Sunday, 30 December 2012

The ponds that come and go

At Hauxley Nature Reserve the wet December has submerged the field with our experimental ponds. You can see a few of the square pools which have not been overwhelmed at the far right of the flood waters. The last time the site flooded so extensively was the summer of 1997, after rainfall in June that was reckoned to have a return time of 1 in 300 years. "Return time" is one of those phrases that has slipped the leash and terrorised news bulletins this year; there were weeks when bedraggled Environment Agency or Council staff were being interviewed daily to explain the damage wrought by that week's 1 in 100... 200... 300... year flood. One striking result of the rainfall is how the numbers of ponds and pools has changed with the seasons. Simply counting the number of ponds along Druridge Bay is not that simple. Maps only record ponds large enough and permanent enough coincide with surveyors' revisiting the Bay. There are many large ponds missing on any published maps. Small ponds are wholly over looked. To get a feel for the numbers and how they wax and wane with the seaons I have been walking the same route across Blakemoor Farm at the south of the Bay every couple of months for the last two years, recording all the ponds I can see. This is roughly all the fields from the coast road at Blakemoor inland across to Ellington, with occasional detours to avoid bulls or impenetrable walls of late summer oil seed rape. In Decmber 2010 there were 66 ponds, in December 2011 49 ponds and this December 107. The largest is over 11,000 square metres, the smallest just a metre or two. Landscape can feel very familiar and certain but the ponds hint at the liminal nature of the habitat. Regardless of the changes the sheer number of ponds in so small an area is very unusual. We look forward to 2013 and the pond time machine of Druridge Bay throwing up fresh surprises. Happy New Year to all our readers.

Monday, 24 December 2012

The wettest year

Christmas Eve in the UK....   Stonehaven in north-east Scotland is flooded whilst in the south-west of England train lines are closed as heavy rains flood off the sodden fields. Britains' once safe conversation topic of the weather has become an uncertain and alarming subject. We have a Minister for Floods and a growing sense of political fear; fear of water. At a time of grim cuts to government spending flood defences have suddenly received a reprieve. Schemes are to be hurried up, or reprieved and new ones proposed. Druridge Bay remains glinting under the mid winter skies, either mirror-grey sheets of water under the unbroken cloud or dazzling platinum as the sun travels low. A local farm manager warns me that bread prices will rise sharply becuase so much winter wheat has been lost to the deluge. That lake in the picture above is supposed to be a field green with shoots of wheat. Mid winter has always been that uneasy see- saw between the old and new. Come droughts and floods we will be back up at the Bay exploring the exquisite pondscape in January. Meanwhile a Merry Christmas to everyone who reads the blog (....and that includes folk in Russia, Italy, Germany, the USA; we hope the wild northern landscapes of Northmberland cast something of their spell on you) and a Happy New Year. Mike J.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A "Plan A"

Counting, digging, walking and identifying make up our days out at Druridge Bay. We are fortunate; the Bay lures visitors for its wide open sweep and skies but we get to go there to work. Counting, digging, walking and identifying can be a distraction though, so I have days out there with no other purpose than tuning into the colours and sounds. Or summer ice cream cones from Cresswell Shop. Being out in the field in winter is more of a struggle, padded with thermal vests, jumpers, more jumpers, windproof jackets, hats, fingerless gloves, three layers of socks, hi-vis jacket, emergency whistle and nursing an electronic water conductivity probe up my jumper to keep the battery alive. Still, that is better than fretting in the office over all the emails that pile up as soon as your turn your back. Somewhere in between the days out under a baleful midwinter sun and days in with the less lovely PC screen glow lies the struggle with research plans. One of science's tasks is to make some sense of the world, to piece  together the blizzard of seemingly unique examples and conjure the underlying rhythms and structure. Ecology has a hard time doing this because we work with such contingent places and creatures. The natural world is a slippery stage. Scott and Pete are putting together their postgraduate project proposals; an important discipline. I'm keen to get students to write down questions, to doodle plans. It is no good telling me that you understand it in your head but can't actually find the words. What do research plans look like? Here is Scott's. I like the struggle of colours, lines and words as we wrestle the ideas to the ground. It is all too easy to get lost in the day to day of lab processing and field sampling and forget the overall goals. All postgraduates should be given a packet of multicoloured felt tip pens to help them remember.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Medieval mid winter

Mid winter conjures a Medieval vulnerability across the landscape; the world of Bruegel’s peasant skaters, tiny figures making merry as the fields stretch away to be lost in the snow. Even when having fun they keep their heads down, braced againts the cold. Druridge Bay retains little from that time. Low Chibburn Precaptory dates from the early 1300s but is marooned in the rectilinear fields of ex-open cast and nearby Widdrington Castle long demolished. There are tucked away corners where the winter’s cold, unvisited woods and fields not dug out for coal suggest a world before. The frost has turned the top inches of sodden pasture to a crackling, scrunching crust. Hard work to walk over, with every other footstep breaking though the iced floor into the goo below. The cold has leached the colours too.  Winter thrushes move quickly away, not even wasting energy on a call and on the ponds teal, mallard and moorhen keep their distance but are loathe to fly. There are pockets of ridge and furrow at the south of the Bay, picked out by a foggy sun. Step into the shadows and you can feel winter willing you to stand too long and get too cold. All wise peasants would best be indoors but I have been out counting the pools and flashes of water left by 2012’s deluges. Water boatmen still row under the ice which is thick enough to carry my wieght, squeeking and snapping under my boots.

Monday, 10 December 2012

A mammoth choice

Wildlife conservation is a choice, too often portrayed as a clash between some short term goal for our benefit versus the inconvenient natural world, exemplified in the common place the glib dismissal of nature standing in the way of development. However the choice may be between competing wildlife. There is no commandment that demands the Northumberland coast must remain as it is. The peat seams at Hauxley (see 5th December blog)are witness to the woodlands and swamps that once stretched out to a more distant shore now submerged. Before the Alder carr and Birch entombed in the of 4000 years old peat came an even more elusive landscape joining England to the continent; Doggerland, named after the Dogger Bank which remained as an island as the North Sea Basin filled from 7500 years ago. Occasional antler or mammoth teeth, or rarer still, a Neanderthal skull fragment hint at a lost world. Before Doggerland the North sea plains had been tundra, akin to Verner Hanke’s glacial world from Kai Peterson’s 1957 “Prehistoric Life on Earth”. Approach the problem of managing Druridge Bay from the perspective of a Martian in a time travelling space ship. Which habitat would you conserve? The ice fields and glacial tundra or the Doggerland steppes with mammoths and rhino? Perhaps you would prefer the wet woodland with its fleeting hunters who have left all too human footprints in the peat layers. All of these might justifiably be better choices than restored open cast lagoons or parks. Mammoths are an unlikely addition for some years, even taking the most optimistic mammoth cloning projects at face value. This should not stop us from thinking big, working with the landscape as a whole rather than hunkering down in isolated pockets of heavily managed unnatural nature.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Capturing time

Over the last twelve months we have gone from a major drought to the wettest summer on record. Newcastle upon Tyne, capital city of north east England and thirty miles south of Druridge Bay, has endured three separate spates of  flash flood. The wet summer has spun out the oil seed rape's fluorescent monopoly on the arable fields inland from the dunes for weeks longer than normal and now much of the winter wheat has been washed out. There is a sense of deeper change, shifting rhythms undercutting the familiar seasons. Hard to be sure, year to year. Druridge Bay bears witness to much more substantial change. Walk out onto the beach at Hauxley, head south along the dune front and you will soon see a dark, fibrous mat layer of peat. Beneath lies a blue-grey boulder clay, ground to a fine grained plastic. Above sit the modern dunes with occasional lines of shell and iron pans. Tree trunks and branches jut out from the peat, whilst occasional stumps and roots hook into the boulder clay below. The peat is the remains of wet woodland, the older layers dating back to 4500 years ago, the youngest to 2800, finally succumbing to the invading sand dunes. The peat is rich in pollen, varying through time but starting with wet woodland rich in Alder and Oak, then Birch. The trees succumbed to rising water tables as the land first became a mire then was over run by sand dunes driven before the encroaching seashore. The dune face is a compressed history, time squeezed like a rarefied gas until solidified in front of our eyes. The Hauxley peat beds are a highly unusual and significant site, telling of the North Sea’s expansion and how much the familiar can change. Not much consolation in the face of the floods, but a striking reminder of the difficulty we have capturing a sense of time and scale.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Pond anti-freeze

A clear night has allowed the frost to grip the Bay. You can see to Cheviot through the rain washed air, the hill tops now with snow, though more a light dusting than the full royal icing effect. Thousands of winter geese are milling over the fields at Cresswell, taking their time to land. Against the blue sky last Thursday the distant flocks milled and switched, suddenly lining up then falling apart like the iron filings in one of those magnetic beard sketching toys. The calls of the geese have a counter point in the squeek of new ice which has clamped across most of the ponds. Most but not all. One or two have not frozen over, especially where springs emerge in the fields around Blakemoor Farm. The water in the springs has a peculiarly high conductivity, which is a means of measuring the amount of material dissolved in the water; very pure distilled water has almost zero conductivity because the current needs disolved ions, such as salts and metals, to be conducted. The conductivity in unpolluted ponds in lowland Northumberland varies but is typically 200-300 microSiemens per centimetre. The water in the springs is ~1000 microSiemens. Trouble is that conductivity does not tell you exactly what is dissolved in the water, although our occasional attempts to pin this down have revealed high sodium levels. It could be that sea water is getting in under the Bay, perhaps via the now abandoned deep coal mine galleries which run beneath the site. The low sun has thawed the frost from the turfs in the field above, but not in the shadows beyond. However the little pool of spring water remains clear and ice free, the very slightly higher salt levels providing a natural anti-freeze.