Friday, 24 December 2010

Book Review

'Weeds' by Richard Mabey, pub. Profile Books, 2010 (ISBN: 978 1 84668 076 2), 324pp, £15.95.

Not far from where I live is a block of flats. Next to the block is a small car park which is separated from the pavement by a narrow verge. Whoever is responsible for managing this verge seems to have a ‘thing’ about weeds. For a few years the verge was regularly drenched in herbicide and consisted of bare earth with a few tufts of moss. But even this was not good enough for the manager who has recently covered the verge with an impermeable membrane and covered that with bark chippings. This seems an extreme reaction towards some of the, largely harmless, but occasionally inconvenient, organisms that we share the planet with.

In this fine new book Richard Mabey relates another, personal, anecdote about ‘weedophobia’. He and his partner live in a house in rural Norfolk. Outside of their house is a grassy verge which they are deemed to be responsible for. During the spring and summer months this verge produces a fine display of wild flowers, which the Mabeys allow to flourish. Nevertheless, one year some ‘busybody’ neighbours decided that the verge looked untidy and reported the Mabeys to the Parish Council. Mabey defended himself on biodiversity grounds – but when he and his partner went on holiday that year the ‘vigilante busybodies’ moved in and mowed the verge.

Apparently the situation is even worse in the US. In Houston, Texas, for example, it is actually illegal to allow weeds to grow on one’s land. And in Buffalo, New York, some poor soul is facing a bill in excess of $25,000 in fines and legal costs for defending his right to grow native wild flowers on his own front lawn!

Whenever I mention to anyone that I am interested in weeds they do two things: first they smirk and then they tell me that, “a weed is a plant in the wrong place.” But this is purely a human perspective and a weed usually grows in the ecological niche that we have created for it; as Mabey expresses it: “Weeds thrive in the company of humans. They aren’t parasites, because they can exist without us, but we are their natural ecological partners, the species alongside which they do best. They relish the things we do to the soil: clearing forests, digging, farming, dumping nutrient-rich rubbish. They flourish in arable fields, battlefields, parking lots, herbaceous borders ... Above all they use us when we stir the world up, disrupt its settled patterns.”

The word ‘weed’ is largely a pejorative term and the concept of a weed as a bad or troublesome thing probably has deep and ancient roots (excuse the pun!). Mabey discusses the Book of Genesis and notes that: “[its] denouement is exile from the carefree life of foraging to the toil of farming and the eternal curse of ‘thorns and thistles.’ Genesis formed a moral context for weeds, to stigmatise them as more than a simple physical nuisance.” Further, “the geographical references in Genesis -especially the proximity of Assyria and the Euphrates – suggest that its inspiration was some part of the area known as Mesopotamia, where agriculture had been developed 7,000 years before.” Yet, in spite of the antipathy that those ancient farmers had towards weeds (an antipathy inherited by their descendants) those weeds probably held the fragile soils of the Middle East together and prevented them from blowing away; a circumstance which would soon have brought an end to settled civilisation.

There is much more to this beautifully written book. Weeds are put into their botanical, biological, ecological and cultural contexts. We learn about what such important figures as Shakespeare, Ruskin, Clare, Jeffries, Thoreau, Manley Hopkins, Darwin, Salisbury et. al. thought and wrote about weeds and there are chapters on herbalism, weeds as foods and crops, weeds in the garden and agriculture and weeds as portrayed in the Arts. Of great relevance to today’s concerns about biodiversity there is much material on invasive alien weeds in various parts of the world, including the UK.

It has often been noted that modern humans have, largely, lost touch with Nature and are destroying it at an ever increasing rate. As a consequence our own civilisation is in as much danger as that of those early farmers in ancient Mesopotamia – the metaphorical and actual ‘soils’ on which we depend for our very existence will soon blow away. We need to stop examining our own navels start understanding the world around us - fast. Weeds, whether we like it or not (take that smirk off your face!), whether we choose to hate them or despise them or ignore them, are of fundamental importance, and because they are all around us making a study of them can considerably enhance that understanding. If you want to start that process, and go on that journey, you can’t do better than to start by reading this marvellous and timely book.

Dave Bishop, Christmas Eve, 2010

Thursday, 23 December 2010

FoCM Task Days, 2011

Dear Friends,

There are a couple of task days coming up early next year.

Sunday 9th January: Woodland work

Time: 10:30 am

Meet: Ivy Green Car Park on Brookburn Road (opposite Bowling Green pub).

Sunday 6th February: Woodland work

Time: 10:30 am

Meet: Chorlton Ees Car Park (end of cobbled road off Brookburn Road).

As usual I will point out that there are two car parks - please make a careful note of which one is specified for the particular task day.

And, as last year, whether or not these events take place depends very much on the weather (if Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green are under several feet of snow, on one or both of the days in question, it's probably not worth turning up!).

If in doubt e-mail me or give me a ring on 0161 881 6276.

Hotmail e-mail Addresses

I seem to be having problems in sending e-mails to people with Hotmail addresses; they continually bounce back as 'undeliverable' (or some such wording). I have absolutely no idea why this should be so - or what to do about it (if there is anything I can do about it). Nevertheless, if you have not heard from me recently, this may be why.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,

Dave Bishop

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

New Plant Finds in the Mersey Valley, 2010

If anyone at all reads this blog regularly (is there anybody out there?) they may have noticed that I haven’t contributed as many articles to it this year, as I did last year – although there have been some excellent contributions from others.
The reason why I haven’t been so active here is because I’ve spent the Spring, Summer and Autumn botanising quite intensively and putting my records on to an electronic database (MapMate) so that I can share them with the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit and others. And what a year it’s been for remarkable finds! The other evening, members of the Manchester Field Club were invited to put together short presentations of around 20 photographs on subjects of their choice. Mine was entitled, ‘New Plant Finds, Mersey Valley, 2010’. It contained 23 or 24 photographs – but it could easily have contained twice as many! But in this article I’ll confine myself to my three best finds. All three of these plants are native species and they’re remarkable because, if you’d asked me about them last year, I would have said, off the top of my head, that all three were probably either extinct in the Mersey Valley or had not been recorded here before. So here are my accounts of the three plants:

Meadow Saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata) (Top photograph)

The word ‘Saxifrage’ means ‘stone breaker’. This is because most species in this genus are upland or alpine ones, which often grow out of cracks in rocks and cliff faces and give the impression that they are splitting the rock with their roots. In spite of this they are often very beautiful and delicate plants, much prized by alpine gardeners. I’ve seen some fabulous examples in the mountains of Eastern Europe. In Britain we’ve got about 17 or 18 species (including naturalised aliens) and some of the upland ones are among our rarest plants. Meadow Saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata), on the other hand, is atypical because it is often found in lowland meadows. Indeed it is now regarded as an indicator plant of unimproved grassland (now one of the rarest habitats in Britain).

In the mid 19th Century the great Manchester botanist, Leo Grindon reported in his book, ‘The Manchester Flora’ (1859) that Meadow Saxifrage was: “Plentiful about Mobberley, Ringway and Jackson’s Boat”, suggesting that it once grew in our local hay meadows. Nevertheless, Grindon’s contemporary, Richard Buxton, in his book, ‘A Botanical Guide’ (1849), has no local record for it – and as he didn’t appear to miss much, I can only conclude that Meadow Saxifrage was not common around here at that time.

Given this background and the fact that, in the contemporary Mersey Valley, anything vaguely resembling unimproved grassland has been reduced to a few tatty little scraps, I would have said that the chances of finding Meadow Saxifrage in 2010 were effectively zero (although I lived in hope). So imagine my amazement, one day last May, when I spotted two or three plants growing on the river bank on the Chorlton side of Princess Parkway! I don’t think my ‘flabber’ has ever been quite so ‘gasted’!

I thought that Grindon’s record was the last one before mine, but Dave Earle, who is the Botanical Society of the British Isles Vice County Recorder for South Lancashire (VC 59), tells me that there is a local record from 1950. But that still means that my record is probably the first for 60 years!

Common Broomrape (Orobanche minor) (Middle photograph)

Broomrapes are strange and sinister plants which are parasitic on other plants. Because they obtain all of their nutrients from their hosts they have no chlorophyll. There are 9 or 10 species in Britain, many of them rare or very rare. Most of these species are very host specific.

In Southern and Eastern Europe Broomrapes are much more common than they are here.

One species, Greater Broomrape (O. rapum-genistae), parasitises Broom and Gorse and has given its name to the whole group. Curiously, it is not called Broomrape because it ‘rapes’ its host but because the base of the plant is bulbous and turnip shaped; note that turnips belong to the species Brassica rapa.

Richard Buxton and Leo Grindon recorded instances of O. rapum-genistae in the Manchester area but they left no Mersey Valley records. Later floras (published in the 1960s/70s) suggested that this species is now extinct in the Manchester region.

I have not yet seen any records for Common Broomrape in the Mersey Valley. As a result I was stunned to find some specimens in East Didsbury back in July. The site was on the bank of a ditch not far from the river. I glimpsed, what appeared to be, a small vertical stick on the opposite bank of the ditch, under a tree, and knew instantly what it was. When I crossed the ditch I was able to find 11 plants in total. The only mystery is what were they parasitizing? O. minor is not as host specific as some other species but it tends to favour members of the Pea family (Fabaceae) and Daisy family (Asteraceae). But members of neither of these two groups were immediately visible. To complicate matters the Broomrape plants were growing amongst a patch of Ivy. There is a Broomrape specific to Ivy (O. hederae) but I don’t think that my plants were of that species. Ivy Broomrape tends to be confined to the Bristol area in Britain (and I have seen it there).

So, is mine the first ever record of O.minor in the Mersey Valley? And is O. rapum-genistae really extinct locally? I shall now have to check every Gorse and Broom bush that I see!

Common Storksbill (Erodium cicutarium) (Bottom photograph)

Storksbills are members of the Geranium family (Geraniaceae) but our four native species tend to be somewhat less common than many of their ‘true’ Geranium cousins. Three of these native species are almost exclusively seaside plants but Common Storksbill is found inland as well. Many members of the Geraniaceae have ‘beak-like’ fruits but those of Storksbills tend to be proportionately longer than those of Geraniums. It doesn’t need much imagination to visualise these fruits as storks’ beaks or bills (hence the common name).

In the 19th Century Richard Buxton found Common Storksbill, “... near Chorlton” - but didn’t elaborate further. Leo Grindon gave no specific Mersey Valley locations for the plant but wrote: “[It occurs] in cultivated fields and by dry waysides, but [it] is not a common plant”. This suggests that it might have been a rather scarce weed of cultivated fields around here.

In August of this year I found a single specimen of this plant near Northenden. The site was the area known as Kenworthy Woods. This is, essentially, a little bit of land left over from building the motorway and planted with Alders and other trees. Of course the authorities can’t leave any scraps like this alone (I suspect that they’re an affront to their ambition to concrete over as much of the planet as possible). So, in 2008, the Highways Agency (HA) dug part of it up to “improve the drainage”. These days the ‘concreters-over’ (probably much to their disgust) have to mitigate for any loss of biodiversity and so the HA has built a small pond in the middle of the site. Curiously, though, the most important effect of the disturbance was unintended. Last year and this year dozens of old agricultural weeds appeared, presumably because the seed bank was still in the soil and was brought to the surface by the disturbance. Poppies, Black Grass, Charlock, Stinkweed, Swine-cress, Field Penny-cress, Scarlet Pimpernel and several others appeared and flowered; but the ‘jewel-in-the-crown’ was Common Storksbill.

Unfortunately, the HA have scattered Perennial Rye Grass seed all over the site (Why? Why not let it re-vegetate naturally?). This grass already covers much of the site - which will soon be as boring as a suburban lawn.

Dave Bishop, December 2010

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Owl Boxes on Ivy Green

Recently we received a cash grant from Manchester City Council which has allowed us to purchase some bird and bat boxes for the Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green Local Nature Reserve. The credit for this must go to our Treasurer, John Agar who worked tirelessly to secure the grant.

We agreed that part of the grant should be spent on owl boxes. John researched this subject on the Internet and found a fascinating website called, ‘Gods Own Clay’ (www.godsownclay.com). The authors of this website live in the Weald of Kent and it covers the wildlife of this specific corner of the county, but with a particular focus on Tawny Owls. Among much other information the website contains a useful comparison of commercially available owl boxes. Those sold by a company in Burnley, called Valley Bird Boxes, were particularly highly recommended for the following reasons:

• Professional design and sturdy construction.

• Lots of room inside.

• A ledge for any chicks to perch on: apparently these chicks are rather prone to falling out of the nest and the ledge is an all-important safety feature.

• Ease of cleaning.

They seemed ideal for our purposes so John contacted Ian Waddington of Valley Bird Boxes and arranged to purchase two boxes. You can see a picture of one of these boxes in the top photograph above.

The boxes have to be mounted quite high up on the trunk of a sturdy tree and this is a specialised job requiring appropriate equipment and climbing skills.
John and I identified, what we believed to be, two suitable trees on Ivy Green and Ian and his son Sam came down and fixed a box to each of these trees. Sam did the climbing and the fixing and it looked like strenuous job requiring a good head for heights. You can see Sam working up a tree in the lower photograph.

All we have to do now is to wait for some owls to find the boxes.

For the record, a Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) is about the size of a pigeon. It has a rounded body and head, with a ring of dark feathers around its face surrounding the dark eyes. It is mainly reddish brown above and paler underneath. These birds usually start to nest from late February/early March onwards. They used to nest in rot holes in old trees but there are far fewer of these now than there used to be and modern arboricultural practices lead to far fewer rot holes in younger trees.

You might like to have a wander around Ivy Green to see if you can spot these boxes, then, having spotted them, you might also like to make a record if you see any owls using them. Please drop us an e-mail and let us know if you do see any.

Just a word of warning: I’ve read that owls can be aggressive if they’ve got chicks in the nest – although this should only be a problem if you do something silly like climbing the tree and trying to see inside the nest!

Dave Bishop
November 2010

A reminder for this coming Sunday’s Birdwatching For Beginners (winter migrants) walk

On Sunday 21st November 2010, Friends of Chorlton Meadows members will be leading a Birdwatching For Beginners walk. It is a free two-hour walk around Chorlton Meadows and Sale Water Park, with the intention of getting beginners young and old into birdwatching.

FoCM members will be on hand to point out any winter visitors and other birds that make their home in this beautiful mixture of grassland, woodland and water habits.

Timetable For The Day
9.45 – 10.00 Meet at Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre, Rifle Road, Sale (near Sale Water Park).
10.00 Introduction, housekeeping and walk plans
10.05 Walk along Sale Water Park to bird hide at Broad Ees Dole nature reserve
10.35 From Broad Ees Dole along River Mersey to Chorlton Ees
11.15 Walk around Chorlton Ees and Chorlton Meadows to Jackson’s Boat
12:00 Arrive back at Visitors’ Centre for final review and dispersal

Bring binoculars if you can, though some provided by Friends of Chorlton Meadows members will be available on the day.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Biodiversity - The Start of a Revolution?

Back in August the Guardian newspaper published an article by its Environment editor, John Vidal. The article quoted Ahmed Djoghlaf, the Secretary General of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, who warned: “What we are seeing today is a total disaster. No country has met its targets to protect nature. We are losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. If current levels [of destruction] go on we will reach a tipping point very soon. The future of the planet depends on governments taking action very soon.”

The article also quoted the UN Environment Programme who reported that the Earth is in the middle of a mass extinction of life. Scientists estimate that 150 – 200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1000 times the natural, background extinction rate and is greater than anything the world has experienced since the dinosaurs [went extinct] nearly 65 million years ago.

Djoghlaf went on to warn that: “Destroying biodiversity only increases economic insecurity. The more you lose it, the more you lose the chance to grow.” He went on to criticise countries for separating action on climate change from protecting biodiversity. “The loss of biodiversity exacerbates climate change ... Climate change cannot be solved without action on biodiversity and vice versa.”
The article anticipated a UN report which was due out last month. This was expected to say that the economic case for global action to stop species destruction is even more powerful than the argument for tackling climate change and that saving biodiversity is cost-effective and the benefits from saving ‘natural goods and services’, such as pollination, medicines, fertile soils, clean air and water, are between 10 and 100 times the cost of saving the habitats and species that provide them.

In October representatives of more than 190 countries met in Nagoya, Japan to attempt to agree on a global strategy for conserving biodiversity under the umbrella of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The omens were not good – we all know what happened at the Copenhagen Climate Change conference last year! Nevertheless, the Nagoya conference agreed, at the 11th hour, on an ambitious conservation programme which included 20 key ‘strategic goals’ to be implemented by 2020 that should help to end the current mass extinction of species. It is intended that greater protection will be afforded to the natural world and enshrine the benefits it gives to humankind in a legally binding code of protection (‘The Independent’, 30th October 2010).

In the same edition of ‘The Independent’ Michael McCarthy commented that: “At the very least, the signing of the agreement in Nagoya ... is the moment when the international community at last began to take the destruction of the natural world seriously.” He went on to point out that: “Biodiversity loss has long been the Cinderella of global politics. For many years, while governments have prioritised the reduction of world poverty ... and the real threat of climate change, the remorseless destruction of the world’s habitats, ecosystems, species and natural genetic material has been an afterthought.” He regretted the fact that: “... the generation of politicians who made a first attempt at saving the planet at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, not only established a UN Convention on Climate Change [but also] the UN Convention on Biodiversity. But while the climate treaty has grown in importance ... the [biodiversity treaty] has never attracted the attention of world leaders.” He neatly encapsulated the whole dilemma that we have faced up to now in the following sentence: “The world’s politicians are at last waking up to the fact that this is not a matter of concern merely for middle-class birdwatchers, as some developmentalists used to dismiss it, but a threat to the fabric of all life, including our own [my italics].”

From now on it should be more difficult for people to say the sorts of things that they frequently say to me, e.g. “you care more about a few weeds than you do about people!” People are part of the fabric of life (whether some of them like it or not – it’s an inescapable fact) and if the present generation of people succeed in ‘winning’ the present vicious war against Nature their descendants will be the ultimate losers; it’s highly likely that the Human Race will follow thousands of other species to extinction. I think that it would be beneficial to stop talking in terms of “saving the planet” and more in terms of, “saving the Human Race”.

The buzzword among businessmen, economists and politicians at the moment is ‘globalisation’; they envisage a homogenised world in which goods, services and labour can be freely exchanged and shuttled around for their convenience and profit. But concern for biodiversity (and diversity in general) is about valuing and conserving the local; I strongly suspect that a truly globalised world would very soon be a dead world (or one not worth living in).

So what’s happening in our local patch of the world i.e. South Manchester? Well, the year 2010 is supposed to be UN International Year of Biodiversity but I know that, in Chorlton alone, we’ve lost at least three species this year (and I know which organisations are responsible). And there is more destruction in the pipeline e.g. the plan to push the Metrolink tram system through the Hardy Farm Site of Biological Importance and across the Mersey to Wythenshawe and the airport. GMPTE and their contractors assure us that they intend to put adequate mitigation measures in place – but I fear that more local extinctions will be inevitable.

For many years I had assumed that local politicians saw us conservationists as, at worst, a mild irritant – a bunch of eccentric “middle-class birdwatchers” and, at best, insignificant ‘bugs’ to be squidged under the vast tyres of the mighty juggernauts ‘progress’ and ‘economic growth’ (along with all the real, insignificant and eminently squidgeable, bugs). But even that is beginning to change. In October Mr John Leech, MP for Withington, put the following motion before the House of Commons:

That this House notes that 2010 is the UN's International Year for Biodiversity; believes that the alarming rate of biodiversity loss is not only an environmental problem but also threatens people's livelihoods, human well-being and economic progress, as well as undermining capacity to address other major challenges such as climate change; further believes that the 10th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (Nagoya, Japan, October 2010) is an opportunity for governments to signpost sustainable ways to manage the planet's limited resources to reduce global poverty, as are the upcoming international negotiations on climate change in Cancun; welcomes the report Banking on Biodiversity: a natural way out of poverty, published by the International Institute for Environment and Development and Bird Life International to coincide with these important international meetings; agrees with this report that human prosperity is rooted in nature's riches and that governments must fully recognise the economic value of natural capital or risk deepening poverty, escalating climate change and irreversible damage to the biological wealth on which all humankind depends; and calls on the Government to contribute positively to the greener economic thinking that is required and to advocate greater integration of strategies to reduce poverty, tackle climate change and halt biodiversity loss.

When I last checked 22 other MPs has signed this motion, including Caroline Lucas and Glenda Jackson. Let’s hope that all of the other MPs in the House will see sense and catch up with our elected representative for South Manchester very soon! I hope that if you feel strongly about this (one way or the other) you will take the time to write to Mr Leech and give him your views; this is one area where we really are, “all in this together”!

I’ll leave you with a sobering thought: the Human Race, in its present form, is probably about 2 million years old – that’s 20 thousand centuries. If we keep on consuming and destroying the world at our present ferocious rate we might only have two or three more centuries left!

Dave Bishop,
November 2010

Monday, 20 September 2010

Some Autumn Events for your diary

Saturday 25th September. Bat and Moth Night at Sale Water Park. Join Friends of Chorlton Meadows naturalists Ben Smart (moths) and Richard Gardner (bats) to see and hear some of the life flying around the Mersey Valley by night. Note that you need to book your place on this event by calling the Mersey Valley Wardens on 0161 905 1100. You can obtain meeting place and time when you make your booking.

Saturday 2nd October. Friends of Chorlton Meadows Changing Seasons Nature Walk. Come and find out how plants, birds, mammals and other living things respond to the changing season. Meet at Chorlton Ees car park (at the end of the cobbled road off Brookburn Road) at 10:30 am.

Sunday November 21st. Winter Migrants Bird Identification for Beginners. This walk will be led by FoCM ornithologist, Julian Robinson. Meet at Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre, Rifle Road, Sale (near Sale Water Park) at 9:45 am.

There might be a couple of more events that we'll slot in somewhere - watch this space. And don't forget the AGM on the 30th September, at Chorlton Library at 7:00 pm.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A Rare Butterfly Siting by Ben Smart and Peter Hardy

FoCM Moth Expert, Ben Smart e-mailed me yesterday with the following exciting news:

It’s been a long time since I saw a new (for me) butterfly here in the Mersey Valley. I found a Purple Hairstreak today (29.8.10) nectaring on Canadian Golden-rod in my back garden on Redland Crescent! The butterfly presumably descended from the nearby group of oaks on Hardy Farm meadow (where the football complex was planned). There are very few records of this butterfly in Greater Manchester. It is very rarely seen even when it does occur as it normally spends its entire life flying and resting at the top of an oak tree. They very rarely descend to nectar. Unfortunately the butterfly was very worn, so not as photogenic as the ones at:


Some of my photographs are included above.

It’s worth looking for the adults flying around the tops of oak trees within its flight period (July and August), or even for the eggs on oak twigs.
I emailed Peter Hardy (butterfly recorder for Greater Manchester) with the record. He replied:

“Ben, this is quite amazing. I have NEVER heard of this species using Canadian Golden-Rod before (I do have one record on file of Satyrium w-album (White-letter Hairstreak) using this plant, gleaned from a "Butterfly conservation news" magazine in 1994, but no other Hairstreaks).
The nearest location to you where I have definitely recorded Neozephyrus quercus (Purple Hairstreak) is on the line of oaks adjacent to the overflow river channel between the canal and Chester Road, Stretford, SJ793935, in July 2006; I have looked for it annually since then but not seen it. Even on that 2006 occasion they were only visible with great difficulty (and with the assistance of P.M.Kinder's sharper eyes) as tiny dots up in the trees. In 2007 I think I saw one in the Southern Cemetery, which isn't far from you, but was unsure and could not record it.
I believe the species is quite widely distributed over greater Manchester but extremely difficult to see on account of its tree-top habits. I have certainly never seen one in anywhere remotely near a photographable position so I do hope you were successful in attempting to photograph it.”

Ben Smart and Peter Hardy, August 2010

If you are interested in butterflies you may like to have a look at Peter’s Butterfly website is at: www.pbh-butterflies.yolasite.com

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Mystery Caterpillars by John Agar

Below FoCM Treasurer, John Agar describes some mysterious caterpillars that he spotted on a Chorlton postbox:

On the 10th of June, driving along Ryebank Road, Chorlton, I was puzzled to see that the normally red postbox appeared to be green. On closer inspection I was surprised to see it was covered in hundreds of green caterpillars. I had no idea of what the species might be, however, since moth species greatly outnumber those of butterflies I assumed they must be moth caterpillars.

The postbox was situated approximately three meters from an ash tree growing in a neighbouring garden and behind a privet hedge, clearly one or both must be the host plant. I checked several books, but given that there are in the region of 2,500 species of moth, and many green caterpillars, I was unable to identify the species.

Fortunately help was at hand in the person of, fellow FoCM member, Ben Smart. Imagine my surprise when Ben informed me that the caterpillars were not that of a moth but of an Ash Sawfly, the shape of the head and the five or six pairs of abdominal prolegs being the key to identification. Ben further informs me that there are seven British species that feed on ash (http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/sawfly/) .

On checking the photos he`s sure it is the Ash Sawfly (Tomostethus migritus) a species that can experience population explosions leading it to devastate foliage. Ben`s view is that the larvae had descended from the ash in search of further food plant.

The tree had been severely cut back in recent times and the foliage present, although limited, showed no sign of damage. Is it possible that leaf litter from the tree could have been blown into the box and the larvae were emerging from within?
It seems improbable but perhaps not impossible. Why if the larvae were seeking further food plant would they be concentrated in such large numbers on a bright red postbox? I assume that, in common with other flies, they have compound eyes and see colour differently to us, perhaps that answers the question. If anyone can enlighten me please do so.

Ben visited the site but could only find one larva, which he took to try and rear through to absolutely confirm ID.

I am indebted to Ben for his help and input.

John Agar, July 2010


The Sawflies: Suborder Symphyta

The insects in this suborder have no obvious `waist `between the thorax and the abdomen .They get their name because most females have a saw-like ovipositor, although in some species it works more like a drill. The eggs are nearly always laid inside plant tissue and the larvae are all vegetarian. There are over 400 British species.


Collins Complete British Insects by Michael Chinery

Friday, 16 July 2010

Report (rather late!) on the Birdwatching For Beginners walk on 6th June 2010

12 hardy people attended this event, taking place on a drizzly Sunday around Sale Water Park and Chorlton Meadows. The walk encompassed a variety of habitats around this diverse part of the Mersey Valley.

FoCM member John Agar had arranged for the feeders outside the visitors’ centre at Sale to be topped up with food, and, sure enough, his foresight paid dividends as, waiting for everyone to arrive, we were lucky enough to watch a Greater Spotted Woodpecker repeatedly come to take food. This gave us all a chance to test out our binoculars, many of which loaned to us by the Mersey Valley and Countryside Warden Service. Thanks again to them for their assistance on the day.

We set off towards the dipping pond adjacent to the visitors’ centre, pausing along the platform to take in the terrain over the marsh. As if on cue, soon after our arrival, we were treated to the sight of a Kestrel appearing overhead and taking up its distinctive hunting behaviour by hovering above the marsh, only a few feet above us. Even better, we witnessed it make a successful kill, a few of the mammal knowledgeable among us even able to identify the prey dangling from its talons as a short-tailed field vole, which the Kestrel took to a nearby tree to eat. This was a wonderful piece of luck (for us, not the vole!), and goes to show you never know what you’ll see, even on what at first seemed like a wet day, low on promise.

Our walk continued along the brook towards Sale Water Park, from the banks of which we added to our list a Sedge Warbler, betrayed to us by its messy trilling call. Our patience paid off as we were also able to catch glimpses of this elusive bird as it volleyed in and out of cover.

Around the lake we added many more species, including Lapwings, Little Grebes and a family of Mute Swans by the bird hide at Broad Ees Dole.

Our final stretch took us through Chorlton Ees, some of the eagle-eyed among us picking out from nearby woodland a number of Herons hidden among the branches. This was the Heronry, a place where Herons nest and breed, and one of Chorlton Meadow’s ornithological jewels. The more we looked, the more we saw, including one posing at the top of a Larch, silhouetted against the sky analogous more to a mango grove than a beauty spot 2 miles outside the city centre!

Our final ‘star’ species was the Reed Warbler, singing constantly from cover in the reed beds at the heart of the meadows. Hearing this bird’s repetitive and chirring song, as opposed to the more variable song of the Sedge Warbler, enabled us to put our ears to the test and appreciate that for many bird species it’s the aural realm where they’re best admired. A few of us saw the bird occasionally flit through the reeds, but it largely remained in cover, brilliantly camouflaged against last year’s dead reed stems.

For more information on the birds in and around Manchester, pay a visit to the Manchester Birding website, where, among many gems, you can find up-to-date records for what’s been seen in and around Chorlton Meadows:


A complete list of birds we saw on the day.

Blackbird - Sale Visitor Centre
Black-headed Gull - Broad Ees Dole
Blue Tit - Sale Visitor Centre
Canada Goose - Broad Ees Dole
Carrion Crow - various locations
Chaffinch - Cow Lane
Chiffchaff - Broad Ees Dole/River Mersey
Coot - various locations
Cormorant - flying east to west towards Sale
Goldfinch - Stretford Ees/Turn Moss
Great Spotted Woodpecker - Sale Visitor Centre
Great Tit - Sale Visitor Centre
Greenfinch - Hardy Farm
Herons and Heronry - Broad Ees Dole, Chorlton Ees
House Martin - Stretford Ees/Turn Moss
Kestrel (successful kill) - Sale Visitor Centre
Lapwing - Broad Ees Dole and Stretford Ees
Little Grebe - Broad Ees Dole
Long-tailed Tit - Broad Ees Dole/River Mersey
Magpie - various locations
Mallard - Sale Water Park
Moorhen - Various locations
Reed Bunting - Sale Water Park and Chorlton Ees
Reed Warbler - Chorlton Ees
Robin - Cow Lane
Sedge Warbler - Sale Visitor Centre
Song Thrush (star singer!) - Stretford Ees/Turn Moss
Swallow - Mersey overflow
Swan with 6 signets - Sale Water Park
Swift - Stretford Ees/Turn Moss

Julian Robinson, August 2010

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Small Ermine Moths by Ben Smart

Many people have remarked, this summer, on the webs smothering certain local trees. Our local Moth expert, Ben Smart, explains all below:

You may have noticed large grey webs coating the leaves of a variety of trees this year. These will usually be made by caterpillars of different species of Small Ermine Moths, and these seem to have appeared in large numbers this year. The particular species can usually be identified on the basis of the tree on which it is feeding. Each web contains large numbers of caterpillars (approx 20-50) feeding gregariously in May and June. Once fully fed the caterpillars move to a nearby branch, form a fresh web, and enter the chrysalis stage of their life-cycle. Again, they do this gregariously, and if you look inside one of these pupal webs, you may see large numbers of chrysalises all lined up together each in its individual white silken cocoon. The adults tend to emerge in June and don’t move far from the foodplant so you may see the adult moth sat on a leaf or on the trunk of the tree. All have small black spots on a white background and are about 1 cm long. The different species are so similar it is often easier to identify the moth by its foodplant.

There are five species that may be found in Chorlton.

Bird-cherry Ermine Moth (Yponomeuta evonymella) – This is the commonest of the family and feeds gregariously on Bird-cherry. It may defoliate the foodplant so much that webs may be formed on neighbouring plants even if unsuitable, in a desperate bid to get the nourishment required for successful development of the caterpillar. This moth can be differentiated from the others as its black spots are smaller and more numerous than the other related species.

Orchard Ermine (Yponomeuta padella) – Caterpillars form webs on hawthorn and blackthorn. The chrysalis has a greenish body with black wing cases. The moth, which emerges from the chrysalis after about two weeks, has a slightly greyer tinge to the forewing than its close relatives.

Apple Ermine (Yponomeuta malinellus) – Webs of these species can be found on the apple trees at Chorlton Water Park. Each contains lots of dense silk, half-chewed foodplant, lots of droppings, and tens of caterpillars. The adult moths are white with grey tips at the end of the forewings, and a small number of black spots.

Spindle Ermine (Yponomeuta cagnagella) – Quite an unusual moth in Chorlton, due to the relative scarcity of its foodplant, Spindle. As with all of these species, with the exception of Y.rorrella, each chrysalis is protected by a white, silken cocoon. The adult moth has a white forewing with a small number of black spots.

Willow Ermine (Yponomeuta rorrella) – A few webs have been found this year on White Willow close to Jackson’s Bridge on the north side of the Mersey. The caterpillar is typical of the Small Ermine moths in that it is grey with a black head and black spots. The adult has a greyish patch on the forewing and grey tips to the wings. The black dots are smaller in size than for most of this family.

Confusion species – There is a moth called the Thistle Ermine (Myelois circumvoluta) that looks similar to these, but is larger, about 1 ½ cm long, and has larger black spots. The caterpillars of this species do not form webs but feed over the winter in the stems of Spear Thistle.

Ben Smart, July 2010

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Report on the Fern Walk with the British Pteridological Society - 29th May, 2010

For some, as yet unexplained, reason the area of the Mersey Valley adjacent to Chorlton has a very rich Pteridophyte (i.e. Fern) flora and some 24 species have been found between Chorlton Water Park in the east and the Stretford border in the west - a distance of approximately 2 miles.

On a wet Saturday in May four members of the Manchester and North Midlands Group of the British Pteridological Society (Yvonne Golding, Roland Ennos, Michael Hayward and Dave Bishop) and three guests (Charlotte Abbas, Katherine Miller and David Rydeheard) set off from Chorlton Water Park with the intention of seeing as many of the local fern species as possible. First we negotiated a narrow, sunken lane at the rear of the Water Park and bordering Chorlton Golf Course. Here we encountered Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) and a luxuriant specimen of Scaly Male Fern (D. affinis). We then moved on to the inelegantly named Barlow Eye Tip – once a landfill site but now a Site of Biological Importance (SBI). Here we found three species of Horsetail: the ubiquitous Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) but also Water Horsetail (E. fluviatile) and Great Horsetail (E. telmateia). The latter species is interesting because in Manchester Museum Herbarium there are specimens of it which were collected from a site nearby in the mid-19th century. The present colony is on the very edge of the site and may have survived all of the various upheavals which occurred around it in the recent past.

Moving further westward along the river bank we came to another SBI known as Lower Hardy Farm. Here, deep in a Birch and Willow copse, is a magnificent stand of Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis). Unfortunately, there is a plan to drive a spur of the Metrolink tram system through this SBI and across the river to Manchester Airport. Various exploratory drilling operations were conducted here recently and the Osmunda plants came within a whisker of being destroyed.

We then inspected the walls of the Withington Sewage Works Pumping Station. Here can be found Intermediate Polypody (Polypodium interjectum), Hartstongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium), Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes ssp. quadrivalens) and Rustyback Fern (Asplenium ceterach). The latter species is a lime-lover and one would not normally expect to encounter it in South Manchester, but there is probably enough lime in the mortar of the sewage works wall to support it (the photograph above is of A.ceterach on the sewage works wall). Unfortunately, the spring of 2010 had been exceptionally dry (in contrast to the day of our walk!) and many of these ferns were somewhat shrivelled.

In a wet area at the back of Brookburn Road Primary School nearby we found our fourth Horsetail –Marsh Horsetail (E. palustre). Then a single specimen of Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant) was seen clinging to the steep bank of Chorlton Brook; Hard Fern is a rare species locally.

By this time, lunch at the Bowling Green beckoned - but not before we had seen Black Spleenwort (Asplenium adiantum-nigrum) and Wall Rue (A. ruta-muraria) in the wall of the old St. Clement’s churchyard. In the pub I was able to show the group a frond of Common Polypody (Polypodium vulgare) which I had gathered the day before from a site somewhat off our line of march.

After lunch we made our way towards the Chorlton Ees SBI. Passing through a strip of woodland we saw a specimen of Soft Shield Fern (Polystichum setiferum) with rather deeply cut fronds. About 20 years ago I was told that this species was believed to be extinct in Greater Manchester – but evidently not, because since that time it has turned up in several other places.

In the midst of a derelict hay meadow on Chorlton Ees we saw a large and impressive colony of Adderstongue Fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum). This species was reported from this area by Richard Buxton in his flora of 1849 and by Leo Grindon in his flora of 1859, and was then thought to have been lost until it was re-found in 1995.
We also spotted Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) in the course of our travels and finally, in a patch of Birch woodland on the edge of the SBI, we saw Broad Buckler Fern (Dryopteris dilatata), Narrow Buckler Fern (D. carthusiana) and more Scaly Male Fern.

Challenges for the future are to look for Equisetum hybrids and Dryopteris hybrids (particularly the hybrid between Broad and Narrow Buckler Ferns). In addition, the name ‘Scaly Male Fern’ actually covers a complex group of species, and it would be nice to know how many of these we have locally.

Dave Bishop, June 2010

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Bees in the Mersey Valley

On Sunday 20th June Bee Expert, Brian Robinson will be leading a walk and talk focussing on bees. This is a free event and everyone is welcome.

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

Time: 10:00 am to 12:00 noon

Join us to learn about bees and their important pollination role. Brian will give a short talk on bee identification and about some of the different species we have locally. This will be followed by a short walk around some flower rich parts of the meadows to find some bees.

Rachael Maskill and Dave Bishop (FoCM)

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Report on Moth, Butterfly and Caterpillar Walk by Ben Smart

This was a joint meeting of the Lancs Moth Group, Butterfly Conservation and FoCM. It was held on the 23rd May, 2010 at Hardy Farm. Ben's report of the meeting is below:

13 attended the walk in baking hot conditions (27oC) looking at this area of the Mersey Valley, where over 600 moths have been recorded. The walk concentrated on those species feeding on birch and on those feeding on grassland, on grasses, vetches and other low-growing plants. Records were made of leaf-mines, larvae and their feeding signs as well as adult moths and butterflies.

Highlights included a beautiful freshly emerged Ruby Tiger (see photograph above), still drying its wings, good numbers of Mother Shipton and Small Yellow Underwing moths, and many caterpillars of Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet on vetch, a couple of which had already formed their cocoons on the surrounding grasses. Nine species of butterfly adults were found including the Small Copper, Common Blue and Holly Blue.
Unfortunately no butterfly caterpillars were seen, although the bright orange eggs of the Orange-tip butterfly, laid on Cuckoo-flower, were located.

Another nice find was the Coleophora albidella larval case on Goat willow (albidella), spotted by the eagle eyes of Dave Bishop, Chair of the Friends of Chorlton Meadows. After checking my records I realised that I had once had the adult of this species to light (see adult at http://ukmoths.org.uk/show.php?bf=532 ), but this was the first time I had seen the case of this species. The case is a dark, pistol-shaped structure coated with hairs from willow catkins and was found attached to the upper surface of a leaf doing a good impression of a bird dropping. Other Coleophora species were found on Creeping Thistle (Coleophora peribenanderi) and hawthorn (probably Coleophora spinella), as well as feeding signs of Coleophora serratella on birch.

Numerous Grapholita lunulana were seen. This moth is a fairly recent arrival to Lancashire but is certainly thriving on this site. Although small, it is a very distinctive species, dark in colour with a crescent shape across the forewings, hence the Latin name lunulana.

Another micro-moth seen in numbers was the Cock’s-foot Moth (Glyphipterix simpliciella). A swarm of these moths were seen flying around a clump of Cock’s foot Grass. Careful examination showed that the dried stems from last year were full of the pupal exuviae, and numerous exit holes from which the adults leave the stem once they have emerged.

A Common Frog and Willow Warblers were also recorded.
All this was followed by much needed refreshments in Jackson’s Boat.
This area has recently been threatened by development with proposals from the private landowner (recently purchased from the University of Manchester) to build a football stadium with turnstiles, fencing, 50ft high floodlights and seven football pitches, including artificial pitches. Fortunately this proposal was soundly rejected by the City Council Planning Committee and the developer withdrew his application - although this is unlikely to be the end of the matter.

The full Lepidoptera species list was:
Eriocrania salopiella – mines on birch
Eriocrania semipurpurella – mine on birch
Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet – larvae and cocoons
Aspilapterix tringipennella – adult
Phyllonorycter ulmifoliella – mine on birch
Glyphipterix simpliciella (Cock’s-foot Moth) – adult
Argyresthia retinella - feeding signs on birch
Coleophora serratella – feeding signs on birch
Coleophora spinella (prob) – larval case on hawthorn
Coleophora albidella – larval case on Goat Willow
Coleophora peribenanderi – larval case on Creeping Thistle
Elachista argentella – adult
Anacampsis blattariella – larva on birch
Aphelia paleana – adult and larva on Ribwort Plantain and vetches
Celypha lacunana – larva on Ribwort Plantain
Ancylis badiana – adult
Grapholita compositella – adult
Grapholita lunulana – adult
Grapholita jungiella – adult
Mother of Pearl (Pleuroptya ruralis) – larva on nettle
Green-veined White – adult
Large White – adult
Orange-tip - egg on Cuckoo Flower, and adult
Common Blue – adult
Holly Blue – adult
Small Copper – adult
Small Tortoiseshell – adult
Peacock – adult
Speckled Wood - adult
Winter Moth – larva on birch
Latticed Heath – adult
Mottled Umber – larva on oak
Ruby Tiger – adult
Sallow – larva
Dun-bar – larva on birch
Small Yellow Underwing – adult
Mother Shipton – adult

Lancs moth group is at: http://www.lancashiremoths.co.uk/
Information on proposed development of Hardy Farm can be found at http://savechorltonmeadows.wordpress.com/
Photos of all moths mentioned can be seen at: ukmoths: http://ukmoths.org.uk/

Ben Smart, May 2010

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A reminder for this coming Sunday’s Birdwatching For Beginners walk

On Sunday 6th of June 2010, Friends of Chorlton Meadows members will be leading a Birdwatching For Beginners walk. It is a free two-hour walk around Chorlton Meadows and Sale Water Park, with the intention of getting beginners young and old into birdwatching.

FoCM members will be on hand to point out any summer visitors and other birds that make their home in this beautiful mixture of grassland, woodland and water habits.

Timetable For The Day

9.45 – 10.00 Meet at Mersey Valley Visitors' Centre, Rifle Road, Sale (near Sale Water Park).
10.00 Introduction, housekeeping and walk plans
10.05 Walk along Sale Water Park to bird hide at Broad Ees Dole nature reserve.
10.35 From Broad Ees Dole along River Mersey to Chorlton Ees.
11.15 Walk around Chorlton Ees and Chorlton Meadows to Jackson’s Boat.
12:00 Arrive back at Visitors’ Centre for final review and dispersal.

Bring binoculars if you can, though some provided by the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service will be available on the day.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Task and Events Summer 2010

Friends of Chorlton Meadows Task and Events Summer 2010.

Search for Moth and Butterfly Caterpillars of Hardy Farm with Ben Smart.
Sunday 23rd May.
10:00 am.
Entrance to Hardy Farm at the end of Hardy Lane, Chorlton.

Fern Walk with the British Pteridological Society (the Fern Society).
Saturday 29th May 2010.
10:30 am.
Chorlton Water Park car park (end of Maitland Avenue).

*Story Walk with Ingrid Burney and Dave Bishop (this is a Chorlton Arts Festival Event).
Sunday 30th May 2010.
1:00 pm – 3:00 pm.
Ivy Green Road Entrance to Ivy Green (Not Ivy Green car park on Brookburn Road).

Bird-watching for Beginners with Julian Robinson.
Sunday 6th June.
9:45 am – noon.
Mersey Valley Visitors’ Centre, Rifle Road, Sale.

*Historic Uses for Wild Plants – A Walk Led by Dave Bishop.
Sunday 27th June 2010.
10:30 am – 1:00 pm.
Chorlton Ees Car Park.

Other events are in the planning stage. We’ll be doing more Himalayan Balsam pulling - as this was quite successful last year. We’re also planning a bee walk (probably also in June) and another moth and bat walk (which will be an evening event in early September). More information is in the Mersey Valley Summer Events Programme: www.merseyvalley.org.uk


Please make a careful note of the venues.

The Chorlton Ees Car Park is at the end of the cobbled Road off Brookburn Road (by the side of Brookburn Road Primary School).

The Ivy Green Road Entrance is about three quarters of the way down Ivy Green Road on the left hand side just past Edward Avenue.

The Hardy Lane Entrance is at the end of Hardy Lane, Chorlton.

The Chorlton Water Park Car Park is at the end of Maitland Avenue (off Barlow Moor Road).

For some tasks and events you may wish to bring a packed lunch. You will also need to wear suitable footwear (boots or wellies) and dress for the weather.

* Note that some of these events are also included on the Mersey Valley Summer Events 2010 Programme

Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service
Website: www.merseyvalley.org.uk
Email: info@merseyvalley.org.uk
Chorlton Water Park: tel. 0161 881 5639
Sale Visitors’ Centre: tel. 0161 905 1100
Dave Bishop (FoCM Chair): tel. 0161 881 6276; mobile: 07947535691 (voice calls only, please!)

Friday, 30 April 2010

Fern Walk with the BPS

The British Pteridological Society (BPS) is the society for anyone interested in Ferns ('Pteridophytes'). I recently joined this society and when I casually mentioned to other members that I had found around 18 species of Ferns in the vicinity of Chorlton Meadows they were very surprised and suggested that this is a very good total - especially in a semi-urban area.

As a result I've been asked to lead a walk which, I hope, will take in as many of the local Ferns as possible. The details of this walk are as follows:

Meeting Point: Chorlton Water Park car park (at the end of Maitland Avenue, Chorlton).

Date: Saturday 29th May 2010

Time: 10:30 am (until approx. 2:30 to 3:00 pm)

My co-leader on the walk will be Dr Yvonne Golding - who is General Secretary of the BPS. As well as being a Fern enthusiast Yvonne is a professional Entomologist and she tells me that she has conducted research on Hoverflies around Chorlton and Sale Water Parks.

The walk is open to non-members of the Society, but if you would like to join us could you please email me beforehand (at davegbishop@aol.com) so that I can get some idea of numbers.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 30th April 2010

Sunday, 18 April 2010


Sorry about the title - I couldn't resist!

The commonest 'wild plum' in flower at the moment is Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). It's gorgeous white blossoms seem to be everywhere. But there are others which are easy to confuse with it.

One species which I've only just discovered (by that I mean, discovered for myself - it's long been known to other botanists, of course!) is Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera). The time and place where I first became aware of it was last autumn at a spot in Stretford in the shadow of the bridge which carries the A56 (Chester Road) over Kickety Brook. At this place there's a little group of black barked trees clustered around an old willow. I suppose, if I'd noticed them at all, I'd probably thought that they were some variety of Blackthorn. But last autumn I noticed that they were bearing little red and yellow plums. Most of these were too high to reach but I was able to gather a few wind-falls which, in spite of their size, were quite sweet and juicy. I waited, a bit impatiently (it has to be said) for the trees to flower - which they did at around the end of March/beginning of April (they tend to flower at least a couple of weeks before Blackthorn). The flowers do look a bit like Blackthorn flowers but are quite a bit larger. Another characteristic of this tree is that the young twigs are green. The tree itself is larger and less thorny than Blackthorn. According to my books P. cerasifera, in the UK, is almost always planted - so who planted my little grove in Stretford, I wonder?

One evening, a couple of days ago, I had a little wander over Hardy Farm with my Field Guide, notebook and camera. In the middle of the SBI was a smallish tree (about 8 to 10 ft high, I would think) absolutely smothered in white blossom (a really breathtaking sight!). I soon realised that this wasn't Blackthorn either. It was, in fact, 'true' Wild Plum (Prunus domestica) although I do need to see the fruits next autumn to be absolutely sure. It's highly likely that this has self-seeded itself in this spot. Many Wild Plums are derived from domesticated fruit trees. They could be derived from Plums, Greengages, Bullaces etc. but are usually so complexly hybridised and back-crossed that even the experts have great difficulty in sorting them out.

I've posted pictures of both of these finds above.

Posted by Dave Bishop, April 2010

Thursday, 25 March 2010

More fires and the search for summer visitors

On Sunday I had a few spare hours so I took a stroll over Lower Hardy Farm towards Barlow Tip at the western end of Chorlton Water Park in search of my first chiffchaff of the season. Chiffchaffs are usually the first of the summer migrant warbler birds to arrive in the UK and although the warblers can be tricky to distinguish by eye the key to identifying the chiffchaff is to listen for its song. It sings it's name by repeating two notes quite close to each other. Sadly, I didn't hear the bird and was instead shocked to see the damage caused by fires all over Lower Hardy Farm and Barlow Tip.

On a more positive note I did have a close encounter with a fox as I disturbed it was hunting for small mammals. It never ceases to surprise me how in the middle of a busy Sunday afternoon with hundreds of joggers, cyclists and dogs passing up and down the Mersey banks what wonders you can be seen in the Mersey Valley when you step off the beaten track. I was particularly captivated by the beauty of this lichen. I don't have any books on lichen but my general British Wildlife book has a similar picture for Hypogymnia physodes. Please comment if you think I've got this one wrong.

Despite the depressing site of acres of burnt vegetation I was pleased to see a common shrew and a short tailed field vole under an old bit of metal sheet I found. I also saw frogs mating and spawning in the pond at Chorlton Water Park, so in spite of the devastation caused through the valley by fires spring is still exerting its very special appeal.

Incidentally, I heard my first chiffchaff of the season on Tuesday at Pickerings Pasture in Widnes.

Posted by Richard Gardner, March 2010

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Firestarter on Chorlton Ees

There have been some developments in this sorry tale. My spies tell me that the police have actually stopped a man who they think is responsible for these fires. Unfortunately, they didn't manage to catch him in the act - so they could only warn him. The warnings don't seem to have had much effect because there have been more fires since he was stopped last week.

Nevertheless, we now have a more detailed description: He is a white male in his late 40s, early 50s. He is clean shaven and has short, greying hair (he may, at times, wear a baseball cap). A witness suggested that he looked a little bit like the actor who played the Scouse builder, 'Moxey' in the TV series 'Aufwiedersehn Pet' (if anyone remembers that?). When stopped by the police he was wearing a sort of 'camel hair coat' with a wide, fleecy collar over a red sweat-shirt. On the right breast of the sweatshirt was a stitched, half-circular motif which may actually have included his name (!) He was also wearing blue trousers or jeans. I believe that he also drives a van - but I have no description of that.

Again, I can only repeat, if you see him hanging around, don't approach him but ring the Police of 0161 872 5050 or the Mersey Valley Warden Service on 0161 881 5639 (Chorlton Water Park) or 0161 905 1100 (Sale Water Park).

Posted by Dave Bishop, March 2010

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Chorlton Ees Heronry

Above is Thomas McEldowney's wonderful picture of a pair of the Herons which are currently nesting on Chorlton Ees.

Thanks, Thomas!

March 2010

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Greater Manchester Local Record Centre - Training Programme 2010

The Greater Manchester Ecology Unit (GMEU) provides specialist advice to, and on behalf of, the ten district councils that make up Greater Manchester on biodiversity, nature conservation and wildlife issues. Although hosted by Tameside MBC, GMEU works across the whole of Greater Manchester. To find out more about GMEU and their roles and objectives go to: www.tameside.gov.uk/ecologyunit .

GMEU houses the Greater Manchester Local Record Centre (GMLRC) which contains detailed records of wildlife in the county. The more information the Record Centre holds the better because it’s through accurate record keeping that GMEU can better identify local areas, habitats and species worthy of conservation and also monitor changes in the local environment. You can do your bit by learning to identify particular groups of plants and animals. If you’re at all interested in wildlife and its conservation, acquiring identification skills and making accurate records of what you see is definitely one of the most important things that you can do.

This spring and summer GMLRC are running a series of species identification training courses for people at beginner and intermediate level.

The courses are as follows:

Tuesday 27th April, Woodland Flora at Healy Dell, Rochdale (Trainer: GMEU)

Thursday 6th May, Identifying Bird by Sight & Song at Sale Water Park (GMEU)

Monday 14th June, Invertebrate Identification & Survey at Reddish Vale, Stockport (Don Stenhouse)

Wednesday 14th July, Wildflowers & Grasses at Chadkirk, Stockport (GMEU)

Wednesday 21st July, Dragonflies & Damselflies at Philips Park, Bury (Dave Winnard)

Each course costs £25

For a booking form and/or further information please e-mail Suzanne Waymont at:

Posted by Dave Bishop, March 2010

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Gatley Carrs in February by Peter Wolstenholme

I'm afraid I'm a bit late in posting Peter's report this month. This is entirely your editor's fault - sorry, Peter!

Between midday and 4 pm on the 6th at least ten flocks of Pinkfooted Geese flew west towards Martin Mere from East Anglia and towards month end two more flocks followed. Tens of thousands were still wintering in East Anglia at month end so there is still scope for further birds flying over in March before the flocks finally depart for Iceland.

Vegetation has been slow to develop because of what is billed as the coldest winter for thirty years, but the Alder Catkins are still to be seen by the stream and both Daffodils and Snowdrops were budding or in flower by month end. Birds of prey this month have included Sparrow Hawk, Buzzard and Kestrel.

By month end Robins are again present in pairs. Hedge Sparrows are in song as are a much smaller number of Wrens than in the autumn. Despite the cold weather there are plenty of species of birds in song, which had not been heard earlier in the winter. A pair of Mistle Thrush are in territory and their slurred song is to be heard at the west end of the poplar plantation. The repeated phrases of Song Thrush are now a feature in several parts of the reserve and the slow dreamy song of Blackbird is again a sound to be listened for from now until the summer. The cheery song of Chaffinch has been a sound we have heard towards month end. Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Nuthatch and Goldcrest have all joined the chorus and it is worth listening out for the drumming of Great Spotted Woodpecker against the trunks of mature trees. In the late evening listen for the hooting call of nesting Tawny Owls.

Do not forget to continue feeding the birds in early spring. Bullfinch, Goldfinch, Blue, Great, Cole and Longtailed Tits have all been visiting bird tables and bird feeders. Fat balls, peanuts and birdseed are all eagerly devoured as the number of insects for the birds to feed on remains pathetically low. During the latter half of the month a male Blackcap has fed on fat and once even ventured to sing for a few minutes. Blackcaps during the winter months are likely to have come from Germany or further afield. Our summering Blackcap are likely to come back in early April, together with other migrants from southern Europe or Africa.

When the pool has been unfrozen during February there have been up to four pairs of Canada Geese prospecting for nesting sites. Up to five pairs of Mallard are also there. Heron hunt on the pool and a pair of Moorhen are in the vegetation. The stream attracts a pair of Grey Wagtails. A Snipe has appeared on the pool but there have been no sightings of Kingfisher since December. Cormorants are still fishing along the cleaner waters of the Mersey.

Up to forty Blackheaded Gulls are feeding on the playing field to the west of the wildflower meadow and by month end there were already a couple with the blackheads of summer plumage.

With best wishes for the warmer spring weather.

Peter Wolstenholme RSPB, Manchester and SK8

Monday, 15 March 2010

UN International Year of Biodiversity - Fire Raising on Chorlton Ees

As well as the authorities doing their very best to destroy our remaining scraps of biodiversity, in what is supposed to be an important and significant year, members of the public are getting in on the act now.
In the last few days several large areas of Chorlton Ees have been deliberately set on fire. This will have killed millions of insects and other invertebrates and killed or endangered many ground nesting birds and small mammals. In addition the vegetation seldom recovers from such fires and what should be species rich grassland will tend to be replaced by a virtual monoculture of Rosebay Willowherb (which is why it's sometimes called "Fireweed").

There have been other such fires, in previous years, usually in March. A picture is building up of the main culprit - but he hasn't been caught yet.

He appears to be in his late 40s to early 50s (hence old enough to know better!). He dresses in "outdoor" clothing and wears a baseball cap. He also carries a black rucksack and brown oil/gas cylinder (which appears to be part of his fire-raising equipment).

We do not know whether this grossly irresponsible and anti-social idiot is dangerous or not, but, to be on the safe side, it's best not to approach him. Nevertheless, if you do get close enough to see any further details of his appearance, without any risk to yourself, please make a note and pass it on to the Police on 0161 872 5050 and/or to the Mersey Valley Wardens on 0161 881 5639 (Chorlton Water Park) or 0161 905 1100 (Sale Water Park).

I had hoped that 2010 would really be a special year in which we would begin to turn the corner and start to value the remaining wildlife in South Manchester. Instead, it's shaping up to be one of the worst years on record with lots of 'officially sanctioned' destruction ongoing and even more in the pipeline. No wonder people like the 'Chorlton Ees firebug' have no respect for the environment!

Dave Bishop, March 2010

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Village Green Application - Help Secure an Undeveloped Future for Hardy Farm

The recent attempt to build a huge sporting development at Hardy Farm has been a 'wake-up call' for the whole community. In spite of its nominal Green Belt status this seemed to count for nothing to the Council's Planning Department who, you will remember, were "minded to approve" the development. It was only because the politicians on the Planning Committee refused to approve the plans, and the developer withdrew them, that we're not now saddled with twelve 49 ft floodlights, eight to ten football pitches (including an astro-turf one), fences, lots of extra cars and coaches parked on local streets, and lots of swearing, litter and late night drinking in the clubhouse that, unfortunately, seems to go with football these days.

As a result several members of the Save Chorlton Meadows group have been looking into the possibility of obtaining Village Green status for Hardy Farm. Below is a message from Joanne Newberry asking for your help:

We are seeking to preserve free access and the right to roam across the meadows for all local people, whilst protecting the meadows from development. Greenbelt status alone is insufficient, but village green status would formalise and safeguard the use over the past twenty-five years as a popular informal open space. This is a positive process to protect our local breathing space, ensuring it continues to be freely available for local residents to access and use, now and in the future.
We need support from as many people in Chorlton as possible. You can help if you, your friends or family have used the meadows (section between the paths to Jackson’s Boat bridge from Hardy Lane and Brookburn Road in Chorltonville) and have lived in Chorlton(within the parish of St Clement...please ask if you're unsure ) at any time in the last twenty years. If you haven’t already filled in a questionnaire, please request one by sending your name, address or contact number to:


Please help with this - it's a great and worthy cause and it's also important that we all do as much as possible to protect our remaining green spaces.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 3rd March 2010

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Gatley Carrs in December 2009 & January 2010

This is Peter Wolstenholme's midwinter report from Gatley Carrs at the eastern (Stockport) end of the Mersey Valley:

Early December temperature remained largely above freezing point. Several flocks of Pinkfeet flew high overhead in a westerly direction. Again there were small numbers of Canada Geese which were either at tree top height or on the pool when it was unfrozen. The first signs of spring were along the stream with blooming alder catkins and pussy willows. Siskins, Redpolls, Bullfinch, Chaffinch and Goldfinch fed among the alders.

Very cold weather with heavy frost and deep snow in early January brought Redwing and Fieldfare foraging in gardens for berries and apples. One or two Blackcaps appeared after the snow - probably winter visitors from central Europe. A Kingfisher on Christmas Day on the stream brought a flash of colour but there have been few seen since the very cold snap. The stream hosted Snipe and Gray Wagtail. During the colder weather Herons visited the stream and garden ponds and even foraged for carrion in the snow.

Throughout the period there were Kestrel, Sparrow Hawks and Buzzard visiting the Carrs. Birdsong has come from Collared Doves, Wood Pigeon, Robin and Dunnock but the numbers of singing Wrens has dropped as numbers have diminished with the cold weather. The milder weather of January has brought back the bright cheery phrases of song from the Song Thrush for the first time since very early autumn. During the next two months there should be plenty of new songsters as the spring chorus of birdsong begins to get established.

Bird feeders have attracted Bullfinch, Greenfinch, Blue, Great, Coal and Longtailed Tits. Birds have fed on Fat Balls, Peanuts, Pale bird seed and Blackbird seed. Some species especially Goldfinch are doing very well with flocks of 60 to 100 gathering in the treetops while others such as Wren seem to have dropped in numbers. Goldcrest have held on in the conifers near the entrance.

In the morning of mid January up to 30 Blackheaded Gulls fed on the playing fields - still in winter plumage. Flocks of up to 80 Jackdaws flew over to roost in late afternoons in a northerly direction and in the evening the hooting of Tawny Owls has come after nightfall.

A bird visit to the Solway Estuary in January brought sightings of an American Wigeon among European Wigeon and over 300 Whooper Swans at Caerlaverock, Purple Sandpiper and Greenshank on the shore at Southerness Point and over 10,000 Barnacle Geese on Blackshaw Merse

With best wishes,

Peter Wolstenholme RSPB Manchester and SK8

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

UN International Year of Biodiversity - January in South Manchester

So, we’re one month and a bit into 2010, the UN International Year of Biodiversity – how are we doing in South Manchester?

Well, as I predicted last December it’s not going terribly well – but not quite as bad as I expected.

We didn’t lose Hardy Farm, as seemed fairly certain a month ago, but the plans were not actually rejected by the Planning Committee because the developer withdrew his application before they could do so. That probably means that he is going to come back at some point with a revised plan – so it’s not over yet.

Contractors acting for the Environment Agency (EA) have been working on that part of Chorlton Brook which flows through the Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green Local Nature Reserve from Brookburn Road to the Mersey. On the plus side they’re actually doing this work during the winter - which makes a change from the usual ‘blitz-everything-during-the spring-just-as-the-birds-are-nesting’ approach. Nevertheless, they’ve chopped down some of the old, multi-stemmed White Willows which lined the brook and were something of a feature of it. No doubt someone decided that these trees were ‘diseased’ or ‘dangerous’ (or even ‘untidy’) – spurious reasons which are usually taken to be of much greater importance than the fact that the older the tree, the more important it is in biodiversity terms. Nevertheless, this is not an acceptable attitude on a nature reserve, where old trees (no matter how ‘decrepit’) are some of the most valuable organisms present. I will start to believe that the authorities have more than a token regard for biodiversity when they start valuing old trees rather than automatically and thoughtlessly cutting them down. Mind you, by that time we probably won’t have any old trees left to value!

The old trees that we have lost were covered in mosses and lichens and would have been rich in insects and other invertebrates. They would also have provided nesting and roosting opportunities for birds and bats. What is more, old trees develop more of these associations as they grow older. I suspect that they were just reaching a stage where they were beginning to become really interesting. Sadly, at this particular stage, they begin to look ‘untidy’ and ‘dangerous’, with broken limbs and rot holes, and some officious, know-nothing busybody is likely to come along and condemn them as ‘diseased’. No doubt they can be ‘dangerous’ ... if you stand underneath one in the middle of the night in a high wind! But this is also true of ‘healthy’ (looking) planted trees - which often have weakened root systems (quite a few of these have blown down in winter gales over the last few years).

I’m prepared to bet that, at some point, if this article and the protest letter I’ve written to the EA have any effect at all, they will promise to plant new trees. But, as I’ve argued many times before, tree planting has very little to do with conservation. Conservation is about valuing, retaining and enhancing what is there already – it is not about introducing new things.

The fate of the trunks and branches of the felled willows is also causing me some concern. At the moment they are stacked by various paths through the reserve. Already some of this wood has been shredded (in an industrial ‘tree-mincer’) and the resulting chippings sprayed on to the ground. Not only is this an unsustainable method of disposing of biomass, it also smothers the native vegetation. I am constantly amazed at the way the ‘tree-mincer’ operators always manage to choose the most sensitive areas possible to smother with their chippings. For example, on the north side of the brook there’s a little patch of a plant called Barren Strawberry (Potentilla sterilis) – it’s the only place in the whole reserve where this plant grows but it’s been unerringly smothered in chippings. On the south side there are some patches of an interesting plant called Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium) and the biggest and best of these patches has been singled out for the chippings treatment. We’re also at risk of losing our only specimens of Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant), Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris), Wood Anenome (Anenome nemorosa) and Black Currant (Ribes nigrum) which all grow on or near the banks of the brook.

It’s important to bear in mind, of course, that the EA are doing this work in order to protect us from flooding, but I can’t help thinking that if there was regular maintenance on the brook, rather than a major ‘blitzing’ every few decades, the effects on wildlife might be less catastrophic.

So it would seem that our Local Nature Reserve has almost certainly had its net biodiversity reduced; and it certainly hasn’t had it enhanced!

Elsewhere in South Manchester contractors working for the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive (GMPTE) have been working on the new Metrolink line which will eventually run from Old Trafford to Didsbury. You will recall that this service will follow the route of the old Midland Railway line – which was abandoned in the 1960s and had, in the intervening 50 years, transformed into a rich wildlife corridor. In spite of promises to conserve biodiversity along this route, not much of the embankments along the Old Trafford to Chorlton section seem to be left. This has caused so much concern among certain residents of properties adjoining the Chorlton to Didsbury section that they have attached “save our trees” notices to trackside trees and marked them off with yellow tape! GMPTE have promised to plant five trees for every one tree that they remove - but this is pure developers’ tokenism, and as the regions through which the line will run are heavily built up, it’s not at all clear where all these trees will be planted.

Anyone who has tried to walk along this route, in the last few years, will know that much of it is/was flooded. In an area where most of our historic ponds have disappeared these flooded areas formed an important local habitat for water plants, water-living invertebrates, amphibians etc. GMPTE have, rather belatedly, submitted some plans for some replacement ponds – but these are, surely, at least a couple of years too late?

So, where are we up to in South Manchester in this UN International Year of Biodiversity? Well: ‘quite a few losses, hardly any gains’, probably sums it up fairly well. There have been some concessions: like working in the winter rather than the spring (a big advance) - but there’s a general impression that engineering considerations come first and the obligations that organisations have towards biodiversity are still not taken as seriously as they should be, and tend to be seen as a bit of an afterthought, or even something to be avoided if possible.

I’m planning for this to be the first of a number of such articles on biodiversity in South Manchester during this important year. Although I shall have no hesitation in naming and shaming organisations which destroy our wildlife and their habitats this year, I will also be looking and reporting on any examples of good practise that I come across.

Dave Bishop, February 2010

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Valuing Manchester's Wildlife Questionnaire

Manchester City Council would like the people of Manchester to have their say about wildlife in the city. They have therefore prepared a questionnaire entitled 'Valuing Manchester's Wildlife'. You can find it here:


You may need to cut and paste this link into your browser.

To be quite honest I have some reservations about this (e.g. Should wildlife be the subject of a popularity contest? And will this jolt us out of the 'conservation is all about tree planting' groove that we seem to be stuck in?).

Nevertheless, I urge you all to fill this in and make your views known. The deadline for completing the questionnaire is the end of March. If you choose to fill in the 'About You' section at the end of the questionnaire, your details will be entered into a prize draw.

Dave Bishop, January 2010

Friday, 15 January 2010

A Famous Victory in the Fight for Hardy Farm!

Yesterday was a great day for the Mersey Valley, and the local community in Chorlton and South Manchester, when Manchester City Council Planning and Highways Committee rejected plans to build a huge sporting complex on Hardy Farm.

The day started with a visit, by the Committee, to the site. The ‘Save Chorlton Meadows’ group were well prepared for this visit: the proposed astro-turf and all-weather pitches had been marked out with tape and members of the group were stationed at the corners with large red balloons. Other, helium filled, balloons on 49 ft long strings, indicated the positions and heights of the proposed floodlights. Several members of the group addressed the committee but the key speakers were local residents Nigel Lewis, Karen Pertoldi and me. I restricted my remarks to the subject of local biodiversity but the other speakers covered other topics including noise and light pollution, access and visual amenity. Other people, of the 100 or so people who attended, had an opportunity to express their own concerns – for example one lady raised the very important subject of possible contamination from the underlying tip if the overlying soil cap were to be disturbed. I thought that all of the speakers expressed very eloquently to the Committee the importance of this much loved open, green space to the local community. Although passions were running high on the day, and there was a lot at stake, the event was generally peaceful and restrained with only a couple of raised voices.

In the afternoon we all went to Manchester Town Hall to hear the debate in the council chamber. Jonathan Green spoke for the action group and, in a heroic effort, managed to convey most of our concerns in the scant four minutes allowed. Local politicians, Cllr. Sheila Newman, Cllr. Val Stevens, Cllr. Paul Ankers, Cllr. Norman Lewis and John Leech MP all then spoke out against the development. It’s been a feature of this campaign that all of the local politicians have supported it. The agent for the West Didsbury and Chorlton Football Club then spoke in support of the development (he was also allowed four minutes).

The Committee then debated the issue. The Chair of the Committee, Cllr. Tony Burns, indicated that the formal debate was not a public event and that members of the public could not participate. To be honest I was expecting the worst – after all the Council’s own officers, in their report, had been “minded to approve” the development; so when Cllr. Andrew Fender, who opened the debate, ended his remarks by stating that he could not support it my jaw dropped! Several other members of the Committee also spoke out against the plans and the vote, when it came, was unanimous – the Committee moved to reject the development.

What followed was a bit of an anti-climax. Cllr. Burns instructed the Council Officers to prepare a case justifying the Committee’s decision and to submit this by the end of that day’s meeting. I think that the members of the Action Group were somewhat puzzled by this procedural nicety and sort of drifted off in a bit of a daze. I’d certainly had more excitement than I could cope with by that point so went to the pub with a couple of friends.

I think that Karen Pertoldi nicely summed up the day, and the campaign generally, in a subsequent email:

“... what a wonderful example of community spirit, team work, brilliant organisation, never ending positivity and enthusiasm, and determination not to give up. People power at its best.”

Although we’ve got every right to celebrate we must bear in mind that it’s not over yet. The Football Club still owns the land and they can appeal against the Committee’s decision or submit scaled down plans at a later date. We should not disband the Action Group just yet.

So that’s twice now, in 20 years, that I’ve been involved in battles over attempts to develop Hardy Farm. The first time was over UMIST’s plans to stabilise the water-logged pitches, by dumping builders’ rubble on to them, in 1990 (see ‘The Great Mersey Valley Revolt of 1990, FoCM blog 08.05.2009). It just goes to show that the Mersey Valley, whoever may own bits of it, is very much seen as a vital, and much loved, community resource and that, when it’s threatened, local people will fight to conserve it. Developers and spoilers beware! We’ve got teeth!

Dave Bishop, 15.01.2010