News archive 2010

A diary of news, happenings, plants and people in the Living Field year.

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Colder than last year

The clear skies at the beginning of December 2010 and the cold air streaming down from the north and north east caused the air above the Living Field and The James Hutton Institute's farms to fall much lower than just reported at the end of November. The temperature barely rose above freezing during the daylight, while the continued loss of 'heat' by long wave radiation (energy) emitted from the earth during the night reduced temperatures to some of the lowest recorded around here in recent decades. The lowest so far, measured at the Balruddery farm automatic weather station, was -13.5 Celcius on 3 December, several degrees lower than the coldest in the big freeze last year.  The soil is still fairly warm a few centimeters below the surface, hardly below zero, so most of the arable weed seeds, buried to 10-30 cm by the plough, will not have been harmed by the freeze. The photograph above is of the Institute's Mylnefield Farm, from the north, just before sunrise after one of the coldest nights.

Cold and snow at November's end 2010

 

Visitors to the Living Field website might like to know of the unusually cold weather being felt in Scotland and much of the UK. The photograph above, from the Living Field collection,  was taken on 29 November 2010 from the site of the prehistoric enclosure - 'fort' on the map - at Dron Hill (NO 289322) which lies at an altitude of 220 metres, WSW of the Institute's Balruddery farm. Snow is rare at any time on the Carse of Gowrie and lower Sidlaw Hills, but here it was almost knee deep, spindrift erasing the footsteps within minutes. The flat, cropped, wheat and barley land of the Carse is seen in the middle distance, then the line of River Tay, reflecting the sun at one point, and in the distance Fife to the left and centre and Perthshire to the far right.  

Most of those wild annual plants still in flower throughout November will have been stopped by the sudden arrival of this heavy snow on and around Saturday 27 November. Cold and snow had already caused disruption in NE Scotland, but did not arrive at the Living Field garden and The James Hutton Institute farms until Sunday 28th. In the first day, snow accumulated to a depth of about 15 cm (6 inches), then in subsequent falls to well over 30 cm (12 inches). The air temperature from our automatic weather station at  Balruddery Farm, after staying above zero all day on the 24th, dropped to a low of -5.4oC at 0700 on 27th, followed by lows of around -2.6oC on 28th and 29th and -4oC on 1 December. The soil temperature at 15 cm depth (about 6 inches) stayed above zero throughout this period, usually around 2.5oC. In comparison, during the big freeze at the end of December 2009 the air temperature dropped to around -10oC and soil temperature at 15 cm to just about 0oC. Elsewhere in the UK it was much colder: low temperature records for this time of year were broken in parts of Wales.

The photographs above (Living Field collection), taken on 30 November and 1 December show typical scenes in the east Perthshire croplands at this time: (left, clockwise) old trees covered in ivy, disused coppice, cropped field with hedge and tree margin, a snow covered field seen through a gap in a hedge and an old post!

November cross quarter day

The 'cross quarter day' in early November is one of those crucial times in the calendar when societies have to take stock of the year's produce. It falls half way between the autumn equinox when night and day are equal, and the winter solstice when the sun reaches its lowest point in the year. By the November cross quarter day, the crops should have been harvested and the yields tallied. Any crops still not harvested (and we hear there are a few this year in that state) have probably failed. Before the agricultural improvements in the seventeen- and eighteen-hundreds, people would know by now whether they would survive the winter on stored grain and livestock.

The time around the November cross quarter day is also one when the weather tempts and teases the wild plants of croplands. The temperature is still high enough to allow many weeds to continue growing, especially those individuals that germinated late in the year, but the solar income is falling rapidly: most, like the corn marigold and cornflower lower down the page, won't get the energy to complete their life cycle and set seed. At this time also, many of the the perennial shrubs and small trees are in fruit and provide a varied diet for birds and other creatures. (See photographs below.)  

Photographs (left to right) of wild rose Rosa species, sea-buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides, holly Ilex aquifolium and service-tree Sorbus domestica. While the species might be native to Britain, all these individuals but the rose were planted. The white bar is one centimeter.

Corn marigold not yet extinct

The recent exposure in the national press of the plight of the corn marigold Chrysanthemum segetum, nearing extinction, finds some sympathy here. It's been about five years since anyone on the Living Field team saw a corn marigold in a commercial arable field during a routine survey, but this marigold is still about, if only just. It'll remain in the soil seedbank of a few fields for a few years, but will eventually disappear from intensive agriculture. The corn marigold has been a successful plant in being a seriously troublesome weed of cereal fields for many centuries. But now it's almost gone. Good riddance, you might say. But like many weeds, it has things about it that we've forgotten or not yet found. (Don't forget that aspirin came from the meadowsweet, morphine from the opium poppy and L-dopa from the fava bean).  It is one of the many weeds that support the essential food web of croplands and bring such a light and colour to field margin and lane. The corn marigold is one of the hundreds of declining plant species supported by the Living Field. It was reintroduced into the meadow of the Living Field garden when it began in 2004. As the plant is an annual, depending for regeneration from year to year on its own seed, it was ousted from there after a few years by perennial species, but it has now spead 'like a weed' to nearby disturbed land where it catches the evening light from late spring to near winter with its golden flowers and bluey-green leaves and stems. (The photographs show the plant in October 2010, in the lower one growing together with the cornflower.) If you want to reverse the decline of the corn marigold and other plants of farmland - you can get some seed (local seed) and get a patch of the plant growing in a spot where it can spread to nearby disturbed ground. The corn marigold will not be an economical weed in modern agriculture but deserves to be here for people to study and admire.

Charitable grant to the Living Field

The Living Field is pleased to announce an award of £15k from the Mylnefield Trust for the first stage of a web-based, interactive 'game' on sustainable farming. The idea is to parallel the new, real, research platform being set up at The James Hutton Institute's Balruddery Farm with a virtual on-line game mimicking life-or-death choices in food production. Do you take from the soil, exploit it now, enjoy the bounty, but risk starving in the future. Do you pollute your neighbour and risk a trade war. Do you obliterate the last corn marigold for a few extra pounds of profit.  Many civilisations  have played this game and lost. They're gone. The odds are against winning. In real life, you've never been more than a few months away from going really hungry.

Photograph gallery by Institute staff

The Living Field web site begins a gallery of photographs taken by people working at The James Hutton Institute. The plants and insects in the Living Field garden provided the subjects for some of the first images to be profiled. Follow this link to the Photo gallery or click the bar with the same name on the left. Topics will include plants, animals, landscapes, the rural scene and natural phenomena.

Foster care group's allotment

Visitors to the Garden in July and August may have noticed the neat vegetable allotment beyond the gate separating the two parts of the Garden. Following preparation of the ground by The James Hutton Institute's field trials staff, members of SWIIS Foster care, based in Dundee, transplanted and tended a range of vegetable seedlings and young plants. The aim of the allotment is to help young people understand where food cromes from and to allow them to taste fresh, 'home-grown' veg. The photograph to the right shows maize (sweetcorn) and beans in the allotment. This combination of a cereal (here sweetcorn, a type of maize) and a legume (here broad bean) is grown in many parts of the world as a staple diet. Together, a cereal and legume provide most of the foodstuffs that people need to survive.

Royal Entomological Society visit

Around 40 members of the Royal Entomological Society visited the Living Field garden and centre as part of a Scottish Regional Meeting held on 30 June 2010. The topic of the meeting was Insect-plant biology: from genome to the landscape. The guest speaker was Professor Sue Hartley, University of Sussex and the convener from The James Hutton Institute was Scott Johnson. Other speakers and delegates were mostly from Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and St Andrews. The visitors had refreshments at the centre and a brief introduction to the Living Field before strolling round the garden to examine the wide range of plants and the insects feeding on them.

Minibeasts and healthy fruit

Slugs and beetles and the benefits to health of raspberries, strawberries and blackcurrants, were two topics put on by the Living Field for a visit of about 80 children in two sessions from Glebelands Nursery and Primary 1 classes on 23 June 2010. Teachers said both topics fitted well with this term's curriculum. The James Hutton Institute people putting on the events were Susan Verrall, Heather Ross, Nick Birch and Gladys Wright. Even a resident frog had its moment of celebrity before being put back in the Garden. 

Dundee Astronomical Society - opening ceremony

The observatory and telescope, left to the Dundee Astronomical Society by the late Dr Sandy Mackenzie, has now been located at The James Hutton Institute. As Dr Ken Kennedy writes in his invitation to attend the opening ceremony 'the observatory will be used by members of DAS for various projects relating to the Moon, planets, Sun and deep sky imaging as well as for the general pleasure of simply looking at celestial objects with a fairly large telescope.' Mrs Janet Mackenzie performed the opening (see photograph right) at 2 pm on Saturday 19 June 2010 in the presence of about 40 people from DAS and The James Hutton Institute - clearly an occasion of significance for all present. The weather on the day was blowy, but the sun was mostly visible, allowing DAS to demonstrate their portable sun telescope. The image of the sun (see below), resolved from a single wavelength apparently, shows a dull but still fairly powerful red orb with solar prominences (which look like a short, cut, gappy hedge around parts of the orb's perimeter). The presence of the observatory and telescope, and not least the expertise and enthusiasm of DAS, are a most welcome addition to the Living Field, extending the range of local knowledge well beyond our current ability to measure and interpret of the sun's incoming energy and wavelengths.

Open Farm Sunday 13 June 2010

The Living Field welcomed an unstinting flow of visitors on the afternoon of LEAF Open Farm Sunday on13 June 2010. As well as getting involved in the six Living Field exhibits on plants and insects, many families took part in the 'seek and find' quiz around the garden (which seemed quite difficult even for children), tried their hand at painting with natural dyes or went nose-first into the the smelliest plant test (of which more later). SWIIS Foster care spent the day shaping their new allotment in the garden and planting out, while the Dundee Astronomical Society were on hand to talk about the universe. The weather forecast was dire - cloud and heavy rain, unimaginably bad  - but not a drop fell during the open hours of 1100 to 1600, though the sun never shone enough for the astronomers to demonstrate their sun telescope. A great day - thanks to all our visitors. Ps the photograph above - 'a quick shot taken with a hand held Sony' by Ken Kennedy - is what the sun would have looked like through the sun telescope if the cloud had cleared.

Read more here.

Bugs and dyes - rare artwork

The children from Invergowrie Primary used their new experience of farmland insects and plant dyes to create a series of drawings and collages after their meeting with HRH Princess Royal on 7 June 2010. The subject of the drawings was the relation between plants and insects and also higher animals.  Leaves and stems from plants in the garden were used to create trees and shrubs in the collages on paper. Seeds were used to give the impression of rocks and sand. The drawn insects were sometimes coloured with extracted dyes of indigo, woad, logwood, brazilwood, rhubarb and dock. The whole showed an impressive level of skill and imagination. The completed collages can be seen here.

HRH Princess Royal visit to the Living Field

As part of her tour of The Institute on 7 June 2010, HRH Princess Royal visited the Living Field garden and study centre to meet staff (Gladys Wright, Graham Begg and Geoff Squire), see the plants in the varied habitats of the Living Field Garden and interact with children and teachers from Invergowrie Primary School. The school children were examining the insects, slugs and spiders caught in pitfall traps and learning about plant dyes. 

Sun's energy rise around the May cross quarter day

The clearing skies over the past few days remind us how hot the sun can be in early May. The sun's elevation and intensity at the May cross quarter day, 6 May this year, are almost 90% of the highest values in midsummer. The temperature of the air and soil in May, however, is nowhere near the highest, and following the cool weather of recent weeks, many crops have not produced enough leaf to cover the ground and some are not yet sown. So the sun's energy is in abundance but the leaf may not be there to catch it. The exceptions are those autumn-sown (winter) crops such as winter wheat and winter oilseed rape that have reached a good ground cover by May. They are now taking advantage of the rise in energy and starting to put on mass.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the cross-quarter day in early May seems to have been more important for some ancient farming societies than either the spring equinox (20 March in 2010) or the summer solstice (21 June in 2010). The May cross quarter day is half way between the two and marks the period when the sun's energy to the earth's surface  increases most rapidly from day to day. (The rate of increase then slows as as the year moves towards the sun's maximum energy at the solstice.) It was a time in the farming year to take stock, look at the cover of crops and grass, make predictions of what the yield was likely to be and work out what to do if the signs were not good. 

Tayside Biodiversity Festival May 2010

Over 100 events between 1 and 31 May 2010 - don't miss the Tayside Biodiversity Festival. Guided walks, workshops, iron age bread making, field crafts, photography, discussions - experience the superb and varied habitats of Tayside. Here are some of the events - check the web site for details, locations and times.

  • Bees and Trees, Flowers and Fruit - introduction to pollination. Saturday 8 May, Errol; 22 May, Killiecrankie. 
  • Orchard biodiversity afternoon at Megginch Castle orchard - with guides, Wednesday 19 May.
  • Dundee Bioblitz at Trottick Ponds, Dundee - for this event contact Alison Kairnie or Kathy Longmuir at the Dundee Ranger Service, 01382 431848, Sunday 30 May.

During May, the Living Field Garden will be open as usual. We will be preparing for LEAF Open Farm Sunday on 13 June.

Spring weather during the volcanic eruption

Just as in the big freeze, transport systems found themselves almost catastrophically sensitive to another global phenomenon, this time the volcanic eruption in Iceland. The quantities of ash and gases thrown out on this occasion are far too small to have affected climate and, other than very locally near the origin, would certainly have no detectable effect on plants and crops. What really affects the production ecosystem at this time of year is an increase in the daily range between maximum and minimum temperature (the diurnal amplitude) as the earth's surface starts to warm after the winter.  

The graph below of solar radiation (black) and air temperature (blue), provided by Mark Young from the automatic weather station, shows 6 days in mid-April during which the temperature amplitude reaches about 13 degrees. The range can get much greater in some years. These day-night changes indicate spring is here and are one of the signals that induce dormant seeds to germinate.  Also during April, the air temperature becomes increasingly responsive to the daily wave of incoming solar radiation. During much of the winter and early spring, the solar radiation has been too low to cause much of a warming in the day: the temperature of the air and soil surface tend to be determined by the wind direction (bringing cold or cool air) and the degree of cloud cover, especially at night. But on the clear day of 16 April, the course of solar radiation drives the rise and fall in temperature. The radiation is unable to drive the temperature so strongly on the days before and after the 16th because of the intermittent cloud. Discerning weather-watchers will note the peaks of solar radiation on several of the cloudy days are momentarily greater than the maximum on the clear day. These peaks are likely the combination of the incoming 'beam' of radiation plus diffraction of solar energy by the cloud as the sun passes between cloud and clear sky.

Some volcanic eruptions have had great effects on ecosystems. To find out more, search for 'Krakatoa', 'Pinatubo' and the Icelandic 'Laki' . Some of these had major effects on climate and the land's productivity - but beware of any assumptions of direct links between volcanic eruptions, climate and food production, except for the very biggest of eruptions. (GRS)

Balruddery pond plantings

 

The disused millpond at Balruddery Farm - The Institute's recent acquisition - has undergone major reconstruction by estate staff over the last few months as part of The Institute's role as a LEAF Innovation Centre. The pond was cleared and re-landscape, adding features including an island, a viewing platform, a stream and wildlife shelters. Last year a range of native wild plants, mostly flowering biennials or perennials, were selected, sown and grown in pots over the winter. Then in March 2010, hundreds of wild plants and trees were planted around the pond by farm staff (Euan Caldwell, Alex Mills, Paul Heffell) and Living Field volunteers (including Gladys Wright, Jackie Thompson, Linda Ford and Lea Wiesel). The photograph shows the island (front right), the outlet of the mill lode which slopes at a shallow angle from the far end of the field behind, some plantings in progress ... and, in blue overalls, volunteer Jackie. 

Boost for biological nitrogen fixation

The Living Field is pleased to be associated with a major new European grant - Legume Futures - which will carry out practical research across Europe on the best use of grain and forage legumes to increase biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) in arable land and pasture. SAC and The Institute recently welcomed the multi-partner Legume Futures consortium to Edinburgh for the inaugural meeting.

This research grant will add, over the next four years, to The Institute's knowledge of wild and cultivated legumes.  During 2010, the Living Field will explore the  symbiosis at the basis of biological nitrogen fixation. We begin with our image of the month for March showing microscopic cross sections of the nitrogen fixing nodules of two uncommon legumes found around the coasts of Scotland. 5000 years of crops and weeds will look at the role of BNF in food production from prehistoric times to the present.

Legume Futures is coordinated by Bob Rees at the Scottish Agricultural College. Web site: www.legumefutures.eu. Contact at The Institute : Pete Iannetta.

First use of observatory

Photograph of Mars taken from The Institute siteAfter the observatory's transfer to the Living Field site, Ken Kennedy, Dundee Astronomical Society, writes. " ... with the telescope in place and a fine clear night (2 Feb 2010) Phil and I decided to see if we could do a preliminary alignment of the telescope and perhaps try it out.  We found that Mike had very accurately determined true north and a first alignment was achieved within 10 minutes (much to our surprise and relief!).  I then turned the telescope on Mars, closest recently on 27 January, and we were pleased to be able to see the north polar cap and other surface markings.  I then had a go at some webcam AVI files of Mars and, although we don't have the electric focuser in place yet, I managed to get a few good images which I processed this morning.  I have attached one for your interest which shows the polar cap (north at the bottom), an area like India (Syrtis Major) and linear area from Syrtis Major to the right of the disc (Sinus Sabaeus and Sinus Meridiani).  The polar cap looks as if it has a break in it and I suspect that the right hand area is a dust storm which was seen during the past weekend.  Hope we can get a few more clear nights to refine the technique."

The big freeze?

The cold weather at the turn of the year might have caused transport chaos and discomfort to many people but probably did little to the vast majority of things that live in the soil round here. Our automatic weather station, beaming data from a field in the Carse of Gowrie, showed a gradual drop in minimum air temperature to just above -10oC at the end of December 2009 (the blue line in the graph below is daily minimum aspirated air temperature). Soil temperature at 15 cm, or 6 inches, declined also but barely reached zero (the brown line).  Mobile microorganisms and soil-dwelling animals would have already moved lower down to warmer quarters for the winter. Bacteria and fungi near the soil surface would soon recover from any adverse effects of this degree of cold. 

The lowest air temperature recorded anywhere in Scotland during this period almost reached the all time recorded UK low of -27.2oC. The relative warmness of the Carse is due to a combination of the large thermal mass of the Tay estuary and the shelter provided by the Sidlaw Hills. (Weather data: Mark Young)

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Highlights of the Living Field  See here a list of what's been done with the various charitable grants awarded to the Living Field project.