Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Poplar Show to be Axed?

Is it possible that the local authority may be due to commit a hienous act of vandalism by removing one of the counties oldest trees?

Acklington Poplar
Following a call from a "concerned resident" about plans to fell a tree in the grounds of a local school, a series of curious events unravelled.

Situated  in the grounds of a small school, the tree is causing a problems because of the fears it will drop some of its timber onto unwitting children going about their bean bag races and other lawful activities (provided competative sports have not been banned).

Tree surgeons have visited and pronounced this to be a terminal case as the tree has honey fungus (the arboricultural equivalent of athletes foot?). The verdict is that it must go, thereby removing the danger but coincidentally robbing the pupils of a fantastic part of their local heritage.

The school is the oldest in Northumberland, built around 1865 and the tree was in its old age at that time. At approx. 80ft tall, it is a fine specimen and probably 250-300 years old. As a veteran tree, its is therefore entirely worthy of protection in its own right. Add to this the biodiversity value of a tree of this nature, with rot holes, gnarled bark and lots of nooks and crannies to be filled by a range of wildlife and we are faced with a dilemma.

But the crying shame is that this is probably a BLACK POPLAR, one of the UK's rarest trees and something virtually unrecorded in Northumberland. Only one other is listed in the county Flora and the veracity of that may be doubtful.

The problem with Black Poplar is that they are VERY VERY hard to identify. As with many of this genus, hybrids occur and true individuals are hard to pin down. But I have a secret weapon in this way - DNA profiling! Getting some leaf material will allow us to look at its genetic fingerprint in a way that will be definitive.

Thus I eventually found myself in the beautiful village of Acklington on a mission to visit the tree and to see what could be done to conserve the species, but if possible the specimen itself.

Firstly - what a tree - huge, gnarly and imposing. Secondly, the school don't want to see it go really and are actively looking into more land to replace that lost in preserving such a worthy specimen (I now have somewhere to send all my Sainsbury's School Vouchers as a gesture of appreciation). Thirdly, it looks really well to me!!

Gnarly old bugger!!  (30cm rule in centre)
Accepting one large and unruly branch, snaking over the playing field, the tree does what it should in that it will occasionally lose twigs, particularly in windy weather. But there is no obvious and major rot or damage other than this "superbranch" which suggests that some prudent amputation may save the patient rather than the proposed terminantion.
Superbranch - for the chop?

Honey fungus is a fact of life for most trees, they live with it all of the time and it often only becomes a major issue when they are stressed for other reasons. The tree outside my house, for instance, which hides my nakedness from neighbours (phew!), has it. But unless Virgin Media chew up the roots when trenching for cable TV in the area or some other damage occurs, the tree will live with honey fungus, even though it may be the final nemesis.

So plans to cut it down may be premature although some pruning and even pollarding may be worth considering, even if the school succeed in securing alternative sporting facilities on a nearby field.

As a safety net though, I returned home armed with a bagful of hardwood cuttings, many of which are installed in a small plot in my garden, a few pots and also into water to encourage some rooting. As soon as some of the tight little buds start to spring open, leaf material will be taken for the DNA test and then it will all get REALLY interesting.

As a footnote, its worth adding that Her Majesties Prison's at Acklington and Castington have both offered to help propagate cuttings in their nurseries. What a fantastic project that will be when we get it going. They are a superb partner with real commitment to progressing nature conservation as well as putting something back into the community.

As a further footnote - the school REALLY do want to save this tree and I am sure that the local authority do as well but in the latter case there are lots of conflicting pressures that make this a very interesting case.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

In the Gutter

What a cracking morning when I rolled out of bed to the sound of blackbird, goldfinch and the ever-present spuggies, cheeping away fit to bust. Although there remains a slight chill in the air, the early morning sky suggested a day better than the forecast (much like normal - do they ever get it right?). Keen to test out his new bins, Tom even suggested a bit of birding but this was trumped by the suggestion for us to check for newts at New Hartley.

Newting is something that Tom and I both enjoy but this is a site with a distinct difference. Not your normal beautiful lily fringed pond but a series of road gulleys in a new road surrounding the SSSI. Since the nearby housing estate was built and this curiously twisty road was put in, we have spent many hours fishing unfortunate amphibians from the road drains and returning them to their preferred habitat.

Think of yourself as a newt.

You wake up after a bloody hard winter, and the sap is rising! Struggling through the undergrowth in search of a nice warm pond, you come across a large concrete cliff. Once down this you either turn left/right or progress forward. 

Right or Left leads to a large hole full of water (hard to see in the dark) and OOPS - in you go! Great - water! But ********! There's no way out. 

Progress forward - another cliff, too hard to climb so turn right or left.

Right or Left leads to a large hole full of water (hard to see in the dark) and OOPS - in you go. Great - water! But ********! There's no way out.

Effectively these road drains (gulley pots) act as pitfall traps for the amphibians. Bad enough for common species such as toads or smooth newts, but New Hartley Pond is an SSSI because it has regionally important populations of Great Crested Newt.

Over the last two years we have rescued hundreds of newts from these drains, including some cracking cresties. Sadly, many have also perished in them, along with some pheasant chicks, water shrew and numerous small mammals. 

Taking Trish with us (promising not to be all girly) and armed with a bucket and net (plus my LICENCE - for I am a fully authorised and vetted Great Crested Newt fondler) we set off full of enthusiasm. And while most of Tyneside was probably at the shops (nae footie today-except for the Bay away in the Vase - 3-3 draw!) we conducted our very own rescue.

The water in these drains is full of all sorts of crap, but mostly leaves, all of which are really dark. Newts are a bit hard to spot in them so a careful check of the catch is  required. There are 28 gulley pots in total and it took us nearly three hours as many were stuck shut, requiring a bit of a whack with a lump hammer to shift them.

What a team! There were 151 amphibians recovered - of which 11 were Great Crested (I was surprised by this as I still think its a little early in the season). Sadly, there were also 6 dead cresties and this really p***** me off. God knows what effect this has on the overall population.

The bucket was totally alive when we went to repatriate the catch in the nearby ponds and every single newt took to the water with great enthusiasm. We tried to photograph the vivid colours of the bellies before release but couldn't do this justice and as we didn't want to stress the newts anymore than needed, we left it.

Despite the stink, we all felt this was a good afternoons work. We also recorded great spotted woodpecker, yellowhammer, goldfinch, rook, blackbird, great tit and blue tit (was that also a chiffchaff calling?)

On the way back home, Trish mentioned a hoopoe one of her colleagues dads had seen in his Ashington garden yesterday! He took a photo so am looking forward to that!

Monday, 8 March 2010

Mud wrestling

The emergence of a glorious sun this morning had the spuggies cheeping fit to bust - Buggers.

Despite the aching limbs arising from a day of toil (after yesterdays wet but rewarding session spent forcing trees into less than hospitable soils at Shasun - planting a canny blackthorn hedgerow mind), the prospects of a bit more fresh air proved enough to ensure we would escape the shackles of a warm duvet for a bit of a "trip oot". The tea and toast helped as well, and I am sure Trish appreciated me making it for her (again).

Whilst waiting for the "slap" to dry, I noticed that they were going to have a 19 gun salute at the Collingwood Memorial to mark the 200th anniversary of the real hero of Trafalgar (born in Morpeth and lived in Chirdon). As it sounded fun to see South Shields blasted to pieces (hopefully not the chippies or the great Indian restuarants), we decided to curtail the birding and visit somewhere local.

Gosforth Park Reserve then - somewhere Trish hasn't seen and just a few minutes away - brilliant! And sure enough it did not let us down as we were rewarded with a good range of birds within seconds of arrival, including great, blue, coal and long-tailed tits, great spotted woodpecker, chaffinch, robin and blackbird. Loads of badger sign and some very active latrines, suggesting these animals have been on the Dulcolax recently!

The new "flash" has grown enormously since my last visit and held wigeon, a couple of teal, assorted gulls and a few coot, accompanied by two mute swans. As we peered through the unmanaged hedge to this well hidden gem, 13 goosander flew it with a quite spectacular splash and started lording it!

Squidging through the muddy paths onto the boardwalk, we slipped our way to first one hide (obviously recently used by the army to practice urban assault) then onto the  second one. Here we were rewarded with a single female goldeneye, and a good number of wigeon, mallard and 13 coot (that's where they are then!).

Heading back for a quick dash to the feeding station hide, we heard first one then and an answering water rail. Sidling up for a better look, they took fright of my bright red jacket and simply shut up (a lesson for me there I reckon). However, we were happy enough with that record and moving on were pleased to note four roe deer nearby (also flushed by the jacket - thank god there's no bulls around), quickly followed by a pair of treecreeper and then another pair, a jay and two more great spotted woodpecker.

Arriving at the hide (about four hours later because of the need to act out scenes from the Somme in transiting the pathways), we flushed another deer and then a nuthatch and mistle thrush. Swimming over to the hide proved to be less than rewarding as it only added reed bunting to the list.

Needless to say, by the time we had trekked back through the mud (we had forgotten the 4x4, sherpas and canoes - stupid idiots!), the 19 gun salute was only a few minutes away, but more minutes than we had to spare. We did make it back home, just in time for a lovely fried egg butty and chose to sit in the garden with those spuggies, straining our ears for the sound of systematic "birthday" explosions and reflecting on (i) the mud (ii) the poor state of the reserve and (iii) the usual "warm" welcome from other visitors demanding proof of NHS membership and legitimate access to THEIR private reserve. We never did hear those bangs, unless we mistook them for the remarkably regular slamming of car doors in Monkseaton at precisely 3pm?