Somerset Wildlife Trust

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April: The Final Chapter

 26th Apr 2017

So we arrive at April, the month destined to be my last with Somerset Wildlife Trust. You see, in the middle of the month I secured a six month position with National Trust, working primarily in the Quantock hills. As a result, this is the last blog I’ll be publishing, which is a bit sad.

I promised last month that I would give a bit more of a description of fencing activities. Of course, if you want to stop grazing livestock escaping, a solid fence line is absolutely essential. As a result, each year, all our reserves need to be patrolled in a very official manner, carrying a clipboard and wiggling posts. Any that crack get replaced. Any that wiggle get hit with a big hammer. If this doesn’t work, they get replaced too. The process for replacing the posts is quite simple. Using fencing pliers, peculiar beaked steel implements, the existing staples are removed. Once this has been done, a new hole is dug for the replacement post. For smaller ‘intermediate’ posts, this is done using the bar. Brace yourselves for the description: it’s a steel bar. Using primarily the weight of the tool, a hole is dug to match the taper of the post end. This allows the post to be stood upright, at which point a steel sleeve is placed over the post and used to drive it into the ground. Simple, unless you hit stones (for which I sympathise greatly with the guys who do this in the Mendip hills) or tree roots, at which point each hit knocks the post further away from the vertical. Once the post has been driven in enough to be secure (often measured using that great in-built biological piece of metrological apparatus, the human leg), the wire is nailed back on and voila! Repaired fence.  
Life isn’t always this simple. The wire of course needs to be tightened. In order to do this, strainer posts need to be fitted. These veritable tree trunks of posts are dug into the ground rather than driven, as they are too broad. This often includes the liberal application of rocks, both to hold the post upright, and to drive in and alter the post direction slightly in the case of drift. The strainers are supported by 45 degree struts, placed in custom cut notches in the strainer, and designed to take the lateral loads induced by the straining of the wire. The wire itself is strained around the post (hence the name), using tensioning bars, crowbars, bad language and monkey strainers. This last is a chained and beaked contraption resembling nothing so much as a device of which the inquisition would have been proud. The main torture here of course is figuring out how to use the thing, which insists on having no clear orientation. Once applied, a few ratchets pull the wire incredibly tight, allowing the wire to be nailed to the strainer and the intermediates, and finishing the job really professionally. Honestly.

This has been the majority of my month, along with a work party using similar principles to repair a flight of steps at Dundon Beacon.

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Ooh, new steps

In addition, I’ve had my final residential week, this time in the best county involved in the Wildlife Skills traineeship; Somerset. No reflection on the quality of the other counties of course, it’s just that Somerset is awesome. We had walks around Crook Peak and Cheddar Gorge, caving in Swildon’s Hole above Priddy, plus I took the day off to have my successful interview! Oh, and there was some project management and interview technique stuff too. All useful, but not great subject matter for a blog. Wildlife highlights of the week included horseshoe bats roosting in the caving site, Daubentons bats skimming the water of the ponds in the gorge, arguing sparrowhawks over Black Rock, early purple and green winged orchids, and the spooling fishing reel call of the grasshopper warbler emanating from Long Wood. A great week, and a great way to say farewell to all the trainees I’ve come to know so well over this last year.

So that’s it really, my time concluded. And a real mixed bag of emotions it is. While pleased to secure real, paid work in the sector for the first time, I’m also leaving behind the organisation that has nurtured me while I develop my skills. Before I came here my plant identification skills were non-existent, I had no idea how to use a chainsaw, build a fence or even brushcut efficiently. I’d never pressed apple juice for the Taunton community, I’d never helped children pond dip, never conducted a tv interview, never written a newspaper article, never... well, the list goes on and on.
I cast my mind back to a year ago, when to dare hope I’d be where I am now would have seemed almost foolhardy. But here I am, a rounded, experienced fledgling conservationist. Somerset Wildlife Trust has given me the skills I need to survive outside the nest, and now it’s time to spread my newly formed wings.

I cannot leave without handing out thanks. I must of course thank my excellent and understanding mentor Mark Green, from whom I have learned a lot, with whom I have laughed a lot, and who has helped me immeasurably. This same thanks must also be extended to the other members of the Ford Farm posse; David Northcote-Wright and Ian Hill, as both have been kind enough to put up with my endless questions, my (thankfully) ever diminishing ignorance, and my repeatedly running off to help other people.
There are many in the Trust who I can thank for giving me the opportunities I’ve had, ensuring that this year of my life has been an unforgettable one, a true turning point. It’s not overstating it to say that this traineeship has changed my life, allowing me to shed the unloved cloak of engineering and become the professional I want to be.
Additionally, it would not be fair to depart without thanking Rachel Janes, who has been my point of contact for the traineeship. She has helped me and guided me throughout this process, and without her devotion to developing not only my cohort of trainees, but those who preceded us, none of us would be the people we are. As an extension of this, I also need to thank Heritage Lottery Fund for paying for me to be here, and offering their continued support to the development of a new wave of desperately needed conservationists.

We must not forget that wildlife is at the core of this. I’ve developed the skill set I have to help save it. Never far from my mind is the fact that the 2016 State of Nature report highlighted that 15% of our UK species are threatened with imminent extinction, and nearly 60% are in decline. This is a horrifying fact. Working in this sector for the last year gives me first hand experiences of the nature that we stand to lose if we don’t successfully instigate the required cultural shift toward valuing our wildlife. I’ve seen the bees busily working the flowers in the meadow, nudging open the blooms of bird’s foot trefoil. I’ve watched wintering waterfowl dabbling in the rhynes of the levels. I’ve watched horseshoe bats light sampling before emerging from their roosts in the Mendips. I’ve seen fields thronged with large white butterflies, and watched the dainty flight of common blues and brown argus across the grazed reserves of the Poldens. I’ve sat a couple of inches from the face of an inquisitive southern hawker dragonfly, and stared into the tens of thousands of lenses of its eyes. I’ve listened to the dawn chorus of a wetland in spring, the booms of the bitterns, the laughing of the little grebes, the blasting sound of the Cetti’s warblers. I’ve been supremely lucky to see two  male adders competing for the attentions of a female, twined together in a contest of strength, with the loser passing within inches of my feet. There are too many experiences to list, and they far outweigh the value of anything I’ve ever paid to experience.
This is why I will continue to help Somerset Wildlife Trust in a voluntary capacity, to pay my membership fees and help spread the word. Nature is not an optional extra, it’s not something we can exist without. We are co-evolved with it, we are dependent on it, and it would be cold of us indeed to deny future generations the diversity I’ve seen, and the experiences I’ve had. Nature requires everyone to rally to its banner, to fight for its cause, and it is a battle we cannot afford to lose.


My new favourite thing, a male adder

How much of the world that we count beautiful and serene is nature responsible for? The folk music trio of Simpson, Cutting and Kerr sum this up perfectly in their song Dark Honey:

When man has driven the drone of bees from all the fields and cemeteries,
He’ll miss that richness his nature craves,
And no flowers will grow upon our graves.

We only get one chance to lose our natural diversity, and it’s a chance that I intend to make sure we do not take. This last year has allowed me to work with others as stalwart in this cause, both SWT staff and the excellent volunteers who help us achieve so many of our goals. So as I depart, please take a moment to think about what nature means to you. Spend some time dwelling on those most cherished memories of privileged time spent in the company of our wildlife and wild places, and ask yourself how you can help protect it for future generations.

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Bluebells at Bunch Wood

I’m sure I’ll see you around,