Daily Archives: 2nd June 2020

Lough Neagh Chances and Connections

Lough Neagh Chances and Connections

Lough Neagh Chances and Connections

Blog by Liam Campbell

Numbers, tracing  and connections seem to be the order of the day at this time. Always mindful of Edward Said’s phrase that “ Survival is about the connections between things “ I have been thinking about chance and connection. We have got used to the microscopic images of a virus on our screens and this too has made me think about the smallest elements of our catchment that may teach us something.

When I came to work at Ballyronan on the loughshore I was immediately met by the swarm of the Lough Neagh flies. Not coming from a biological background, I was informed by colleagues that these Lough Neagh midges or flies had tongue-twister names : Chrironomus anthracinus and Glyptoendipes  paripes and they were central to the whole ecosystem of the Lough and that they didn’t bite ! They have a very simple life – spending most of their lives on the sediment at the bottom of the lough and after one year the midge larvae pupate and emerge as winged adults in late April and May. Having spent the last few weeks working from home in the Sperrins, I miss them – seriously ! The swarms of these remarkable creatures  are a remarkable sight like plumes of smoke above and  on cars, houses and boats. According to John Faulkner and Robert Thomson in their great work “ The Natural History of Ulster “ ( National Museums of Northern Ireland 2011 ) their numbers are immense and they have calculated that there may be over 5,000 individuals per square metre, which multiplied by the area of Lough Neagh, is around 300 for every person living on the planet, or well over one million million. I’m not good with numbers and I would need my daughter who is an actuary to look at these types of figures when we get into microscopic detail !

I have been reading a brilliant book, “ The Irish Pearl “ by John Lucey ( Wordwell, 2005 ) about the freshwater pearl mussel and it brings into, now just the area of numbers but of chance ! The pearl mussel has a wonderful cultural, social and economic history that could fill pages.

This is a story of the connectedness of everything within the bioregion which has local relevance for those in the Lough Neagh  catchment especially the Ballinderry river.  The very existence of this tiny pearl which comes from the freshwater mussel shows the complexity and connectedness of this bioregional system. This mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera) has become ecologically precious in itself often living up to 150 years or more. Its survival owes as much to chance and to what we do with our waters. Rather than develop on limey substrates that generally favour molluscs, the mussel thrives in the fast flowing rivers rising in the mountains of sandstone and granite of the Sperrins and Bluestacks, often rich in silica but markedly lacking in calcium needed for shell-building. So this species develops slowly with a sooty black shell and a tough, nacreous lining of mother-of-pearl. The young are set adrift in the current and in midsummer they are brooded in the female gills and then released in a cloud of larvae called glochidia – an average of 9.8 million from each animal. As the glochidia are swept away in the river, their survival depends on their being passively breathed into the gills of a salmon or trout, whereupon they clamp to a filament of the soft, red tissue and begin to absorb nourishment from it. In their twenty four hours of viability 99.9996 percent of the glochidia will fail to find a host. Of the forty in ten million that do, all but two will be lost during the fourteen days it takes to grow to an independent size. Another connection is that it cannot use non-native fish for attachment. Scientists have suggested that the relationship of pearl mussels and salmon is symbiotic – the fish provide nourishment at a critical phase in infancy (a parasitism that seems to do the salmon no harm at all), while the adult mussels help to maintain water quality for the salmon. In one river, the mussels have been shown to filter 90 percent of the volume in low-water years (Viney, 2003). Due to the vulnerability of young pearl mussels to pollution, the species has declined by over 80% in the last ten years (Bullock et al., 2008). “Much of the remaining population is believed to comprise adults born before Independence” (ibid.: 96).

I was very privileged some years ago to work on a programme called Bridging Troubled Waters about water quality in Northern Ireland and got to visit the Ballinderry fish hatchery where a restoration project to halt the decline in their numbers has been ongoing.  On the banks of a river I was to meet with a biologist and had the utter pleasure of holding in my hand a freshwater pearl mussel. This beautiful animal was I’m told between 140 and 150 years old. It was a sacred moment to hold such a creature. At the hatchery, large numbers of brown trout have been successfully infected with the pearl mussel glochidia, yielding over 100,000 juvenile mussels to grow on in large experimental gravel tanks before being let into the river. But this depends on the water quality ultimately. These mussels are at the top of what is called an “indicator” species providing a litmus test, so to speak, of the health of the natural environment. The life cycles of some species seem more than usually designed to demonstrate the workings of chance; moreover, the exceptional lifespan of the freshwater pearl mussel – up to 150 years or more – might also be a recognition of its luck in existing at all.

At the same time,  I have been involved in some archaeological investigations around the lough as the built and cultural heritage of Lough Neagh is my main job and I have some excellent natural heritage colleagues who know a lot more about our marvellous natural heritage than I do. One of our surveys was of the original Plantation fort at Brocagh / Mountjoy which almost nothing remains above surface. Why do I relate these two stories? The fort of Mountjoy is now gone and yet despite all the lottery of chance the pearl mussel still survived. The connection is the lough and river system.  It too was the reason for both and yet it survives. I am reminded of Ozymandias, that great poem by Shelley (cited in Boland, 1997: 115):

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of the colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I have an inner disquiet or distrust concerning the kind of historicism which refuses to acknowledge returns, echoes or parallels between different historical moments. It helps to acknowledge history on the epic scale that is less anthropocentric. I will brush up on my mathematic too !!

 

 

 

 

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts – Aine Mallon

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts – Aine Mallon

Planet Earth 2- Deserts

Guest Blog by: Aine Mallon

Introduction

This report will be discussing the diversity of species found living within the desert and many of their survival skills that they have learnt to successfully hunt and survive in such a barren area of landscape where little precipitation occurs and, consequently, living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life. I will also be linking the adaptations that the animal kingdom has made to thrive here with society, and how we can all learn from these documentaries to get through COVID-19 together. I will also be concluding with how the impact of climate change is altering these desert landscapes.

Namib Desert located in Southwest Africa

Within all deserts, there is no escape from sun, wind, and dust. They make up a third of the lands of our planet, and this desert has been drying for almost 55 million years and yet a pride of lions has managed to survive living here. The desert lions of Namib have adapted to their surroundings and conditions and are able to survive because they can go long periods of time without water, getting most of their moisture from the blood of their kills. And they behave distinctly than other lions as prides are smaller, they have bigger home ranges and travel further and there is no infanticide.

Deserts

To find their prey, they need to travel very long distances in search of food. Hunger will drive them to take some risks when hunting larger prey. Desperation drove the lion to hunt a giraffe, however a giraffe could kill a lion with one kick therefore the whole pride must work as a team to do so. We have seen today in society where people are also coming together for volunteering to help deliver food and supplies to the elderly and more vulnerable people who cannot go to the shops on their own. From how the lions work together to find food, we may not realise at first, but the work society is doing and everyone playing their part is helping to save and bring food to others who need it most.

American West Desert

This desert is more prone to storms, there is a period of drought (roughly 10 months) and then the desert gets heavy rainfall, tonne of rain is dropped in under an hour, during their spring season in October and November. This will bring a sudden bloom of the flowers ‘hibernating’ beneath its surface. Although some plant species have adapted to the long drought period within the desert which allows them to dominate the American deserts.

Deserts 2

Formation: Sand & gravel carried by flood will carve the channel into solid rock. Some have widened until land between them is sculpted into table lands and isolated pinnacles

The cacti plant has water locked within its tissues, by storing water in swollen stems. It can protect its water with a barricade of spines. Like the cacti, humans have been able to make the ultimate adaptation; that of making the environment adapt to us. We have domesticated crops and livestock, we irrigate, we wear clothes, build shelters, air-condition, or heat our homes. We have learnt new ways to survive such drastic changes to our lifestyle and we are now learning to do so during COVID-19. We are learning how to adapt to working from home lifestyle, we are learning to appreciate the benefits technology has brought us by seeing our loved ones and family. We are growing to acknowledge the outdoors for both our mental and physical, as well as bringing new changes to our back gardens to help support wildlife around us.

Hunting grounds around the cacti

As this plant dominates the desert, many species have acquired special techniques for hunting around this plant. The spines that cover almost every in the desert provides protection and shelter for many animals, such as the ground squirrel. However, the Harris Hawk has a tactic for driving this prey out into the open. By hunting in packs, each hawk will land on the area and ‘tip-toe’ around the cacti by continuously lifting its feet to avoid the sharp spike. The hawks will therefore drive the prey out from the shelter.

Deserts 2

The butcher bird is also another species who takes advantage of the cacti. Carcasses are left hanging on the spikes of this plant because the butcher bird uses the hooks to dissemble prey to feed its young. Another benefit of this is that is keeps the prey from scavengers on the ground floor.

The cacti are predominantly a threat to species and can harm them, however it is evident that the animal kingdom has learnt to use everything in its surroundings for survival. Survival within the animal kingdom is not easy, they face many challenges but arise to overcome. This provides us with hope to be able to get through COVID-19 by adjusting our lifestyle and helping to save the lives of others.

The impact of climate change

This lack of water makes desert landscapes vulnerable. Climate change is reducing the melting of glaciers that provide freshwater to desert communities. Increasing evaporation and dust storms are pushing deserts out into communities at their edges. Human activities have also impacted the desert biome in that they have polluted the atmosphere. This affects all biomes, including the desert. People have also drilled for many fossil fuels, such as oil, in the desert. This causes pollution and is harmful to the animals living near the oil wells.

As with any landscape, to protect it and all the species that thrive within, the key to this is further decrease climate change. Many examples of mitigation techniques include;

  • Reducing energy demand by increasing energy efficiency,
  • Phasing out fossil fuels by switching to low-carbon energy sources,
  • Removing carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere.
Planet Earth 2 – Deserts – Aoibhe McCarron

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts – Aoibhe McCarron

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts

Guest Blog by Aiobhe McCarron

In Madagascar, locusts which are normally solitary creatures come together in extreme numbers when the smell the smell of newly sprouting grass. They devour everything and devastate the land causing soils to turn to dust with no plants to bind them, producing vast new stretches of desert every year. This causes struggles for human communities who have lost their livelihoods due to the mass destruction. To me, this is reflective of what we as a species have done to the natural world, devastating animal habitats and food sources for our own benefit.

The Earth’s deserts are getting hotter and expanding at a faster rate than ever before due to global warming caused by humans, this leaves desert creatures short on time to adapt to their ever changing environments and their fate is uncertain. This is not dissimilar to the devastation COVID-19 is causing the human race currently, due to our own actions; we have cause our demise and we cannot catch up with this rapidly growing disease.

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts – Sophie Gregson

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts – Sophie Gregson

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts
Guest Blog by: Sophie Gregson

No escape from sun, wind or dust, almost no food or water. These are the conditions in one-third of the lands of our planet. In order to survive here you must have the most extraordinary survival strategies.

The Namib in southwest Africa is the oldest desert in the world, it has been dry for fifty-five million years. Life for a hunter here is as hard as it gets, with no cover for a1n ambush the lions must chase their prey in hopes they may catch them. Each failed hunt brings the lions closer and closer to starvation, in order to prevent this the pride continually search an area the size of Switzerland. Just like the lions, humans will gather food from across large distances of areas even importing them from over seas to gather a certain product. If you walk into any supermarket you cannot look anywhere without seeing fruit or meat imported from France or even Thailand. Big fast food chains are extremely guilty of this with McDonald’s getting the majority of its chicken from Thailand in order to save on expenses.

Deserts

Vast expanses of the Namib Desert | Nick Lefebvre

It does sometimes rain in the desert, in the American West storms can strike with devastating force. After ten months of no rain millions of tons of water and dumped on the land in under an hour. Salt canyons fifty metres deep carved out by sand and gravel carried by the gushing water, have formed some of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet. The Harris hawk has developed a special technique for hunting amongst cacti, they are the only birds of prey that hunt in packs and they use this to flush their prey out of hiding. Humans use this same technique when hunting foxes or badgers with dogs, they train the dogs to surround the animal cut off all escape routes then slowly close in to flush the animal out of hiding or out of their den.

Deserts 2

Harris hawk © Marcel ter Bekke / Getty

The butcher bird uses the spines of the cacti to hold its prey while it tears it into pieces for its young. He also uses the spines as a stock pile, hanging his prey out of the reach of other animals means he will always have food for his young. This can be seen as a way of preserving food something humans do a lot of, we store our food correctly in order to stop insects and bacteria contaminating our supply always thinking ahead to ensure we will have our next meal.

Deserts

Duncan usher /solvent news

Humans and animals have similar ways in which we hunt and in a way we know that we both know that preserving food is important for survival. Especially in the harshest conditions there is no room for mistakes or slip-ups, every stolen meal, every missed opportunity could result in death.

 

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts – Michael McCoy

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts – Michael McCoy

Planet Earth 2- Deserts
Guest Blog by: Michael McCoy

Deserts cover around one third of the land on planet Earth. In order to survive these ecosystems, you must be able to adapt to the dry and warm conditions which are extremely harsh. The two main challenges of the desert is being able to cope with a lack of water and endure very hot conditions.

Some Lions survive in the scorching sun in the Namib desert by having a very light-coloured, thin coat of fur to reduce the amount of heat stored. When hunting, Lions work together in what is known as a pride to capture any prey it comes across. The whole pride must work together in order to succeed as each have their own role. Some individuals chase the targeted prey while others move ahead to cut off any escape routes. Lions would travel long distances in search of food and can go many, many days without eating. Similarly, years ago, Humans hunted in groups and built traps of their own to capture prey. In today’s age however many animals that are consumed will be domestically raised on farms. This takes away the need to waste energy and time on hunting.

Cactus plants are the most successful vegetation in the desert. Many plants require a large amount of water and so cannot live during long periods of drought. However, the Cacti have found a way by storing large amounts of water in the stems of the plant. They also have no visible leaves as they want to greatly reduce the amount of water lost through rapid evaporation. To prevent animals from stealing the water stored and herbivores from consuming them, the Cacti developed spines to block any attempt of feeding. Spines also have a secondary use as they provide shade and so lower the surface temperature of the cactus, preventing loss of water. Although humans must excrete a lot of water as waste and thus cannot retain high amounts, we have been able to contain large quantities of water externally for drinking. We have been able to create large tanks of water to store with pipes which transfer water to people’s homes. Many people even collect rain water and utilise this for domestic purposes.

While it is rare for rain to occur in the desert, there are times when watering holes are created, drawing in many animals. Sandgrouse are one of these species that benefit from the watering holes. When the Sandgrouse chicks are born, they rely on the father to obtain water for them. The father flies miles to reach a watering hole along with an entire flock of males who share the same purpose. The Sandgrouse use their feathers which have been specialised for soaking up water and storing it like a sponge. The only problem is that it takes time to store the water and so many predators use this as an ideal opportunity to strike. Goshawks are the main birds that prey on the Sandgrouse, however, as the Sandgrouse travel in large flocks it is difficult for the Goshawk to select a target. By staying in large numbers the Sandgrouse are less likely to be attacked by their predators. Although Humans nowadays who live in wealthy countries usually have easy access to water, this was not always the case as years ago, tribes had to collect water in large containers from nearby rivers. These containers were heavy and had to be carried on their back for miles. In economically poor countries, this is still the case as children would have this vital duty to help their families survive in warm climates.

The island of Madagascar is very unique with many different habitat types, one of these is a dry desert. However, heavy showers lasting short spells can help create a greening of the land, resulting in a large diversity of plants and animals. One species which takes advantage of this greening is Locust. These insects swarm together in large numbers and destroy almost all vegetation in their path. The Locust become even more efficient and travel further when they grow wings and take to the sky. Once in every decade a super swarm can come about which covers two square miles and have over several billion individuals. These super swarms can leave lands barren and they can also destroy crops that local farmers are growing. This can cause many countries like Madagascar to have food shortages which could create a National emergency. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) helps to try and stop these Locust plagues before the land can be destroyed. Humans must adapt fast to plagues and act quickly if they are to minimise the impact. Experts are able to track locust movements and predict where the swarm will move next. The use of helicopters help with transportation and identify the swarm size. Many crops now have been sprayed with chemicals known as pesticides to get rid of unwanted insects feeding on their crops.

Many civilisations have adapted to the conditions of the desert. For example the use of light clothing to produce less heat as well as the need to find shade. Humans would also build houses and roofs to create shade and stay cool. This idea was based on animals behaviour. The Shovel-snout lizards would spend little time out in the open and would bury themselves below the surface of the sand where it is cooler.

Due to Climate change the world deserts are heating up and so are expanding across many continents, especially Africa. This will be interesting to see how humans and animals who are not familiar with the changing landscape, adapt in order to survive to an ever increasingly hostile environment.

Volunteering in Lockdown

Volunteering in Lockdown

Volunteering in Lockdown

Blog by Lisa Critchley

 

It is Volunteer Week 2020, and what a strange start to the volunteering year it has been! We started off well with our Woodland Workout sessions in January and February but then the storms hit. Volunteer tasks had to be cancelled due to flooding and adverse weather and just as things looked to be calming down, the COVID-19 pandemic crept upon us. The pandemic meant we had to stop all volunteering, head home and baton down the hatches. I think a lot of us only thought it would be for a few weeks, but here we are, a few months later, and only just beginning to rise out of it.

In that time, plenty of conservation volunteer tasks have had to be missed: scrub clearance in the bogs to prevent the encroachment of trees and shrubs, spring surveys of flora and fauna, litter picks to keep our countryside, rivers and Lough clean, planting events in community gardens, wet woodland management and invasive plant species control!

I am Lisa, the Volunteer and Skills Development Officer for Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership (LNLP), and I am sure there are plenty of volunteers missing getting out and about, helping their local environment and plenty more itching to start. There has been little movement on the ground but things are beginning to change as we gradually come out of lockdown. I do hope to get our conservation volunteering up and running again, in some form or other, but in the meantime, there are a number of things you can do to satisfy your desire to get stuck in again!

Whether you are a seasoned volunteer, curious to see what it is all about, wanting a change of scenery, looking to expand your skills and knowledge set or alleviate potential lockdown boredom, have a read through the list below for ideas of how to do your own volunteering in lockdown:

  • When out and about on your daily exercise, you can begin look at the plants and wildlife around you and try to identify them. The OPAL website is a good resource to begin with if you are not familiar with species identification. Make a note of what you see so you continue to learn. This will be a good basis for survey work, which is one of the volunteer acivities LNLP normally offer.
  • Watch the birds and try to identify them by call and sight. This will also be a good basis for if you carry out any bird survey work which LNLP do a lot of. Have a look at a video I made a few weeks ago on how to make your own bird feeder. This will attract more birds to your garden and will help with your species identification. Before making my bird feeder, I had house sparrows and starlings in the garden. They love the bird feeder but I have also since attracted great tits, blue tits, wood pigeon, collared dove (not sure if that was for the feeder but they were there!) and a coal tit visited at the weekend.
  • If you can get hold of a litter picker (you don’t have to have this but it makes it easier and it means you can pick up more stuff), gloves (essential for health and safety reasons!) and strong bin bags, you could do litter picks in your local area. If you do this, please email me and I will give you a bit of guidance and send you a basic form for recording what you collect. I will then feed this into the Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful litter recording platform.
  • If you have a garden with grass, you can leave it longer in between cuts as this is beneficial for wildlife: insects prefer long grass and an increase in these will attract more birds to the garden too. You could try to identify what plants come up when the lawn is left alone as well as the insects and birds that visit. On the same lines, if your garden is big enough, you could leave an area of your lawn long for insects and only cut it in the late summer.
  • You could get some wildflower seeds from True Harvest Seeds or Eco Seeds and plant an area of your garden with wildflower seeds. If you don’t have a garden, you can plant these in window boxes or flower pots. The seeds from both of these organisations are native flowers to Ireland which is important for our local wildlife and plant biodiversity. It also means that no non-native species will be introduced to the wider environment. You can then identify the plants as they grow and the insects that visit.
  • Watch the video I made a few weeks ago on planting for pollinators. The plants I use are not necessarily native but they do provide a good food source for pollinators and are readily available in supermarkets, garage shops and now the garden centres are open, you will have more choice.
  • Read about the management of habitats in your area so you can familiarise yourself with the type of practical work that is done. You can also look at the websites and social media of various environmental organisations who have volunteer groups to see the type work they got up to before lockdown. Try: LNLP Facebook, RSPB, National Trust, Woodland Trust websites and Facebooks, Belfast Hills Partnership Facebook, website and their YouTube channel have videos of volunteering activities they do.
  • When volunteers are active for LNLP, we do a variety of seasonal activities. Generally during autumn and winter months we carry out:
    • Bog management by clearing scrub and small trees to prevent scrub encroachment
    • Wet woodland management including removal of non-native plant species such as laurel and snowberry
    • Willow and hazel management through coppicing
  • During spring and summer months we carry out:
    • Litter lifts around the Lough shore, riverbanks leading into and out of the Lough and other sites such as woodlands
    • Surveys – both plant and wildlife
    • Invasive plant species control such as Himalayan balsam

If you end up doing any or all of these activities, I would love to know! Email me or leave us a Facebook message telling us about your adventures. Additionally, if you would like to volunteer for LNLP when it starts back up again, please don’t hesitate to contact me and ask for an interest form. I will add you to the volunteer mailing list so you will be notified the minute we can start up again!