December marks six months and the halfway point of our traineeships (apart from Becky who stays for 18 months), so it is a great time to reflect on all the new and exciting things we have done so far, and what we have coming up in the new year. It has been a month of tying up loose ends with assignments, finishing off projects and has seen all four of us complete further training that will help us in the future of the traineeships and beyond into employment.
Ralph and I got December off to a great start by completing our 4x4 off road training. There were a few steep scary hill starts and even a bellied out truck to recover but we both passed and now I feel a lot more confident driving in the Landrover and the truck.
I managed to get some experience leading a volunteer group when Olivia and I led the East Mendip volunteers at Harridge Woods. They are regular volunteers so had used a lot of the tools and worked at the site before which made leading the group a lot easier. It went really well and I think I will be less worried about leading tasks in the future. We even spotted a Red admiral who had either stayed up late or come out a bit early!
Ralph and I showing off our new certificates Lone Red Admiral
I got to spend the day helping reserves assistant Phil, and volunteers John and Julia work on the new boardwalk at the Catcott reserve. Phil explained how they installed the boardwalk and the problems they had overcome. It’s looking really good and it was great to help out for the day.
The new boardwalk at Catcott is taking shape, with the help of the amazing volunteers!
We picked up the leaflets for the Harridge Woods Nature trail and fixed the leaflet holders at the start of the trail which means it’s now ready for everyone to enjoy. It’s great to be so involved with the project and be able to see it completed while I’m here.
The start of the Harridge Woods Nature Trail
At the beginning of December I completed a four by four off-roading course which was informative as well as being good fun. It involved a lot of unlearning ‘road-driving’ mind-set, particularly with clutch usage- if you put the clutch down on a steep hill climb, then without the traction of the engine you are only going one way- back down that hill! As we found, off-road vehicles can hold themselves easily on even steep slopes with just the gearbox engaged, no hand brake, no footbrake, but it is hard at first to get out of the ingrained habit to dip the clutch as you slow to a stop.
Insides of a landrover
Hill recoveries were also a lot of fun- restarting a stalled vehicle in reverse, clutch up, brakes off to get back down an unclimbable slope, there is a slightly unnerving surge as you accelerate downhill before the engine catches up and slows you back down to a more controlled descent. An even stranger experience, though, was doing a forward recovery on a hill. In a similar way, starting from a ‘stalled’ position engine in first gear, brakes off, clutch up you can actually get the vehicle moving uphill on just the starter motor with a little helping throttle, crazy stuff.
Another highlight from the month was tree felling from the top of the Tannager slope on the 9th December, before our contractor moved in to extract the timber. It was a beautiful day, swift transitions between squalls of rain and bright sun, a crisp cold wind to fell directly into, which kept up concentration! It was a day to really appreciate being outside and doing what I do.
Tree feeling at Tannager, note the additional chopping block rounds- perks of the job!
Other than that I’ve been studiously using up my remaining holiday- I went looking for Cranes on the Levels in the week before Christmas. They tend to congregate in the winter and there had been a number of sightings recorded near the River Parrett and Aller Moor, unfortunately it was a fairly grey and mizzled day so visibility wasn’t great and I didn’t manage to spot any in the end.
On the 13th we had our East Poldens volunteer group out working with us at Tannager reserve. Cutting back and burning encroaching scrub (as usual!) to keep the grassland open, our regulars were boosted by a group of 12 students from the Bristol University Conservation Group and it didn’t take long to clear the block we’d marked out. Afterwards, I went to the RSPB Ham Wall reserve to watch the Starling murmuration as they come in to nest in the reed beds. It was an amazing spectacle, easily tens of thousands of birds in the air at once, pulsing and swirling like some huge, diffuse organism.
Early on the Starlings amass from all directions, long billowing streamers flitting in, a multitude of little black bodies against the last light of the day. As the sun fades, though, they seem to hug the contours of the ground and skim the Alder fringing the reed bed close like tiny steeplechasers; a living wave endlessly breaking over the treeline. I have seen murmurations before, in the fens of East Anglia but have never been this close, on a spit of land right beside the reed beds with the birds passing a few feet overhead. The noise is incredible: an unending polyphony of wings and calling, ebbing and flowing like the movement of the birds themselves.
With the golden fire of the setting winter sun emerging at the end of an otherwise grey day, it was a truly unforgettable experience and one I wouldn’t have had if not for the traineeship.
Sun Fall at Ham Wall - Reed beds at Ham Hill, waiting for the Starlings to arrive!
I started off December with an intensive 2-day QGIS course in Gloucester, where I was joined by Jasmine from the Wiltshire trainees. For those who don’t know what GIS is, it is a programme with satellite imagery and mapping tools, used by many wildlife charities, and increasingly by some consultancies, to map habitat features, geology, field boundaries, and so on, instead of using the more costly ArcGIS.
Whilst it wasn’t the most exciting way to spend a couple of days in Gloucester, it has proved to be very useful. I have now started an Aerial Photo Interpretation Project using ArcGIS, looking at the habitat map for Quantock Hills and the surrounding area. This is to correct any errors in the current data, and to identify some potentially interesting sites to survey next spring and summer.
A highlight of the month has to be a trip to London for a Winter Twig ID course with the Species Recovery Trust at the Natural History Museum. We were able to use the beautiful Wildlife Garden for some practice – although the warm weather so far meant that many of the trees were still in leaf, so it was difficult not to cheat!
This garden has been cleverly designed to have most of the main habitat types found in the UK, and contains some very rare species, so is surprisingly biodiverse for a small space in the middle of London. Unfortunately there are plans in the pipeline to alter the entrance to the museum, so the Wildlife Garden is currently under threat of being partially destroyed or altered considerably, which would be a huge loss. (For more information and to sign the petition, click here: https://www.change.org/p/sir-michael-dixon-director-natural-history-museum-london-save-the-natural-history-museum-s-wildlife-garden )
Just before my last day of the year in the office, we had our staff Christmas meal and meeting in Langport, which finished with a visit to Aller & Beer woods with a talk by Mark. We were lucky with the weather (although the site was very muddy) for visiting the reserve afterwards, and it was a nice way to end 2015.
Staff walk around Aller & Beer woods - a great end to 2015! Vibrant orange fungi seen at Aller & Beer
Our traineeships are flying by as December marked the 6 month mark and the final push before Christmas! My month started with completing my portfolio for the level 2 qualification in forest school. This meant compiling everything I had learnt and experienced over the past few months and gave me the chance to reflect on everything I had done. This is also meant that my time helping out with forest school sessions with the YMCA preschool group had come to an end, and the children (and myself!) enjoyed their last few weeks of playing in the mud. It has been great to see their confidence grow and I hope to continue these sessions after Christmas.
No longer scared of getting muddy! First experience of setting up a fire pit.
This month I also got to do a bit of hard graft and joined a group of young volunteers from strode college out at Westhay. We were clearing scrub from the edges of the mire and had a roaring bonfire to go with it. This is important work to maintain the rare peat mire habitat to protect it from scrub encroachment and encourage the growth of sphagnum moss and sundews. Minus a few holes in jumpers from the fire, the day was thoroughly enjoyable and it was great to see the positive impact on the landscape after just one days work.
Burning the scrub at Westhay NNR
Leighann and I also visited White Field reserve to complete a visitor safety risk assessment which also marked the completion of all of our health and safety training (hoorah!) This was a new reserve to us both, and so took us a while to actually find! Once we did, it turned out to be a very simple site to assess but a lovely walk nonetheless.
Leighann making friends with some of the neighbouring cattle at White Field.
A highlight of the month for me was the Christmas watch group event at Ham Hill. People could make their own Christmas wreaths, yule log candle holders and winter bird feeders made out of pine cones. Everyone was thoroughly in the Christmas spirit – helped along by mince pies and hot chocolate! And I was rather proud of my own wreath making skills!
My rather bushy attempt at a Christmas wreath!
Thanks for reading, and come back next month to see what we're getting up to in 2016!