Bat shit

Oy! Bat shit? Yes, indeed, there seems to be no subject that the world of monkey puzzles doesn’t take us into… and today it’s bat shit, or to use the ‘proper’ term – guano – as defined by Wikipedia:

Guano is the excrement of seabirds, cave-dwelling bats, and pinnipeds (seals). As a manure, guano is a highly effective fertilizer due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. The 19th-century guano trade played a pivotal role in the development of modern input-intensive farming practices and inspired the formal human colonization of remote bird islands in many parts of the world.

Well, I had never heard of the guano trade, until this last week. And it was indeed a very desirable product.

Guano poster

Photo from Nueva York website – here, courtesy of Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Conn., #1994.5

What’s this got to do with monkey puzzle trees? Well, bear with me. Ronnie was working in Bristol last week with the HCT ‘Social Enterprise Champions’ programme (HCT Group are the country’s biggest social enterprise bus company – an you can read more about his work with the champions, including this visit to the inspiration Severn Project). As part of their Bristol trip they visited Tyntesfield – HCT provide volunteer buses which run in the grounds to take visitors around the estate.

Tyntesfield map1

Now, Ronnie is well used to keeping his eyes peeled, and when it comes to visiting ‘stately homes’ (which he doesn’t do very often), and he knows to have his antennae right out. Tyntesfield is a country house and estate near the city of Bristol which belonged to the Gibbs family until 2002, when it was purchased by the National Trust. The information on the leaflet says, ‘The family and their astute business minds made a huge fortune from the trade in Guano from South America and transformed an ordinary Georgian house into an extraordinary Gothic masterpiece.’ And it is quite a house:

Tyntesfield - 1

Tyntesfield - 2

Ronnie, of course, immediately picked up the ‘Guano trade’ fact and told the group that the family’s wealth was from ‘bat shit’ – much to his and their delight. Anyway, the fact is that the family were wealthy, and during the mid to late 1800s (as we have seen so often), wealthy Victorians showed their wealth by planting trees that other people couldn’t get hold of – and these included monkey puzzle trees. So, it would be a good bet to think that there must be at least one monkey puzzle tree on the estate.

When I looked closer at the map I did see this detail up by the summerhouse which looks possibly like two trees:

Tyntesfield map2

And I wondered if there might have been a summerhouse planting as we observed at Marbury in Cheshire – post here. Just imagine, the stress of being so wealthy you need to relax away from the main house. However, Ronnie reassured me that he’d had a good look at the estate and no monkeys were found.

By a strange twist of coincidence, when Ronnie returned to Liverpool the following day he was at the opening preview of a photographic exhibition about Liverpool 8  in the Bluecoat. In the gallery next door, where they gathered, was an exhibition of photographs by Xavier Ribas about the Atacama desert in Chile. The exhibition charts the history of nitrate extraction in the Chilean Atacama Desert: a system of colonial exploitation led by British companies which reached its peak between 1870 and 1920. In the gallery was this photograph:

BS1, Tyntesfield House, near Bristol

BS1, Tyntesfield House, near Bristol

This tree is in the grounds of Tyntesfield – yes the one and same house that Ronnie had just visited. Tyntesfield was owned by the Gibbs family who made their wealth from guano – no doubt they moved on to make more wealth from nitrates. From Wikipedia:

After 1870, the use of Peruvian guano as a fertiliser was eclipsed by saltpetre from the interior of the Atacama Desert, not far from the guano areas. ‘Saltpetre’ or Chilean nitrate is a sodium nitrate that, once processed, can be used as fertiliser.

The desert is littered with approximately 170 abandoned nitrate (or “saltpetre”) mining towns, almost all of which were shut down decades after the invention of synthetic nitrate in Germany at the turn of the 20th century.

The monkey puzzle doesn’t grow in the area of guano trade or the Atacama Desert – although it is the national tree of Chile, its native habitat is the lower slopes of the Chilean and Argentinian south-central Andes, typically above 1,000 m (3,300 ft).


So, there we have the amazing link between ‘bat shit’ and our first monkey puzzle tree in BS. Thank you Ronnie!

PS – just after publishing this post I looked up Tyntesfield on Wikipedia – here – only to find this, a view from the eastern formal gardens looking up towards the house, April 2008, with a juvenile monkey:

BS2, Tyntesfield

BS2, Tyntesfield

So, that’s two monkey puzzle trees in BS.

Update 10 May 2015:

I was delighted to be contacted by Helen from Bristol, who commented below. As we thought might be the case, there are indeed many more monkeys at Tyntesfield, and Helen went off to find them. She found the two by the summerhouse, the small one pictured above BS2 (now a bit larger), and in the avenue leading west from the summerhouse found five large trees – one of which I think is BS1, and 14 very small trees, I’m guessing some of them could be self seeded. Some of these small trees may not survive and grow bigger, or may get moved, we’ll have to visit again in a few years. But for now I have duly catalogued them. Which brings the BS catalogue to 22. Good work Helen, for which she has been awarded Agent status. Keep your eyes peeled – I’m sure there must be many more monkeys in the BS area.

BS1 to BS22 map


8 thoughts on “Bat shit

  1. Best blog post ever read on the subject of bat shit. Proud and honoured to have had a role in its creation. And in the interests of historical accuracy I need to point out it was one of the HCT people who pointed out the word ‘guano’ to me in the leaflet, asking if I knew what it was? I did, of course I did

  2. There’s a lane at Tyntesfield where I’m fairly certain there are lots of live and dead monkeypuzzles. I think it’s the avenue running west from 3 and 4 on the plan; it’s a little way from the main house so easy to miss.

  3. I live just 5 minutes away and have NT membership, and so I stopped in this morning in some free time. I found: 5 large trees on the lane (running west from the summerhouse); 2 large trees by the summerhouse (as per the map); plus the juvenile one out the front of the house, which is now a bit bigger. Additional to those, I found a total of 14 small/juvenile trees on the lane, some individual, some in pairs or clusters, all surrounding 3 of the large ones. They were all between 1ft and 6ft in height, and all within c.12ft of the large trees. There was also a dead tree that was still standing. So a total of 22 live monkey puzzles! I’ve take pictures of the large ones and some of the small ones, which I’ll email over to you shortly. Definitely worth a visit…

  4. I visited Tyntesfield again today for an afternoon out, and I discovered four more monkey puzzles that I missed last time.
    One fully sized tree in “Paradise” area (Number 5 on the map); One fully sized tree south of walled kitchen garden (Number 15 on map); One fully sized tree to left of drive just past the tree lined avenue from the main entrance (how did I miss this one – it was very prominent!); and one 1-foot high tree, next to the previous one on the drive. The little one is clearly being cultivated as it had fencing around it to protect it. No photos this time, I’m afraid, as the phone was out of charge.

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