Heat from the Hills

PROGRASS

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.

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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.

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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.

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The rest of the IBERS ProGrass team: John, Iain & Jim.

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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!

 

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!

 

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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