Work experience with the National Trust – river pollution and invertebrates

(Before I begin this blog post, I’m just going to apologise for the lack of content over the past few weeks – at this time of year and with my current location it is quite difficult to gather photos and videos, however as we head into Spring I have some exciting new ideas and potential adventures that I can’t wait to share!)

Yesterday I participated in the second session of my National Trust work experience programme. The day began with… pouring rain. Once again it occurred to me that investing in a raincoat with taped seams might be a good idea, because within the first couple of hours I had damp shoulders and arms.

This session was focused on the River Bollin again, but this time we were conducting a couple of different surveys on the river, the data from which will then be collated and used by the National Trust in their conservation projects.

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The first survey involved us walking along a stretch of the river, identifying and recording any potential sources of pollution. An obvious example of this is pipes which empty into the water – these are likely to contain waste substances which could have a negative impact on aquatic life forms.

Unfortunately the National Trust can only control what enters the river in the section that they own, and there is a sewage treatment plant upstream that releases waste into the water body. Under normal circumstances there is a limit to how much can be deposited in the river, but if there is a period of high rainfall then the limit is discounted and the treatment plant can release as much as they want to. This clearly has a significant impact on the health of the river: the water turns to a cloudy green-brown colour and gives off quite an unpleasant smell.

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Another slightly less obvious source of pollution that we noted was the presence of tributaries flowing into the river. Whilst they just seem to merge in as part of the water body, many of them travel down from farmland – if farmers have been using pesticides then these may run off the fields into the water system and could result in the death of aquatic organisms.

If fertilisers enter the river, they can cause eutrophication – this is where plants (particularly algae) in the river grow excessively, leading to overcrowding and competition for resources. The plants then die and much of the oxygen supply is consumed by decomposers as they break down the dead matter – the shortage of oxygen then causes other creatures to die.

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An additional problem that the National Trust have to deal with is the damage caused to the river banks by people and their dogs – allowing a dog to go down to the water and have a paddle is a really fun thing to do as an owner, and we saw several dogs enjoying this. The downside to this activity is that it accelerates the rate of erosion of the banks – large amounts of sediment are deposited into the water; this is another way in which pollutants can enter the system.

In the photo below you can see a particularly popular spot for dog walkers – we were allowed to walk onto it to check for pipes, and the effects of dogs were very visible. The National Trust can plant trees along the bank to prevent this erosion from happening (this blocks the dogs’ access and the roots stabilise the soil) but are reluctant to do this in all locations as they do not want to discourage dog walkers altogether.

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The second survey we conducted was investigating the life forms in the river – once kitted out in our waders we each took a turn going into the water with a net to take a sample. Facing downstream, we had to disturb the river bed with one foot whilst holding the net in front of us to catch any escaping creatures. Once three minutes had passed, we then carried the net and its contents to the bank where they could be examined more closely in order for us to record what was present.

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For the most part we just discovered freshwater shrimp and mayfly larvae (plus another species of invertebrate that we couldn’t identify) – however these are a good sign that the levels of water pollution in this area are low. Other species such as the water louse and the sludgeworm are indicative of high levels of water pollution – thankfully we didn’t uncover any of these!

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A small fish was also caught – however we were focusing on invertebrate life so after a few photos were taken it was returned to the water. The rangers were unsure of the species but due to the flattened shape of its underside it was likely to be a bottom feeder.

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Once we had completed the survey, all material and creatures were returned to the water and we headed back to Manchester. The sun finally made an appearance just as we were leaving on the bus – typical!

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Dog blog – mind

Dogs require a combination of physical and mental activities to keep them occupied (see my two previous blog posts for more information on play and exercise). This is especially important for the more intelligent breeds of dog as they can easily become bored and this can result in the development of bad behaviour.

Rusty loves being taught new things – she always shows a willingness to learn and loves the fuss and rewards when she finally ‘gets it’.

Recently I decided to begin teaching her to roll over. I can’t say that this has much of a function other than being a cute trick, but she picked it up quickly and I am now working on gradually improving her reaction to my cue (at the moment she is quite reliant on me signalling with my hand, however the end goal is for her to roll over having just been given a verbal command).

When we first started with this trick, I asked Rusty to lie down and then held a treat near her shoulder blades, which encouraged her to turn her head and shift her weight onto one side of her body. By moving the treat a little further and applying a gentle pressure to her shoulder with my other hand I could get her lying down on her side, and from this position a simple gesture would tell her to complete the roll. As she completed the trick, I gave the verbal cue and then rewarded her once she was up again.

In the video below you can see that she is becoming quite quick to roll over one way… but does not want to do it in the other direction! I’d quite like her to go both ways so this will be something to work on, although it means that you can see my initial training techniques being used again…

This kind of learning activity is really great for dogs – no matter what age they are, they can always benefit from trying something new and having extra one-on-one time with their owner.

Another tactic for eliminating boredom in dogs is to give them puzzle toys. There is a huge variety of these available, and they generally involve hiding treats inside the toy for the dog to find. Rusty has one toy like this which we bought for her when she was a puppy. It can be stuffed with dog biscuits and other treats, and she has to figure out how to get to them.

She often tries to reach through the opening in the toy with her tongue, but then realises that repeatedly picking up and dropping the toy results in the treats falling out onto the floor.

With this sort of game it is better to begin with the treats being easy to obtain so that the dog builds an enthusiasm for it, and then it can be made more difficult by packing the treats in tighter so that the dog has to work harder to reach them.

Frequent interaction with other canine friends is another essential part of a dog’s life. Where we live is quite a quiet area but we know a few people with dogs so Rusty often sees her friends and has a chance to play. Her reactions to different dogs is quite amusing – she will growl and bark at smaller dogs, but anything larger is usually greeted with submission.

Our neighbour’s dog Bailey is a good walking buddy and playmate for Rusty… even if she does spend half of her time on her back!

The final thing I would like to mention is dog agility.

I often write about Rusty’s agility training, but haven’t ever really discussed the benefits of it. Before they were domesticated by humans, dogs were predators that would spend much of their time running and hunting. Despite many changes in their anatomy and behaviour since then, some of those basic instincts remain – agility allows these to be expressed.

The fast-paced chase around the course mimics the capture of prey – a variety of obstacles present different situations to the dog which may be encountered during a hunt: for example leaping over jumps, winding between objects and crawling through tunnels.

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I would honestly recommend dog agility to any dog owner out there – it doesn’t matter if you and your pup aren’t particularly speedy or talented – training Rusty wasn’t all plain-sailing, but I persevered! I firmly believe that agility strengthened our bond and resulted in Rusty’s general behaviour improving as well.

Most importantly, it is great fun for all involved.

Dog blog – exercise

Despite being five and half years old, Rusty is still mistaken for a younger dog at times – she is full of energy so regular walks are an essential part of her life.

She has three walks each day: the first is at around seven am and is usually a quick twenty minutes up the road before she comes back for her breakfast.

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The second walk is at midday and typically lasts between thirty minutes to an hour. She isn’t given any more food after this walk but if she left anything at breakfast then she can have that. (Rusty’s eating patterns are very strange; we tried to correct them when she was younger but eventually just decided to let her get on with it. Sometimes she won’t eat for days, or she will eat a little bit at each meal, or occasionally she will clear her bowl. She is a healthy weight so we don’t have any concern about her habits!)

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The third and final walk of the day is another twenty – thirty minutes up the road before her evening meal.

Most days we just walk her around the village and the fields/woods nearby, but she does seem to become bored of going to the same place. This problem is easily solved by putting her in the car and taking her somewhere new – the beach is a particular favourite!

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Because she can’t be let off, we walk Rusty on an extendable lead so that she has a bit more freedom. She wears a harness to protect her neck (sometimes she doesn’t realise that she is nearing the end of the lead and it can give her a bit of a jolt). Recently my mum also bought her a collar with lights so that she can be seen on the lane in the dark of winter.

In these photos it is still quite bright outside, but if you look at the photo below you can see the difference that the new collar makes. (This photo was taken on my phone, so please excuse the poor quality).

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I really can’t wait for spring!

Dog blog – play

Happy New Year to all of my readers! I’ve been a little quiet for the past couple of weeks but I am back and ready to see what animal adventures await in 2017…

I am currently back in Norfolk for the Christmas break and have been catching up on some much needed canine time! This got me thinking about Rusty’s lifestyle and the things we do to keep her stimulated and happy – the next three blog posts will go into detail on some of the activities we do and why they are good for her.

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Play is an essential part of a dog’s life. It provides an opportunity to burn excess energy and occupies the dog’s mind, preventing boredom (which could lead to the development of bad habits).

Chase and retrieve

Being a border terrier, Rusty has an incredibly strong chase drive. We can’t let her off the lead on walks because once her ‘switch’ goes, there is no getting through to her. In the garden however she will play fetch until she is exhausted.

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Tug of war

This can be a very fun game for dogs – however without proper control it could potentially be dangerous. Rusty was taught the command ‘leave’ when she was a puppy and was rarely allowed to ‘win’ a game of tug. Now that she is older I am much more relaxed about letting her be the victor, although she is never allowed to ignore me telling her to let go of the toy (she will try!) Tug of war is beneficial as it can help to teach a dog to control its excitement.

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Hide and seek

This is probably one of my favourites to play with Rusty. We have quite a large garden so I tell her to stay whilst I hide somewhere, and then I call her. She races towards the sound of my voice but often speeds past my hiding place and then has to back-track to find me. This really engages a lot of her natural behaviour that would have been used in situations such as hunting for prey.

We also have an indoor version of this game: I leave her in one room while I conceal a toy in a different room, and then call her through. She knows this game very well now and uses her nose to track down the toy.

Solitary play

Rusty is often left to her own devices, both in the garden and in the house – there are always toys left laying around so she quite happily entertains herself.

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Indoor toys of pretty much any kind are usually taken to the rug in our living room, rolled on, tossed up in the air and pushed around by her nose.

Soft toys are usually chewed, shaken and torn to pieces!

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She also loves charging around the garden with a tennis ball on a string…

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Stay tuned for part two of dog blog, where I will be discussing Rusty’s exercise routine.