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Volunteering with Tame Valley Wetlands

Clare is a volunteer for Tame Valley Wetlands, and here writes about some of the work she has been carrying out alongside the team.

I began volunteering with Tame Valley Wetlands a few months ago and I feel like I have learnt so much in such a short space of time. I wanted to volunteer to ‘give something back’ and feel like I was helping to conserve and restore some of the nature in my local area. However I was also hoping that it might help me make the transition between careers that I was looking for.

My scientific background has always been molecular. I have worked in a research laboratory environment, have a PhD in Genetics and spent many years working in education teaching mainly GCSE and A Level Biology. During the last couple of years I have found a renewed interest in nature and the environment. I began to understand the massive impact that we have had on this planet and decided that I would like to work in a scientific environment where it felt like I was helping to restore things.

During my first few volunteering sessions with Tame Force I helped to clear overgrown areas of footpaths in nature reserves and helped work on the ‘daubing’ to form the walls of a replica medieval Roundhouse that is to be used as an outdoor classroom.

I have loved working outside during these sessions and meeting other volunteers who all have their own reasons for volunteering. Every session I learn something. It might be the history of a site, how to use a certain tool or even about a particular species that we stumble across during the session. Everyone shares their knowledge and each person brings their own skills to the session.

After chatting to some of the team at Tame Valley Wetlands I became interested in one particular project that was beginning at Langley Brook in Middleton and I began to get involved with this, working with Tame Valley Water and Habitats Specialist Officer, Andrew Apanasionok. The Langley Brook site has been identified as a site with the potential to be improved as a local wildlife site.

I have been assisting Andrew in preliminary assessment surveys at the site which included a Topographic survey and a Macroinvertebrate survey.

During the Topographic survey I learnt how to take elevation measurements along transects and investigate ground composition using an auger and a small trial pit. The survey concentrated on an area of low lying ground opposite the brook to assess its suitability for re-wetting. Sampling up to a metre deep, the ground was found to contain organic matter overlaying glacial and fluvial deposits. The elevation measurements taken will give us an understanding of the topography of the land and enable us to calculate where to excavate and the extent of excavation to allow the land to re-wet without risk of flooding to the surrounding area.

We also carried out a Macroinvertebrate survey of the brook. We chose 5 representative sampling sites along a 300m reach of the brook and using a standardised kick sampling method we collected the macroinvertebrates found there. We then identified the organisms found and scored each sample using the British Monitoring Working Party scoring system. This scoring system can be used as a way of assessing water quality. Invertebrates can be used as ‘bioindicators’ as many species are sensitive to pollution and sudden changes in their environment. Our survey found that all the sampled sites were categorised as ‘Poor’ in terms of water quality, indicating that they are polluted or impacted in some way. This survey will be used as a baseline to look for improvements following interventions. We are also hoping to establish an ongoing water quality monitoring programme using citizen scientists to take regular measurements using handheld probes. This will help us to identify any trends or pollution events and make appropriate interventions.

Each time I have visited the Langley Brook site I feel like I have learnt something new. I am understanding how important it is to work with local communities to conserve areas and some of the challenges involved.

Volunteering on this project is providing me with some quality training and practical experience in the field that will inevitably help me with future employment. I am loving being able to build on my existing knowledge, being able to work outside and being involved in a project where you can see you are making a difference. I can’t wait to see how the Langley Brook site develops and be able to enjoy it as a local wildlife site.

Nature Spots 5.0

It’s been a while since we last posted about nature spots but the wildlife around the Tame Valley Wetlands has continued to thrive! We’ve had a lot of butterfly photos and a few interesting plants too.

Here are some great shots of a brimstone butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni. You can see from these photos how the shape, colour and vein patterns of its wings resemble leaves, giving the butterfly the ability to camouflage well whilst it hibernates over winter, one of the few butterflies in the UK that do this.

This gatekeeper butterfly, Pyronia tithonus, shows off the false eyespots on its wings which act to deter predators such as birds, giving the butterfly time to escape. The eyespots might also act as a secondary form of defence by encouraging birds to attack the wings rather than the body – damage to a butterfly’s wings is much more tolerable than harm to its body!

Robin’s pincushion is a red hairy growth that appears on wild roses, caused by the larvae of the tiny gall wasp that feeds on the plant. Despite looking significant, robin’s pincushion causes little damage to the plant. The gall holds many of the wasp grubs, which feed on the gall tissues throughout winter. The adult wasps emerge in the spring.

Photo submitted by Debra Starkey

A common blue butterfly, Polyommatus icarus, displaying the patterned underside of its blue wings whilst feeding from a dahlia. The caterpillars of common blues have a fascinating mutualistic relationship with ants during their development. The caterpillars secrete a substance called honeydew that attracts ants. The ants will eat the honeydew and tend to the chrysalis, often taking it into their nests to protect the caterpillars from predators. The butterflies effectively use the ants for free childcare, and the ants receive a tasty meal of honeydew in return. This kind of mutualism is seen in some other species of butterfly too.

Photo submitted by Stephen Powell

This interesting plant is the fruiting stage of Arum maculatum, commonly known as Lords and Ladies, or cuckoo pint. Its berries are highly poisonous, although you’d struggle to eat many of them as they have a acrid taste and would burn your mouth! During the flowering stage, Arum uses a method of trap pollination, in which it attracts fly pollinators to itself by emitting odour and heat. Flies fall down into the trap where the flowers are located and are prevented from escaping by a layer of hairs at the entrance. The flies deposit pollen from other plants on the female flowers, and the male flowers deposit their pollen on the flies. Once pollen transfer is complete, the trap collapses and the flies are able to escape… until the same thing happens at another Arum flower!

Keep sending your nature spots to!

Welcome back, TameForce!

We’ve recently been able to welcome back our volunteer team, TameForce.

We weren’t able to hold sessions for four long months due to Covid-19, but we’re happy to say that TameForce have now returned (of course, with social distancing measures in place) and we’re so pleased to have the team back.

Last week TameForce spent the day taking care of the walled garden at Hams Hall Environmental Centre. We had a small bonfire to burn some of the excess brash.

If you would like to get involved or find out more about the TameForce volunteer team, click here for further information or contact us by email at

Hedgehogs in your garden

Have you seen any hedgehogs in your garden this summer?

Over the summer months, hedgehogs will have been active from March when they first emerged from hibernation. Now, from August to September, is typically when second litters of hoglets are born. Compared with the litters born earlier in the summer, it is often more of a struggle for these late-born hedgehogs to build up their fat reserves enough before hibernation – their natural diets of insects, slugs and worms begins to diminish.

It’s a good idea to put out food and water for hedgehogs all summer long, but often particularly important during these last summer months when other food sources are harder to come by.

You’re most likely to spot hedgehogs at dusk, whilst it’s not daylight, but there is just enough light to be able to see. The hedgehog in the picture above appeared just as the light was starting to fade, out in search of sustenance!

If you see a hedgehog that looks like it needs help, for example if it is injured or out during the day and not moving, it’s a good idea to contact British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

What can I feed the hedgehogs in my garden?

Cat biscuits, meat-based cat or dog food, and specialist hedgehog food are all great to leave out for hedgehogs. Make sure to also leave out a shallow bowl of clean water so the hedgehogs can stay hydrated in the warm weather.

Avoid leaving out milk, which hedgehogs are intolerant to; bread, which is of little nutritional value for hedgehogs; and mealworms, which can be harmful if eaten in large quantities.

Let us know if you’ve seen any hedgehogs in your garden! If you manage to take any pictures, we’d love to see them too. Email to get in touch.

Action for Insects

The Wildlife Trusts have recently published a new report ‘Reversing the decline of insects’, showing how we can each contribute to helping the insect population.

Evidence from around the world has shown that many insect populations are declining, and we are facing the risk of species extinctions. It’s widely known that insects are depended on by much of life on Earth: they play a vital role in pollination of wildflowers and crops, they act as food sources for other animals, many plants depend on them for seed dispersal, they are important in nutrient cycling, and they can often get rid of pests.

Where would we be without insects?! It is essential that their populations are restored.

Insects need a ‘recovery network’. They need more good quality, linked-up, pesticide-free habitats. The Wildlife Trusts have called on the Government to help reverse the decline of insects by taking actions such as reducing pesticide usage, encouraging insect-friendly farming techniques and working towards this recovery network.

Common blue butterfly, photo from Stephen Powell

There are a few simple actions you can take to helping reverse insect decline:

  • Stop using pesticides
  • Create insect-friendly habitats in your garden, such as ponds, long grassy areas and areas of nectar-rich flowers
  • Reduce your frequency of lawn mowing to create more food and shelter for insects
  • Build a ‘bug hotel’, or simply leave a small pile of rocks or logs to create habitats
  • Try to shop more consciously, maybe by buying local food that isn’t grown using pesticides, or choosing environmentally-friendly cleaning products.

Click here to receive a copy of an Action for Insects Guide from the Wildlife Trusts, with more information and guidance about how you can help insects at home.

Wildlife you didn’t know was interesting

The world is full of under-appreciated wildlife. Here are four species that, despite their mundane reputation, have fascinating characteristics.


House fly on a plum. Image credit: Jon Dunkelman via WildNet2 -WildNet

Houseflies… yuck, no thanks! Wait – actually, the common housefly has incredible capabilities.

Like most insects, they can walk upside down thanks to pulvilli, pad-like structures covered in tiny hairs on the bottoms of their feet. The importance of their feet doesn’t stop there, however, as houseflies also taste with their feet. Chemoreceptors, organs which detect taste, are located on the lower legs, allowing the fly to taste as they walk over food materials. You might have seen flies rubbing their legs together – this is them cleaning their legs to ‘reset’ the chemoreceptors before a new meal.

Their intricate compound eyes allow houseflies to see in an almost 360° field of view, allowing them to watch out for predators whilst flying. They can process images seven times faster than humans, which is why flies can always get away so fast when someone tries to swat them. Studies have shown that male houseflies’ eyes also contain a ‘love spot’, a region important in detecting female flies to mate with.

Houseflies are adapted to an exclusively liquid diet. Their mouthparts are modified to form a proboscis which acts as a straw with a sponge on the end to efficiently suck up liquids.

We should be jealous, really. However, they can spread some pretty harmful disease-causing bacteria, so make sure they don’t land on your food!


Image credit: Jon Hawkins via WildNet

Perhaps interesting to some, but to many snails are another commonly overlooked garden-dweller.

Snails have ‘teeth’. Not the type of teeth we have, though. Their radula, an internal feeding organ which acts like a tongue, has thousands of tiny ‘teeth’ arranged like a conveyor belt along its surface. In different species of snail, these teeth are adapted for different diets. The teeth are also constantly replaced as they are worn down, ensuring snails can always feed effectively.

Most snails are hermaphroditic, meaning they can mate with themselves if needs be. From an evolutionary point of view, this gives species a better shot at continuing the family line if no mates are available.

Snails also grow their own homes. Well… their shells. Shells are made of calcium carbonate, a strong substance which gives snails the protection they need. Sclerites are the plates making up the shell, and are secreted by the snail itself.


Image credit: Emily Reilly

If you have a garden with a lawn, you might value grass for its aesthetic properties. Or maybe you appreciate its softness during a picnic in the park. Or its smoothness on golf courses. But did you know that across the world, there are 11,400 different types of grass?

All grasses belong to the Poaceae family, which is one of the most species-rich families in the world, and the 4th largest flowering plant family.

Grasses leaves are arranged in special patterns to optimise photosynthesis. Optimal photosynthesis requires maximum light capture, so leaves tend to be spread out to avoid being shaded by each other.

Most grasses can tolerate grazing, or mowing in the case of lawns. This is because their apical meristems, the part from which shoots and leaves grow from, is at or below ground level. New growth can always continue if grasses are cut – something which isn’t true for many other plants.

Finally, the Poaceae family provides around 80% of global food supply, containing over 1/3 of the most important food crops such as rice, wheat and maize. However, typical lawn grass has undergone so much artificial selection and forced evolution that it is unrecognisable from its food crop relatives!


Image credit: Eddie Asbery

Are dandelions a weed? They grow prolifically, and usually exactly where you don’t want them if you are a gardener. However, they boast unique and useful properties that might make you reconsider their reputation.

The name ‘dandelions’ is derived from the French “dent de lion”, meaning “lion’s tooth”, like the tooth-like serrations on their leaves. Their bright yellow flower heads are actually formed from many many tiny individual flowers, called florets.

Every part of a dandelion plant has a use to humans, whether that be for food, medicinal properties, or dyes. Dandelions are thought by many to have possible healing properties, although their effectiveness is debated.

Dandelions can make clones of themselves without the need for fertilisation. This is in fact a feature shared by a number of other plant species, but is the reason why their growth seems so prolific.

They also adopt the widely-used technique of nyctinasty, involving the closing of petals at night. Dandelions ‘go to sleep’ at night as a response to an ‘internal clock’. Photoreceptors, structures which detect light, have the important job of ensuring the the internal clock is set in time with levels of light in the environment.

Finally, dandelions are important flowers for pollinators such as bees. They have a long flowering season, so are depended on for consistent nectar production. Letting dandelions grow is an easy and effective way to make your garden more environmentally friendly.

Nature Spots 3.0

After a spell of heavy rain in the Tame Valley Wetlands, we have welcomed back the glorious sunshine this week. Here are some lovely wildlife pictures from over the last few days.

With fewer people around at Hams Hall Environmental Centre and less opportunity for maintenance of the walled garden, the plants are thriving. There is an abundance of nettles, of course (which are inconvenient for people but do act as an important habitat and food source for insects such as butterflies), but also there are many beautiful wildflowers such as this field poppy and a group of orchids.

Field poppy at Hams Hall Environmental Centre
Early purple orchids at Hams Hall Environmental Centre

We have also been sent images of wildflowers from around the Tame Valley wetlands, such as this Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis).

Pyramidal orchid spotted in Nether Whitacre, submitted by Debra Starkey

This time of year is peak season for caterpillars, often spotted munching away on leaves or trying to stay hidden from predators. Here is a peacock butterfly caterpillar (Aglais io) spotted at Whitacre Heath Nature Reserve, and a fantastic image of a Mullein moth caterpillar (Cucullia verbasci) resting on a buddleia.

Peacock butterfly caterpillar
Mullein moth caterpillar submitted by Stephen Powell

Finally, the butterflies have again made beautiful photos this week. Here is a comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) – you can see how its wings, with their scalloped edges and cryptic colouring, give the butterfly strong camouflage – especially useful when hibernating in piles of leaves during the winter months.

Comma butterfly submitted by Debra Starkey

Otters on the River Blythe

Over the past few weeks, there have been numerous sightings of otters, which is great news and usually an indicator of a river having fairly clean water and enough good-quality habitats.

Otters are not often seen by people as they are largely nocturnal. The most common indicators of an otter population are tracks or spraints (droppings). Otters often leave their spraints in conspicuous places along their territory, as a warning for other intruding populations to stay away.

Despite their elusive nature, Nick Martin, Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s Wetland Project Officer, has managed to record some fantastic footage of otters on the River Blythe.

In the video below you first see a mink cross the river. Mink are an invasive species and are a considerable threat to UK native species such as the water vole. Towards the end of the video however, three otters come swimming up the river. This group is likely a mother and two large cubs.

Video credit: Nick Martin

Otters communicate with whistles and twittering sounds, often heard at night when they are active and their surroundings are quiet. Click on the video below to hear an otter calling.

Video credit: Nick Martin

This video shows another otter on the Blythe, possibly the father of cubs. The male otter parent is known to play no part in rearing the cubs, leaving that to the mother.

Video credit: Nick Martin

And finally, here is a quick clip of an otter swimming along the river.

Video credit: Nick Martin

Education at Hams Hall Environmental Centre: Session Plans

Click on the links below to download copies of lesson plans for each education session at Hams Hall Environmental Centre.

Please contact if you have any queries or would like to book a school visit.

Re-profiling the River Cole

The re-profiling of the River Cole, located upstream of the River Tame in North Solihull, is an important project aiming to enhance the biodiversity and aesthetics of the river. Working alongside Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council and the Environment Agency, with support from our National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), the project will make the River Cole better for both wildlife and people visiting the area.

Initial assessment of the River Cole concluded that it was an unsuitable environment for wildlife, because of its poor water quality and low variety of different habitats available for a diverse range of species to thrive. Therefore, project planning commenced to decide what improvements could be made to the worst areas of the river.

The poor quality of the water was found to be because of urban pollution further up the river, such as regular use of overflows by sewerage systems and runoff from roads or agricultural land. Work by Severn Trent will make sewerage systems more efficient, find alternative drainage options from roads, build buffers along the river banks and promote use of more environmentally-friendly farming methods. This will mean the water in the River Cole can be made cleaner so it provides a safer environment for the development of fish populations. Moreover, placing large hay bales along the edges of the river will help to catch any sediment; this clever technique ensures that sediments do not contaminate the river.

The habitat quality and diversity of the River Cole was another important area identified for improvement.

Because of human activity and the high energy water flow which had gradually eroded the river banks, the structure of the River Cole had been changed over time so that it became straightened and unvaried. This had a negative impact on the diversity and richness of different wildlife species inhabiting the river. It also meant that the river was unable to accommodate large populations of wildlife.

Work to improve the quality and variety of habitats in the river involved creating more islands and meanders (bends in the river course), planting more trees and shrubs along the river banks, and introducing gravel to the river bed. Adding these kinds of features improved the environmental diversity and allowed a greater variety of plants and animals to thrive in the area, especially different fish species. It also improves the visual aesthetics of the river, making it a more enjoyable place for people to visit.

Work on the River Cole project began on Monday 11th February 2019 and was complete by the end of the week. The re-profiling involved working mainly within a 300m section of the river. By improving this space, with a focus on the quality of the water and surrounding habitats, the project will yield many benefits in terms of the River Cole’s natural diversity and public appeal.