Gravel Pits South: Disappearing Ponds

De-shading ponds April 7th 2024

The last time we were at this site was in 2018. Back then it was a fairly uneventful task- we came, we saw, we conquered, we went home. This year was a bit different.

Tom’s Land Rover, our version of Thunderbird 2, had a breakdown en route leaving us not only locked out of the site’s car park but also bereft of tools. As you can’t save the planet without tools it was a bit of a problem. Luckily Chris went and found our broken ‘bird and collected as many essentials as he could; Nathan collected the keys to the barrier as well so we did finally get started albeit a bit later than planned.

Setting off with the tools and other kit we journeyed into the wilds of Gravel Pits South, part of Moses Gate Country Park, next door to Darcy Lever Gravel pits. The plan was to de-shade the ponds by removing the surrounding trees, this would let more light get to the pond. But first we had to find the ponds. In the years since our last visit the trees had grown, like they do, hiding them from view. We trudged in the mud looking for ponds, walking past them once or twice before finally finding them totally obscured.

With 19 volunteers we began the job of de-shading. There was a lot of new growth and re-growth which was easy to get through as the stems were quite thin. Everything that was cut down was used to make a dead hedge around the site to deter intruders and off-road motor bikes.

While we were there Rick did a quick pond survey and found great crested newt eggs. If you want to find out more about ponds see ‘Do Ponds Succeed’ and the ponds category.

Thanks to everyone for doing a great job.

Easter Task

Rhododendron removal – Winter Hill 24th March 2024

Easter – the time when we celebrate the invention of chocolate and the four day bank holiday. It’s also the time for the annual BCV Easter Egg Hunt and the traditional ‘losing’ of at least one egg on the task site as an offering to the Easter bunny. But before we get to that bit we had some work to do.

There was a whole lot of hopping going on on Winter Hill, BCV and members of the British Mountaineering Council were back removing rhododendron. For more info on why we hate rhodys read an earlier post through this link.

It was a long hard walk up the hill, carrying mattocks, spades and loppers to boot, but it was a good view once we got to the top, or it would have been if not for the rhododendron scattered everywhere. But that’s why we were there.

As the task was classified as HARD we had no expectations that the day was going to be pleasant jaunt in the hills, no this was one of the the most demanding tasks we’ve done for a while. One volunteer quit the field with a back injury, and one took an hour to make the journey to the work site. The survivors managed to take down a good number of the magenta menace, but still plenty left.

As it’s Easter we had our traditional Easter Egg Hunt, not quite the way we usually do though. Because of the treacherous terrain and lack of anywhere to hide eggs we did a lazy egg hunt. The lazy egg hunt was basically putting the eggs in a pile and making the best of it. Many thanks to Jane for supplying the eggs.

Doffcocker: Reeds and Trees

Doffcocker LNR 11th March 2024 – Reedbed Management

Doffcocker Lodge Reedbed

Redbeds have been one of the UK’s fastest declining habitats. Historically reeds were used for thatching, which because it was a widespread practice helped to maintain the health and extent of reedbeds, but as slate and other materials replaced reeds the maintenance of the beds lapsed and they began to decline. Some beds are still managed for thatch but it is only on a small scale.

In recent years reedbeds have had a renaissance for both commercial and conservation purposes. Reedbeds are excellent water filters and can be used in sewage treatment, but they only have a lifespan of 5-15 years depending on the effluent load that flows through them. For us the value in reedbeds lies in their importance to conservation.

Reedbeds support around 700 species of invertebrate plus many species of bird, amphibian, mammal and fish; bittern, water rail, reed bunting, reed warbler, water shrew, otter, to name a few. Not all of these are found in Bolton but Doffcocker does have a fine collection of warblers and has been visited by bittern.

Reed Warbler
Reed Warbler
Reed Bunting
Reed Bunting

Forty years ago BCV planted a few square metres of phragmites rhizomes, today we have one of the largest reedbeds in Greater Manchester, but reedbeds need to be managed to continue to thrive. At Doffcocker willow has been encroaching on the edges of the reedbed. Trees damage reedbeds in a number of ways, they can dry out the boggy areas reeds grow in by sucking up the moisture, and also silt up water bodies by depositing leaf litter. Over time the reeds are driven back and the reedbeds become dominated by willow.

Bolton Conservation Volunteers spent this Sunday removing willow trees to stop the decline of one of Bolton’s most wildlife rich habitats.

For more information on reedbeds and how to create them read the downloadable file below.

BCV News Snippets

February 2024 – Neil Harris

Some sad news for 2024; Neil Harris has passed away after a long fight with cancer. Many of our current members won’t know Neil, but he was responsible for planning and leading many of the great and memorable walks we had when the BCV waling group was still running. Neil was the devoted partner of long time BCV volunteer Trish Calderbank, and was always there for her for many years. All our love and best wishes to Trish along with our heartfelt condolences; your loss is our loss.

August 2022 – 20+ Not Out

BCV 20+ Years Award
BCV 20+ Years Award

Well done to Rick, Francis, Claire, Neil, Carol, Lynn, Colin, Elaine, and John on being recognised for 20+ years of volunteering with BCV. The achievement was marked by a bit of a do on the 13th August at the Sweet Green Tavern in Bolton attended by around 50 friends and well wishers. The awards for the troops were handed out by Rick and Rick’s award being handed out by Francis. There was a buffet, drinks, and karaoke (for those who like that kind of thing), bunting and other stuff. Many thanks to Francis for sorting out the awards themselves (a picture of one attached but with the name removed to avoid favouritism), Caroline for organising the food, Tom for ferrying stuff, and to everyone who attended. A special thanks to our Officer for Fun, Jane, for putting it all together. Two thumbs up.

April 2022 – Community Hero 2022

Congratulations to Rick on winning the Bolton News Community Heroes award’s environment category. This is not the first award Rick has won, over the years he has been awarded Bolton Council’s Golden Elephant Award, Bolton News Green Hero Award, and The Cabinet Office’s Points of Light Award. Find out more at Community Heroes 2022.

June 2021 – Fan Pit Cottages

We had an email from Anne at Fan Pit Cottages, I’ve shortened it slightly but the full version has been sent to Rick.

Just wanted to update you about my little project to attract more wildlife to our area. You might remember laying a hedge and clearing some of the land adjacent to our house at Fan Pit cottages. We were fighting a battle with Japanese Knotweed, which we have almost won!

In 2015 you created a pond for us, which has been very successful, attracting newts and toads almost immediately. Unfortunately this year a pair of mallards have decided to trash it, ripping weed out and feeding on the occupants of the pond, so I have covered it. I would love to create more ponds! We have planted a variety of trees, wild cherry and Rowan, with a few others. Sadly some of our mature trees have been affected by ash die back, so I did quite a lot of research to find trees that were suited to our clay soil and resistant to diseases.

We have a lot of marsh orchids this year and I am slowly adding more wild plants that survive the conditions. We still have hares living near the big pond, at the bottom of the field and deer have been spotted there too. Please pass on our good wishes to Rick and all the volunteers who remember coming to us. I can’t thank you enough for all your help and wish you could come again. Kindest Regards, Anne.

Anderton Centre: Winter Resi

26-28th January 2024

Another jetty photo
Another jetty photo

When we first came to the Anderton Centre on Lower Rivington Reservoir in January 2007 the site was dominated by rhododendron. It took us 4 years to bring Ragnarok to this poison sea of green, using bow saws, mattocks, winches and brute muscle power. Over several years we returned to do other work to help both improve the site for wildlife and as an outdoor education centre by planting trees and hedges, repairing walls, building footpaths and habitat management. This year we returned again for our Winter residential, or resi as we call it. Our work this season would involve repairing dry stone walls, laying hedges, planting hedges, and felling dangerous trees.

The trees we were removing had died through disease and had become brittle and unstable. As the site is used by visitors to the centre they posed a danger to safety and so need to be cut down. Tom used a chain saw to fell the trees which were then cut up stacked on habitat piles out of the way.

The wallers repaired several sections of wall along the front of the reservoir. Why the walls had collapsed is anyone’s guess: livestock rubbing against them, people climbing over them, tree and root growth, land movement, or a combination of factors.

The hedge layers were a bit stuck for work but managed to do a few bits. Any gaps in the hedge were filled in by new plantings.

Well that’s the work bit done, but the other reason people go on resi’s is the social angle. For those staying over-night there was plenty of time to fill, and most of that time was filled with beer, banter and being silly. After work on the Saturday we hurried through the cold and dark to The Bay Horse. Like Hobbits at the Prancing Pony we sampled the ales and then had to change rooms, not because of hooded figures with pointy swords but because the room had been pre-booked by another party. After much merriment we rushed back for Lynn’s evening meal. Meaties and veggies both being catered for with Quorn and ham, roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese, carrots, fruit crumble and custard, cake, flapjacks and more beer. After food there was fun. Jenga, card games, weird impersonations, more beer, and running from sleep. Eventually sleep caught up and said, ‘Your it, close your eyes and count till dawn.’ Which we did.

The morning came and kicked everybody out of bed into the kitchen for breakfast and second breakfast. Between breakfast and dinner, or lunch if you prefer, we finished off the walling and planting. Then cleaned up, packed up and made or merry way home.

Many thanks to Rick, Tom, and Caroline for organising, the Anderton centre staff for having us back and to everyone who attended the weekend. Special thanks to Lynn for catering, doing a great job as always.

Winter Hill: Rhododendron

Rhododendron removal 14th January 2024


There are an estimated 15,000 invasive species in the UK, 49 of those species are considered to be harmful to wildlife, and one of those species makes up one of out bread and butter tasks – Rhododendron ponticum. People ask ‘Why do you kill those plants, they’re nice, they have pretty flowers?’ Pretty flowers.. hmm… let’s see

The name Rhododendron translates as “Rose Tree”, ponticum refers to the plant’s home territory around the Black Sea (Latin name Ponticum Sinum). It is a member of the Ericaceae family, the same family as heather and bilberry, which explains why it likes acid soils.

Rhododendron was first introduced to Britain in 1763 from Gibraltar and was soon firmly installed in throughout the country in the ornamental gardens of stately homes. The fashion for this insidious threat continued up to the mid 1890s with R. ponticum becoming the favoured rootstock for grafting and cultivation. But a series of harsh Victoria winters wiped out many evergreen species, including some of the less hardy rhododendron. The remainders soon reverted back to their wild state, and as many country manors fell into disuse and management of stately grounds declined, the rhodys spread. Armed with an array of phytochemical weaponry and unimpeded by our native wildlife, Rhododendron ponticum soon began to dominate the countryside. BCV have seen the effects of this first hand at sites such as the Anderton Centre and Ravenden Clough, both sites were once the grounds of country estates, both sites were overrun with rhodys once left to their own devices.

Rick 2007
2007 first Anderton resi.

What makes our enemy so deadly? To start with its roots, stems, leaves, flowers, pollen and nectar are loaded with grayanotoxins, a cocktail of phenols and diterpenes that have a range of toxic properties including anti-viral and anti-fungal properties. How R. ponticum employs these chemicals is still open to debate. One theory is that the grayanotoxins kill the mycorrhizal fungi the grows on the roots of any competing plants, preventing those plants absorbing essential nutrients such as phosphorus. Another theory is that the toxins kill soil fauna such as worms and microbes which consequently inhibits nutrient cycling and availability of nutrients to other species. The theories surrounding methods of dispersal for grayanotoxins are equally as diverse. Researchers argue that toxins enter the soil via roots; by leachate from decaying leaf litter; by runoff from the plants leaves and stems and also by air. There are other theories that claim the toxic soil effects of rhodys are overstated and the likely cause of their dominance is that they shade out other species and out-compete them for nutrients and pollinating insects.

The toxicity of rhodys is beyond question. In addition to their damaging effects on habitats no native insect can survive nibbling rhody leaves, sheep and horses can die from eating them, and even humans have been harmed. There are records, dating back to 400 BC, of honey made from rhododendron nectar adversely affecting people who eat it. Apparently it has both hallucinogenic and laxative effects on the sufferer, so it’s not something you want to spread on your toast in the morning. Surprisingly the bees are immune to rhody toxins.

What other survival strategies to rhodys use? Well, they can spread both vegetatively, such as rooting at points where branches touch the ground, and also by seed. It takes a rhody between 12 and 20 years to mature and produce flowers, each of those flowers can generate as many as 3000 seeds each, that means a good sized shrub can produce around 7,000,000 seeds per year. The seeds are distributed by wind and can travel up to 500 metres from the parent. Winter Hill near Belmont shows just how effective this method of propagation can be, with rhody seedlings scattered across the hillside many hundreds of metres from the nearest mature individuals.

And the bad news doesn’t stop there. Rhododendron also spread a deadly fungus, Phytothora ramorum or Sudden Oak Death. First identified in California the fungus appeared in the UK in 2003 and is arguably now the greatest threat to our woodlands and heathlands. Rhododendron is responsible for the extinction of 150 native British species in the last 100 years. As more habitat is destroyed by the encroachment of rhododendron the more species suffer- trees, mosses, ferns, insects, amphibians, mammals, birds, nothing is unaffected. Pretty flowers? No.

This task we joined up with the British Mountaineering Council on Winter Hill to do battle with our arch-enemy. We were last up here around 8 or 10 years ago but BMC have been keeping up the fight on their own for the last few yeas. It’s a big job as rhodys have spread extensively across the hillside, and unfortunately the fires that ravaged Winter Hill in 2018 missed this area otherwise our work would have been done.