Traversing the Esk

Christopher Watt – River Esk Project Officer

Hi there, I’m Chris and I’ve just recently joined the National Park Authority as a River Esk Project Officer, having moved down from Scotland, and seemingly brought the weather with me! My role will involve working with farmers and landowners to implement river restoration techniques that seek to improve the water quality of the River Esk catchment.

Over the last month I have started to piece together the Esk catchment, worked with volunteers in delivering practical tasks and began undertaking fish obstacle river surveys. It has certainly been a varied introduction to the role and area.

Autumn colours in Westeredale. Copyright NYMNPA.

Volunteers braved the drizzly elements back in October to repair a broken fence on the River Esk, near Castleton. Thankfully, the task allowed us to remain on dry land and avoid venturing into the river which was rather swollen after recent heavy rainfall. A bankside tree had fallen and crushed a section of the fence-line, slackening the wire and dislodging posts. The volunteers assisted with installing new posts, including a heavy duty straining post, re-attaching the wires and finally tightening them. The volunteers worked extremely hard and it was a pleasure to meet and work with them. The task was also completed in one afternoon and the sun even came out, which is a bonus!

This task was one of the many on-going works to restore and enhance the riparian habitats of the River Esk. Maintaining riverside fences assists in keeping cattle and sheep away from the bankside vegetation and so causing sediment loading through erosion. Bankside vegetation stabilises the soil and is an important habitat in its own right. The reduction of sediment loading should help improve conditions for conservation priority species such as Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), Sea trout (Salmo trutta) and Freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera) which favour clean, fast-flowing rivers and streams.

In combination to riparian habitat enhancements, we have also been undertaking fish obstacle surveys stretching from Westerdale down  to Goathland. These involve inspecting an assortment of obstructions from weirs, fords and culverts and assessing how severe they impinge on fish migration. At each obstacle the length, width and height are recorded, along with a written assessment of the level of severity the obstacle poses to migrating fish populations.  

Esk Catchment weir after high rainfall event. Copyright NYMNPA.

Due to recent high rainfall, many of these obstacles have been partially or fully submerged, and although looking dramatic, have been just too dangerous to take measurements from. Electro-fishing will also accompany these surveys at a later date to inform us about fish species diversity and abundance at each obstacle. The purpose of these surveys is to update our records on obstructions across the catchment and prioritise where mitigation measures would best be targeted to benefit fish populations of the Esk. Migratory fish are a vital aspect of the biodiversity of the river.

Esk Catchment culvert and ford system. Copyright NYMNPA.

Planting for the future

Alasdair Fagan – Woodland Creation Officer

In a previous blog I talked about the importance of collecting and growing on tree seed from the North York Moors and the benefits of a combined genetic approach to planting woodlands to provide them with the best chance of withstanding climate change impacts in the future.

It is now widely accepted that tree planting has a major part to play in helping to offset the emissions contributing to global warming. The UK is committed to reducing carbon emissions by 80% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050. A recent study by The Crowther Lab of ETH Zurich suggests that a global effort to plant one trillion trees can have a huge potential to tackle climate change. 

The 25 year Environment Plan released in 2018 outlines governmental ambitions to plant 11 million trees in new woodlands by 2021 through national grant schemes such as Countryside Stewardship and the Woodland Carbon Fund administered and regulated by the Forestry Commission.

The sequestration of carbon is one huge benefit provided by trees, but planting trees can have numerous smaller scale advantages too including;

  • Significant benefits to biodiversity
  • Creation of a priority habitat
  • Reducing soil erosion
  • Reducing the flow of water downstream
  • Providing shelter to livestock and game

Which leads me onto Woodland Creation in the North York Moors …

Between 2000 and 2017, this National Park saw the planting of over 150 hectares of low density wood pasture/parkland and over 560 hectares of new native woodland; that equates to the planting of over 622,400 native trees!

Looking forward, we have ambitious targets to create 7,000 hectares of ‘environmentally positive’ new woodland over the next 100 years. This will mean we’d plant over 7 million trees! This will increase woodland cover from 23% to 25% of the National Park.

Skipster Hag - woodland creation project planted in 2012. Copyright NYMNPA.

But we’re not gung-ho about it. Every woodland creation proposal is carefully planned and there are many considerations to be examined and consultations to be carried out during the developmental stages of each individual project. Things to think about include:

  • Existing ecology and habitats
  • Existing archaeology and cultural heritage features and records
  • Current land sse
  • Soils
  • Woodland networks in the landscape
  • Public Access and Rights of Way
  • Landscaping impacts
  • Impacts on groundwater
  • Appropriate species
  • Provenance of seed/trees
  • Future impacts of Climate Change (ESC tool)
  • Tree pests and diseases (chalara, alder rust etc)
  • Land designations (e.g. SSSI, SAC, SPA)
  • Open Access Land
  • Parish Council
  • Inclusion on Public Register
  • Neighbouring landowners
  • Environmental Impact Assessment (if over 2 ha)
  • Services

Planting at Oakley Side, Danby - to extend existing native woodland. Copyright NYMNPA.

Rievaulx - planting to restore ancient wood pasture habitat. Copyright NYMNPA.

Shadow Woodland - woodland plants such as bluebells show us where woodlands used to exist. Copyright NYMNPA.

Each project has its own issues and individualities. Here are three examples of woodland creation projects over the last couple of years.

Cam House, Bilsdale

This woodland creation project in Bilsdale is a large planting scheme of over 15 hectares. There are 17,825 trees planted of 18 different species.

The site varies somewhat in terms of hydrology with some areas being particularly wet. These areas are planted with species that prefer wetter ground (willows and alder) but the majority of the site is planted as diverse oak and hazel woodland, with other species such as birch, holly, wild cherry and crab apple included to provide maximum climate change resilience and benefit for biodiversity.

Aspen has been included to further futureproof the woodland against potential issues such as climate change and disease, after consulting the ecological site classification software for the site. This is an online tool used to calculate what the suitability of particular tree species are to potential planting sites. The tool uses information such as soil wetness, soil PH, wind exposure and climate data to estimate how well trees will grow. It also usefully has a future projections function which is linked to the Met Office’s future climate data, which allows us to try to predict how a changing climate might alter the site and suitability for tree species – some will become less suited to the site and others will become more suitable, such as aspen.

Planting at Cam House, Bilsdale. Copyright NYMNPA.

 Ayton Banks

Ayton Banks is a site that is extensively covered in dense stands of bracken. The landowner’s primary objective for the planting is to sustainably control the bracken long term whilst creating a diverse woodland habitat. 8,610 trees were planted across 5.43 hectares using site appropriate native species such as oak, hazel, birch and rowan.

The wider Ayton Banks site is an historic Alum Works, now a Scheduled Monument. The proposals for woodland planting were carefully developed with the National Park Authority’s Historic Environment Team to ensure that none of the sensitive areas of the monument are influenced by the project.

Planting at Ayton Banks. Copyright NYMNPA.

 Howe End, Danby

This lowland planting project presented the perfect opportunity to work with volunteers and other groups due to its proximity to our National Park Centre at Danby, the ease of access and parking, and the cooperation of the landowner (who is a National Park Volunteer).

3,500 trees were planted over two months by a wide variety of volunteer groups as well as local primary school children, National Park staff and apprentices.

Planting at Howe End, Danby. Copyright NYMNPA.

If you have a potential Woodland Creation project in mind then please visit our website page for more information or contact me via the National Park Office 01439 772700 or by email.

Electrifying activities

Victoria Franklin – Conservation Trainee

Last week some National Park Volunteers (all fully trained) have finally been able to carry out the first electro fishing surveys this year along the River Esk. Delays had been caused by the weather.

The priority are sites up and downstream of the Sewage Treatment Works (STW) and one Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) in the upper catchment. The first day of surveying was at Commondale.

The concept of electro fishing is to collect samples of fish living within the river, the higher the fish count the healthier the river should be. This will also show the type of fish living in our rivers, the cleanliness of the river and theoretically what the invertebrate population is like along that stretch of river.

The river levels had settled down by Thursday meaning the water was back to a slow flow and all the previous rain had made the water clear giving the perfect conditions for electro fishing.

We fished the river in two 50m sections, one upstream and one downstream of water treatment works. This was done using a zig zag motion to ensure that no area was left unfished. Each 50m section was fished three times to ensure a fair population of fish were caught.

Esk electro fishing October 2019. Copyright NYMNPA.

The equipment used to stun the fish is called an electro fisher and consists of a positive charge the anode at the front and a negative charge called the cathode which trails along the back. These are both attached to a battery which is worn by the person conducting the fishing, today it was Volunteer Paul. Both the anode and the cathode must be in the water to cause an electro charge which is what stuns the fish, but don’t worry rubber thigh waders were worn by everyone so the electro pulse did not affect us humans like it did the fish. The rest of us were in charge of catching the stunned fish in nets alongside the anode, which is harder than it looks as the fish soon spring back to life! They are then transferred into a bucket from the nets.

Esk electro fishing October 2019. Copyright NYMNPA.

We set the voltage output at 150- 200 volts which is enough to temporarily stun the fish making them easier to catch in the net. Once the section of river has been fished the data collection begins. The fish are identified – on this day we found 57 trout downstream and 104 upstream with the largest being 180mm and the smallest recorded at 52mm. The information collected will now be analysed before being sent onto Yorkshire Water, they will then compare this with the other locations which are due to be fished over the next few weeks, and that will all help inform management of their sites as necessary.

An amazing day was had by all the volunteers and staff that attended. More data collection will happen in the next few weeks on different sites along the Esk.

Esk electro fishing October 2019 - small trout. Copyright NYMNPA.

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. 

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.

Born to be Wild

Dr Ceri Gibson – Pearl Mussel Projects Manager, Freshwater Biological AssociationFBA logo

The Freshwater Biological Association has been working with the North York Moors National Park for the last 3 years on the ‘Restoring Freshwater Mussel Rivers in England’ project (funded through Biffa Award). Our role has been to rear juvenile mussels ready for reintroduction back into the River Esk at some appropriate time in the future when the habitat is restored and the water quality improved enough to support them.

Rearing juvenile freshwater pearl mussels (FPM) is a 24 hrs a day, 365 days of the year operation with our staff attending the hatchery even on Christmas Day to ensure that the mussels, and the host fish that they rely on as part of their lifecycle, are all okay.

Proof that the FPM are looked after even on Christmas Day. Copyright FBA.

But it’s not a bad job over here on the shores of Windermere. Whilst the wind may funnel up the lake at times, come rain, snow or sunshine, the views are wonderful and we have a great team.

View looking north over Lake Windermere. Copyright FBA.

The adult mussels are kept in circular tanks in our hatchery connected to tanks which contain host fish. Keeping fish and mussels in close proximity under controlled conditions improves the chances of the mussels successfully completing their lifecycle. We try to maintain the mussels in as natural an environment as possible so they are kept outside in flowing water provided from Windermere.

We constantly monitor the mussels and fish to record when glochidia (freshwater pearl mussel larvae) are released from the females and when these glochidia have grown sufficiently on the fish gills. Then we set nets to collect juveniles as they drop off their fish hosts and transfer them to trays in our juvenile rearing facility. Whilst other techniques of bank-side encystment and seeded gravel reintroductions have been used for some rivers we believe that rearing juveniles beyond their most vulnerable pedal feeding stage, when they live amongst the gravels before filtering free-flowing water, will yield better reintroduction survival rates and allows us the opportunity to learn more about these fascinating creatures.

Back in 2016, we worked with Simon Hirst (River Esk Project Officer) to translocate more adult mussels from the Esk to the hatchery. This exercise followed a recently commissioned brief from Natural England and was very carefully monitored. It proved successful and we have been collecting the captive bred juveniles in large numbers over the last two seasons. FPM larvae are carried on the gills of specific fish hosts for up to 10 months as part of lifecycle. It is interesting that in recent years the Esk glochidia grow to excystment size (350-400 microns long) and drop of the fish hosts within 2 to 3 months at the hatchery. We are therefore monitoring their survival in the rearing trays carefully.

We have been working with other river populations to prepare juveniles for reintroduction into their native rivers. The trays they are reared in are indoors where the juveniles are well protected. So we have set up flume systems to expose captive-bred juvenile mussels to diurnal and seasonal conditions which better reflect the river situation they will be reintroduced to. Once in the flume we can control flow to ‘teach’ them how to adapt to flood and drought conditions. During these experiments we record how many mussels are deeply buried, how many remain on their side on the surface of the gravels and how many are roaming about using their muscular foot. We also record whether they are siphoning water or not.

We look forward to the time that we can repeat these experiments for the Esk population but in the meantime have a look at some of our other, older juveniles filmed in their flume – click here. Or organise a group visit and come and see us at the Ark to visit the Esk juveniles and learn more about what we do.

Rainbow from Mitchell Wyke. Copyright FBA.

Biffa Award logoBiffa Award is a multi-million pound fund that helps to build communities and transform lives through awarding grants to community and environmental projects across the UK, as part of the Landfill Communities Fund. 

 

Scrub, scub, glorious scub

Richard Baines – Turtle Dove Project Officer

If you are a farmland bird – such as a Turtle Dove or a Song Thrush, looking to protect your nest from predators and other disturbance – where should you nest? If you have any sense you will be looking for a dense patch of protective scrub or a large hedge (slightly more organised scrub) safe from dangerous raptor talons or avaricious eyes.

Unfortunately this type of vegetation containing older stands of Hawthorn and Blackthorn is becoming increasingly rare in the countryside due to creeping development, agricultural intensification and ‘tidying up’. Scrub can often be assumed to be a problem which needs to be removed. It has been an undervalued habitat in many conservation schemes over the years with other more showy habitats taking precedent.

The North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project is wanting to improve the appreciation of this fantastic habitat.

Scrub is very important for Turtle Doves. Their delicate nests are often built within 2 metres of the ground in a dense tangle of thorns and twigs. They need this structure to reach the ground to feed. Stock grazing under such a habitat can remove any value to many birds such as Turtle Doves. In the winter scrub is a fantastic habitat for roosting birds such as Long-eared Owls. These magnificent birds are also looking for protection from disturbance and somewhere to have a daytime nap.

Last week we started work on our first community reserve for Turtle Doves at Sawdon near Scarborough. We were out with the Sawdon Community Nature Reserve Group and a very hard working Community Payback team. We planted a mixture of Hawthorn, Blackthorn and Hazel to create a thicket of scrub for the future. Luckily the planting day was sunny and warm with many birds singing in the trees around us. Amongst the appreciative audience were Song Thrush, Tree Sparrow and Yellowhammers who will all be able to benefit from the effort made to increase their local nesting habitat. Future plans for this site include pond restoration and a Turtle Dove flower meadow.

Creating our first community reserve for Turtle Doves - at Sawdon. Copyright NYMNPA.

Richard and Katie, helping to create our first community reserve for Turtle Doves - Yederick Spinney, Sawdon. Copyright NYMNPA.