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.

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New gold in them thar hills

By Mariecia Fraser

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

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

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

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

You can read the full paper here.

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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!

Poet’s day

By Mariecia Fraser

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

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

Pwllpeiran Writer In Residence competition.

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

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

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

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One of Elizabeth’s Poem Houses

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

elizabethjardinegodwin.com.

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

Pwllpeiran goes open to the public..

Pwllpeiran goes open to the public..

By Ben Roberts

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

The Pwllpeiran Open Day

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

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

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

 

Cutting for Gold

By Hannah Vallin

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A new face to the team, a new blog and a new post. Having joined the Pwllpeiran upland research team only three weeks ago, it has certainly been a busy introduction to the job.  I found myself tagging along on the day to day tasks, learning the ropes, and providing an extra pair of hands just in time for harvesting all the daffodils upon the research plots.  The endless rows of daffodils are part of the project ‘Innovative system for sustainable daffodil-derived galanthamine production in the uplands’.  After a quick summary of the project it was straight outside to get to work.

During the end of April, believe it or not, the weather here in the Welsh uplands gave us a break of dry sunny calm days.  Shocking I know, but perfect timing for us to harvest the daffodil plots. The considerably mild conditions this year has encouraged the daffodils to thrive. We all know daffodils to be a clear sign of spring, covering fields and road sides with bright yellow and orange colours, while small lambs bound in the fields. The two sights go perfectly together and give everyone hope that the winter months are over and we might, just might, get that lovely hot summer we have all been waiting for.  So you are probably thinking that the rolling Welsh hills are now covered in beautiful yellow flowers. Well, not anymore.  We harvest the daffodils at the ‘goose-neck’ stage when their galanthamine (the yellow gold we are after) content is at its highest concentration.  I’m afraid we don’t really give the daffodils time to bloom into lovely open yellow flowers, or, if they do they are chopped pretty soon after.

Within the space of a week the Pwllpeiran team took to the hills and harvested 6ha. The side kick team comprising of Mariecia, Ben and I went up prior to John and Gareth who had the tractors, trailers, 4X4’s and of course the trusty harvester! We sub-sampled all the plots for our own analysis back here at the research centre using our very own Edward scissors hands, or just fancy hand clippers! It was then the job of our trusty two men to harvest the lot. Keeping in mind that only two lines of daffodils at a time could be chopped and the tractor (New Holland 1920) was rather slow moving, pulling the harvester behind, one week wasn’t bad going. Big thumbs up to Gareth who endured the not so comfy tractor seat all day long for a week, his precise positioning up and down the daffodil plots and of course what would any field experiment be without some kind technical mishap… let’s just say a few machinery issues in the beginning. Luckily enough thanks to a local bearing man in Aberystwyth all our problems were resolved in no time. I also took the opportunity, while the weather was fairly decent, to document our harvesting season.  The GoPro’s boxed up in the office were finally taken out and put to the test. It’s not quite a bird’s eye view, more so a tractor view, of the harvesting. That’s right we stuck the GoPro onto the tractor and the back of the harvester! As it drove off down the steep hillside there was a moment of uncertainty as to whether the sticky attachments would hold or not. Alas, they did, and you can take a peek at the short video I made to show off our site!

So after a busy week of being out in the field in the sunshine, hard life I know, what’s next?

A lot. A lot of sample analysis back in the lab; boxes and bags full of daffodils! While this part may be less thrilling and slightly more time consuming, it does allow us time for working on our acapella voices, singing while we work.  Remaining positive from our successful, and may I say extremely efficient, harvesting we should have a lot of progressive data for analysis.

From the new arrival in the team, coming to the end of my first blog (give me chance, I shall improve!), I shall end on this note. The next new arrivals to Pwllpeiran in the upcoming weeks are not that of a human form…!  Keep an eye out for our updated blog on the exciting projects we have lined up, and who or what they involve!

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