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

Attritional conservation

Seas of Green – UPDATE

Last September we reported on the installation of black plastic sheeting on a couple of ponds in Bilsdale with the aim of shading out the non-native invasive plant species – New Zealand pigmyweed Crassula helmsii – which was accidentally flourishing there. The idea was to give the plant a taste of its own medicine by depriving it of light.

By two months the pigmyweed was becoming etiolated – pale and weakened due to the loss of sunlight – indicting the sheeting was effecting growth.

Crassula helmsii two months after black plastic sheeting applied. Copyright NYMNPA.

The sheeting was left on the two ponds through the winter and spring, and a second survey was carried out this July. The sheeting has killed off 100% of the pigmyweed that was covered, however pigmyweed plants remain around the edges of the ponds, where it was difficult to install the sheeting due to the surrounding vegetation and irregular shape of the pond edges.

One of the ponds covered by the black plastic sheeting July 2017. Copyright NYMNPA.

Contrast between the remaining Crassula helmsii at the edge of teh pond and under where the sheeting where the plant is now dead, July 2017. Copyright NYMNPA.The National Park Authority’s southern Apprentice Team will be spraying off the pigmyweed round the edge with a herbicide. The sheeting will remain on the ponds until at least late autumn to try to finish off this invasive species once and for all in this location, allowing the biodiversity of the ponds to recover.

Other non-native invasive plant species

New Zealand pigmyweed is one of the most common non-native invasive plant species found in England, along with Common rhododendron Rhododendron ponticum, Himalayan balsam Impatiens glandulifera, Japanese knotweed Fallopia japonica, and Giant hogweed Heracleum mantegazzianum. They were all introduced into the UK as garden plants. All of these species are present in the North York Moors to some extent, and work continues to control these particular plant species, without natural competition and predators, that can have such a detrimental effect on the area’s habitats and water quality.

We’re grant aiding the removal of rhododendron from important Plantation on Ancient Woodland Sties (PAWS), to help let in the light and give native ground flora a better chance of survival. Rhododendron can harbour the Phytopthora ramorum pathogen which is a great threat to forest species such as larch.

Himalayan balsam can be pulled out/cut down by hand but this needs to be done before the seeds are setting (August/September) because one shake of a plant can release 1000s of seeds that can travel up to seven metres potentially creating 1000s of new plants. Repeatedly removing the plants from a location before they can seed over a number of years will eventually mean this annual plant no longer regenerates there.

Japanese knotweed is trickier to tackle because it needs to be treated by careful herbicide injection. Repeated treatment can kill the rhizome which is so effective at spreading. The accidental breaking up of live rhizomes can spread the plant expediently. Careful disposal is vital.

We’re currently making best use of four years of funding from Yorkshire Water to tackle Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed along the banks of the Rivers Esk, Rye, Seph and Seven, through whole catchments and sub-catchments starting at the top. Both species are particularly menacing to river habitats as they out compete evergreen native species and die back in the winter leaving banks bare and prone to erosion increasing the sediment loads in the water.

Giant hogweed isn’t quite so common as the other plants in this area. It can be dangerous to deal with because its sap can burn skin so it needs to be treated with care. It can be cut down or tackled with herbicides, but like all non-native invasive species repeat control will be necessary to achieve eradication at a site.

There are lots of initiatives now across the country to address the threat of these out of place species, it can sometimes seem overwhelming but concerted repeated local efforts can have an effect.

Historical woodlands

Around the North York Moors there are mediaeval place names that indicate the presence of managed woodland in the past, and in some cases the woodlands and the names are still present today. Where a woodland has existed for at least 400 years it is classed an ‘ancient’.

Hagg or Hag, Spring and Fall in a name suggest growing/managed/enclosed woodland. Hagg/Hag and Spring are both common in the North York Moors, Fall less so. There are numerous unimaginative but practical occurrences of ‘Hagg Wood’ and ‘Spring Wood’, as well as Hagg End, Hagg House, Hagg Common, Spring House, Hagg Hall and Spring Farm. There are also both ‘Ash Hagg’ and ‘Birch Hagg’; these two tree species respond well to coppicing.

Brockill Hagg, Skiplam - the multi stemmed tree in the forefront at the right is a lime, lime is one of the indicator species of ancient woodland. Copyright NYMNPA.

Ancient woods are as near to natural as woodland can be in this country, however they are unlikely to be entirely natural. Most woodlands has been managed in some way in the past. In the mediaeval period timber, coppiced wood, pollarded wood and the underwood itself were valuable for fuel and materials. Woodlands were managed, just as fields were cultivated, to produce a valued crop. A managed wood could be sustained over time to regenerate with new wood growth and made to be valuable to its owner and others with rights to its commodities. Planting new woodlands (i.e. plantations) and waiting for years for the trees to grow required the luxury of long term thinking beyond normal life spans.

Greencliff Hagg Wood. Copyright NYMNPA.

The two main types of mediaeval woodland management – as recorded in the Domesday Book – were coppicing (silva minuta – small wood) and wood pasture (silva pastilis).

Coppicing is where the trunks of trees are cut leaving the stump to regrow, many native broadleaves respond well to coppicing and produce new wood. Areas of coppiced wood would need to be enclosed to prevent stock chewing on the new growth hence the use of the word hagg meaning fenced enclosure. By careful rotation over the years a coppiced woodland could be maintained to produce all sorts of different size and types of wood product. One particularly important product was charcoal or white coal (dried wood – not carbonised like charcoal), usually manufactured on site and used as fuel for nearby industrial enterprises such as iron production. The big medieval monastic organisations e.g. Rievaulx Abbey, were early industrial pioneers. Close to the Rievaulx site are Lambert Hag Wood, Greencliffe Hag Wood, Abbot Hagg Wood and Hags Wood.

Brockill Hagg, Skiplam - you can see how conifers have been planted onto this ancient woodland site. Copyright NYMNPA.

Wood pasture was usually common land where commoners could graze stock and collect firewood and occasionally timber. The presence of stock would keep the number of trees down as they nibble at new growth. Without continued grazing, sites of previous wood pasture may now have become denser woodland. One element that might indicate a wood pasture origin is the presence of pollarded trees – lower branches were removed to encourage growth higher up in the trees to produce new wood out of the reach of the stock. The shapes of the oldest trees may still indicate this past practice.

Mitchell Hagg Wood, Fadmoor. Copyright NYMNPA.

About half of Britain’s ancient woods are still made up of native trees and so are known as ‘ancient semi-natural woodlands’; others have been planted with newer non-native species. Ancient semi-natural woodlands have usually regenerated through coppicing or by the natural regeneration of native trees on the site. Only 1.2% of Britain is ancient semi natural woodland.

Ancient woods provide a link between man and his environment over time and so are of cultural and archaeological as well as landscape importance. An ancient wood also provides a specific biodiverse habitat – soils which have only been minimally disturbed and contain remnant ground flora and fungi, as well as native tree stocks that have regenerated in that place, over the centuries. The habitat still requires management to replicate the past and retain the open woodland species which developed. Once any of these elements are lost, they cannot be replaced and the ancient woodland becomes a fragmented echo of itself.

Mitchell Hagg Wood, Fadmoor - the remnants of broadleaved woodland are surrounded by conifers making this a Plantation on Ancient Woodland Site (PAWS). Copyright NYMNPA.

Thanks to Historical Atlas of North Yorkshire, edited by Robin A Butlin.

Bringing the vegetation back

Gareth Pedley – Wild Trout Trust

Back in June 2013 the Wild Trout Trust undertook an advisory visit for Glaisdale Angling Club on the River Esk, North Yorkshire. This was an interesting visit, identifying many of the common issues associated with livestock grazing and sandy soils on upland rivers leading to sedimentation. One specific issue was significant erosion on the outside of a particular sharp bend. This is exactly the type of issue that would have once been dealt with by hard engineering, often gabions or rip rap (rock armouring), for which there is already evidence of failed attempts. The Trust’s prescription here was to employ more sympathetic, natural bank protection measures that would actually enhance habitat in the area, rather than degrade it.

The use of brash revetment was considered, but the spatey nature of the river meant that there was a potential for further erosion from high water before any protection measures could be completed or take effect. So with this in mind, the recommendation was made to initially use a light touch, low cost approach that focused on fencing off a buffer strip along the bank to control the grazing (one of the main causal factors) and planting native tree species.

The tree and bank work was undertaken by 10 volunteers from Glaisdale Angling Club, in February 2014, coordinated by Simon Hirst of the North York Moors National Park Authority. In all, over 100 alder, 50 hazel and several hundred willow whips were planted, along with relocation of some of the overhanging bank turves onto bare areas of bank face.

As can be seen from the before and after photos from May 2015, fencing livestock away from the river bank has allowed large areas of the bank to become colonised by grass, the foliage and roots of which are already providing significant protection. The saplings and willow whips are now also well-established; the tree roots which will penetrate deeper into the ground and provide additional protection. If the fence is maintained, and livestock continue to be excluded, it can be expected that over the upcoming seasons the more stable bank will facilitate the colonisation of other herbaceous vegetation. This will increase the diversity of root structure within the bank and provide even greater consolidation. The roughness they provide will also aid natural colonisation with local trees and plants by trapping seeds and other propagules (agent of reproduction).

Although the bank is still not completely stabilised yet, and the technique is always initially susceptible to failure in very high flows, it is relatively low cost and provides a great demonstration of how removing the livestock grazing pressure can reduce erosion and stabilise river banks. If major floods do not destabilise the banks they will continue to consolidate and stabilise to natural levels. If major floods do cause further erosion in the future, there may be a case for undertaking a more formal brash revetment as well.

U P D A T E – July 2017

Simon Hirst – River Esk Project Officer

Kate (Catchment Partnership Officer) and I recently revisited the site with the Glaisdale Angling Club to assess the bank stabilisation work undertaken on this section of the River Esk back in February 2014. Three years later, the young alder, hazel and willow trees are flourishing, and woodrush has also successfully colonised the site naturally.

River Esk, sharp bend site - now (July 2017). Copyright NYMNPA.

We’re planning to carry out further work in winter 2019, which will involve hazel and willow laying, like you would with a hedge to provide horizontal structure. This work will further protect and stabilise the bank, and some of the stems will also be laid into the channel to provide in-channel cover for fish.

Hitching a free ride

Roy McGhie – Conservation Project Assistant

You might remember at least something about photosynthesis from school – it’s the chemical process by which plants absorb light energy, which reacts with carbon dioxide and water, and produces glucose and oxygen. Photosynthesis provides food/energy for plants, which ultimately provide food/energy for every animal on the planet. It’s also the reason most plants are green – photosynthesis occurs in chloroplasts within plant cells, which contain the green chlorophyll that absorbs the light energy.

However some plants have evolved ways to get the energy they need without having to photosynthesise. Instead, they do it by parasitising other plants. Orobanchaceae is one such family of parasitic plants. There are varying levels of parasitism within the family, ranging from those that are hemiparasitic (only deriving some of their nutrients from other plants) to those that are holoparasitic (obtaining all of their nutrients from a host plant).

Toothwort is an example of a holoparasitic plant. I’ve found some particularly nice specimens of Common toothwort (Lathraea squamaria) growing on our doorstep in Helmsley. Note the lack of green colouring because the toothwort doesn’t photosynthesise, and also the resemblance to teeth. Toothwort feeds off the roots of woody plants, such as hazel, elm alder, and also walnut. There is a particularly fine walnut tree close by.

Common toothwort - NYMNPA Office, Helmsley. Copyright Roy McGhie, NYMNPA.

Common toothwort, also sometimes known as the Corpse Flower - NYMNPA Office, Helmsley. Copyright Roy McGhie, NYMNPA.

As I mentioned above, hemiparasitic plants are those that derive only some of their nutrients from the host plant but photosynthesise as well. Examples include Yellow rattle, Eyebright, Bartsia, Lousewort and Birds-nest orchid. We’ve commended Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) before on this blog. Yellow rattle can photosynthesise but also parasitizes grasses and other plants nearby. Because of its parasitic nature it can be a useful plant to reduce the vigour of grasses which in turn allows other wildflowers better opportunity to thrive. A recognised technique for establishing a wildflower meadow is to sow Yellow rattle initially to help ensure the grasses don’t out-compete everything else during the establishment phase. But it’s important to remember that Yellow rattle is an annual and like most annuals, it shouldn’t be cut or grazed until late July so it has had time to set seed and so has the chance to grow again next year.

Yellow rattle - copyright NYMNPA.

Plant relationships definitely aren’t as straightforward as you might think – and we haven’t yet featured the carnivorous sundews or butterworts (a future blog post). So the next time you’re out and about where ever you are have a closer look at what’s growing around you – it may not be as innocent as it seems!

Recipes for meadows

Aside

Coming up this Saturday (1 July) is National Meadows Day.

Wildflower meadow in the Hole of Horcum. Copyright NYMNPA.

There is a partnership project called Save our Magnificent Meadows, led by Plantlife and largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund which promotes the importance of hay meadows and other species rich grassland types for the country’s natural and cultural heritage..We’re not one of the landscapes where the project is directly working but we have similar aims and objectives for North York Moors grasslands too. Save our Magnificent Meadows has a really useful Advice and Guidance resource which can help land managers work out what kind of grassland they have (e.g. acid grassland, neutral grassland, calcareous grassland, cornfield flowers), what type it currently is (e.g. improved, semi improved, unimproved) and then how best to manage it for conservation benefits. In the North York Moors we have a lot of improved grassland like most places, but we still have an amount of unimproved grassland and a bigger amount of semi improved grassland. Semi improved grassland – i.e. some characteristic species found in low frequency – can have great potential for biodiversity enhancement.

30,000 words on water quality

Rosie Nelson – Masters Student

Rosie, geared up for outdoor working - copyright NYMNPAI have finally finished my research masters. All that stands between me and the real world is corrections and actually printing a 30,000 (ish) word document. So did I actually achieve anything. Well I’d like to think so, but first up I’ll tell you a bit about what I did, and how I did it.

I spent six blissful months walking three beautiful watercourse catchments in the North York Moors – Toad Beck, Danby Beck and Great Fryup Beck which are all tributaries into the River Esk. Aside from sun kissed skin and being chased by sheep, dogs and cows, I somehow managed to collect what I was after – a lot of useful data. To establish the water quality of a river a variety of sampling techniques is required. My favourite was using a probe which measures dissolved oxygen, conductivity, pH, salinity, temperature and much much more. Imagine, dangling a very expensive cable off the side of a bridge and waiting in anticipation for the numbers on the screen to settle. I loved it. Although once or twice the probe did ricochet off rocks to produce an alarming sound.

As my data collection evolved, I also started to gather water samples to take back to the laboratory for COD, BOD, DOC, anion and cation analysis. You might think I’ve just put some letters together to appear clever, but they do actually stand for things:
– COD is chemical oxygen demand (amount of oxygen required to oxidise the organic matter in the solution);
– BOD is biochemical oxygen demand (amount of dissolved oxygen being used by aerobic microorganisms when decomposing the organic matter in the solution);
– DOC is dissolved organic carbon (amount of organic matter in the solution);
– An anion is a negatively charged ion, a cation is a positively charged ion, and an ion is an electrically charged atom.

So what did I actually find out in these three catchments? Well I analysed the spatial and temporal variations of a variety of water parameters. The significance of focusing on both spatial and temporal variations within a catchment is it can easily identify areas of point source pollution at a small scale, something which isn’t done often enough.

For this post I’m focusing on dissolved oxygen and conductivity. The very important key species Freshwater Pearl Mussels require dissolved oxygen levels between 90 – 110% (Oliver, 2000). Other aquatic life like fish can survive on much lower saturations of dissolved oxygen, as low as <30%. The graph below shows how dissolved oxygen (a vital parameter for ascertaining the health of a river) changes through the year. Changes in water levels and plant growth can have serious effects on the amount of dissolved oxygen available for organic and aquatic life. During the summer months, plants will become abundant in a river, thus using up more oxygen and depleting the overall amount of dissolved oxygen available in a river. Once rainfall increases in the autumn dissolved oxygen levels should be replenished. As you can see September 2016 was a particularly poor month for dissolved oxygen, with average levels as low as 80%. Similarly, August on Toad Beck was low as well with an average of 75% saturation. But aside from in September for all three watercourses, and in August for Toad Beck, the dissolved oxygen levels remained within or above the proposed dissolved oxygen threshold.

2016 Dissolved Organic Carbon data graph - copyright Rosie Nelson

Next up – conductivity. Conductivity is a measure of a watercourse’s ability to conduct electrical flow and is therefore related to the concentration of ions in a river. Particular aquatic species need higher or lower conductivity – the Freshwater Pearl Mussel likes a lower conductivity. There are variations between suggested thresholds for conductivity: Moorkens (2000) suggests it should be 65µs/cm, whilst Bauer (1988) suggests <70µs/cm and Oliver (2000) suggests <100µs/cm. So I chose the only logical way forward and used all three thresholds. Focusing again on the month of September 2016, I produced the map below.

2016 Conductivity levels map - copyright Rosie Nelson

This is where analysing data spatially comes into its element. First up, the circles represent sampling locations (every now and again samples were missed out say if there were a herd of cows approaching as I climbed the style into their field, needless to say my flight or fight response would always be flight as advised in the National Park Authority’s Risk Assessments). Using a traffic light system, green circles represent good conductivity levels. As you can see, September was a poor month for both dissolved oxygen and conductivity. What I found particularly interesting was the variations that could occur in a small watercourse like Danby Beck, where as tributary field drains entered the beck conductivity levels could spike or decrease dramatically; how fantastic!

So to round off I thought I’d quickly summarise my thesis’ findings. Water quality is good in the three catchments, but it’s not good enough for Freshwater Pearl Mussels, and that’s the gist of it. The work of the River Esk catchment officers at the National Park to address the issues is great, the water bodies are reaching and maintaining ‘good’ ecological status, unfortunately the Freshwater Pearl Mussels require pristine water conditions and ‘high’ ecological status. However the future direction is positive for the health and conservation of Freshwater Pearl Mussels. And I too am looking forward to the future; I shall be taking a few weeks off from being chased by animals and I can’t wait*.

 

 

 

 

* Editor’s note: Rosie didn’t get much time off – she’s gone off to pastures new and is now a Community (Water Quality) Modelling Project Officer at Thames21. We wish her all the best.

Going with the flow

Anne-Louise Orange – Ryevitalise Programme Manager

Following the success in securing Heritage Lottery Fund money to support the development of our Ryevitalise programme, the team are now in place and working towards a Stage 2 application*.

The Heritage Lottery Fund’s Landscape Partnerships programme is for schemes led by a partnership of local, regional and national interests which aim to conserve specific areas of distinctive landscape character.

River Rye at Lower Locker, Snilesworth - copyright Liz Bassindale, HH AONB.

The Ryevitalise landscape incorporates the main upper Rye catchment, made up of the upper valleys of the Rye including the River Seph and the River Riccal. The Ryevitalise programme aims to protect and enhance the area’s natural and cultural heritage, resulting in a more natural, better functioning and better understood landscape.

River Rye in Duncombe Park - copyright NYMNPA.

We’ve got a remarkable abundance and variety of priority habitats and wildlife; a number of rare and priority species are strongly linked to the river valleys, including one of only three known UK populations of Alcathoe bat. The catchment is also a national hotspot for veteran trees – iconic and irreplaceable features of both our natural and cultural heritage.

River Rye - crow foot beds in the Vale of Pickering - copyright.

Ryevitalise projects will cover four themes:

  • River Riccal at sunset - copyright Rosy Eaton, Natural England.Water Environment, investigating aquatic habitats of the Rye and rare and threatened species;
  • Water Quality, working with land-owners and managers to reduce pollution;
  • Water Level Management, working alongside our delivery partners to harness natural processes to manage the sources and pathways of flood waters; and
  • Reconnecting People, improving the understanding of the river landscape by telling the story of its evolution and encouraging people to protect their heritage.

The new team – that’s me and Alex Cripps, Catchment Restoration Officer – are keen to hear from anyone with an interest in the Rye catchment. We will be consulting with partners, local landowners and wider communities over the coming months as we develop the projects we want to deliver, ensuring we incorporate peoples’ ideas and knowledge under the four themes. We look forward to meeting with/talking to as many people as we can as we develop our Stage 2 application.

Aerial view of River Rye and Nunnington Hall - taken by NEYEDC.

*The Stage 2 application will be submitted to Heritage Lottery Fund in the autumn of 2018.

Heritage Lottery Fund logo

Following in the footsteps

Elspeth Ingleby – Natural Heritage Officer, This Exploited Land of Iron

Wildlife can be wonderfully conspicuous – in the UK there are lots of places where you are assured a wealth of wildlife before your very eyes, be it throngs of guillemot on a sea cliff, ducks and geese scrambling for titbits at a local park, or even clouds of the infamous Scottish midge. However many other species can be much harder to discover, whether because of where they live, what they eat or their sensitivity to disturbance.

But with a little effort and some detective work, you can discover a whole new world of wildlife. Spring is a great time to look a little more closely and see what you can find.

Prints, tracks and signs

You can pick up guides to some of the more common prints and signs (the Field Studies Council produce several) and then with a little practice it is possible to find and follow the footsteps of your local wildlife seeing how animals are using the landscape which is their home. Things to look out for include:

  • Bare ground, turned earth or puddle edges which are great for retaining foot prints of passing wildlife – head out a few hours after rain (or snow!) to see what has passed by in the recent past.
  • Patches of white splattered on the ground, branches or tree trunks that are a dead giveaway for a regular perch or roost where the resident has lightened the load before taking flight.
  • The bottom of fences and around the base of trees which can provide rich pickings of hair tufts which can identify who has been there.
  • Holes in the ground that can indicate where a pheasant has scratched, or a badger has dug after worms.

Pellets and poo

You can tell a lot about wildlife from the physical remains they leave behind. Looking a little closer at droppings or the regurgitated pellets of raptors can yield a wealth of information, not only about the eater, but also about the eaten.

At our recent This Exploited Land of Iron launch weekend, we challenged young wildlife explorers to see what they could find within Barn Owl pellets. Within minutes we had identified remains of Field Vole, Common Shrew, Wood Mouse, Robin and Frog showing just what a range of food owls will eat. It’s also fun trying to see how many skulls you can find, or identifying the different bones of the victims’ anatomy!Getting hands on at the Land of Iron launch event (copyright NYMNPA) and photo of Barn Owl (copyright Brian Nellist).

Many of our native predators use scats (animal excrement) as sign posts advertising their presence and territory to others. Surveying some of our shyest mammals is often done almost entirely by poo alone. The distinctive ‘tic-tac’ Water Vole droppings can identify not only where a population is, but also size of inhabited area, number of population, whether breeding or not – where you could be walking every day and never actually see ear nor tail of a Water Vole.Water Vole by WildStock Images

Smell can be a great way to tell different species apart as a careful sniff can tell you a lot. For instance Otters will leave ‘Jasmine scented’ scats often containing fish bones and scales, on prominent rocks in a stream, whereas Foxes will leave grey, foul smelling scats with wisps of hair, bone and beetle shells in the middle of a path giving clues to their daily haunts and diet.

Camera tracking

Trail camera. Copyright NYMNPA.A slightly less ‘hands on’ approach is to wait for the wildlife to come to you. As technology progresses and costs fall, remote cameras are becoming much more accessible – whether you are hoping to learn about a particular species, or simply work out what is digging up your vegetable patch! Our Land of Iron Programme has recently invested in a number of cameras to help us find out more about the shy and elusive Ring Ouzel which breeds around the moorland edge, and is also known as the Mountain Blackbird. The local population in Rosedale has been vulnerable to nest predation in recent years and we are hoping to catch the Ring Ouzel with its distinctive white chest. Copyright North East Wildlife.culprits in the act by staking out key nest sites. We are also expecting these cameras to give us real insights into Ring Ouzel behaviour, informing how we can best support and bolster the population of these beautiful birds. The best bit? – we don’t have to spend the next three months sitting behind a bush to find out!

Rosedale with Rowan in the foreground. Copyright Tom Mutton, NYMNPA.

Animal tracking can be incredibly rewarding, and a great activity to do when you’re out and about – particularly with kids. You can get involved for yourself by joining This Exploited Land of Iron at the upcoming Rosedale History Society Festival on 22 and 23 April where we will be busy dissecting owl pellets, or taking part in one of the family friendly events at The Moors National Park Centre over the Easter holidays, or just heading out yourself for an explore! However when you’re exploring please remember that most of the North York Moors is privately owned and you’d need permission from the landowner to explore over private land.

This Exploited Land of Iron LPS logos

 

When is a woodland a wood?

Mark Antcliff – Woodland Officer

The National Park Authority has played a role in creating more than 600 hectares of new native woodland since the turn of the century, with something in excess of half a million trees established.

But when is a new woodland actually a wood and how do you measure the success of a habitat created?

In terms of tree growth the first milestone is when the young trees are fully established and have outgrown the competing vegetation and the attention of voles, rabbits, deer and livestock and their teeth. The second is when the branches of the new neighbouring trees meet – this is called “canopy closure” – from which point the ground flora will alter as shade tolerant and shade loving species will have better success, including our beloved bluebells. Perhaps a third is when the new trees reach a stage where they could be used to produce wood and timber through thinning or coppicing.

I was thoughtful of this question when revisiting a site that was planted about 16 years ago in Bilsdale. Here the area of an existing woodland had been extended by new planting, mainly young oak trees.Existing area of Ancient Woodland in Bilsdale. Copyright NYMNPA.

Contractors planting new woodland alongside the existing Ancient Woodland, back in 2001. Copyright NYMNPA.

There were some initial challenges caused by a faulty batch of plastic tree shelters that degraded faster than they should have leaving the new trees vulnerable. However the trees are now fully self-supporting and I can walk under them, which for me personally is a good moment as I can then consider myself in a wood rather than looking at it. The icing on the cake however is that some of the trees planted 16 years ago are now producing acorns, a sign that a true self-regenerating woodland has been created.

Part of the woodland planted approx. 16 years ago showing this year’s additional planting in the distance. Copyright NYMNPA.

Buoyed by such success we have, with the cooperation of the land owner and his agent, planted an additional area of 3 hectares this winter. I can’t wait to see how this new woodland extension looks in another 16 years’ time, alongside the ancient and post-millennial woods already in place.

As a Woodland Officer, I do tend to think in the long term.