Archive for the ‘Natural History’ Category

The National Trust has a target of producing 50% of its energy from renewable sources on its land by 2020. It’s a challenging target. The new biomass boiler which was installed at Ickworth Park near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and which was switched on in July 2015, is one of five pilot renewable energy projects that will address that goal. This is the story of how trees on the 1,800 acres estate are being turned into fuel.

ickworth park, national trust, ickworth rotunda, nikolaus pevsner, gervase jackson-stops

Completed in 1829, the Rotunda was later described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘a crazy idea … it makes for a lumpy appearance outside and creates very unsatisfactory shapes for rooms inside’. More recently architectural commentator Gervase Jackson-Stops said the Rotunda was like a ‘huge bulk, newly arrived from another planet’ and an ‘overgrown folly’.

The 199kw boiler is fuelled by wood chip produced from timber taken from the 600 acres of woodland on the estate and it will supply 100% of the fuel for heating the Rotunda and the West Wing. These are the main buildings in the centre of the park, and were the idea of the 4th Earl of Bristol, Frederick Augustus Hervey, who intended to use them as a place to display the treasures he gathered during his 30 years of travel in Europe. The Earl was seen more in Italy than in Suffolk.

Incidentally the Hervey family became more eccentric and more notorious right up to the 20th century; read more here. But ever since Ickworth was passed to the Trust in lieu of death duties following the death in 1951 of the 4th Marquess (and 8th Earl) , the buildings have been a nightmare to heat and the bills for the heating oil have been enormous.

Around 156 tonnes of wood chip fuel would be needed each year in addition to the 40 tonnes that was currently being supplied to the boiler at the Regional Office of the Trust at Westley Bottom a mile away. An independent assessment concluded that extracting this amount from the estate on rotation would be sustainable.

Removal of timber from the estate first started in autumn 2014 when ‘harvesting’ machines extracted non-native softwood trees like Western Red Cedar, Norway Spruce and Larch, from a small area of Lownde Wood in the south of the estate. The logs had to be stacked nearby as the wood chip store still had to be built. This was to be located next to the existing wood store in the north of the estate. In September last year, harvesting of softwood resumed in Lady Katherine’s Wood on the east side of the estate (photos 1 & 2). The harvester cuts the tree at its base, and as the trunk is lifted up, it is fed through rollers. Knives strip the branches off the trunk, and a chain saw cuts the trunk into 12′ lengths. This all seems to happen in just a few seconds and it is fascinating to watch.

ickworth park, national trust, biomass boiler, lady katherines wood, tree harvester

These plantations of softwood were likely planted forty or fifty years ago but they had not been managed for a long time. Not all of the softwood is cleared, no more than 30% of the canopy in fact (photo 3). This is to keep some cover for wildlife until the wood is replanted with native broadleaf species that will improve biodiversity. It also serves to protect the wood from strong winds which could blow down thinly spread trees. Standing and fallen deadwood is left, again for the benefit of wildlife.

The land for the wood chip store had by this time been cleared so all the timber, including that from Lownde Wood, was taken up to wood store in the north of the estate (photos 4) where it was piled into five long stacks (photo 5), enough timber to last Ickworth’s needs for an estimated three and a half years. Ideally the timber needs to be stacked for 18 months to 2 years to dry out before it is chipped.

ickworth park, national trust, biomass boiler, lownde wood, timber stacks

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fen-dwellers, reed cutting, lotting fen, the fens, fenland

The livelihoods of many medieval fen-dwellers depended on reed cutting. The rights to cut reed were carefully controlled by manorial courts. Willow and reeds were used in building and thatching houses. In this photo from the early 1900s, Mr Mason of Lotting Fen is still stacking cut reeds in the traditional way.

Around the coast of the Wash in Eastern England lies The Fens or Fenland. Until the early 1600s, it was a vast natural area of marshes and swamps much lower that the chalk and limestone uplands that surround them. Wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, and in the open water fish and birds were abundant. Local people relied on fishing, wildfowling, and the harvesting of reeds for their livelihoods though unpredictable flooding caused many deaths.

To make the land more productive so as to feed a rapidly growing population, the Fens were drained over many centuries. This transformed Fenland from a natural wilderness into miles of intensive farmland with most of the land lying below sea level. It has been described by Ian Rotherham in his book The Lost Fens (2013), as the ‘greatest single ecological catastrophe that ever occurred in England’. Today only four pockets of the original fens survive. The final irony is that the drainage of the Fens has made the land much more susceptible to flooding as a result of the rise in sea levels caused by climate change.

A Potted Natural History

Fenland reaches into four historic counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, and a small part of Suffolk, an area of nearly 3,900 sq km (1,500 sq mi). The fens formed about 5,000 years ago as sea-levels rose after the last Ice Age. A fen was the local name for areas of nutrient-rich shallow fresh or salt water in which dead plants did not fully decay. Peat forms from this partially decayed vegetation, and a rich flora of plants grows in this saturated peat. Beavers, otters, water vole and other wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, with abundant fish and birds in the open water.

Nearer the sea were washes, salt marsh and tidal creeks, and in higher areas where the peat grew above the reach of land water, were moors. There were also shallow lakes or meres: Brick, Ramsey, Trundle, Ugg, and Whittlesey Mere. The largest was Whittlesey, which was in Huntingdonshire. It measured 3.5 miles by 2.5 miles, it covered  3,000 acres (1,214 ha) in winter, and it was the largest lake in southern England. There were also isolated areas of higher ground, called ‘islands’, which remained dry when the low-lying fens around them flooded. The largest of the fen-islands is the Isle of Ely, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built, which is 39m above sea level at its highest point.

Early Inhabitants

medieval map of the fens, fen meres, fen islands, the wash, artificial river channels

This partly imagined map of the central part of the Fens in 1070 shows vast area of marsh south of the Wash with eight or so meres, and a variety of ‘islands’. The Ouse and Nene rivers join south of Wisbech, although as can be seen from the map below, they now follow separate artificial channels to the sea.

The fens were densely settled in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Timber trackways were used in some places to move around the flooded landscape. Helped by a fall in sea levels, the Romans built a road, the Fen Causeway, from Denver near Downham in Norfolk to Peterborough. Gravel was used to raise the road above the marshland to link what later became East Anglia and central England. The Romans also dug the Car Dyke, an 85-mile (137 km) long ditch which runs along the western edge of the Fens, which is believed to have been used as a canal. But other than this, the Fens were generally left unsettled by the Romans.

After the end of Roman Britain, it is thought that peoples from the Iceni tribe of British Celts may have moved west into the easily defended Fens to avoid the invading Anglo-Saxons who were settling in what would become East Anglia. In Christian Anglo-Saxon England, hermitages on the islands in the Fens became centres of communities, and in the 10th century monastic revival under the Saxon king Edgar, these became monasteries and abbeys such as at Chatteris, Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, and Thorney. Ramsey Abbey, which was founded in 969, became a major centre of religious learning. The abbey’s illuminated manuscript Book of Benefactors, described the island of Ramsey.

The island stretches for some two miles in length … and is garlanded roundabout with alder thickets and reed beds, [and there was] flowering ash for building the church. [The island was] encircled by eel filled marshes … fish and swimming birds.

By the time of the Norman invasion, Ramsey was the fourth richest monastery in the country. Of interest, some of the family and servants of the Danish King Canute (or Cnut) were caught in a storm on Whittlesey Mere in 1020 and nearly drowned. And it is believed that Hereward the Wake, the 11th-century leader of local resistance to the Norman Conquest, sought refuge in the Fens after his escape from the seige by the Normans of the Isle of Ely in 1071.

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horsell common, sandpits, h g wells, the war of the worlds

Map of Horsell Common. The common also has three Bronze Age barrows which are scheduled ancient monuments protected by law, as well as a Muslim Burial Ground which dates back to the First World War. In the 1890s, Horsell, in the lower left, was a small village of no more than 50 houses.

To the north of the modern town of Woking in Surrey, England, is the village of Horsell, and to the north of Horsell is Horsell Common. The common, which is mainly heathland with many areas of woodland, 355 hectares (880 acres) in area, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The Horsell Common Preservation Society has owned the common since 1966 and it is one of only a handful of privately owned areas of common land in England with public access.

In 1895, the writer H G Wells, Herbert George Wells, moved with his wife to nearby Maybury Road in Woking, and there he wrote his classic science fiction novel The Wars of the Worlds. With his brother Frank, Wells had explored the lanes and paths of the surrounding countryside either walking or on their bicycles. The original idea for The War of the Worlds came from his brother during one of their outings, who pondered on what it might be like if alien beings were suddenly to descend on the scene and start attacking its inhabitants. The Wars of the Worlds was first serialised in 1897 and then published in book form in 1898. The novel tells of the landing of spacecraft from Mars and the wholesale destruction of London, and much of the countryside to the south, by Martians in heat-ray emitting tripod machines. The unnamed narrator, a middle class writer of philosophical papers, lives in Maybury, and a sandpit on Horsell Common is used as the landing site for the Martian space craft.

horsell common, sandpits, h g wells, the war of the worlds

Horsell Common. Sand and gravel were extracted from the woodland areas of Horsell Common for many centuries, much of it used in the construction of local houses. Sand extraction ended in the 1960’s and the remains of old sandpits, roughly in the centre of the common, can be seen today.

Chapter 1, The Eve of the War, starts:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. …

At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

horsell common, h g wells, the war of the worlds, henrique alvim corrêa

This illustration of the first Martian to emerge from the cylinder that had landed on Horsell Common, was one of 30 drawn by Henrique Alvim Corrêa and which appeared in the 1906 French translation of The War of the Worlds.

In Chapter Two, The Falling Star, the Martians land:

But the very early in the morning poor Ogilvy [a well-known astronomer], who had seen the shooting-star and who was persuaded that a meteorite lay somewhere on the common between Horsell, Ottershaw [a village to the north of the common], and Woking, rose early with the idea of finding it. Find it he did, soon after dawn, and not far from the sand-pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.

Today science fiction fans visit the sandpits on Horsell Common where H G Wells’ Martian spacecraft landed. In nearby Woking, a 23-foot tall Martian tripod, designed by Michael Condron, was erected in 1998 to mark the centenary of the publication of The War of the Worlds.

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greater spotted woodpecker, drumming noise, woodland

The loud call or distinctive ‘drumming’ display of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker, particularly in Spring, ensures that woodlands are not free of noise.

If you were asked where the quietest place in Britain was, what would be your answer? You might say it all depends. Where there is least noise? Where there are no sounds of human activity? Are caves or disused mines included? But what about the weather; it can be noisy anywhere. The wind, the rain, and storms. And the sea is not silent, with the slamming of the waves against the cliffs. Neither is wildlife quiet, especially the screeching and chirping of birds. If you allow for the sounds of nature and look for places far away from human activity, then there must be hundreds of places in the highlands of Scotland that would qualify, and the same goes for a lesser number of places in mid-Wales, RAF training flights allowing. No, the quietest place must be all about remoteness from the racket made by us humans, and that must include flight paths of civil aircraft. If the highlands of Scotland and much of mid-Wales are excepted, then finding the quietest spot in crowded England might be more of a challenge.

anechoic chamber, salford university, quietest room

The anechoic chamber at the University of Salford, a room within a room built on rubber springs, is lined from floor to ceiling with soft foam wedges which absorb any vibrations in the air.

The quietest place ought also to be somewhere that can be visited, that isn’t private or unduly dangerous. So the further reaches of the many cave systems or abandoned mines in Britain should be discounted. And deadly silent man-made places such as the University of Salford’s ‘anechoic’ chamber (meaning non-reflective of sound), which is so quiet that you can hear the sound of your blood circulating in your head, or the quiet room at the British Standard Institute laboratories in Hemel Hempstead, where apparently fire alarms are tested; these places surely don’t qualify.

Mapping Tranquility

In March 2005, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) published a report Mapping Tranquility that sought to define and identify not the quietest places, which as discussed above, are not what they seem, but the places which were the most tranquil. England was divided into 500m by 500m squares and each square was given a tranquillity score, based on 44 different factors which add to or detract from people’s feelings of tranquillity. It was hoped that this ambitious project would help safeguard the English countryside from future development. The top ten factors that people said represented tranquillity were:

1. Seeing a natural landscape
2. Hearing birdsong
3. Hearing peace and quiet
4. Seeing natural looking woodland
5. Seeing the stars at night
6. Seeing streams
7. Seeing the sea
8. Hearing natural sounds
9. Hearing wildlife
10. Hearing running water

As a result of the survey, the CPRE in 2006 created a national tranquillity map based on the 500m by 500m squares, and they said that the most tranquil place in England was in the Kielder Forest in Northumberland. But the exact spot was kept secret, to keep it tranquil.

You can download the tranquillity map here, and see what else the CPRE has to say about tranquil places here.

The Most Tranquil Place

kielder mires, quietest place in england, kielder forest, northumberland

This is a map of the approximate location of the Kielder Mires National Nature Reserve, in which, somewhere, lies the ‘quietest place in England’. © Ordnance Survey

However since then, Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustics Engineering from the same Salford University, and a presenter of many popular science documentaries on television and radio, has gone to England’s most tranquil spot. The CPRE told Professor Cox which 500m by 500m square in the Kielder Forest had been identified as the spot, and he went there, trekking along forester’s tracks and wading through a mile and a half of peat bog.

In January 2014, the most tranquil place in England was described as a hillock in the Kielder Mires, two hours walking distance from the nearest human settlement, a Victorian grouse shooting lodge, and ten miles from the village of Gisland. As well as its distance from human habitation, the distance of the place from flight paths, was a key factor in making it the most tranquil spot.

The Kielder Mires 

bellcrag flow, border mires, peatland, most tranquil place in england, kielder forest, northumberland

This is Bellcrag Flow, one of the border mires in the southern part of Kielder Forest, typical of what you might see in the ‘most tranquil place in England’. Border Mires are areas of peatland up to 10 metres deep which have developed on the site of shallow lakes since the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. © Les Hull / Creative Commons Licence

The Kielder Mires are formed of two deep peat mires known as Grain Heads Moss and Coom Rigg Moss. The mires are part of a collection of more than 50 recognised peat bodies known as the Border Mires which are mostly located within the boundaries of Kielder Forest. These blanket mires are rare globally, as they have been largely destroyed by plantations, drainage and grazing. The mires in Kielder are acidic, low-nutrient environments fed entirely by rain and provide refuge for rare species such as tall bog sedge, lichens and sphagnum mosses. Less is known about the natural fauna, although the area is rich in invertebrates and merlins, Britain’s smallest birds of prey, breed on the edge of the plantations. For these reasons the Kielder Mires been designated as a National Nature Reserves (NNR), a Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), and a Ramsar site, that is wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty signed in 1971.

So Professor Cox became the first person to knowingly visit this most peaceful spot, though humans must have struggled through the mires unknowingly many times over the last 10,000 or more years. Later, Cox wrote in his book Sonic Wonderland – A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, that ‘I had previously thought of asking the CPRE if I could publish the location of the quietest place, but I realised this would be a bad idea’.

But in the 1950s, something was going on less than six miles away that had the potential to shatter the peace of the Kielder Mires.

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cow parsley, plant diversity, wild flowers

Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), also known as Queen Anne’s lace and wild chervil, engulfs the verges of many of Britain’s roads and lanes.

If you went for a walk along a path in a wood or beside a stream or canal, or drove down a country lane last weekend, everywhere you look you would have seen a lush growth of plants. Unfortunately a small number of plants will be dominating all others. Engulfing many verges will be cow parsley, with its tiny white blooms on umbrella-like stems, the soft leaves of the common nettle on erect wiry green stems, and thick tangled prickly brambles. And at roundabouts, you will see thousands of lovely ox-eye daisies and buttercups, but not much else.

Going back many decades I can remember a good mix of flowers alongside hedgerows and on the edges of woods, and beside paths on commons and in parks, though not being an expert on plants, I don’t know most of their names. And there were so many more butterflies: brimstones, orange tips, hairstreaks, blues, specked woods, fritillaries and many more. Cow parsley may appear to be very decorative of our roadside verges, but where are all the other plants.

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, which is part of the Natural Environment Research Council, carries out surveys of the countryside every ten years, and their survey in 2007 found that between 1978 and 2007, the extent of cow parsley in Britain had increased by almost 60% in the plots surveyed. That’s more than half as much again of the stuff as there was 30 years or so ago. But why is it happening?

There seem to be three reasons: how roadside verges are managed nowadays, the increased fertility of soil due to intensive farming, and the aerial deposition onto the land of compounds from car exhausts.

wildflower meadow, plant diversity, winterfield park, dunbar

A beautiful wildflower meadow close to the coast at Winterfield Park, Dunbar in East Lothian, Scotland. © Richard West/Creative Commons Licence

In the past, verges were often grazed by farm animals or were cut for hay, and the grass and other plants, once mown, were taken off. Now verges as well as hedges are mown by local councils, and the mowings are left in place, which add nutrients to the soil and makes it more fertile. The fertility of soil along hedgerows and on the margins of fields and woods is increased by the large amount of nitrogenous fertilisers used by farmers on their crops. That’s the reason why the chalk grassland of Salisbury Plain supports such a diversity of plants: it’s never been sprayed with agricultural chemicals because it is an army training ground. Significant areas of grassland have been ‘ploughed in’ since the Second World War which led to an increase of nitrogen compounds in the soil. And across the entire landscape, the air and rain is more fertile because of the nutrient effect of nitrogen oxide gases emitted by motor vehicles.

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furthest point, ruadh stac beag, fisherfield forest, wester ross, scotland

The ‘furthest point’ is in the centre of this map, to the left of Ruadh Stac Beag.
© 2013 Ordnance Survey

What is the furthest point from a tarmaced public road in mainland Britain? There may be other contenders for remoteness, but the Ordnance Survey has determined this point as a peat bog on the western hillside of Ruadh Stac Beag in Wester Ross in Scotland, amongst the burns (‘allt’ in Gaelic) that come from Lochan a Bhraghad. The point is at a height of about 610m (2,000 feet) and the grid reference is NH 0202 7700.

It is 10.43 km (6.48 miles) in a straight line from the nearest road, the A832 near the village of Kinlochewe. But up here in the boggy  mountainous wilderness of the Fisherfield Forest of Wester Ross, that doesn’t mean very much.

furthest point, wester ross, scotland

The ‘furthest point’ is marked by the blue spot in the centre of this map of Wester Ross, Scotland,
© 2013 Ordnance Survey

The shortest distance by a path, where there is one, is from Kinlochewe, the nearest settlement, and it is 24.2 km (15 miles). There are a number of deer-season only hunting lodges and abandoned houses, and an out of season bothy, Shenavall, to the north of the ‘furthest point’ near Loch na Sealga and below An Teallach (1,062m), but that is all. There is a nearer settlement at Letterewe on the side of Loch Maree to the south-east, but that is on a private estate.

There are no photographs of the location as far as I know but the nearest photograph, below right, is of Lochan a’ Bhraghad, a small lochan close by. For what it’s worth, the ‘furthest point’ is about 500m away over the slight hill on the right side of the picture.

lochan a' bhraghad, ruadh stac mor, wester ross, scotland

Lochan a’ Bhraghad north east of Ruadh Stac Mor.
© Stuart Meek/Creative Commons Licence

In 2002, the Daily Telegraph sent one of its reporters, Colin Cottell, to this remote spot. He rang the Ordnance Survey to check before setting out. ‘Less than seven miles? Hardly worth getting out of my sleeping bag for. Or so I imagined’. His report is here.

The Fisherfield Forest, and the Dundonnell Forest to the north, is sometimes nicknamed The Great Wilderness because the area is entirely devoid of permanent settlements. Although termed a forest, the area has very few trees, though it was a pine forest 200 years ago.

fisherfield forest, ruadh stac beag, wester ross, scotland

In the midst of the Fisherfield Forest, this is a view down Gleann na Muice Beag to the north of Ruadh Stac Beag and about 1km from the ‘furthest point’.
© Roger McLachlan/Creative Commons Licence

Three estates cover most of the area which is maintained primarily for deer stalking: Dundonnell Estate covers 134 km² in the northwest part of the forest, the Eilean Darach estate covers 262 km² in the northeast, and majority of the area, including all the southern and central sections, forms the 323 km² Letterewe estate.

Other places of interest in Britain:

Lowest land in Britain

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What living things on Earth have been in existence the longest? I don’t mean which individual animal or plant has lived the longest, such as species of coral or sponge that are known to have been living upwards of 2,000 years, or terrestrial animals such as tortoise that have lived for over 150 years. Nor plants such as the bristlecone pine from North America, one of which is 5,062 years old (measured by ring count), nor the Llangernyw Yew in the churchyard of the village of Llangernyw in North Wales, one of the oldest individuals tree in the world, and believed to be aged between 4,000 years and 5,000 years old. I mean what life forms have been in existence the longest and are still living today?

stromatolites, shark bay, western australia

Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia

The answer is Stromatolites (or stromatoliths). These are rare rock-like structures found in just a few hypersaline lakes and marine environments around the world, and which, from the fossil record, are known to have been in existence for some 3.5 billion years. They existed in abundance after the earth had been formed when there were no animals or plants.  Because they were prodigious photosynthesizers, their waste product, oxygen, entered the atmosphere in great quantities, making the earth suitable for other forms of life. Over time, organisms developed that grazed on stromatolites, and by the end of the Pre-Cambrian Period (about 570 million years ago), they numbered only 20% of their peak.

Stromatolites are created by the accumulation of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria (often incorrectly called blue-green algae). These bacteria are prokaryotic bacteria, and are neither algae nor plant. When they colonize to form a stromatolite, they number some 3 billion organisms per square metre. The bacteria secrets a mucus coating that traps sediment, and calcium carbonate precipitates from the water providing a hard, cement-like material to fuse the sediment together. New cyanobacteria grow over the sediment and over time a rock-like structure is formed.

fossil stromatolites, cross section, 1.8 billion year old, great slave lake, canada

Cross section of 1.8 billion year old fossil stromatolites from rock formations at Great Slave Lake, Canada

Scientists had long known about stromatolites from the fossil record, but were surprised to find them still in existence, when they were discovered in 1956 at Shark Bay, Western Australia (now the Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve). Other places where stromatolites are found are Lagoa  Salgada, Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil and two inland sites in Mexico at Cuatro Cienegas and Lake Alchichica. Unexpectedly, there is one marine site that is not hypersaline, Exuma Cays in the Bahamas.

And according to the BBC, a very young colony of stromatolites, just a single layer thick, was found at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland in 2011.

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