January has been one of those months. One of those months where you extend a hand to greet it only to find that it’s already gone.
The majority of the reserves work has been coppicing, a process that I’ve described before, and could do again, but I think it would show a lack of imagination.
Besides, the core of this month has been not so much about the reserves work, but the skills learned alongside it. Unfortunately, the calendar has been so packed that I’ve forgotten to take many pictures. This is particularly ironic when you consider that one of the days has been spent learning to photograph nature. I have learned that I’m not a photographer. Self reflection is an important part of the trainee process after all!
At the start of the month, I learned about the use of pesticides. This is another of those apparent contradictions that is likely to cause the casual observer to throw their arms in the air in shock and declare ‘wait a minute! The Wildlife Trusts are killing things!’
However, the reality is more complex. While we are killing things, the things that are killed are invasive; species that are detrimental to the biodiversity of an area. Thus, occasional application is often unavoidable, and always for the greater good.
As a result, understanding the legislation and labels that explain what you can apply is critical. I learned not only how to interpret this, but how to ensure an even spray from a carried knapsack which, while not frequently performed on reserves is sometimes necessary. It also has the added bonus of making you look like a ghostbuster, which is reason enough to take the course.
I’ve also practiced my hedgelaying skills this month, heading out at the weekend to attend a session with the Blackdown Hills Hedge Association. I was astonished how strategic smashing up coppice stools with a big knife (technical term: billhook) to form a coherent boundary can be. When laying a new area, much of the existing growth is removed, leaving only the straightest poles or poles in a good location to fill an existing gap. Poles can be partially cut to alter their direction and help them lay flat, the base of each pole must be cut low enough to ensure it doesn’t create a pivot for any poles being laid across it later, and the split must initiate in the correct direction along each pole. It’s a physically exhausting logic puzzle. But a physically exhausting logic puzzle that looks nice when it’s done, and provides an excellent local habitat for all sorts of life, including small mammals and nesting birds. From a biodiversity standpoint, a laid hedge vs a three line barbed wire fence isn’t even a contest.
Applying the billhook. Naturally, a staged photo. It always pays to look where you’re aiming when swinging a bladed implement
A completed length of hedge. All these branches will continue to grow, making the hedge denser over successive years
Halfway through the month we were joined by a new Trainee, Steph. As a welcome activity all the trainees headed up to the Mendips to spend a day on Yoxter cutting gorse. I’d put a picture of us all up, but there have already been enough photos of my face in this blog. The reader will be disappointed to know there are more to come.
Hot on the heels of the Somerset trainees meeting up, the next residential week arrived with almost disturbing speed. This time, we all headed to the Oxenwood centre somewhere in the depths of Wiltshire. I didn’t drive, so I have absolutely no idea where it is. All I know is, it’s one of those parts of the county where mobile phones are rendered non-functional, basically turning them into nothing more than a pocket vanity mirror.
Where Oxenwood was located is of secondary concern however, as there was an abundance of wildlife around. Notably brown hare. Many people have the misapprehension that the brown hare is a native species, and the rabbit is a usurper. But no! These long-eared, leggy lagomorphs are every bit as introduced as rabbits, and less traceable. Were they introduced in the Iron Age? By the Romans? By the Normans? It depends who you listen to, but the fact is, they’re a good deal less common than the rabbit. This is mainly due to the intensification of farming, as hares do not burrow, leaving their young (called leverets) in shallow depressions known as forms on the surface. Without going into too much detail, this is not a reproductive strategy that is compatible with tractor drawn ploughing. As a result, every encounter with a brown hare is special, and to see several together or four in the space of an hour is quite remarkable. To see this while the unmistakeable long winged and forked tail of a red kite splits the sky above you is absolutely wonderful.
At this point I’d like to illustrate the blog with a picture of a hare. Unfortunately my camera is rubbish, so I can’t. Please take a moment to close your eyes and imagine a hare. Nice aren’t they?
I have concluded the month by arranging an exchange week with Tom, one of the Devon Wildlife Trust trainees. January finished halfway through the week, so there will be a certain cliffhanger element to this, as I can describe what happened when I went to Devon, but not what happened when he came to Somerset. It’s not a particularly well written cliffhanger, and I imagine the shops won’t be sold out of tenterhooks due to the overwhelming public demand to be on them, but it does at least give me something to write about next month. But I digress.
On the Monday we visited DWT’s reserve at Meeth Quarry, where a new hide is being constructed. We spent the day constructing some of the windows for the building. It was a good experience, as it’s very rare that you have to get a tape measure out on reserves. A welcome change of pace and skill set for a day. Tom confidently informed me it was the wettest day he’s spent working on the hide. Clothes were dried in front of the fire.
On the Tuesday we went to the reserve at Marsland, where the dippers were having trouble navigating the river due to overhanging trees. For those who don’t know, dippers are the UK’s only aquatic songbird; a beautiful creature with a rich chestnut back and white belly. They nest on the riverside and hunt in the water, diving for aquatic invertebrates. They are so named (apart from their constant dipping into streams) for their tendency to bob up and down when standing still, a strategy that has not been conclusively explained by science. The birds have been seen crossing the meadows on the site, as their passage up river was obstructed, so we duly opened a long section of river for them. A video was taken on the walk back, showing a ‘dipper’s eye view’ of the section of river that was cleared. However, due to regular tripping on rocks on the river bed, the resulting footage looks like a dipper coming home from an accidentally heavy night at its local drinking establishment. As a result, it may never see the light of day. Springwatch it was not.
Tom confidently informed me it was the wettest day he’s spent working at Marsland. Clothes were dried in front of the fire.
The work in progress hide at Meeth. Limited seating at the current time
A section of river pre-clearance at Marsland
The same section post clearance. If I can get up there, so can a dipper
So there we have it, it’s been a busy month. Apologies for the amount of pictures with me in. Self indulgent I know, but they’re all I had. I’ll try to get some actual wildlife in next month.
Until then remember: don’t just read about it, get out there and see it!