A belated introduction

by Daniel Forster

So, after two and a half years, I finally get around to writing a blog post. I’ve been meaning to do this, but you could say I’ve been quite busy and it kept getting put to the back of my mind, honest!

Anyway, at least at this point I have things to talk about, so here we go. One rainy day way back in the early spring of 2016 I came to Pwllpeiran, bright eyed and bushy tailed, a short six months after finishing my undergraduate degree.  Back then I had a theoretical idea of what I was letting myself in for – it’s been an interesting ride so far, and I still have a few months to go so no time for a break just yet!

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Early days: what am I doing here again?

My PhD project is a collaboration between IBERS and CEH (Centre for Environment and Hydrology) Lancaster, where I’ve been going once or twice a year to meet my co-supervisor, use their lab equipment, and spend a bit of time around North-West England. The project itself has centred on the Brignant plots, which are set of long term grazing experiments situated here at Pwllpeiran and were set up back in 1994 to investigate the long-term effect of reduced management on upland fringe-pastures.  Over the years there has certainly been lots of change in the plant communities, particularly on the hay-cut treatments which are brimming with wildflowers throughout the summer, making them an excellent source of food for butterflies and other insects, and something of a temptation for the local livestock!  On the other hand, the grazing treatments are covered with a mixture of grasses that have gradually moved in to the plots as the soil fertility has reduced, reducing the numbers of sown species and creating a more diverse, if less productive sward.

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A year or so in: bright eyed idealism is replaced with consternation….

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The locals stop by to see what’s going on.

My focus for this project has been on ecosystem services, primarily the carbon stocks on the different treatments and how these vary in the soil, in the forage, and in the greenhouse gases produced as a by-product of raising livestock, basically sheep burps.

With a vague idea what I was doing, armed with little more than enthusiasm and sheer bloody-mindedness, I set out learning everything I could about grasslands, livestock, and soil ecology, and all manner of different but interrelated topics. I’ve been gradually bringing the project kicking and screaming from its nascent state as a jumbled set of objectives to something that with a bit of polishing and trimming (and a fair amount of writing) might actually pass muster!

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Daily watering last ‘summer’

Of course, it’s not all been work. There are plenty of other benefits to living and working in a place like mid-Wales, one of the most rural parts of mainland Britain.  The setting, in the Cambrian mountains surrounded by forests winding rivers, and err…sheep (did I mention the sheep?) is spectacular.  There have been plenty of opportunities for hiking and the odd spot of foraging, this year has been particularly good for wild fruit despite the uncharacteristically dry summer, which as I sit here writing this, appears to be more or less over.  Pwllpeiran has been an ideal place to live and study.

Back to the project, after 2.5 years of experiments, the last of the data is in after recruiting the help of two other PhD students.  With the promise of cake as incentive (cake passes for currency around here), we cleared the summer hay from the Brignant plots, and my task now moves from one of practical activity to one of honing my theoretical knowledge and writing skills as I dive into the writing up phase!

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Burying teabags for the organic decomposition experiment, now that’s a strong brew!

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Spring out of winter

by Hannah Vallin

Remember the days of dry springs leading to warm sunny summers? Certainly feels like a long time ago. As they say in Game of Thrones “Winter is coming”, I am starting to wonder if it will ever leave now. The first snow fall of the year is always exciting, that powdery white stuff that makes everything look somewhat magical, and might allow for a day or two off work and school, great!  It was back in the middle of November when we saw the first sign of snowflakes at Pwllpeiran, and it has been a rather erratic and harsh winter since.  Over the last few months there have been several snow days, and recently thanks to the “Beast from the East”, Pwllpeiran really has been turned into the Welsh Alps.

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With several inches of snow blocking the roads and temperatures falling well below freezing, the snowfall really has dictated how things happen for quite some time now.  For myself, commuting the 20 minute drive to work has been near impossible at times, it was off to work down at the Aberystwyth Uni Campus with a laptop instead.  But what about the livestock at Pwllpeiran I hear you ask, how will they get fed?! Well, our trusted man Gareth doesn’t let any amount of snow stop him from carrying out his duties.  With what I can only describe as an all-weather onesie and a sack of food on his back the sheep were well looked after throughout the freezing cold winter!  Our resident flock of Herdwicks did not seem phased by this winter wonderland, they actually seemed to quite enjoy playing around in the snow! These lovely little sheep are particularly hardy, a thick wiry coat that sheds water means they can cope well in extreme cold weather, perfect for up in these hills. Gareth has done an excellent job at keeping them safe with good shelter spots, and well-nourished with plenty of food.  But I reckon even the Herdwicks are longing for spring to be sprung , surly we are due some golden sunshine to defrost the hills soon.

 

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What a difference a year makes, it’s hard to believe that this time last year at the beginning of March we had started to harvest our daffodil plots.  The everlasting cold spell has delayed the growing season this year, I don’t blame the daffodils for not wanting to raise their heads and flower in this weather.  However, the impact that the cold weather and snow is having on the daffodils might not be such a bad thing after all.   As you’ll recall, Pwllpeiran is testing a novel approach for sustainable daffodil-derived galanthamine production in the uplands, as an approved pharmaceutical product for Alzheimer’s treatment (more here).   The theory is, by growing the plants in a more stressful environment, aka the uplands, as a stress response they should produce more galanthamine.  As we are fast approaching the harvest season it will be interesting to see if the galanthamine concentrations have increased this year in response to the recent bad weather.

snow 3(There are daffodils under that snow….honest)

As my second winter at Pwllpeiran draws to an end I think I am going to invest in some skis, if I can’t drive to work I’ll have to take up cross country skiing! Or maybe I’ll get away with just playing on a snowboard. When you live out in the sticks of Cwmystwyth, you can’t assume that the roads will be gritted, let alone cleared once the snow drifts come in. If you’re lucky a very generous farmer will come along and literally dig you out with his tractor, which would be a lot more effective than me with a shovel!.  So, next time you are stuck driving behind a tractor wishing them to pull over, just remember all the help they give during every snow blizzard, flood or any other crazy weather event!

Let’s hope all this snow business is finally melting away until next winter, time for some sunshine, warmth and longer spring days please, we have harvesting to be getting on with!

(This blog was written for you, whilst snowed out of Pwllperian and stuck on campus yet again.)

snow4(A very helpful local farmer clearing the road)

My time going (Aber)Forward at Pwllpeiran

Guest blog by Damian Osmond

It was during that wonderful time of year we all know and love, exam season, that I received an email asking if I would be interested in working with the university as part of their AberForward scheme.  Looking for any excuse to distance myself from exams, I naturally filled out the applications and wondered idly about whether I’d see anything about the placement I opted for.  A couple of months later, I was stood in the wonderful hills in Cwmystyth, as we discussed agricultural practices with some visitors in what would later be dubbed as “my office”.

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The feeling you’re experiencing now is an odd mix of tranquillity and envy.

On paper, my roles were rather simple; help out with what I could, learn some new skills and assist with analysis and data collection.  However, it did not take long for my responsibilities to expand massively.

I mentioned data collection, this varied from taking grass cuttings, daffodil measurements, so many daffodils…  Sheep weighing and soil core taking, which was nice but rather odd to hear metal striking across all the hills, echoing like thunder.  I also had the opportunity to speak with some visiting school kids.  Now, I’d never worked with children before, but it was staggering just how many questions were asked.  To this day, I have no idea how local wildlife in the hills lead to me trying to answer about reverse scuba octopi, but what I can say is that no day in my eight weeks working were ever the same.

The hardest day there was when we represented IBERS at the Royal Welsh; it was still early into my placement, I had some idea of information to share about moss, peat and water retention but the heat made everything seem much harder than it was. Still, whilst a hard day, it was not the worst, in fact, during my time here I never did have a bad day.

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Never did find out if a rolling stone gathers moss.

Although, saying that, whilst not a bad day as such, the one I disliked most would have to be the day I overheard there would be sheep shearing and volunteered possibly too enthusiastically to assist with it.  The work was definitely interesting, and I can now say I’ve sheared a sheep!  (Even got to keep the wool.)  However, sheep are incredibly messy, and after the being avoided at lunch, due to the horrendous smell I had picked up, I had the joy of trying to remove many a sheep’s lunch and half a field from my clothes.

In all my time working with Pwllpeiran, my favourite role was just being part of the team; I was working alongside doctors, a professor, researchers and people with far more experience than myself but I was never treated less than anyone else or just as the temp to shift stuff or run tea.  I joked about my least favourite time there, but I think it has to be when I had to say my goodbyes and leave.  Still, the work done they do there is incredible, I could list all I learned but we’d be here until the next AberForward steps in, but I can’t thank everyone I worked with enough for the chance to be a part of the team, but thank you nonetheless!

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Damian at the wrap up ceremony for Aber Uni’s summer 2017 AberForward scheme, talking about what he’d been up to.  He was one of only two placements out of 60 to present.

From the old to the new!

by Hannah Vallin

Last year, Pwllpeiran obtained a small amount of funding for additional engagement from the Joy Welch Educational Charitable Trust, thanks to our PhD student Dan putting in the application.  The aim of the Trust is to provide funds for the promotion of educational outreach work.  So, what did we do with the funding?

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The fun begins.

Here at Pwllpeiran we have many useful outbuildings surrounding our office centre. These include field labs for sorting and analysing samples collected from plots; drying and milling rooms; and garage space for the all-important machinery.  However, there was one particularly large space that was becoming a bit abandoned, collecting more and more boxes and cobwebs – it was time to make a change!  On a rare sunny day the whole team got to work clearing out the cluttered room, filling trailer after trailer with old rubbish, and re-allocating stored furniture.  It took the best part of two days to completely empty the space, and then the cleaning began….  Needless to say I made the others get rid of all the spiders!!  After endless hoovering and mopping, the place was clear and clean, and we could start to envision how to revamp the space.  As it is a breeze-block building we decided a lick of paint was needed to brighten up the space; even the floor got a shiny covering of paint.  With the addition of some benches, tables and notice pin boards we had a turned a dusty out-room into a great space to use for multiple events!

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The big clear out – go team go!

As someone who loves to engage and inspire children into the world of science, I am keen to develop educational field sessions held at Pwllpeiran, making use of our newly revamped outbuilding, aka the ‘field classroom’.  Pwllpeiran represents a unique resource for education and research; for the University, local groups, and schools.  Thanks to the funding from the Joy Welch it was possible to purchase some ecology kits, magnifying lenses, vegetation quadrats, identification cards and tables for the new classroom.  With these facilities in place we were ready to invite small school groups to Pwllpeiran, offering the chance to attend organised ecology fieldwork sessions based on interactive learning experiences out in the field, supported by the field classroom back at the centre.

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Finished, and ready for an event!

Since establishing our field classroom, we have had two visits from Plascrug Primary School, and held a session as part of Aberystwyth’s Summer University program.  Both events were very successful, thanks to my trusty sidekicks, PhD students Caroline, Ben and Dan who helped run the sessions!  Everyone, even the adults, had a lot of fun! Wellies and waterproofs on, everyone was ready for river kick sampling to identify fresh hv4water invertebrates and mini-beast hunts in the woods and grasslands.  Our best find was a bright pink and olive-green Elephant Hawk moth, caught by a young pupil who at the age of 10 already knew she wanted to be a zoologist (girl after my own heart!).  Plus, some budding botanists of the future very much enjoyed showing off their plant and tree identification skills.  Not to forget my favourite activity: learning all about super Sphagnum and its role in our pristine peat bogs.  It really has been a great experience to show off the area around Pwllpeiran, but the most rewarding part is seeing first-hand the excitement and inspiration on the pupils’ faces from the opportunity of learning in the great outdoors; priceless! As a certified STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Ambassador, along with the team at Pwllpeiran, I plan to continue developing our connections and educational outreach work with the local community.

For those of you who keep an eye on our Facebook page (find it here) I am sure you will have seen additional events over the summer, such as our Open Day and the Miscanthus safari tour, also took advantage of our new snazzy field classroom (yes, the name is sticking).  Look out for more events and visits in the future!!

Heat from the Hills

PROGRASS

Rank Molinia tussocks – a fuel of the future?

by Mariecia Fraser

A few months ago, we were shocked and deeply saddened to lose our friend and colleague John Corton.  This blog is about an area of research he was tremendously passionate about.

Managing native grassland is a challenge right across Europe.  Its low nutritional value together with declining stock numbers has increasing led to under-grazing and agricultural abandonment.  But what other land use options are there for unimproved, semi-natural vegetation?  Especially if it’s been taken over by problem plants such as bracken, rushes and Molinia (purple moorgrass).  Dominance by these brings big biodiversity challenges, and large areas of hill land are now being mown by conservation bodies such as the RSPB, National Trust and Natural Resources Wales to try and maintain habitat value.

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ProGrass was an EU project which was the first to consider bales of discarded vegetation being produced by this type of land management as a potential feedstock for bio-energy.  IBERS worked with partners in Germany and Estonia to test a pilot processing plant that turned this biomass into a liquid substrate for anaerobic digestion and a dry cake for burning.  The vegetation was cut and baled using standard (but robust!) farm machinery any time from mid-August on.  One of the advantages of using this type of vegetation as a bio-energy feedstock rather than a forage is that the decline in herbage quality over the autumn and winter doesn’t matter.  And waiting until the ground is frozen can mean areas that would normally be too wet to access can be cut, helping to knock back e.g. rushes.  Lots of great data was collected as the processing plant (known as Blue Konrad to his friends) toured across Europe.  Testing of the material produced confirmed that minerals that could damage boilers had been removed from the dry cake, making it suitable as a fuel.

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The processing plant (a.k.a. Blue Konrad) in Germany

Several follow-on projects have taken the ProGrass concept further.  Burning material at high temperatures without oxygen (a process known as pyrolysis) produces char, which everyone who’s ever had a go at cooking with charcoal knows has a high heat potential.  It’s also a great way of concentrating energy into something small and light.  Mobile char rigs could offer a great way to make the most of material located in inaccessible areas that would be too costly and difficult to transport out as bales.  The latest project has us working once again with several of the ProGrass partners plus new collaborators across Europe to broaden the range of ‘waste’ green material being considered even further.

If the technical challenges of scaling up can be met and the economics work out we could have a triple win: reduced reliance on fossil fuels without growing extra biomass crops; improved biodiversity; and an alternative income stream for land managers.  And there’s an awful lot of land we can use without damaging sensitive areas.  The ideal set up could be to establish areas that are cut annually on a rotational system; with stock grazing on the greener, more nutritious, growth the following year; then a fallow year or two to build up the biomass again.  At a landscape scale this would be a great way of creating mosaics of vegetation at different ages and heights – just the sort of thing our rare upland birds and other wildlife love.

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The rest of the IBERS ProGrass team: John, Iain & Jim.

Adventures with a camera trap

Adventures with a camera trap

by Ben Roberts

An area rich with diversity 

We’re not short of interesting animals in the area around Pwllpeiran. Doubtless many of you will know about the presence of some of them, from iconic raptors gliding in the skies above, to the variety of wildlife in the woodlands around Hafod and beyond.  The diversity of sometimes rare and endangered species in the area is plain to see, whether it be on a trip to Nant Yr Arian to see the red kite feedings, or evidenced by Vincent Wildlife Trust staff out and about on the roads or scouting the forestry for pine martens and pole cats.

Finding the motivation…

Knowing this, I had always liked the idea of going out at some point to attempt to photograph the animal wildlife that might be present around Pwllpeiran. Unfortunately, a number of factors including frequent wet weather, lack of spare time, and a general lack of patience to sit out on the hillside for hours on end hoping to see something more than just sheep meant somehow I never got round to it….  However, this time last year it began to become a reality via an unlikely route.

Daffodils on the menu?

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No daffodil grazing, but ‘Larry’ the lamb was very keen to show his best side

Having completed our first daffodil harvest, we were preparing to put sheep back out on the plots to let them eat the grass which had grown in their absence whilst the daffodils grew, when we came across a conundrum. We had always believed that the sheep would be unlikely to eat the daffodils, given that the alkaloids
which we are after are actually in the plant to stop mammalian herbivory and were expected to make the plants bitter.  But given no one had tried this combination before, we lacked solid scientific data as to whether our assumptions were true or not. So the question was, how do we check that the sheep aren’t eating them?

Finding a hands-off method

Being the lowest grade member of staff, and knowing that a suggestion of a straw poll was unlikely to win out as the method of deciding who had the honour of keeping a vigil over the daffodils, I decided to quickly search for a solution that involved a less hands-on experience!

Having seen a good deal of BBC nature documentaries throughout my life, I knew that camera traps were a good way of catching animals in action without having to be there. You simply strap the camera to a tree or post facing a trodden path or area where animals are likely to be seen, and leave the camera on standby ready to snap/ record at any time when something crosses its field of vision.  This led me to think this might be a useful solution.  Rather than looking out for exotic wildlife, we would simply have the camera overlooking the daffodil rows, and when a sheep came in its vision we would see whether they were just eating the grass or choosing to sample the daffodils as well.

The adventures begin!

After a few stints at a few different places, we felt confident that the sheep weren’t eating the daffodils.  It was at that point we realised that now having a spare camera trap, we could maybe have a look at some wildlife after all.  We started putting it up at different places around Pwllpeiran, and because it didn’t require us to be there – we could leave it for weeks at a time taking pictures and videos.

Below are a few of the sightings we’ve had…

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Its not just sheep on the plots, this polecat was found hanging around.  Can you spot it?  It’s hiding behind the daffodil leaves.

Despite the rarity of deer in the area (see previous blog), there have recently been one or two sightings not too far from Pwllpeiran, and there was lots of excitement when we managed to get one of them captured on camera.  But it was travelling at speed, and it’s not clear from the image what type it might be.  We’ve had a go at re-positioning the camera to try and catch it head on, but haven’t had any luck as yet.

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The camera-shy deer just caught jumping past!

 

Birds are a lot more easier to catch.  Here’s a a blackbird playing hide and seek.

 

But it’d better watch out for what’s lurking in the undergrowth!

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A fox among the trees.  They’ve been spotted in various locations.

The camera trap is now up again. Watch this space for further photos/ videos when they arrive!

 

Messing about with moss… (it’s educational, honest!)

by Caroline Freeman

I am not based at Pwllpeiran, but am perhaps best described as a ’part time’ team member. I’m a first year PhD student and am making good use of Pwllpeiran for my project, studying the impact of management on soil water infiltration, with the aim of understanding links between land use, land management and flood risk. I love being outdoors instead of in an office, so escape up to the hills whenever I can.  I have a background in ecology and environmental education, having worked as a countryside ranger for many years in Scotland, as a warden at Ynyslas Nature reserve and more recently as an Education Officer for Natural Resources Wales. I’ve always enjoyed education work, so when I heard that Pwllpeiran were planning to organise a stall for the University science week I was keen to get involved. They were also planning an activity focusing on sphagnum moss, which plays an important role in flood mitigation, something very relevant to my PhD.

During Science Week, a range of hands-on exhibitions at Aberystwyth University are provided for over 1400 school children from around Wales, as part of British Science Week, to enthuse young people about science. The fair is organised by the University’s Centre for Widening Participation and Social Inclusion (CWPSI).

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Collecting moss on the hill

Lots of different departments get involved and the activities can include anything from guiding robots through mazes, to making slime and playing with model rivers.  We wanted to provide hands-on activities to demonstrate the important role that sphagnum moss plays in storing and filtering water. Luckily, Hannah had the answer – a ‘high-tech’ solution that involved water, a bucket of moss, and a little bit of digging…

Our stall consisted of three activities. Firstly, sphagnum soaking in water was placed in one tub, next to another holding some sponges soaking in water. The schoolchildren could grab a handful of sphagnum to see how much water it holds, and compare it to a sponge. This was a very popular activity, with the pupils enjoying squelching and squishing the sphagnum moss. It gave us a chance to chat to them about how sphagnum could help mitigate flooding, by storing large amounts of water and reducing surface run off into the rivers.

Secondly, three tubs with three different types of vegetation cover were set up next to each other. These had been dug up from Pwllpeiran, there are some nice square shaped holes somewhere up there now…   One tub held peat soil, one had soil and grass, and one had soil and sphagnum. Water could be added to the top of these tubs, which ran through to clear plastic bottles underneath.  Children could see first-hand how much water came through each tub, and also compare the colour of the water and amount of sediment it carried.  There was less sediment in the water that had run through sphagnum, showing the role it plays in filtering water.

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Showing how sphagnum helps to manage water

Finally, some microscopes were set up so that the pupils could compare dry and wet sphagnum and see the differences in shape and structure as it took on water.

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Sphagnum under the microscope

We had many visitors to the stall, so with a bit of luck some young people went away with a new interest in environment, the natural world and the difference one small plant can make to the natural world.

Following the success of the science fair, we are planning more education group visits to Pwllpeiran, watch this space!