2017 and 2018 Winter meeting reports

Tales from Bellflask. October 2018.

With notes abandoned Brian Morland took us through his 2017 photographs, starting with sunrises. With suitable food and shelter, wildlife simply comes to Bellflask. Tangled brambles capped by snow afford safe wintering for small animals. Monitoring moths and caterpillars, butterflies and beetles is Brian's passion: many records being only unique, or at their most northerly.

Dog Otter left footprints in the snow. Great-crested Newt appeared in March. 150,000 starlings flew in majestic formations. Long-tailed Tit, nest-building, sewed moss and twigs with teased-out spider-gossamer. April moths and butterflies, drawn by spring flowers, flooded into traps. Migrant birds arrived. Brian claimed to converse with a Fox cub. Tadpoles and frogs abounded. Stag Beetle was sighted, then a micro-moth recorded only 3 times since first discovery (1883), then amazing pink and purple grasshoppers, then cloud formations. An Oystercatcher chick emerged from its egg. Ragwort, deadly to horses, is a feast for insects. In July/August flowers and more moths and butterflies came and went: and Egrets, Double-kidney Moth, the blood moon, Kingfisher, the bugs, the beetles. Lastly a 30lb Pike was anaesthetised, weighed and measured, and put back. After autumn's glorious colours Bellflask settled back to winter, and the next cycle of life.

Hen Harriers. September 2018

Aimée Harrison of the RSPB gave us an excellent presentation on Hen Harriers. She showed us two videos of the spectacle of a male hen harrier sky dancing and of a male passing food to a female in mid-air, so that she could then take this food back to the nest. 

Great efforts are being made to conserve the hen harrier since it is in serious decline and many birds have been radio tagged, so that their movements can be understood and monitored.

Persecution by some gamekeepers on heather moorland continues, even though this is now illegal. The hen harriers are perceived as a threat to the number of grouse on the estates managed for driven grouse shooting.

Aimée talked of the need not only to prosecute in such cases but also for the concept of vicarious responsibility, whereby the landowner is also considered responsible if his gamekeeper poisons or kills these beautiful birds.

However, Aimée also stressed the need to find a solution by negotiating with landowners, rather than simply demonizing them. Not all of the landowners of estates managed for grouse shooting are culpable: in fact there are examples of good co-operation between the bird conservation groups and landowners on a few estates.


A Journey through Atlantic Islands via Antarctica. March 2018.

with Tony Hutchinson

This was a tour of discovery. For most of us familiar island names: but where exactly were they: and the mention of Antarctica, what a long way from home! Atlantic Odyssey, with only 60 passengers, was quite small by cruising standards, and liable to be rough in stormy weather. The cruise in 2015 left the southern tip of Argentina, and we were soon introduced to a variety of Albatrosses: huge ones with dramatic wingspans: incredible. So to the Falkland Islands Dependencies, still British, and to a whaling station on Deception Island abandoned in 1960, then to Brown Bluff on the Antarctic mainland, where a some Gentoo penguins still remained after the breeding season. From here we moved to Berkner Island and then on to South Georgia, where some White Egrets boarded the ship! Shackleton died at Grytviken in 1922, and his grave and memorial were visited, before moving on the Tristan da Cunha, with its survey station. These wild and dramatic islands are all volcanic outcrops, usually with very steep sides and difficult landings for both boats and planes, and were serviced by a Royal Mail boat from Cape Town: but now they have airstrips and supplies are flown in. On Gough Island about 250 people live, and grow crops of potatoes.

Next the Atlantic Odyssey sailed to St Helena in the Southeastern Atlantic Basin. Here the house and garden where Napoleon was exiled and died in 1821 was given to the French nation. The Governor's Residency and the biodiversity projects were also prestigious. Ascension Island, a rocky outcrop with only 800 population, also has another Governor's House (are these top civil service appointments!), and its own special biodiversity problems and solutions, but was very important strategically as a staging post for flights during the Falklands War. After invasions by various species of Flying Fish the cruise ended at the Cape Verde Islands. We had plenty to think about as evinced by the number of questions.


Nosterfield: a stepping stone in the landscape. February 2018

By Simon Warwick, Lower Ure Conservation Trust

We all knew where Nosterfield is, now we were to learn much more as Simon shared with us the history and development of the Reserve from firstly 70 acres to its current 250 acres.

Twenty-one years ago Tilcon had quarried sand and gravel leaving the area barren and bleak. This forlorn and forgotten landscape had intrigued Simon, who began to think of it's potential to be transformed into a creative wetland. Its potential for nature began by the planting of hedges in 1997. The gravel pits were flooded and willows planted in 1999, when the Swale and Ure Washlands organisation was formed, and more land was bought. The first hide was built from cobbles left from quarrying, with a turf roof and sheepskins laid on planks as seats.

By 2002 the reed beds were established and, in 2003, Durham University began its interest in the project, scientifically studying its Neolithic past when the Henges were built, and ascertaining what the flora and fauna was like then, and has been since: an era of restoration to nature had begun. Soon it was recognised that the fluctuating water levels in the empty quarries fluctuated risking summer droughts and winter inundations. By 2006-8 Avocet started breeding, and there were 76 pairs of Lapwing - though the latter have declined (why?). During 2009-2011 the West Scrapes were expanded, and Bittern began to breed in the expensive reed-beds that had been established for them. During the next 3 years a network of paths around the reserve, many with disabled access, was established, with help from Tarmac. An open day in 2015 attracted much general publicity and an increased number of volunteers. Woodlands were planted and a fen project developed.

A bio-blitz resulted in the discovery of many new species and resulted in more thorough recording. Ariel drones were used for photography and hydrology surveys. Management of the sward by cattle and Rabbit grazing has enhanced the flora, so that 9 species of orchid have appeared, and more birds come to nest and rest. And more of us visit to enjoy and admire this unique and beloved dales corner: a nature stepping stone.

Foxglove LNR with Elizabeth Dickinson


Elizabeth began her slide presentation with the remark, "I will slice through the year," and that is exactly what she did. This report could be a seemingly endless account of the huge variety of wild flowers that exist there side by side with a Hazel Grove where we began and wild and exposed Heath-land where we ended.

Spring was coming as we saw the photographs of the Hazel Grove being pruned away and then in the height of summer new sprouts up had come and abundant wild life consequently benefiting and squirrels were to come to feast on the nuts. Pond and lake life came next in varied form from birds, insects, frogs, toads, and water voles.

Next to the Moor and bluebell bank now with a stone circle and how scenic it looked, a place to sit and linger and watch for whatever natural visitors would come, or other plants and flowers show themselves. On the moor-edge a very rough area had been cleared by the arrival of 2 Exmoor ponies who did a wonderful job of eating up the rubbish, trampling down undergrowth and even devouring gorse.

Next to come the enchanting hay meadow, sheep brought in after the summer cutting back.

On to grassy moorland a shallow pool has been created and this will bring insects and ferns and damp-loving plant and creative life. The cool woodland now a haunt of deer and shade-loving flowers and insect and butterflies and moths exist in all these multi-natural habitats where all live so happily and freely together.

Such rare discoveries have been recently made and discovered, so we came to realise what an ever-moving ever-increasing special wilderness Foxglove Covert is. Anyone with a day to spare should just simply go there and, knowledgeable or not on wildlife, can just be enchanted from simply being there.

A final fine slide drew this magical evening to a close as we were told that the Covert was named after a nearby farm, and we watched a series of slides of water vole eating an apple. Indeed an evening of first class entertainment.

Pre Christmas Meeting, December 2017

On December 15th we enjoyed an interesting talk concerning biodiversity in the Yorkshire Dales from Chairman Deborah Millward, which stimulated a far-reaching discussion. What we know to have been a great reduction of biodiversity of the organisms we see is simply a result of a drastic reduction of biodiversity of what we don't see: eg a profound elimination of very many of the species of soil mycorrhizae on which visible plants (and in due course the animals that feed on them) depend. If we value biodiversity we will need to pay for it by drastic changes in agricultural practice.

After enjoying a Christmas buffet provided by members we divided into teams for an illustrated nature quiz given by Robert Hall.

Lichens of the Dales and Pollution monitoring, October 2017

At our November meeting Les and Sue Knight gave us a hands-on talk and demonstration of their study of Lichens as indicators of historic air pollution from Lead smelting in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale - a lecture with a difference! Whilst the growth of woodland and of moor depends mainly on the land quality on which they grow, lichens are a much more sensitive reflection of air pollution.

They may be classified into 3 growth shapes: leafy, crusty, and bushy: and over 100 species may be present on the monuments in a "good" churchyard. Many species are dependent on the chemistry of the surface, allowing lichenologists to identify the stone, and geologists the lichen species!

Lichens are "species hybrids" of fungal hyphae which cannot live alone, but which shelter the obligatory algae (which can live independently) supplying both with nutrients by photosynthesis: and there is recent DNA evidence of a third party, namely yeasts! Reproduction is mainly by scattering of detached fragments colonising new sites but, after sexual reproduction independently and separately of both moieties, the new fungal offspring are not viable until the necessary algal moeity has been "captured". Lichens may dry out completely, but don't die, being capable of restoration by return of moisture and warmth: some more than 5000 years old have been found. They are the dominant vegetation over about 8% of the world's land surface.

Lichens are food for grazing Reindeer, used in drugs, toothpaste, throat lozenges, perfumes and as fabric dyes: but they are also valuable as sensitive indicators of air-quality. Because of growth on dated gravestones their annual rate of growth can be quantified, and other stones in the nearby localities dated. But when this method was applied to Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick (Neolithic, some 5000 years old), bizarre results were obtained; explained when it was remembered that the stones had been painted white in 17 or 18th centuries, and also been cleaned at various "restorations"!

Les and Sue measured diameters of thousands of a common individual widespread crusty lichen species on gravestones in Swaledale and in Arkengarthdale thereby establishing the local growth-rate to be 0.6mm per year. This enabled them to age nearby growths on other similar stone surfaces in these dales. They found no lichens older than about 120 years, corresponding to the demise of lead smelting in these places. Smelting Galena (Lead Sulphide) releases both sulphuric acid products ("acid rain") and lead oxide contaminants inimicable to lichen growth, and it seems likely that lead deposits on the surface of older gravestones poisons them long-term to lichen colonisation. Lead land-poisoning around some mines and workings still persists, causing an attractive sweetness in the vegetation dangerous to grazers. There is even a Lichen species that thrives on lead contamination!

It was heartening and inspiring to see such a well-constructed simple scientific investigation pursued rigorously and so clearly displayed. Finally we were feasted with accompanying magnifying lenses to a display of different lichen specimens, their form and colour, and viewed through a dissecting microscope. So, now to the countryside to see for ourselves what we can find and discover!

Tales from the Naughty House, Sept 2017 

On Friday 29th Sept Brian Morland gave YNHS the latest news from Bell Flask Reserve near West Tanfield where he lives and works This is a worked out gravel quarry being restored for wildlife and fishing. Brian's talk was as usual informative, amusing & sometimes raised controversial issues. The fishery permits 10 fishermen to fish for trout and also supports unusually fast growing large pike.

Brian and Sue have trapped moths every night for many years and he showed photos of several rare moths caught on the reserve this year. He gets up at 5.30am to inspect the traps, and to photograph and record his findings, before releasing them. Recently he has started recording beetles and other insects, including parasitic wasps, which lay eggs in caterpillars. 

The reserve has abundant bird life including Avocet, which until a few years ago were only found on the Norfolk & Suffolk coast. This year there were 6 pairs at Bell Flask. Little Ringed-plover, Reed and Sedge Warbler breed there as well as many more common birds. Brian showed a series of photos of 2 Mute Swan males fighting for territory. Who would have thought these graceful birds could be so vicious! He told tales of regular visiting swans knocking at his door after returning in spring, and sharing his garden seat/sandwich with him.

We saw photos of wonderful displays of wild flowers on the river bank in spring including Town-hall Clock, Dames Violet, Campion, and many others - in Brian's opinion non the worse for the mass of Himalayan Balsam which appears later in the summer. Indeed the Balsam seems to attract many bees.

For many years Brian has lived and worked along the river taking part in many studies. He showed a series of photos and discussed the ongoing problem of pollution on the upper Ure and the sometimes unsympathetic management schemes. His talk was accompanied by the usual excellent photographs and lively discussion on issues raised.