Monday, 19 October 2015

Great Expectations, Banks Mining open cast and "all the infections that the sun sucks up"

When the escaped convict Magwitch ambushes the boy Pip at the start of Dicken’s Great Expectations he does not just appear on some anonymous street corner or leap out from behind a tree. Instead he looms out of the miasma fog of a Thames estuary salt marsh, more resembling an ancient bog creature than a man, coated in mud, dripping slime to menace the boy who would become his great friend (that's them from David Leary's superb 1946 film). Dicken’s choice of a marsh is no co-incidence. Certain habitats have always had particular associations. Think of a hay meadow for the joys of early summer (Cider with Rosie) or a windswept moor for doomed, gothic romance (Wuthering Heights). Wetlands ooze a particular menace; unruly, unkempt, their inner workings barely visible. They can swallow up a man or women and leave not a trace. Dancing lights lure the unwary to their doom. Diseases rise from their foetid waters. In the Tempest Shakespeare has Caliban curse his vanquisher, Prospero,

“All the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him
By inch-meal a disease.”

Then again Shakespeare would know all about the foul airs of bogs and fens since his famous globe theatre was then in unlovely Southwark, a mixture of very dodgy taverns, stinking fish ponds and even stinkier clientele.

One problem with wetlands is that they can be a hard sell, not just existing wetlands but also the possibility of creating new ones, for example managed retreat of the coastline or inland sites designed to hold flood waters. Wetlands provide a wealth of benefits: flood control, food, building materials, mopping up pollution, wildlife and recreation but these may not be obvious, except to specialist visitors such as bird watchers or flood control engineers.  New sites might even risk creating worries by visibly flooding.

The Banks Mining Open Caste proposal includes a wealth of environmental data and an emphasis on restoration, much of it focused on wetlands. Not a hint of Magwitch.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Low Newton and the new and old first years

Two days of autumn murk, the rain barely able to decide if it should be fog or cloud. Then two days of brilliant low sun, searing across the landscape, picking out every curve and trench, hollow and bump. Three weeks into their new course and we took the Environmental Science first years for a walk over the southern Cheviot foothills, then, the next day, along the coast to Low Newton. The sea was perfect pale blue with huge rafts of gulls, made white specks by the sun, bobbing off shore. This little dune slack pool is tucked behind the high dunes at Low Newton, a deep, warm hollow protected by the steep dune seaward and a cosy mess of wet woodland north and south. Red Admirals showed off with glide fly-bys around us

The pond was dug out some fifteen years ago by the National Trust who own the site. They could have dug out the whole area of the slack but, instead, put in six separate pools of varying sizes. Each one is now rather different. Clusters of smaller pools usually have more species of plants and animals than one large pond because each pool goes its own way. The pools at Low Newton are now chocked with bur reed and bulrush, over a vivid carpet of moss. Ideal pools to bury carbon, the moss layer keeping the sediment wet and anoxic even if the site dries out.

Post grad Scott came along on the walk, outlining his work to the students. That's Scott on the left. Two days of hard working, (and one night in Wooler of hard pool and pints), and they were still keen to note down the first hand account of research, a revealing mix of physical struggle in the mud and delicate geochemistry in the lab. Six years ago Scott himself was stood there, a first year himself.  An inspiration to our newer recruits. They probably learnt more in 10 minutes talking with Scott then in a two hour lecture. The one thing they can all do, whatever their future holds, is dig a pond.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Pretending it is summer with Druridge Bay's late butterflies

Autumn is not my favourite time of year. Where some people see a mellow, fruitful, contemplative landscape I just see it getting darker in the morning. Ruthless midwinter is just fine, the completed dark a stage set for lights and sparkle, but autumn is just grey and damp.

September however has been dramatically warm and sunny, the low rays casting each day into a silver and gold wonder. This speckled wood butterfly for instance, still out in good numbers and fresh specimens too, newly hatched and perky, flying up in battling pairs. Before 2008 speckled wood were a remarkable novelty in the north east but are now well established along the coast. They are one of the most reliable sights throughout the summer and multiple broods keep hatching so long as the warmth lasts. It is the expansion of butterfly and dragonfly ranges north into Northumberland that has me convinced that the climate is warming. These are sun loving species, not especially fussy about habitat: it is not some change to the landscape that had lured them from the warmer south Speckled wood, for example, are perfectly at home in gardens and parks. Along the Bay they do well at sites such as Hauxley with a mix of dappled hedge shade and open grass. Their caterpillars feed on common grasses, whilst the adults hold territories along the edges of paths and rises. This one is using the sun fuzzed seed pods of a willowherb as a launch pad to see off rivals

I do my best not to take them for granted. In 2008 I was startled to find on in Newcastle. In 2010 I broke my mobile phone, sitting on it in my haste to photograph one at Hauxley. Now speckled woods are a familiar, everyday companion. On the other hand I’ve not seen a wall brown for a couple of years and these more orangey cousins of the speckled wood look to be in trouble.

The butterflies briefly help pretend it is still June and July but the evening chill is creeping up on them. I know that the Bay is often at its best for bird watchers in Autumn but the colour is leaching away and the last flowers look scraggy and folorn.