges by Ford Lane in Northernden and Stenner Lane at Fletcher Moss both contain Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis), often considered to be an important indicator species of ancient woodland.

Nevertheless, there may be another mechanism at work. One of Richard Buxton’s (6) mid-19th century records for the woodland plant, Wild Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) reads, “A field near the right bank of the Mersey, a little above Jackson’s Boat”. Similar records in Leo Grindon’s flora (7) read, “Barlow Wood” and “Near Jackson’s Boat”. So, if I read these records correctly, the woodland Wild Daffodil did occur in local woodland but was also found in more open locations – probably meadowland. How did it get there? Its bulbs could have been transplanted from the woods, of course, but I think that a more likely explanation is that the bulbs were flushed out of woods further up the Mersey watershed and deposited in the meadows in winter floods (remember that right into the 20th century local farmers deliberately flooded the riverside meadows in order to deposit rich silt on to them). If this sounds a little far-fetched, it seems to be a mechanism which is still operating today. I often find woodland plants growing on the river banks – particularly Ramsons and Bluebells. And among many different types of cultivated Daffodils I have sometimes found specimens that look very like the N. pseudonarcissus wild species.
I made an interesting find last year (2008) when examining the concrete supports of Barfoot Bridge, which carry the Metro across the river from Stretford to Sale and are often under a couple of feet of water in winter floods. Here I found woodland plants such a Great Woodrush and Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium), but most surprising of all was a strange little plant called Town Hall Clock (Adoxa moschatellina). I have seen no other recent records of this plant from the Mersey Valley (although it was more common in Buxton and Grindon’s day).
This view of the Mersey as a dynamic agent moving plants around when it floods is probably an important, though neglected, aspect of local biodiversity.

Dave Bishop, April 2009


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

2. 'Thomas Ellwood's Chorlton History Articles': Personal communication from Andrew Simpson.

3. ‘The History of the Countryside’ by Oliver Rackham, Dent, 1986.

4. ‘Woodlands’ by Oliver Rackham, Collins, 2006.

5. ‘Chorlton's History - From Agricultural Village to Suburb’ by Andrew Simpson, FoCM Blog, 29th September, 2008.

6. ‘A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses and Algae Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester’ by Richard Buxton, Longman, 1849.

7. ‘The Manchester Flora’ by Leo Grindon, William White, 1859.

Monday, 20 April 2009


Last week I was walking along the river bank from the Urmston direction towards Stretford. Just past where the Kickety Brook path emerges on to the river bank and adjacent to Stretford Sewage Works, I suddenly became aware that the air was full of tiny black flies or gnats. Looking up, I realised that the main concentrations of these insects were around the crowns of the riverside trees (mainly poplars and sycamores). As I watched, plumes of the insects detached themselves from the main swarms and formed long, descending, smoke-like arabesques. The photograph above shows one of these plumes, just after it had formed.

I've never seen anything quite like this before - can anyone shed any light on this phenomenon?
Dave Bishop, April 2009

Sunday, 19 April 2009

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

19th April, 1959

Another cold day, but it is fine and dry.
The tree is beginning to come into leaf in the lower branches. The tips of the leaves are quite red in colour, changing to green towards the leaf stalks which are quite red.

Grasses (Reed grass: Phalaris arundinacea) growing at the side of the stream bed, these being taller and tougher than grass growing generally in the plot.

The impression I get from, the last couple of Mrs Broady's journal entries is that the season was much less advanced in April 1959 than it is now, 50 years later - Ed.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Lady's Smock

Now is the time of year when one of my favourite wild flowers appears, the Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis), which has other vernacular names such as ‘Lady’s Smock’ and ‘Milk Maids’.

‘Cuckooflower’ is now the ‘official’ vernacular name but I’ve always called it ‘Lady’s Smock’ – in accordance with older books. Lots of spring flowers have, or have had, the ‘Cuckoo’ name applied to them, so it can get a bit confusing.

The plant itself is yet another member of the Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae) and, like its relatives, is a ‘crucifer’ i.e. it has four petals arranged in the form of a cross (how else could you arrange four identical petals?). It is quite common and is a feature of damp grassland almost everywhere: Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green are good places to look for it.

Geoffrey Grigson (1) tells us that the Lady’s Smock’ name was once considered to be a bit indelicate. He tells us that, “'Smock' was used coarsely, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as we use ‘skirt’, or ‘piece of skirt’ etc.”
I’m a bit offended by that “we”! The Friends of Chorlton Meadows would never use such sexist language, Mr Grigson! But you get the picture that this plant may well have been associated with certain activities that probably took place in meadows on warm, dewy April mornings. Although “Dabbling in the dew makes the milk maids fair”, as an English traditional song expresses it, the alleged cosmetic properties of morning dew were probably not the primary aim of such activities.
Anyway, certain puritans subsequently attempted to ‘Christianise’ the name by linking it, via obscure medieval manuscripts, to the Virgin Mary (briefly, St. Helena was supposed to have found the smock of the Virgin Mary in the cave in Bethlehem).

Shakespeare mentions this plant in a verse from ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ (2):

“When daisies pied and violets blue,
And lady-smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight”

Shakespeare scholars have since agonised over that “silver-white” description. C. pratensis flowers are not white but a pale lilac colour. But they do look white from a distance and, more importantly, ‘pale lilac’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘delight’. It’s easy this Shakespeare scholarship, isn’t it!?

Dave Bishop, April 2009


1. ‘The Englishman’s Flora’ by Geoffrey Grigson, Paladin, 1975 (first pub. 1958)

2. ‘Shakespeare’s Flowers’ by Jessica Kerr, Kestrel Books, 1975

Thursday, 16 April 2009

A Road Side Salt Marsh

At the beginning of February, this year (if you can remember that far back!), we had some snow. You may also remember that, as a result, 'all Hell broke loose'! Trains were cancelled, roads were shut and people phoned and instructed not to go into work. And local authorities ran out of salt and had to buy more at inflated prices. I strongly suspect that this is because they don't stockpile salt any more and have probably sold the depots off to property developers (Ah! The wonders of the modern, 'lean-'n'-mean' economy!).

Anyway, eventually the authorities spread all of this, very expensive, salt on the roads. Most of it went down the drains and ended up in water courses - which probably didn't do them, or the organisms which live in them, much good. Some of it, though, ended up on road side verges and central reservations, effectively turning them into long, thin salt marshes.

One plant, in particular, has taken advantage of this man-made phenomenon. It is a coastal salt marsh plant called Danish Scurvygrass (Cochlearia danica). Incidentally, this plant is not specifically Danish and is found throughout most of N.W. Europe from Spain and Portugal to southern Norway and the Baltic coast of Denmark. It is also widely distributed in England and Wales. As usual the venacular name is (at least partially) misleading and it is not a 'grass' but a member of the Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae). On the other hand it, and its close relatives, are known to be rich in vitamin C so they may well have been used for treating scurvy (which is a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet).

I took the above photograph by the A56, Chester Road in Stretford but can attest that mile after mile of motorway and major road verges are turned a very pale lilac colour, at this time of year, by millions upon millions of Danish Scurvygrass's flowers. On an April day, a few years ago, I went on a business trip to Cardiff. I was a passenger in a company car driven by a colleague and the Scurvygrass was a feature of the verges all the way from South Lancashire to South Wales.
Dave Bishop, April 2009

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Horsetail Cones

It’s just possible that you may have noticed the weird looking things shown in the photographs above and wondered what they were (?) They are, in fact, the fertile, spore-producing fronds of curious plants called ‘Horsetails’ and are sometimes referred to as ‘Horsetail cones’. These fertile fronds emerge in April and are soon replaced by the more familiar sterile fronds - which consist of green, cylindrical, jointed stems around which are arranged whorls of horizontal branches.
The cones on the fertile fronds consist of tightly packed hexagonal plates, each of which is attached, via a short stalk, to the central stem. Eventually the central stem elongates, forcing the plates apart. On the underside of each plate are white capsules (‘sporangia’) containing the green spores (the sporangia are plainly visible in the top photograph). When the sporangia are exposed to air they dry out and split. Air currents then blow through the separated plates, releasing the spores into the environment. Each tiny spore is equipped with four strap-like structures called ‘elators’. In dry weather the straps are completely unfurled, allowing the spore to float and remain airborne. When the ambient relative humidity rises, as in wet weather, the elators wrap themselves around the spore and it drops to the ground where, hopefully, it can find a suitable spot to germinate in.
The top photograph shows the fertile fronds of Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) whilst the bottom photograph shows a fertile frond of Great Horsetail (E. telmateia). E. arvense is very common on the sandy soils of the Mersey valley – and there is no doubt that many allotment holders and gardeners consider it to be a pernicious weed. It forms extensive colonies, based on a system of branching, underground rhizomes which can be very difficult to eradicate. E. telmateia is much scarcer and so far I have only found it in two sites – although recently I was shown a photograph which leads me to believe that there may be a third.
So far I have found two other species of Horsetail in the Mersey Valley: Marsh Horsetail (E. palustre) and Water Horsetail (E. fluviatile). These tend to grow in water (although E. palustre can grow on dryer ground) but both produce their fertile fronds at the same time as their sterile fronds.
Horsetails are often referred to as ‘fern allies’ but recent research (see ref. 2) has shown that they are, in fact, true ferns. Other, so-called fern allies, such as Club Mosses and Quillworts, have been shown to be less closely related to ferns than ferns themselves are to flowering plants. Nevertheless, Horsetails appear to have an ancient lineage. They are believed to be closely related to extinct plants called Calamites which flourished during the Carboniferous period 345 to 280 million years ago. They had, like Horsetails, hollow, jointed stems, but those stems were thickened allowing the Calamites to grow up to 20 m tall. The fossilised remains of Calamites and other plants gave rise to today’s coal measures.

Dave Bishop, April 2009


1. ‘The Illustrated Field Guide to Ferns and Allied Plants of the British Isles’ by Clive Jermy and Josephine Camus, Natural History Museum Publications, 1991.

2. ‘A Natural History of Ferns’ by Robbin C. Moran, Timber Press, 2004.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Grassland Monitoring Course CANCELLED

Dear Friends,

Just to let you know that the Grassland Monitoring Methodology Course, scheduled for the 25th April, has been cancelled. Apparently the trainer, Rob O'Connor, will not be available. Alex Krause is working hard to organise a similar course on an alternative date.

Dave Bishop (Chair FoCM)

Saturday, 11 April 2009

A Fallowfield Peat Bog

Last year, at about this time, Richard Gardner, Julian Robinson, and I took a walk along the Fallowfield Loop – the cycle track which follows the old Midland railway line from Chorlton, through Fallowfield, to East Manchester.
In Fallowfield the line of the track is interrupted by Wilmslow Road, and just before we reached this break point I noted that one of the embankments was covered in moss. The species was Hair Moss (Polytrichum commune) which is the largest British moss species and about the only one that I can recognise on sight. Hair Moss is a characteristic plant of some of my favourite sites in the Mersey Valley – so I climbed up the bank to investigate further. To my amazement, nestling among the Hair Moss was what appeared to be a species of glistening red Sphagnum Moss. To explain why this find was so striking and unexpected it’s necessary to recall what was once a common landscape feature in the North West – a feature which has now been almost completely lost.
If you look at a detailed map of the North West you will see the word ‘Moss’ everywhere: Carrington Moss, Chat Moss, Red Moss, White Moss, Ashton Moss, Barton Moss and Lindow Moss are just a few examples. In addition there are dozens of ‘Moss Sides’, Moss Lanes’, ‘Moss Nooks’ etc.
Confusingly, the word ‘Moss’, in the sense of a landscape feature, does not refer to small, flowerless plants like Sphagnum or Polytrichum but is thought to be a contraction of the word ‘morass’. Many of the old Mosses were, in fact peat bogs; although not all were - and the name seems to have been applied to any tract of marshy ground (e.g. Jackson’s Moss- which is now Whalley Range, and Turn Moss at Stretford).
Having said all that, peat bogs are (coincidentally) composed mainly of living and dead moss plants, in particular Sphagnum mosses. Bogs tend to form in areas of high rainfall and in places where water gets trapped by the local geology or topography and can’t run away fast enough. Such areas provide an ideal habitat for Sphagnum species and other plants. As the plants die off they form horizontal layers, and within these layers conditions are acidic and lacking in oxygen. The process of decay is slowed down and the detritus of dead plants (i.e. ‘peat’) accumulates. Bogs are very slow growing and can take many centuries to become significant landscape features.
There are several different types of peat bog but the two which appear to have been commonest in North West England were ‘blanket’ bogs and ‘raised’ bogs. The former were commonest in the hills of the Pennines whilst the latter tended to occur at lower levels in areas like river valleys.
It would seem that raised bogs were remarkable phenomena; here is an account (1), by the 19th Century Manchester botanist Leo Grindon, of Ashton Moss:

“Owing to their immense capacity for absorption, many mosses swell into mounds higher than the surrounding country, ... and after heavy rains this enlargement is so much increased that distant objects are concealed from view until evaporation and drainage have caused subsidence to the ordinary level. Before Ashton Moss (between Droylesden and Ashton-under-Lyne) was drained, trees and houses were often lost to view for many days, by persons residing on the opposite side.”

This passage suggests that, by acting like giant sponges, the Mosses may well have played an important role in the control of flooding. And we now know that peat bogs are also important repositories for carbon.
Nevertheless, however remarkable the Mosses were, and however useful they may have been at absorbing water and carbon, the Industrial Revolution saw their wholesale destruction. The first to go were the blanket bogs of the Pennines. After 1780 the peat layers (which are dateable) are full of soot (2). This soot was, of course, from factory chimneys in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, and other industrial centres, and it was full of sulphur compounds - which are poisonous to Sphagnum.
The raised bogs met a different fate: they were drained, ploughed up and turned into agricultural land to feed the growing populations of the industrial cities. In 1839 Leo Grindon visited White Moss, near Blackley, with the doyen of local naturalists, George Crozier, who showed him such floral gems as the Bog Rosemary and the Cranberry and such spectacular insects as the Fox and Emperor Moths (3). But within 20 years both White and Ashton Mosses had been drained and converted to agriculture.
In a book published in 1922 (4) the Altrincham naturalist Thomas Coward (who was, incidentally, the first Guardian Country Diarist) described the Carrington Moss of his boyhood – a place full of plants, insects, reptiles and birds now considered scarce or rare. He then went on to relate how, in 1886, the Moss was purchased by Manchester City Council who drained it, ploughed it and dumped Manchester’s ‘night soil’ (i.e. sewage) on it to fertilise it. By the First World War it was more or less converted to farmland.
In the 20th Century the remaining Mosses met a different fate; they were ‘mined’ and stripped of their peat which was sold as garden compost (peat bogs are still being lost to this type of commercial exploitation to this day). In 1984 commercial peat diggers found a 2000 year old body preserved in the peat of Lindow Moss near Wilmslow (5). ‘Lindow Man’, as he was named, may have been the victim of a ritual sacrifice – although some authorities dispute this. The body had been preserved by the acidic, anaerobic conditions typically found in bogs.
So what of my Fallowfield Sphagnum? My limited reference works on moss plants suggested that it might be the species Sphagnum capillifolium (frankly, this was something of a guess on my part). I sent a specimen to John Lowell, who is treasurer of the Manchester Field Club and one of the Club’s authorities on mosses. John was intrigued and agreed to meet me at the site. He thought that it probably was S. capillifolium but felt that this was so unlikely for such a site that he needed confirmation. He took another specimen and sent it to Des Callaghan, local recorder for the Bryological Society of the British Isles. Mr Callaghan confirmed the S. capillifolium identity – but, as John said to me, it was a most unusual find for an urban site and would normally be a species that he would expect to find on the West Pennine Moors. And if that weren’t enough he found a second species of Sphagnum (S. falax) with the first and 22 other moss species in the same area (none of them as unusual as the Sphagnums).
Is it an exaggeration, I wonder, to say that what I had found on that early spring day, last year, was a tiny peat bog, just a few inches across – a miniature version of the mighty Mosses that once dominated the landscapes of the North West (and probably formed, like them, by restricted drainage)? A strange thing to find within two or three miles of the centre of Manchester!

Dave Bishop, April 2009


1.‘Country Rambles and Manchester Walks and Wild Flowers’ by Leo Grindon, Palmer & Howe, 1882.

2.‘Wild Flowers and Other Plants of the Peak District’ by P. Anderson and D. Shimwell, Moorland Publishing, 1981.

3.‘Country Rambles etc.’ by Leo Grindon

4.‘Bird Haunts and Nature Memories’ by T.A. Coward, Frederick Warne, 1922.

5.‘Wikipedia Article on Lindow Man’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindow_Man

Thursday, 9 April 2009

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

9th April 1959

One week from my last visit to the plot, and there is very little difference. The grass does not appear to have advanced in growth and the ground is still hard and dry. The buds on the tree are fuller and fatter than they were on the first visit in March and are now green.
A brown and orange butterfly* was caught today.

* Any thoughts from the butterfly experts on what this might have been? Ed.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Reptiles and Amphibians in Gardens Survey

Below is some information on the survey. If you would like to get involved, or to know more, please contact David Orchard. I am reliably informed that the word "herps" refers to reptiles and/or amphibians i.e. snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and newts.

Hello All,

Below is a message from John Baker of ARG UK with some information about the national garden amphibian and reptile survey being run in partnership with the BTO. I have a stash of these survey forms so if you'd like some please let me know.

Best wishes,


David Orchard

Chair of the Amphibian and Reptile Group of South Lancashirehttp://www.argsl.org.uk/

01204 529312

07817 373853

BTO Garden Herps Survey

The British Trust for Ornithology, Froglife and The HCT are jointly running a garden herps survey. Surveys carried out by garden owners are an efficient way to gather information on herps in urban and suburban areas. Previous garden surveys have been carried out in specific localities, so this is the first time that such a project has been attempted nationally. It will gather information on:

Native and non-native herps seen in gardens
Features of the garden and its setting
Information about ponds
Incidence of frog mortalities

The survey is really pretty easy to complete and should make a nice change of pace from the randomly selected site surveys of the widespread amphibian and reptile surveys (easier to get landowner permission!). Participants simply mark boxes on a questionnaire to indicate their observations and return to BTO – and we should all get some feedback on herps in gardens. If you want survey forms for yourself or to distribute to other like-minded folks then please contact Ange Reynolds angela.reynolds@herpconstrust.org.uk at the HCT office. Returned questionnaires will be read by a scanner which can handle only the specially printed forms, so we cannot make these downloadable – you have to get them from Ange. The survey will cover 2008 and this year up to the end of June (although the section on frog mortalities goes back to 2006 – the last warm summer we had!). The deadline for return of survey forms is the end of July this year. BTO is distributing the survey forms to participants of Garden BirdWatch via that programme’s Bird Table magazine. But anyone else is welcome to take part. There’s 16,000 or so Garden BirdWatch participants – so it would be great to have input from the 1000 plus NARRSers and ARG members. If you can complete the survey or distribute forms to other likely garden herp watchers then your help will be appreciated.

Yours sincerely,

John Baker

The Herpetological Conservation Trust

655A Christchurch Road,



Dorset, BH1 4AP.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Field Woodrush

Back in the 1980s the Guardian newspaper ran a sort of a sort of comic strip soap opera drawn by the cartoonist, Posy Simmonds. It was about the lives of the Weber family who lived in a village in the rural Home Counties (all Jemimas and Agas, gymkhanas and Justins). One strip in the series began with the line, “spring has sprung and Luzula campestris flourishes her chestnut blossoms”. That line has always stuck in my mind – if only for its wilful obscurity!
Actually, though, the Field Woodrush, Luzula campestris is small and insignificant, rather than ‘obscure’; it is, in fact, very common in the spring time and can be found in short grass everywhere.
It is common enough to have acquired some vernacular names – including ‘Good Friday Grass’ and ‘Sweep’s Brooms’. The former name alludes to the fact that its flowers usually appear around Easter-time. In some parts of the country the appearance of these tiny flowers signified to farmers that it was time to put over-wintering cattle out to pasture.
Field Woodrush is a member of the Rush family (Juncaceae) and, although it looks a bit like one, it is not a grass – as the ‘Good Friday Grass’ name implies. One of the characteristics of Field Woodrush, and other Woodrushes, is the long white hairs which fringe the leaves (you can see these in the photograph above).
I must now make a confession. For many years I thought that the generic name, ‘Luzula’ was pronounced ‘Loo-zoola’. This pronunciation had a sort of African quality about it – indeed I could imagine Tarzan having a pet cheetah called ‘Loo-zoola’ (“Ah Loo-zoola, you have made a good kill! We will dine well on raw antelope tonight!"). Unfortunately, I have recently discovered that the correct pronunciation is, ‘Luz-yoola’. Frankly, I find this pronunciation a bit disappointing – the only thing that it conjures up, for me, is nothing more exciting than a brand of Romanian washing powder!

Dave Bishop, April 2009

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

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

Mrs Broady next visited her 'plot', in Barlow Wood, on the 1st April 1959. This is the entry in her journal:

A sunny spring day, with a light breeze blowing, encouraged me to visit the plot.

The main tree is now covered in buds. It is a Sycamore, Acer Pseudoplatanus. On one side of the trunk Pleurococcus* is growing. There is a fungal growth on the apparently dead tree.

A ladybird and a number of ants were found today; the ants were around the roots of the tree, and the ladybird was found on the grass.

A few clumps of bluebells were identified (Scilla Nonscripta**), also lesser celandine (Ranunculus Ficaria). As the lesser celandine was in flower a specimen was taken.

Editor's Notes:

* 'Pleurococcus' is a type of green alga, often found on tree trunks.

** The scientific name of the Bluebell has been changed at least twice since 1959 - it is currently Hyacinthoides non-scriptus.