13 February 1998

Prizewinners tackle a beautiful pest

THE beauty of Rhododendron ponticum is over-shadowed by the shrubs rapacious nature – as three sixth formers from Nottingham High School for Girls have discovered.

Jane Atkinson, Helen Bartle and Rebecca Bryan undertook an investigation into the local environment of Rhododendron ponticum for the 1997 national schools conservation competition run by the Willmot Pertwee Conservation Trust.

The three carried out field work on this common shrub in the New Forest and on the Isle of Arran. They combined the competition project with work for their Duke of Edinburghs gold award, choosing to carry out an exploration instead of an expedition.

They were impressed by the plants resilience. Rhododendron ponticum spreads rapidly, they discovered, and nothing will grow beneath it. It resists a whole range of herbicides, requires repeated physical removal and for two or three years after its removal no other plants thrive on the land on which it grew.

&#42 Cover for grouse

While Rhododendron ponticum was introduced to the Isle of Arran to provide cover for grouse, it was destroying the heather that the grouse need for sustenance, they discovered.

"I knew it was a problem in country parks and wild areas," said their teacher Margaret Crittenden who suggested the study and who accompanied the girls to London to receive first prize in the competition – a cheque for £3000. This sum must be spent on equipment or books for the school, and while the girls will make the final decision, a greenhouse is the likely choice.

The competition is for group projects and judged to the standard of the A-level syllabus or sixth-year studies in Scotland. The enthusiasm of the Nottingham students shone through their work and made them the clear winners, said chairman of the judges, Sir Colin Spedding, who pointed out that the diversity of the projects, variation in schools and the amount of help students received were among the factors that had to be taken into account by the judges.

"There is still plenty of room for discovering something that no one knows about," he assured representatives of the winning schools at the awards ceremony aboard HQS Wellington, which is the headquarters of the Worshipful Company of Master Mariners and moored on the Thames.

For the second year running pupils from Kings School, Canterbury, won both the second and third prizes. They received £2000 for their study of coppicing, burning and biodiversity in woodland and £1000 for their investigation into factors affecting the biodiversity of the set-aside field margin. A third group from the school secured a commendation and a prize of £250 for a study into the importance of fallen timber in management for biodiversity.

The Maynards School, Exeter, also received a commendation and an award of £250 for a project on the effect of mulching in biotic components of soil. Bedales School, Petersfield, received a commendation and an award of £100 for an ecology study of a sand quarry nature reserve rabbit exclusion/island.

&#42 Resource for schools

All the schools which submitted an acceptable project received copies of Conservation in Britain by Dr Ron Pickering, a book published by the Willmot Pertwee Conservation Trust as a resource for sixth form students and teachers.

It was produced to fill a gap in the market, explained Christopher Pertwee, the trusts chairman. While there was plenty of material available on exotic conservation matters such as rainforests and projects to save the tiger, little information was available on conservation in the UK.

In his book Dr Pickering looks at the pressures on the environment from activities that are necessary for our present way of life. The list includes industries, urban development, the military and services such as sewage disposal. He also discusses action that reduces their impact and maintains biodiversity. The large slice of the book concerning agriculture helps the student to get a balanced view.

*Conservation in Britain, an illustrated resource by W R Pickering, Willmot Pertwee Conservation Trust (£11.95). Available from Willmot Pertwee Ltd, London Road, Dunkirk, Faversham, Kent ME13 9LR add £1.45 p&p.

Rhododendron ponticum:An investigation into its local environment received the top conservation award.

The winning team:(L to r) Helen Bartle, Rebecca Bryan and Jane Atkinson with their teacher Margaret Crittenden aboard HQS Wellington.