Ptyxis Ecology - Our Botany Blog

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Christmas day walk

We've had some severe frosts over the past week, to -6C during the day and colder at night, so have stuck by the stove as walking up our long steep drive (no 4x4!) was enough! Christmas day was mild and bright, so we did a 5 mile walk around the South Tyne valley. From our house you can walk along the disused railway or on open moorland. The Pennine Way crosses Lambley Common , about 1/4 mile westwards up the fellside from our driveway, via a black grouse lek, although we've not seen this spectacle yet as I don't like early mornings!

I don't think we have said where we are on this blog. Railway Cottages, near the hamlet of Lambley, are two mid-Victorian former railway signalman's cottages on the disused railway between Alston and Haltwhistle. Our only close neighbour is Waughold Holme farm, now a holiday home, although a local farmer rents the fields, so we are surrounded by sheep and (too many) rabbits.

On Christmas morning we walked to Lambley viaduct (below), about 5 minutes from our cottage, and crossed the River South Tyne on the little footbridge below the arches -today the river was fast-flowing with milky taupe water, but it actually froze over last week.

There is a disused quarry, I think for milstone grit for roadstone on the north bank below Castle Hill, which we searched for bryophytes but found mainly swathes of Eurynchium striatum.

The footpath cuts up the hill towards Ashholme and then back along the eastern fringe of the mixed conifier and oak woodland that is a feature of South Tynedale. Most of the North Pennines is unwooded - the trees disappearing long ago, replaced by cones of lead mine spoil or in-by pastures. The woods here are planted through with conifers, which is a shame, but it does provide habitat for red squirrels. We have had a red squirrel a couple of times near the house, and you do see them regularly around Slaggyford, but sadly I think their days are numbered in South Tynedale due to the ever expanding numbers of grey squirrel.

View westwards from Ashholme farm towards Lambley village with iconic dry stone wall

Oakeyside Wood

Oakeyside Wood is aptly named, being Quercus petraea, with thousands of common cowwheat plants in early Summer, which reminds me of Devon, where these yellow flowers are a feature of the acidic woodland soils near Dartmoor. The understory was sparse, mostly holly, and there was one female holly shrub, which had been disfigured by walkers breaking branches for its berries.

At Towsbank Wood the footpath cuts down to the river floodplain beside some river cliffs.

Species on the millstone grit river cliff included Amphidium mougeotii; Lejeunea c.f. lamacerina (the first Northumberland record since 1956, if it's right, and the second vcr); Conocephalum conicum (the shiny one with conspicuous pores); C. salebrosum (the dull one); Cephalozia bicuspidata - If you have excellent eyesight (like John - see photo) to the naked eye this tiny liverwort appears as very short sections of fine green thread. If you don't have excellent eyesight (like me), you miss it altogether! So it's often something discovered in the packet once you are back home. We found over 20 species in a small area on these rocks as this is a specialist bryophyte habitat.

Glendue Burn

We crossed back over the river at Glendue Burn - about 15 minutes south of our house - walking back along the disused railway. As the light dimmed, a party of siskins fed noisily on alder cone seeds and we also saw long-tailed tits and goldcrests. And a (wooden) black grouse...


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Monday, 10 December 2007

Carry on Chara-ing!

I am partial to a pond dip, and have been known to skinny dip, but most dipping recently has been to find charophytes (or stoneworts, a type of green algae). These are super plants, very beautiful under a microscope, excellent bio-indicators for good water quality, and often the first macrophytes to colonise newly created water bodies. The Elder Pliny in the 1st century AD called these plants 'stinking water horsetail', as they resemble the fern-like genus Equisetum (and they can stink!). The smell may be alleopathic, inhibiting pytoplankton growth, but we still don't really know. We do know from genetic studies that charophytes are the missing evolutionary link between water plants and the first land plants.

Chara vulgaris var papillata
photo: Chris Carter
The orange footballs are the male antheridia

I've just had 9 specimens back from Nick Stewart, BSBI Charophyte referee, and got 7/9 right, which is OK but not spectacular. Part of why I like botany is the challenge - it's not supposed to be easy!! Charophytes are particularly tricky due to their plasticity and range of developmental forms. The batch included Chara aspera ... the first record for the NE since ... ever. Which is weird, as it came from Broomlee Lough, on Hadrian's Wall, which has been surveyed intensively in the past as it's a SAC, NNR and SSSI, primarily designated for its aquatic macrophtyes. We are Mapmating all our records for 2007, which will appear on the Flora of the North East website soon. These will include v.c. 67 records for Nitella flexilis agg. and Chara virgata of specimens collected by Chris Irvine. Chris sent me plants found on the Northumbria Natural History Society mid-week botany field meetings. I would really welcome specimens from anyone - fresh in a sealed plastic bag if you post the same day, otherwise press lightly between baking parchment (or the plant sticks to the towel) and a paper towel (address on my website

Chara aspera beds in Scottish Loch

Chara aspera in a tub, pending my MSc AFLP molecular analysis!

I've finally got my first scientific peer-reviewed paper published this month in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. This is a milestone, as I am still scheming to get into academia without doing a PhD, although I've got a part-time doctorate lined up with funding. I have to admit that the 6 year slog is off-putting. I also have a famously low boredom threshold, so may not stick it out; conversely, I am inquisitive and obsessive, so it would be fun to do some more science. Of course, I've forgotten the traumatic gestation and birth of the MSc thesis...(I did swear I would not set foot in a lab again)!