Saturday, 29 September 2012

Deluged by the unusual

On 28th June I spent two hours wading home through Newcastle. I was lucky, I was walking. All I had to do was mind my footing as I waded through the log jams of cars marooned in the rising waters. A thunderstorm, fronted by a black wall from horizon to horizon and rippling with lightening bolts to rival those of John Martin, Tyneside's great painter of apocalypse, had brought the city to halt. Video of a lightning strike on the Tyne Bridge or shaky phone footage of shoppers cowering in doorways gasping with each thunder clap is still shocking to watch. The day is now mythic: Thunder Thursday. A supercell storm was responsible, "exceptionally severe" according to the  Met Office. The Met office and Environment Agency staff are having to struggle to find new measures of exception. On the 5th August flash floods hit the city again, and yet again on the 24th September as an "unusually deep area of low pressure", "deepest since 1981" inflicted, according to Newcastle's Chronicle, £100 million of damage. The exceptional is starting to feel routine. Up at Hauxley the experimental ponds dug out in 1994 to track how the invertebrates and plants changed over time have turned out to be an insightful means of  following how variations in the weather, primarily rainfall, affect the wildlife. I had always intended to record the animals over several years but climate had not been the main focus. Research often turns out to be about something more, or something different, to what was planned. Results from recording the animals have shown major changes depending on dry or wet years, although their has been a trend of ponds drying out earlier over the years. The main challenge is more the practical difficulty of keeping a long term study going. The animals in all thirty ponds were recorded twice a year between 1995 and 2004. Ten years. That counts as a long time in research, although ten years is all too short a time compared to the Bay's history. Time is tricky thing to research, even to describe. Met Office staff are looking weary of explaining why we are having "one in a hundred year" events once a month.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The strange stranded sticklebacks

The summer of 2012 has been unusually wet, the rains filling out the subsidence ponds which dot the southern landscape of Druridge Bay. Around Blakemoor Farm and Ellington the fields jostle, their boundaries mis-matched as if some chinese puzzle has been abandoned by bored giants. The land is also prone to dip and rise over the ten seams of Ellington's abandoned coal mine, the last deep mine to close in Northumberland. The hollows and troughs create a dense scatter of subsidence ponds. Some ponds are expansive pools obvious amongst the cereal or oil seed rape. Others are more subtle, the water collecting in tyre ruts or track ways. The wet summer topped up tyre-rut pools amongst the oil seed rape in fields north of Ellington. Most ruts managed a half hearted mix of amphibious grasses and toad rush, Juncus buffonius, along with figure-of-eight wiggling bloodworms which are not worms at all but the larva of midges, their bodies rich in haemoglobin to make the best of what little oxygen there is in the pools. One rut though had a more unexpected fauna; sticklebacks. Right in amongst the oil seed rape, no pond or stream nearby or ever connected yet here were adult sticklebacks in breeding red, cruising their minature pool with the same ominous dark silhouette as sharks might patrol a beach of seals. I do not know how they got there. The ruts were new this year. The fish seemed conjured from the clay, both out of place but also a compelling example of how animals get about the Bay. The photo shows one of the sticklebacks along with its temporary domain. The ruts had been ploughed out now, following the harvest but there will be sticklebacks somewhere nearby. We cannot protect every last puddle and pool, but a landscape with enough pools and ruts, somewhere, sometime, is what the wildlife needs and then the toad rush and sticklebacks can find their own way. Allowing landscapes to change is as much part of conservation as resisting the damaging changes we inflict.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Science is done by people

Meet two of the team working up at Druridge Bay; Scott, a postgrad (on the left) and Dave, from Northumbria University. At their feet one of the small ponds dug out at Northumberland Wildlife Trust's Hauxley nature reserve in the autumn of 1994 so we could record the changing wildlife from each pond's creation. There are thirty of these ponds, now choked with moss, amphibious grasses and spike rush, but once a tapestry of stoneworts and water buttercup which thrived in dry years when pond dried out and baked to hard clay. A pond that dries out need not be a problem. It is still a pond, just not a pond with any water in it. Temporary ponds have their own specialist animals and plants. The Hauxley ponds were particularly good for tiny crustaceans called pea shrimps (Ostracoda is the scientific name), although they look more like those exotically flavoured multicoloured jelly beans you find in pick n'mix racks. The species of pea shrimp in each pond would vary year to year depending on how long a pond dried or flooded. Dry summers like 1995 and 1996 were best. Then came the wet July of 1997 and the ponds did not dry at all. Thick, clogging algae took over in bubbling mats and lank strands. The pea shrimps did not like that and had to wait until 1999 when the ponds dried out again and the tiny crustaceans reappeared, probably from tough eggs which had hung on through the wet years until the good times of the summer droughts resumed.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Where this started.....

..."over the bridge to enchantment", as Aberlady Bay, on the East Lothian coast, has been described. In 1985 walking along the dune slacks I was startled by the differences between the plant life of small ponds created when anti-tank blocks had been taken out. Some of the ponds were choked with stoneworts, others with Mares tail or Shining Pondweed. The photo shows the nearest pond with Shining Pondweed, Potamogeton lucens, but, barely a metre beyond, the other pond is full of vivid algae. The ponds are the same size, shape, age and within metres of each other; why should they be so very different? Hard to tell, without a time machine to go back to their creation. Maybe this was just a fluke, an accident of history, or perhaps the plants are minutely attuned to tiny variations in the conditions of each pond. A picture which haunts my research. In 1994 at Hauxley Nature Reserve, at the north of Druridge Bay, we dug out small ponds in imitation of Aberlady so their wildlife could be recorded from the very first day. A sort of time machine after all.