About adameasquith

Biodiversity assistant for LBS Biodiversity team.

Risk Assessments: Keeping Volunteers Safe

bopnoglogIn every task the Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers undertake, there are varying elements of risk.
From the moment we start loading the van to when we leave a site at the end of the day (even when having a cup of tea!) there’s a chance that someone may get hurt. Fortunately, the only injuries sustained on task days have thus far been minor, and long may that situation remain the same.

It is due to these risks that the Biodiversity team have decided to reevaluate and expand on their risk assessments for each nature site, ensuring that volunteers are aware of any changes or tweaks in the assessment.
Previously, risk assessments have been conveyed through short, casual talks throughout the day depending on the task at hand and the tools being used. This technique has served us well over the years, shown by the very low accident and injury rate. While the volunteers are aware of the risks inherent in various jobs and have been briefed on how to minimise the dangers encountered in the field, as all of the assessments have been delivered orally, there is no written record of it and therefore a liability on the Biodiversity team’s part if someone was to get hurt.

In order to remedy this in future, detailed risk assessments will be available for each site and will be signed by each volunteer before heading out on a task day. Initially at least, the task leader will go through the risk assessment thoroughly with the volunteers to ensure everyone fully appreciates what the day will entail before signing it. This can cost us some time on task days but will be worth it to keep everyone safe. Once the risk assessments become more familiar it may be appropriate to change to a less in depth ‘skim’ of the assessment, with a more conversational aspect. We won’t have to sit through a lecture each morning forever!

Through these talks, everyone involved in task day activities should become more aware of the specific risks involved in different tasks and sites.
A greater understanding of the risks and risk mitigation involved in planning a task day will be another step towards empowering the Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers, allowing further autonomy and independence.
With the recent(ish) First Aid, Manual Handling and Risk Assessment training for volunteers a large body of communal knowledge is being built.
Knowledge is power, so soon enough we’ll be taking over the world and filling it with wild flowers!

Why did the mushroom go to the party?

Because he was a fungi!

Sorry, I had to get the groaner out of the way, as the temptation would probably be too much to bear later on.

Over the last few months I have been conducting mini fungi surveys, jotting down whatever fungal growth I’ve seen and can identify at our sites on SNCV task days. I’ve been mushroom hunting for years, but I’m certainly no expert – I used to only be interested in those I could eat!

The idea is to build up a bank of information on the species present on our sites to keep a track of our fungal diversity, as we have done with flora and fauna for many years. Hopefully, over time we will see the work of the SNCV and Biodiversity team positively affecting the diversity of fungi in the borough.

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Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)

So, what constitutes a fungus? Some people reading this may be thinking of a mushroom, perhaps with a large red cap and white spots, much beloved by Mario. Chances are you’re thinking of something very much like the common woodland mushroom Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria – above).

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Yellow Brain Fungus (Tremella mesenterica) at Queen Mary’s Woodland

Alas, it isn’t that simple, fungi come in all shapes, sizes and colours. From classic ‘cap and stem’ mushrooms, to hard woody brackets, to jelly like blobs, to almost invisible wood rotting fungi, to tiny microbial fungi only visible through a microscope, there is an awful lot of variation in form. To make things even more confusing the lines are blurred between fungi, lichens (a symbiotic ‘multiple organism’ made up of fungus and algae) and slime moulds (which are often studied alongside fungi, despite actually being in a different taxonomic kingdom all together – they are Protists).

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Not a fungus, a slime mold!  Found at Roundshaw woods (Looks like Trichia decipiens – but not sure.)

However, even ignoring these confusions, a fungus is more than meets the eye. What we see as a mushroom, or a bracket on the side of a tree is merely the ‘fruit’ of the organism, basically a reproductive organ that allows spores to mature, be released and germinate elsewhere. These fruiting bodies are mostly quite short lived, and can appear at different times of year – or not appear at all depending on heat, rainfall and other environmental conditions. In order to accurately log species present on a site, year round surveillance is needed, so I’ve got my work cut out!

To use a slightly cheesy cliché, the fruiting body is just the tip of the iceberg. The main bulk of the fungus lives in the soil or wood substrate as a complex network of fibres called hyphae, known collectively as a mycelium. This is where some of the most important roles of fungi take place, as it is where nutrients are transferred.

Through the mycelium, fungi can break down matter and intake and excrete nutrients. For  decaying or ‘saprotrophic’ fungi, this enables rotting and decomposition in organic matter such as wood, dead leaves and dung, making these fungi incredibly important for any healthy ecosystem.
While there are bacteria that can also decay organic material, fungi are known as ‘the great recyclers’. An absence of fungus would cause the world to quickly fill up with dead plant and animal matter. Being buried under trees and dead bodies isn’t a particularly pleasant thought, so hooray for the mushies breaking it all down!

It isn’t all destruction though. The fungi break down and transport materials that would otherwise be unavailable to other organisms, increasing soil fertility and balancing nutrient deposits in soil.

Many fungi, particularly cap and stem mushrooms, form symbiotic relationships with plants and animals. In plants, the fungus will absorb nutrients such as sugars from the plant’s roots and in turn release nutrients like phosphorus and water, that the plant needs to survive.

Almost all terrestrial plants have been known to build these relationships with fungi, intertwining roots and mycelium. These mutually beneficial relationships are known as mycorrhizae, and are vitally important to the survival of many plants. Many orchids, for instance, cannot germinate at all without receiving nutrients from a fungal partner, and all orchids form mycorrhizal relationships at some point in their life cycle.

So fungi is both responsible for promoting plant growth, and plant decomposition – like a bizarre doting yet cannibalistic mother.

Of course, the mushrooms, toadstools and bracket-like fruiting bodies of fungi are an invaluable food source not only for us humans, but for a whole host of fungivore animals including mammals, molluscs and insects. Some insects such as fungal gnats (Mycetophilidae) use certain types of fungus as their larval host and main food source.

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Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on birch at Queen Mary’s Woodland. – Yum!

Unfortunately, despite their many beautiful forms and myriad ecological uses, the kingdom fungi is still not regarded with the same gravitas as animals and plants. In fact, it’s only relatively recently that fungi was formally recognised as it’s own taxonomic kingdom, finally being split from plants in 1969.

Fungi have had a bad press in general, too. With people assuming all toadstools are poisonous, or eradicating fungi from their gardens for ruining their lawns (to be fair, some fungi is incredibly poisonous, and some can cause widespread problems like food shortages by infecting crops – but I’m hardly going to mention that in a pro-fungi post, am I?). And the number of times my mere mention of fungi has caused people to collapse into a fervour of nudging, winking and cracking jokes about hippies is ridiculous.

Attitudes are changing, though. Over the past few decades, as ecology and biodiversity have by necessity become more widely discussed, so too has interest in fungal diversity increased.

Organisations such as the British Mycological Society and Plantlife along with local fungi groups and larger groups worldwide have long been encouraging awareness of fungi and educating people about their vital roles in our ecosystems. Due to these efforts people are starting to appreciate the beauty and importance of these organisms, with various species being identified as priority at risk species by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and via the IUCN’s RED list. There are even protected species of fungi and lichen covered by law in the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Act (even though they’re still bunged in with the plants – but you can’t have everything).

So far I have found many very common, almost ubiquitous species on all the sites that I have checked, plus a handful of unusual types that were new to me. One of the joys of these searches is finding something bizarre or beautiful but very common, like Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae, above) or Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) and seeing other volunteers regard them with wonder as I did when I first found them.

A sentiment that I found true when I first became interested in fungi and one that I hear echoed every time I show someone something new is that once you open your eyes to the world of fungi, there’s a heck of a lot to see.

I hope this little introduction has done something to get people interested in fungi in the London Borough of Sutton – I’ll be sure to update you all on what I find in the coming months.

Thanks for reading, now go and find some fungi!
Adam (Biodiversity Assistant)

Job Advert for Biodiversity Assistant. Why you should apply – a Biodiversity Assistant’s perspective!

Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers and London Borough of Sutton’s Biodiversity team are looking for a second Biodiversity Assistant.

I have been in the role for a good few months now and am enjoying it immensely. Here’s why you should join me…

Since October I have been helping the Biodiversity team in their duties from leading volunteer task days to admin and paperwork in the office. The second part may sound a little boring but it has opened my eyes to the ‘behind the scenes’ work that accompanies the practical conservation that Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers help to carry out.

Personally it has thus far been a valuable learning experience. I had a little insight of the work I would be undertaking from talking to the Biodiversity team and my previous volunteering with SNCV, but was not aware of the immensity of the work undertaken by them.

I came to be the Biodiversity Assistant after over a year of volunteering experience with SNCV, so I was already familiar with the types of practical work done throughout the year and it has been thoroughly rewarding to get more involved with the organisation and leading of task days with the volunteers, learning new skills along the way.

Our task days involve a variety of activities, changing with the seasons. Since October we have of course been doing more ‘wintery’ work (which you can mentally exchange with ‘hard’ work) such as reed pulling, coppicing and felling. These jobs may well be hard, but they are certainly satisfying. Looking back at a newly created laund reduced from thick foliage, or an icy pond once dense with reeds at the end of the day is a great feeling.

While I have enjoyed these jobs very much, there’s a part of me (my back, mainly) that is looking forward to the survey season of spring and early summer! Just don’t remind me about the heavy raking work when it’s time for the meadows to be cut.

Speaking of surveys, my first job in the office was to draw maps for the Phase 1 botanical surveys we had undertaken in the preceding year, or ‘a bit of colouring’ as Dave Warburton the Biodiversity Officer described it. I had assisted with the surveying in the past but was unaware of this extra step, creating an easily recognisable and standardised map to show an overview of a site’s habitat. Just one example of the ‘behind the scenes’ work I hadn’t foreseen, but a job which while being interesting is also quite relaxing – mindfulness drawing, eat your heart out!

My days in the office are often spent doing admin work, managing the website and emails,  data entry/analysis, or writing and researching blog posts. I really do enjoy all of it, particularly the latter. Could you tell from this rambling blog post?
The work I am undertaking here is paving the way towards a job in Ecology, picking up new skills all the time and being challenged in new ways.

Being a Biodiversity Assistant is a joy, I’d highly reccommend it.

If you’d like to be one too, click here to view the job specification, and apply as instructed.

Hope to see you soon!

Adam
Biodiversity Assistant

Risky Business: Volunteers get Manual Handling and Risk Assessment training.

2006-07-26 - 10 -  Road Trip - Day 03 - United States - Illinois - Union - Illinois Railway Museum - No Injury is Acceptable - All Injuries Can be Prevented - Sign

Much of the work that Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers undertakes can be easily described as ‘risky’. Working with large weights in adverse conditions and hazardous environments is like bread and butter to the volunteers (as long as there’s a cup of tea to go with it).  Of course, much care is always taken to ensure these risks are kept at bay, but improvement and acquisition of knowledge is always a good thing, and it was decided that official training in manual handling and risk assessment would be highly useful.

So last Friday a group of core volunteers wrapped up warm and prepared for a day in the chill of Stonecourt classroom. The manual handling training covered everything from the stereotypical ‘how to pick up a box’ procedures, to which protective equipment to use and when to use it, to awareness of gruesome medical complaints stemming from bad manual handling such as slipped discs and hernias – which after seeing some fairly graphic slides, we are fully aware of!

Learning to use the correct manual handling technique is, of course, massively important for people doing the sort of work that we do. Hopefully, as the volunteers who were on the course spread their knowledge to those who weren’t, we can wave goodbye to those familiar post-task day aches and pains, and stave off any potential long term problems.

The afternoon was spent covering Risk Assessment, the art of keeping everyone safe. We harked back to many task days involving unforeseen risks (the nest of angry wasps in a dumped sofa at Carshalton Road Pastures was fondly remembered) – fortunately unable to recollect any times that those risks have caused any serious harm.

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Potential for pain (flickr)

Some slightly scary hypothetical situations came to mind though – what if some of the material we’ve found dumped on sites had contained asbestos, or other hazardous waste? On second thought, probably best not to dwell on the past, and instead be sure to consider such things in the future. With proper protective equipment and careful handling, we could mitigate the risks involved.

The risk assessment training has given us all a more critical mindset with which to evaluate how to go about our work. Contrary to the much repeated ‘health and safety gone mad’ cliché, we were encouraged to continue with our work, whether waist deep in muddy ponds, felling large trees, or burning our excess biomass. The whole point of risk assessment is that we now know how to approach these jobs with minimal risk, while still getting the jobs done.

The above video is a great example of someone completely disregarding any risks. He evidently needs to attend a training course!

The SNCV’s task days are currently organised and lead by the London Borough of Sutton Biodiversity team. This is a hugely beneficial partnership, which has allowed both organisations to achieve far more than would have been possible individually.

However, with changes to local government sweeping the country, the SNCV are aware of a pressing need to adapt and grow as a charitable organisation, in order to stay relevant through any potential changes in the coming years. With the first aid training some volunteers received last year, and this manual handling and risk assessment training under our collective belt, we’ve taken another step towards a more independent, autonomous SNCV.
By affording volunteers more responsibility and autonomy, there is the potential for more task days and more events run by the SNCV; with the aim that the SNCV continue to help wildlife on Sutton’s doorstep.

With upcoming task days coppicing at Ruffett and Bigwood, and hedge laying at Anton Crescent wetland, there will be plenty of opportunity to put these skills to the test, approaching these familiar tasks with a new viewpoint and with any luck, a safer technique!

The Future of the Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae)

This is something of a follow up to Joe Grainger’s great blog post last year  – covering many of the reasons behind surveying for Brown Hairstreak eggs, and methodology of BH conservation efforts undertaken on many of the sites we help manage.

In regards to our conservation efforts, this year we have done much of the same – clearing (“scalloping”) areas of mature blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) to make way for the younger 2-3 year old growth that Brown Hairstreaks prefer – with excellent results. By cutting large crescent, or scallop shell, shapes into the hedge line we not only create space for new growth, but also create slightly sheltered alcoves which will warm up more quickly and retain heat. This allows more herb growth and in turn benefits various insect and mammal species, as well as effectively extending the total length of the hedgerow.

scallopLarge blackthorn scallop at Roundshaw, leaving younger plants standing where brown hairstreak eggs were found.

Recently, the Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers and the LBS Biodiversity team journeyed out to the wilds of Roundshaw Downs with Butterfly Conservation, not just to scallop the blackthorn, but also to survey for Brown Hairstreak eggs.

For this species, the eggs are the most conspicuous and obvious evidence of a population to look for, as the adults spend most of their time high in woodland canopies, and the tiny larvae are small, green and feed on the underside of leaves. Searching for little white dots might not sound easy – and it isn’t – but the eggs are a lot easier to find than other forms!

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Adult Brown Hairstreak

With a large cohort of volunteers we carefully picked through the site’s various blackthorn thickets searching for the tiny white dots of the eggs. Despite the weather’s best attempts we all avoided frostbite, the occasional adrenaline burst that comes with finding an egg proved sufficient to warm us up. Although it must be said that when it’s that cold differentiating eggs from ice crystals can be difficult!

Our morning of searching along the north and south blackthorn hedge lines turned up 65 eggs, up from just 19 found in 2015. Of course, this may be due to a larger team (and there were a lot of us braving the cold!) searching the area more thoroughly, but it is undeniably encouraging to see such a stronghold of a relatively rare butterfly on one of our sites.
What’s more, the areas which had previously been scalloped, mainly on the southern edge of the site, turned up far more eggs than those areas which hadn’t been cut back, showing that our hard ongoing work has been worth it!

bh_eggsThe ‘Sea anemone’or ‘golf ball’ shaped eggs of Brown Hairstreak (Thecla Betulae)  

As a little bonus, on top of this we recorded 16 Blue Bordered Carpet Moth (Plemyria rubiginata) eggs. While this isn’t a particularly rare or unusual species it is the first confirmed record of it on the site, and 16 eggs found coincidentally could suggest a healthy local population of the moth.

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Ovoid eggs of the Blue Bordered Carpet Moth (Plemyria rubiginata)
But what is the ultimate point of collecting this data? Joe has explained before that the Brown Hairstreak is in decline, and at risk of regional extinction. Thus it had been included as a priority species for conservation in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. This decline is thought to be mainly down to the destruction and improper management of blackthorn hedge lines where Brown Hairstreaks can lay their eggs. Therefore showing correlation between well managed blackthorn hedges like those at Roundshaw Downs and increases in Brown Hairstreak numbers is important in proving that point, and can be used to encourage more sensible management of blackthorn hedges.

Of course, showing that we have seen an increase in the species on a site is always a good thing, especially when the species concerned is a priority species. However it is important to remember that we are a small part of the bigger picture, and what we are really doing is contributing to a huge database of surveys and information collected about these species, which becomes more complete as time goes on and more surveys are undertaken. Using the data collected from this site, Butterfly Conservation can extrapolate certain information by comparing it to other sites on a local and national scale.

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Population Map of Brown Hairstreak

Brown Hairstreak are generally confined to the South of the UK – with strongholds in Surrey and West Sussex, North Devon and South West Wales – however the data collected in Surrey by Butterfly Conservation since 2000 shows trends that the species is actually slowly moving North. Southerly sites in Surrey have seen a marked decline while at sites in the North and West of the county have seen an increase.

As mentioned previously, these assumptions may be slightly skewed. Have the sites with recorded increases of population (like Roundshaw Downs this year) really seen an increase, or is it that they have been more thoroughly surveyed? Had some of these sites not been previously surveyed at all? I mentioned above that we found the first recorded Blue Bordered Carpet Moth eggs at Roundshaw, but that absolutely doesn’t mean that there was no population there previously, just that they hadn’t been recorded.

The only way to verify these trends and gain real meaning from the data collected is through widespread and consistent surveying, both through organised survey days with large groups like our frosty morning with Butterfly Conservation, and through individual recording.

Both individuals and groups can submit sighting information to Butterfly Conservation  via the iRecord Butterflies app, for any and all butterfly species. All information submitted this way will add to the overall database of knowledge, giving a clearer and more complete picture of butterfly populations.

While this blog has focused on Brown Hairstreak the message extends to all species: the more information we collect, the more useful it is.
So get recording – the future of the Brown Hairstreak may well depend on it!

New Biodiversity Assistant

Something awful has happened to Sutton’s Biodiversity team…

…It’s got me in it!

It’s Adam Asquith, by the way. Hello everyone!

I’ve been volunteering twice weekly with the SNCV for well over a year now, getting my hands dirty with everything from pulling ragwort, to pulling reeds, to pulling thistle, to pulling a muscle in my back.

Writhing on the floor in a pair of leaky waders after being thwarted by a tough reed may be enough to turn some people off their work, but it’ll take a lot more than that to keep me away. This isn’t a challenge, by the way, if the ancient and vengeful God of Manual Lifting Technique happens to read this.

Building up my knowledge of conservation work watching and listening to Dave, Mark, Alex, Joe and the other SNCV volunteers has given me a real passion to learn more and continue to work on our sites.

Having previously only really done office work under the iron thumb of ‘the man’, rather than practical, useful, tree-huggy (except when we chop ‘em down) work for the good of the environment, I can’t tell you how liberating and energising the last year and a bit has been. Genuinely, since being thoroughly accepted into the SNCV tribe, I’ve been happier and healthier, so cheers all.

The position of Biodiversity Assistant has been vacant since Joe Grainger’s departure earlier in the year to explore new pastures. With his blessing, I am to follow in his footsteps… Nice one, Joe.

Anyway Hi all, I’m Adam, the new Biodiversity Assistant. Adam the pun-slinging, wild food-foraging, mountain-walking, booze-brewing, music-making hippy.

…I normally just go by Adam, though.

…Also, I’m not sure I’m old enough to be a hippy.

Other than being the Biodiversity Assistant I am also a computer programmer/IT guy (I have to get money in somehow), and I play drums and sing in a doom metal band (cheeky link). Recently, we’ve been writing songs about how ruddy lovely nature is, if you can believe it.

If you don’t know what doom metal is, you may want to take the way I used ‘sing’ with a pinch of salt. ‘Yell’ or ‘bellow’ may be better words for what I do. I am fairly unlikely to burst into a heartfelt rendition of ‘My Delilah’ while working, you’ll be pleased to hear, but I can’t promise that I won’t start humming ‘Iron Man’. The volunteers will have to learn to deal with it.

Many of you reading this will know me already. Hello friends.
Those who I haven’t met, I look forward to getting to know you soon enough.

I’ll be updating the SNCV blog regularly in the future, covering the practical work we are undertaking and addressing the hows and whys of doing said work, deepening my own knowledge of it and hopefully yours too.
I’ll also post some in depth looks at certain species or groups that I find particularly interesting on a personal level (i.e. things I can eat), so expect something tasty popping up on here soon!

Cheers for reading,
Adam