Native species in a zoo full of exotics…

Published: August 12, 2014

Conservation work in Primley Meadow

Recording the vegetation in Primley Meadow

My name is Alexandra Moore and I’m a placement student from Cardiff University working as an ecology researcher for the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust based at Paignton Zoo.

Five months in and I am still having the best time. It’s great working in the Field Conservation and Research Department as there are plenty of different projects to get involved in. A placement year is the perfect way to gain practical experience and see what working life is truly like.

What have I done so far? Keeper days, pond dipping with school children, weekly butterfly transects, planting thyme, post and rail fencing, the list goes on! I particularly enjoyed helping with the monthly monitoring of bat numbers in the caves at Clennon Gorge, a 60 acre wooded valley adjacent to the Zoo. This involved being fully kitted out with waterproofs, wellies and helmet and crawling through some rather tight spaces in order to count the numbers of greater and lesser horseshoe bats present. It was amazing to see all the sleeping bats up close. I’m not the biggest fan of spiders, so I had to do my best to pretend they weren’t there!

Being at the Zoo we are surrounded by incredible animals that you do not expect to see on a daily basis! However, my work focuses on native species, which are very important and shouldn’t be forgotten about. Strapwort (Corrigiola litoralis) is a Critically Endangered plant growing on the shore of Slapton Ley, one of the nature reserves WWCT owns.  The future of strapwort at Slapton Ley is uncertain because the sea could break through the shingle ridge. I’ve explored all the information I can find on strapwort in order to develop a view on the feasibility of reintroductions to other sites in South West England. Strapwort may not be the most exciting of plants, but it would be a real shame for it to disappear from Britain altogether.

For University I have to carry out my own project entailing research, planning, data collection and analysis. I am investigating the floral diversity of Primley meadow, an important green space in Paignton. Before 1995, horses grazed on Primley meadow, resulting in a highly fertile soil overrun by few coarse grasses in low biological diversity.  I have read a large number of papers and completed a literature review on meadow restoration, which highlighted restoration of grassland on formerly arable land to be an important biodiversity issue.

Previous students have tried to work out the best way to increase plant species diversity at Primley, experimenting with techniques such as ground rotovation, sowing yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) or adding wild flower seed mixes. Yellow rattle may look pretty and innocent, however, looks can deceive – it sends out roots that grow into the roots of neighbouring grass plants, stealing nutrients. Yellow rattle can help to provide variety in meadows by weakening the coarse grasses, giving other species more of a chance to survive. In May I will be collecting data to see how well Primley has progressed in species richness, whether the yellow rattle has spread from where it was sown and if there are particular floral diversity hotspots in the meadow. In the meantime, my wildflower and plant identification skills need some vital attention!