Somerset Wildlife Trust

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November: Spiky plants and being spiked by their spiky bits

 16th Dec 2016

So, after the frantic dash that was October, November seems something of a downturn. The diary has been sparser, the wildlife has been sparser, and it seems the number of days I’ve been onto reserves has been sparser.
The main reason for this is the change of season. It’s very noticeable that many of our species are going dormant. The country lanes no longer have bats wheeling across them. The flowers have mostly shut up shop and fallen off, much to the consternation of the insects that have also by and large vanished. As a result, the number of surveys available to me has reduced dramatically, leaving me more ‘spare’ time. And who needs that? As we shall see, not me.

November opened with me clearing Wilson’s honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) from Horsehill Coppice. This plant, a very aggressive foreign colonist, was originally planted in the woodland as game cover, but is now spreading to the detriment of the local flora. Naturally, it has to go. There are however a couple of big challenges in getting rid of it. First, it can regenerate from tiny fragments, so herbicide has to be precisely applied to every tiny shoot to effectively eradicate it. Second, it can regenerate from tiny fragments, so herbicide has to be precisely applied to every tiny shoot to effectively eradicate it. The eagle eyed among you will notice that those are superficially the same flaw. However, it’s such a massive flaw that the extra emphasis is entirely justified. Clearing one patch of this plant is a full day’s work, and a hard day at that. Hopefully we managed to dent it.

Much of the rest of the month has been spent in scrub clearance, hence the spiky plants of the title. When maintaining and restoring species rich grassland, the conservationist faces a constant battle against some very persistent foes: chief among them bramble and gorse. There is one well established way of dealing with these plants; the way historical myth tells us witches were dealt with in the middle ages:

Phil 1
Burn it!!!

There has been a lot of fire this month, and a great deal of work by our volunteers to help feed it. There seems to be something inbuilt in the human spirit that responds to hacking up gorse and burning it. Maybe it’s just the satisfaction of seeing an area cleared. Maybe we all contain a latent arsonist. One to take up with the psychologists perhaps.
You do get spiked by a lot of these plants. It’s frustrating that all the plants which colonise quickly, and thus need to be knocked back, need to defend themselves against grazers, due to being the only plants in the area they colonise. This is inevitably achieved with thorns. You can juxtapose the elegance of a robin flitting carelessly through a gorse bush with the lumbering awkwardness of the trainee falling over onto a cut hawthorn sapling again.

This month has also seen the second of my four residential weeks, this time just outside the Devon town of Okehampton. The theme was communications, and a lot of time was spent providing us merry trainees with an effective communication toolkit. Did you know there are good times of the day to send a tweet? I did not, but now I do, and I can far more effectively reach my five Twitter followers.
I got to flex my presentation skills again, as well as my role play skills and, thanks to a session with a story teller, my lying skills. I hasten to add this was for reasons of creativity, not because it’s a skill that the traineeship deems necessary.
I also got to throw myself off a high platform. I’m not sure what this had to do with communication, though it did initiate a fairly solid dialogue between my legs and my survival mechanisms, of the form:
‘Time to jump!’
‘Are you mad?!? Why would I jump off here?’
‘It’s the purpose of the exercise! You didn’t raise any concerns when we were climbing up here!’
‘Well no, I couldn’t see the drop then!’
Eventually however, my survival instincts bowed to peer pressure, notably from the expectant faces of my colleagues staring up at me, and allowed me to fling myself into the air, resulting in the harness compressing areas of me that I never wanted compressed. Here’s a  photo from Mr Adam Llewellyn (though thankfully not of the compression) to prove this isn’t just a random tangent.

Gravity wins, without even trying

I also went on a walk to one of the remaining patches of Dartmoor woodland to survive the Neolithic clearances, a tiny patch of twisted oak branches and creeping mosses which I suppose would constitute temperate rainforest. A salutary reminder of the habitats this country has largely lost. One of my fellow trainees took this photograph of me surveying a very late season red admiral butterfly, which frankly looked ready for bed.

A fine spot for aesthetic lepidoptery

As promised, I haven’t been resting idle in my ‘spare’ time, and have been using it to either improve my knowledge of the nature and conservation work of the county, or taking the opportunity to look at local natural spectacles and go ‘oooooooooh’.
One standout day was inspired by the coastal conference held by Somerset Wildlife Trust. I took a day to head down to the beach at Watchet and see what I could find beneath the stones of the rockpools. I was pleased to find all sorts of species I was not aware of, due to not frequenting the coast as part of my work, including a lovely small brittlestar (that’s the species name, I’m not just poking fun at this particular individual being dimensionally inadequate), amphipholis squamata. I had no idea they were so tiny, with the central disc being 5mm across at most


Really small Brittlestar

A visit to the levels at the end of the month provided a viewing of a starling murmuration; those swirling patterns they create in the sky before going to roost. I couldn’t get a picture, and was too enraptured in any case, but watching about three quarters of a million starlings dropping into a reedbed is the sort of thing that reinforces a person’s belief that these places are important, and well worth saving.

Oh, one more thing. This will be the last one before Christmas, so to anyone who comes by this way, and takes the time to read my ramblings, have a good one, and I’ll see you in the new year!