Student Research

For the past 4 years, we have worked on Lampert Farm conducting student research projects.  Lampert farm is 1,034 hectares, over 2,500 acres, situated to the south-west of Northumberland National Park.  The farm is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), designated partly because of the mire habitat and its invertebrates, including the Cloud-Living Spider (Semljicola caliginosus).

It is also part of a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) called “Border Mires, Kielder – Butterburn” for the bogs, heath habitat and the petrifying springs with tufa formation.  Special species that can be seen include breeding waders; such as curlew and golden plover, large heath butterfly and mountain bumblebees.  There are lots of peat and peat habitats over the farm, storing large amounts of carbon in the soil.

The land has probably been farmed since medieval times.  There are five ‘scheduled ancient monument’ shielings on the farm. Shielings are small huts that would have been occupied by herdsmen who tended animals grazing upland summer pasture.

In more recent times, the farm was bought by the current landowner’s grandfather in 1885 and the Farm Manager has been on this land since 1990.  His son’s grandfather started work at the farm in 1920, 100 years ago.  On the farm today are about 575 blackface sheep and 40 luing cattle.  Luing (pronounced ‘ling’ cattle) is a hardy breed with a reddish coat.  The cattle are able to wander over most of the farm, although they are brought into a barn for winter.  The sheep are hefted into eight areas. ‘Hefting’ this means there are no fences, but the ewes stay in a local area by instinct, which they learn from their mother.

Livestock Tracking

The student research projects have been conducted in partnership with the University of Newcastle; combining livestock tracking with vegetation monitoring. A number of cattle and sheep have been fitted with a GPS enabled collar that logs their position every 15 minutes or so. The collar is not harmful or painful in any way.

At the end of the season, the collars are in collected in and the data analysed.  Students have combined this with fieldwork days when they make observations of the animals’ behaviour; their eating, socialising, and resting. A vegetation student has conducted their summer fieldwork on a set of quadrats at 100m intervals, looking to assess vegetation quality.

The combination of these two datasets, where the animals spend a lot of time and the quality of the vegetation, can help to answer detailed questions about if parts of the SSSI are being over grazed.  We have found that there can be a ‘heft within a heft’, with certain animals only preferring half of their local area, and others preferring the other half.

Interactive Map

We have created this interactive map of the cattle collar data from 2018. Each collar is shown as a separate colour. The cattle were out from mid-May until mid-September.

2018 was quite a dry summer. There are about 40 cattle but only six have the collars on, so although it appears sometimes that one cow is on its own away from the rest of the herd, it doesn’t mean that that cow was actually on its own!

This animation shows clearly how the herd likes to move around the whole farm over a period of weeks, but day by day they are just covering a relatively small area. We can also see how there is a north-east corner of the farm that they tend not to go in.

Livestock Tracking Students

The students involved have been Beth Walker (2016), Ruth Bell (2017), Lucy Brooks (2018) and Tom Clarke (2019).

Tom Clarke, the livestock tracking student in summer 2019, said, It was a privilege to be able to carry out research on a site of such significance from a conservation perspective. Whilst my main objective during field work was to observe sheep and cattle behaviour, I was constantly finding myself distracted by the breath-taking views offered by the landscape, as well as the wildlife, particularly the curlews and their resonating calls. I also enjoyed the research aspect of the project, as challenging as it was, and hope my results are useful for continued management of the site.”  The supervisor on the livestock tracking projects is Dr Richard Bevan.

Molinia

Running concurrent to the student projects we have experimented with flailing the molinia in a few areas.  Molinia is a grass (purple moor-grass) which is common on moorland habitats.  It is not unpalatable to sheep and cows, but it can become dominant and form tussocks which become difficult for the animals.

We have organised it to be flailed in the August and then observed the results.  For the first autumn the molinia mulch is still being broken down by the invertebrates and soil microbes.  In the first growing season after cutting the cattle were spending almost all their time on the flailed areas.  It was also a dry summer so perhaps it was particularly fresh growth.  There are early indications that the flailing is improving the quality of the vegetation and the grazing.  Encouraging the animals to graze the molinia grasses helps make sure they don’t over-graze on the bog parts of the farm

In particular, there is a plant that grows on bogs called bog asphodel. In the summer it has spikes of yellow flowers.  The fresh ‘bite’ of green leaves in spring and early summer can be attractive to sheep and lambs. However, it causes them to have a disease called yellowsis.

The chlorophyll in the leaves blocks the bile duct in the animals and effectively makes them very sunlight sensitive.  They can develop blisters and swell up and some lambs could even die.  For this reason, it is better if they are grazing the molinia grasses, instead of being put off by tussocks and wandering over to bogs instead.

The students involved in this project have been Alexa Byers (2016), Steven Lipscombe (2017), Cathrene Mieras (2018) and Jess Went (2019).  The supervisor working on all the vegetation projects has been Helen Adamson.  You can find out more about this project of Helens’ blog – https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/helenadamson/

Dwarf Pond Mud Snail

Finally, we have worked on a project involving the dwarf pond mud snail (Galba truncatula).  This tiny snail is around 8mm long.  It spends its time eating algae from the edges of wet areas like a ditch or a wheel rut.  However, there is a parasite that sheep can get called liver fluke. Part of the parasite’s life cycle is to come out in the sheep faeces and infect the dwarf pond mud snail, then come out of the snail and wait to be eaten again by a sheep.

Sheep can die from liver fluke and the disease seems to be on the rise, perhaps because of climate change.  We worked with a student conducting fieldwork into correlating the pH of soil, the presence of the snail and observations of the parasite in sheep faeces under a microscope.  This project started with a brief interview with the farm manager about liver fluke. He has definitely noticed it being worse over the 30_ years he has been on the farm and it is definitely linked to how wet or dry the year is.  The supervisor for this project was Dr Abdul Chaudhry.

Heather McKinley, the student working on this project in Autumn 2019 says, “The fieldwork days have been very unpredictable but interesting. This is because locating and identifying the snail has proved a challenge due to the weather and size of the snail compared to its surroundings. However, when we have identified it correctly it is exciting. Throughout the fieldwork, every trip has been educational as Abi always shows me a new plant which I haven’t noticed or tells me a new story or fact about the surrounding area and how it is developing. The views are also very beautiful and is nice to just sit and enjoy whilst eating lunch as well as enjoying the surrounding wildlife.”

Every year in December we hold a presentation event, showcasing the student research projects we have been involved with. This is an excellent opportunity to bring the projects together, encourage debate and see linkages, as well as generating ideas for further research.

All the students, the University and ourselves at the National Park are grateful to the landowner and the farm manager for encouraging the work, their interest in all the results, and for allowing access.