Thursday, 28 June 2012

Basingstoke Canal Revisited

The Basingstoke Canal at the beginning of restoration
 activities. It was a long time before this dredger
actually began operations. Note how well vegetated the
towpath is in the middle distance
A view taken from Odiham Wharf bridge, 2012.
Although the canal looks neat and tidy as do most
waterways today, the price of this organisation is the
total loss of its biological richness
It was late June in 2012 that my wife and I made a visit to the Basingstoke Canal to see how it has developed since its restoration. Repeats of photographs that had been taken in the 1970s were taken from the same position. Although one or two narrow boats were seen, not a single craft was observed actually using the canal, there was one person fishing. This underlines my opinion that following restoration, the Canal is neither one thing nor the other. It is not a major recreation resource, nor does much of the rich wildlife present in the 1970s survive. As will be seen from comparison of the photographs, very little wildlife survives at all, and the current canal landscape is very similar to that of any of Britain’s other waterways. As in the photograph shown in my previous blog of the Kennet and Avon Canal, the water is opaque and brown. No one in their right mind would contemplate drawing a pint of Basingstoke Canal water and downing it today.

At Crookham Wharf, I recorded part of a notice board displaying aspects of the Canal. The following is a quotation from that notice.

    The Canal is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI),
    teeming with wildlife. It has a huge variety of dragonflies and
    damselflies and has more types of aquatic plant than any other
    water body in Britain. The Greywell Tunnel west of Odiham, is

    Britain’s largest bat hibernation site.

A view looking east from Pondtail Bridge in Fleet in 1975.
Note the rich, and varied surface vegetation as well
as the zone of aquatic vegetation between the bank
and the water. These conditions would have been
ideal habitat for breeding and hunting dragonflies
A view looking east from the old Pondtail Bridge taken from
the same place as the 1975 photograph. The view is blocked
by the recently constructed road bridge
The Basingstoke Canal beyond the recently built road bridge
taken in June 2012. Note the total lack of any surface vegetation.
While there is a considerable biomass of bank-side
aquatic vegetation, very few species are present
Looking at the Canal and its wildlife today, it is certainly neither teeming with wildlife, nor does it support a huge variety of dragonflies. The biodiversity of plant life is very low. Having written it personally way back in the 1970s, I believe the quotation was taken originally from the label for the Willis Museum, Basingstoke display portraying the Canal. In those days, this statement would have been true. The claim that the Greywell Tunnel is the largest bat roosting site in Britain is huge, but if this is so, it underlines how important the Canal was for wildlife in the past.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Collections and Ecology

One of my earliest memories, from when I was about 6 or 7 years old, is of finding a strange insect, which fascinated me. At the time, we lived in the depths of Norfolk, and wildlife was my main pastime. My father suggested we should take my find to the Castle Museum in Norwich. I was shown into an office where that great naturalist Ted Ellis was in charge of natural history. He looked at my offering, and identified it as the nymph of a species of shield bug.

Death’s Head Hawkmoth, a preserved specimen
Death’s Head Hawkmoth, the caterpillar
He then showed me a cabinet drawer in which rank upon rank of similar insects were displayed with military precision. It just happened that he had some death’s head hawkmoth caterpillars feeding on a potato plant close by. Already I was aware of hawkmoths, and of the rarity and iconic status of the death’s head hawkmoth.  In all, I probably spent twenty minutes in that room, but the experience had been one of the most influential twenty minutes of my life. A few years later, the family was staying in London, and my father said he was going to give me a very special surprise. He did not tell me what it was till we got there. He took me to the South Kensington Natural History Museum where I was awe struck by the variety and majesty of so much natural history.

Another early memory was of rolling back faded grey cloth coverings to reveal the insect collections beneath at Ipswich Museum.
The Natural History Museum, Dublin
More recently, I saw similar collections in Dublin’s Natural History Museum. The Biological Museum in Dublin has become a museum in itself showing the history of natural history in museums. As such I believe it is fantastically important. Museums where youngsters could go and explore quantities of specimens, and learn so much from them is largely a thing of the past. Today, museums all too often are teaching displays fulfilling a role, which is probably just as well covered by the internet. Museum collections are no longer valued as they used to be, and no photograph or diagram will ever give the information that a preserved specimen can give. For many years, I worked as a biological curator in a regional museum, and was taught that the specimen was the most important aspect of the work of a museum. My first professional experience was in the 1970s at Leicester Museum. At Leicester, the collections were beautifully conserved, catalogued and displayed. The public, and especially keen youngsters were encouraged to come and use the collections in order to learn their way around the complex relationships within difficult insect groups. The collections were used like a reference library.

Four full time taxidermists worked to increase the collection of birds and mammals. Throughout Leicestershire, members of the public kept their eyes open for road casualties, and it was with these that the collections were enlarged. Oh yes, the days of what’s hit is history and what’s missed is mystery were very much a thing of the past. However, the collections continued to increase in size and importance. While I was there, an aquatic warbler killed by accident, possibly by a cat, was added to the collections. No one can be an effective ecological consultant without a working knowledge of the fauna and flora in the sites to be studied, and the specimens housed in museums are a goldmine for anyone learning their way around the complexities of Britain’s wildlife.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

History of a Backwater

There was quite a crowd on the banks of the Basingstoke Canal. A dragonfly enthusiast friend had been so incensed by a piece in a local paper that the Canal was a health hazard and an eyesore that he had announced that at a given time, he would pull himself a pint of canal water, and drink it. The paper had said that there were cases of dogs that had fallen into the canal and died, because it was so polluted. Far from dying, my friend simply quenched his thirst, and as far as I know lived on for many years after this experience.

View from Pondtail Bridge, Fleet, 1972 after a dry summer
The same view after the removal of many shrubs in 1974
More shrub cleared, 1975. Note increased usage of footpath
It was in 1970 that I first became aware of the Basingstoke Canal. I had just taken up the post of Keeper of Biology in the Hampshire County Museum Service, and one of my projects was to organise a natural history gallery for the Willis Museum in Basingstoke. I wanted to feature a wetland site, and the Basingstoke Canal seemed promising. I first gained access to it at Odiham, and it took me several hours, armed with a machete to make any progress at all along the towpath. The main channel was almost dry, totally choked with Glyceria maxima, Reed Sweet-grass, so much so that there was little hope of much interesting natural history for my gallery project.

Over the weeks, I explored the whole of the Canal, and the section that survives east of the Greywell Tunnel proved to be a gem of a wetland site. West of the Greywell Tunnel, the western end of which has collapsed there is little water. Sections have been filled in and built on. Quite a length now lies beneath the M3 motorway. It is an exercise in archaeology and map reading to find the line of the Canal in Basingstoke itself where the wharf now lies beneath the bus station.

For anyone wishing to study the fauna and flora of an inland waterway, the Basingstoke Canal offered so much. In a short stretch close to Farnborough Aerodrome, the majority of the British dragonfly fauna could be found including the only site known then for the beautiful, and incredibly rare Somatochlora metallica, the Brilliant Emerald Dragonfly. Luckily this species has increased its range considerably in southeastern England since 1970. In the eastern Hampshire section, the range of aquatic plants was considerable and included many rare Potamogeton species (Pondweeds) as well as Hydrochaeris morsus ranae, Frogbit and Stratiotes aloides, the Water Soldier. The perfection of the zonation from a rich bank flora through to floating and submerged species was unique in my experience.