Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The sands of Druridge Bay: a reverse egg timer

The mysterious linear  pond at the country park does seem to be an anti-tank ditch, one of many disconcerting objects and shapes scattered along the Bay.
There are other questions prompted by the report on the historic environment of  the Bay (Check out at http://www.aenvironment.co.uk/downloads/Druridge%20Bay%20Management%20Plan.pdf)
For example the map above is from Armstrong 1769, part of the report and more of less the area of the Bay for which Banks the mining company are hoping to develop as a new open cast. At the southern end of the map is “Blakemoor Hall”, and, maybe “Cook esq”. I am not sure what the Hall could be (if anyone knows I'd be grateful to hear), having always assumed the row of houses at Blakemoor farm, just as you walk into the hide at Cresswell lagoon, are much more recent with no older structures of any substance. However the farm outbuildings are older looking. There is also a road that meanders out onto the beach from Cresswell, heading north, suggesting more use and industry than you’d find there today, barring the occasional sand extraction excursion at Hemscott.
For such a walked, watched and loved stretch of coastline there remain many uncertainties. From the Neolithic footprints in the peat beds and flooded forest stumps, through the medieval at Chibburn to the WW2 pill boxes the Bay seems to capture time. Whereas an egg timer’s sand marks the tumbling progress of the time it seems that at Druridge Bay the sands clog and mire the passing years and hold all these fragments  in a jumble of half forgotten histories.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Bay during war time: crusader knights, French pirates and anti tank ponds

Peaceful, tranquil…
Druridge Bay attracts many of the descriptions we associate with natural and fairly empty wild places. Put aside for a moment that inland of the dunes the terrain is intensively farmed or the restored sites of old open cast mines: the contemporary Bay is steeped in a mix of big skies, ceaseless breeze and seaward horizon. For me though the Bay has always had a slightly curious feel: for example this blog on 23rd February with Robson Green, his polite skinny dippers and other users of the Bay a few entries ago. Another of the unsettling elements of the landscape are the hints at a militarized past. The anti-tank blocks on the beach itself arte the most obvious, but there are also scatted pill boxes and block houses plus, best of all, the deceptively reworked ruins of Chibburn Preceptory which sports gun slits added at the start of World War 2. The Preceptory is associated with the Knights Hospitallers of St John , a military order founded in the Crusades so the more recent military ruins are nothing new. The original Preceptory building was also fortified including a moat, so the more recent additions of gun-ports and observation slits are not so anomalous. The site even had an unfortunate encounter with French pirates in 1691who ravaged Widdrington. However most of the military remains are not so old although they lie half buried. The sand has covered many of them over and the occasional pill box tumbles out of the dunes in the wake of a storm.

One unexpected outcome is that the second world war created some ponds along the dunes. I’m not sure but if anyone knows I’d like to find out. In several places, notably just out on the dunes by the Country Park, are long, narrow, fairly straight and steep ditches, as in the photo above. I’ve never seen anything like this in any dunes anywhere; they look like they were excavated on purpose, although in amongst these tumbling dune scapes it is hard to work out what the purpose could be. They might well be an antitank ditch. They hold water well and provide a refuge for wetland plants and animals as many of the shallower dune pools dry out.
You can find out much more about the military architecture of the Bay in a superb report which includes some delightful old maps http://www.aenvironment.co.uk/downloads/Druridge%20Bay%20Management%20Plan.pdf

Peaceful… tranquil…. But hinting at a more ominous past
If you know what those ditches are please let me know

Thursday, 12 March 2015

History repeats itself at the Hauxley pond time machine

Most ecological research is done in the here and now: what lives where, how many of them are there, what are they doing? There is an immediacy to ecology, which is one of its strengths because so many people are ecologists, even if they may think of themselves as birders or butterfly lovers or wild flower cultivators. Ecology as a rigorous science has also struggled with history, not least because of the lack of long term data. This is one of the reasons that so much work done by amateurs is so very important. The long term data we have in the UK for birds and butterflies is mostly the work of dedicated amateurs, many of whom have an expertise that shames those of us paid to do ecology. Regulars to this blog will know that time features large in our work up at Druridge Bay and the Hauxley pond time machine is beginning to reveal new data. The photo above is one of the ponds in February 2015, originally dug out in 1994 and re-dug in 2014 as part of our work on carbon capture. The pond today looks much like it did in its early years in the late 1990s, with the branched alga stonewort (Chara species) re-appearing in thick swards. Below is a photo of the pond from ten years ago in 2004 with a Chara bed across much of the bottom.

Chara species are famously early colonists of newly dug sites. It looks like ecological history is repeating itself rather than the pond being able to miss out these pioneer stages and return rapidly to being choked by moss and grasses. Before it was re-dug last year it was filled by a thick sward of amphibious grasses, rushes and moss. The other ponds around about still are like, twenty years on from being first excavated, for example:
It might have been possible for the grasses, sedges and mosses to get back into the re-dug pond very quickly, since they have nearby bridgeheads in other ponds from which to re-colonise, but no. Perhaps they will still arrive a bit faster than in the previous twenty year sequence. So far though it looks like history does matter

Friday, 6 March 2015

From Druridge Bay to Roman York, via the Lizard Peninsular

Most of our work focuses on Druridge Bay: monitoring how the communities of invertebrates change over the years in ponds at Hauxley, how the number of wetlands  at Ellington Farm (the new Crown Estates name for Blakemoor Farm) vary with rainfall and quantifying the carbon capture across different pond types throughout the Bay. The ponds and wetlands certainly bury more carbon than the other habitats such as pasture or arable fields, but we need to check if that holds true in different regions of the UK or else we can’t say much beyond just the detail we have for Druridge. Pete and Scott have been venturing further afield, first to the Lizard Peninsular in Devon where many of the wetlands are technically Mediterranean, at least in their plant life. Last week Pete was down in Yorkshire, with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust taking sediment cores from small ponds on Askham Bog. The Bog is on the outskirts of York, and has long been used for peat digging and livestock, but retains a mysterious feel, especially amongst the denser scrub where a wrong turning can have you face to face with half wild horses. I don’t know which half is wild, though when I met them a few years back the front ends seemed plenty dangerous enough. Pete opted for cores from slightly less hazardous terrain, distinctive small rectangular ponds, some inside an enclosure which creates the undignified impression that he is a type of livestock.
The pond’s origins are uncertain, with some suggestions that these may be peat excavations going back as far as Roman York. The important criterion for selecting these sites is their small size. We want to characterise the carbon dynamics of smaller wetlands because these are the ones missing from carbon budgets, although such wetlands are ubiquitous and numerous. The Lizard and Askham Bog are lowland sites, to match the broad landscape of Druridge. We also plan to include some sites in Norfolk, which should add a hotter, drier biogeography into the mix. Lowland Northumberland, Yorkshire, Norfolk and Devon will make a good start to capture the variation in carbon burial around the country.  The differences between wetlands around Druridge Bay is striking. Regional variations from cool northern, to hot southern should only add to this mix

Monday, 2 March 2015

The hebridean inhabitants of Hauxley

Winter’s grip is loosening. The ground is still sodden, and scabbed over with dead flower stems and grass blades barely green from the cold but the air is full of bird song. The little birds have kicked off, finches  and buntings, tree sparrows and wrens. Work is well underway at Hauxley too, on the new straw build hide. The burning down of the old hide turned out to be a blessing. It was a beautiful wooden building, substantial and snug. I still treasure the strange grand opening breakfast as the great and the good of respectable Northumberland squeezed into its main room for scrambled eggs and bacon. With so many more people coming to Hauxley it rapidly became obvious that a bigger building would be better with classrooms and a cafe so that the bacon and eggs were not a one off.

The western edge of the reserve has been enlarged too now, following a land purchase and a flock of pretty Hebridean sheep are now at work grazing, or they would be if they did not follow any passer- by in the hope of a feed. They have the deepest brown wool, fluffed up akin to a Cruft’s poodle and propelled on delicate legs so that from a distance they appear to be animated woollen bobbles that have come adrift from a hat. The new land is largely stark grassland, but like so much nature conservation think ten or twenty years ahead. New woodland and scrub will form a rich fringe to the reserve and hopefully saline grassland can take over the inundated edges. Room for some new ponds too, perhaps larger, permanent ones in contrast to the shallow flashes and pools that already ring the car park. A mix is best. The winter flashes around the car park area riot of summer flowers but some deeper ponds would be good for submerged species such as Potamogeton pondweeds. Meantime the JCB started work levelling and preparing the brow where the old hide was incinerated. You can check progress on the Wildlife Trust’s special straw build Facebook group; the videos may by students from Hirst Park Middle school are a joy. Here’s the link https://www.facebook.com/HauxleyNatureReserve