Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The summer weeds are putting on their own Druridge Bay flower festival

High summer and the flowers are at a crescendo, teetering on being overblown or scorched. In particular some of the overlooked and common place plants of the waysides are stunning, if they can hold a small patch of their own in amongst the ripened wheat and barley around Cresswell and Ellington. Here is a carpet of may weed smeared through a seasonal flash where the water-logging keeps the crops at bay just by Ellington Caravan Park, doing their best to look like a psychedelic shirt. The scented mayweed with its large daisy-esque flowers has an underlay of pineapple mayweed whose pineapple drop sweetie smell is distinct on the warm summer breeze. The may weed’s froth is broken by occasional knotweeds and bistorts, zig-zag stems adding dots of pink flower heads to the mix. None are rare, some are even a pest but they are at home of the scarps of land that the plough has not tamed until the pre-harvest herbicide sprays end their defiance.
Where the subsidence ponds have dried away you can find a more straggling version of the may weed canopy. In the photo above the fragmented stands of mayweed (white flowers, feathery leaves) and bistorts (pale pink flowers, spear shaped leaves, often blotched darker in the centre) are laced with the grey stems of cud weed. Again the cud weed relishes these battered and baked gaps in amongst the crops. Well managed nature reserves do not seem to suit the cud weed or may weed. Instead they scratch out a barely noticed living amongst the arable crops. Many grow by gateways, along the tracks through the fields and by car parks so you are probably stepping on them when you visit the Bay. They will be destroyed by autumn, either the frost or plough, but back next year and in unpredictable mixes as different members of the cast hit the stage to show off, whilst others seem to rest on their laurels. This year’s star performer: the may weed. Catch their show before the combine harvester brings down the curtain

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Druridge Bay's minibeasts put on a summer with a cast millions strong

High summer and the Bay’s smaller inhabitants are in their element. With avocet chicks and egrets to admire it is easy to overlook but stop in your tracks and get down to flower or mud level for a treat.  The ragwort flowers are currently home to swarms of shiny pollen beetles. You don’t have to go far from the Drift Cafe to find them in hordes, along with burnet moths resplendent in their black and red warning livery. The flower beetles are rotund and shiny, ready fliers that ping and lift off in the afternoon’s heat. Tempting to wonder how many there are, just for brief week. You could work this out by counting how many on a few ragwort heads, then how many ragwort flowers along a few paces of road, then how many paces long the coast. This would still be an underestimate but is a good way to tune into their world. Then go back to the Drift and have a cake to celebrate working in millions.
Next, the mud....

Down at mud level is exciting too. Here is a carpet of mud flies on one of the subsidence ponds at Blakemoor. Their world is a startling up-and-down, the mud pocked and teased into blancmangy mounds. These flies expertly trace a precise line, just above the water but not too far back where the mud begins to harden. Presumably the shifting goo is to their liking. They tip toe, almost imperceptibly, creeping across the ooze, occasionally taking to flight in slow drifts is your shadow unnerves them. They do not fly far, seemingly focused wholly on their beloved mud.
Further out on the water skate silvered long headed flies, more active, rather piractical, although the couple on the left of the photo below apparently creeping up on a flock of mud flies in this photo are looking for smaller prey where a film of water still overlies the mud.
They are skittish, alternating burst of speed skating with outraged hops and leaps if a pair approaches too close.
The heavy heat of July is their time and a beautiful invitation into lives we overlook, which is our loss

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Banks Mining's Druridge Bay open cast plan begins to dig the political dirt

The Druridge Bay open cast plan has begun to mine a rich seam of politics. A bit like the coal the politics was always very near the surface and, judging by a report in the Chronicle, is now in plain view.

A few days before the July 5th Council planning meeting the Labour shadow Energy Secretary, Brian Gardiner MP, called on the government to call in the proposal, i.e. effectively make it a decision for central Government. This generally means that a planning bid is either of strategic importance and/or something on which the government has a definite opinion, for or against, and does not want to leave to local councils. Given the sentiment prior to the meeting amongst many following the case that the proposal would be approved such a call suggests Brian Gardiner is against and he made clear the government should stop it progressing.
His stance seems to have angered local labour politicians, provoking council leader Grant Davey to hit back, clearly worried about labour’s chances in forthcoming elections.   The Chronicle’s report quotes a letter from Mr Davey to Labour central as saying:
“This blatant attack on our minority administration and the creation of a viewpoint that Labours National Energy Policy has been written by the Green Party, will do nothing to aid Labour’s recovery in Northumberland and as we have all out elections in May 2017 I do hope we have time to recover from the massive damage done to our reputation by this man.”
Which makes the link between the planning committees vote and the politics very exact, both the immediate part political concerns of the local Labour party but also a small subtle sense of schism between the Labour Party  seen as closely allied to the Greens versus the local party in Northumberland rooted in proud traditions of mining. Opposition to the mine is routinely portrayed as outsiders (the anti - signatories from as far afield as Madagascar and Bangladesh....). Now it looks like the fault lines are opening up between the metropolitan Corbynists and the local labour traditionalists
Check out the comments following the Chronicle piece and you’ll see how quickly the Druridge Bay open cast has got mired in the debate around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership
Meantime the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management ran a pond morning gat the bay on Saturday with people coming up from as far as Teesside to admire the Bay’s fine wetlands. Here we are: I expect they are watching for me to fall in.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Storm Desmond resets the ecological stage at Hauxley six months on

Storm Desmond hit Hauxley Nature Reserve hard. The immediate problem in mid-December 2015 was the flowing across the main road in into the field with the little experimental ponds we dug out in 1994. The deluge cut off the reserve, right in the middle of the new build. The car park was just about accessible in a 4x4 though a hovercraft was probably the best bet. Here is a photo, from the Wildlife Trust,  looking back along the road with the flood waters spilling over into the field on the right,home to the little ponds.

At the time we thought the waters would recede. The field by the entrance has flooded before, even at unlikely times such as the early summer of 1997 when an intense rain storm hit just when the little experimental ponds would normally dry up. They didn’t dry for another two years and changed markedly. The plants and animals that like a bit of drying out were much scarcer and instead thick blankets of green algae took over. A couple of years later, once the ponds had dried out again in the summer of 1999o the algae disappeared. Animals and plants benefit from the disturbance caused by drying, creatures like pea shrimps (Ostracoda) or rarer algae such as the stoneworts (Chara) re-appeared, maybe from drought resistant eggs or, in the case of Stoneworts, oospores in the mud, activated by desiccation.
Storm Desmond seems to have changed the field. Six months on and it is still almost completely flooded over. Here are two views from the middle of the field back to the road, across the ponds. Firstly July 2012, a very wet year, but no total flooding. On the right, the same view July 2016.

The water is not falling which begs the question is it being topped up somehow? More pressing for the wildlife are the impacts. Gone is the lush, flower strewn high summer wet meadow. Instead spike rush (Eleocharis palustris) is one of the few obvious survivors and the reeds from the pond to the side of the field have pushed out two bridge heads, their advance guard visibly snaking out into the flood.
One extreme event has reset the ecology of the whole pond system.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Druridge Open cast gets approval. No surprise, but just the beginning

Northumberland County Council have voted to approve the Druridge Bay open cast mine application, 13 to 0 in favour. The decision and size of the vote seemed to cause surprise but should not do. Every wise Councillor knows you do not take decisions at meetings. That is far too clumsy and risky. Instead they will have consulted widely beforehand and I expect every councillor who went into that meeting had a good idea how they and their colleagues were going to vote. A unanimous vote is also important to avoid creating more friction and misunderstandings. Ultimately the council went for the jobs argument which, given the deprivation in much of south east Northumberland is understandable, at least for the mine jobs which could be counted in advance. Hard to measure any losses that the mine might cause if other businesses suffer. Councillors were also at pains to raise diverse points to show their awareness of the complex issues although the criticism of the overwhelming numbers of objectors as coming from as far away as Madagascar and Banglasdesh sounded like nervous over reaction.

Banks and the Council will be waiting to see if the government calls in the application, although whether there will be a functioning government may be a more pressing problem.

The outcome might seem like a straight forward win for Banks and the application. However the sheer numbers of objections from very local people still leaves a very divided community. A classic conservation problem. The avocets and egrets, harriers and pink foot are very good at looking after themselves given the chance. Conservation is more about people who want to earn a living, go for a walk, support a family, bird watch, revel in the peace and quiet, fear disturbance, worry for house prices. Banks will also have a lot to live up to and, without owning the land, are taking a risk themselves. What if the land owner does not want the mitigation plans proposed for seven years time? After all times change and the farming economy is likely to have changed markedly post Brexit. What if Banks want to extend the mine area along the lines of the earliest plans? The mine if only due to last seven years. What will happen to those 50+ jobs in seven years, are they a trump card that be played over and over again. The Council have taken a risk too. They will want the proposal to work well.  The Druridge open cast saga is far from over.