On a perfect day for walking, some 20 members, friends and their families were guided around the ever interesting woodland of Ebernoe in West Sussex by Mark Monk Terry from Sussex Wildlife Trust.
This nature reserve is mainly Low Weald woodland with a history of traditional use. For centuries commoners would turn out their cattle or pigs to graze and browse, while the Wealden clay was used for brick making and the timber for smelting iron ore. The remains of all these industries are still written in the landscape, with hollows where clay was excavated and streams dammed into ponds to feed water wheels.
In addition to its industrial heritage the wood is also an SSI, in which a total of 3,720 species have been recorded – including 961 species of fungi and 481 Coleoptera, including some rare saproxylic species.
The site is mainly broadleaved deciduous woodland, with glades and pools maintained by repeated mowing and raking by volunteers and, mainly in the late summer and autumn, by the introduction of British white cattle. This attention has enabled the return of a rich and varied flora including many orchid species.
A major feature of this reserve is the 15 species of bat that have been identified here, including a colony of barbastelle bats, which need old dying trees with loose bark for their roosts. There is also a colony of Bechstein’s bats, mainly roosting in old woodpecker holes in the stems of mature sessile oak trees. Radio-tracking devices affixed to trapped individuals have indicated that the barbastelles can move over a 25 mile radius, whereas Bechstein’s bats tend to stay within the woodland, taking insects from trees. Our enjoyable and informative walk was capped off by the song of a nightingale.
It is possible to run a modern farm and to care for its wildlife? That was the question addressed on our recent visit to Pierrepont Farm, run by the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT).
Launched in 1993 in response to growing fears about intensive and industrialised farming, the CRT aims to purchase farmland and woodland where the wildlife habitat and biodiversity are under threat and, using mainly traditional farming methods, to restore it to a living countryside.
We were introduced to the project by the education officer, Annika Rice, who explained that this farm, given by Jo Baker in 2006, is one of 12 properties owned and run by the trust. It covers some 500 acres and includes a dairy herd of 130 milking cows, mostly Jerseys, the milk of which contains around 5.4% butterfat, which significantly increases its value.
One major point of interest was the automated milking parlour which cows visit at their leisure up to five times night or day, a process that reduces labour costs and increases the milk yield by up to 10%.
The farm also includes a water meadow, a biodiverse pond, an area of woodland and some generous field margins.
The wildlife over the farm is monitored by Bill Young and Brian Lavers and a team of volunteers who also carry out work to improve biodiversity. For example, they have been clearing from the woodland Rhododendron ponticum, which tends to smother other plants and deter some wildlife.
Presumably as a result of the farming methods employed, the meadows have been reported to contain some 128 different species of plants as well as 82 species of birds and 52 species of macro-fungi. There is also a range of invertebrates including the European wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi), a large and colourful introduced species which builds webs in grassland. There is also a badger set but no hedgehogs; two possibly related findings. A most interesting and instructive day.
23 October 2016
A goodly crowd attended our annual foray at the Chantries under the indomitable guidance of Professor Maurice Moss. As expected, a multitude of diverse fungi cropped up, ranging from the very large polypore bracket Rigidoporus ulmarius (a specimen found at Kew in 2003 measured 425cm in circumference) to tiny species of Mycena. Other large brackets discovered were the southern bracket, Ganoderma australe, the giant polypore, Meripilus giganteus (a massive cause of white rot in beech), the resinous polypore, Ischinoderma resinosum, and the birch or razor strop fungus Piptopterus betulinus. Download a full species list.
An abundance of other species came to light of course, and a list will appear on our website. It suffices here to highlight some finds whose properties warrant further comment. For example, the panther cap, Amanita pantherina, an ectomycorrhizal symbiont of beech contains the psychoactive compound muscimol, a GABA agonist used often as an enthogen. Regarding the lilac bonnet, Mycena pura, as well as containing the antifungal agent strobilurin, belonging to a group of fungicides used in agriculture and horticulture, it also yields puroquinoic acid, a sesquiterpene, which induces mammalian line HL60 cells to differentiate into macrophage-like or granulocyte-like cells.
Now a salutary word of caution: the common roll rim, Paxillus involutus, has often been judged by some as edible and eaten without apparent ill effects. However, in 1944, the respected mycologist Julius Schaffer died of renal failure several days after consuming some, and further cases have since been recorded. It has been shown that the condition is caused by an autoimmune response involving IgG antibodies and erythrocytes, resulting in immunohaemolysis, and after repeated consumption such fatalities can commonly occur. So, be warned: the effects of eating the wrong mushrooms can creep up on you!
17 October 2016
In 2014, the last date for which data are readily available, some 890 women in the UK died of cervical cancer, with 99.7% of these cancers being associated with an infection involving high risk human papillomavirus.
Infections with HPV are extremely common, with most not resulting in cancer. For example of the 100 or so types of HPV identified only 13 strains have been defined as oncogenic and just two types, 16 and 18, have been associated with 70% of cervical cancers.
These and many other important pieces of information were passed to the girls of Sutton High School by Kirsty Brown, information officer at Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust. This charity is devoted to providing information and support on all aspects of cervical abnormalities and cervical cancer, including HPV vaccination, which currently affords the best protection against cervical cancer, especially if given before contact with high risk HPV types.
Kirsty went on to explain that infection is primarily by genital-to-genital skin contact, and during vaginal, anal or oral sex. However the virus can remain dormant for long periods of time so often it is not possible to determine exactly when or from whom the infection originated.
Kirsty then discussed the major risk factors associated with cervical cancer and how this risk may be reduced, for example by practicing safe sex, by quitting smoking, by leading a healthy life style, by having the HPV vaccination and by attending cervical screening (smear tests).
However, if a woman does become infected with high risk HPV and her immune system is unable to clear it, then the virus can cause abnormalities of the cells of the cervix. It is these abnormalities that are detected during a smear test. These cells may then be treated before cervical cancer can become established.
11 September 2016
JBS Haldane, when asked if the study of natural history offered any conclusions as to the nature of God, replied that “the Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles”.
So had Charles Darwin, and on a warm and sunny September afternoon in Darwin’s house in Downe, Kent, we were treated to a talk on Darwin’s fondness for beetles by Max Barclay, Coleoptera and Hemiptera collections manager at the Natural History Museum.
There are at least 400,000 beetle species worldwide, more than any other insect group. These comprise some 25% of all known animal species. Darwin, although a poor student, was an avid beetle collector, and this played a part in his development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. On one of the Canary Islands he found many beetles that could not fly, while similar beetles on the mainland could. He reasoned that both could have come from the same stock but that on the island there was a selective advantage in being flightless; for example, the beetles would have been less prone to being blown out to sea.
New species of beetle are being discovered daily, not only in wild habitats but in old museum collections. Darwin contributed to the 200,000 species currently preserved in the Natural History Museum, and one rove beetle he collected during his 1832 expedition to Bahia Blanca, Argentina, was only recently recognised as a new species. In 2008, Dr Stylianos Chatzimanolis, an entomologist at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, named the genus and species Darwinilus sedarisi.
As Chatzimanolis said to National Geographic magazine: "There is a famous Darwin quote about beetles:…'Whenever I hear of the capture of rare beetles, I feel like an old war-horse at the sound of a trumpet.' Darwinilus sedarisi certainly qualifies as such a discovery.”
14 August 2016
Beautiful weather, a captivating garden, a knowledgeable and interesting guide and a cream tea. What better way could there be to spend a Sunday morning?
Some 20 members enjoyed this tour of Bateman’s, Rudyard Kipling’s house and garden, maintained to reflect Kipling’s design. The result is an early 20th century house, enclosed by a 12 acre garden set in a 300 acre landscape of farmland and ancient woodlands, with some of the latter enclosing small pits and ponds; remnants of a once prosperous iron industry in the locality.
The garden is, in fact, a series of gardens; some enclosed or divided by brick walls. First we were introduced to the orchard which, along with more common fruit, contained medlars, quince and a black mulberry. There was also a salad, vegetable and herb garden which provided produce for the house, while facing the front of the house was an alley of pear trees on wire frames, so arranged that the owner, sitting at the far end, could look through it to the house in the near distance.
Through a gate we were in the front garden, with its lawns enclosed on three sides by flower borders. Then past the lily pond with its river-fed fountain, over which some 19 species of dragon and damsel fly and four species of bat have been identified. Then through the rose garden to the water garden which forms a natural flood plain to protect the house from the excesses of the river. Then, further on, past some bee hives, to a water mill which, in Kipling’s time, served to generate electricity for the house.
A very enjoyable day in peaceful surroundings.
Two species of insectivorous plants (the round-leaved sundew and the lesser bladderwor), a wild cranberry and a large female raft spider – complete with egg sack – were amongst the many interesting species found during our walk around Thursley Common, led by the reserve manager, James Giles.
Thursley Common is an SSSI and a National Nature Reserve comprising some 400 hectares of heath-land and mire with small areas of woodland, situated between the villages of Thursley and Elstead in the north west of Surrey.
Luckily, over the mire and wet heath-land a raised wooden boardwalk enabled us to keep our feet relatively dry whilst examining the bog pools and sphagnum lawns for both calcifugal plants such as bog asphodel (allegedly the cause of brittle bone disease in sheep), heath spotted orchid and the less common early marsh orchid.
There were also dragonfly species such as the four-spotted chaser, the emperor, common darter, downy emerald and keeled skimmer; just some of the 26 species of dragon-fly reported to have been found on the reserve.
We then moved from the marshland onto the heath where the sandy soil with its outcrops of ironstone was populated by cross-leaved heather, bell heather, heath star moss, ling and dwarf gorse, while over the heather we could see silver studded blue butterflies, the caterpillars of which are often found in the presence of ants, especially the black ant Lasius niger, which are believed to offer the caterpillars some form of protection against parasites and other predators.
As far as animals are concerned we saw quite a few common lizards, but sadly no sign of the much rarer sand lizard, while in the skies woodlarks, stonechats, a meadow pipit, skylarks and a goldfinch flew above us.
4 June 2016
With its steep slopes, narrow paths and rickety bridges, this walk through the Mens was challenging, but led by the reserves manager, Mark Monk-Terry, yielded some excellent vistas of ancient woodland and interesting flora and fauna.
The unusual name of this area comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘ge-mænnes’, meaning common land, as it was once used for pannage by farmers with adjoining land and as a source of timber.
However, for the last century or so these woodlands have been left largely unattended, with fallen trees and branches left for saproxylic invertebrates, lichens and wood-rotting fungi. The result is an SSSI of atmospheric beech and oak beneath which were many interesting species including holly, yew, ash, birch and wild service trees with yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon), enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), some fine grass (possibly Melva uniflora) and with bryophytes including the star moss (Polytrichum commune).
Following a figure of eight walk through the woods we entered the adjacent meadows, termed the Badlands, which are reported to have never been ploughed or fertilized, or at least not in living memory. They therefore are filled with a range of wild flowers including stands of early purple (Orchis mascula) and common spotted (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) orchids, yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), yellow pimpernel (Lysimachia nemorum) and many more – a memorable morning’s walking.
8 May 2016
On a hot day in May we visited the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent to hear from Professor Richard Griffiths about their studies of the great crested newt.
DICE combines a natural and social sciences approach to conservation, focusing on research that can inform practical measures worldwide. In Britain the great crested newt is fully protected by law and, if it is discovered on a construction site, a mitigation licence is required for development to proceed.
However, the factors affecting its successful conservation are incompletely understood, with mitigation requiring not just the preservation of breeding ponds but also the availability of suitable rough grassland and scrub around the ponds to accommodate non-breeding and hibernating adults and juveniles.
This brings ecologists into direct conflict with developers, and there is a mutual desire for speedy resolution of such conflicts.
Following DICE’s work from 1995 until 2014 on this species in ponds at the nearby Well Court Farm, a series of replicated ponds was set up within the Kent University campus. This initially involved newt traps placed at two metre intervals around pond edges, with individual newts identified and tracked using images of the patterns on their underbellies. More recently, the development of DNA techniques promises to become a useful tool for demonstrating their presence and a non-invasive way of identifying individual great crested newts.
From DICE’s long term studies it is clear that the newts do not breed successfully every year, with their breeding success being dependent on a number of factors including the presence of predators such as fish and insect larvae and the weather, with mild winters affecting hibernation and hot summers drying out the ponds. A most interesting and rewarding event.
13 April 2016
The catalyst for this lecture was my letter, published in The Biologist Vol 62 No 2 p45, in response to an earlier article which included reference to the cariostatic effects of water fluoridation. Professor Peckham's AGM presentation included a review of current practice and the polarised opinions which it generates. The dental profession and government agencies continue to support and recommend water fluoridation in the face of new evidence as to fluoride's side-effects in addition to dental fluorosis (a subclinical symptom of its toxicity), such as skeletal fluorosis, hypothyroidism, nervous system and other soft tissue abnormalities.
Proponents depend heavily upon epidemiological studies made before 1975, and Professor Peckham highlighted the unreliability of much of this data, especially as sampling has been shown in many instances to be slanted (the so- called Gold effect), and its significance therefore suspect. The supporters of public water fluoridation are therefore relying largely upon outdated and unreliable information, and have been reluctant to accept new evidence as to its safety and efficacy.
Our speaker's own recent study of the incidence of hypothyroidism in Birmingham, whose population drinks fluoridated water, has upset several establishment scientists, who accuse him of the same suspect methods and conclusions which they themselves support in maintaining the status quo! The Cochrane Review has concluded recently that the evidence for the benefits of water fluoridation is insecure, so in view of the toxicity of ingested fluoride at relatively low concentrations, and its dubious role in controlling dental decay, a reassessment of the practice is long overdue.
Finally, I refer the interested reader to a review of the molecular mechanisms of fluoride toxicity by Oliver Barbier et al in Chemico-Biological Interactions 188, 319-333 (2010). Also, "Something in the Water" Guardian online,13th April 2016 the very date of our AGM!
15 October 2015
Human activities, through climate change, changes in land use, the release of nitrogen and phosphorus into the environment are all changing our biosphere with one in every 10,000 species reportedly lost per year. While in the sea the number of dead zones, that is where the dissolved oxygen levels have dropped too low to support most marine life, has roughly doubled each decade since the 1960s.
Dr Pettorelli, a research fellow from the Institute of Zoology, explained how data from satellites may be used to monitor these changes to a packed audience of students, staff and RSB members at Sutton High School.
Initially Dr Pettorelli discussed the meaning of the term biodiversity and the impact of human-induced change on the number and ratios of species, with amphibians most at risk. She also covered the quality of human lives, particularly the lives of the poorest segment of a population, for example as a consequence of declining yields from global fisheries. Much therefore needs to be done to mitigate these effects and this will require more finance and more collaborative endeavour.
She then went on to discuss how biodiversity may be monitored, and the value of satellite-based observations in this process. Landsat satellites operating in the visible, infra-red and microwave regions of the spectrum offer a reproducible and sustainable means of deriving environmental information on large or remote areas of the world at a price significantly less that that of field monitoring.
Satellite imagery has been used to detect and map anthropogenic disturbances in desert environments including oil exploration in the Sahara. It has also been used for monitoring penguins on Antarctica via the discoloration of the snow by their excrement, and for predicting the timing of red deer seasonal migration and their reproductive success; a very enjoyable and informative talk.
11 October 2015
Twenty members and friends attended this annual event under the capable stewardship of Professor Maurice Moss (below left). Owing to the quite recent rain, we found an abundance of fungi with which to test our powers of observation and identification.
Naturally, we recorded many species of interest, (a list will be available here shortly), but it is useful to remind ourselves of the important roles that fungi have played over the decades, and still are playing, in drug discovery. On every foray we see, in addition to their intrinsic fascination to the forager in the field, species of pharmacological importance.
Take, for example, the stag's horn fungus, Xylaria hypoxylon, a source of xylariol A and B, known to be cytotoxic to certain hepatic cancer cells as well as the carbohydrate binding protein, lectin, a potent anti-tumour agent to certain cell lines.
The turkey tail, Coreolus versicolor, is a source of polysaccharide K, beneficial as an adjuvant in treatment of certain kinds of tumour. The Jew's ear fungus, Auricularia auricular-judae, even exhibits multiple characteristics, including anti tumour, hypoglycaemic, anticoagulant and cholesterol-lowering properties, and, furthermore, is edible.
We found several trees infected with the honey fungus, Armillaria mellea, a parasitic white rot fungus whose rhizomorphs infect trees at a rapid rate, eventually causing their death. It has been suggested that the bioluminescence shown by the fruiting bodies of the fungus attracts night-flying insects and so assists in the spread of the infective spores. The species has been used to develop a sensitive bioluminescent based toxicity assay for 3,5 dichlorophenol, a frequent environmental contaminant.
After such an intensive tour, some of us were then happy to direct our attention to culinary pursuits, by adding to our trugs some common puffballs, Lycoperdon perlatum and several bay boletes, Boletus badius. Buon appetito!
16 September 2015
Twenty or so members enjoyed the excellent sparkling and still wines produced at the Denbies winery near Dorking. The company uses grape varieties including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and a somewhat similar geography, soil and wine-making process as used in Champagne.
Established in 1986, Denbies is England's largest single estate vineyard with 627 acres, of which 265 are planted with vines, mostly on the protected south facing slopes of this North Downs estate. Despite its sheltered location and the wooded windbreaks, the wine makers are still at the mercy of the weather. In 2002 an early flowering vine, the Muller Thurgau, was almost completely destroyed by heavy summer rain and this year, because of the cooler temperatures, the growing season is some 14 days later than 2014.
As our guide explained, the vines have to be cared for throughout the year, with Autumn mostly pruning and thinning, while in Spring, usually the most dangerous time for wine makers, precious shoots have to be protected from damage by late frosts with the use of burners, protein sprays, and other devices. The flowers then appear in June.
The most important part of the tour however, was the wine tasting, with white, rose and red on offer and very much enjoyed.
From the winery, we were directed to the Surrey Hills microbrewery which, since 2005, has been located beside and beneath the café, shop and other rooms of the wine estate. Using local water and in-leaf hops, sourced locally where possible, the brewery produces a range of some six beers of which the best known is probably Shere Drop, which won a silver medal in 2013 in CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain competition at Kensington Olympia.
15 July 2015
Sparsholt is an associate college of the University of Portsmouth with a range of courses including fishery-based studies. Led by Dr Nick Beevers, a lecturer in fisheries studies, a dozen branch members were treated to an interesting and informative walk and talk around the extensive fishery facilities at the college.
Within these facilities a range of fish species including tilapia, carp, brown and rainbow trout are farmed both for research and for commercial production.
In the tilapia unit female fish are induced to spawn by the addition of extracts from the female pituitary gland, then the eggs are fertilized by sperm stripped from a chosen male. The fertilized eggs are then screened for viability and abnormalities by a laser-guided, automated process.
Following hatching, the next stage in the process is the growth of the fry for some 3 – 4 years in covered tanks fed with water from the college's own bore hole. Following aeration this water is passed twice through the fish tanks, then, with its load of uneaten food and waste products, is passed through a filter and via settling tanks into a specially laid and maintained reed bed. From this reed bed it then passes into an artificial lake which has itself become an attractive facility and a valuable teaching resource.
In addition to fish farming, we were also introduced to the extensive research facilities of the college – including tanks in which young trout are being used for the comparative testing of commercially available fish foods and others in which white clawed crayfish are investigated for their habitat selection and defence.
17 May 2015
Led by a knowledgeable guide, Alison Ruyter from Kent Wildlife Trust, 17 members, friends and families enjoyed a walk through the Queendown Warren nature reserve. Covering almost 80 hectares (198 acres) the reserve is mainly grassland (CG3 Bromopsis erecta) and forms part of the Medway Smile living landscape scheme, designed to provide a range of different but interconnected environments for the benefit of wildlife.
On a perfect day for a walk - sunny but with a cooling breeze – we set off through Potter's Wood with its oak, ash, hornbeam, beech and wild cherry making a perfect environment for woodland flora such as bluebells, wood anemones, bugle and barren strawberries with some yellow archangels and a few early purple orchids and white helleborines. There was also a stand of sweet chestnut, coppiced on a two to ten year cycle both for the encouragement of the wildlife and for the commercial value of the timber.
As we passed the woodland's edge we found a clouded yellow butterfly and a fly orchid. Then across the chalk grassland, grazed by sheep and rabbits to encourage the lower growing flowers, we saw butterflies such as the brown argus, the holly blue and an orange tip. Among the typical grazed chalk grassland plants we found green-winged and early spider orchids and the rather rare meadow clary.
As part of Kent Wildlife Trust's investigative programme into the effects of rabbit grazing we were shown two areas, one of which had been enclosed all year and one enclosed only during the spring and summer. From the preliminary results of this enclosure experiment it appears that restricting spring and summer grazing has little effect on the number and ratio of different plant species whereas removing grazing pressure altogether negatively affects the chalk grassland specialists.
19 April 2015
Carpeted with bluebells and wood anemones and filled with ash, beech and hornbeam, this very attractive woodland made for an excellent spring walk, enhanced by the discovery of some early purple orchids and some massive old oaks, one reported to be over 300 years old. There was also at least one wild service tree, the fruits of which, sold under the name of Chequers, were reportedly used to flavour beer and to have given their name to many a public house.
In the glades, cleared of bracken, bramble and silver birch by the work of volunteers, heathers were becoming re-established, and there were several small ponds, probably the result of earlier clay workings, which contained a range of moisture-loving plants, Sphagnum moss and reportedly three species of newt.
Our guide for this event, Jacqueline Hutson, is a bryophyte enthusiast, who, with the aid of a number of hand lenses and illustrated leaflets, ably revised our knowledge of, or introduced some of us to, the range of mosses and liverworts to be found in the woods.
These, probably rather primitive, plants lack a vascular system and so are typically found in moist areas such as dense woodland where they can grow as carpets and mounds on the ground as well as clothing the trunks and branches of the trees.
During our walk we found both Acrocarpus mosses such as Mnium hornum, with its leaves edged with a row of double teeth, and Pleurocarpous mosses such as Kindbergia praelonga, with its heart-shaped leaves on creeping stems and narrower leaves on its branches.
Amongst the liverworts we found leafy specimens such as Lophocolea heterophylla, with its delicate translucent shoots, and thalloid species such as Metzgeria furcata with its thick midrib and forking thalli.
It was altogether a most informative and enjoyable event.
25 March 2015
On a cool but dry Wednesday in March, 22 members visited RHS Wisley to hear about an ambitious project to investigate the effects that different mixtures of native and non-native plant species have on the fauna to be found in the garden.
This is important as we know that, excluding lawns, the average UK garden contains 70% non-native plants.
To investigate this question Helen Bostock, Dr Andrew Salisbury and the Plants for Bugs team set up 36 plots with a mixture of 14 species of plants including bulbs, perennials, shrubs, grasses or ferns and climbers, native to one of three geographic zones: Britain (Native), the Northern Hemisphere excluding UK (Near-Native) or the Southern Hemisphere (Exotic). These plots were then monitored for invertebrates using four different methods: pitfall and gastropod traps, a Vortis suction sampler and visual observation of visitors to the flowers.
The data from these measurements are now being analysed and the first results on pollinator behaviour should appear shortly in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
For example results have suggested that honey bees tend to favour Native or Near-Native plants whereas long-tongued bumble bees and solitary bees showed no preference as to region of plant origin. However for gardeners who wish to support a wide range of pollinating insect species it is clear that the more flowering plants a garden can offer throughout the year, from different regions, the greater the number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects it will attract.
For those interested in gardening in an insect-friendly manner the RHS has produced a list of recommended plants on its website.
A most interesting visit; I'm sure that many of us will be following with great interest the publication of further results and conclusions.
11 March 2015
The Pirbright Institute, formally the Institute for Animal Health, has a unique role in this country and an international reputation as a centre for the control, containment and, where possible, elimination of viral diseases of animals.
Professor Fazakerley described, with many examples, the severe negative impacts that dangerous and potentially pandemic viruses can have on the health of livestock, on food availability and on the prosperity of farmers and other communities. He started his talk with an account of the emergence and spread of Ebola in West Africa. This virus, which first came to the attention of the scientific community in 1976, has now infected at least 22,000 people.
Other devastating diseases that he discussed included Foot and Mouth which, in 2001, caused losses to the economy of around eight billion pounds, and the H5N1 influenza virus, a cause of a highly infectious disease in birds which, if spread to intensively farmed chickens, is capable of causing severe economic damage.
H5N1 will also occasionally infect human cells causing a respiratory disease with a mortality rate of at least 50%. Other diseases discussed included African Swine fever, a devastating haemorrhagic fever of pigs with mortality rates approaching 100 per cent, and West Nile fever which can cause encephalitis in horses and humans and is now recognised as a major public heath concern in the US and Europe.
Many viruses therefore pose complex threats to human economies and human health and hence there is a need for centres such as Pirbright which can bring together scientists from a range of specialised fields such as virology, molecular biology, immunology, epidemiology and entomology and provide them with the high bio-containment facilities required for their work.
A most interesting and informative lecture.
29 October 2014
On a typically dull autumn morning in Tunbridge Wells members and guests assembled for coffee and biscuits prior to a talk by Sandy Williamson, the Woodland Trust Warden. Sandy explained how the Trust was set up, the current management plans, and the monitoring of a number of sites, including restoration and preservation of ancient woodland (PAWS) and their wildlife. She summarized the groups of mammals found in British woodland, estimating the numbers of each in turn as indicators of resources and environmental balance.
The current woodland distribution of species was compared with those of 10,000 years ago, with reference to those mammals suffering extinction from then until historical times, which included woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, cave lions, lemmings, wolverine, elk, auroch, lynx, brown bear, wolf, beaver and wild boar.
These extinctions were caused, directly or indirectly, by human activity, and the aim of the Trust is to help those remaining to survive and prosper. Even such a simple expedient as leaving gaps between gardens to allow hedgehogs to increase their foraging range is beneficial to the species. Also, it is important to control introduced mammals, such as fallow and sika deer, grey squirrels, mink, and feral pets.
The practical part of the exercise was to identify and record small rodents caught in humane traps hidden strategically in various parts of Hargate Forest. So we emerged from the lecture into fine drizzle, which persisted throughout our tour. In spite of the conditions, we buzzed with anticipation each time we approached a trap concealed beneath the undergrowth, which invariably contained an occupant, albeit a woodmouse. Eventually, one of the dormouse nest boxes yielded a sleepy tenant. Well satisfied with the day's discoveries, we wound our happy way home through the gathering mist.
12 October 2014
Twenty-five members and friends assembled in the Chantry car park on a mild and pleasant morning for our annual outing with the intrepid Professor Maurice Moss. Chantry, maintained by the Woodland Trust, is a 200 acre site of mixed woodland and meadow a short distance from Guildford town centre.
During the morning's foray we identified around 40 species (download a full species list), ranging from a 23 inch diameter artist's fungus (Ganoderma applanatum) growing on a fallen beech, to the tiny pinhead stromata of the coral spot fungus (Nectria cinnabarina) on dead and dying twigs. We found two species of Mycena: M. vitalis, the snapping bonnet, characterised by the sound produced when the stipe breaks on pulling lengthwise, and M. galopus, the milky bonnet, whose white juice contains benzopyrenes, thought to assist in wound-activated chemical defence against yeasts and parasitic fungi. Parasitism among macrofungi was illustrated by the parasitic bolete Pseudoboletus parasiticus we found growing on the common earth ball, Scleroderma citrinum.
Two more of our finds illustrated the use of fungi in the treatment of cancer, such as the bitter bolete, Tylopilus felleus, whose extract contains the anti-tumour compound, tilopilan. Extracts of the stinkhorn (Phallus impudica) have been found to reduce platelet aggregation in the treatment of venous thrombosis in supportive preventative nutrition in breast cancer patients.
To end the day's entertainment, we were treated to a view of a clump of porcelain fungi, Oudemansiella mucida, with its translucent caps showing against the light high up on a beech branch, its usual location. Often in late autumn these fungi are dislodged by breezes and parachute down, although we were not privileged on this occasion to observe this phenomenon.
A species list is available to download.
16 August 2014
The lace border moth, Scopula ornate, is a rare and attractive chalk grassland species, the range of which is reducing. It is now only found in the south east of England and one site in West Norfolk. We were therefore most privileged to find one specimen during our walk on Denbies Hillside, Dorking.
Our walk was led by Malcolm Bridge from Butterfly Conservation and was enjoyed by some 17 members, relatives and friends.
Amongst the other species found on the hillside were speckled woods, small heaths, a gatekeeper, a brown argus, a common blue and some chalkhill blues. The distribution of this latter species follows the distribution of horseshoe vetch which, in turn, follows the distribution of chalk and limestone grassland. It is therefore normally restricted to the south of England.
However the most spectacular of the butterflies found was perhaps the adonis blue, also found on short turf. The larvae of the adonis blue are attended by ants, most commonly red ants, attracted by secretions from special 'honey glands' on the larvae. The ants then protect the larvae from predators.
Our guide also talked about the tentative identification of leaf miners from their burrowing patterns on leaves. These leaf miners are the larvae of insects, mostly moths and sawflies, which lay their eggs into the tissues of leaves where they bore through the softer leaf tissue.
The precise pattern formed by the feeding tunnel is diagnostic, often to genus level. For example our attention was drawn to the larva of the moth Stigmella tityrella, the mine of which, normally on beech, consists of a corridor that does not widen much but zigzags between two lateral veins in the direction of the leaf margin.
6 August 2014
Led by local expert Steven Savage, 18 members, friends and relatives spent an interesting afternoon investigating the flora and fauna of the beaches at Ovingdean, near Brighton, Sussex.
We arrived as the tide was receding and after an introductory talk by our guide, we were let loose on rocks made slippery with a covering of bladder wrack and serrated wrack, with some small amounts of ulva lactuca and Enteromorpha sp.
Close to shore, there was a small amount of the invasive brown seaweed, Sargassum muticum, originally from Japan, that can form extensive growths in very sheltered situations and even pose a hazard for the propellers of boats.
Digging beneath the sea weed we found limpets, barnacles, various species of periwinkle, common whelks and the occasional dog whelk.
Also in the ponds and creeks were small hermit and common shore crabs, and a porcelain crab - not a true crab but related to the squat lobsters. It is distinguished from true crabs by its habit of walking on just three rather than four pairs of legs; the fourth pair being reduced and held against the carapace.
At the beginning of the event, our guide had handed out plastic beakers into which we could place our finds and, at the end of the event, Steven talked us through our findings, adding many interesting details about the creatures found.
7 June 2014
On a hot Derby day in June, 20 members set out to explore the rich nature of Howell Hill, a five hectare site formed of chalk spoil heaps from local civil engineering projects. It has subsequently been colonised by some 260 species of plants, thriving in nutrient-poor chalk soil.
The site has since been managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust to maintain the range of habitats and the rich flora and the visit was led by Peter Wakeham, secretary for the Surrey Botanical Society.
Of special note, we identified seven species of orchid, including the chalk fragrent (Gymnadenia conopsea) with its evening scent; the twayblade (Neottia ovata) with its basal pair of un-stalked, opposite leaves; the common spotted (Dactylorhiza fuchsii); the yellow man orchid (Orchis anthropophora); and the fascinating bee orchid (Ophrys apifera).
On the grass banks we found tall broomrape (Orobanche elatior), parasitic on greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa), and large areas of yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), a hemi-parasite on the roots of grass.
In addition to these plants, Howell Hill is also important as a site for the smallest butterfly in Europe; the scarce and declining small blue (Cupido minimus), of which we saw a number of specimens. This butterfly lays its eggs on kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), the growth of which on the reserve is being encouraged by the preparation of chalky scrapes.
Another interesting plant-insect interaction was pointed out as we were examining a black poplar near the entrance to the reserve. This tree has over 100 insects associated with it, including the hornet moth, wood leopard moth and the poplar hawk moth, and frequently has twisted galls on its petioles caused by the aphid Pemphigus spyrothecae. A very enjoyable and informative walk.
27 March 2014
Every year in the UK there are around 35,000 new cases of prostate cancer with some 10,000 deaths, however more men die with this cancer than from it, as not all cancers are aggressively malignant.
Dr Richard Morgan informed us that even with malignant tumours, early diagnosis can greatly aid survival. The standard test at the moment is for prostate-specific antigen (PSA) which is secreted from the tumour into the blood. In a recent study 76,893 men were followed, with half screened over six years and the other half unscreened. In the screened half more cancers were detected but there was no improvement in survival. This suggests that widespread screening would not be cost-effective, presumably as the PSA test does not distinguish effectively between aggressive and non-aggressive tumours.
He then discussed the possible role of embryonic genes, especially HOX and Engrailed genes, in cancer. In humans HOX genes are a group of 39 genes, the protein products of which are transcription factors which activate or repress genes controlling the formation of tissues, structures and organs within the foetus. These HOX genes also become activated in prostate tumour cells and there stimulate uncontrolled growth.
Dr Morgan has been working on HOX proteins and other transcription factors which act in embryonic-development and which are potential targets and biomarkers in cancer. Preliminary work has indicated that Engrailed-2 (EN2) levels in the urine of men with prostate cancer roughly correlate with tumour volume, which in turn is an indication of tumour aggressiveness, and that the test is twice as sensitive as the standard PSA test.
Dr Morgan's work has also produced a range of reagents that block HOX function and which have proved to be potent anti-cancer molecules, at least in mice; a most interesting and informative lecture.
18 December 2013
Wakehurst Place has been described as Kew in the Country, with its 465 acres of ornamental gardens and temperate woodlands it affords some spectacular walks. It was made more interesting by the knowledge and enthusiasm of our guides, Beth Thorold and Jim Heath.
As expected In December there were few flowers to brighten the landscape yet the gardens could still boast a range of architectural trees like the Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) with its bright red autumn foliage or Farges's Holly (Ilex fargesii) with its dark green leaves.
Laboratory manager Keith Manger MSB and Drs Louise Colville and Rosemary Newton conducted tours of the millennium seed bank. We were talked through the process by which seeds from some 154 countries and 24,000 different species, including from virtually all the UK's native plants, have been collected and preserved.
Much of this collecting is by local specialists who know the plants in their area and can collect not only seeds but also vegetative specimens including flowers so that their identity can be confirmed. The seeds are then dried, cleaned, allocated a collection number, then stored in hermetically sealed glass bottles, or in tri-laminated foil bags, at -20 degrees or at liquid nitrogen temperatures.
But the seed bank is not only a collection of world-wide importance it is also a research facility with some 20 scientists confronting vital problems such as the breaking of seed dormancy, the storage of the most delicate and recalcitrant seeds, and the biochemical changes associated with the death of seeds from environmental stress.
A fascinating and extremely informative visit.
16 October 2013
The sense of smell in humans involves a large family of around 1000 olfactory receptor genes, yet most humans are able to detect an even greater number of odours, thought to be over 10,000.
These and many other interesting points were made by Drs Natasha Hill and Juliet Dukes from Kingston University in their lecture to members and students at Sutton High School for Girls.
Dr Hill explained the physiology of odour detection, from the structure of the membrane-bound receptors to the initiation of an action potential as the aroma molecule binds and stimulates membrane depolarisation. This process is exceptional in that it represents the only sensory system that projects directly into the brain.
She reported that sensitivity to odours differed between individuals and tends to decline with age. It also differs between males and females and in many animals plays a role in mating behaviour. However in humans this role may be overridden by learnt behaviour. Drs Hill and Dukes went on to conduct an experiment to measure the sensitivity of some students to different smells.
Dr Dukes discussed some evolutionary aspects of the sense of smell from fish, through amphibians to reptiles and then mammals. The sense of smell progressively declined in higher mammals that preferentially used sight as their major sense.
We are able to use this sense in animals, for example using dogs to detect contraband, land mines, disease etc. A cheaper alternative could be to use rats or even insects as these had equally good senses of smell but were quicker to train. Dr Dukes concluded the evening with an overview of the current state-of-the-art of genomics technology with examples of its uses.
4 September 2013
Since its inception in 1992, Hogs Back Brewery has won over 40 awards for its beers with, in 2006, its Traditional English Ale being voted by CAMRA 'best beer' and its Aromas over Tongham (A over T) beer voted as Supreme Champion Winter Ale.
This small brewery uses techniques very similar to those of traditional craft brewers and produces over 7,000 gallons of real ale per week. That is to say that the fermentable sugars are derived only from malted barley, the hops used are local whole hop flowers, the yeast strain is carefully maintained and reused, and, at the end of the fermentation, the beer is cask or brewery conditioning. For example the most popular brand, Traditional English Ale, that was once conditioned in the bottle is now brewery conditioned and bottled under nitrogen to give a sparkling beer and a prolonged shelf life.
Noel Armstrong entertained us with his detailed knowledge and enthusiasm for the brewery's products and by the provision of a succession of jugs of beer and cider. Following this tour, we were privileged to have chief brewer Miles Chesterman answer our more scientific questions on the art and science of brewing. Our group were particularly interested in how, over the years, the brewery has been able to maintain the individual taste and quality of its different beers.
Overall, a most interesting and informative event and, for all interested in real ale, a strongly recommended visit.
31 July 2013
Stalwart members braced the rain for a tour of Wakehurst gardens and the Millennium Seed Bank. Jim Heath MSB was our very knowledgeable guide, he pointed out and discussed many of the rare and interesting specimens.
The Franklin tree, Franklinia alatamaho, has been extinct in the wild since the early 19th century and is the sole surviving member of its genus. We also admired the beautiful blue Hydrangea macrophylla, the Daimyo oak, Quercus dentate, with its leaves up to 30cm in length, and many, many other fascinating specimens.
From the gardens we were then led to the Millennium Seed Bank where we were privileged to be shown around by two of the senior scientists, Keith Manger MSB, the laboratory manager and Professor Hugh Pritchard FSB, the head of research. As we toured the laboratories, dry rooms, cold rooms and other facilities we were talked through the process by which seeds from some 154 countries and 24,000 different species, including from virtually all the UK's native plants, have been collected and preserved.
On arrival at the bank the seeds are dried, cleaned (by separation from dust and fungal spores), then examined by techniques that include digital x-raying, a process that enables the rapid recognition, then removal, of any insect infested, immature, diseased or malformed seeds. The seeds are then identified, allocated a collection number, then stored in hermetically sealed glass bottles, or in tri-laminated foil bags, at -20 degrees or at liquid nitrogen temperatures. They are then available for research, for example by the bank's team of some 80 scientists, or for repopulation of their original habitat; a fascinating and extremely informative visit.
11 November 2012
Professor Maurice Moss led 30 members and guests in search for fungi amongst the autumn leaves in Sheepleas, Surrey.
Amongst the 35 species identified was a range of wood rotting species such as Piptoporus betulinus, the razor-strop fungus, and Ganoderma applanatum, the Artist's Bracket, so named because when the lower surface is scratched it changes from light to dark brown, producing clear lines. Another common polypore was Trametes versicolor, the turkey tail fungus, named for the white to brown bands on the upper surface of its fruiting body. We also found, on an old tree stump, the small conical agaric, Mycena haematopus, the bleeding fairy helmet, which when cut exudes a red dye which stained the finger on one of our members.
We come across the edible Hypholoma capnoides, distinguished from the more common, but poisonous sulphur-tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) by its greyish-gills and the dark colour of its spores. Both are found on the stumps of deciduous trees. Amongst the beech leaves we found the Magpie fungus, Coprinus picaceus, which is possibly poisonous and certainly unpleasant as it is reported to produce the volatile indole, skatole, found in human faeces.
There was also Lepiota procera, the parasol mushroom, favoured as a delicacy, and the slimy milk-cap, Lactarius blennius, with its pale olive/ greenish grey convex cap. This latter fungus is known to contain a number of pharmacologically active compounds including the anti-inflammatory 'blennin A'.
Dr David Ware CBiol FSB