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