Messing about with moss… (it’s educational, honest!)

by Caroline Freeman

I am not based at Pwllpeiran, but am perhaps best described as a ’part time’ team member. I’m a first year PhD student and am making good use of Pwllpeiran for my project, studying the impact of management on soil water infiltration, with the aim of understanding links between land use, land management and flood risk. I love being outdoors instead of in an office, so escape up to the hills whenever I can.  I have a background in ecology and environmental education, having worked as a countryside ranger for many years in Scotland, as a warden at Ynyslas Nature reserve and more recently as an Education Officer for Natural Resources Wales. I’ve always enjoyed education work, so when I heard that Pwllpeiran were planning to organise a stall for the University science week I was keen to get involved. They were also planning an activity focusing on sphagnum moss, which plays an important role in flood mitigation, something very relevant to my PhD.

During Science Week, a range of hands-on exhibitions at Aberystwyth University are provided for over 1400 school children from around Wales, as part of British Science Week, to enthuse young people about science. The fair is organised by the University’s Centre for Widening Participation and Social Inclusion (CWPSI).

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Collecting moss on the hill

Lots of different departments get involved and the activities can include anything from guiding robots through mazes, to making slime and playing with model rivers.  We wanted to provide hands-on activities to demonstrate the important role that sphagnum moss plays in storing and filtering water. Luckily, Hannah had the answer – a ‘high-tech’ solution that involved water, a bucket of moss, and a little bit of digging…

Our stall consisted of three activities. Firstly, sphagnum soaking in water was placed in one tub, next to another holding some sponges soaking in water. The schoolchildren could grab a handful of sphagnum to see how much water it holds, and compare it to a sponge. This was a very popular activity, with the pupils enjoying squelching and squishing the sphagnum moss. It gave us a chance to chat to them about how sphagnum could help mitigate flooding, by storing large amounts of water and reducing surface run off into the rivers.

Secondly, three tubs with three different types of vegetation cover were set up next to each other. These had been dug up from Pwllpeiran, there are some nice square shaped holes somewhere up there now…   One tub held peat soil, one had soil and grass, and one had soil and sphagnum. Water could be added to the top of these tubs, which ran through to clear plastic bottles underneath.  Children could see first-hand how much water came through each tub, and also compare the colour of the water and amount of sediment it carried.  There was less sediment in the water that had run through sphagnum, showing the role it plays in filtering water.

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Showing how sphagnum helps to manage water

Finally, some microscopes were set up so that the pupils could compare dry and wet sphagnum and see the differences in shape and structure as it took on water.

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Sphagnum under the microscope

We had many visitors to the stall, so with a bit of luck some young people went away with a new interest in environment, the natural world and the difference one small plant can make to the natural world.

Following the success of the science fair, we are planning more education group visits to Pwllpeiran, watch this space!

 

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Horsepower and hats (Stepping back in time: Part 1)

By Mariecia Fraser

Old photos and films can give such fascinating insights into bygone days.

“Shadow on the Mountains” is a short film showing life in the hills in 1931 which is free to watch on BFI Player.  It has no audio or soundtrack, and this together with the jerky haste of early films gives a real sense of atmosphere.  Much of the film is shot on steep hillsides typical of the sudden transition from valley floor to high upland plateau.  Men incongruously dressed in Sunday best, complete with ties and hats, head out to gather their sheep.  They ride stocky little hill ponies and are accompanied by a motley collection of working dogs.  Shots of abandoned mine workings are a reminder that other ways of life have come and gone in these areas.

Later footage captures the more rolling and fertile lower lands near the coast and the crops grown these.  This gives a link to a section showing experiments with grass and clover underway in the greenhouses of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, which had been opened in 1919 (see more here).  We see scientists with a surprisingly simple set-up doing pioneering work a world away from the high tech systems of today.  Back up the hill a caterpillar tractor and plough working at an alarming  angle and speed prepares ground for reseeding with these new, improved grasses and clovers, leading to concluding shots of an apparently contented ewe chewing her cud with her lamb by her side.

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To watch, follow the link here

What is striking is how similar much of the landscape is to what you’d see today.  This is a time well before support subsidies and headage payments, yet we see vast tracts of the same floristically challenged grasslands that are now considered synonymous with over grazing.  No trees, no heather.  It’s just one area,  but it’s a reminder that it’s often worth questioning just how good the ‘good old days’ really were.

 

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.

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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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.

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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!