It’s dirty work but someone’s got to do it or: When all’s said and dung, don’t poo-poo the Dung Beetles

Sam Newton – Natural Heritage Trainee, Land of Iron

A single cow can produce over nine tonnes of dung per year, so across all domestic and wild herbivores imagine how this would quickly build up to mountainous proportions.

Fortunately there are many invertebrates whose life cycles involve clearing this up. Take Dung beetles – in the UK their annual role in the ecosystem is valued at £367 million, for cattle dung alone.

How the different groups of British Dung beetles utilise dung in different ways. Copyright Dung Beetle UK Mapping Project.

Dung  beetles are a collection of around 60 species in the UK, within the Scarabaeidae family which also includes non-dung feeding Chafers and Stag Beetles). The actual dung feeders are split into the Aphodiinae (dwellers, residing within dung) and the Geotrupidae and Onthophagus (tunnellers, burying beneath dung). Contrary to popular belief there a no dung rollers in the UK, as this group are only found in the tropics and sub-tropics. The adults of all groups feed on liquid within dung, while the larvae eat the solids.

These 60 species utilise dung differently and so avoid competition – they use dung from different animals, they feed at different times of day or year, they live in different habitats and they favour dung of assorted ages. The fact that all the species vary in their ecology enhances the benefits provided in dung recycling to the wider ecosystem, helping fertilise the soil and enhance soil structure, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, dung beetles transport mites between dung piles, which feed on fly and worm eggs, thus indirectly helping reduce fly numbers along with some gastrointestinal parasites that can affect livestock.

A Geotrupidae dung beetle with hitch hiking mites getting a lift to their next pile of dung. From https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/422423640023441381/

Dung beetles also provide an important food source to many animals, for example Aphodius prodromus (a small Aphodiinae dung dweller), which is incredibly numerous in early spring when there are few other invertebrates available.

So Dung beetles are incredibly useful, as well as being beautiful (without mites) and valuable in their own right.

One of the Dung beetles - this is called a Dor Beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius). Copyright Kirsty Brown, NYMNPA.

However, all is not well in the dung beetle world. A 2016 review found over 25% of UK species were ‘Nationally Rare’ (found in 15 or less 10×10km squares across the UK) and four may already be extinct.

Changing farming practises and the disappearance of livestock from historic pastures is a major cause of this decline in the UK. The loss of dung structure produced by modern livestock breeds fed high protein diets is also detrimental, as dung beetles essentially end up drowning in the dung. Soil disturbance is damaging to some species, and wormer overuse (e.g. Ivermectin can indirectly reduce larval development and survival) is perhaps the main cause of decline, ironically destroying the role dung beetles played in reducing parasitic worms naturally.

Some of the British Dung beetles. Copyright Beetle UK Mapping Project.

So how can people make changes to help conserve Dung beetles and their role in day to day biodiversity? If you keep any livestock, use faecal egg counts to reduce worming, consider keeping a few hardy livestock out during the winter if your land is suitable, also not removing all the dung from out of horse paddocks enables a constant supply of high quality dung. If you don’t keep livestock, try and support the keeping of native breeds which have better quality dung for a Dung beetle’s needs.

The Ancient Egyptians associated Khepri, god of the rising sun, with a dung beetle (a Scarab) which every day was believed to move the sun across the sky. While I’m not suggesting worshipping Dung beetles per se, we can try and appreciate these beetles, understand their predicament and even try and help.

There is a Dung Beetle UK Mapping Project. For lots of help with identifying between species, and to be able to record sightings and help build up a picture of distribution – see their website.

Apologies for the titular puns.

Autumn delights

Gallery

This gallery contains 26 photos.

It’s UK Fungus Day today. There are many many different types of fungi – classifications and relationships are still being expounded by experts. Sometimes sparsity of knowledge can be intriguing but with fungi the more knowledge acquired the more fascination … Continue reading

Making Pictures

Nicola White – Land of Iron Film Maker Intern

I’ve spent the past 12 weeks clambering over the North York Moors with my camera, capturing the elements that form the Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme. This adventure has been challenging, hilarious and hot (given the summer we’ve had).

I began with the Combs Wood excavation, bugging the volunteers each morning by crouching on the ground to get the best shot as they dodged their wheelbarrows around me. It was incredible to see them constantly uncovering something new and seeing just how much had been hidden by the nature that surrounded us. See Combs Wood Part 1 – Volunteering, Combs Wood Part 2, and Combs Wood Part 3.

I also got involved with the Warren Moor Mine conservation work this summer. The details of the huge chimney still on site really are incredible. My video focuses on the lime mortar work that the team have completed on the engine beds, as well as all the previous clearing that has taken place during the project in order to preserve the features. It’s impressive to view the impact that Land of Iron has had on this area, and for that reason it’s recorded in my video. See Warren Moor – The Movie

I didn’t just concentrate on the impressive industrial building sights; I’ve also created a video showing the environmental conservation work undergone. From fences and walk ways at Fen Bog to forest work and tree planting across Rosedale, my video illustrates how this work is restoring habitats and encouraging rare species. See what I saw

The final video of my creation sets out to capture the entire essence of the Land of Iron. Focusing on the three main aspects – history, people, environment – this video uses interviews with the core team and footage that I’ve recorded throughout my summer with them, to explain what the programme is all about. See the whole picture …

This summer has been an incredible opportunity to learn and create. The people surrounding and supporting the Land of Iron scheme should receive a medal for all the work they do; constantly typing away on their keyboards in the office or covered in mud down a one-meter deep hole. It’s been a pleasure to dig in the mud with them for such a short time, and I hope I spend all my future summers in a similar way.

Something else … The Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme is approaching its halfway point with building conservation works starting on site and teams of volunteers across the North York Moors helping us care for our fascinating industrial heritage. We’re currently undertaking an EVALUATION SURVEY – this is a really important way to check the scheme is heading in the right direction and achieving what it wants to. Please give us a few minutes of your time to tell us what you think. Your feedback will help shape the next stage of the programme. 

What might have been

‘Our READERS Say IS THE FARNDALE SCHEME NECESSARY’. (Hull Daily Mail, 26 August 1932)

In 1932 the Kingston upon Hull Corporation bought a large area of land in Upper Farndale in the North York Moor, c. 2,000 hectares. The Corporation had a plan to create a large reservoir behind a constructed earth embankment at Church Houses , and then using gravitation through a series of pipes/aqueducts bring a safe and reliable water supply down to Hull (c. 50 miles away). The plans also involved a second stage with weirs constructed in the neighbouring dales of Rosedale and Bransdale (and possibly Westerdale?) – with the collected water piped through the dividing hills into the Farndale Reservoir, if and when demand required it. The River Dove which runs through Farndale naturally flows into the River Derwent which then flows into the River Ouse which ends up in the Humber Estuary where Hull is located – so all within the massive Humber river basin.Landscape view - looking north up Farndale. Copyright NYMNPA.

From the regional newspapers of the time there is a suggestion that the City of York considered a similarly located reservoir during the first reservoir enthusiasm at the end of the 19th century. In the 1920s/30s there had been another such outbreak of enthusiasm to use large scale engineering to make the most of natural capital and ensure sufficient safe water supplies with all the resulting health and welfare benefits. Ideas of progress and modernism assumed that cities and industry would prosper and expand if allowed to. Reservoirs meant (rain) water could be collected, stored and released under control, rather than relying on unpredictable and capricious rivers. The Kingston upon Hull Corporation were willing to make the required large scale capital investment at this difficult time (the Great Depression) for a better future.

As well as the very useful amount of water that could be impounded, the North York Moors water would be soft (less minerals) and could be mixed with the hard water from the Hull environs, thus improving the water as a product (the projected saving in soap is presented as one of the benefits from the scheme). Destructive flooding downstream would be prevented. The construction would provide a scheme of work for up to ‘600 labourers’ from the unemployed of Hull.

‘This Farndale scheme will not only prove a blessing to Hull, but to large areas of the North and East Riding, and future generations will appreciate, perhaps better than the present generation, the foresight and sagacity of the Hull Corporation’. (Hull Daily Mail, 25 September 1933)

Farndale. Copyright NYMNPA.

Farndale, as well as Rosedale and Bransdale, were farming dales, surrounded on most sides by moorland, with low populations of people. The Leeds Mercury of Monday 29 August 1932 reports on what farmers in the Farndale area thought about the plan to build ‘the second largest reservoir in the country’. There was apparently some ‘alarm’ and concerns about possible effects on the water supply lower down the catchment, but the report also emphasises the employment opportunities (a common claim with all infrastructure projects, now and then) and potential increases in property/land values. As well as the large scale areas of farmland to be lost, a small number of individual farmsteads (c. 3 or 4?) would be submerged however there would be no “drowned villages” as there had been elsewhere in the country. In the meantime the farmers in Upper Farndale remained the tenants of the Corporation.

‘Hull Civic Visit to Site of New Reservoir. From Our Own Correspondent, HULL, Wednesday. Members of the Hull Corporation Water Committee paid an official visit to Farndale, the site of Hull’s proposed new reservoir, yesterday. At the end of the day they wondered which to admire the most, the glorious scenery through which they passed or the vision and skill of the young engineer, Mr. T. H. Jones, which has led the Corporation to depart from its policy of deep well pumping stations within comparatively easy reach of the city and go out to the North Yorkshire moorlands [North York Moors]. Mr. Jones is the deputy water engineer, and less than three years ago, when doubts were entertained as to the advisability of proceeding with £900,000 scheme for a pumping station at Kellythorpe, near, Driffield, he cast about for an alternative…. CHOICE OF FARNDALE. Mr. Jones’s thoughts turned to the broad moors and lovely vallies of the North Riding, with their bountiful supplies of soft water. His choice fell upon Farndale, a selection that was afterwards confirmed by Mr. H. P. Hill, the Manchester expert, and endorsed by Parliament, when the necessary enabling bill was promoted. So it fell out that to-day Mr. Jones was able to point out the details of scheme which is estimated to cost £1,182,000 for the first portion and £2,127,000 [c. £144 million in today’s money] for the completed whole…The chief objective of the visit was Church Houses, Farndale, where the eastern end of the great dam will be, Mr. Jones indicated the great work that is to be carried out and which, far from detracting from the beauties of the valley, will add to them. A lake two and a half miles long and half a mile its widest point will set among the hills. The dam will be 1,900 feet in length and 130 feet high. Six thousand million gallons of water will be impounded [the capacity of Upper Farndale compared to neighbouring dales was why it had been decided on]’. (Leeds Mercury, Thursday 16 August 1934)

Farndale looking towards Oak Crag. Copyright NYMNPA.

During the 1930s arguments continued to appear in the regional papers – in letters, articles and editorials – mainly focused on who would have to pay for the scheme, who would benefit from the scheme, whether the water collected in Farndale was actually ‘pure’ or ‘peaty’, and whether the substrata of Farndale was pervious or impervious and therefore suitable for holding water (the top end of Farndale where it is sandstone rather than limestone is impervious). The main controversy seems to have been whether the reservoir was actually needed or not – opinions were based on short or long term perspectives. It was claimed the work itself would take at least 10 years, but would result in a secure water supply for Hull for somewhere between ‘100 to 150 years’ up to ‘all time’.

Whereas some saw it as another ‘grandiose and extravagant scheme’ the correspondent below is very keen, and seems the scheme very much as a win-win situation for all. It also references the drive at the time by many local councils trying to ensure that their own local citizens had access to national water resources.

‘HOW HULL’S WATER PROBLEMS MAY BE SOLVED’ FOR EVER HUMBERSIDE ECHOES A Day Out in Farndale Transforming a Countryside…I spent a very interesting and enjoyable day yesterday visiting Hull’s existing and prospective waterworks. A better day for an outing to Farndale could not been selected, and as one might imagine, the valley and the site of the dam were seen under ideal conditions. The journey was made by motor-car, and we proceeded by way of Thwing straight on to Malton, thence to Kirbymoorside, and struck the wonderful surprise view at Gillamoor. From this point of vantage one can see right across the valley, which, to its furthest upland extent, must be some eight or ten miles. To the left is the actual sweep the dale, and we proceed to follow this by descending a rather narrow roughly-stoned road. We have left many miles behind that part of the valley which has been described by Dr Eve as being difficult owing to limestone formation [Dr Eve was the lead proponent of the limestone in Farndale being pervious], and have yet many miles further the dale to go. A DELIGHTFUL VALLEY From this point the scenery is of the most delightful description. There is nothing of the wild moorland desolation about it. On the uplands the purple of the heather can be seen, but down in this smiling valley, where fields are being reaped of their hay, and corn fast ripening in the sweltering August sun, there is alluring geniality and intimacy. The road is undulating and tortuous; and as we turn first this way and that, new vistas open out that delight the eye, and more than satisfies one’s natural expectancy. The population is sparce: a cluster of a few houses doubtless constitutes a village, and such a place is Church-houses where we leave the car and proceed on foot up the hillside to the actual site where is proposed to erect the dam. And as one views the prospect – just a building here and another there, and not a soul in sight – one cannot put the idea out of one’s head that is the spot which Nature has assigned for such a use as the serving of a large city with pure water. THE FUTURE ASSURED A “Mail” correspondent has described this valley as dirty. What a libel! No air can be fresher; no countryside cleaner; no water purer than is to be found here. And let the man who says a reservoir will mar the amenities of the district blush for very shame; for here, in due time, will appear a beautiful sheet of water about 1,900 feet wide and over two miles in length and the valley preserved from spoilation for all time. Behind the dam will be stored six thousand million gallons of water – a year’s supply immediately available – and in the adjoining valleys of Rosedale, Bransdale and Westerdale are further supplies of such magnitude that, with the pumping stations Hull has, the water problem of the city is solved for all time. And we are less than 50 miles from Hull as the pipeline will go! Manchester has to go about 110 miles to Thirlemere and Birmingham nearly 80 to Wales. have said it before and I must say again: Hull is singularly fortunate in having found this place – thanks to Mr Jones, the Deputy Water Engineer – and having staked her claim to it’.  (Hull Daily Mail, Thursday 11 August 1932)

Towards the end of the 1930s the plans were well developed and permissions were in place, although the money still needed to be raised. So the work had not begun when WWII broke out. The war didn’t stop the newspaper correspondence on the Farndale Reservoir idea – one letter writer warned that open reservoirs like the one proposed for Farndale provided the opportunity for enemies to poison whole populations.

Landscape view - looking south from Farndale. Copyright NYMNPA.

After the war the Farndale Reservoir scheme remained, every time there was a summer drought there were calls to revive it. The end of the war meant more visions of progress, wellbeing and resurrected cities. The Kingston upon Hull Cooperation hadn’t given up. Back in 1933 the Corporation had received the required powers through Parliament to build the waterworks, to compulsory purchase land, to abstract water, to stop up access and to borrow the required monies to pay for it – and in the 1940s and following decades they continued to extend the time periods of these powers. The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer reported in September 1954 on the formation of the Farndale Local Nature Reserve largely to stop the large scale pillaging of wild daffodils. ‘Hull support for Famdale protection. Plan for nature reserve From our Hull staff. It is an offence to uproot flowers at Farndale, the North Yorkshire beauty spot, and in order to make Illegal also the picking of daffodils, the National Park Planning Committee of the North Riding County Council (as already reported in The Yorkshire Post) wish to establish the area as a nature reserve. The Water Committee of Hull Corporation, who several years ago acquired a large part of Farndale for a future reservoir unanimously agreed yesterday, to recommend the City Council to approve the nature reserve plan. It was pointed out that when the Corporation needed the land for the reservoir, the agreement on the proposed nature reserve could be terminated six months’ notice’.

What happened next?

Following on from the Water Resources Act 1963 the Yorkshire Ouse and Hull River Authority was formed. The Authority acting with the Kingston upon Hull Corporation and now also Sheffield Corporation promoted the new Yorkshire Derwent Bill, of which the Farndale Reservoir was one important element, aimed at regulating river flows and abstracting water supplies in Yorkshire.

The Bill received a second reading in the Houses of Parliament in 1970. The projected price for the Farndale scheme was now up to c. £8 million should everything go to plan (£132 million in today’s money), the reservoir was bigger than previously planned but there was less pipeline/aqueducts as modern reservoir technology used more controlled discharge into rivers and more abstraction downstream. There would be compensation for the farming tenants who would move to new homes, and rearrangement of farm holdings dividing up the remaining farmland between tenants.

As well as the continuing arguments over who would pay and who would benefit, by this time there was the added complication that the North York Moors including Farndale had been designated a National Park in 1952. So there were new arguments around the introduction of an uncharacteristic large scale water body into a designated landscape. But as well as providing water supplies for growing cities, by this time reservoirs were also seen as providing recreational opportunities and water catchment protection, in line with National Park purposes. The reservoir plans included woodland planting and a car park. The remaining wild daffodils would line the banks of the new waterbody – ‘A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze’. (I wandered lonely as a cloud by William Wordsworth). In the arguments Farndale was presented as a national asset by all sides, but there was disagreement over what type of asset that should be.

The North York Moors Planning Committee (the predecessor of the National Park Authority) did not object in principle. Around 10,000 people signed a petition against the construction of a new reservoir in a National Park. Already in the less than 20 years of its existence other major developments had already been allowed in the Park – the Cold War RAF Fylingdales installation and exploration for a potash development near Boulby.

There were various suggestions of alternatives to fulfil the need for water supplies in Yorkshire. These included abstracting more ground water, reference was made to a so called ‘underground lake’ left over after the last Ice Age beneath the nearby Vale of Pickering; or making use of desalination processes which were currently being developed in the USA and were apparently due to come to fruition in the 1980s. As it happened, desalination turned out to be very expensive and not the overriding solution everyone was hoping for.

So the bill was read in Parliament for a second time, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government as well as the Water Resources Board were both keen,… but then an All Party Select Committee tasked with vetting the bill before it became an Act threw it out on the vote of its Chair. So that was it. Hull and Sheffield do still have water supplies which suggests there were workable alternatives. Farndale remains a whole dale rather than half a reservoir.

Daffodil Walk, Farndale. Copyright NYMNPA.

Sources from The British Newspaper Archive

Bad news

Elizabeth A Clements – Deputy Director of Conservation, Head of Natural Environment

American Signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), are an incredibly successful crustacean – but unfortunately this very success is bad for our aquatic habitats and native species.

Reports of the Invasive Non Native (INNS) Species American Signal crayfish had been getting closer to the North York Moors for a while. But recently the species have been identified within the National Park. Sadly they have been recorded in the River Rye catchment and also at Scaling Dam Reservoir which is connected to Staithes Beck and is close to the River Esk catchment.

There are currently up to six species of non-native crayfish in England, but the ones here now are the American Signal crayfish species from North America. There are a relatively recent arrival. They were imported into England/Wales in the 1970s to kick start crayfish farming ventures. But no one had quite realized what an entrepreneurial creature they would be in their own right, given new territory. They were soon out of control and have continued to be so ever since, marching menancingly on and spreading throughout the country. They can move up and down stream, between water bodies and watercourses, and over land for short distances crossing physical barriers. They can even survive out of water for a few days.

American Signal crayfish. Copyright Canal and River Trust.

Signal crayfish out compete other species and disrupt the interconnected biodiversity chain. They are particularly fertile producing up to 500 eggs in one go, and can live up to 20 years.

They eat fish and amphibian eggs, tadpoles and juvenile fish as well as aquatic vegetation. It’s not that they don’t have any predators, they do – otters, salmon, trout and eel can eat them – but they can reproduce in such large numbers that predation has little impact on the growing populations. Another adverse impact on the ecosystem is their habit of burrowing into banks to hibernate in the winter – banks are therefore weakened and more prone to erosion, increasing sedimentation and flood risk, and decreasing water quality.

In the National Park we are very lucky to still have a population of Britain’s only native freshwater crayfish the White-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes). White-clawed Crayfish are declining throughout its range and are therefore protected by European and UK legislation. These native crayfish are declining due to competition, predation and disease. The American Signal crayfish are not only more aggressive and can tolerate poorer water quality and habitat conditions, but they also carry ‘crayfish plague’ (Aphanomyces astaci), a fungal disease which has devastating impact on our native species. Remaining populations of White-clawed crayfish are at risk of being wiped out once the Signal crayfish turn up.

White-clawed crayfish. Copyright Dan Lombard.

Researchers have been striving for years to find a way of successfully controlling and eradicating non-native crayfish but as of yet nothing has been successful so far. That research continues but out native crayfish are under threat in the meantime.  It’s not possible to safely exterminate a whole population in a connected watercourse or a large waterbody but many alternatives have been tried. Trapping and removing larger adult crayfish only allows the smaller younger population to thrive. Trials of chemical treatments have not yet been a success and in the aquatic environment have been particularly tricky. There have been attempts to remove adult crayfish, castrate them, and return them to the population in the hope they would control the population but that has not worked out yet either. Attempts have been made to erect physical barriers to prevent their free movement but only with very limited success. There is also a persistent rumour that people purposefully release Signal crayfish presumably to resuscitate the failed 1970s vision of crayfish farming.

It’s illegal to introduce Signal crayfish, that includes using crayfish as fishing bait – either dead or alive. A licence is needed in England to purposefully trap any species of freshwater crayfish, in an effort to assert some control over the situation.

The best thing we can all do at the present time is follow very clear biosecurity guidelines when we are in and around water.

Check, Clean, Dry campaign poster

It’s very important to note that people can unintentionally spread crayfish plague as well as the actual Signal crayfish but following the Check, Clean, Dry campaign is good practice and should help people avoid spreading the plague.

If you see any kind of crayfish please report these sightings to the Environment Agency (and the National Park Authority too).

We can all do our bit to help protect, conserve and enhance our native species populations in the North York Moors and beyond.

For further information see these JNCC, Buglife, and Natural England pages.

A to Z: a slew of Ss

S

SAINTS

A number of saints are associated with the North York Moors. Geographical associations can sometimes be found in the name of parish churches dedicated to particular saints, like St Oswald’s, St Cuthbert’s or St Hilda’s, all Anglo-Saxon celebrities when the north east of England was particularly important for the celtic branch of Christianity before the church in England romanized. Not all saints are Anglo-Saxon, it’s just that quite a lot of them are in Britain, many awarded sainthood before canonization became more centrally organised.

The full name of the church in the village of Oswaldkirk (which means Oswald’s Church) is the Church of St Oswald, King and Martyr. St Oswald (died 642) was a King of Northumbria, the kingdom included most of Yorkshire at one time or another. Oswald converted to Christianity as a young man in exile on the island of Iona, a hotbed of celtic Christianity whilst the rest of Britain was mostly pagan. He regained his kingdom as a Christian and then made it his mission to spread the new religion. He died in battle against pagan Mercians in 642, hence the title of Martyr. His body was supposedly cut up in a pagan ritual, but this meant his body parts were them disseminated across the country, and even onto the continent, as inspirational Christian relics.

St Cuthbert (died 687) was a monk for most of his life, he was the Prior on Lindisfarne before he gave it up to become a hermit on one of the nearby Inner Farne islands. After his death he became a very popular saint widely venerated across the north of England and beyond, probably because of his steadfastness and asceticism as well as his holiness. Over 400 years later he was said to have had an incorrupt corpse when dug up, which always makes an impression. St Aiden (died 651) was the first Prior on Lindisfarne and seems to have had a similar character and calling to Cuthbert, but he ended up partly eclipsed by his successor in the saint popularity stakes. Although there are many St Cutchbert’s Churches round and about the Norht York Moors, but only one within, at Kildale. But there are two St Aidan’s, in Oswaldkirk and in Carlton.

St Hilda (died 680) as an Abbess had status in the Christian hierarchy which gave her authority and influence in her lifetime, her personal qualities meant that continued after her death. She was an advocate of education, and her own wisdom was greatly valued. She was first an Abbess at Hartlepool before re-founding the Abbey of Whitby (not the current ruin), where monks and nuns lived separately but worshipped together. She hosted the important Synod of Whitby in 663/4 at which it was decided that the future of the English church should be Roman. Like Cuthbert, after her death Hilda was widely venerated in the north of England. There are St Hilda’s Churches in Ampleforth, Beadlam, Danby and Hinderwell – which is a derivation of the name Hilda’s well.

The church in Lastingham is named after St Chad but it is St Cedd, his brother, who is buried in the crypt. St Cedd (died 664) was an important person in the hierarchy of the Anglo-Saxon church, as well as founding a monastery at Lastingham he evangelized all over England and was known as the bishop of the East Saxons i.e. Essex. St Chad (died 672) succeeded him as Abbot of Lastingham but spent much of his time converting the re-occuring Mercians in the midlands of England. Both brothers learned their ‘trade’ on Lindisfarne before being sent out by various Christian kings of Northumbria to convert the pagans in the rest of England. There are also St Chad’s Churches in Sproxton and Hutton le Hole.

St Caedmon (died 680) is a particularly local saint, he was possibly a herdsman from Whitby before he became a monk at Whitby Abbey whilst Hilda was the Abbess. He never had a position of authority like the other saints mentioned, he did however have a gift for composing poetry in the vernacular which illustrated Christian stories and ideas, so helping to spread the faith. One thing to note is that there are no churches dedicated to St Caedmon, but he does get to patronise a school in Whitby.

SEGMENTED EMBANKED PIT ALIGNMENTS

Segmented Embanked Pit Alignments (SEPA) are an historic earthwork feature of the north east of the North York Moors, identified by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England as a specific type of monument in the 1990s. Previously this type of feature had been classed as a double pit alignment – two lines of pits marking a boundary. A SEPA earthwork however is made up of two or three pairs of pits inside two parallel enclosing banks largely made from the spoil from the pits, these are generally in what appear to be conjoined segments. The segmentation suggests development over time rather than a linear structure created in one go as a land boundary.

In each case the SEPAs appear to be aligned with nearby Bronze Age barrows (burial mounds), which suggest the SEPA are Bronze Age too and could have had a related ritual purpose. The alignment of all the SEPAs is north-west to south-east. This alignment seems to have taken precedence to any alignment with the barrows. The parallel banks were oddly low, which means the earthworks were not prominent in the landscape when they were constructed, unlike the barrows.

No similar features have been identified in the rest of Britain. SEPAs are therefore particularly important and all are now scheduled along with their associated barrows. There are three locations of SEPA earthworks – on Middle Rigg, Easington High Moor (SM 1020351), on Danby Rigg (SM 1018782) and on Ugthorpe Moor (SM 1016532 and SM 1016533) – all within ten miles of each other.

SEPA on Middle Rigg, Easington High Moor - the ranging rod is in one of the pits. Copyright NYMNPA.

SHEEP

Sheep are the main stock animal farmed in the North York Moors. According to Defra’s June 2016 agricultural census returns, there were 296,120 sheep in the National Park at that time, five and a half times the number of cattle. Why the pastures, grasslands and moors of the North York Moors are used for sheep is based on current economics and a couple of centuries of custom. Sheep can manage on open moorland for a lot of the year without much input if they’re hefted – which means when a flock keeps to a certain part of an area because of learnt behaviour, rather than needing fencing. But just like there are a variety of different habitats and landscapes in the North York Moors, there are a variety of different sheep breeds and farming methods, and not all North York Moors sheep spend summer amongst the heather.

Blackface sheep on moorland. Copyright NYMNPA.

One of the main breeds in the North York Moors are Blackface. Blackface sheep are hardy and easily hefted, so good on northern hills. Mixing sheep breeds to develop sheep that best suit local conditions and to accentuate their best commercial features is an ongoing endeavour amongst sheep farmers. A mule is a cross breed sheep, mixing the qualities of a Blackface sheep with a more commercial breed either for wool or for meat.

Ram, ewe and lamb are common enough descriptive nouns for sheep, but there are a lot more you’ll need to know if you want to talk sheep with a North York Moors farmer. For instance a tup is another name for a ram, a wether is a castrated male lamb, a hog is an older lamb more than a year old, a gimmer is an older lamb which will be used for breeding.

North York Moors sheep flock. Copyright NYMNPA.

If you want to find out more about sheep, and who wouldn’t – have a look at the National Sheep Association’s very informative website.

SMUGGLING and other criminal enterprises

The North York Moors has high cliffs, sheltered coves and small fishing villages on its eastern coastal edge. So ideal for people with boats in the 17th to 19th centuries  to bring in comestibles whilst avoiding being made to pay custom and excise duties due to the government. This smuggling was never on the scale of that in the south of England because of the distance from the continent, but there were local opportunities for small boats to go out to sea and collect goods from passing ships.

The fact that the terrain of the North York Moors and distance from authority meant it was difficult to collect duties plus the fact that many people didn’t want to pay the duties, together meant organised criminal enterprise was rife. There weren’t very many ways of making money, smuggling was one, as long as you weren’t caught and potentially transported or executed.

Goods were landed, held in coastal villages and farms, and then distributed, all the while the Customs and Excise Officers tried to prevent this with varying enthusiasm and results. The British Government used money from duties to help finance numerous wars in Europe and so always wanted to collect as much money as possible because wars are always expensive. Customs were levied on imported foreign goods (charged at recognised ports) and excise was levied on domestic production.

Such widespread smuggling reached a peak of activity at the beginning of the nineteenth century during the Napoleonic Wars. It wasn’t all brandy, silk and tea however, another comestible which suffered from a high rate of tax was salt, both home produced and imported. The Wagon and Horses Inn, just north of the Hole of Horcum, was surrounded by treacherous and secretive moorland, it was also alongside the main road across the moors connecting the coast around Whitby and the south to Pickering, York and beyond. The name of the inn underlines the importance of the location for transportation, and because of this location it became a criminal hub. Untaxed salt was held at the inn, fisherman from the coast would bring in their fish to be salted and then moved on to be sold. Salted fish could be transported more widely and therefore could make more profit, as long as the salt was untaxed. Everyone knew what was happening and there were frequent raids by Excise Officers. The story goes that on one occasion a single Excise Officer managed to catch the felons by surprise, and he ended up murdered. Elements of stories then got muddled up together. The body is supposed to have been buried under the fire place, a tradition was established that the fire should never be allowed to got out else the devil would arise or the ghost of the murdered man would seek revenge or more prosaically the body might be discovered.

Later the Wagon and Horses was renamed the Saltersgate Inn, the wider site is now called Saltergate. It’s obvious what the first part of the name signifies, and the word ‘gate’ means a road. The Saltersgate Inn recently fell into dereliction, it is due to be demolished and the site redeveloped. So far no body has been found.

SOCIAL CAPITAL

Social capital is defined by Wikipedia as a form of economic and cultural capital in which social networks are central; transactions are marked by reciprocity, trust and cooperation; and market agents produce goods and services not mainly for themselves, but for a common good.

We’ve recently helped a PhD student from Bangor University by putting him in touch with North York Moors Farmers willing to answer questions about what it is that motivates them to engage (or not) with high nature value farming and/or agri-environment schemes.

The research being undertaken is aiming to identify social capital types within farmer groups. It is recognised that there will be significant impacts on farming communities, especially upland livestock farmers, as a result of agriculture policy changes post-Brexit. So having an understanding of how resilient communities are and how able they are to adapt to change will be valuable in the design and potential success of future land management schemes seeking to deliver environmental outcomes. An aim of this research is to try and understand whether high levels of social capital are a driver that encourages a farmer’s participation in high nature value farming and/or engagement in agri-environment schemes? whether a farmer’s participation leads to greater levels of social capital? or are there other drivers that come into play?  Whatever conclusions are drawn from this research, one thing is certain – there must have been some very interesting conversations being had around farmhouse kitchen tables over the past few weeks!

SUNDEW

On particularly wet peaty acidic areas of moorland you might find Round-leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia. It grows low to the ground with upright stems and small white flowers in the summer. Sundews use photosynthesis like many plants to make glucose for energy, but plants also tend to need nutrients and minerals usually obtained by their roots from the soil they grow in. But the wet soils on which this species live have few nutrients and minerals because these have leached away. Many plants would find this habitat too inhospitable but Drosera rotundifolia has a proactive solution to supplementing its diet. It has leaves with sticky inward curving hairs in which unsuspecting insects get trapped when they come to look for nectar, and are then slowly digested by enzymes. It is one of a number of carnivorous plants across the world.

Round-leaved sundew, Bransdale. Copyright NYMNPA.

Previously on the North York Moors A to Z … A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O , P, Q, R

Turr turr Turr turr

Aside

Richard Baines, our Turtle Dove Project Officer, has posted an update on the North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project on the blog belonging to Operation Turtle Dove.

North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project logo

Last week Richard and Katie Pownall, our Conservation Research Student, showed RSPB people around some of the best local sites, and even saw a Turtle Dove.

Richard, Katie and the RSPB. Copyright RSPB.North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project partner logos

Colouring in the summer

Abi Duffy – Conservation Trainee

Butterfly species are significant indicators for helping us understand the health of the environment and its ecosystems – that’s because butterflies respond rapidly to changes in habitat and climate. By recognising how butterfly populations are faring we can better appreciate how the wider environment is doing.

Butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) also play a vital function as pollinators, as part of the food chain, and as a particularly beautiful and delicate facet of the natural world.

Small pearl bordered fritillary, North York Moors. Copyright NYMNPA.

In the North York Moors there are widespread generalist butterfly species such as Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae and Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina, but we also have  specialist butterflies such as the Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina and the Pearl Bordered Fritillary Boloria euphrosyne (note this is a different species to the Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary Boloria selene which is currently more widespread and also found in the North York Moors). Both the Duke of Burgundy and the Pearl Bordered Fritillary require very specific habitat to survive.

Habitat specialist butterflies are particularly sensitive to change. The Pearl Bordered Fritillary has suffered substantial declines in recent decades and so is now a UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species. Its caterpillars feed upon violets, most often Common Dog Violets, and crucially the violets must be in a hot microclimate in order for the caterpillars to develop successfully over winter. Bracken litter is ideal at creating such a microclimate and so conservation of this species requires grassy habitat where bracken, scrub and violets are all present. In the North York Moors this butterfly species is found in only one location.

Small tortoiseshell, North York Moors. Copyright Abi Duffy, NYMNPA.

The Small Tortoiseshell, as a generalist, can cope with many different habitats but most often where nettles grow in abundance as the caterpillars feed upon the common and small nettle. This butterfly is one of our most widespread species, often glimpsed in gardens, but there is concern for a decline in species numbers recently due to the sensitivity of all butterflies to weather and climate.

Fluctuations in UK butterfly populations are common between years due to the different weather conditions through spring and summer. In 2017, the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS) showed the seventh worst year ever in UKBMS recording because a cold spring and wet summer causing butterfly species to struggle. It is expected that butterfly numbers should do better in 2018 because of the mainly dry summer, so far.

The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme looks beyond the short term and draws out the trends over time:

  • 57% of butterflies have been declining in abundance since 1976;
  • Both habitat specialist butterfly species and wider countryside species, in general, are declining;
  • Loss of, and the deteriorating condition, of habitats is attributed to declines in habitat specialist butterflies;
  • Encouraging recoveries have been seen in Duke of Burgundy and the Pearl Bordered Fritillary in some locations. Specialist habitat management has helped these species to recover in places;
  • For more widespread generalist butterflies the reasons for declines are not established yet.

Suggested reasons for declines in butterflies include more extreme climatic events, the ongoing loss and fragmentation of meadows, neglect of previously coppiced woodland and the increased use of pesticides. The paving over of gardens is also linked to declines particularly in towns and cities.

Certain lepidopterans, like the Painted Lady butterfly, migrate to follow the sun which is so important to butterflies. The movement and extents of particular species are now altering due to climate changes. Within Britain as the climate warms the extents of particular lepidoptera species are moving north where habitats and habitat connectivity allow.

Ringlet butterfly at Sutton Bank National Park Centre. Copyright Kate Bailey, NYMNPA.

Unimproved grasslands, including meadows, support more species of butterflies than any other single habitat in Britain. Grassland with low grazing or no grazing in the summer months allows wildflowers to flower and, very importantly, to set seed. A balance between grassland and natural scrub is helpful – scrub can provide shelter, respite, breeding areas and also a place for hibernation for butterflies. By managing such sites appropriately, unimproved grassland habitats can help sustain surviving butterflies.

MAD Volunteers clearing away some of the scrub from a Duke of Burgundy site - you can see the patches of primroses which along with cowslips are requirements for the species. Copyright NYMNPA.

But just like for bees, if you’ve got a garden with plants, you can help butterflies too. There are butterfly friendly nectar rich plants such as Buddleia, Lavender, Marjoram and Honeysuckle , and leaving fallen fruit to decay under your fruit trees provides sweet fruit juice for butterflies. If you’re lucky you might get to see a butterfly using its extraordinary tongue-like proboscis to collect the juice.

Peacock butterfly. Copyright Abi Duffy, NYMNPA.

Big Butterfly Count

Butterfly Conservation‘s annual butterfly count runs from 20 July to 12 August this year. The nationwide survey has become the largest butterfly survey in the world.  If you’d like to get involved visit http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/ which has lots of useful information and resources to help you.

An exceptional bog

Last year the Land of Iron commissioned an eco-hydrological assessment of Fen Bog(s) by consultants (Sheffield Wetland Ecologists).  An eco-hydrological assessment examines the workings of a water system and its wider ecosystems. Sunday was International Bog Day so to celebrate the complexity and variety of bogs – here is a very very simplified overview of that assessment. Any misunderstanding or misinterpretation is all mine.

View over Fen Bog. Copyright NYMNPA.

Background

Fen Bog(s) is at the top end of the Newtondale glacial channel in the east of the North York Moors. It’s part of the Newtondale Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the majority of it is also designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Most of the site is a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve, other parts are owned by the National Park Authority, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and the Duchy of Lancaster.

Fen Bog(s) is a large peatland/wetland site, and according to the report “is of exceptional biological, palaeo-ecological and telmatological (to do with bogs) interest, especially as there are no comparable examples in the region or, indeed, in most of England”.

The bog happens to be within the boundary of the Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme. The scheme focuses on the landscape area impacted on by the short but intense period of ironstone mining and railway development in the North York Moors. Intriguingly part of the Fen Bog(s) site has been subject to long-term modification since the Whitby–Pickering Railway line (now belonging to the North Yorkshire Moors Railway) was built alongside/across the site. The Partnership commissioned the report in order to get an holistic assessment of the existing data (of which there is a lot), and to identify the gaps and address these through additional field investigations, with the aim of increasing the understanding of the eco-hydrological functioning of Fen Bog(s) in order to help inform future management decisions. This management needs to conserve and restore its environmental value as well as allowing the continued functioning of the railway.

Historical Aspects

The Whitby & Pickering Railway was first opened in 1837, as a single-track, horse-drawn enterprise carrying freight between the two towns. Newtondale connects through the central moorland which largely separates the north and south of the North York Moros. Soon after the line was doubled and substantially rebuilt for steam propelled haulage with services starting in 1847.

Benham (An Illustrated History of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, 2008) explains that Fen Bog(s) proved a “major headache” for the railway builders and that “Stephenson resorted to the same technique employed at Chat Moss when building the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. This involved stabilising the land by ‘pile-driving’ fir trees into the bog and overlaying them with sheaves of heather bound in sheep skin, together with more timber and moss.” In addition deep drains were dug alongside the railway through the mire to try and keep water off the track. The extensive drainage has tilted parts of the bog. It has also been suggested that it meant the bog turned from a topogenous system (source water mainly from the land) to an ombrogenous one (source water mainly from precipitation) – but the report considers this is unlikely. The railway’s embankments and sidings were built and maintained using railway ash, basic slag, limestone and basalt – all base rich materials imported onto the site which still have an impact.

The summit of the railway is a short distance north of Fen Bog(s), near the former location of the ‘Goathland Summit’ signal box. South of this the railway track skirts the western edge of the wetland, it is built mostly along the steeply-sloping edge so that its upslope side is on mineral ground or shallow peat whilst the mire side is over deeper peat. The railway line has therefore partly obliterated, truncated and drained much of the western edge of Fen Bog(s). Towards the southern end of Fen Bog(s), the glacial channel curves west and the railway here crosses the bog to the other side of the channel, thereby cutting across and separating parts of the Bog(s).

View of North Yorkshire Moors Railway crossing Fen Bog. Copyright NYMNPA.

Methodologies

Peatlands are strongly influenced by hydrology, chemistry, and vegetation.

The Fen Bog(s) report considers the hydrogeology including stratigraphy, surface profiles, and solid, wetland, and superficial (recent) deposits.

It also investigates the water supply in and the drainage out. All the different water features on the site are mapped – as pool, spring or seepage, stream/ditch with visible flow, water flow track, water filled ditch with no visible flow, damp channel, or seasonally wet channel. The main artificial drainage is associated with the railway including the drains on either side of the line, but there is also other historic drainage at the south end of Fen Bog(s) which was done to improve the land for agriculture.

Hydrochemical measurements were taken as part of the assessment to establish the current pH and also the electrical conductivity of the water at different points. There is a lot of variation across the site. It has been suggested that high pH readings i.e. alkaline are caused by leeching slag used in the construction of the railway track. Measurements from the recent assessment suggest that in terms of chemistry any effects of the trackway on the Bog(s) is either historic or localised. Because of the mix of chemistry Fen Bog(s) is classed as a Transition mire and this is reflected in its mix of vegetation (see below). The transition can be geographical or successional, or both.

There are a series of historic water table measurements at two specific points, from the 1970s to 1990s – one in ‘wet’ bog, rich in sphagnum, in the north, and one in relatively ‘dry’ bog, with a lot of heather, in the south. The report suggests the main reason for the more consistently higher water table at the northern monitoring point can be associated with the greater number and penetration of flow tracks across the mire, the number of groundwater outflows and a more consistent supply of telluric water (surface water and groundwater). Groundwater geology is always important in sustaining a high water table.

Looking into Fen Bog. Copyright Louise Cooke, NYMNPA.

Development and status

Much of the depth of peat at Fen Bog(s) is believed to sit in a hollow which decreases at its southern end. It has been suggested this hollow may have been a glacial or post-glacial lake. However it appears as if the mire developed on a dry surface, that is through paludification, and not by infilling a water body (terrestrialisation).

The lower layers of peat cores and sections collected contain the remains of tree species (Birch, Willow and Alder) and other plants (Reeds and Sphagnum) that suggest wet woodland. Then the higher up layers on top contain more plants and silt indicating the formation of swamp and a rise in the water level. This may be a consequence of wetter climatic conditions but also may partly be to do with human activity. There is an increase in non-tree pollen suggesting the removal of trees at the time, and the report postulates that the build-up of water on the site may have been due to it being artificially damned at the southern end. Sphagnum increases in the top level of peat, from c. 1100 AD atleat until the 19th century. The development of a Sphagnum-dominated surface on a reed-monocot swamp requires some isolation of the surface from more base-rich water sources which means the margins with inflow must have remained largely free of Sphagnum and a dome of peat therefore developed in the middle of the bog.

Fen Bog(s) can therefore be considered an embryonic raised bog, which has developed upon a protracted phase of reed–monocot peat that, because of the topography of the trough and the occurrence of marginal inflows, has been susceptible to flooding with telluric water until relatively recently. Because the system has developed across a shallow watershed, it can be regarded as an embryonic ‘sattelmoor’ (saddle bog). The report notes that this assessment is based on the centre and eastern margin of Fen Bog(s) – the western margin has been modified too much by the railway development and associated drainage to be useful as evidence. The modification led to a tilt of the mire’s surface towards the west.

Vegetation over time is the raw ingredients of a bog. The report reviews and updates current NVC vegetation classifications across the Fen Bog(s) site. It’s quite a mosaic. As well as non-mire vegetation such as dry grassland, bracken, dry heath and wet heath, there is also:

  • Weakly base-rich springs and soakways – base rich means a richness of chemical ions i.e. alkaline, a soakway is a narrow track of water flow where little or no water is normally visible. Supports plants such as Bog bean, Broad-leaved cotton grass*, Common butterwort*, and Black bog-rush*, as well as Sphagnum sp. and other bryophytes. Beyond the immediate Fen Bog(s) site there are base-rich springs and weakly base-rich soakways – where soils are acid rather than alkaline so it means the water ends up only weakly or not base-rich at all.
  • Acidic springs and soakways – supports plants such as Common sedge, Yorkshire fog and Marsh violet, as well Sphagnum sp.
  • Ombrotrophic bog – where the main source of water is precipitation. Supports plants such as Common cotton-grass, Cross-leaved heath and Bog myrtle.
  • Minerotrophic Bog – where the main source of water is watercourses and springs. Supports plants such as Purple moor-grass, Common yellow sedge and Carnation sedge.
  • Molinia mire – purple moor-grass dominated vegetation, also supports plants such as SundewsStar sedge and Bog asphodel
  • Nutrient-rich fen – these areas may be influenced hydrochemically either by base-rich springs, or by the base-rich material that make up the railway embankments/sidings. Supports plants such as Angelica, Tufted vetch and Water horse-tail
  • Carex rostrata fen – base-rich mire supporting plants such as Bottle sedge (this is the Carex rostrata), Marsh marigold and Ragged robin.
  • Pools and soakways with Carex limosa – supports plants such as Bog sedge* (this is the Carex limosa), Slender sedge*, and Bog pimpernel.
  • Wet woodland – these remaining woodlands are similar to that which began the formation of peat millions of years ago. Supports plants such as Grey willow, Downy Birch and Creeping buttercup.
  • Reeds and willow scrub – can also be classed as wet woodland. Supports plants such as Narrow buckler fern, Soft rush and Sphagnums.
  • Tall swamp and reedbeds – each at different stages of development with their own characteristics. One site which supports bulrush is presumably mineral enriched from the track ballast but this shows no sign of spreading out into adjacent vegetation without the enrichment. Another site, not yet colonised by willow scrub, supports plants such as Marsh pennywort, Water mint and Branched bur-reed.

* notable uncommon vascular plant species

Another view over Fen Bog. Copyright NYMNPA.

What next?

From the assessment the report goes on to outline the main management issues and to suggest restoration opportunities for the Fen Bog(s) site. These include vegetation control through gazing and fencing, monitoring the spread of reeds (Phragmites), clearing parts of the species poor scrub areas, retaining the wet woodland/scrub habitat, blocking and redirecting specific railway ditches, minimising the introduction of new embankment ballast material, and using engineered solutions to tackle subsidence problems. Interested parties will consider the recommendations and decide what is desirable as well as practically possible, in order to maintain this very important bog site that embodies a clash of natural and cultural heritage.

Postscript: There is a story that a steam locomotive sank into Fen Bog(s) at some point in the past, and remains there today. But this is just a story.

Local communities

Alasdair Fagan – Woodland Creation Officer

My job here at the National Park Authority means that I get the opportunity to be out and about in the North York Moors and get to places that most don’t get the opportunity to see. These hidden places are special for all sorts of reasons, in particular I get the chance to see some extraordinary woodlands – I admit I might be a little biased.

Recently we were out monitoring a woodland planting project near Castleton which meant we had to trek through a small existing woodland to get there. This was a combination of well-developed riparian (wet) flood plain woodland along river margins, wet marshy grassland filled with flowering plants and ancient woodland remnants creeping up the valley sides including oak, birch, hazel, alder and willow. Many of the woodland spring flowers were still in bloom and the woods were a lush green and bursting with insect and bird life.

Ancient Semi Natural Woodland site. Copyright Alasdair Fagan, NYMNPA.

As we approached the edge of this woodland I noticed something wriggling in the grass – it was a slow worm! Coming across this legless lizard species (Anguis fragilis) was a first time for me. Obviously I wouldn’t usually pick up/disturb wildlife but in this case I took the opportunity to move the slow worm to the cover of an old iron sheet as they are quite high up on the menu for many predatory species (birds, adders, badgers etc.).

Slow worm - copyright Alasdair Fagan, NYMNPA.

On the way back as we ducked, scrambled and tramped back through the same woodland I almost tripped over what can only be described as a large mound of leaf litter on the edge of a clearing. As I looked a little closer I noticed that the surface of the mound was moving – it was alive with wood ants! I was surprised to see them here as. I previously worked in Scotland and had always associated wood ants with more northern forest habitats. But they were definitely wood ants and they are surely an indicator that this particular woodland is in good ecological health.

Close up of a Northern hairy wood ant. Copyright Alasdair Fagan, NYMNPA.

Northern Hairy Wood ants (Formica lugubris) are a species of wood ant found in Scotland and in only two areas in England – the Peak District and the North York Moors. They are a fascinating species – I’m no expert yet but here are a few facts about our internationally important Northern Hairy Wood Ants:

  • The Northern Hairy Wood Ant currently has a near-threatened conservation status.
  • Northern Hairy Wood Ants ‘farm’ sap-sucking aphids (that favour oak and birch) for their honeydew. They gently stroke the backs of the aphids which then produce the sugar rich liquid in exchange for protection, and the ants use it to feed their young.
  • The ants take specific roles in the aphid farming process including; ‘shepherds’ who collect the honeydew, ‘transporters’ that move the honeydew to their nest, ‘guards’ that protect their aphids from competitors, and ‘scouts’ that search out new aphid colonies.
  • They employ a polydomous (many homes) nesting strategy whereby they have a number of nest mounds which operate as a single colony. The founding of additional nests allows for the expansion of the colony allowing it to grow and capitalise on new foraging and feeding opportunities spreading out through suitable habitat. If a smaller outlying nest is attacked or in danger then it will be abandoned and the inhabitants will return to the central nest.
  • Similar to other ants foraging workers leave pheromone trails, to good nectar sites or to groups of aphids, which direct other foragers to these valuable resources. The trails can persist for months.
  • The nest mounds of Northern Hairy Wood ants provide accomodating habitat for other invertebrates too. These include a variety of beetle species as well as the Shining guest ant (Formicoxenus nitidulus). This ant species lives within wood ant nesting colonies, accepting food from the host species and establishing its own discrete nests inside hollow twigs within the larger nest, raising its own brood. The Shining guest ant is a species of conservation interest, a priority species of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN red list.

Northern hairy wood ant nest - if you look carefully you can just make out the well camouflaged orange/black coloured ants. Copyright Alasdair Fagan, NYMNPA.

The intricacies of woodland ecology are often complex and astounding. My job means I work on woodland planting and creation and by the very nature of the timespan of trees I know that I’m likely never to see these new woodlands in their future glory. Therefore it’s very important to me to keep a perspective, looking at woodlands at a landscape and spatial scale and considering woodlands over their likely lifetime. Woodland visits like this one are what inspire me to want to create new woodlands and plant more trees, to establish the woodlands of the future.

If you might be interested in creating woodland in the North York Moors and would like more information about opportunities please contact me or call on 01439 772700.