Botanical survey near Middlesborough (2016)

I don’t usually travel this far for work, but a friend asked me for help and I was available, so I said yes.  I can’t tell you much about this project because I don’t actually know what it’s going to be when it’s finished, but I can tell you about what I did.

I was asked to provide plant species lists for the ponds, wooded shelterbelts and fields on a large site near Middlesborough.  This was my first trip to County Durham in a long time and I wasn’t sure what to expect botanically, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the woods were elm woods and at least one of the ponds was quite interesting.

I arrived on site at 8.15am and the forecast was not good – heavy rain was due to start by 2pm !  So there was no time to waste – I didn’t take any photos on site, and I didn’t even stop to check plant IDs, just collected any tricky species and stashed them for inspection later.  I can and do work in the rain, but the forecast was for torrential downpours which I didn’t really fancy, waterproofs notwithstanding.

The first set of fields was grazed by two herds of beef cattle, complete with impressive Charolais bulls.  Unlike some ecologists, I’ve been fortunate to have had no bad experiences with cattle and find that if I’m relaxed, they are relaxed.  I could tell you a story about a certain individual of my acquaintance who went to collect data from water sampling boreholes and came back saying they couldn’t do it because, and I quote, “there was a cow standing over it”.  Yes, really!  But I wouldn’t want to embarrass that person in front of their team 😉

I met the first bull straight away as he and the herd were up at the gate where a hay feeder had been installed.  He let me know he was there with some soft bellowing sounds, we made eye contact, I said good morning to him, we had a little chat about my plans for the day and that was that.  I proceeded slowly and purposely around the edge of the field, leaving a respectful distance between myself and the herd, and he watched me go just to make sure I wasn’t a threat.

The fields themselves were typical reseeded pastures with a small range of grass species and very little else.  I found swine cress Lepidium coronopus (Coronopus squamatus) in two of the gateways; although listed as common in Rose’s Wild Flower Key, this was the first time I had seen it in a long time and I don’t think it is common at all north of the Severn-Humber line, except perhaps on the coast.

The second set of fields was similar to the first, but hadn’t been grazed in a while so the vegetation was really tall and it was quite a struggle to get about.  I was grateful the rain stayed off as I continued to explore the site.  Later I went back into the grazed section of the site where I saw the second bull with his herd – he pretty much ignored me and I was happy to reciprocate – there may have been some exciting specimens in his part of the field, but I wasn’t about to disturb the peace to find out….

The first pond I came to was what I call an “invisible pond”.  I often work in Cheshire where we have a lot of great crested newts, so looking for ponds on aerial photos is a common part of my job.  “Invisible ponds” are dominated by grasses, so in a pasture situation they are indistinguishable from the surrounding vegetation on the aerial photo, and therefore something of a surprise when found on site.  This has happened to me enough times now that I always scour all my sites for “invisible ponds” – there would be nothing worse than going out to do a great crested newt survey and finding an extra pond you hadn’t budgeted for !  In this case as is quite common the invisible pond was dominated by floating sweet-grass Glyceria fluitans and there was not much water left in it, just plenty of sticky mud.

The second pond had been used as a watering hole by the cattle and their poaching had left a ring of deep sticky mud around the whole circumference.  The pond vegetation was tantalisingly out of reach but I was able to identify common spike rush Eleocharis palustris, pond water-crowfoot Ranunculus aquatilis and pink water-speedwell Veronica catenata as well as the same sweet-grass and some rushes.  Poaching by cattle is by no means a barrier to botanical or other ecological interest – indeed, in Cheshire we have the rare lesser silver water beetle which is almost exclusively found in cattle-poached ponds.  It was nice to see the water-speedwell as, like the swine-cress, this has more of a south-easterly distribution on the UK mainland so isn’t something I encounter that often.

I did the woodlands last, as I had been thinking at least the trees would provide some protection if it started to rain before I finished my work.  There were some nice big bird cherry trees, wild privet and a large swampy place with floating sweet-grass and hybrid black poplars.  I found a strange Allium species which I eventually concluded was probably just a stray garden leek, but the nicest find was goldilocks buttercup Ranunculus auricomus, which is characteristic of woodlands on basic soils.

I got back to the van, grateful it had stayed dry, and stashed my bag of specimens to look at later.  As soon as I drove out of the site onto the main road, the first raindrops started to land on the windscreen, and before long I was aquaplaning down the A19(M) in a thunderstorm, not enjoying it much but happy I wasn’t out in a field somewhere getting pelted on 🙂

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