25 Mar 2020

Around Wales in 60 Days

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

When I moved to Wales to start my placement, I couldn’t have imagined that I would get to see quite as much of the country as I have done.

And that’s thanks to the Biophilic Wales project, set up by the Garden. The part of the project that I’ve been involved with is called ‘Grasslands for Life’, which aims to “develop resilient grassland ecosystems by revolutionising monitoring and strengthening restoration activities”.

In order to achieve this, Dr Laura Jones, Elliot Waters, Phoebe Close and I have travelled the length and breadth of Wales to collect 83 soil samples (at 41 sites). This took us two months, beginning at the start of January. Our field sampling has finished now, completed before any travel restrictions from coronavirus.

Our next aim will be to extract the DNA from the soil. Using DNA metabarcoding techniques, we can identify all the plants, animals, fungi and bacteria present in each of the samples. Grasslands are a key habitat, which support a range of biodiversity and play a role in carbon storage. It is therefore vital that we understand grassland ecosystems and how to maintain, restore or create them. Even through just collecting the soil, the astounding differences in colour, texture and composition between samples are so apparent. This just makes me even more excited to see what differences we will find by comparing the DNA in the samples.

Our first week-long trip to North Wales was certainly an eventful one, with Storm Brendan imminent! Climbing a third of the way up Snowdon in torrential rain and gale force winds was certainly an experience I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Nevertheless, we got the soil we needed, and quickly retreated to the car, so we could go and dry off at one of the many Airbnb’s we stayed at on our travels.

Much to our surprise, we soon found out that climbing a mountain was in fact, much preferable to wading through a bog!

The following quote that we found on an information board at Cors Caron National Nature Reserve sums this up pretty well: “Any fool can appreciate mountain scenery, but it takes a man of discernment to appreciate the fens”.

The challenges of bogs were further reinforced when we got trapped in a large field in Anglesey. Despite our attempts to complete a circular walking route back to the car with our collected soil, we found ourselves unable to leave a certain field due to an inconveniently placed river which prevented us crossing back to the path. This led to us having to completely re-trace our steps, leaving us that little bit soggier than we would have liked when we did eventually make it back!

Up next was Mid Wales, which appeared to be new territory for all of us. Here, we got to experience a frozen bog, which made for uneasy footing. Although this was a little scary to begin with, we (or at least I) had a fun time playing with the ice.

After this, the majority of our target sites were day trips to places in South Wales. This included National Nature Reserves but also sites at old colliery spoils. We’re also interested in using DNA to monitor the biodiversity present in these overlooked areas. Another aspect of the Biophilic Wales project is improving biodiversity at Swansea Bay University Health Board sites, so we’re also using DNA to assess these green spaces.

Our travels finished with a final trip to North Wales, where we collected our three remaining samples, and even saw some red squirrels along the way, which was a great end to the soil sampling adventures.

Throughout the sites, we sampled from a variety of grassland communities, including species-rich grasslands, rush pastures, and marshy grassland containing Cirsium dissectum, one of the species of conservation interest to the Garden.

A great effort was put into these rewarding two months by us all. So, despite the odd wet foot, we’re ready to do it all again in the summer, when we revisit all the sites to collect another batch of soil. It will be interesting to see how different the places are when (hopefully) the weather is a bit nicer!

**** Please note that all the soil sampling was carried out before the Coronavirus crisis began******