Saturday, 30 May 2009

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

30th May, 1959

The grass has now become very tall and overgrown. The bluebells are fruiting and many are hidden in the grass.

All the vegetation is very dry. The stream is completely dried up, and there is a large amount of debris in it. Specimens of the following flowers have been collected today:

Bluebell - Scilla Nonscripta

Earthnut - Conopodium Denudatum

Common Sorrel - Rumex Acetosa

Greater Stitchwort - Stellaria Holostea

Snake Weed - large patch growing - Polygonum Bistorta

Editor's Note:

Plant names have been revised in the last 50 years.

Modern Names:

Bluebell: Hyacinthoides non-sripta

Earthnut (Pignut): Conopodium majus

Common Sorrel: Rumex acetosa (unchanged)

Greater Stitchwort: Stellaria holostea (unchanged)

Snake Weed (Bistort): Persicaria bistorta
All of the above plants are still in Barlow Wood where Mrs Broady found them 50 years ago.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 30th May 2009

Friday, 29 May 2009

Book Review: Collins Flower Guide

Collins Flower Guide by David Streeter, C. Hart-Davies, A. Hardcastle, F. Cole & L. Harper, Collins, 2009; Hardback (ISNB: 978-0-00-710621-9), 704 pp; £30.

There are, of course, many illustrated guides to wild flowers on the market; some are much better than others. In my opinion, ‘dumbed-down’ guides, such as those based on flower colour, are a complete waste of money. A good guide should be well illustrated, based on scientific principles of plant classification, be up to date in terms of nomenclature and should contain information on such parameters as: plant dimensions, flowering time, distribution, habitat and relative frequency of occurrence (i.e. ‘common’, ‘rare’ etc.). Keys should also be available so that members of the more difficult groups can be separated from each other. Even in terms of our relatively sparse flora, this is a lot of information to pack into a single volume. Until the last few years most guides excluded more ‘difficult’ groups, such as ferns and grasses, sedges and rushes – but some recent guides, including the present volume, have begun to include information on those groups.

This latest guide from Collins has been eagerly awaited, not least because this publisher has a very distinguished history when it comes to publishing field guides. Their guides to birds, flowers, insects etc. are legendary and highly regarded. In addition they have been publishing their famous and definitive ‘New Naturalist’ series, on British natural history topics, since the 1940s.

The book’s text is by David Streeter, who is Reader in Ecology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex. He is a member of the Editorial Board of the ‘New Naturalist’ series mentioned above, has served on the council of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) and is currently president of the Sussex Wildlife Trust. He also wrote the text for one of my favourite wild flower books: ‘The Wild Flowers of the British Isles’, Macmillan, 1983 – which was superbly illustrated by Ian Garrard. Although this latter book is a little out of date now, I still refer to it constantly.

The new Collins Guide has been illustrated by a team of four illustrators: Christina Hart-Davies, Audrey Hardcastle, Felicity Cole and Lizzie Harper. My first impression is that some of the illustrations are better than others – although all are adequate. I am biased, though, as I was practically ‘brought up’ on the illustrations of the redoubtable Marjorie Blamey – whose work I regard very highly.

So is the present book any good? This is a difficult question to answer as such a book needs to be used for at least a couple of seasons to be sure, but it certainly meets the criteria for a good guide listed above. Having said that, I’m not sure that I would want to take it ‘into the field’; it’s not particularly portable and it’s too handsome a volume to get wet and muddy. Perhaps the paperback, scheduled for the autumn, will be more suitable for this purpose?
Should you buy it? Well, if you only want one book, and you’ve already got, ‘Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland’ by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter, A&C Black, 2003, and are happy with that, you probably don’t need it. But if you want the very latest, super-dooper, all-singing-all-dancing plant manual, with all the trimmings (and I so desperately needed it!) you will just have to ‘shell out’ 30 quid for it (luckily I had saved a Christmas book token – ha!) ... or wait for the paperback, of course.

Dave Bishop, May 2009.

Monday, 25 May 2009

A Bumble Bee Bush for Your Garden

We hear a lot these days about the loss of Bee species - both Honey Bees and Bumble Bees.

As more and more of our countryside, both rural and urban, is subject to either industrialised agriculture, inappropriate 'over-management' at the wrong time of year (see my previous article, 'Why is Springtime the Killing Time Around Here?", 15th May 2009 ) or benign neglect, the Bees have less and less flowers to visit for sources of pollen and nectar. The least that we can do, then, is to ensure that our gardens are Bee friendly.

A few years ago I planted a shrub called Deutzia (prononced 'Doyt-zee-a') in my garden - and I can't help noticing that, not only is it a prolific flowerer, but when it flowers, at the end of May/beginning of June, it absolutely swarms with Bees - particularly Bumble Bees. I've just counted at least 30 on it, on this overcast Bank Holiday afternoon - but when the sun shines there can be even more.

There are several species of Deutzia - mostly from China, Japan and Korea. They are in the same family (Hydrangaceae) as Hydrangeas and Philadelphus ('Mock Orange'). Unfortunately, I don't think they're scented - at least mine isn't. I think that mine is the species, D. scabra - although I'm not completely sure about that. Whichever one you choose, make sure that it has single flowers, not double ones (these will probably not have any pollen and may have less nectar). Double flowered varieties will usually be labelled 'Flore Pleno'.

Dave Bishop, May 2009

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Doomsday: Metrolink Will Devastate the Mersey Valley

In my recent post, ‘The Great Mersey Valley Revolt of 1990’ (08.05.2009) I related how, recently, I had seen contractors drilling in the old UMIST Playing Fields at Hardy Farm. I’ve since received some more information on this from John Leech MP and, at the instigation of Councillor Val Stevens, from Jane Archer who works as Regeneration Co-ordinator for Manchester City Council.
The land is currently owned by the University of Manchester and a potential purchaser is interested in bringing the land back into use as playing fields. The potential purchaser is carrying out site investigations to check if the ground conditions are suitable. There appear to have been some preliminary discussions with the Planning Department. So, thank you to our local politicians for providing this information.

Nevertheless, my thoughts are: do we really need any more playing fields? There is a huge area of playing fields at Hough End, the University has vast acres of playing fields at Kenworthy, on the other side of the river, and just across the Manchester/Trafford border, at Turn Moss in Stretford, there are playing fields so vast in extent that you could probably fit the entire population of Greater Manchester on to them - with room to spare. And all of this open space is empty, most of the time. Occasionally (very occasionally), at weekends, you might glimpse a few lads playing football on them but at other times they are empty and unused. Such ‘urban deserts’ are useless for wildlife and they don’t seem to do much for the majority of the human population either. They seem to exist just so that they can be obsessively mowed. By contrast the so-called ‘derelict’ fields at Hardy Farm are very rich in wildlife. For example, I have found five species of orchid on them (plus hybrids).

It is also worrying that I am picking up vague hints and clues that the refurbished playing fields at Hardy Farm may be floodlit. This will be very bad news for the (currently) healthy population of bats which live in this area.

But all of this pales into insignificance compared to the havoc that will be wrought on the whole area if Metrolink is driven through. Following an article in the South Manchester Reporter (14.05.2009) this is now looking more likely than ever. The front page article headlined: “Two tram lines: No congestion charge” states that: “Two new Metrolink lines are to be created in south Manchester. The tracks, which will link Chorlton with Didsbury and Withington, as well as Manchester Airport, are part of a £1.4 billion transport bonanza across Greater Manchester.
The package will be brought in without the need for a congestion charge and will finally see the completion of the Big Bang of the Metrolink network.”
Much of the rest of the article appears to be about various local politicians congratulating themselves on achieving this coup (although, if they’ve achieved it this easily, why did we need the congestion charge?).

Anyway, I suppose, on balance, the Metrolink is a good thing (although anyone who uses the existing lines at rush hour may not agree with me!). In addition the links between Old Trafford, through Chorlton to Didsbury will use existing old railway lines. Sadly, though, these old lines have become rich in wildlife since they were abandoned and much of this will be lost – at a time when we can’t afford to lose much more wildlife. Nevertheless, as an ardent conservationist and environmentalist it’s hard for me to argue against improvements to the local public transport network.

But the line across the Mersey Valley to Wythenshawe and the Airport is a very different matter. To build this new line will require massive and intrusive engineering works which will completely change the character of this central part of the Valley and the surrounding area. Let’s look at some of the implications behind this scheme – although, in the absence of detailed plans, there are more questions than answers. Much of what follows is semi-speculative, but is based on vague maps published with the literature on the TIFF bid and even vaguer maps published in local newspapers.
Somewhere around the Hough End area a spur will branch off the Old Trafford to Didsbury line and go down the centre of Mauldeth Road West. Anyone who knows this road will know that it is blessed with dozens of fine, mature trees – but, presumably all of these will need to be felled. It will then cross Barlow Moor Road and proceed down Hardy Lane. It is then supposed to cross the area known as Lower Hardy Farm (that area of semi-mature woodland between Hardy Farm and Chorlton Golf Course). This will represent a really major loss of biodiversity; Lower Hardy Farm is one of the richest areas in the central Mersey Valley and a Site of Biological Importance. Then a bridge across the river will be required and this will need to be a substantial structure. On the other side of the river the line is supposed to proceed on to Sale Water Park. But the burning question is: where will the crossing be, exactly? One possibility is Sale Golf Course – but this is unlikely – golfers tend to be influential people and won’t take kindly to the prospect of losing a chunk of their playground. So, the most likely crossing point is Jackson’s Boat and Rifle Road. And this will be a major tragedy: the footbridge and the Pub are in many ways the focal point for the Mersey Valley and the Metrolink threatens to remove that focus. Next to the pub is a fine grove of beech and sycamore trees and these will be threatened, as will the mature trees along Rifle Road. At Sale Water Park a Park & Ride car park and station are indicated, which implies more loss of open space and more disturbance. According to the Reporter article the line then turns south east, running parallel to the motorway, before eventually crossing it into Northern Moor. According to the TIFF bid literature it then takes a somewhat circuitous route to Wythenshawe centre and the Airport.

Is this is all really to do with Airport expansion, I wonder? In that light the Metro seems a lot less environmentally friendly, doesn’t it? In fact it looks more and more like the same old, same old trashing of the environment for profit (surely not!).

And just building the line won’t be an end to the matter. Let’s just think back to those old sports pitches at Hardy Farm. I’m thinking a floodlit, all weather sports centre, with all the facilities, just a short walk away from the proposed Hardy Lane Metro stop, perhaps? And how many flats could developers cram into that end of Hardy Lane, do you think? I’ll leave you to work it out!
And what about the enormous loss of biodiversity implied by all of this. Never mind. No doubt the Council and the developers will promise to plant lots and lots of trees for all of those that they chop down. Don’t be fooled, though. Tree planting is pure tokenism and has very little to do with conservation. In Oliver Rackham’s words, “tree planting is a sign that conservation has failed”.

Dave Bishop, May 2009

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Mary's Towpath Eco-Verses

Here’s hopeful follow-up to my last piece on springtime massacres. Last Sunday FoCM Secretary, Richard Gardner and I went on a 10 mile sponsored walk for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. The walk was along part of the Sandstone Trail near Beeston.
At one point on our walk we noted that all of the Cow Parsley beside the Trail had been pointlessly sprayed with herbicide and this started a discussion on the, all too prevalent, ‘brutalist’ approach to landscape management. One of our fellow walkers, a lady named Mary Thorp, told me that, a few years ago she was distressed to see that the plant life along the towpath of her favourite canal-side walk, by the Shropshire Canal, near Tarporley, was regularly being cut down in the spring, before any of the plants had a chance to flower. Her novel approach to this problem was to write a poem about it and send it to her local paper, the Chester Chronicle – who published it. This is Mary’s poem:

Canal Towpath Plants

I walk on the towpath almost each day
Enjoying the plants in their seasons
Like Brian Bailey, this poem’s to say
Don’t mow them down without reasons

There’s fleabane and hawkweed near Wharton’s Lock,
Butterbur, meadowsweet too,
Monkey flower, balsam, coltsfoot and dock
Also Iris to name but a few

Where mowers don’t go, from bridge one-one-three west,
There are vetches and cowslips galore.
But due to your cutting down much of the rest
Many flowers are blooming no more.

For most of the towpath is 4 metres wide,
To walk on you need less than one.
Let vegetation grow free either side,
It’s less work when all’s said and done.

The flowers to flourish must first set their seed.
They can’t reproduce if they’re mown.
Allow them that little more time that they need
To germinate seed that is sown.

The waterfowl also like banks that are high,
The mallard, the moorhens and coot.
Whether we cycle, we boat, fish or fly.
You can help in our leisure pursuit.

And Mary’s poem seems to have worked. She tells me that that they now only mow one mower width of towpath and leave the rest wild. So, well done Mary! Perhaps we need more such ‘eco-verses’ to persuade all of the various ‘licensed eco-vandals’ not to massacre wildlife in the spring.
The picture at the top of the page shows a glorious population of Water Violets (Hottonia palustris) growing in a ditch managed by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust. If only other organisations were so careful about looking after and valuing the natural environment.

Dave Bishop, May 2009

Friday, 15 May 2009

Why Is Springtime the 'Killing Time' Around Here?

Recently the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (‘Defra’) released statistics that indicate that biodiversity is continuing to decline in the UK (1). Apparently, Defra is studying these trends as part of a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), aiming to “significantly reduce the rate of species loss by 2010”. Apparently eighteen “indicators” (where would we be without targets?) have been devised ... blah, blah, blah. Wildlife Minister, Huw Irranca-Davies (no, I’ve never heard of him, either!) said: “The Government is continuing to work with the public, wildlife conservation groups and farmers to conserve our valuable wildlife” ... Zzzzz! Oh, sorry, I just dropped off for a moment there!
Anyway, no-one believes Mr Huw whatsit. For example Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation, told BBC News that there was “no chance” that the 2010 target would be met.

It’s all very depressing. Month in, month out we learn of butterfly numbers declining, bees dying out and plant and bird species declining or becoming extinct. And I believe that you don’t even have to move out of South Manchester to see why.
Yes, it’s happening right here – where you and I live – and the reasons are plain to see. I’m forced to conclude that we live in a culture that has a complete contempt for the plants and animals that we share this planet with – if we notice them at all they are just messy and untidy ‘weeds and vermin’ to be exterminated as expeditiously as possible ... Shame about the Rain Forest, though!

I’ve always loved the spring – a season of hope, fresh green foliage, gentle rain and scented air. But round here it’s the ‘Killing Time’. As soon as March gives way to April, out come the chainsaws, the heavy-duty grass mowers, the strimmers and the herbicide sprays. “Killer, commie, terrorist weed in sector 5 – call in an airstrike!” Sorry, got carried away there – must avoid facetiousness...

In my opinion, if you really care about wildlife and biodiversity, there are two basic principles that you need to know (well, there are more than two – but bear with me). The first principle is that plants are important. Plants are the basic elements in any terrestrial ecosystem. As David Lloyd, the first Chief Warden in the Mersey Valley, once said to me: “If you get the plants right, you get everything else right”. The second principle is that a healthy environment consists of a mosaic of habitats, and the edges between the elements of the mosaic are important. Hence, in a wood or plantation, for example, lots of interesting plants can often be found along woodland boundaries and rides (which are, of course, edges) or in clearings, and lots of interesting insects feed, or lay their eggs, on these plants, and other organisms, like bats and birds, feed on the insects. Around here, though, even ‘nature reserves’ are treated like bog-standard, boring urban parks and the precious edges are mown, strimmed or, even, drenched in herbicide. I’m convinced that this is really to do with notions of tidiness – but these days it’s attributed to ‘facilitating access’ and even ‘health and safety’ (yes, if people don’t know where the edge of the path is they might trip over and might sue the Council – God help us!).
A conventional urban park, as invented by the Victorians, is not a good model for a nature reserve. Parks are ‘green deserts’, mainly consisting of a few, even-aged trees and acres of closely mown grass. Here’s a quote from one of my favourite writers, the American Science Fiction writer and ‘futurist’, Bruce Sterling (2) talking about the underlying or ‘true’ nature of such a place:

“It’s hard to recognise that a neatly groomed lawn with a little kid, a puppy and a kitty is a biological holocaust. But it is. Whenever you witness a lovely sight like that, it means that half an acre of the planet’s surface, which formerly supported many hundreds of various weeds and beetles, has been reduced to just four species (not counting their microbial inhabitants). That is the true face of the Sixth Great Extinction. It’s a face that we humans find pleasant.”

And in South Manchester the ‘biological holocaust’ is in full swing – especially in the springtime in many of our ‘green urban spaces’ - where it should be protected and nurtured, not exterminated.

So, should we leave such spaces to their own devices? Not really. Benign neglect tends to lead to species poor scrub, which takes many decades (if at all) to develop into anything interesting. Some form of management is probably essential if the ideal mosaic is to be created and biodiversity is to be maximised - but timing is crucial for such management operations!
In the old countryside trees were felled, lopped or coppiced during the winter, that is during their dormant period, and before the bird nesting season – but now these operations are often carried out in the spring. Hedges were also laid or trimmed in the winter – but now they’re often savagely ripped to pieces with tractor mounted flails – often at the point when they’re just coming into flower or leaf. Finally, grassland was once cut in high summer, when many flowering plants had set seed, but now it’s cut in May and June – often before many flowers have even opened. All of this has devastating knock-on effects for all the organisms which depend on plants – such as insects, birds and bats.

The photograph above is of a scene which greeted me at the western end of the Mersey Valley a week ago – a young man, operating a JCB was reducing this ditch to a lifeless ‘slot’ in the landscape. The other photo shows the same ditch on the other side of a small bridge from where he was working. Is May an appropriate month to perform such operations? Actually, I'm not too sure – but somehow I doubt it.

Of course, biodiversity is supposed to be protected by law, now. For example, under Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural communities Act, 2006: “Every public authority must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as it is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity”. And every level of government from national to local is awash with ‘Biodiversity Action Plans’. But none of these laws and fancy plans seem to have any effect on the ‘springtime holocaust’ – the chainsaws were just as loud, if not louder, this year as they have been in previous years.
So if you want a ringside seat for the “Sixth Extinction” you don’t have to go to Africa or South America, or even as far as the Lake District. All you have to do is step outside your South Manchester doorstep, preferably in April or May.

Dave Bishop, May 2009


1. BBC NewsScience & EnvironmentUK Biodiversity still in decline, 6th April 2009: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7982461.stm/

2. ‘Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years’ by Bruce Sterling, Random House, 2002.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Adderstongue Fern

Tucked away in an obscure corner of Chorlton Ees is an extraordinary little plant which it is very easy to overlook. So easy to overlook, in fact, that I suspect that when I found it in 1995 I may have been the first person to see it for nearly 140 years. Richard Buxton recorded it in his Flora of 1849 (1) and Leo Grindon in his Flora published 10 years later (2) – but I’ve not seen any later records.
The plant is Adderstongue Fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum) which is generally regarded as an indicator plant of unimproved grassland, a habitat which has declined dramatically, especially since the Second World War. Once it was accompanied by other indicator plants such as Green-winged Orchid (Anacamptis morio) and Meadow Saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata) – but these are long gone. The site itself has taken a bit of a hammering over the years. It was deliberately flooded every year by local farmers for 200 – 300 years, then it was part of Withington Sewage works (for about 70 – 80 years) followed by being regularly burned out by vandals. The Adderstongue stoically survived all this but I don’t think that it would survive much trampling – which is why I’m not going to tell you exactly where it is.

The Adderstongue is a true fern but it doesn’t look much like one. In fact it is a very ancient type of fern and ‘modern‘ferns may have evolved from something like it. According to Robbin C. Moran, Curator of Ferns at the New York Botanical Gardens (3), DNA evidence suggests that Adderstongues and their relatives are very ancient lineages but, paradoxically, they don’t appear in the fossil record until relatively recently (perhaps ancient Adderstongues didn’t fossilise well or palaeontologists just haven’t found an ancient Adderstongue fossil yet?). The more familiar ‘shuttlecock’ type ferns, like Male Fern and Broad Buckler Fern, are truly a recent group in every sense (in terms of both DNA and fossils) and first appeared in the fossil record in the late Cretaceous about 75 million years ago - which makes them younger than flowering plants, which first appeared about 140 million years ago; around 80% of modern ferns are of the ‘shuttlecock’ type.

Although many ferns may not be as ancient as is often believed their method of reproduction is primitive compared with flowering plants. The fern broadcasts spores, each of which produces an inconspicuous, green, often heart-shaped, plate-like plant called a ‘prothallus’ or ‘gametophyte’. The prothallus produces sex organs: ‘antheridia’ which produce spermatozoids, and ‘archegonia’ each of which holds one egg cell. The prothalli usually grow on a substrate which supports a film of water and the spermatozoids swim through this film until they encounter an archegonia, which they fertilise. From this union arises a new and quite different type of plant called a ‘sporophyte’. The sporophyte is what we generally recognise as a ‘fern’. The sporophyte produces spores, either from organs called ‘sori’ on the undersides of its leaves or from specialised, spore-bearing fronds, and the whole cycle starts again (4).
The picture above shows the sporophyte stage of Adderstongue Fern. The blade-like leaf at the back is sterile and the rod-like structure arising from it is the spore-bearing frond; spores are shed from horizontal slits near the top of this frond. Adderstongue prothalli are tuber-like, lack chlorophyll and develop underground. Robbin Moran says that, “Little is known about subterranean prothalli; they are rarely seen”. But it is known that they have embedded in their tissues a symbiotic fungus that absorbs nutrients from the soil and translocates them to the plant (5). The sporophyte stage of the plant usually has an underground rootstock with creeping stolons which can often produce new plants at intervals. In this way Adderstongue can often produce extensive colonies (6) – as on Chorlton Ees. The rootstocks and stolons are also ‘infected’ with the symbiotic fungus (7).

Adderstongue Ferns have been used in herbal remedies for centuries. The 17th Century herbalist, John Gerard prepared ointments for treating skin complaints from the British species and Asian species are still used in modern Chinese medicine (8). A word of warning, though; preparation, form of application and dosage may be critical. One of Britain’s leading fern experts, Dr Christopher Page on learning that the plant was supposed to have a sweet taste, and is palatable to cattle and rabbits tried nibbling on a frond. He reported (9) that, “ ... a specimen experimentally eaten by the author caused swelling of the tongue, and this is not recommended.” You have been warned!

Dave Bishop, May 2009


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

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

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

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

5. Moran

6. Jermy and Camus

7. Moran

8. Moran

9. 'The Ferns of Britain and Ireland’ by C.N. Page, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Great Mersey Valley Revolt of 1990

When I first moved to Chorlton, in 1972, the fields on either side of the path which leads from Brookburn Road, Chorltonville to Jackson’s Boat Bridge were being used as a tip for household waste. Over the next couple of years the tip was capped off and the fields to the left of the path converted into playing fields for the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). In 1990 Chorlton’s historian, the late John Lloyd, wrote a rather melancholy piece for the South Manchester Reporter (1) lamenting the loss of the ancient ‘Boat Meadow’ which was buried forever under the tip:

“It was there that we went with our sledges where the snow covered banks offered the only slope steep enough.
We went collectively to the Boat Meadow for the Sunday School Sports at Whitsuntide...
We valued the isolation it offered when we tentatively experimented with smoking. Later we did our courting there...
And then UMIST took away our beloved Boat Meadow with its diagonal path with the bump half-way along it [and] the water-course where we annually gathered the frog spawn and which we daringly crossed by balancing on the exposed sewer pipe.
They replaced it with a clinically perfect sward and now they want to spoil it even further.”

The trouble was the “sward” wasn’t “clinically perfect”. The underlying tip settled unevenly, the playing fields became bumpy and waterlogged and, by the mid-1980s, had to be abandoned for sporting purposes. In the meantime the abandoned playing fields and adjoining areas, such as the ‘Hardy Farm‘ site (now the ‘Hardy Farm Fruit Woodland’) and Lower Hardy Farm, became richer and richer in wild life. At least five species of orchid and numerous other plants have been recorded from these areas as well as many species of birds and butterflies.

At some point in 1989 or 1990 (I can’t remember exactly when) I was walking towards Jackson’s Boat and noticed that a hole had been dug by the path and part of the underlying tip exposed. I thought no more of it but some time later I spotted a planning notice pinned to the back of a post where, presumably, it was hoped that it wouldn’t be noticed. The plan was to stabilise the playing fields by dumping builders’ rubble on them and then to re-establish the pitches on top. As the year 1990 progressed the full ‘horror’ of the plan became apparent. Up to 50 lorries a day would be driving up and down Hardy Lane for five years. Eventually an artificial plateau would be established up to 12 feet high and 50 acres in extent. UMIST stood to make around £2 million pounds from this exercise – which was probably the real reason why they were so keen on it. As far as we were able to ascertain UMIST had not even considered the impact on the local community or environment.

A local Action Group was set up to oppose this monstrous plan. The Group was certainly well supported and lobbied local politicians as well as national personalities such a Prince Charles and David Bellamy (2).
I remember attending a packed public meeting in a church hall on Hardy Lane. The meeting was addressed by a representative of Robinson Fletcher Ltd. who were “acting as agents” for UMIST (presumably they would be doing the actual tipping). This representative assured us that everything would be fine, there was nothing to worry our little heads about and at the end of the exercise we, the local community, would have brand new sports facilities (this was the first that we had heard about the new sports fields being made available to anyone but UMIST students). I can still hear the great collective roar that nearly blew the patronising git off the stage:
In September of that year a ‘Protest Picnic’ was organised on the existing fields by the Action Group. Between 750 and 1,000 people turned up and the guest of honour was Benny Rothman (see picture) who had been one of the organisers of the famous Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 (Mr Rothman is in the centre of the picture above and see ref. 3 for more information on the Kinder Trespass).
The rest of the story is a bit hazy. If I remember correctly the local planners turned down UMIST’s application and they appealed. Eventually the matter went to a public enquiry – but UMIST failed to turn up and the plan was thrown out.

And that was how matters stood until last Tuesday morning (5th May 2009) when I noticed contractors drilling test holes all over the playing fields. Of course UMIST is now amalgamated with Manchester University and they now have the problem of useless playing fields. If the example of Ryebank Fields is anything to go by, the University will only be interested in getting the maximum return from ‘their’ land (is it really 'their' land - aren't they a public body and isn't it really public land?). And like UMIST before them they will have little interest in the impact of any plan on the local community or environment. You would think that a ‘centre of learning’ would value a site of Biological Importance that they happen to ‘own’ – but don’t bank on it.
Of course this whole central part of the Mersey Valley is already under threat from the proposed route of the Metro Link to the airport. I’ve also heard rumours that Hardy Lane could also be extended across the river to join up with the motorway. We could be due to lose a huge area of open space – with all of its attendant wildlife very quickly.
If we value our local environment WE NEED TO BE VIGILANT FROM NOW ON!

Dave Bishop, May 2009


1. ‘When Chorlton Ees was an island in a Saxon River’ by John Lloyd, The South Manchester Reporter, 28.09.1990.

2. ‘UMIST vow: ‘We won’t build on the meadows’’ by Sarah Doyle, The South Manchester Reporter, 07.09.1990.

3. The Kinder Trespass: Building on the Legacy: http://kindertrespass.com/index.asp?ID=26

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Lords and Ladies

Lords-and-Ladies (Arum maculatum) has to be one of the strangest plants in the British Flora and also that of the Mersey Valley. It has many other vernacular names, including ‘Cuckoo Pint’ and ‘Wake Robin’, ‘Parson-in-the-Pulpit’ and ‘Bulls and Cows’. The derivations of some of these names are quite indelicate and I’ll leave you to read Geoffrey Grigson’s researches on the subject (1).

The plant has arrow-shaped leaves. The first examples that I saw, in Cambridgeshire hedgerows, had leaves with chocolate coloured spots and indeed the specific epithet, maculatum means ‘spotted’. Nevertheless, the leaves of examples in the Mersey Valley rarely exhibit spots (occasionally they may exhibit a few small flecks). Back in the 1950s Dr C.T. Prime studied this species and wrote a monograph on it (2). He found that, in England and Southern Scotland, the ratio of spotted to unspotted leaves tends to favour the unspotted variety as one moves north. This gradual change of a species character over a particular geographical area is known as a ‘cline’.

But the most striking character of Lords-and-Ladies is not the leaves but the inflorescence (the flowering part). The visible parts of this inflorescence consist of a hood or cowl shaped structure, known as a ‘spathe’, which partly enfolds a finger-like projection known as a ‘spadix’. I suppose that if you glance at this structure you might begin to understand why previous generations made up ‘rude’ names for it ... possibly (?) ... but moving swiftly on! The actual flowers are at the base of the spadix and are enclosed, and hidden from view, in a bulbous structure at the bottom of the spathe.

The strategy that this species uses to attract pollinating insects is extraordinary. It flowers in late April/early May and its pollinators are small moth flies or midges in the genus Psychoda, which lay their eggs in cattle dung. The midges fly from plant to plant, landing on the inner surfaces of the spathes. They are attracted by a ‘urinous’ smell emitted by the plants. An individual midge tends to lose its footing on the smooth surface of a spathe and to fall through a small, circular opening at its base into the enclosed ‘trap’ containing the flowers. It falls past a ring of downward pointing hairs which are, in fact, sterile male flowers. These hairs prevent the midge from exiting the trap as do a slippery layer of oil on the walls and downward-pointing wart-like projections. It then falls past the fertile male flowers and reaches the female flowers, each with a single stigma and ovary. If it has previously visited a different plant it will be covered in pollen and will pollinate the female flowers. During its imprisonment the insect feeds on sugary sap from the stigmas. After a few hours the stigmas begin to wither and the anthers on the male flowers open, showering the trapped insect below with pollen. Next, the downward pointing hairs around the exit shrivel and the surface of the spadix becomes wrinkled and rough, allowing the midge to climb to ‘freedom’. In fact, it usually flies off to another Lords-and-Ladies plant and the whole process is repeated. At any one time a trap can contain 20 or 30 pollinating insects – but as many as 4,000 have occasionally been found!

The attractive (to a midge!) ‘urinous’ smell, referred to above, is caused by the breakdown of proteins in the spadix. This also contains starch granules which are themselves broken down by certain enzymes. This chemical reaction causes the spadix to warm up, sometimes by as much as 16 degrees C above the ambient temperature. This warming effect helps to volatilise the smelly chemicals and disperse them over a wider area.

Once the female flowers are fertilised the spathe and spadix wither away and the fruits develop. These consist of a number of orange/red berries clustered at the top of a stalk. These berries contain light brown, spherical seeds and are poisonous.

Lords and Ladies is a member of a relatively large family called the Araceae. Worldwide, this family contains many members of which are even more bizarre than our Lords and Ladies - but tend to exhibit the same basic form.

Dave Bishop, May 2009


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

2. ‘Lords and ladies’ by Cecil T. Prime, Collins 1960.

3. ‘The Biology of Flowers by Eigil Holm, Penguin 1979.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Time Travelling in Stretford

I had a bit of a weird experience today - in Stretford, of all places!

I'd had a bit of a lazy day indoors, mainly because the weather was so uninspiring. At about half past three I decided to get some air. I wanted to check a few things out near the Bridgewater Canal in Stretford. Eventually I found myself in that field which is bordered by the river and near to the A56 and the slip-roads onto the motorway. It was bleak, damp, cold and not very interesting. In the middle of a featureless field I spotted some mounds of earth and disturbed ground and thought that I would check it out to see if any interesting weeds had appeared. Now, I realise that weed spotting, in a field near the motorway, on a drizzly bank holiday is somewhat eccentric behaviour but I found it preferable to falling asleep in front of the telly (well, that's my excuse ... OK, OK I'm weird, I admit it!).

Anyway, I soon realised that what I had stumbled on was an old tip and that the mounds and pits had been made by people digging for 'antique' bottles. Scattered all around were old bottles, jars and bits of broken crockery. Then I spotted some fragments of newspapers - they were a bit soggy but still readable. One of the fragments was part of the Sunday Express. There were photographs and adverts, all very old-fashioned looking. I peeled a couple of pages apart and saw a headline about Hitler deporting Jews to Poland. I peeled a few more pages apart, looking for a date - and found one: October 30th, 1938! Someone had actually thrown that newspaper into their dustbin over 70 years ago!

I would imagine that, in 1938, no-one gave much thought about what happens to rubbish when it's put in a landfill. They must have known that all the glass - which appears to have been as ubiquitous as a packaging material as plastic is today - and the ceramics would be more or less unchanged by time. But I presume that they thought that organic material, like newspaper, would rot down in a few years and turn to soil. But, evidentally, no such transformation took place and, preserved in the anaerobic (i.e. oxygen free) conditions in the tip the old report of Hitler's foul crimes 'slumbered' through all of those decades until I got to read it today. And buried with it was a sort of time capsule of life in the 1930s - bits of bottles and jars which once contained milk, beer, spirits, jams, preserves, pickles, condiments and medicines and plates, saucers, tea cups and tea pots buried with the ashes of countless coal fires.

I suppose that archeologists have always considered rubbish tips ('middens') to be useful sources of information, but it's surprising to think that future archeologists, looking back at our times, may literally be able to read that information. Perhaps, though, they'll only be able to access a relatively brief 'window' in this way because, of course, from now on we should be recycling our newspapers - not sticking them in landfills!

Dave Bishop, May 2009

Sunday, 3 May 2009

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

3rd May 1959

Another fine cold day, with no sun, but a clear sky.
The tree is now in full leaf, and many of the seedlings are in leaf, about a quarter of the plot is covered in sycamore seedlings.
The grass is growing rapidly and has in creased in height.
Bluebells are in flower.

What strikes me, in 2009, is the relative 'sparseness' of these early journal entries, particularly in contrast to the flowery scene that greeted me when I visited Barlow Wood last week. I think that there are three possible reasons for this:

- The possibility that the season was noticeably less advanced 50 years ago (global warming and all that) and many of the plants that I saw flowering last Monday were only still in bud in Mrs Broady's day.

- The wood was more sparsely vegetated in 1959, possibly because it was not yet fenced-off and had been extensively trampled over the previous few decades.

- Mrs Broady was a beginner and was still learning the names of the plants that she found. Being a careful and thorough observer she preferred not to commit herself in print until she was sure of the identities of her specimens.


Posted by Dave Bishop, May 2009