Monday, 10 March 2014

Volunteering in the Countryside

I still have plenty to write about from my recent travels, but just lately I have been really enjoying our own British countryside rather a lot.

I often used to worry that ‘home’ would seem really boring after travels to exotic lands, but in actual fact I found that, after a few trips, I actually gained more appreciation for what we have right here. I wonder why? I think maybe it’s because I’m learning to look at things differently :)

With free time on my hands, I decided to look for some voluntary work in countryside conservation. I have always been interested in nature and the countryside. I’d done voluntary work for various countryside organisations (Wildlife Trusts, the National Park etc) when I was younger, and had even studied countryside management at college for a bit before having to leave to find paid work. (I later saved up and went back to college then on to University to do something different).

I looked up my local Wildlife Trust, which from where I currently live is Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust. The Wildlife Trusts, 47 in total, are all over the country and cover geographical areas. They “stand up for, and look after, natural and wild places close to where people live”, carrying conservation, habitat management and educational work. As charitable trusts, they are all dependent upon donations and they also make good use of volunteer workers.

College Lake

I found a nature reserve not toooo far from where I live, and although on the website it said that their volunteer work parties were currently full, I immediately wrote an email to the contact given. I got a reply the following morning, and after a couple of emails back and forth I had arranged to pop in that afternoon for a chat. Driving out to College Lake nature reserve I crossed from one side of the Chilterns to the other, a drive through some beautiful countryside. Owain, the warden, was a young guy who was clearly very passionate about his job and very knowledgeable. We had a lot to chat about with common interests in nature and travelling, and the outcome was that I decided to go back the following day to join the Wednesday work party.

After our chat, Owain loaned me his binoculars and I spent an hour or so enjoying the reserve. College Lake is an old chalk quarry, which was opened in order to supply a nearby cement works. Now flooded, the old quarry is a hugely important site for wetland birds, while the surrounding chalk grassland is very important for our declining wildflowers – and subsequently the butterflies, bees and other insects that rely on these, therefore supporting further up the food chain with small mammals and birds of prey and so on.

I might be a bit old for a 'Duck Detective' sheet, but it did help!

Tufted ducks

Being early spring, the wetland area still has birds that are winter visitors, as well as new arrivals coming for the spring and summer. I’m not a bird watcher or ‘twitcher’, but I do enjoy seeing birds and knowing what they are, and I appreciate if I see something rare or unusual. I therefore picked a leaflet that was designed for kids I think, but provided a guide for the different duck species that were around. My favourites were the tufted ducks, which I just think look so cute, and the shoveler ducks, which just look really interesting with their strangely shaped beaks.

Shoveler duck

On the way home I drive past part of the Ashridge Estate, owned by the National Trust. Here I see an impressive herd of deer, although with fading light the photos are less than impressive… I think these are Roe Deer, a species native to Britain, and I get out of the car and approach carefully behind the cover of some trees and scrub to get a better look at them. They look beautiful, elegant but nervous, I don’t get too close as they would only run off, but am content to look from a short distance and they gradually start to relax a little. I could stay much longer, but I have things to get back for so reluctantly I head back to the car and home.

Roe deer

Roe deer

The next day I return to College Lake to join the work party, carrying out practical tasks for maintenance and habitat management around the reserve. The tasks for the day start with shovelling and shifting wood chippings to help with path areas that have become boggy with all the rain that’s fallen. Then we set to work on scrub clearance, some cutting and others moving to keep an area clear of the scrubby bushes and small trees. It may seem strange to be cutting down trees and things in a nature reserve, but this particular area is at the top of a bank of chalk which is part of the site designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its geology. This SSSI status means that it must be preserved as well as possible, so they have to ensure that the root systems of the plants don’t disturb the delicate chalk geology below. It’s a fine balance though – you don’t want to get rid of all the roots as this means there is no protection from soil erosion!

We broke for lunch and ate our sandwiches in the sunshine. There was plenty of cake too, as it happened to be the final day for a couple of volunteer veterans of 12 years, who were moving back to their (and my!) home county of Pembrokeshire, Wales the following week. Lunchtime over, as there was a newbie in the group Owain took us all on a tour of the reserve. As a newbie, this introduced me to the scale of the place and the habitats within, as well as teaching everyone a bit more about the management strategies for different ones. Plus, the volunteers get to see their work in context and see how their contributions help.

Results of some hedging done previously by the volunteer work team

We carry a telescope around with us on the walk, and every now and then we stop to look at the wildlife. We see some early butterflies, a buzzard and a kestrel. Someone with very keen eyes spots a hare – I see it through the scope, sitting down in grass with its ears flat down its back, but it’s too far off for me to get a picture. I love rabbits and grey squirrels, but I really love our own native wildlife and want to appreciate it more in the time I have left in the UK, so watching this hare feels very special.

Not my photo, but this hare is sitting just like the one we saw

We look at the birds again too, lapwings, red shanks, snipe, the various species of duck: tufted ducks, gadwalls, lots of wigeon and a couple of shovelers. College Lake is hugely important for lots of bird species, and makes home for a third of the Lapwings in the county as well as significant proportions of other bird populations. While this is great news that these handsome birds have somewhere ideal to live, it is also a sad indicator of the decline of these species in other areas.

I look forward to returning and learning more the following week, I find it so interesting and rewarding.

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