M. Jane Bunting, University of Hull @DrMJBunting
Using a group of citizen scientists to collect data from sediment cores is not exactly a commonplace thing, but Wildscapes did just that between 30thJune and 3rdof July. Volunteers have been helping with the coring programme to collect evidence of previous landscapes across the region – some have even blogged about it here – and we’ve had enthusiastic attendance at workshops which showed people what we did once we found signs of sediment bodies from past meres or floodplain woodlands, so this was a logical next step. It was also quite a daunting one! Would people actually be interested in sitting indoors on a nice summer’s day looking at very tiny objects and trying to work out what they were? Would we be able to get enough microscopes (and even more important, extension cables) to the Hatfield Visitors Centre? Would we manage to give the same introductory talks about how to describe pollen grains three days running without sounding bored or talking so fast no-one could keep up?
Nika and colleagues had collected a core from a mere in the Humberhead Levels last Autumn, but Nika did not have time to analyse it as part of her PhD, but we still wanted to know more about the environment, especially about what happened at the very start of the Mere – we knew that the area had been dry land during the early Holocene, after the glacial lake drained, and that sometime in the mid-Holocene as sea-levels rose so wetlands colonised the floodplains of the rivers, then spread into the wider landscape. Historical descriptions of the meres describe diverse and productive wetlands, but when and how did they first form?
In May we made a plan, took subsamples from the core and passed them over to one of our technical experts who would get them ready for looking at under the microscope, and sent off a sample for radiocarbon dating – it was exciting to get an email from Nicki telling me that a possible Mesolithic piece of flint had been found in the very bottom of the core, confirming not just dry land in the early Holocene, but also the presence of people in the area! We planned for three days of pollen counting and one day of working together to interpret what we had found, and I was given a very important responsibility for the first day – bringing the biscuits and the milk for the tea. Which biscuits to open next and whether we had enough milk were a very important recurring theme, and only once did I have to hop in the car mid-morning to go on a milk run for our tea and coffee-fuelled crew.
An excellent group of enthusiastic people came together, with some staying all four days, others managing just one or two, but together we successfully made a short pollen diagram of the basal part of the record from Messic Mere. It showed that the first sediments were lain down in a marshy fen, which was quite quickly colonised by alder trees to create a carr wetland, whilst the wider landscape was wooded with pine, oak and other deciduous trees – quite a contrast with the farmed fields there now (what was it – wheat or sweetcorn?). Despite the not very comfortable chairs and the lure of beautiful summer weather outside, most attendees said they’d like to come again if we did something similar next year; it’s always fun when other people catch on to how innately fascinating palaeoecology can be, and want to take more trips in the “muddy time machine”.