Letter from Scotland

Sam Jones – previous River Esk Project Student

I still recall the morning as, fresh-faced and hopeful, I sat in the back of a bus trundling along country roads towards the North York Moors. As we turned a corner and crested a ridge I was gifted my first view of the National Park and I could feel butterflies in my stomach, this would be my first real job in conservation. This was the start of my life serving the environment as I saw it then (and still do now I suppose). That was about four years ago, things have moved on quite a bit since then.

I worked for the National Park Authority on a year in industry placement back in my third year of University assisting with the Esk Pearl Mussel Salmon Recovery Project lead by Simon Hirst aimed at conserving the remaining Freshwater pearl mussel population in the River Esk. It was a wonderful and varied experience.

At the end of my time I spent a week wading through ocherous becks in the very upper reaches of the Murk Esk. I was rather cheekily using my last few weeks working at the National Park to collect data for my upcoming final year project. I collected samples of upland invertebrates from becks through moorland and coniferous woodland to test the effects of acidification on aquatic life, and to see how the impacts of acidic moorland and plantation woodlands compare. My project has now been published although you need journal access to see the whole thing. Simon has asked me for a basic summary of my findings and conclusions – so here goes…

I used aquatic invertebrates as indicators of environmental degradation. It’s well recognised that moorlands and uplands can have acidification issues, and the North York Moors may well be one of the most extreme areas for it in the UK with its nearby zones of industry. Acid issues have been recorded in local becks in the past, including severe fish kills. However my results were a little surprising. Originally I thought that plantation woodland, being the newer and least natural habitat (compared to moorland which is also man-made habitat), and having less ability to slow down and buffer the incoming water, would have a much more degraded community. However, my results showed significantly more acid sensitive species living in the woodlands than the moorland. This was despite the fact that previous studies had recorded lower pH values (i.e. more acidic) in plantations than in moorlands. I think that the reason for this is the woodlands provide a more diverse and richer freshwater environment for the invertebrates to live in. This is a good sign as it shows that the conifer plantation woodland, that so much of our countryside is dominated by, may not have such a bad effect on aquatic life as once assumed. The aquatic communities were also generally healthier than would have been expected given the severe acidification. I think this shows that the species of invertebrates living in the uplands of the North York Moors are well adapted for highly acid conditions and that, despite the seemingly poor chemical results, life in the upland becks is thriving.

What happened next? After I graduated from the University of York I went on to work for Natural England, the Environment Agency and now I’m part of an ecological consultancy. I’ve come full circle, and recently I was lucky enough to get accepted for a PhD up in Inverness studying Freshwater pearl mussels. Apparently they needed someone with more waders and bucket experience than lab experience, and I fitted the bill.

Scotland is one the great bastions of the Freshwater pearl mussels with populations of tens of thousands in numerous rivers and multiple populations with favourable age structures and reproductive ability (unlike in the Esk sadly). As such, my PhD is to study these populations and monitor them using traditional methods. However the focus of the investigation is to allow comparison of conventional survey methods with new eDNA techniques. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is a method of monitoring species or habitats using the DNA that is freely found in the environment. All organisms living in an environment discard DNA, whether through waste, dead cells, carcasses, etc. and this can be picked up in trace amounts in water, soil, and even air. With Freshwater pearl mussels the hope is that DNA markers and techniques can be designed to allow detection of small or isolated populations of pearl mussels in rivers simply from a scoop of river water downstream of these prospective populations. There is also potential that the techniques could be used to monitor the size, health and population structure of these populations and perhaps even help identify sub species or genetically distinct populations. Whether this is possible or not, the possibility of cheaper and easier monitoring of pearl mussels fundamentally helps with conservation efforts.

I’m hoping to be able to keep Simon and the Esk Project up to date with our findings and perhaps provide some new information and techniques that may help the Esk’s own struggling mussels over time.

Anyway, that’s my little summary of things. I hope you guys found this interesting.

Thanks for reading, and keep on supporting the National Park,

Sam

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