Tuesday 13 September 2016

Diary of a Young Darwin Scholar: Days 1 & 2

George talking about Asplenium hybrids,
BSBI Exhibition Meeting 2015
Natural History Museum, London
Image: T. Swainbank
Regular News & Views readers will be well aware of botanist George Garnett, one of our younger members, from his talk at last year's BSBI Annual Exhibition Meeting, his exhibit the previous year, or his participation in the New Year Plant Hunt

This year, George was selected for a Young Darwin Scholarship, under a scheme set up by the Field Studies Council (FSC) in 2012 and supported this year, as in previous years, by BSBI (and several other charities). 

George kept a diary of his first week as a Young Darwin Scholar and here we present the first instalment. Over to George:  

Ryan, George (centre) & Reuben,
BSBI Exhibition Meeting 2015
Image: K. Garnett
"Every year, 15 nature enthusiasts aged between 16 and 17 are awarded scholarships to support and encourage their interest. 

"The Young Darwin Scholars (YDS) attend an introductory field course at FSC’s Preston Montford centre in Shropshire. The aim of this course is to allow the year’s Young Darwin Scholars to meet each other, and to develop knowledge. In future years, the YDS receive bursaries for further FSC courses and there are also reunions which allow the Young Darwin Scholars to meet again, and to meet Scholars from other years.

"I was fortunate enough to be selected for the Young Darwin Scholarship this year and so here is a short overview of the experience.

Saturday 20th August 2016

The course started at lunchtime on the first day. This day was mainly about getting to know each other and the course leaders; as well as settling into the accommodation in the lovely Preston Montford house. Our first task was an Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) earthworm survey in an area of the campus designated as an allotment. We searched for mature earthworms in a 20 x 20 x 10 cm pit and upon finding them, we identified them. Except, my group didn’t find any. Oh well, we were united in our disappointment.

Our next stop was a visit to the garden of the man who has inspired us all, and from whom the course takes its name: Charles Darwin. Darwin was a resident of Shrewsbury, where his large house and expansive grounds are open to the public. We were told the history of the estate and how it influenced the young Darwin in his ideas that would later go on to shape scientific thinking so profoundly. The grounds were also a haven for wildlife and we were allowed time to explore and find animals or plants that we could then show each other.

Sunday 21st August 2016
Exploring Snailbeach lead mine
Image: Sorrel Lyall
This was our first full day, after a good breakfast we drove to the Snailbeach lead mine. Here we were given the chance to explore the visitor centre and were given a short history of the mine. Then we were lucky enough to enter the mine itself. Here we walked through the claustrophobic tunnels, learning about the extraction of ores such as Galena and attempting to spot what hadn’t been mined out in the heyday of the mine before it became unproductive in 1955.

This was a really interesting morning. It was great to learn a bit about the mine’s history and the geology of the area. Thanks to the Shropshire Mines Trust for showing us around and telling us about the Snailbeach Mine.

After exploring the mine, we had the chance to study the flora and fauna of a lead spoil outside the mine. There was nothing particularly rare plant wise, mainly; Tussilago farfara, Polypodium interjectum, Campanula rotundifolia and some very unhealthy looking Fraxinus excelsior seedlings! I did see Mycelis muralis for the first time here though. Clearly the spoil heap had a relatively high pH, perhaps due to the calcite extracted from the mine. 

Mycelis muralis
Image: G. Garnett
Botany tutor Mark Duffell had this to say about the flora of Snailbeach:
“Snailbeach is an odd site, there is an area of sown grassland below the mine that has lots of very weird species, partly because it has been sown (20 years ago?) with a seed mix that contains native species but the wrong subspecies (hence the common roadside verge sown Lotus corniculatus ssp. sativus and Onobyrnchis viciifolia), weirdest of all is a first county record of an unusual subspecies of Bladder Campion Silene vulgaris.”

Unfortunately I didn’t see this area of grassland but it’s definitely one for next time I visit the area!

The afternoon was spent walking Stiperstones, the second highest hill in Shropshire. We spent around four hours admiring the quartzite formations and vast areas of heather, although there was some debate as to whether this heather should truly be there, which of course led to the question; are there any truly wild areas left in Britain? That debate is beyond the realms of this blog post however. The heathland also provided masses of bilberries which were a highlight of the walk for many!

Of particular interest was the ancient Holly grove, one of the oldest in Europe. It was protected for so long due to its use as a supply of winter fodder for the livestock that were farmed on the hills. It is amazing to think what the gnarled, stunted trees have seen in the centuries that they have stood there.

The Shropshire countryside
Image: G. Garnett

This walk was a great opportunity to appreciate the beauty of Shropshire, a county I’d previously only travelled through, and hearing everyone’s different opinions on various conservation issues was enlightening.

Old holly and hawthorn at the end of Day 2
Image: G. Garnett
That evening, back at the Preston Montford centre, we learnt how to set Longworth small mammal traps and each of us placed one in an area of hedge on the edge of a nearby field. I was full of doubt as I had used Longworth traps before with a group and had been exceedingly unsuccessful.

The final activity of the day was badger watching at a nearby sett. I had never seen a badger (they don’t live on Guernsey, where I’m based!) and so the thought of seeing one was an exciting prospect. We sat for a good hour or so on the slope overlooking the sett. Two people in the group by chance had picked the perfect spot and spent the hour watching badgers. The rest of us couldn’t see a thing and couldn’t move for fear of disturbing the animals! I’ll have to wait a little longer until I can say I’ve seen a badger".

We'll leave George there and return tomorrow for Day 3 - having missed out on the badger, and the mature earthworms, will his Longworth traps yield anything interesting? And will he get to see any interesting plants - they are after all his main passion! Find out tomorrow in the second instalment of George Garnett's Diary of a Young Darwin Scholar.

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