This month we went on our second residential, hosted by Devon Wildlife Trust, at Okehampton so we had chance to enjoy the delights of Dartmoor and catch up with the the rest of the trainees from Dorset, Wiltshire, and Devon. We became fully trained up in Health and Safety (yay) and we've all got a bit wet in the soggy weather! Here's a taster of what we've all been experiencing in October...
Dormouse box checks were the first thing on the list this month. We checked 50 boxes at our Edford Wood Reserve which is a lovely ancient semi-natural woodland. We found a few bird and wood mice nests but unfortunately no dormice. I got very excited when I found some chewed hazel nuts but from the look of the markings they were eaten by wood mice.
Evidence of wood mice feeding on hazelnuts
I routed and painted the last of the nature trail posts for Harridge Woods, and went out with the East Mendip Conservation Volunteers to start putting them all in. Liz received the first draft of the nature trail leaflet the other day, so get those walking boots on it’s nearly ready to go!
Harridge Wood nature trail way marker
Ralph and I went on a shopping trip for our chainsaw gear. The chainsaw certificate was one I already held but didn’t have much practice with so now we have the right safety gear I’m looking forward to getting lots more experience.
Olivia one of the practical conservation trainees from last year has started with us as a seasonal reserve assistant which is fantastic news! We have been out scrub clearing at Tor Hole and Bubwith Acres and getting the bonfire season underway.
Scrub cleared - bonfire exhausted (a bit like the team)!
To finish the month I spent a day helping reserves assistant James collect seed for the UK National Tree Seed project. James has been collecting thousands of seeds from Dogwood, Wild Service, Small Leaved Lime and Elder to send to Kew Royal Botanical Gardens for future conservation and research. I helped him collect Small Leaved Lime and luckily found quite a few we could pick from the lower branches. As they are big trees we used a throw line to shake down seeds from the branches higher up. This was another new experience and a great way to finish the month.
The seasons are well and truly turning now, where once I looked out from the top of the Polden ridge onto rows of green wheat, undulating in the wind, now the crops are harvested, the fields ploughed over, pale greens waves replaced by rich, dark furrows of the red Somerset earth. The skies above Gilling Down, filled over the summer by flitting Swifts and Swallows, are empty too. The birds have fed their full and flown south to follow the sun.
Autumn colours on the Poldens
The trainees from all four trusts came together again at Okehampton in Devon for our second residential week. Fire-side storytelling, clearing gorse at Meeth Quarry and all around the bleakly beautiful Dartmoor tors. But the highlight for me was a walk to Black-a-tor, an ancient upland Oakwood particularly impressive because it’s such an abrupt transition - wide, wind-blown open heather and bracken moorland and then suddenly a dense stand of twisted little oaks (old but tiny, testament to the harsh growing conditions) nestled amongst the scattered granite of the Combe, trunks all shaggy and green, clad in moss and lichen.
Black-a-Tor Copse, Devon
On the way back I left the M5 early and went along the old road via Wellington. I've only been away a week but the seasons have really moved on noticeably here: the leaves billow upwards, yellow and red, copper and brown all swirling in the pale gold of the sun. It has been a while coming but autumn is definitely here now.
Cobweb in the morning mist
Now that the breeding/ growing season is over we have been doing more destructive work on the reserves- cutting back and burning scrub like bramble and gorse and encroaching trees. At Ringdown, if left unchecked, the wet grassland can quickly start reverting to woodland from the myriad feather–light seeds that birch in particular release so we spent two days felling a stand of them, burning the brash and stacking the timber. The fire takes a while to get going in the wet conditions both overhead and underfoot, but once it does, the heat quickly builds and the flames engulf the wood hungrily, appetite insatiable, as fast as we could add them the birch besoms were devoured…
Even with heavy rain overnight I found the remnants of the previous day’s blaze still there: a warm grey core in a halo of wet ash, slumbering embers to blow back to life. And the flames leapt high once more. The smoke and the rain and the steaming of our clothes, crackle of burning brash and crash as trunks fall and over all the angry scream of the chainsaw, insistent, untiring. But from destruction, renewal. Come the spring the wet, acidic grassland specialists like heath bedstraw, tormentil, sheep sorrel and the heathers and sedges will have a chance to flourish and this nationally scarce habitat will be preserved.
The remains of the day: watching the embers
The most notable thing that happened during this month was most definitely the residential in Okehampton, Devon. It was a very intense week of Health and Safety training, Communication in the Media training, giving our presentations, storytelling and some practical work at a Dartmoor Reserve. We also got chance to go for a couple of walks on Dartmoor, as the youth hostel we were staying at had some lovely walks nearby. It was fantastic to have the chance to catch up with the trainees from Dorset, Devon and Wiltshire and find out what they had all been up to. Some of us even squeezed in a bit of yoga in the morning before breakfast! The only downside was we were sent away with homework from the training sessions - but they all help our personal and professional development, essential for finding our dream jobs next year.
During the rest of October, we had even more ‘official’ training booked in, such as Time Management and Personal Effectiveness training session down at the Dorset HQ, which was perhaps far more useful than I was anticipating. All of us trainees from Somerset have now completed our Health & Safety Training, following a final presentation from Andrea on Managing Visitor Safety Training – again we were given homework, but there is not too much to complain about wandering around a reserve site for an hour or so to check for fallen trees or muddy areas!
My role as surveying and monitoring trainee has been somewhat less eventful this month, with more time in the office spent planning and booking onto courses and conferences coming up over the winter months. However, I did spend a day out with Ben on the coast to do a quick bird survey at Hinkley Point during high tide. The windy conditions and choppy waters meant that it was more difficult to count numbers, but we estimated that we saw around 300 shelducks floating on the water, as well as a dozen oyster catchers, avocets, a little egret, and many black-headed gulls (who have now lost their black heads, confusingly!) that began to feed on the sand as the tide receded.
An excellent haul of colourful waxcaps Ballerina Waxcap
The month ended with a Waxcap ID course at Nettlecombe Court, run by Exmoor National Park. It was an unseasonably warm, clear blue day, so our ‘classroom’ session was held outdoors in the sunshine whilst we studied the brightly coloured Waxcaps. By the end I think I had got to grips with the difference between the commoner species, and at the end of the day we were taken up the hill by minibus to site that had a Ballerina Waxcap. This species is protected, so it is illegal to pick it or plough land where it is known to exist, and is generally only found on upland sheep-grazed areas on acid soils. However, my favourite of the day must have been the parrot Waxcap - a crazy colour blend of orange and green!
School visits are now in full swing, with Priddy and St Lawrence’s schools coming out to visit one of our reserves each week. Each session a different class comes out to us, so in the end the whole school will have had the opportunity to visit at least one of our reserves and learn about the fab wildlife right on their doorstep!
We have covered three main topics with them; firstly we started with a winter survival theme at Black Rock. This involved learning about the different ways in which animals survive winter, be it migrating, hibernating or ‘toughernating’! (a new word invented by one little boy for describing something that toughs it out and carries on during winter). We have also done sessions based on ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’ to link in with the schools current literacy topic. At first look this doesn’t seem very nature based but you really can do anything when in the great outdoors. So we made natural porridge for the bears out of sticks, leaves and berries they could find and made their very own chairs or beds out of sticks and string. Finally we have been taking them to Chancellors farm to talk about how meadows contribute to food production. This reserve is a working farm but also holds the county’s coronation meadows so is perfect for showing the important links between pollinators and the food we eat. The children have also been creating their own mural to take back to school and display, with each child drawing something that would belong in a meadow.
Learning about the old privy at Chancellors Farm
October was also the month of our second trainee residential down in Okehapton in Devon. It was great to see all of the other trainees again, as we haven’t all met up since the first residential in Brownsea, and to see what everyone has been up to now we’ve all settled into our roles. The theme of this weeks training was communications, covering social media, presenting, story telling and communicating in the media. This meant that we all had to prepare a five minute presentation, which I think most of us found a little nerve wracking, but in the end it turned out to be a really good opportunity to find out a little more about what we’ve all been doing and just how different each and every trainee position is. One of the highlights from the week was the story telling session we had with Wild Wise, where we sat around the fire listening to stories – and making up our own stories about sticks! You can watch part of the storytelling session from my twitter feed here: https://twitter.com/abigailrose1991/status/657236463449473025
On a walk around Meldon Reservoir, Devon, on the last day of our residential
To finish off the month, I took a trip down to the Chesil beach visitor centre, where Dorset trainee Sophie is based, to have a taster of what life in a centre open to the public is like. This is very different to my role as it has a shop, café, office and education room all in one place; which I found out can make for a very busy day! During the day we manned the till, made bird feeders out of pine cones and popcorn, planned a future event and went for a walk along the fleet.
With Sophie at Chesil Beach!