Monday, 8 January 2018

We go to Ghent

A shot-in-the-dark application to BES resulted in the offer of a poster presentation slot at the 2017 Ecology Across Borders conference in Ghent in December.

This proved to be a huge conference, with over 1,000 delegates, and trade and information stands covering everything from remote sensing, publications, butterfly nets, citizen science and, of course, the BES. A great opportunity to meet old colleagues and make new friends, and to find out about some of the great science they are involved with (and to tell them about my own small contribution to scientific knowledge).

My poster!

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Above ground, below ground

Most of my data collection is concerned with what's going on above ground - which plants are growing where, and how productive they are.  Although the sward is perhaps the most immediately obvious feature of a grassland, it's just the tip of the iceberg, and there's a lot of activity going on out of sight on which the familiarly green upstanding parts depend.  Not only the underground parts of plants themselves, but also soil organisms work the soil like tiny miners, allowing air to flow in and water to flow out, and burying organic matter, where it is broken down by a myriad of soil fauna and flora.

One group of organisms that help tie together the above and below ground worlds are the fungi, and Autumn is when their presence is made visible to even the casual observer, as their fruiting bodies push up through turf and litter.  Though the visible stage in the lifecycle is often ephemeral, fungi play a crucial role in grassland ecosystem functions: their role as decomposers is an important part of the carbon and other nutrient cycles; they themselves provide a food source for other organisms (insects, small mammals, etc); and they facilitate nutrient uptake in plant roots.  Grassland fungi are vulnerable to physical and environmental disturbance, being often sensitive to such as nutrient input in the form of fertiliser, and so are declining in many semi-improved and improved grasslands.

Inspired by Sean Cooch of Natural England, and his presentation on waxcap grasslands at the Grasslands conference in August, I thought I'd see what the fungal offering was at Upper Seeds, and how many different macro fungi I could spot as I went about my other tasks on site.  Apart from making a change from looking solely at forbs, it would be a useful exercise as fungi can be used as indicators of unimproved grassland quality, so the more I find of the right kind, the further the site draws away from its semi-improved past.

So, what are the right kind of fungi, that I was looking for?  The best and brightest are the waxcaps (Hygrocybe genus), that favour short swards on undisturbed, infertile soils..  Waxcaps are a group of grassland fungi known to be in serious decline, and waxcap grassland habitat is now recognised for its conservation value for mycological diversity.  There's lots of information about waxcaps, their habitat and requirements on Aberystwyth University's Waxcap Website , and English Nature's research report on waxcap grasslands can be found here:  ENRR555 Waxcap grasslands

This is a selection of the fungi I spotted in one day on site:  any IDs would be very welcome, as I hesitate to even start down that road just at present (the green herbaceous  things are keeping me far too busy for that!).


Friday, 29 September 2017

Fisticuffs - Wytham's sparring spiders

Slappy spider colonists on one rain shelter come to blows yesterday - well, pokes, anyway 😉 

Just passing through.....

As I sat writing up my notes and enjoying the quiet earlier on site this week, I was pleased to see a couple of swallows alight on the overhead wires......

then there were three......

then quite a few......

and suddenly there was in excess of 60 chittering chattering swallows swooping around me as they scooped up insects to fuel the long journey ahead, all the way down to South Africa. 

Then on a sudden, they were all up and gone. 

Marvellous to be able to just be there and experience that!  (I did try videoing them, but really, it was a lot of small specks in a big sky, as you can imagine.  You really had to be there!)

Friday, 1 September 2017

Mists and mellow fruitfulness

Keats' vision of Autumn was a tad warmer and drier than the other day: a very misty vista across the site - a chill in the air, and a fine grey wetness over everything cast thoughts of the summer behind me.  Even the buzzard seemed diminished by the cool grey damp, and sat calling most mournfully from its perch at the top of the telegraph pole.

Buzzard on the look-out for breakfast on a foggy morning

The summer hay cut has been made across the whole field, which has changed the appearance of the sward (and so, of course, the whole site) immensely - no longer a flower-rich meadow of waving grasses studded with colour and humming to the summer song of bees, it's low, green and rather wet underfoot, as the plants start to cut back production, and the bees slowed down by the cooling days.  This bumblebee (B. pascuorum) was very  v e r y slow, and sat on the scabious flowerhead looking rather damp for at least half an hour.  

Bumblebee Bombus pascuorum waiting to warm up

As the mist lifted, a brief break in the clouds let some sunshine in, and that touch of warming sun meant more insects were on the wing making the most of the day.  The flowers may be mostly gone from the field, but there's fruit aplenty in the bushes and scrubby field margins - hawthorn bushes offer up their own ruby-red berries, and support scrambling brambles heavy with tender sweet sugary blackberries.

Wasps go crazy for blackberries - thorns AND stings to watch out for when picking my lunch! The Marmalade Fly (Episyrphus balteatus) maybe fancying some bramble jam
These small winged creatures actually catch the eye by virtue of their movement; softer-bodied, more slow-moving residents in the field rely on camouflage to avoid predation: snails frequently rest partway up plant stems, and Lepidoptera larvae use colouring and posture to fade into their immediate background.
Kentish snail taking a break
Pug moth caterpillar on ragwort
Beetles were also out and about - an upturned chair (to prevent rainwater puddles, which are unpleasant to sit in!) provided shelter for a number of woodlice and these rove (staphylinid) beetles, which have a bright red pronotum and basal abdominal segments.  Their bright colouring may be warning indicators; the Paederus genus (which these may belong to) produce toxins associated with irritant dermatitis (Nasir et al. (2015) biomedcentral). 

Rove beetles hiding out under my chair
After seeing the hundreds of Harlequin Ladybirds (Hormona axyridis) that emerged from overwintered pipework and other hardwares, it's been satisfying to see some of our native ladybirds on site.  We have over forty native species (remember the downy 24-spot ladybird (Subcoccinella 24-punctata) from May's post last year? Spring comes to Upper Seeds)
Native Seven-spot Ladybird (Cocchinella septempunctata) munching on late aphids

The Harlequins have been named the most invasive ladybird in the world (ladybird survey website), and have spread across the whole of the south and midlands of England, and into northern counties, since they were first recorded in 2004 in the UK.  They can outcompete our native ladybirds, and will take eggs, larvae and pupae of other insects, including other ladybirds, butterflies and moths.
Harlequin ladybirds emerging into the Spring sun, 2017
 So there you are - a few observations from a changing field.  Many of the features that we think of when picturing a lowland grassland have gone or are fading as the year's page turns towards another season, but there's still plenty of activity on site.  A taste of things to come...

Friday, 18 August 2017

Grassland conservation conference 2017 - and a bit of trumpet-blowing

There's nothing like a bit of recognition to put a smile on your face!

Recently returned from the inaugural Grassland Conservation conference, hosted and organised by conservation research colleagues at Edge Hill university.  @upland_grazing  @biologyehu

Keynote speaker Richard Jefferson set the scene for a mixed group of people from widely varied backgrounds, and enthusiastic chairing successfully promoted relaxed discussions on topics from grassland invertebrate biodiversity, the need for a national ancient grasslands database, and how to improve interaction and engagement between academics, other researchers, practitioners and the public. 

Day Two comprised grassland management workshops - I opted for the upland calcareous one, involving a site visit to Ingleborough NNR in North Yorkshire, to see upland grassland management on limestone pavement sites in action; seems that cattle are more appropriate for this kind of habitat, as sheep graze-out the tasty forbs in the nooks and crevices of the pavement, but cattle tend to graze around the edge of the exposed limestone.

Mixed cattle including Red Poll and Shorthorns graze the upland calcareous grasslands at Ingleborough NNR

Limestone pavement provides sheltered nooks and crannies for rare and specialist plant species
  All in all, a really interesting and enjoyable couple of days, topped off by winning the poster prize, sponsored by the Sir George Stapledon Memorial Trust - forgive the rather mad expression, I can only say I was completely (but pleasantly) surprised!

Stephen Peel, Trustee of the Sir George Stapledon Memorial Trust, my poster, and a rather surprised me!

In my opinion, the conference was a great success, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in grassland conservation - either for research or practical management - and hope to attend future events.  A really comfortable and friendly conference indeed. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Spring cleaning and gearing up for a new year

After dismantling the irrigation and decommissioning the rain shelters for the winter months, the long wait is over and it's time to get cracking again. Back in March, I was joined by a handful of people willing to spend some time cleaning the accumulated dust and debris.  All depths were plumbed as we cleaned water butts....

Neil cleaning the water butts

.... washed down guttering.....
Andy, Kadmiel and Neil - useful tall people reach the parts shorter  researchers cannot reach!

.... and checked pumps, batteries and solar panels were all still working properly. 
Becca checking the pump housing and evicting a few beetles while she's at it

 The relatively mild winter meant that some plants had got started early, with hairy violets and cowslips being among the first flowers seen on site this season. 

It also meant that there were scores of overwintering harlequin ladybirds hiding out in all the pipework and basking in the unexpected (but very welcome) Spring sunshine. 

Did I say "scores"?  Hundreds of the little critters were soon swarming around - I had to turf several out of my camera bag when I got home, and several more have taken up freeloading residence in the car since! 

Several hours of sunny showers (including a short shower of hail) culminated in a dramatic rainbow over site, affording some 'ooh' and 'aah' moments to end the day on.  Lovely.