It feels like spring already.

It’s been a lovely week here on the Skyline and at Prior Park. It feels like spring is beginning to peak its head a little early, which is somewhat unsettling, but one can’t help enjoying the warm sunshine and the early flowering daffodils.

I have been working with the gardening team at Prior Park Landscape Garden in Bath. This garden was part of Ralph Allen’s estate – an 18th century entrepreneur and philanthropist who earned his fortune through founding the postal service – and was donated to the National Trust by Prior Park College who own the mansion-house at the top of the garden. On Tuesday, I joined Alice the gardener and her team of volunteers in some path maintenance along the bank of the lake. While the lads rebuilt the wooden revetment, Alice and I resurfaced a stretch of path that had become waterlogged due to insufficient drainage. I spent some time using a mattock to dig out the old surface hoggin (a mixture of clay gravel and sand) and a couple of inches the dense clay below before refilling it with a layer of rocks. We then lay a sheet of membrane fabric between the rocks and the new surface of hoggin to stop the finer hoggin from just falling through the rocks. The gardeners are a lovely bunch and it was great to get some experience in path building.

It has been the half term holidays this week which means I got to take part in hosting my first Wild Wednesday! We had all sorts of winter wildlife activities for kids to come and get involved with. Unfortunately it poured with rain for most of the day but while we weren’t out hunting for wildlife and collecting animal track stamps from around the Woodland Play Area we were huddled under the gazebo making bird feeders out of toilet roll tubes, honey and bird seed and painting birds and trees with our fingers. The kids were unperturbed by the rain, everyone eager to get involved in all of the activities, including those that meant leaving the protection of the gazebo. And it was equally admirable that so many parents were willing to endure the weather for the sake of the children being able to utilise the outdoors as an exciting learning environment. Much fun was had by all!

Friday was another day spent at Prior Park, which is where we share office space with the gardening team. It was so lovely outdoors that none of us wanted to be in the office. Thankfully, Tabi needed to go pond dipping to collect data for a course project; so we were able to distract ourselves from office work by taking a walk up to the serpentine pond at the top of the garden to discover which little creatures are residing there.

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Rachel and Tabi pond dipping, Prior Park.

It is quite astonishing how much life you can find in such a small area of pond! And we were only seeing the organisms big enough to catch in our net. When you really stop to take a proper look, the world is a much busier place than one might initially perceive.

We found plants and animals from a wide range of different taxa including all sorts of pond weeds and algae, fresh water snails, annelid worms, shrimp, insects, frogs (and lots of frogspawn) and fish. I’ve picked out a few of my favourite finds that you can see in the pictures below.

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Mayfly larva (Ephemeroptera sp.) – The aquatic larvae of mayfly species, called naiads, are easily identifiable by the three caudal filaments at their posterior. Although they are not easily visible in this picture, the larvae have external gills that project from the sides of their abdomens. The naiads of most species are herbivores or detritivores, feeding on algae and detritus, however, some are predatory and will feed on smaller creatures such as Chironomid fly larvae.

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Caddisfly larva (Tricoptera sp.): These insect larvae are renowned for being innovative builders. Many species use silk they produce in their salivary glands to glue together bits of plant or mineral debris to make themselves a protective case. Here we can see a larva with a case made from pond weed. When the insect feels threatened it retracts its head and thorax  back inside its case where it is well hidden from potential predators. This taxa is also omniphagous and species can vary between being predators, algae and plant grazers and filter feeders (filtering organic debris from the surrounding water).

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I don’t know which species of fish this is but it was very sweet floating as still as a statue with its pelvic fins stuck out like fans. I imagine these were the fish that we watched being plucked out of the water by the resident kingfisher.

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Leech: I believe (but not sure) that the species of this individual is Hemiclepsis marginata, a common fresh water leech found in ponds and lakes. It moves using two suckers on its ventral surface; anchoring itself with its posterior sucker, it extends the front of its body forwards and then, after getting a hold with its anterior sucker, the rest of it’s body is pulled forward. In the picture, the anterior end of the leech is the thin part, stretching forwards and navigating its surroundings. Watching it move was quite mesmerising. H. marginata are able to roll themselves up into a ball, much like woodlice, so that they can roll away down hill to rapidly avoid danger. This species feeds on the blood of fish, tadpoles and molluscs and, as creepy as they seem, are not a threat to humans.

There is also a kingfisher that feeds at this pond and, as Rachel had promised, it was there sitting on the stonework around the pond, intermittently diving down and plucking fish from the water, its iridescent blue flashing in the sunlight.

When we were done, we walked back around the other side of the lake to that which we had come as I had not come this far around before and over the Palladian bridge which still has the wicker hearts hanging between the pillars. The garden is stunning, especially in the sunshine. The long-term aim of the gardeners is to recreate the garden as it was before 1764 when Ralph Allen was still alive. There are very few herbaceous flower species, only those that grow naturally here such as snowdrops and wild daffodils. The garden primarily hosts native green shrubs and trees (or species that were present in the UK before 1764 at least) which gives it a very natural feel.

In the afternoon, I started decorating one of the fairy doors we’ve been making over the last couple of weeks with a pyrography pen. I got so involved in it I didn’t want to leave – but finishing the door will have to wait for another time…

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A sneaky peak of the door I have been working on with the pyrography pen – this door belongs to the fairy known as Whispy Sapling.

 

 

 

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