Cutting for Gold

By Hannah Vallin

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A new face to the team, a new blog and a new post. Having joined the Pwllpeiran upland research team only three weeks ago, it has certainly been a busy introduction to the job.  I found myself tagging along on the day to day tasks, learning the ropes, and providing an extra pair of hands just in time for harvesting all the daffodils upon the research plots.  The endless rows of daffodils are part of the project ‘Innovative system for sustainable daffodil-derived galanthamine production in the uplands’.  After a quick summary of the project it was straight outside to get to work.

During the end of April, believe it or not, the weather here in the Welsh uplands gave us a break of dry sunny calm days.  Shocking I know, but perfect timing for us to harvest the daffodil plots. The considerably mild conditions this year has encouraged the daffodils to thrive. We all know daffodils to be a clear sign of spring, covering fields and road sides with bright yellow and orange colours, while small lambs bound in the fields. The two sights go perfectly together and give everyone hope that the winter months are over and we might, just might, get that lovely hot summer we have all been waiting for.  So you are probably thinking that the rolling Welsh hills are now covered in beautiful yellow flowers. Well, not anymore.  We harvest the daffodils at the ‘goose-neck’ stage when their galanthamine (the yellow gold we are after) content is at its highest concentration.  I’m afraid we don’t really give the daffodils time to bloom into lovely open yellow flowers, or, if they do they are chopped pretty soon after.

Within the space of a week the Pwllpeiran team took to the hills and harvested 6ha. The side kick team comprising of Mariecia, Ben and I went up prior to John and Gareth who had the tractors, trailers, 4X4’s and of course the trusty harvester! We sub-sampled all the plots for our own analysis back here at the research centre using our very own Edward scissors hands, or just fancy hand clippers! It was then the job of our trusty two men to harvest the lot. Keeping in mind that only two lines of daffodils at a time could be chopped and the tractor (New Holland 1920) was rather slow moving, pulling the harvester behind, one week wasn’t bad going. Big thumbs up to Gareth who endured the not so comfy tractor seat all day long for a week, his precise positioning up and down the daffodil plots and of course what would any field experiment be without some kind technical mishap… let’s just say a few machinery issues in the beginning. Luckily enough thanks to a local bearing man in Aberystwyth all our problems were resolved in no time. I also took the opportunity, while the weather was fairly decent, to document our harvesting season.  The GoPro’s boxed up in the office were finally taken out and put to the test. It’s not quite a bird’s eye view, more so a tractor view, of the harvesting. That’s right we stuck the GoPro onto the tractor and the back of the harvester! As it drove off down the steep hillside there was a moment of uncertainty as to whether the sticky attachments would hold or not. Alas, they did, and you can take a peek at the short video I made to show off our site!

So after a busy week of being out in the field in the sunshine, hard life I know, what’s next?

A lot. A lot of sample analysis back in the lab; boxes and bags full of daffodils! While this part may be less thrilling and slightly more time consuming, it does allow us time for working on our acapella voices, singing while we work.  Remaining positive from our successful, and may I say extremely efficient, harvesting we should have a lot of progressive data for analysis.

From the new arrival in the team, coming to the end of my first blog (give me chance, I shall improve!), I shall end on this note. The next new arrivals to Pwllpeiran in the upcoming weeks are not that of a human form…!  Keep an eye out for our updated blog on the exciting projects we have lined up, and who or what they involve!

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Pwllpeiran

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Brignant – A modern classic

Brignant

View across the Brignant long-term plots

By Mariecia Fraser

Amongst the many excellent experimental resources at Pwllpeiran are a set of long-term plots known as the Brignant plots.  They were created in 1994 as part of a MAFF-funded collaboration between the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) and ADAS, to test the effectiveness of different extensification managements in achieving reversion of improved permanent pasture to semi-natural vegetation.  The plots were established on typical upland improved permanent pasture that had been ploughed and reseeded in the 1970s, and which had received regular inputs of fertiliser and lime.  Project results indicated promising prospects for restoring species-rich grassland communities through natural species colonisation. They also indicated that different extensive managements could vary the rate and direction of successional changes.  Funding for the original project work ceased in 2006.

Vintage carWhen talking about what happened next, a colleague, Dr Gareth Griffiths, uses a fantastic analogy which compares experimental plots to cars.  When they are new and shiny they attract lots of attention, but as time moves on they can start to look a bit dated as trends change.  At this point there is a high risk of them being scrapped in favour of something newer.  However, if they survive and are looked after they eventually start to gain value again due to their rarity and longevity.  At this point the label switches to ‘vintage’.  Thankfully, despite funding for the plots ending in 2006, the ADAS staff at Pwllpeiran kept the plots going on a ‘care-and-maintenance’ basis until they left; with treatments imposed but no data collected.  Gareth Griffiths and others took over the cause until the lease of Pwllpeiran to IBERS was settled.  Today the age and the extent of the treatments effects at the site make Brignant a unique experimental resource.  It is one of only a handful of long-term ecological experiments in the UK, and the only one based on upland improved pasture.  Grassland science owes a great deal to the staff that kept the resource going through ten turbulent years when its future was constantly under threat.

To give a bit of detail on the set-up, the plots are arranged in a randomized block design with three blocks and a total of seven grassland management regimes imposed on individual plots. The treatments are: sheep grazing, hay cut only, and hay cut with aftermath grazing; each with and without the addition of lime.  Plots are 0.15 ha (grazed) or 0.08 ha (hay cut only) in size. Control plots continuing the previous site management (i.e. limed, fertilised and continually grazed by sheep) are also included within each block.

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Layout of the Brignant long-term plots

Although over two decades old, the plots are highly relevant to today’s knowledge and evidence gaps. A third of the upland grassland in the UK is categorised as improved permanent pasture, and for the majority of farms within less favoured areas the extent and condition of these swards determines the overall level of productivity possible.  However, the policy framework for permanent grasslands is currently undergoing major change due to BREXIT/CAP reform plus reinterpretation of their role in terms of environmental regulations.  These changes can curtail the management options available to farmers, and there is much debate amongst policymakers and the industry as to the wider implications of the new rules.  New project work is quantifying for the first time the impact of the alternative management treatments on a broad suite of provisioning, regulating and supporting ecosystem services, and explore related above and below ground processes.  Collectively the results will be used to deliver a comprehensive comparative assessment of productive performance and public goods delivery from permanent pastures under alternative management regimes.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of the Park Grass experiment at Rothamsted Research, despite its future being highly uncertain at times.  Justifiably, this and similar very long-term trials at Rothamsted are referred to as the Classical Experiments, and their contribution to science celebrated.  Brignant is one of only a handful of UK sites that can aspire to be a Modern Classic.

Deer, oh deer

By Mariecia Fraser

I grew up in the Highlands of Scotland where there are deer everywhere; on hillsides, in woods, on warning signs along roads, in bits on walls, and on menus in most pubs and restaurants.  The monarch of the glen is an icon after all.  And deservedly so.  Red deer in particular seem to embody the free spirit of those that are at one with wild places.  They move swiftly and effortlessly over the toughest of terrain, disappearing into the landscape within moments when disturbed, while a well crowned stag personifies elegant violence.

So it was a bit of a shock to move to a part of upland Britain where there are no deer.  I have lived on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains for over twenty years now, and have never seen a single cervid anywhere in this area.  Apparently there are reasonable numbers in some other parts of Wales, but there are none on the high ground of Ceredigion.  Or if there are they are very, very shy.  In fact you can go for miles and miles without seeing any grazers at all on many of the high plateaux.  Declining stock numbers have meant that farmers have focussed their attention on better pastures down the hill, and without any wild herbivores many of these hill areas are shifting away from the grazed ecosystems that we know.  There are many who hold strong and conflicting views on whether this is a good thing.  To me there is something desolate and depressing about these areas; we have done too much and gone too far to turn back the clock to some Bronze Age idyll without some creative management (but more on that another day).

deer-signOf course there are also some up advantages to a lack of deer.  Wildlife such as deer can be a reservoir for pests and diseases such as ticks and liver fluke.  In addition, fencing of woodland and gardens is simpler and cheaper without them, and there are none of the debates and disagreements over how best to manage population numbers.  In Scotland the majority of deer are free-ranging, passing from one estate to another,and are simultaneously considered pests and commercial commodities.  Originally forest dwellers, they are seasonally and regionally adaptable, taking browse and grasses in various amounts according to season and area.  However, this adaptability has taken its toll; red deer in Eastern Europe have 2 to 2.5 times the body weight and around 3 to 4 times the antler weight of those on Scottish hill-land.

Perhaps the afforestation planned, together with the destocking we’ve already seen, will mean deer naturally spread into favourable habitat within areas such as Ceredigion. Despite the challenges they might bring, I hope so.

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