Monday, 16 November 2015

BBC Wales visit the Migneint blanket bog

I recently appeared on a programme for BBC Radio Wales' Science Cafe series, in which I talked about the Migneint blanket bog in Snowdonia.

It was a really fun show to be involved with as I got to walk around the site with the presenter, Adam Walton, and explain about the importance of such ecosystems.

The idea for the Migneint programme came after a conversation between myself and the producer of the Science Cafe, so it was great to be involved with it from the start.

You can listen to the programme here: BBC Radio Wales Science Cafe

I also wrote a press release for Bangor University, which can be read below, or by following the link:

Bangor University wetland scientists star in BBC show

Wetland scientists from Bangor University have featured in a BBC show on one of Wales’ most important habitats.

Two members of the Bangor Wetlands Group at the  School of Biological Sciences appeared on BBC Radio Wales’ popularScience Café series.

Prof Chris Freeman and Dr Christian Dunn spoke to the programme’s host, Adam Walton, about the importance of the Migneint – a vast area of blanket bog in North Wales.

Dr Christian Dunn, who runs the Wetland Science and Conservation MSc at Bangor University said:
“It was great that Adam and the Science Café team were interested in seeing the Migneint.

“These areas of peatlands, which literally blanket some of our mountains, often get overlooked but they’re incredibly important wetlands for a whole host of reasons.

“Not only do they provide unique habitats for animals and plants but they can help prevent flooding, affect the quality of our drinking water and even control climate change – due to the amount of carbon stored in them.”

Prof Chris Freeman, who is the head of the School of Biological Sciences, said: “It’s always good to show people just how important our peatlands are and to highlight some of the work we’re doing here at Bangor University on the subject.

“The Migneint is a stunning place and a lot of important research has been done there.”

“It does obviously rain there quite a bit though; fortunately the weather was great when the Science Café came so they had a great day exploring the site and no-one got their feet too wet!” he added.

The programme is available to listen to from the BBC Science Café website:

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Make an affordable desktop aquaponic system

Aquaponics is the process of growing plants using water from a stock of fish - crucially the plants act as filter, cleaning the water so it can be returned to the fish.

This creates a self-sustaining cycle with the dirty water from the fish tank feeding the plants and the returned  clean water keeping the fish healthy.

In terms of growing plants, aquaponics is basically just a standard hydroponic system using the waste water from a fish tank as the nutrient solution.

I'd read about aquaponic systems but never really seen one working, so I decided to build one myself.

I wanted to make a small system which could fit on my desk, be cheap and relatively portable incase was needed it for lectures or demonstrations.

The design I came up with was really simple, affordable and quick to make, and involved using two stackable plastic storage containers.
The containers needed to set-up a desktop aquaponics system
Stackable plastic storage containers used to make the
desktop aquaopnics system

The fish would be in the bottom container and the plants, growing in gravel, in the top.

I drilled a hole in the top container and attached some simple plumbers' pipe, which allowed me to adjust the level of the water reservoir in this container.

Gravel was added to the top container to such a depth it was about 2cm above the new outlet pipe.

I put a simple plastic container over the outlet pipe which still allowed water to flow out, but stopped any gravel blocking the outlet or falling down it.

A pump was then used to move a steady stream of water from the bottom container to the top one.

Although the constant trickle of water from the outlet pipe of the top container, may have been enough to oxygenate the water for the fish I added an additional air pump to the bottom container, just in case.

The outlet in the top container of the
desktop aquaponics system
After letting the system settle for a while I bought two goldfish and a pot of basil - a plant which apparently does well in these systems.

I added the fish to the bottom container, rinsed the soil off the basil and planted it in the gravel and that was it.

Altogether the whole aquaponics system has cost around £30 (about $50) and is pretty compact and portable.

The system has now been running for just under four weeks on my desk near a large window and I'm amazed at how successful it's been so far.

The water in the bottom container looks relatively clear, the fish seem healthy and the basil is flourishing.

The ease and success of such an aquaponics system has really got me thinking about the potential of aquaponics, in terms of providing a relatively sustainable source of food and their use in urban farming.

Although I'm still debating whether an aqaupnoics system could be classified as a wetland - I certainly think they need some more research!

Desktop aquaponics system - after set-up 
Desktop aquaponics system - four weeks after set-up. Fish and plants doing well.  

Monday, 30 March 2015

Wetland conservation at Countess of Chester Country Park

I recently visited the Countess of Chester Country Park and was delighted to see areas of wetlands featuring so heavily there.

The park is just next to Chester's main hospital and was officially opened last year.

Whilst my eldest daughter was receiving some treatment the other week I went for a walk and found that the designers of the park have included plenty of wetland areas.

I think this is absolutely fantastic and shows that we really are starting to appreciate our wetlands nowadays.

The wetland areas aren't huge and could easily have been drained but they haven't, instead they've been preserved, protected and even enhanced.

It's fantastic that wetland conservation is now being considered and taken seriously on so many levels.

These wetlands will provide a great habitat for many different plants, birds and animals and the clever design of the park means that visitors will be able to get really close to them without getting their feet wet.

Those of us involved in wetland science and wetland conservation are often explaining the value of the ecosystem services provided by wetlands.

Maybe one of those overlooked services is the importance for human health and well being, which walking around such special places can have on us.

Wouldn't it be great to think that spending time around the nearby wetlands could help improve the recovery of some of the hospital's patients?

My praise for the wetlands at the Countess of Chester Country Park in the Chester Chronicle

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Constructed Farm Wetlands (CFW) research

One of the latest research projects I've set-up at Bangor University combines two of my interests - wetlands (obviously!) and agriculture - by investigating the use of Constructed Farm Wetlands (CFWs)

The work is being supported by some great folk at Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and aims to ensure farmers and policy makers in Wales are better informed about the use and application of CFWs.

As the name suggests Constructed Farm Wetlands are a type of treatment wetland which can be used by farmers to help clean-up surface run-off water from farmyards and fields, before it enters the watercourse.

There's even evidence they can be used to store carbon and improve soil fertility, which could be one of the angles we study as the project develops.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Should SuDS be renamed?

Wetland scientists really do have the most exciting conversations -  for example a recent discussion in our labs involved whether SuDS should be renamed.

SuDS, stand for Sustainable Drainage Systems, or Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems, if you prefer the uppercase 'U' acronym.

The term encompasses a whole range of practices and developments to drain surface water in a more controlled manner than standard drains.

Their use and application is increasing in many countries, including the UK where flooding is considered a growing problem.

Many SuDS feature wetland systems to control water flows and even treat runoff  by removing harmful pollutants.

However, as wetland scientists we feel that the term 'wetlands' is not given enough prominence or credit when SuDS are referred to.

Then again, we often think this about anything that doesn't praise wetlands enough!

Anyway, we'd like SuDS which include wetland systems to be given their very own classification.

After many hours of intense debate we came up with a new term to include all such SuDS and wetlands which are built to be used to aid drainage of surface water in some way.

We propose such a wetland should be called a Constructed Drainage Wetland (CDW).

Catchy (-ish) and goes with a range of other, more established, wetland classifications such as Constructed Farm Wetland (CFW), and Constructed Treatment Wetland (CTW).

Admittedly, not really a renaming of SuDS - just a tweaking of sub-categories to give wetlands the credit they deserve!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Parachuting beavers into the UK?

The news that the government plans to remove the first colony of wild beavers seen in England for 500 years has caused huge controversy.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is believed to be worried about the impacts and consequences of beavers living on the River Otter in Devon.

It is reported that Defra plans to capture and rehome the beavers in a zoo or wildlife park - while a petition has been set up urging the government to leave the animals alone.

The small beaver colony, discovered earlier this year, is thought to be the first of its kind in England for around 500 years.

Until then beavers would have been a common sight along the country's rivers -  which has led many environmentalists and conservationists to call for their reintroduction to our waterways.

Such a reintroduction, if one is ever given the greenlight, is likely to involve very small numbers of beavers on targeted river sections.

Parachuting beavers...

However, the translocation of beavers has not always been conducted in such a sedate manner.

Indeed in the 1940s beavers were actually parachuted into areas of America: literally, strapped to parachutes and thrown out of aeroplanes!

One of those involved in the parachuting-rodent scheme even wrote a scientific paper on the subject, which has to be one of the most unusual papers I've ever read.

Published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 1950, Elmo Herter from the Idaho Fish and Game Department wrote the article 'Transplanting Beavers by Airplane and Parachute'.

In it he describes the need to 'transplant' beavers from where they 'exist in abundance' and may be causing damage, to areas where they're not found and could set up 'fur-bearing populations'.

According to Herter's paper such practise was relatively common but involved an 'arduous, prolonged, expensive' schedule involving several days journey with trucks and pack horses.

Many beavers died en route and some of those that survived became 'dangerously belligerent'.

So a better method was developed which involved planes and ex-military parachutes.

The paper goes into fabulous detail for the design of a box which beavers could be kept in during their flight and skydive.

Once on the ground the specially constructed box sprang open to allow the, surely bewildered, beavers to leave and set up their new colony.

To get to this final working design though the team had to test out several different types, using dummy weights, and, of course, real beavers.

Perhaps the finest part of the paper describes the adventures of one such test-beaver:
One old male beaver, whom we fondly named 'Geronimo', was dropped again and again on the flying field. Each time he scrambled out of the box, someone was on hand to pick him up. Poor fellow! He finally became resigned, and as soon as we approached him, would crawl back into his box ready to go aloft again.

Unfortunately not all beavers faired so well:
One beaver worked his head through the small opening thus made for him, and managed to climb out onto the top of the box. Even so, had he stayed where he was, all would have gone well; but for some inexplicable reason, when the box was within 75 feet of the ground, he jumped or fell from the box.
Perhaps the 'inexplicable reason' was that the poor beaver was a little perplexed as to the turn of events which saw it floating down a river eating a nice piece of willow one minute, and the next being hurled out a large aircraft.

As for Geronimo, fear not: 
You may be sure that 'Geronimo' had a priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland, and that the three young females went with him.

Crucially the whole - wonderfully barmy - scheme appears to have been a success, as Herter reports that 12 months after the airborne beaver-invasion of remote Idaho all the beavers were thriving.

Apart from the one that jumped out of its box.

Beavers in the UK...

So instead of the UK Government getting rid of our beavers perhaps we should be parachuting more of them into our landscape?

There may not be much call for their 'fur-bearing' properties anymore, but it's possible beavers could help with river and wetland restoration, flood alleviation and carbon storage.

If you want to know more about the effects of beavers on the landscape then why not sign-up for the Wetland Science and Conservation MSc at Bangor University?

Monday, 24 March 2014

BBC Science Cafe - radio interview

The other week I gave an interview for BBC Radio Wales` Science Cafe programme.

As part of their episode on the Bangor University Science Festival I was asked to talk about some of our latest research on wetlands.

Here`s the link to the interview which was on the BBC Science Cafe on March 11, 2014: BBC Science Cafe.

I enjoy doing publicity work like this; it allows me to use some of the skills I learnt during my years as a journalist, and it helps highlight the importance of wetlands.

Wetlands, especially in the UK, rarely get the limelight other "sexier" ecosystems do; such as forests and mountains - but I'd like to help change that.

Our wetlands control so much of our lives - both on a local and global scale.

They are the breeding and feeding grounds for countless species, they can prevent flooding, clean our water and even help control our climate.

Indeed, I'd argue, our very existence depends on wetlands.

So yes; I'm always happy to tell people how great our wetlands are!