Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Fallowfield Loop and 'Greening the Greenways'

The Fallowfield Loop (‘Floop’) is an off-road cycle path, pedestrian and horse riding route from Chorlton-cum-Hardy through Fallowfield and Levenshulme to Gorton and Fairfield in Manchester. It is part of the National Cycle Network of routes and paths developed and built by the cycling charity Sustrans. It is part of National Route 6 of the National Cycle Network which, when complete, will connect London and Keswick in Cumbria.

At 8 miles long the Fallowfield Loop is thought to be the longest urban cycleway in Britain. It was previously part of the old ‘Manchester Central Station Railway’, built in the 1890s and closed in 1968.

 The line had lain derelict for many years until the late 1990s, when a group of cyclists started campaigning for its conversion to a traffic free ‘greenway’ across south Manchester. That group, together with supporters from local civic societies and other community groups, formally became the ‘Friends of the Fallowfield Loop’ in June 2001. The route is now mostly owned by Sustrans, a charity which specialises in building off-road cycle routes. They have partly funded conversion of the route, together with Manchester City Council, Sainsbury’s and others.

The overall aim of the ‘Friends’ is to encourage and support all the partners in the Fallowfield Loop route to provide and maintain a first-class community resource and to encourage As many people as possible to use it.

The Floop creates a linear park and wildlife corridor, linking parks and open spaces. It has an interesting flora – some of which may represent all that’s left of the lost, ancient rural landscape of South Manchester. Some of the intriguing plants that I have found, over the last few years, include:

Hedge Parsley (Torilis japonica) – which is by no means uncommon nationally but is very rare in South Manchester – presumably because its precise habitat requirements are now only met by one little patch of ground by the Floop (?)
The scarce, pink-flowered bindweed hybrid Calystegia x howittiorum (although the exact identity of this plant needs to be confirmed).

Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis)

A Sphagnum moss (S. capillifolium)


The presence of the latter two plants suggest that the surrounding land was probably once much boggier – and it’s a miracle, really, that they have survived.
An evergreen, Chinese Honeysuckle (Lonicera henryii). This latter plant is obviously a garden escape – but I’ve never found it anywhere else.

Because of my interest in the Floop’s flora, I was delighted to learn, recently, of Sustrans’ ‘Greener Greenways’ project which started this spring (2013) and is a 3.5 year project that they are running in England on certain sections of their cycling routes. The project is funded by the Esme Fairburn trust and has allowed Sustrans to employ two ecologists to run the project. The outline of the project is in stages, beginning with the baseline surveying of the ecological status of 280 kilometres of cycling routes. The chosen sections are not all that Sustrans owns, or has management liability for, but they represent the majority of its holdings and hence some very significant sections.

The roll out of the programme will allow Sustrans to systematically build up their knowledge of the biodiversity of their greenways. They are aware that many of their volunteers have an interest and expertise in this field and hope to engage with that pool of enthusiasm and knowledge as the projects develops.
Once the 280kms of survey have been completed, mapped and analysed – the findings will inform Sustran’s ecology team and allow them to develop fuller management plans for the designated routes. They believe that this will allow them to make very practical but balanced decisions on work priorities for the routes and the wildlife corridors they run through. In turn, these plans will help to contribute to work plans that Sustrans staff and volunteers will be able to share.
Ultimately, Sustrans would like to recruit Wildlife Champions from their volunteer team and/or the local communities along their greenways. Potentially each champion could take on such a role for any given one kilometre stretch of greenway and help to monitor and to care for its wildlife. Sustrans believes that this will represent a great chance to engage with local communities who, in turn, can help them to enhance and protect some wonderful local habitats.

Initial surveys are being undertaken by a paid ecologist. These surveys will not supersede any work already done by any individual volunteers but they are intended to lead to a Phase One baseline. It should be noted that any additional information, that any volunteer or supporter of Sustrans might have, and is willing to share, would be considered very beneficial by the Ecology team. If you have any of this knowledge and think that Sustrans should know about it then, please contact Mike Dagley* of Sustrans in the first instance (for contact details, see below).
The timetable for the Phase One baseline survey is as follows:

August 13-14th Fallowfield Loop, Manchester
September 17-18th Chester Millennium Greenway

November 5-7th Hadrian’s Cycleway, Cumbria
Later this year Sustrans intend to develop Management Plans and specific recommended actions for each route. As well as informing Sustrans about the more nuanced management of their routes, opportunities will be created to form partnerships with Wildlife Trusts, local conservation groups, volunteers and all interested in making more of the ‘linear parks’ that these routes represent.

*Mike Dagley

Volunteer Coordinator

Sustrans Northwest England

5th Floor, 30-32, Charlotte Street

Manchester M1 4FD

0161 923 6050

0161 923 6053 (direct)

0787 645 3773

Dave Bishop, October 2013


The Friends of the Fallowfield Loop: http://fallowfieldloop.org/

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Review: Manchester Festival of Nature, Heaton Park, Saturday 7th September 2013

Here, better late than never, is my review of this event earlier in the month.

According to the flyer which advertised the event, it was part of the: “BBC Summer of Wildlife”. Nevertheless, the small print on the flyer informed us that it was: “... not being organised or run by the BBC”. The BBC link appeared to consist of an opportunity to: “Meet Naomi Wilkinson from CBBC’s Wild!” Unfortunately, I seem to have missed that opportunity (drat!).
The actual organisers were Manchester City Council in collaboration with Red Rose Forest, Manchester Museum, the University of Manchester, the Environment Agency and Greater Manchester Local Records Centre.

My main involvement was with the latter organisation - which is in the midst of an important 3 year project called ‘Grey to Green’ (http://www.gmwildlife.org.uk/grey_to_green/). The aim of this Heritage Lottery funded project is to: “... encourage and train local people to identify and record wildlife. The project operates across the whole of Greater Manchester with a particular focus upon residents in Tameside, Manchester, Salford and Wigan.” The Grey to Green team has been running ‘bioblitzes’ at various wildlife rich sites, throughout this region, all year.  A ‘bioblitz’ is an event at which a group of naturalists attempts to identify as much of a particular site’s wildlife, as possible, in an approximately 24 hour period. This particular Heaton Park bioblitz was incorporated into the main ‘Festival of Nature’ event. It actually started the evening before when bats, moths and other nocturnal wildlife were detected and recorded. Other groups of plants and animals were recorded on the day of the main event. My contribution was to work with other botanical enthusiasts to record the site’s flowering plants and ferns. I’ve been involved with this project all year and it’s given me the opportunity to investigate and record samples of Greater Manchester’s wild vegetation from Prestwich to Wilmslow and from Wigan to Broadbottom. Even prior to any significant analysis of the data, I think that it may be possible to draw a few very tentative conclusions (at least about the plant life) – but more on that later.
The main festival event itself was, as these things usually are, a bit of a mixed bag. I confess that I didn’t get round to visiting many of the stalls that were present because I spent a lot of my time in the field. Nevertheless, I did get to speak to two ladies on the Environment Agency stall who wanted to hear people’s views on their organisation’s management of local rivers and river valleys.  As it happens, a number of wildlife groups in the Mersey Valley had discussions with the EA last year (2012) about their management of the river banks. The EA were prepared to enter into dialogue and this is currently leading to some very positive outcomes for the Mersey Valley’s biodiversity. I learned from the two ladies at the festival that the EA are now actively soliciting comments on the issues facing local river basins through a consultation. You can find out more on the consultation website at: www.environment-agency.gov.uk/challengesandchoices . If you have any opinions on this subject, please contribute to the consultation – I certainly will be.

I also had an interesting chat with a postgraduate student from the University of Manchester who is in the process of completing a PhD on freshwater algae; he had some nifty little microscopes with screen displays – so that I could see what the microscopic plants, that he was studying, looked like.
There seemed to be a lot of silly, vaguely wildlife-related, things for little kids to do. Children, with whiskers painted on their cheeks, and wearing sparkly cardboard ‘bunny ears’ rushed around stroking stuffed foxes and badgers and viewing various hapless living creatures in a variety of tanks and cages.  I am, of course, a bit of a curmudgeonly old git – but even I don’t disapprove of little kids doing silly things and having fun on a Saturday afternoon! Nevertheless, these silly things are supposed to fill them with enthusiasm for wildlife. Do they? I wonder if the council has ever checked? To my knowledge, the Council has been running these types of events for around a generation now. I wonder how many little kids, who were persuaded to construct and wear sparkly bunny ears 20 years ago, are now enthusiastic and knowledgeable naturalists? I hope that my scepticism is unfounded. If you are an enthusiastic and knowledgeable naturalist, and were inspired to become one through making and wearing sparkly bunny ears 20 years ago, please comment on this post and put me right!

One peculiar and unaccountable aspect of this festival was a tent full of drummers (!) What their remorseless, monotonous, interminable thumping had to do with wildlife, I will probably never know. For a while they could be heard all over the park and I narrowly escaped being driven completely mad. I briefly toyed with the idea of applying a penknife to all of the percussive surfaces in the tent – mercifully, I came to my senses and realised that I didn’t really want to go to prison for drumicide (there is, of course, no such crime as “drumicide” – I made it up!).
The ‘star’ of the show was, of course, Heaton Park itself – or rather it should have been. It is, I believe, the biggest park in Manchester. Nevertheless, the bits that I saw were not very biodiverse and maximising their biodiversity did not appear to have any sort of priority. As far as I was able to tell there were three main types of habitat in the park: lots of obsessively mown grass, some overgrown, gloomy tree plantations and some unmanaged, scruffy bits. The dominant flora was a rather dismal assemblage of (all too common) plants which, I’m afraid, I could have, more or less, predicted before I laid eyes on it. I can recite species off the top off my head: Common Nettle, Broad-leaved Dock, Creeping Buttercup, Meadow Buttercup, Yorkshire Fog Grass, Timothy Grass, Soft Rush, Greater Plantain, Ribwort Plantain etc., etc., etc.  The ubiquity of this assemblage, in so many sites in Greater Manchester, is, I fear, an indicator of how species-poor our local biodiversity has become.  

Significant populations of the two alien, vegetable thugs, Himalayan Balsam and Japanese Knotweed, were evident in a number of places. It is possible to control the former, if the will exists to do so, but controlling the latter can be difficult and expensive.
The most interesting plant find of the day was also an alien. It occurred on a little patch of disturbed ground in the midst of a sea of closely mown grass. The plant in question turned out to be Cape-gooseberry (Physalis peruviana - see photo above). This species is unrelated to gooseberries but is, in fact, a member of the tomato family. Its fruits are like miniature yellow tomatoes and are edible. It’s originally from South America but I believe that it’s now grown commercially for its fruits in various parts of the world (e.g. South Africa). I’m not sure if it’s grown on any significant commercial scale in the UK. This was only the second time that I’ve seen this plant, in the wild, in Manchester. Curiously, I found my first one, in Hulme, about a week before.  I looked it up in the ‘Bible’ i.e. Prof. Clive Stace’s monumental ‘New Flora of the British Isles’ (3rd ed., 2010). I learned that it is: “Intr[o]d[uced]-nat[uralise]d; imported as minor fruit and casual on tips, nat[uralised]d in Herts; occasional in Br[itain], mainly S[outh] ...”

So do my two finds suggest that it’s moving north? Some authorities believe that some alien plants, will respond to climate change by doing so in the near future. Well, no - to advance such a hypothesis, on the basis of two finds, would be ridiculous! But ask me again in a few years time.
I learned on the grapevine that this event had cost the Council around £10,000. I rather wish that they’d spent the money on improving the park for wildlife.

Dave Bishop, September, 2013    

Friday, 30 August 2013

Unravelling the Web of Life

Marc Hudson, of Manchester Climate Monthly, has just sent me the following link to a sad and terrifying piece by the Canadian biologist, Neil Dawe:


Please read it!

It may seem overly dramatic to compare the Mersey Valley to the wilds of Canada - but my experience of our local green haven, over the last 40 years or so, is eerily similar. We have lost so many species over that time and all we've got now is a species-poor tangle of nettles and brambles.

I've come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as 'progress' any more - just accelerating environmental destruction.

Dave Bishop, August 2013

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Bat and Moth Night, Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green, 10th August 2013

When I emailed Dave Bishop to enthuse about the Bat and Moth Walk last Saturday evening he asked me if I would write a short account for the FOCM blog.

Here goes………….

My first thought - read Dave's account of last year's Bat & Moth night and smile smugly (no that's not the word I was looking for) I mean contentedly that we had much better fortune this year.

The humour of Dave's description of last year's event did make me smile "Everyone seemed perfectly happy to stand around in the dark and the pouring rain, in a flooded car park, chatting about bats and moths - while the subjects of these conversations were sensibly tucked up in their little bat and moth beds. Eventually sense prevailed and we all went to the pub"

On the night of 10th August 2013 we were blessed with fine weather and an amazing turn out of people to look at and learn about bats and moths AND we did not see the inside of a pub at all.

Our evening started with an introduction to moths lead by Ben Smart. Ben had kindly brought some moths which he had caught locally in his own garden the previous night. It was wonderful to see some of the more colourful and unusual moths which can be found in our local area. The moths included the stunning Red Underwing which has upperwings which are perfectly camouflaged against tree bark in order that the moth can rest unnoticed on a tree and vibrant red underwings which it can flash to startle any predator which disturbs it. Other lovely colourful moths which Ben had brought along for us to see were a Bloodvein, an Orange swift and a Canary-shouldered Thorn. Moths such as the Pale Prominent were really interesting shapes and others like the little Antler moth had very distinctive markings (well, like antlers really) which give them their names. Some were so well camouflaged and "twig like" that we all had to look and then look again to even see them whilst they were resting on their twigs.

I have to confess to rather liking the Dingy Footman which does seem like a rather disrespectful name to give to a lovely silky moth with pale edges to its wing which make it look like it has a halo. As someone who is very keen on moths, I was in my element and it was lovely to see how enthusiastic and pleasantly surprised many people seemed when they saw just how varied and colourful many of our British moth can be.

A moth trap (light trap) was set up on one edge of Ivy Green car park and Ben ran this trap for us whilst the bat walk took place.

 The Bat walk was lead by Richard Gardner. Richard gave us some background information about our UK bats and the types of bats which we may expect to encounter on our walk with him. The group had some bat detectors to share out and Richard explained to us all how these worked by converting bats ultrasonic echolocation calls into sound at a frequency which we could hear. He explained how echolocation worked for bats and what their calls would sound like when we listened to them using bat detectors. I was really keen to practise using my own bat detector which I had recently purchased and it was so useful to have an expert on hand to confirm the identification of the bats.

I think that we all liked hearing the "feeding buzzes" which can be heard through the detectors as the bats close in on their insect prey.
Richard also gave us some really interesting "Bat Facts"

A tiny Pipistrelle bat can eat 2000 - 3000 midges per night (we were both amazed and very grateful for this!)

 Bats fly with their hands. Their wings are made of a thin membrane which stretches across the bones which in our bodies would form our hands.

Bats mate before they hibernate in the winter but the female bats delay the subsequent fertilisation and do not "become pregnant" until the following spring.

We saw and heard both Common and Soprano Pipistrelle bats flying over Chorlton Brook. Common Pipistrelle's peak echolocating frequency is around 45KHz and Soprano Pipistrelle's peak echolocating frequency is around 55KHz. We tuned the bat detectors when were heard the echolocation calls in order to tell which one of the two types of Pipistrelle we were listening to. We could also see the bats when they flew into a clear area where they were silhouetted against the sky. We marvelled at how tiny and agile they were.

After leaving the Brook and heading across the meadow, we arrived on the banks of the Mersey where we heard more Pipistrelles and in addition we saw and heard Daubenton's bats. The sound heard through at bat detector for these bats differ. Pipistrells produce a sound which is often described as a "wet slap". Daubenton's bats sound is a faster "dry click" (a bit like a fast two stroke engine!).

The Daubenton's bats could just be seen skimming the surface of the Mersey, "gaffing" insects from the river. Gaffing is a term which means that the bat is using its feet to grab insects as it is flying along very close to the water.

After some excellent "batting" we returned to the Ivy Green car park to investigate the moths which were being attracted to the light trap. Large Yellow Underwings were flying around the light and the dark yellow colour of their underwings could be clearly seen. Amongst the other moths there were more Dingy Footman, Pale Prominent an attractive "micro-moth" called a Mother of Pearl moth which had pale iridescent wings. My absolute favourite was a Sallow Kitten moth. I saw this species of moth later in the week and thanks to Ben's excellent moth identification and explanations, I was very pleased to be able to recognise the moth again when I saw it.

 My thanks go to both Richard and Ben for this very enjoyable event. I would love to learn more about moth identification and if you are likeminded and would like to take up moth identification (and very importantly) submitting records for the moths which you see in the Manchester area, then perhaps you could let me or Dave Bishop know. If there is enough interest it would be wonderful to draw upon Ben's experience and expertise to learn more about identifying these wonderful insects.
Debbie Wallace

Thanks to Ian Brusby for the wonderfully atmospheric photographs that he took, on the night, in the car park - Ed.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Wildlife Activities at Heaton Park, 7th September 2013

There's a Manchester Festival of Nature being held at Heaton Park on Saturday 7th September. All are welcome and it's FREE!

As well as the wildlife focussed family activities the Greater Manchester Local Record Centre will be running a series of 'bioblitzes' in the park as part of their 'Grey to Green' project. For those people who may not know what I'm talking about, a bioblitz is an event at which the participants attempt to identify as much wildlife as possible, on a particular site, over a limited period of time. If you're interested in finding out more, have look at the following page:


Bioblitzes are great fun and to join in, participants do not need any experience. For more details contact either me (davegbishop@aol.com) or Matt Holker (matthew.holker@tameside.gov.uk) of the 'Grey to Green' team.

Dave Bishop, August 2013

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A Walk from Chorlton to Didsbury in July

When Transport for Greater Manchester destroyed the wonderful plants and habitats of the Lower Hardy Farm SBI, with their hideous Metrolink-to-the-Airport bridge, they also closed off the path, on the south side of the river, which leads eastward towards Didsbury and Stockport. Recently, though, they have re-opened this path and on Tuesday  9th July 2013 I seized the opportunity to walk it again and re-visit those of my favourite spots which haven’t been destroyed by ‘progress’ ... yet.

The weather was gorgeous and the day felt to me to have a particularly pleasing, summery ‘savour and flavour’ to it.

The first part of the walk took me past Sale Golf Course. Now here’s a thought - have you ever noticed how much green space in Greater Manchester is devoted to golf courses? If it has never occurred to you, just try flicking through the ‘Manchester A to Z’;  there appears to be a golf course on nearly every page (apart from the City Centre of course!); some pages show two – or even three. I just thought I’d point this out – particularly as golf courses are not particularly biodiverse. If we had as many biodiverse spaces as golf courses then, perhaps, we wouldn’t be in the midst of a biodiversity crisis (?)

Beyond the golf course there’s a large electricity sub-station with extensive open space around it.  I’ve known this area for at least 30 years and it’s always had an interesting flora. I think this is mainly due to the fact that, sometime in the past, a load of limestone chippings were spread over it. Part of this space is open and the other part now has a rather sparse birch wood growing on it. On the open part is a sign saying ‘Private Land’. Although I’ve never been stopped from entering site, I always experience a slight ‘frisson’ when stepping over the rusty barbed wire perimeter. I calm myself by pretending that I’m the great early 19th century Manchester botanist, James Crowther. James, a warehouse porter from Hulme, would range miles on his botanical expeditions and was often chased by gamekeepers - who tended to mistake him for a poacher. James usually managed to out-run the gamekeepers but there’s no doubt that, these days, they’d catch me easily! I also suppose that if, on that Tuesday in July, anyone had intercepted me I would merely have been ordered off the site. James, on the other hand, probably risked being transported to Botany Bay (how horribly ironic that particular fate would have been for him!).

There were numerous Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) on the site. In spite of the name, these are not as common around here as the members of the Marsh Orchid group (also in the genus Dactylorhiza). They are slim and delicate and often have dark spots on the leaves – which are probably the origin of the common name.

Also present on this site were small patches of Mouse-ear Hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum). These have delicate little, lemon- yellow, dandelion-like flowers. The patches have runners and small leaves with white hairs (I assume that these leaves are supposed to resemble the ears of mice ...).

Is Mouse-ear Hawkweed really a ‘Hawkweed’? That name should possibly only apply to plants in the genus Hieracium. But Pilosella and Hieracium are closely related (Professor Stace informs us that “evidence for [their] distinctness is equivocal”). Nevertheless, there is at least one ‘true’ Hawkweed on the site. At present, I can’t name this plant and would probably have to send off a specimen for full identification. You see, Hawkweeds are one of the most difficult groups in the British Flora. Apparently, all Hieracium flowers are female and the plants reproduce via an asexual process called ‘apomyxis’. One of the consequences of this process is that it gives rise to a multiplicity of similar, but distinct, forms known as ‘apomictic microspecies’ (no, I don’t understand any of this either – I’m just parroting what I’ve read - and I realise that I’m in very deep water here!).

Prof. Stace, in his magisterial ‘New Flora of the British Isles, tells us that, “411 microspp. are currently recognised in the British Isles.” Even he doesn’t give a full account but divides the genus up into 15 sections.  A simpler account, in a book called ‘Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland’ by M. Blamey, R. Fitter and A. Fitter, gives three main types of Hawkweed: Leafy, Few-leaved and Basal Leaved. I think that the plants under discussion are probably of the Few-leaved type. We used to have at least two of the ‘Leafy’ type on Lower Hardy Farm (one of them, I believe, quite rare) but, as noted at the beginning of this piece, that wonderful place has now been destroyed.

The open part of the sub-station site shows every sign of being rabbit nibbled. As I noticed this, as if on cue, a rabbit appeared. It has always puzzled me as to why rabbits occur much more frequently on the south side of the river than on the north side. I’m a little disappointed that, in the middle of the night, the rabbits don’t go ‘hippity-hoppity’ across the footbridges, like characters in a Beatrix Potter story ... but they probably don’t ... oh well ...

A bit further on, a large wild rose bush marked an entrance to the Kenworthy Woods site. I identified the bush as Sweetbriar (Rosa rubiginosa). Our wild roses have such beautiful flowers, but they only last for a few weeks each year. As you can see from the photograph, the hoverflies appreciated the lovely flowers too.


Less than a hundred yards beyond the rose bush, I encountered, on the upper bank, the creamy white flowers of Common Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). I believe that the ‘officinalis’ part of the scientific name translates as “of the shop” – by implication, the apothecary’s shop – for this is a herb with medicinal properties. In her book, ‘A Modern Herbal’ (1931) Mrs M. Grieve tells us that extracts of Valerian can be used to treat disorders of the nervous system. I have a species of Valerian growing in my garden (I’m not sure which species it is because the magpies long ago stole the label). This plant certainly has an effect on the nervous systems of cats. Last winter I noticed that the soil of the site where the Valerian grows was so compressed it was almost shiny. One day I caught a small black cat rolling frenziedly around on this patch of ground. Valerian is a perennial which dies down in the winter and at that time of year nothing is visible. So I must assume that the cat’s nervous system was being stimulated by the scent of the plant’s dormant roots lying just below the surface.


A long stretch of upper bank was dominated by the huge leaves of Butterbur (Petasites hybridus). In my mind this plant is highly characteristic of the Mersey Valley. I believe that generations of local kids have known it as “wild rhubarb” – although the resemblance is superficial. It is, in fact, related to the Hawkweeds I encountered earlier – not rhubarb! Both Hawkweeds and Butterbur are members of the great Dandelion/Daisy family – the Asteraceae. In the case of Butterbur, the flowers appear before the leaves and these leaves don’t appear until the flowers have died away. In many parts of the UK, only the male flowers are present. In these cases they reproduce vegetatively, presumably forming clonal patches and spreading via pieces of root breaking off and forming new patches. In this part of the North West both male and female flowers occur and the females produce seeds (not sure how viable they are though). Both male and female flower heads are odd pinkish, almost ‘fungoid’ looking things. Once the female flower heads are fertilised they elongate into long tassels which are easy to spot in March/April.

I walked further and by this time the sun was getting hotter. On the opposite bank I noted two gentlemen striding along deep in conversation. They were smartly dressed and their only concession to the weather was to have doffed their suit jackets and to have donned Panama hats. There was something rather Edwardian about them. They fitted in well with the fine Edwardian houses of West Didsbury just visible through the trees.

On my side of the river I spotted something ominous on the lower bank – a specimen of the alien Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). This is a member of the Carrot family – the Apiaceae. It is closely related to our native Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium). Members of this family tend to have the same general form with white or yellow flowers arranged in a flat head or ‘umbel’. H. mantegazzianum is as monstrous as its sinister, buzzing name. It’s about twice as big as our native species and its great hollow, hairy stems are covered in sickly looking reddish-brown patches. The leaves have a spiky outline and the compound umbels are huge. But even more monstrous is its effects on human skin. By coincidence, I was talking to a Polish lady recently who had encountered this plant on a visit to Russia. Somehow she had brushed against it and it had raised blisters on her arms. Soon these blisters had turned to infected ulcers for which she had required medical treatment.

Giant Hogweed is a native of the Caucasus Mountains. It’s certainly a dramatic plant and that’s probably why Victorian gardeners introduced it into British gardens. What they didn’t realise, until it was too late, is that it’s very invasive (as well as toxic!). Now Greater Manchester river valleys are full of it. It’s certainly common in the Croal-Irwell and the Bollin Valleys but 2013 is the first year that I’ve begun spotting it in the Mersey Valley too.

Eventually I arrived in Northenden for lunch. I like Northenden – it’s a pleasant riverside settlement. Or, rather, it probably was just a few decades ago. Now, like hundreds of other settlements, in Greater Manchester and the rest of the UK, it’s being steadily ‘ruined-by-progress’. Surrendering our landscapes to the motor car and handing property developers so much power over our built environment and green spaces were never good ideas and future generations will curse us for these follies.  In a front window I spotted a sign saying: “Save Northenden Library”. The sign prompted the gloomy reflection that perhaps our society is now in the process of abandoning ‘real’ progress. Things like public libraries and universal education and the National Health Service were truly progressive – now our political masters want to either sell them off to the highest bidder or to dump them all together; why are we putting up with this?

After lunch I walked down Ford Lane, past Northenden’s fine old sandstone church, and still muttering darkly to myself about the state of the world. I cheered up a bit when I spotted a Polypody (Polypodium sp.) fern growing on an earthen bank at the base of a hedge. I expect to see these ferns growing on walls or, occasionally, on trees – so this was an unusual sighting. There are three species of Polypody in the British flora: Common, Intermediate and Southern. To cut a very long story short, the species around here usually turns out to be Intermediate Polypody (P. interjectum). The picture below, by the way, is of a specimen that I found on a wall near my house a couple of years ago - it's a better picture than the one that I took on the day of the walk.

I continued on until I reached Simon’s Bridge and crossing this bridge, I arrived at the head of Stenner Lane, Didsbury. In base of the hedge, by the side of this lane, is a patch of a plant called Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis). I always make obeisance to this plant as I pass it as it’s an indicator of ancient woodland. At one time the floodplain of the Mersey would have been fringed with woodland – and in this district, this plant may be all that is left of those old woods. Recently, a fellow member of the Manchester Field Club told me that the doyenne of local botanists, the late Audrey Franks, discovered this little patch of Dog’s Mercury long before I did.

A few yards further on the leaves of Ramsons (Allium ursinum) appear in the hedge bottom and beyond that Ivy (Hedera helix) appears. I suspect that this mixture of plants implies that this hedge has a complex history and that one end is much older than the other.

A couple of years ago I found a plant called Ivy Broomrape (Orobanche hederae) growing on the Ivy covered bank of a ditch within about 2 miles of this spot.  Broomrapes are parasites which have no chlorophyll and derive all of their nutrients from the roots of their hosts. The plant on the bank is the only Broomrape that I have ever found around here and now I scan every patch of Ivy I encounter for more. I had no luck on this particular day but a few days later Mike Pettipher, of the Altrincham Naturalists, sent me an amazing photograph of a huge patch of Broomrape (probably O. hederae) growing on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal somewhere between Stretford and Manchester city centre. I haven’t had a chance to go and see this plant yet and will probably have to wait until next year now.
And so to Fletcher Moss and a nice cold drink in the park’s excellent cafe.

And then I caught the number 23 bus back to Chorlton.

Dave Bishop, August 2013

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Rare Willow Tit Filmed on Ivy Green!

I bumped into local birder, Pete Hines the other day - and I'm glad that I did because he had some remarkable news. He had actually filmed a Willow Tit (a Red List species) feeding its chick on Ivy Green. You can see Pete's superb film here:


You can learn more about Willow Tits on the RSPB's website at:


Dave Bishop, 09.07.2013

Wednesday, 8 May 2013


The Bee Cause Campaign Comes to Chorlton Meadows

You may have heard from numerous press stories this Spring that our native bee populations are struggling due to a number of different environmental factors. The main one under the spotlight is the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in farming. These pesticides are widely used across the globe and research has suggested that they could be responsible for the dramatic decline in bees.
It is thought that two British bees have become extinct already, and many others are threatened. You might be wondering after this hot weather what the fuss is about? Surely you have seen many bees already this Spring? Sadly the story is very complex with different bees needed to pollinate certain plants and crops, lose one type of bee and there could be huge consequences for ecosystems and then the economy.
Bees pollinate around 75% of our crops and if we lose them, it would cost the economy around 1.8 billion to artificially do their job. This would result in a rise in food prices and taxes. This outcome almost sounds like some futuristic nightmare, but it is already occurring in China and there are predictions that the US will have to use such methods for certain crops.
So what can we do? Well like I said, this is one complicated potential disaster and there is no easy answer. However, Friends of the Earth are running the Bee Cause Campaign which is promoting awareness and gathering support to ask for a national bee plan. This plan will address all factors affecting populations to ensure there is a healthy future for our bees. Other organisations such as Avaaz and 38degrees are also actively campaigning for such a plan to be put into place.
Friends of the Earth have also launched the 'Year of the Bee' this year and local groups are creating official bee worlds throughout the UK. The Manchester group are set to create one in Parrs Wood on the 18th May which will have a positive impact on the biodiversity of the area.
For more information about the national campaign, please visit http://www.foe.co.uk/what_we_do/the_bee_cause_home_map_39371.html
If you would like to get involved locally and find out what we are doing in the area, please contact me on steph@manchesterfoe.org.uk
As a local to Chorlton Meadows, I plan to do some bee spotting to see what is out there. Still a newbie to all things bee related, this will be an educational journey as well. Look forward to keeping you posted!
Stephanie Lynch - Campaign Lead for the Bee Cause Manchester, May 2013

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Here's a book review by our local moth expert, Ben Smart. Please note Ben's comment that many of his pictures for the book were taken in the Mersey Valley!

Field Guide to the Micro-Moths of Great Britain and Ireland 

British Wildlife Publishing (2012)

By Phil Sterling and Mark Parsons. Illustrations by Richard Lewington


This is a late review (of sorts), seeing as this book came out about 12 months ago.
I should declare an interest as I was glad to be asked to help out with the book in terms of collating the photographs for the book. It features more than 380 photographs of larvae and their feeding signs, and over half of these are mine, mostly of moth larvae found in the Mersey Valley.

It also features beautiful colour illustrations by Richard Lewington, Europe’s leading insect artist, of over 1000 micro-moth species.
The micro-moths are a fairly artificial grouping of approximately 1500 species. Most are (unsurprisingly) small and most are known by their Latin names, but the variety of life cycles make this a fascinating group to study.

Some of the larvae feed inside a leaf creating a distinctive pattern known as a leafmine. Some feed on dead bark, fungi, wine corks or owl pellets. The seeds, flowers and fruit of almost all plants are potential food for at least one species. Many are extremely specialised and will only feed on one particular foodstuff, often in one particular habitat. The photographs aim to demonstrate these feeding signs as many of the micro-moths may be more easily identified by observation of their early stages than by the adult moth, which is many cases is hard to find.

The illustrations of the adult moths are excellent and feature the moths in a natural resting position, rather than the unnatural ‘pinned’ appearance, as in a moth collection, that features in some other books. They also show the moths at 2 or 3 times life-size, and this helps to show the intricacies of pattern that feature on the wings of many of these species, despite the actual moths’ miniature appearance.
The photographs below show the adult and leafmine of one such species, Phyllonorycter trifasciella. The larva of this moth feeds inside honeysuckle leaves, causing the leaf to twist and turn on itself, making the presence of the larva reasonably easy to detect. It can be found in gardens, so if you have any honeysuckle there, have a look to see if you can see any of these twisted leaves.


This is probably the first time that anything approaching a handbook has been produced, that covers all the micro-moth families so extensively, and the book has opened up this area of nature for many more people. I was pleased to see that there are thirteen reviews of this book on amazon. Twelve of these give the book 5 stars. The thirteenth gives it four.
The book is available in softback and hardback. There is a link to the publisher below, although obviously other booksellers are available.


Ben Smart, April 2013

Friday, 29 March 2013

A Walk From Chorlton to Urmston in mid-March

Last week (Tuesday 19.03.2013) I took a walk westward to Urmston. This has always been one of my favourite walks – although it shouldn’t be because it takes the walker through some of the most ravaged and despoiled parts of the Mersey Valley. Nevertheless, there’s a surprising number of interesting things to see and, for me, the route is now laden with memories of various encounters and discoveries.
I started by walking across Ivy Green and eventually came to a gap in the hedge which leads on to Hawthorn Lane – the lane which our local historian Andrew Simpson, calls, with good reason, the “Old Road”. The first thing to note, by the gap itself and comprising part of the hedge, is a specimen of Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) which differs from Common Hawthorn (C. monogyna) in that its flowers have two stigmas rather than one and it also has less deeply incised leaves. This is a very rare plant in the Mersey Valley and I suspect that this particular specimen was probably planted in the 1970s or 80s.
Turning left, I followed the lane west with Turn Moss playing fields on my right. By the lane are a number of ‘coppiced’ Ash stools with multiple stems. Strictly speaking, these are not true coppice stools because they have not been cut off at ground level but, rather, a few feet above the ground. Nevertheless, they demonstrate the principle that most British native trees will produce multiple growing points if cut off low down. I suspect that these were created by farm labourers hacking them back with edged tools well over a century ago.
Also in this area is a magnificent English Oak tree. John Agar and I tried to date this tree by measuring its girth; we reckon that it’s around 150 years old. This isn’t particularly old for an Oak tree but it’s probably the oldest Oak in the district. Reading Andrew Simpson’s local history blog the other day, I was amazed to see a photograph of Hawthorn Lane from the 1930s and depicted in the photo was, I’m pretty certain, our oak tree as it looked 80 years ago! Here’s the link to Andrew’s blog page: http://chorltonhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/looking-out-of-chorlton-old-road-in-1930.html
Eventually the lane reaches the base of the river embankment and then bears right towards Stretford. In the shelter belt between the lane and Turn Moss there’s a little clump of Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). Every year their flowering tells me that Spring is on the way. On the left, under the hedge below the river bank are some long, thin Crocus leaves. These are the leaves of the Mersey Valley’s most famous plant – the Autumn Crocus (Crocus nudiflorus). This is an alien species, originally from the Pyrenees. No-one really seems to know how it got here and there are a number of competing theories (too complicated to go into here).  This plant produces its leaves in the Spring and its flowers in the Autumn (hence the name).
After about a quarter of a mile the Lane passes Stretford cemetery. Just beyond the fence are several rows of tombstones each inscribed with multiple names. My best guess is that these are paupers’ graves – possibly those of some of the former inmates of Stretford workhouse. Growing on some of these graves, at this time of year, are some attractive little pink Crocuses (C. tommasinianus). These plants are originally from Dalmatia (the long, thin strip of land between the Adriatic Sea and the Dinaric Alps and now part of Croatia). Their scientific name commemorates Muzio de Tommasini – a botanist from Trieste who was an expert on the flora of Dalmatia. They were given that name by the 19th century Crocus expert, William Herbert – whose ‘day job’ was Dean of Manchester.
Also on the ‘paupers’ graves’ are a few of the purple flowers of the Spring Crocus (C. vernus) – a mountain plant from western continental Europe and now thoroughly naturalised in Britain.
A few yards further on and we come to the Cut Hole Bridge, a stone-built aqueduct which carries the Bridgewater Canal over the Mersey. This is attributed to the 18th Century engineer James Brindley. Of course, he just designed it and supervised its construction; it was actually built, c.1760, by hundreds of nameless, sweating labourers!
After the bridge the path takes a ‘dog-leg’ – first to the left and then to the right to run parallel to a now choked channel called Kickety Brook. At the beginning of this section there is a small children’s playground a few yards off the path to the right. On the edge of this playground is a Norway Maple tree (Acer platanoides) which I call, for obvious reasons, “the snail tree” i.e. there’s always a large gathering of snails about half-way up the trunk. Norway Maples have been planted in other places as well as this one – but I don’t know of any other snail trees. Presumably the snails are gaining some sort of nutritional benefit from this tree that they can’t get elsewhere (?)
Kickety Brook used to be a good site for botanising 20 or 30 years ago, with plants like watercress in the brook itself and orchids and even heather on the grassy banks. Unfortunately, the area hasn’t been managed in any way for years. Now the brook is choked and silted up and the banks overgrown with brambles and coarse grasses. Presumably one day men will appear with heavy machinery, blitz the whole area and it will take years to recover.
Just before the path goes under the Chester Road Bridge there is a fern growing on the bank of the brook. This is Soft Shield Fern (Polystichum setiferum). Years ago I found a specimen of this fern growing on the edge of Hardy Farm. I was told that, until then, this species was thought to have been extinct in Greater Manchester and that I had re-found it (!) Since then I’ve found a few more – the latest being this one near Chester Road.
Immediately after emerging from under the road bridge and to the right there is a little grove of trees with dark coloured, almost black bark. These are Cherry Plums (Prunus cerasifera). They look a bit like Blackthorn (P. spinosa) but they tend to be taller and less ‘shrub-like’ than Blackthorn and rarely have thorns. In addition they tend to flower in February – in some years around two months earlier than Blackthorn.
In the summer of 2011 I found a mysterious orchid under the planted tree belt to the left of the path. I couldn’t decide whether it was a Helleborine in the genus Epipactis ... or a Helleborine in the genus Cephalanthera (following me so far?). If it had been the latter I probably would have received the Nobel Prize for Botany! I exaggerate, of course, but it would have been a remarkable discovery for this area.  Anyway, I e-mailed a photograph to a national orchid expert and he replied that he couldn’t ID my plant from a photograph and could I please pickle two flowers in vodka and post them to him? By the time I got back to the site to pick the flowers they had developed a bit more (they had only just begun to open when I first found them) and I realised that they represented an Epipactis species ... definitely not Cephalanthera.  Anyway, after receiving my pickled flowers, the Prof. told me that all I had found was a very pale flowered form of Broad-leaved Helleborine (E. helleborine) - which is quite common. Oh well!
A bit further on and the landscape opens out – although it’s not a pretty landscape (understatement of the century!). To the left is the M60 motorway – thousands of vehicles pouring out CO2 and polluting nitrogen compounds day and night – just one of the countless nails in the coffin of the world. To the right is large grassy area, part of which gradually rises above the surrounding landscape to form a ‘hill’. This hill is known locally as the “Stretford Mountain”. More accurately it is the aftermath of the Lesley Road Tip – a vast mound of domestic rubbish capped with top-soil. Surprisingly, the “mountain” is a good plant hunting area. A few years ago the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit, in collaboration with Salford University, produced ‘An Ecological Framework for Greater Manchester’ (http://www.wigan.gov.uk/Services/Planning/Policies/DevelopmentFramework/GreaterManchesterEcologicalFramework.htm). They identified a number of “ecological improvement areas” throughout the county and the “Mountain” was one of them. To fulfil its potential though it would need to be managed – and, unfortunately, I can’t see that happening any time soon. On the plus side local botanist, Liz Blackman tells me that she has found an orchid called Twayblade (Listera ovata) in the area. It’s a species that I haven’t seen in the Mersey Valley before and I can’t wait for June when I can go looking for it!
Further on there’s a footbridge over the motorway. On the other side, the path winds around a bit and then forks. Last week I took the right hand fork (the left fork is another story). This whole area seems to have been comprehensively bulldozed at some point and then had a liberal layer of nasty, cindery stuff spread over it. On both sides of the path are copses of, mainly planted, trees which should have been thinned out about 20 years ago. To the right of the path, and parallel to it, is a vile, lifeless ditch.  Between the path and the dead ditch are some Poplar trees. I think that these are Black Poplars (Populus nigra subsp. betulifolia). This is rare native tree, probably indigenous to East Anglian river valleys. At the end of the 19th Century it was found to be resistant to industrial pollution and was widely planted in the Manchester region – so much so that it acquired the name “Manchester Poplar”. Last year I showed these trees to some very experienced botanists but they couldn’t decide whether they are true Black Poplars are not; nevertheless the leaves are the right shape, the trunks are covered with large bosses and lean away from the vertical - so they’re close!
At the end of the path, on the left hand side, is a dense copse of trees (mainly Willows). Over the last 30 years or so, whenever I’ve had a problem in my life, I’ve walked out here and sat under these trees to think things through. Once it was a more attractive site, its floor consisting of a thick carpet of Polytrichum moss. It’s now, like far too many parts of the Mersey Valley, overgrown and gloomy. Two interesting plants that I’ve found here, over the years, are Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant) and Rhododendron ponticum.  The former is a rare fern in the Mersey Valley and I only know it from two other sites. In several parts of the country, R. ponticum is a wildly invasive alien but in the Mersey Valley I’ve only ever found it in this one site. In fact I’ve watched it grow from a seedling into a full-sized, flowering shrub. So far it shows no sign of spreading.
Beyond the copse, the path comes out on the river bank. Looking east, back along the river towards Stretford it’s possible to see, in the middle distance, a grove of large trees which shield Stretford Sewage Works from the river. In the tops of these trees is a large and thriving rookery. Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) are a characteristic bird of the British countryside, but around here they are now rare (I’d be interested to know if anyone knows of any more local rookeries). There’s something wild and elemental about Rooks: their harsh cawing and the way they look like ragged, black scraps blown across harsh winter skies. I suppose it’s possible to confuse them with Carrion Crows (Corvus corone) but the difference between the two species is neatly summed up in a passage in a novel called ‘The Liar’ by the ubiquitous Stephen Fry. In this book a callow youth is working for a laconic old farmer called Mr Sutcliffe:
“ ... [He] caught sight of a gathering of huge birds, as black as priests, pecking at rotten potatoes at the further end of the field.
‘Look at the size of those crows!’ he had cried.
‘Boy’, said Mr Sutcliffe, tugging at a sack, ‘when you see a lot of crows in a field, them’s rooks. And when you see a rook on his own, that’s a f***ing crow.’ ”
Anyway, moving swiftly on!
After admiring the rookery, I turned right and continued my walk in a westerly direction along the river bank. After about half a mile the path stopped and if I had wanted to proceed any further west, I would have had to have crossed over a footbridge to the opposite bank. At this point there’s a tall, feathery grass growing at the top of the embankment (only dead stalks in mid-March, of course). This is Wood Small-reed (Calamagrostis epigeios) – another local rarity. Instead of crossing the footbridge, I turned right again and walked down a lane towards Urmston.
There’s more to relate - but this is too long already. Let’s just say that I walked into Urmston, had lunch in the dining room of Whittaker’s rather wonderful chippy, bought a fern for my garden at Urmston market and then caught the number 23A bus back to Chorlton.
Dave Bishop, March 2013