Somerset Wildlife Trust

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October: The Month of the Bursting Calendar

 8th Nov 2016

October has always been one of my favourite times of the year. The trees and hedgerows are dripping with fruit, the autumn bird migration is in full swing, and the fruiting bodies of fungus push their way up from beneath the soil, (leading to lots of flicking hopelessly through the fungus guide before coming to the conclusion that it’s not possible to ID that particular brown one). There is plenty to enjoy, and the Trust has stepped it up accordingly; the idea of a free day now seems like something from myth and legend (even on weekends!)

The first major activity of the month was a trip to the Knepp estate in Sussex. This massive patch of land is the largest rewilding project in England. For those who have not encountered this term before, rewilding can be a difficult beast to define, but in the case of Knepp, it can be described as an attempt to restore key ecological processes to ensure the animals reared on the land live a healthy and natural existence, to the benefit of both the landowner and the natural world. It appears to be working. Sir Charles Burrell, who owns the estate, is now seeing a far greater profit from the land than he did when he managed it as an intensive dairy farm. A large part of this is the fact that the Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and red, roe and fallow deer that manage the estate for him require no additional feeding (bar very occasional supplementary hay in particularly hard winters). The upfront costs come right down, and the land returns to a more natural state. The activity of the animals, and the subsequent impact on the landscape, is already beginning to create the ecological niches for some of our rarer species. The globally rare Turtle Dove is doing well here, possibly as a result of the rootling activities of the pigs, and surveyors have recorded 155 purple Emperor Butterflies in one day! Clearly this is a great solution for both landowners and nature, and I sincerely hope it will be picked up more widely by landowners in the future. Sir Charles even mentioned that he had plans to attempt the introduction of meat from his ponies into the market; these animals are valuable as a grazing tool, as they will graze different plants to other livestock, but clearly they need to make the landowner a return to be viable. Personally, I think this would be no bad thing.
Oh, and we slept in a bell tent. In October. I managed to keep all my toes, though some are only just recovering adequate blood flow.

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Some of Knepp’s excellent land management team

A couple of busy reserves days later, and I was pitched into a week long training session on the use of a chainsaw. This covered the basics, such as maintenance and cutting up wood on the ground (known in the trade as cross-cutting) as well as the felling of small trees. The maintenance I had done before at the workshop, but I actually got to start the engine here. I find a good rule in life is to begin by being scared of everything; that way you can ensure it doesn’t hurt you. This was definitely no exception. When you hit the accelerator and those pointy teeth become a blur, you realise that a healthy respect for the tool is the best way to ensure you reach the end of your days with a full complement of body parts. Particularly face whitening is the point where you first touch the ‘kick back zone’ to the wood, and the saw jumps off like a flea on a hot plate. Still, this is why we learn.
Following a couple of days of thoroughly looking at how to take the saw to bits and put it back together, we got onto felling. The felling in question was performed in a small forestry commission woodland of mixed conifer and beech, packed tighter than a rush hour trip on the London underground. The result of this is that when you finally cut through the base of the tree and use your lever to lift it, it often moves ten to fifteen degrees and gets stuck in the tree next to it. At this point, there is a lot of levering to be done, rocking and rolling the tree until it comes loose. This section of proceedings usually involves sweating, shouting and a healthy dose of naughty language. If lucky, the tree falls (I was most disappointed to find it is not mandatory to yell ‘TIMBER!!!!!’); if not, you attach a winch to another tree and drag it over. If this fails, you stand around looking puzzled and consider your options.
Following the satisfying thud of the tree hitting the deck, you need to de-limb it safely. This is a back breaking process of covering the whole trunk to ensure the timber is nice and smooth (we were learning with the neatness of a forestry company. Conservation will often be a little more rough and ready in this regard).
Having learned the processes, I had my assessment the next week. My assessor commented that I performed outstandingly. Glowing with pride, I headed back to the workbase and picked up a brushcutter again (I think I mentioned in the September blog that I’ve been brushcutting). I did get to practice using the saw on a large birch tree that had fallen on our reserve at Quants though. This gave me an appreciation of how much less predictable broadleaf trees are than conifers when taking them apart.

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The triumphant woodsman stands on the fallen assessment tree, and looks uncomfortable about it.

The last major skill learned this month has been dry stone walling. This appeared to be fairly ironically named, as it rained constantly the whole day. I needed to travel up to Chancellor’s Farm on the Mendips for this, as there aren’t any dry stone walls on the Poldens. It was an enjoyable day, attempting to find stones that fit the gap, then ensuring they’re wedged firm using smaller stones. The rain was the only problematic factor, as with spectacular forethought I had left most of my waterproofs at the other end of the county. It’s been either a very good or a very bad day at work when you come home with wet underwear, and this was toward the top end of possible scenarios.

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The intrepid Adam Llewellyn builds a wall

Over the weekends, I’ve helped at a couple of events this month, talking meadows with people in Wells, and making fresh apple juice in Taunton. It’s nice to have this change of pace sometimes, though when the public turn up in force it’s often more manic than wrestling bramble on a nature reserve. Further ‘days off’ include attending a fungus foray through the Trust, and going along to the superb coastal conference that was held to raise awareness of the Somerset coastline. Days without nature are overrated anyway.
I tell you, if watching short-eared owls soaring silently over the marshes at Steart isn’t leisure time, I don’t know what is. Maybe watching one on a kill a few metres away. It’s easy to get lost in the big orange eyes.

And now, a couple more pictures:

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Squashing apples in French Weir Park

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A porcelain fungus, because it’s that time of year

I hope I’ve not rambled on too much. I’ve enjoyed it anyway...

Phil