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!

 

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From staff to student (again)

From staff to student (again)

By Ben Roberts

Decisions, decisions…

This time a year ago, February 2016, I was writing the first posts for this blog; very much into my job at the time and not really wondering what was going to happen when the fated day of September the 6th rolled by and my contract was to finish. Having spent 6 months (with 5 remaining) as a KTP Associate; mapping the pipeline for producing the Alzheimer’s disease drug galantamine from daffodils and supplying the related QA documents; I hadn’t bothered to worry myself too much on the future.download

Though, unfortunately as it does, time went ticking by. And by the beginning of June I was beginning to scratch various parts of my head quite a bit over what I should do come the big day. Fortunately, my nails and receding hairline were saved from too much damage.

One particularly wet lunchtime (we get lots of those at Pwllpeiran), Mariecia asked me what I wanted to do post contract – a dangerous thing to ask any not-long-graduated 22 year old. I had however been mulling it over in anticipation of such a question. Having greatly enjoyed my job, my time at Pwllpeiran, and the university in general- I thought that given the opportunity I might like to stay on. I also realised that the thing I enjoyed the most was the research side. And fortunately, when Mariecia told me about her future projects – one in particular stuck out.

Sooo, what was this new project?

Well, it was an upcoming PhD project due to start in September 2016. A collaborative project between IBERS, the computer science department, RSPB Lake Vyrnwy, and the Elan Valley Trust titled ‘Understanding and exploiting livestock behaviour to manage upland vegetation for wildlife and ecosystem services’ (catchy title i know!).  70a57409a2cb2f99a7951f54883c4023_vector-white-sheep-eating-a-sheep-eating-clipart_1300-1025An application led to an interview, the interview led to an offer, and here I am.

The basic premise of the project is to understand more about how, and why cattle, sheep and ponies eat what they eat; what influences their choice, and by knowing this- can we manipulate the influencing factors so they eat what we want them to? The utility of this being to create grazing prescriptions that could be used to help restore habitats that are often impeded by certain vegetation e.g. Molinia caerulea over-dominance on restoring upland blanket bogs.Which when we consider that these habitats provide valuable ecosystem
services, such as climate regulation (UK peatlands contain at least 3000 million tonnes of carbon, which is twenty times as much carbon stored in the whole of the UK’s forest biomass (IUCN, 2009))- it seems important to try and restore them as best we can.

  “I trust you can handle this contraption, 007?”

One of the real fun parts of this project is the collaboration with Aber’s Computer Science department. Given the scale of plots used in this study, and the need to know where these animals are at one time- we joined forces with Comp Sci in order to try and develop some specific equipment to do the job. I wont say too much now, as they’ll be a blog on that at the beginning of next month, but to keep the suspense going I will say it involves specially developed electronic ear tags, and auto piloted drones (exciting i know!).

Until next time!

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Lots to look forwards to I’m sure!

 

References

IUCN. UK committee (2009).  Peatlands and Climate Change.  IUCN Peatland programme. Accessed online. http://www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/sites/www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/files/images/091201BriefingPeatlands_andClimateChange.pdf 

 

 

Exploring the past while moving (Aber)Forward

Guest blog by Lizzie Tyson

Lizzie and fellogolow Aberystwyth University alumnus Laura Jenkins have just finished a four-week placement with the Pwllpeiran team as part of the AberForward graduate scheme.

 

Over the years many of the documents and archives about the rich experimental history of Pwllpeiran have been lost or destroyed. Our project focused on collating and assessing the information that is still available.  We began our research journey by sorting through 13 boxes of archive material left at Pwllpeiran by ADAS when they moved out in 2012. The documents in these boxes dated from the mid-fifties onwards, and ranged from scientific reports to mess room records. There were also various photographs of the area, including two sets of aerial photographs: one set in black and white and one set in colour from 1972.

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Laura (right) and I experiencing life on the mountain first hand while visiting old experimental sites.

The next stage was to hunt down Pwllpeiran Annual Reviews and Farm Reports. Copies of some of these are located in the Hugh Owen Library at Aberystwyth University, and others in the National Library of Wales. The earliest annual review we found was from 1965 and the latest was from 1985, presenting us with 20 years of information about Pwllpeiran and the experiments that took place there.  The research at that time was centred on improving sheep production on upland hill farms without incurring huge costs, with the bulk of the trials based around improving the sheep by breeding, altering their feeding routine or by improving the land. This was done with the overall aim of increasing food production, with the systems developed at the then Pwllpeiran Experimental Husbandry Farm acting as models for other upland farms.

We also carried out a small amount of background research into Sir George Stapledon and the earlier Cahn Hill Improvement Scheme to try and find out more about the experiments that took place during the 1930s and 1940s. Unfortunately we were running out of time at this stage, but there appears to be an extensive collection of documents available in the National Library of Wales for future reference!

As our time came to a close we began to reflect on what we had gained from the placement. Thankfully scientific documentation is a lot more thorough today than it was in the past, since it proved difficult to track down detail about many of the experiments or the exact location of where they took place. It also seems a shame that a site as important as Pwllpeiran has seemingly lost a lot of its records, and that the documents that do exist are not all in one place. On a more personal level we have gained an insight into the world of research beyond undergraduate life and have had the opportunity to practise and enhance our organisational, research and communication skills.

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Presenting our findings at the end of the placement.

We would like to say a huge thank you to all the staff at Pwllpeiran for making us feel so welcome, offering us help and being a constant source of knowledge. Also a big thank you to those who helped us along the way and suggested places where we might be able to find information.

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Best of luck to you both!  Keep in touch.

That was the year that was

By Mariecia Fraser

happy-new-year-fb-coverAs the year turns it’s difficult not to reflect on the tumultuous votes and events of the past twelve months.  Who’d have guessed this time last year we’d be where we are now; 2016 was certainly the year we learned to expect the unexpected!

But keeping it closer to home, the past twelve months have seen lots of exciting new developments at Pwllpeiran. We started the year with just four of us based at the site, but by February Dan had arrived to begin his PhD project on the effect of management on soil/plant/animal interactions within permanent pasture.  After weeks out in the field taking hundreds of soil samples the data is just starting roll in; always an exciting time!

A month later Prof Mike Wilkinson arrived with tales of wombats, stress and plant reproduction, and before we knew it we’d learned a whole new vocabulary.  Epigenetics and methylation are new regular topics of conversation around the Pwllpeiran kitchen table!  Mike’s brought a whole new perspective to the science at Pwllpeiran, and ideas for new projects are flowing thick and fast.  The coming year is most definitely going to involve an awful lot of grant writing.

hsSoon after, in April, Hannah became part of the team, managing the day-to-day running of the daffodil project. She brought with her a fantastic set of skills related to fieldwork, labs and cameras. Watch out for more creative photo and film updates in 2017. We have had to tighten up our risk assessments though!

Over the year we have been delighted to show hundreds of visitors around Pwllpeiran.  Those of you that have been on one of our tours will know just how enthusiastic we are about the uplands and the research we’re doing.  And if you haven’t been yet, why not add it to your list of things to do in 2017?!  As well as our ‘day visitors’, we also had the pleasure of hosting a visiting researcher from Bulgaria.  Dr Renáta Sándor was awarded a Stapledon Memorial Travel Fellowship to spend three months with us adapting a pasture simulation model for use with marginal grasslands.  The scientific and cultural exchanges were excellent and time just flew.  We waved Renáta off just before Christmas, but her desk won’t be empty for long as several new faces are due to join us in January.

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Sharing festive traditions. From left: Dan, Ben, Renata, John, Mariecia and Hannah

For a while over the summer we weren’t sure if we were going to be waving goodbye to Ben as well.  His Knowledge Transfer Partnership project on regulatory pathways came to an end in September.  But while working at Pwllpeiran he’d been bitten by the research bug, and over the summer he successfully applied for a new IBERS PhD studentship, developed in collaboration with the RSPB and the Elan Valley Trust.  It’s a joint project with Computing Science and will involve all sorts of novel technologies.  Another great example of the way Pwllpeiran is pushing boundaries.

So those were some of the highs of 2016; what about the lows?  Well, it’s been tough to watch inexplicably influential national and international political figures promote a culture devaluing experts and undermining science.  As we head into uncharted territory, we need well informed, evidence-based decision-making more than ever.

Another, more practical, cause of much frustration and interesting language has been the exceptionally poor broadband we have at Pwllpeiran; a common enough problem in many rural areas. With more people trying to access the main university network our on-site system regularly grinds to a complete halt, almost inevitably just as a deadline looms.  But our area is one of many that has seen green fibre-optic cable being strung up alongside existing copper lines, with promises of unimaginable link speeds to come.  They’ve missed all the predicted completions dates so far, so fingers crossed 2017 is the year superfast finally becomes fact rather than fantasy.

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.

lamb herding

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!

Poet’s day

By Mariecia Fraser

It’s summer 2013, Andy Murray has just won Wimbledon for the first time and IBERS has announced it’s taking over Pwllpeiran.  But up at the site nothing is stirring, not even a (flying) mouse.  It’ll be over a year before the first new experimental plots are pegged out, and even longer before work can begin to replace the roof of the office block, which leaks badly but is also home to a colony of bats.

However, even though the science was on hold at this time something new and very different, linked to the site, was underway – thanks to IBERS appointing two Pwllpeiran Writers in Residence. You can find out more about the competition here:

Pwllpeiran Writer In Residence competition.

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A couple of years on and everything has changed.  So it seemed a good time to invite one of the writers, Elizabeth Godwin, back to Pwllpeiran.  Not only did she jump at the chance of a catch up, she brought along a copy of her work printed on beautiful hand-made paper for us.

We had a fantastic afternoon hearing all about the people she’d met and places she’d visited while developing her work, which was inspired by the landscape and history of the entire valley.  Unfortunately we were so busy talking we forgot all about taking a photo to commemorate the handing over of the final work….   Next time.

And there will be a next time, as we’re hatching all sorts of plans to take the collaboration forward (watch this space!).

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One of Elizabeth’s Poem Houses

In the meantime information about Elizabeth, her writing and photos of the amazing Poem Houses she creates as 3-D representations of her work are available on her blog:

elizabethjardinegodwin.com.

One of the many nice details within the Pwllpeiran work is that includes a list of map co-ordinates to take you to the exact spot that inspired the work, so you can enjoy the words while immersed in the experience. We have a pdf version of it all we can print out (on water-proof paper if necessary…), so anyone fancying a literary treasure hunt round the valley just has to ask!

Pwllpeiran goes open to the public..

Pwllpeiran goes open to the public..

By Ben Roberts

So, it’s been a while! Don’t worry we’re still here.. but it has been busy. So what have we been up to?

The Pwllpeiran Open Day

This has to have been a particularly memorable highlight.On the 17th of May, we opened Pwllpeiran’s doors to the public. In conjunction with Farming connect, we hosted an open day aiming to show people the type of work being undertaken at Pwllpeiran at the moment, as well as having a wider discussion on the importance and direction that the Uplands hold and are likely to have in future.JS59765812-1

Following a particularly warm and sunny spell, the weather forecast for the day carried a much more ominous prediction. Undeterred however, we gathered our wits in the morning and many of us dispersed to various research plots around the site. The first batches of visitors started arriving at 11am and were given talks by IBERS’s Jon Moorby, and Bangor University’s Prysor Williams on the topic of ‘sustainable intensification’. Following this, a trusty team of minibus drivers chauffeured the guests to the various different plots to get a closer look at the work being done, and ask any questions to the respective researchers 5000113c4a53cf98a6edc50e11845c6don site. Unfortunately, by the time people had begun coming to the plots- the Met-office weather forecast oracles suddenly appeared right in their prediction. Shower after shower followed resulting in very soggy visitors, and a personal lamentation that I had chosen to wear jeans that morning! Nevertheless, the day definitely felt like a success- and the weather merely provided an insight for the visitors into the often tricky work conditions that we face in the field (though I can’t say I was too grateful at the time!). Below is a video that was taken using our relatively new time-lapse camera (spot the rain when it arrives!);

A big thank you must go out to everyone involved; members of staff from IBERS Gogerddan (especially Jon x 2, Ellen, John and Jim), business partners, Farming Connect, Prysor, and finally Merann catering- whose on-site burger van provided much need sustenance in the cold, wet afternoon!