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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