Energy to burn

by Amanda Holder (a PhD student at Aberystwyth University working on the multi-centre MAGLUE research programme)

As I have spent a lot of time over the past two years crawling around a field not far from the offices at Pwllpeiran I thought it would be a good idea to explain that there was a purpose to it!  It was all in an effort to record soil emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide emitted during the period of land preparation and planting of a new crop of Miscanthus (of course, why else!).

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Field work selfie!

In order to combat climate change there is a need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane into the atmosphere. Producing energy from plants to reduce the use of traditional fuels such as coal and gas can help to do this.  Miscanthus is a tall perennial grass, similar in appearance to bamboo, which can grow up to 3 metres in one growing season. Harvested annually its rapid growth makes it good for use as a biofuel (being burned to produce electricity).

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Miscanthus growing in plots at Pwllpeiran

As with all plants Miscanthus absorbs carbon dioxide from the air during growth.  However, it is important that the full greenhouse gas implications of converting land to Miscanthus are understood. This is where I come in.

The period of land use change can be considered a ‘hotspot’ for release of greenhouse gasses from the soil due to the  disturbance involved.  To investigate the extent of soil nitrous oxide fluxes during the establishment of Miscanthus a set of 12 trial plots were set up at Pwllpeiran.  Two types of Miscanthus (the commercially available variety and a new hybrid) were planted using different reduced tillage methods, with some plots retained as sheep grazed pasture for comparison. Minimum tillage (soil cultivated to a shallow plough depth before planting) and no tillage (Miscanthus planted in slots cut into the ground) methods were used for the commercial variety, and the new hybrid was planted with minimum tillage under a film mulch layer.

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The new Miscanthus hybrid being planted.

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The plots set up and testing soil emissions when grazed grassland is converted to Miscanthus.

To record the soil nitrous oxide emissions the hard work started before planting began, with samples taken before any intervention, and then continuing until the plants were 18 months old. To do this, in each plot, a circular plastic ‘collar’ was inserted into ground and then every two weeks a lid was clamped to the collar creating an air tight chamber.

A few spare chamber lids were stored in the field and proved to be popular with local wildlife …

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Field vole nest, latrine, and escape hole made underneath a spare chamber lid that was stored in the field.

…but don’t worry the vole kept his home for the year as the spares lids weren’t needed!

Samples of air were taken from inside the chamber through a rubber seal using a syringe. These were taken at 15 minute intervals over the period of one hour. The samples were then taken to the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology at Lancaster (a partner in the project) where they were analysed for levels of nitrous oxide.

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Gas chromatography machine used to analyse the samples of air taken from inside the sealed chambers.

In the end the study was more than worth burning up some of my own energy!  The results obtained can be used to help balance the pros and cons of land use change to Miscanthus.  It was found that soil nitrous oxide emissions from the cultivated plots were higher than the uncultivated sheep pasture, but levels were similar to those for when a grass ley is reseeded. There was no difference between the cultivation methods tested, or the type of Miscanthus. Work with mature crops of Miscanthus had already shown that their fluxes are very similar to pasture.  When specific emissions related to the cultivation ‘hotspot’ are put into the context of the 15-20 year crop life time the impact is small and overall greenhouse gas balances for using Miscanthus are less than for coal or natural gas.

If you’d like to know more you can read the full paper on the study here.

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New gold in them thar hills

By Mariecia Fraser

We’ve just had the first paper from the daffodil project published – hurray!  But why are we so interested in daffodils?  Well, it’s because they are a source of a plant chemical called galanthamine (gal/anth/amine), which is used to produce the pharmaceutical product galantamine (gal/ant/amine).  Galantamine is an approved treatment for Alzeimer’s disease.  It isn’t a cure (the world is still waiting for one of those) but it can help alleviate the symptoms and slow down progression of the disease.  However, at the moment it is estimated that the global demand for the product is ten-times greater than the supply.

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Cross sections of the brain showing atrophy, or shrinking, of brain tissue caused by Alzheimer’s disease (more here).

A whole group of plants, including other garden favourites such as snowdrops and snowflakes, produces galanthamine as a chemical defence.  However, of these, only daffodils have the potential to be cropped, and the UK is already the world leader in terms of the supply of cut daffodils and bulbs (yes, really – no, not the Netherlands).  But while production for the cut flower and bulb markets is concentrated on better quality soils in coastal areas, there could be big advantages to growing daffodils for galanthamine in upland areas.  The plants produce the chemical in response to stress, and growing in poorer soils in cold, wet conditions could help trigger higher concentrations.

But of course we can’t just go ploughing up hillsides to plant daffodils without risking serious environmental damage.  So our project is taking a completely different tack and evaluating the potential of sowing lines of daffodils into long-term upland permanent pasture and then harvesting the green growth in spring.  Our first experiment tested this approach in small-scale plots at five different locations.  These ranged in altitude from 250 m (850 ft) to 430 m (1400 ft) above seas level, all on poorer soils.  The good news was that the concentrations of the galanthamine were higher than reported in previous lowland and lab-based studies.  However, the biomass yields were lower than we were hoping for.  As a result, sets of new experimental plots planted up last October will be exploring the extent to which different agronomic factors affect the amount of harvestable material available.  Without this information it’s not possible to weigh up the true economic potential of it all as yet.

You can read the full paper here.

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From lab antics to the great outdoors!

By Hannah Vallin

It was back in May I decided to have a slight change in my working lifestyle.  Swapping lab coats and pipettes for waterproofs, wellies, and field work equipment.  Not that I wanted to escape the laboratory in anyway but I was intrigued by the great outdoors. What was going on in the uplands that is known as Pwllpeiran? Well since starting a lot has happened and it has been a fun, busy, few months. From harvesting the daffodil plots, hosting the Pwllpeiran open day, getting involved at the Royal Welsh, to accruing our own flock of ewes and lambs.

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In particular, the task of getting 100 ewes and some 140 odd lambs up to the hills of Pwllpeiran from Gogerddan some 17 miles away involving myself, our trusted Gareth and his dog on a quad. We are now into our fourth month of farming sheep on the windy and occasionally sunny hills of Pwllpeiran.

So you are probably wondering why we decided to get some sheep? Well alongside our Yellow Gold daffodil project, yes you should know all about that having read our previous blog posts 😉 It was decided to incorporate daffodil production into grazed pastures on animal performance and the stock carrying capacity of the land.

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So summer began and so did the routine sheep checks. There was a lot of running around at the beginning, mainly by me attempting to get a flock of sheep into particular plot. However, the sheep always had a different idea of where they wanted to be. Finally, when you think all the ewes and lambs are matched correctly and happily in their field plots, think again. Who knew sheep were experts at playing the Houdini act.

Over the weeks I would like to say they have got used to the routine of herding them up for regular weighing and health checks.  I have become gradually more efficient in my sheep handling techniques after almost being knocked out on occasions with jumping lambs. Overall the sheep have settled in nicely and are now used to us walking through the fields carrying out our sward measurements and environmental surveys.

But alas the unexpected always happens when farming sheep on a hillside. It’s now approaching the back end of summer and the original lambs are ready for weaning, they are all healthy and of a decent size growing fast. It is now time for them to explore past the demo plots into the main hills away from mum.  This was a task in its self to separate them all! Then the unexpected part….When checking on a plot of spare ewes supposedly barren needless to say I noticed a small white thing hiding in the tall grass. Approaching further, worried to what I was going to find, up pop two tiny ears and a dozed look on what was a recently new born lamb. To our surprise there were two new lambs, somewhat later than the usual lambing season but extremely cute. Pleased to say they are doing very well enjoying life in the hills, and it’s always nice to watch them bounding around. You never know they may become permanent residents born and bred at Pwllpeiran.

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Probably the most interesting task of all was retrieving all the lambs down from the hills to the holding systems at the research centre, in order to separate the ewe lambs from the tups. Now this was an experience!! Instead of the easy method often using a trailer we decided to do it the old fashioned way, and walk them down the main road.  All you need is someone with the experience (not myself) but Gareth with his sheep dog. Keeping in mind these lambs have never set foot on concrete and most defiantly never been walked down a road. Needless to say I was a tad apprehensive as to what was about to happen.  As I stood on the main road to stop any cars from passing, I suddenly saw 140 odd lambs running towards me down the track. What do I do!?!  Somehow I stayed calm and acted like I knew what I was doing. It worked! All the lambs were following one another heading in the right direction. I think in this case it was the dog that did all the hard work.  It was certainly a great sight to see. One could say it’s just how we do sheep farming in the Welsh hills.

There is a lot more to write about, other adventures, interesting animals caught on our camera traps, exciting future plans, and newcomers to join. But I won’t give it all away, lets save that for another blog 😉

But……You can check out our latest mini movie on Pwllpeiran ponderings.  Enjoy!

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

Brignant – A modern classic

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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.