Challenging times for grasslands

by Mariecia Fraser

Most farmers are aware of the Recommended Lists of grasses, legumes and other crops – there’s usually plenty of publicity as they’re launched every couple of years.  But fewer farmers and land managers are familiar with how the testing is done. 

A standard trial format is carefully imposed across all six sites that are involved in generating the data used to create the rankings for England and Wales.  This makes sure that all the varieties being tested are treated in the same way.  However, the format used has a number of crucial limitations.  Firstly, the testing is all done at sites with excellent growing conditions in terms of soil and climate.  Secondly, rather than using real animals, grazing is ‘simulated’ by cutting with mowers every three weeks.  This means that all the material is removed at a standard height, which doesn’t represent the impact of real grazing since animals are always removing material selectively. Thirdly, the test plots all receive high application rates of nitrogen fertiliser. 

The format of the testing means that the varieties demonstrate the maximum yields they are capable of, which is the main measure they are subsequently ranked on in the Recommended Lists.  But what happens once the same grasses are expected to perform in less than optimal growing conditions, i.e. those more typical of those found on upland farms? 

To use an analogy; how well is a Ferrari going to do on a rough old farm track?  Will it still be performing well in all conditions, or is a Landrover a safer bet long-term?

And of course, ‘grass seed’ as sown on farm is almost always made up of a combination of different varieties (e.g. a mix of different ryegrasses), and usually a combination of different plant species (e.g. a mix of different grasses and clovers).  So in real swards we have a situation where competition between plants for nutrients, light and water will mean some will thrive while others struggle.  Added to this are the effects of selective grazing, particularly by sheep – some plant species will be heavily targeted while others are largely avoided. 

Given the jump from testing to the on-farm world it’s not surprising that sward stability is almost inevitably poor, with key species being lost after only a few growing seasons.

Plus, these days productivity is just one factor that grassland is judged on.  We also need pastures to support above- and below-ground biodiversity, store as much carbon as possible, cope with dry conditions if there’s a drought, and reduce rainfall run-off when the storms come.  If subsidy schemes shift to a greater emphasis on delivery of ‘public goods’, these measures could have a much greater influence on support payments.

This is the background to a major new project on grassland mixtures that we began the experimental work for last year.  The project is part of a multi-million pound research programme at IBERS, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), aimed at improving the economic, productive and environmental sustainability of crops in the face of climatic and political change.   

Plots being sown at the site 70 m above sea level at Trawscoed. This site represents very good growing conditions.

Our grassland research is testing the effects of multiple stresses on grass and legume mixtures over seasons and years, and is taking place across four sites along a ’challenge gradient’.  We have sites at altitudes of 70 m and 150 m above sea level at the university’s Trawscoed Dairy Research Centre, and sites at 230 m and 340 m above sea level at Pwllpeiran.  Detailed surveys have shown the underlying soil chemistry of the different sites are broadly similar, but that nutrient levels decline with altitude.  Weather stations are providing detailed information on the extent to which temperatures, rainfall, wind speed and other meteorological parameters also change across the gradient.

The top site, at 340 m above sea level, under snow in March this year.

At each location replicate plots of two alternative seed mixtures have been sown; both very similar to mixtures available commercially.  The first is mostly ryegrass with a modest clover component and is typical of a mix aimed at delivering consistent production of high digestibility forage across the growing season (species mix: different ryegrasses, timothy, white clover and red clover).  The second is a more diverse mixture targeted at lower input systems (species mix: different ryegrasses, timothy, meadow fescue, red fescue, meadow grass, crested dogstail, white clover, red clover and lotus).

Each plot has been split into four sub-plots which receive different management regimes; 1) continuous grazing by sheep, 2) rotational grazing by sheep, 3) 3-week cutting (i.e. ‘simulated grazing’), and 4) conservation (silage) cutting (at 6 week intervals).  All the plots were established according to best practice industry guidelines, and the managements imposed also reflect best practice.  This means that the rates of fertiliser nitrogen applied are representative of those on farm.

Plot harvesting underway.
Managements were first imposed in April and this photo was taken in July. It shows a clear difference in clover content between the ‘simulated grazing’ cut and real grazing.

Detailed measurements of the impacts of site and management regime on herbage biomass, sward height and botanical and nutritional composition are being made across seasons and years. To understand the interactions between environmental conditions, the different combinations of plant species and the management regimes imposed, the very latest DNA and molecular techniques are being used to monitor genetic shifts within plant populations as well as the impact of the grazing preferences of the stock.  This will enable us to track the way different sward components respond to varying degrees and frequencies of biomass removal.  The related impact on the nutritional value of the forage is being explored using a variety of metabolomic techniques.  All this lab work is also being complemented by the use of cutting-edge imaging technologies using multi-spectral cameras to map three-dimensional changes in the sward over time. 

Ultimately all the findings will form the basis of new approaches to developing and testing mixtures that deliver stable and persist multi-functional swards.  Results from the project will feed directly into plant breeding programmes at IBERS.

The things we do for sheep, and the distances we travel.

By Hannah Vallin


What do you say when your boss asks if you’d like to go to the one of the most remote islands of the British Isles in the Western Outer Hebrides of Scotland to catch sheep for work?! You madly jump at the chance and say yes of course!

But why do these sheep need catching I hear you ask?!

Back in April, Pwllpeiran received the great news that a large grant proposal submitted by the University of Edinburgh to collaborate on a long-term project on the Soay sheep of St Kilda had been successful. The Soay Sheep Project has been running since 1985, led by researchers at Edinburgh, who have been collecting a vast amount of data to study population dynamics and evolution genetics. It’s very exciting to be involved with the latest project, which is bringing together a range of disciplines to take a closer look at parasite infection and the impact of gut ecosystem dynamics on host fitness in the wild.  As for the Soay sheep, they are a unique little breed (emphasis on little). Soays are tiny compared to many of our domesticated breeds, mature ewes average at 24kg while mature males are slightly larger at 38kg. Don’t judge me for what I am about to say, but the lambs are extremely small and rather adorable!

IMG_6800                         A Soay lamb new to science this year, waiting for its ID tags.

Let me introduce the island to you. Hirta (or should I say Hiort in Gaelic) is the largest island in the St Kilda archipelago of Scotland. It really is ‘The island at the edge of the world’ as the book about its history so deftly describes it, I should know, as it took me three solid days of travelling to get there. After 675 miles, two trains, a mini bus ride, one ferry and a 55ft motor cruiser, I finally made it from Aberystwyth to Hirta, (commonly just called St Kilda nowadays). Hirta is a small island covering 8.5km² and the highest elevation at 430m. For those of you who have never heard of St Kilda, it has a truly amazing history with plenty of archaeological sites and ancient monuments scattered around the island to tell the story of St Kildans and their island life. Once inhabited for over 2000 years, the island was fully evacuated at the islanders’ request in 1930. The island is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and since 1957 the island has been designated a National Nature Reserve by the Scottish Natural Heritage. Oddly enough, there is also the presence of the Ministry of Defence who have a small base for radar tracking of missile firing. St Kilda is one of the few World Heritage sites to have a mixed status for both its culture and natural attributes, which is just one of the things that makes it such a unique and interesting island.

IMG_6921                  A view of Hirta from the boat with Boreray Island on the right-hand side.

The island is unlike anything I have ever seen, whilst approaching it by boat it rises out of the sea quite suddenly with extraordinary steep cliffs, the highest sea cliffs in the United Kingdom in fact; very impressive. The surrounding waters and cliffs are teaming with tens of thousands of nesting sea birds including auks, gannets, Manx shearwater, puffins, storm petrels and many more. It is a twitchers’ paradise! During the trip we were incredibly lucky and also spotted a pod of Risso’s dolphins, along with two minke whale and large colonies of Atlantic grey seals with their bellowing calls echoing around the island cliffs.

IMG_6936            Two Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arcticahaving a rest on the sea cliffs.

When I left Aberystwyth,  the Cambrian Mountains of Wales were looking like the Sahara Desert with fields of brown dead vegetation after the long dry summer spell we had been having. Arriving at St Kilda was a huge contrast, I was amazed at how green and lush the land was. A bright green landscape with clear turquoise waters in the bay; arriving on a beautiful sunny day it really was like a tropical island. I did fear the weather that day was lulling us into false security about what weather was to come during the rest of my time on the island. You probably won’t believe me when I say that actually we had good weather (most of the time), surprisingly warm and plenty of sunny days. We did have the occasional rainy spell but often the weather fronts would pass quickly over the island leaving behind interesting cloud formations forming over the hills. It was only on our very last day of catching and processing the sheep that it rained heavily, and yes, we were out in it all day long, I was very thankful that it was only on the last day!

IMG_2798                                         View overlooking village bay on St Kilda.

The reason for my trip to this far away island was for the summer catch, an attempt to catch as many sheep in village bay as possible. By catching, tagging and recording as many sheep as possible the research team have been following individuals from lambing, through the breeding season and recording any deaths on the island, building up a database of the sheep population over the last 33 years. At this point it’s worth reminding you that these Soay sheep are semi wild and are the most primitive form of our domestic sheep breeds today. There is no shepherd with a sheep dog or quad on the island to herd the sheep, oh no, meaning catching the sheep is a very interesting experience for sure!

A vast array of poles and netting are used to make traps and entrances strategically built around Village Bay, split between the West and East side of the village. This is not a quick or easy process. It took a good couple of days of building and carrying heavy netting up and down the hilly Village Bay (a good work out on the island!). Once the traps were in place it was a bit of a waiting game for the sheep to venture into village bay as they do during the day for grazing. When there were enough numbers, we made our move! What came next I can only describe as a fell running competition between man and sheep. Yes, the sheep outsmarted us on a few occasions, but with a good team (led by the experienced sheep catchers) and sheer determination we had many a successful catch whereby we pushed the sheep towards our net traps and enclosed them for processing. Now this may sound like an unconventional way to catch sheep, not sure it will be popular with sheep farmers on the hills of Wales but, it works for St Kilda. Don’t underestimate the method in the madness, it has been refined over many years and repeatedly successful for the island catch, and trust me, it works very well!

IMG_2896                                      Soay Ewe and lamb on ‘The Street’ in village bay.

Processing the sheep was a very much a team task and my favourite part, as we got up close and personal with this wild breed. Measurements such as limb length, horn type, coat colour, dental checks and weight were all recorded, along with a faecal and blood sample for every sheep. Think of it as their yearly health check.  In addition to this, there is a census count for the whole island population carried out every year.  This year’s total came to 1401, unfortunately this has declined on last year’s numbers, likely due to the harsh winter.  It is not unusual for these natural populations to fluctuate over time in response to environmental conditions, or the amount of vegetation available for grazing.  This highlights the importance of continued research to monitor population dynamics.

IMG_6783A catch of Soay sheep, mixture of ewes, rams and lambs displaying their variable appearance of coat colour and horn type.

Life on the island is very much a case of survival of the fittest, and that’s not just talking about the sheep.  A word of advice… this place is not somewhere to go if you suffer from vertigo, are prone to sea sickness, or if you have concerns being ashore a remote island with no communication with the outside world. For me however, it has been a trip of a lifetime, and it is somewhat difficult to portray the island when people ask me how was St Kilda?  I have learnt an awful lot, not only about the island but also about the long-term research of the sheep.  I had the opportunity to work with a great team of people and got to experience one of the most beautiful and surreal islands I have ever seen.  Believe me, I could carry on writing about my experience and happenings on the island for many more pages, but for now I shall leave you with a very appropriate quote by the naturalist James Fisher;

‘Whatever he studies, the future observer of St Kilda will be haunted the rest of his life by the place, and tantalised by the impossibility of describing it, to those who have not seen it.’


If you want more….. take a look at this short video of my trip to St Kilda!

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!

Dan blog 1

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.

Dan blog 5

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

Dan blog 3

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!

Dan blog 4

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!

Dan blog 6

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

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.

snow1(The Alps of Wales)

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.


snow2(Gareth working hard out in the snow)

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”.

Damian hill view

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.

Damian royal welsh

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!


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) and the Royal Society of Biology.  The aim of the Trust is to provide funds for the promotion of educational outreach work.  So, what did we do with the funding?


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!


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 and the Royal Society of Biology  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.


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


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.


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.

Prograss 2

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.


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?


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…


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.


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!


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!


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

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!


Lots to look forwards to I’m sure!



IUCN. UK committee (2009).  Peatlands and Climate Change.  IUCN Peatland programme. Accessed online. 



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.