Friday, 26 June 2015

BioBlitz MMU: measuring biodiversity at MMU’s Cheshire Campus

Here, Stu and Simon Valle, along with Kosta Tzoulas from the Urban Environments Research Group talk about our MMU Futures event which measured the biodiversity value of the MMU Estate.

MMU has been assessing biodiversity value in its own backyard through a series of BioBlitzes - days of intensive biological surveying which aim to record as many living species as possible. MMU has a very strong environmental policy, and is one of the UK’s greenest universities. One part of this green commitment involves increasing the biodiversity value of the university’s estate – a very exciting prospect. 

MMU's Cheshire Campus at Crewe is a diverse 14 ha site with its own river and extensive woodlands (Photo: Stu)

The idea is that this year’s Bioblitz surveys will form a baseline against which the effects of future changes in management on biodiversity can be properly gauged. The events were run as part of ‘MMU Futures’, a programme designed to give our students skills which will enhance employability. After surveys at Ryebank Fields, it was the turn of the 13.8 hectare Cheshire Campus in Crewe. In early June, staff and students from MMU teamed up with professionals from The Environment Partnership (TEP), a leading environmental consultancy, and walked, waded, trapped, counted, and mapped throughout the property. We recorded all species of plants, lichens, birds, butterflies, and moths encountered, as well as tracks and signs of bats and mammals.

Mobile BioBlitz lab at MMU's Cheshire Campus (Photo: Stu)

The campus presented an interesting mixture of habitats ranging from heavily managed areas (buildings, amenity grassland and ornamental planting) and more natural areas (broadleaved woodland, watercourses and swampy areas). Of particular interest is the river which runs through the campus. On it are Kingfisher, and, even, more excitingly, TEP staff found signs of water voles (feeding remains, latrines and burrows) on the banks. This is a very important species to have on MMU grounds, as it is currently the fastest declining mammal in the UK. A number of mature trees on the banks of the brook showed some high potential for roosting bats (i.e. Category 1-1* of the Bat Conservation Trust Guidelines) and the network of habitats offered suitable foraging grounds for bat species.

Fresh signs of the lovely but severely declining Water Vole Arvicola amphibius were found on campus. This is a key species to monitor on the site (Photo: Peter Trimming).

The bird team paid special attention to finding key birds such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Willow tit in the riverine woodland, but without success. The grounds did provide breeding sites for an array of bird species, among which Goldcrest, Bullfinch (Amber status according to RSPB red list) and House Sparrow (Red status).

The campus has some extensive woodland, some of which retains an ancient woodland ground flora, including protected Bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Photo: Stu).

An active badger sett was found on site, and there was potential for bats and other small mammals, grass snakes and slow worms. Important is evidence and/or sightings of three specially protected animal and one plant species on campus (Kingfishers, Water voles, Badgers and Bluebells). This information is being used by the university’s Biodiversity Management Group and by the grounds team to ensure that these species and their habitats are not disturbed. Some woodland areas, despite being encroached by housing and containing a number of non-native plant species escaped from residential gardens, had a remnant ancient native woodland ground flora, including the protected Bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Woodland by the river contained the invasive Himalayan balsam Impatiens glandulifera,being controlled by the grounds team to allow development of a richer ground/understory flora.

The benefits of the BioBlitz went beyond the biological assessment. It was a welcome opportunity for academics, students and ecological consultants to share ideas and compare experiences about local biodiversity. It was a good occasion for students to work alongside and learn from professionals from a dynamic job industry as ecological consultancy. Finally, the exercise sets a framework for developing a regular survey programme for biodiversity in and around university campus with the help of local experts and enthusiasts.


The MMU BioBlitz at Cheshire Campus was funded by MMU Environment team in Estates Department 

and carried out in collaboration with 

Image result for tep the environment partnership

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The history and natural history of MMU’s Ryebank Fields

One of the sites for our recent MMU Campus BioBlitzes was Ryebank Fields, a 4.6 hectare site in Chorlton, which MMU has owned for many years. Here, Stu, along with Andrew Simpson, a local historian from Chorlton, and Lynsey Crellin an environmental consultant from The Environment Partnership (TEP), talk about the site, its history, and its current biodiversity value.
Ryebank Fields: At the western border of the fields is a narrow belt of more mature woodland including large poplars and some patches of (protected) native bluebells (Photo: Chris Harrison).


Some of the earliest historical recognition of the area comes from the tithe map of 1845, which shows the fields as ‘Hankinson’s Reap Acre’. The area around the fields was farmed as meadow and pasture which fits with the general geography of the area. The OS map for 1933/4 again shows open land from Longford up to the Trafford Border and it appears that Ryebank Fields have never been developed.  

Extract from the Lancashire OS 6 inch 1st edition, 1841/53 map showing Ryebank fields (then Hankinson’s Reap Acre; rough position in red) in relation to the Longford estate, and Edge Lane to the South (Courtesy: Digital Archive Association).

The whole area stretching west from Oswald Road was traditionally known as ‘the Isles’ and contained many pits which had been excavated from the 17th century for marl (lime used in agriculture) and clay. By the 20th Century, some of the pits had become quite extensive, and the newspapers during the wars carried stories of children drowning, events that are still just in living memory.

Rare 19th Century photo looking out across the Isles towards Ryebank Fields and Longford Hall. The photo was taken by Aaron Booth around 1880 from his house 'Sedge Lynn' where now stands the Co-operative Undertakers in Chorlton (Photo: courtesy of Miss Booth from the Lloyd Collection).

North of Longford Brook, which bisects Ryebank Fields, was a large clay pit with another pit to the South. Judging from the tramway marked on the 1930s OS map, this must have been worked as part of the brickworks which was in operation from the beginning of the 20th century until it closed in the 1950s.

Original Ordnance Survey Revisions of 1932-1935 showing WW2 bomb damage 1940-1 (red circles = fire bombs; blue circles = high explosives). Shown are Ryebank Fields dominated by claypits, along with the brickworks (A) on what is now St John’s Primary School, and the tramway (B) linking the two. The cottages on Cardiff Road are also marked (C) – these houses and indeed the road itself did a complete disappearing act in the 1970s (see Andrew's blog here).
Sometime after closure, the pits were filled, probably with rubble, and capped with top soil. You can see the differences in vegetation between the centre of the ‘south field’ and its edges in aerial photos of the site. Ryebank Road Playing Fields, to give them their official name, were used as a sports facility by MMU until 1996. 

Aerial view of Ryebank Fields

Natural History

The mosaic of habitats across the site provide a valuable resource for urban wildlife. For example, the recent BioBlitz recorded 64 species of plant on the site. The fields are dominated by modified neutral grassland, with areas of ‘plantation’ woodland, scrub and tall ruderal herb, predominantly around the margins. Certain areas of grassland displayed marshy, or acid tendencies, reflecting the diverse history of land use.

The grasslands of Ryebank include some marshier areas with associated great willowherb Epilobium hirsutum, hairy sedge Carex hirta, jointed rush Juncus articulatus, and hard rush Juncus inflexus (Photo: Chris Harrison)

Much of the site’s small woodland areas are surrounded by housing and contain a number of plant species which have escaped from residential gardens, including variegated yellow archangel (an invasive species listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended, in England and Wales). More interesting is the woodland on the fields’ Western border, where there are small stands of protected native bluebell, a possible relic from historic ancient woodlands on the site. Three mature trees have potential for roosting bats (Category 1 in accordance with Bat Conservation Trust Guidelines) and the network of habitats (woodland, grassland, scrub and tall ruderal herb) provide high quality foraging opportunities for bat species. A suspected fox earth was found on the site. Around 30 bird species have been found using the fields this Spring, including Whitethroat holding territory, and perhaps 3-4 pairs each of Blackcap and Chiffchaff. Tawny Owl is regular here and in adjacent Longford Park.

Common Malachite Beetle Malachius bipustulatus on Buttercup at Ryebank (Photo: Chris Harrison).

There is potential for improving the biodiversity value of the fields. David Bishop, local botanist from Friends of Chorlton Meadows, suggested that taking out a hay crop in the late summer might be a good management, to reduce the fertility of the soil and in turn to promote a ‘healthier’ grassland plant community. There were also suggestions from TEP that a scrape or pond would be beneficial (smooth newts have been recorded in adjacent Longford Park) as there is little standing permanent water in this part of Chorlton. Even more intriguing is the possibility to create some ‘broken ground’ with rocks etc to form habitat for Common Lizard, a species of real conservation concern in UK.


The MMU BioBlitz at Cheshire Campus was funded by MMU Environment team in Estates Department 

and carried out in collaboration with 

Image result for tep the environment partnership