Research project, seeing the bigger picture with GIS and job security – Blog 3

8 April 2022

STARTING A RESEARCH PROJECT

When I first started this work placement, Kate (Head Ranger) introduced me to the team and told them that I wasn’t collecting data or doing research as part of my placement. Once I heard that, it planted a seed in my mind. I started speaking about this to my colleagues during workdays and they revealed how research is an important part of the site’s work, especially since they are conducting many pioneering projects. I went onto the RSPB website and found numerous jobs involving conservation research, such as monitoring and analysing why lesser spotted woodpeckers are doing better in some places rather than others. These sounded like really interesting jobs which I could see myself doing.
Soon after this, I arranged a meeting with Kate and offered to write my thesis on a subject they were interested in researching. Not only would this mutually help me with my thesis and provide them with conservation evidence, it also gave me an opportunity to take ownership of a project on site and feel like I’m doing research within an organisation.
This turned out to be a fantastic idea. After several talks and much pondering, I came up with the idea of researching the ecological mechanisms of why breeding wader bird numbers have increased on site, since peatland restoration works began. Both the RSPB and United Utilities were interested in the potential findings as this could influence future management practices and support funding applications, so I was given the green light. I still had to get SSSI permission from Natural England though, and I’ve heard that this can be a challenge to get right the first time. Thankfully, the warden Gareth has written lots of these applications for site projects and sent me some information on things to consider including in my application, such as how I plan to mitigate the disturbance of birds whilst surveying during breeding season. Fingers crossed my application gets accepted first time.

Observations on how breeding bird abundance increased after RSPB started managing the site (IUCN, 2014).

GIS (GEOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION SYSTEMS) – THE BIGGER PICTURE

The RSPB has its own GIS system called Merlin. I was privileged enough to be granted access to use it and acquire the data I would need for the research. I also cheekily (but legitimately of course) used the opportunity to explore what projects were going on at RSPB Dove Stone that I wasn’t yet aware of. Such as mapping of the restoration works they have completed, planned, and also projects I haven’t yet heard of, such as their water vole and wildfire monitoring programmes. It brought everything together in my mind and I could now see how projects are connected, which has given me a boost in confidence and a sense of the bigger picture within the organisation.


EMPLOYMENT SECURITY

Speaking with staff and looking at job vacancies online, I discovered how, unlike in the commercial sector, conservation job contracts tend to be limited in duration. A contract may only last a season, or a year or two. This is mainly due to the nature of project funding as I’ve mentioned in a previous post. There simply isn’t the financial security to employ everyone on a permeant contract. It must be done in line with project funding. Only more senior positions benefit from having long-term contracts. Poor job security is undoubtably a negative factor, however, this could also present opportunities to gain experience in different jobs without one’s CV having a questionable amount of job changes.

The RSPB Dove Stone crew bus

REFERENCES

IUCN: https://www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/sites/default/files/English%20upland%20peatlands%20report%20Jun14%20Final_1.pdf

Final post, fire and public misuse of the site – Blog 5

22 July 2022

THIS IS NOT THE END…

This is the final blog post of my work placement but I’m happy to say that I will be continuing to volunteer my time with RSPB Dove Stone henceforth. I feel that I have learnt so much, gained valuable experience and have met some fantastic people along the way, both staff and volunteers. This role has given me opportunities and flexibility to develop in directions which are most relevant to my interests, whilst also knowing that I’m making a positive difference.

Some of the major things I’ve gained through this placement are:


• A thorough understanding of peatland restoration, from the theory of peatbog ecosystems to the methods of management and monitoring.
• An appreciation of the behind-the-scenes efforts required to manage such a site.
• A better understanding of how funding and employment works in comparison to the commercial sector.
• Practical experience of restoration and surveying methods, volunteer management, GIS data analysis, application submission, information presentation, and research.
• Strong legs from walking for many, many miles over hills and rugged terrain!

Leading a team of volunteers for monitoring

CONSERVATION VS. RECREATION

There is so much more I could talk about but I thought I’d share a few final observations from my time here regarding site management

One challenge of managing a site like RSPB Dove Stone is balancing the needs of public access with the needs of conservation. However, these two factors are not mutually exclusive. For example:
1. Members of the public using peatlands recreationally contributes economically to those managing the site as well as the wider community through tourism. It also helps people appreciate and therefore look after the environment better.
2. Conservation management helps provide ecosystem services to the public, such as flood mitigation, improved water quality and mitigation of climate change. Regarding flood mitigation, it is far more cost effective to combat the issue of flooding at the source by restoring peatlands, than it is to build flood defences downstream to manage the symptom.

Public access does come with its downsides however. Namely through fire risk, littering, and damage to peat by foot or even illegal trespass with off-road vehicles.

FIRE!

Several new Volunteer Fire Rangers have been recruited to engage with the public and spot potential fires in their infancy, especially during warmer periods when a large number of members of the public visit the area, bringing with them the risk of fire through ‘small incendiary devices’ such as disposable barbeques, campfires and cigarette butts. I have has several conversations with the Fire Rangers to hear their experiences. One told me that most of his time so far has consisted of engaging with the public around the tourist hotspots (no pun intended), educating them about the risks and restrictions, and preventing incidents before they occur. I too have found myself speaking with the public about fire risk when on site and have even politely convinced a pair of off-road motorcyclists to leave the site and find somewhere more suitable.

There is the significant issue that multiple wildfire have been shown to be the result of intentional arson. However, without official evidence available, I wouldn’t like to speculate and point blame.
On a completely unrelated note, there are shooting estates in the near vicinity, with workers who have been seen trespassing on site when and where wildfires have occurred. Probably unrelated.

Moorland decemated by fire. A bit of a sad note to end on really, isn’t it?

Surveying peat, plants and the value of volunteer training – Blog 4

15 April 2022

What I’ve found since starting to look into the research project is that I’m finding hidden opportunities to get involved with the work at RSPB Dove Stone. This is simply because I’ve been asking questions which have led to responses “well why don’t you come and help with this other project and see for yourself’. I’m really enjoying the flexibility and variety to get involved with different tasks and gain a range of experiences which are both relevant and interesting to me.

I recently joined up with a new volunteer monitoring group, led by warden Gareth.
Today’s provided volunteer snacks/bribes were vegan custard donuts. Fortunately, not everyone wanted one, so I ate more than my stomach could handle which I believe is the appropriate amount.

Our task for the day was to measure peat depth down to the bedrock, so that metal rods could be cut to size for monitoring purposes. ‘Rust rods’ are used to monitor water table range, with the rods only rusting between the highest and lowest points. ‘Surface-level rods’ are used to monitor whether the peat depth is increasing or decreasing, with a large washer marking the surface height at a certain date which can then be compared with later observations. These rods are being installed alongside dipwells (another water table monitoring method) to monitor the effect of peat bunds which are being installed. Peat bunds are a relatively new technique which are being implemented and monitored in partnership with Moors for the Future. The aim is to raise the water table levels and improve the condition of a peat bog.


FIELD BOTANY

I’m interested in the botany on site, so during a sphagnum planting day was asking lots of questions about the plants around us, particularly the mosses. Assistant warden, James was kind enough to stay behind with me when the work was completed and talked me through various plants and lichens.
To point out just a few things, we observed alpine club moss, a range of sphagnum mosses, liverworts, ferns, lichens, invasive spruce trees, heather, bilberry, and cotton grasses/sedges.
It was really nice to learn from someone who was knowledgeable and enjoyed sharing that information, even though he had no specific obligation to do so.
This made me think about the fact that volunteers need to get something out of the time they put in. Obtaining knowledge and gaining experiences must be large factors for why most people do it, so it makes sense to ensure that volunteers are gaining these things. It also made me consider the fact that providing volunteering opportunities to the public doesn’t just help the RSPB complete certain projects. The volunteers gain from it too. They can become highly knowledgeable and more enthused advocates for nature, which can further reach the wider society when they share this with family and friends. This benefits the individuals it touches and shapes the publics opinions in favour of looking after our environment. I’d say that’s a win-win all around.

ALIEN TREES!!

One of my tasks is to combat invasive Sitka spruce trees. It seems that now that I’ve learnt a bit about the local botany I’ve decided to destroy it. But for good reason. Sitka spruce are peppered across the landscape after self-establishing their seeds via wind from nearby plantations. They serve no ecological benefit in this environment – except maybe as a navigational aid for walkers and the brown hare who leave piles of poop at the base. These trees adversely impact the habitat by drawing water from the peat and transpiring it into the atmosphere, contributing to drying it out. Whenever I’m on the hill for conservation works or research, I carry a folding saw and gloves so that I can cut down any Sitka spruce I find. Some native trees are highly beneficial to peatlands, particularly in cloughs (steep sided valleys) in which they can stabilise the ground, prevent soil slippage and slow water flow. There is a distinct lack of woodlands in the cloughs on site but new trees have been planted in recent years.



REFERENCES

  • Rust rods and peat depth rods: https://www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/sites/default/files/2019-08/Eyes%20on%20the%20Bog%20Manual.pdf
  • Peat bunds: https://www.moorsforthefuture.org.uk/our-work/our-projects/moorlife2020/conservation-works/moorlife-2020-bunds-trial
  • Sitka spruce: https://www.moorsforthefuture.org.uk/the-latest/recent-news/moorlife-2020/all-i-want-for-christmas-is-a-healthy-blanket-bog-removing-invasive-sitka-spruce


Sphagnum plugging and the peatland restoration process – Blog 2.1 (Bonus blog!)

18 February 2022

This blog post isn’t necesarily about my work experiences but I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learnt about how and why peatland restoration takes place at RSPB Dove Stone.

Naturally, sphagnum is widespread on healthy peatbogs but is now restricted to smaller patches. It is the main component for building peat layers and, due to its ability to hold large amounts of water, maintains a moist environment.
Peatland restoration requires a succession of methods, applied at different times, in order to initially mitigate damage, then later working to make the habitat more self-supporting.

Small patch of sphagnum moss amongst cottongrass. Both plants are very partial to wet conditions


For example, before RSPB Dove Stone started managing the site, most of the land at Black Hill summit consisted of bare peat, making the hill’s name very apt.

The peatland vegetation had been eradicated by anthropogenic effects, leaving the area black with bare peat, which would naturally be covered and protected by vegetation. Industrial pollution, burning (both ‘conservation’ burning and wildfires), and digging grips (gullies) has killed off the vegetation, made the environment unhospitable for regrowth and has dried out the peatbog.

Peatbog habitat is formed and maintained in consistently wet conditions over thousands of years (peat depth grows approximately 1 metre per 1,000 years), so the factor of drying out alone is highly detrimental to the habitat and ecosystem.
Bare peat exposed to the elements is highly prone to weathering and erosion, whether it is wet or dry. Water easily flows over the surface at speed, leading to hydraulic action weathering and carving gullies in the process, further perpetuating the problem. Dry peat crumbles and blows away like dust in the wind.

A series of peat dams (Moors for the Future, 2022)

The main process used to restore the peatland is (but not limited to):
1. Revegetation. Initially revegetating the bare peat by applying lime, fertiliser and seed. This provides a fast growing and hardy vegetation layer to protect the peat.
2. Grip and gully blocking with dams. This keeps the water on the hill and stops hydraulic action erosion.
3. Planting sphagnum in areas which are now vegetated and soil conditions are suitably damp. This further raises the water table, maintains soil moisture resilience, and is the primary vegetation involved with peat build-up and carbon sequestration.

In a nutshell, peatland restoration involves revegetating and re-wetting the peatland.

REFERENCES

Moors for the Future – Grip and gully blocking: https://www.moorsforthefuture.org.uk/our-resources/file-preview?id=87430

Blog 2 – Sphagnum planting and communication

18 February 2022

One of the big projects taking place before the spring is sphagnum plug translocation. The aim is to apply 10,000 plugs before mid-April when the bird breeding season starts. Further planting will commence again in late-July. These date restrictions are for the consideration of the breeding birds and are also legal conditions set out by Natural England, for operating the project within a SSSI.
The amount of plugging complete is limited by how many volunteers get involved so maintaining a large and loyal volunteer force is an important factor in achieving the site’s goals. Groups of staff and volunteers go up onto the uplands, ensuring that target areas are used using mapped polygons. Over several visits, we covered areas at Sliddens Moss, Roundhill Moss, Green Hill and Westend Moss. The areas are chosen based on various factors including prior restoration works and the viability of the conditions for sphagnum to establish.

The method of translocation involves stabbing a hole in the wet soil (with either a finger or dibber), insert a small sphagnum bundle into the hole and fill it back in, ensuring most of the moss base is buried and the top isn’t exposed in a way it could be blown away by strong winds. The insulated, waterproof gloves we were provided with were invaluable for this task, considering that conditions were cold and wet even on the mild days.



The sphagnum we are using was ‘lab grown’ in sterile conditions. This means that there is no need for a donor site to be adversely affected, to benefit this site. Another benefit is that the transfer is biosecure with no risk of disease or pests, however, I do wonder if the generic growing conditions and geographic origin of the specimens could have an effect on propagation success, compared to specimens adapted to local conditions from a nearby donor site. As long as the plugs we are using do propagate successfully, and there is plenty of evidence on site that they do, I think it’s the better option overall.

The weather on the first day of planting was grim. Strong wind and thick fog with visibility varying between 50-80m. This soaked us even though we wore full waterproofs. Some of us got quite cold during lunch break. One of the leaders had several spare jackets so he was able to give one to one of the volunteers who was uncomfortable. It would have been worth emphasising the need for wellies or waterproof socks prior to the workday, as there was a lot of walking through standing water and bogs, and the same volunteer was wearing low-cut hiking shoes. Fortunately, the conditions on the following days were relatively good, with some outstanding views across the hills.

One of the nicer weather days


Cake, pastries and vegan snack bars were provided at lunch. These were purchased by one of the RSPB staff that morning from a local bakery. This seemed like a good way to show appreciation, encourage volunteers to keep coming, and, in this case, implant a positive memory on an otherwise grim day.

COMMUNICATION

Over the past few weeks, I have noticed some volunteer management / communication issues which could be improved upon. I later discussed these points with the people responsible for volunteer management.
1. The instruction to meet at Holme Moss carpark was slightly inaccurate and they actually meant a different carpark nearby. On my first visit, it went to the wrong location. Phone signal was poor limiting us to text communication, but I eventually found the correct spot. Clearer instructions beforehand would have helped, such as providing a Google Maps link with the pinpointed location in the information email.
2. Providing a weather forecast link specific to the hilltop location would have helped the less experienced volunteer to prepare better. Weather forecasts and conditions are much milder in the lowland towns, so can be deceiving.
3. There was a volunteer who we thought was running late one day but had actually cancelled by contacting a different person at the RSPB who wasn’t with us. This information wasn’t passed on so three of us ended up waiting unnecessarily whilst the other four went ahead.

REFERENCES

Sphagnum plug translocations: https://www.moorsforthefuture.org.uk/our-work/our-projects/moorlife2020/conservation-works/moorlife-2020-sphagnum-planting

Aaron’s work placement at RSPB Dove Stone – An Introduction

4 February 2022

On the last day of January, I started my work placement with RSPB Dove Stone. RSPB Dove Stone is a 40 square kilometre (4,000 ha) site, managed for the benefit of the habitats and wildlife, in partnership with the landowner, United Utilities. The site predominantly consists of upland peatland, an internationally important habitat, and is bordered by lowland moorland edge, small woodlands, streams, reservoirs, and farmland.

Dove Stone reservoir in the winter (RSPB Dove Stone, 2022)

Much of the site is open access and there is a network of public footpaths (including the Pennine Way National Trail) used by hikers, fell runners, maintain bikers, wildlife enthusiasts and more. Occasionally there is unauthorised and damaging use of the site by offroad vehicle users.

One of the major focuses of RSPB Dove Stone is peatland restoration. The peatlands have been degraded for over a century by industrial pollution, burning, and the creation of artificial drainage channels. Since 2005, RSPB Dove Stone has been working to reverse this damage by revegetating and rewetting the peatland and improving its functionality. Healthy peatlands provide many important functions, including maintaining a rare ecosystem of flora and fauna, and providing ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, flood mitigation and improved water quality.

The site boasts wildlife of interest including breeding dunlin and curlew, both red listed birds; short eared owl, which can be seen hunting during the day; peregrine falcon, the fastest moving animal in the world with a diving speed of 242mph, and water vole, once common across Britain but has experienced sharp and devastating declines nationwide in recent decades.

A small selection of the birds on site (RSPB Dove Stone, 2022)

The site is protected under statutory designations including SSSI (Special Scientific Interest), SPA (Special Protection Area), and SAC (Special Area of Conservation) affording it protections for its habitats and wildlife. The site is also covered by a Drinking Water Safeguarding zone, meaning that management must actively address issues of water quality.

MEETING THE TEAM AND LEARNING HOW THE ORGANISATION WORKS

Considering Covid restrictions, my initial conversations with my new colleagues were done via Microsoft Teams.

I spoke with the Head Warden, Kate Hanley, who explained some of the many projects taking place on site. Some management and surveying projects are standard practice, but there are a few which are pioneering; they were one of the first sites to use sphagnum plug translocations. Others methods may even be controversial, such as using live willow stakes to stabilise peat and prevent slippage, with the downside being that willow trees are thirsty plants which can draw water out of the peat. For this reason, Natural England have restricted SSSI permission for the project to a small experimental site for now. The project is Funded by the Green Recovery Challenge Fund.

One thing I noticed as Kate explained the various projects to me, is just how many different funds are being used at one site. In fact, a large part of her role is writing and securing grants for conservation projects. The nature of charity-based work is that its financial income relies heavily on grant money to conduct projects. This is very different to my experience of working for ecological consultancies, who are financed by profit-based companies with large amounts of capital to invest.

A prominent issue with grant funded projects is that many important restoration projects require ongoing funding over very many years. This often isn’t appealing to grant providers who want novel and tangible results within a relatively short timeframe. This adds the additional challenge when securing project funding of also ensuring suitable funds are available to cover longer-term objectives. Some funds are restricted in their use, however some are flexible use, meaning the site can spend it how it sees fit.

There is a core team of paid RSPB staff and a large group of approximately 40 volunteers – considered the sites biggest asset – who collectively contribute thousands of hours a year, allowing the completion of projects that would otherwise be impossible without them. This can be a mutually beneficial relationship, the concept of which I will discuss in future blog posts.

I am already sold on the objectives RSPB Dove Stone is working towards but am learning that there are many challenges to overcome in order to achieve them.

REFERENCES

University Library refurbishment – This week!!

The office space on the 2nd floor is being demolished to allow for the development of new study spaces on this floor. This area will also house the new Silent Study space.  All the open access PCs have already been removed from this floor, however new PCs will be in place ready for September. These will be housed in a reconfigured book stock area on the 2nd floor and in the open access space on the 1st floor.

We have temporarily relocated some PCs to both the ground and first floor book stock areas and individual study rooms are still available on both floors.  Study rooms can be booked via the Learning Services: Online Room Bookings link within Blackboard or via any helpdesk.

Whilst our remodelling is beginning to take shape over the next few weeks you may experience some disruption, but we are keen to keep this to a minimum.  Please ask at any Learning Services helpdesk if you need any help or more information. Alternatively e-mail [email protected] or call us on 01695 584286

During this period we will be offering free printing in both the University Library and the LINC.

University Libraries – Easter opening hours

The University Libraries at Ormskirk and the Woodlands Centre (Chorley) will be closed for Easter from 2nd April – 6th April inclusive.

The LINC at Ormskirk will be closed from 2nd April – 6th April inclusive, although 24 hour access to PCs is available with an appropriate UniCard.

The Library and Information Resource Centre at University Hospital (Aintree) will be closed from 2nd April – 5th April inclusive.

For enquiries relating to opening hours and services please contact our help desk on 01695 584286 or email [email protected]