Week 2 – Through the Deer-proof fence

“Environmental pollution is an incurable disease. It can only be prevented” – Barry Commoner

Day 1 – Deer Assessment Survey

Today we went to a beautiful woodland reserve called Moor Copse. It is a stunning bluebell woodland (with a slight deer problem), but is also unfortunately more famous as a site for several clandestine meetings, than its beauty.

The aim of today was to assess the woodland to see how much of an impact the the deer were having on the woodland’s regeneration. As both Muntjac and Roe deer are present, we were expecting a quite a few signs of deer impact. If we found this to be true then we would then need to inform the reserves team, who manage the reserve, of the impact and advise them on the best course of action (i.e culling more or less deer).

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I absolutely adore this woodland. One of my favourite things about this traineeship so far has been the chance to go, quite literally, off the beaten track, and into parts of the reserve that no one else can see. It felt like walking through a mystic wood, however fantastical that sounds, it’s true. Once you push through the barrier of brambles and scrub, you reach a more open space, with a carpet of bluebells and coppiced hazels, it feels quiet and peaceful, just birdsong and the sound of my own footsteps.

Another thing I’ve learnt is that if you know what you’re looking for, deer signs are really easy to see. Young brambles and ivy are like deer chocolate; addictive and irresistible. This creates obvious browsing lines, where the growth of ivy suddenly starts again above where the deer can reach. Other signs are where stems abruptly stop after being nibbled, or all of the leaves have been stripped off. They also create racks (basically deer tracks, don’t ask me why they’re called racks instead), couches – where they scrape away leaves to the bare earth and sleep, and wallows, presumably where they wallow like any other animal, although we didn’t actually see any. Another cool thing is that deer hair is actually hollow, so if you find any and try and bend it, it will either snap or create a definite point, whereas if you try and bend other hair, it’s not possible to do the same. If there’s a lot of food available, deer will be selective, eating young bramble leaves and ivy, before moving on to more mature leaves or even browsing bluebell leaves.

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There were also more dormice boxes which we checked- there were no dormice, we were just excited.

There’s also a Heritage site- full of 50 year old rubbish from when Irish labourers built the motorway in the 1960s. It’s kind of spooky, like people left in a hurry and ended up leaving their precious belongings. Other highlights of the day included finding tree snails! I didn’t even know that these were a thing, but they are and they’re tiny! Apparently there are hundreds of species, so one day maybe i’ll get round to doing some research. I also saw some Badger poo, which was quite gross. It looks like really slimy black dog poo, in a latrine that the badgers dig a short distance away from their sett. But it’s important to be able to recognise different types of poo, as sometimes it’s the only sign that you might see of an indication of a species being present.

Another 10.8 Km walked!

Day 2 – Water Voles

Yeeeesssss, today was a day I was looking forward to! BBOWT are in charge of the longest running Water Vole Restoration project in the whole of the UK, so having the chance to be a part of it is kind of a big deal!

We went to a lovely place on the border between Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, near Shrivenham. It’s not actually on a reserve, but on a private farm so I won’t mention the place name. Another beautiful day though, full sunshine, so we cracked out the suncream for the first time this year.

Water vole surveys are fairly simple in their construction so long as you can distinguish between rat poo and water vole poo! We spent the whole time walking along the south bank of the river, unfortunately it was too deep to wade, otherwise the process may have been easier. We each had long sticks (almost staffs really), which we used to move vegetation out of the way of the bank so we could search for burrows, latrines (areas where lots of water voles poo) and feeding signs (where the water voles have bitten off vegetation at a 45 degree angle). This can be quite tricky to avoid falling in… which the other trainee (Ben) didn’t manage! At least he didn’t go in head first like the last year’s trainee, but it was quite funny! I didn’t manage to get many pictures as when I was going to help I discovered a Mallard’s nest – priorities!

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So a basic summary of the day is that I learnt the difference between rat poo and water vole poo (rat poo is pointed at one end and water vole poo isn’t and they’re both roughly the size of a tic tic…). This also involved handling lots of poo, including a rather fresh otter spraint. I also spent a lot of time kneeling in nettles attempting to reach various poo items, but that wasn’t too bad. Not as keen for when they apparently grow up to be taller than 7 feet!

Other beautiful wildlife moments of the day included flushing a barn owl out of a hollow tree, spotting a kingfisher and a sparrowhawk!

Walked a mere 8.4 Km today, pitiful!

Day 3 – Modified Breeding Bird Transects

Today we visited two reserves, Whitecross Green Wood and Asham Meads. In order to do a breeding bird survey, you have to walk a set transect route and count how many birds you see or hear, then rate them on a scale one 1 -4, depending on how many metres they were away from you… The transect route is also split into several sections (about 200m each in length), and you have to do this for each section.

I have discovered, that I am really not very good at this.

This is because, you have to be very good at recognising birds in flight, or separating individual songs from the overall cacophony, whilst factoring in the sheer variation of each species songs, plus the number of different calls they each have, plus the species that mimic each other. Apparently I’ll get better, I have since been gifted MP3s of all British bird songs, so if I do some homework as well then I will get better!

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Whitecross Green Wood is (yet another) lovely reserve, full of wild garlic and wildflowers and is excellently managed for both butterflies and birds. It is another site with a deer problem, so it does get actively managed for that too. The picture above was taken in the deer ex-closure, and it was amazing to see how much more growth and ground cover there is here, compared to the rest of the wood.

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Asham Meads, on the other hand, is rather bleak! It’s the first reserve that I’ve come across that I haven’t immediately taken to. It is a rather wet reserve in the middle of farmland, that is protected because of the presence of curlew (not that there are any). It does have it’s charm, but it was more like a walk through a windy field than anything else. It does have some lovely blossom, but didn’t have a lot in the way of bird-life.

Ironically, just off the reserve we got to see two Greater Spotted Woodpeckers engaging in courting behaviour, chasing each other up and down and round several trees and near-by telegraph poles, so that was really nice to see!

Another cheeky 10.2 Km walked as well. Next week, we might get to start butterfly transects, as the butterfly survey season officially starts on April 1st, although I have already seen a couple of brimstone and red admiral butterflies about!

Week one – Introduction

We have to prove to the disinherited majority of the world that ecology and conservation will not work against their interest but will bring an improvement in their lives.” – Indira Gandhi

Day one- Grey Partridge

My first proper day as a trainee was excellent. One of my favourite things about working in this field has been that I automatically have things in common with the people that I work with. If I wasn’t already having a wonderful time doing something I love, then the people would make it worthwhile.

The morning was taken up with a bio-team meeting (with coffee and cake), and was a great opportunity to meet everyone in the team and find out in a bit more depth about what each person does. The second half of the day was my first chance to get out in the field- and as I found out later, help with the first survey of the season!

As the planned bird survey was rained off, we ended up going to a gorgeous reserve called Wells Farm (BBOWT’s answer to Hope Farm) to do a Grey Partridge Survey. This meant that we walked the whole of the reserve and did a count of how many Partridge we saw. Quite an easy day to start, although we still ended up walking over 11 kilometres! We ended up only seeing 2 pairs and 1 single partridge (5 total), but the fields were absolutely teeming in other birdlife – yellow hammers, meadow pipits and reed buntings to name a few! I noticed how poor my bird ID skills are, especially if I am trying to ID birds through song alone, but that is a good thing, it’s something to improve on! The weather might have been quite poor, but the birds didn’t mind- and it shows how well birds can still thrive on farmland. Just by making small changes to management, farmland birds can be saved from such a steep decline, and the farm can still be productive. Quite tired now, but I think a great first day!

 

Day two- Hazel Dormice

I was so excited for today! Hazel Dormice, with their ginormous beady eyes and bushy tails, are (or should be) the Audrey Hepburn of the rodent world. Although we were out in the field all day at Chinnor Hill, it was surprisingly less strenuous than our half day the day before. It is a steep survey site, which can be difficult on chalky grassland as it has a tendency to become very slippery after even a bit of moisture! But it was a lovely day, and a chance to work with the Reserves team and some more members of the Bio team, which meant I’ve got to know everyone a bit better.

We started by checking half of the old survey boxes from previous years and found that all the boxes (with one exception) were inactive, and the active box was with a blue tit nest rather than dormice! As the site had been found to be inactive (for dormice) for a few consecutive years, it was decided that we would remove the boxes and move them somewhere more likely to be used. After lunch, we walked back up the slope with some spare boxes and checked the other half of the survey site. Although alas, no dormice, we did find a box full of wood mice! I didn’t get a chance to handle any this time, but I’ve decided to try going for my dormouse survey license which would involve learning how to handle small rodents! I did watch one of the bio team learn how to handle the wood mice, but because we thought that they might have been a young family we ended up leaving them be. We ended up having to replace so many of the old boxes that had been chewed through, that we didn’t actually have enough boxes left to extend the site as first planned. A shame perhaps, but it means that it’s a chance to go back, by which time hopefully some dormice have taken advantage of our beautiful and improved (look at the picture!) boxes, and I will be able to see one in the wild!

The whole day was rather special, beautiful sunshine and good company and plenty of dogs walking through the reserve- which probably got quite annoying for everyone else as I insisted I said hello to all of them.

On the way home we stopped off by an old chalk quarry as apparently a little ringed plover had been spotted, but we couldn’t see any. We did see a few teal, mallard and canada geese in addition to the red kites, which now seem completely ubiquitous throughout the Chilterns. Then back to HQ just in time for a cup of tea and some admin work and reading codes of practice.. not going to lie, although codes of practice are very important, I think that I enjoyed the tea more than the reading!

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Day three- Butterfly Transects

Another important day. Today was a day to walk two of the butterfly transect routes, in order to double check the route map and instructions for new volunteers that might not know the site. We went to Gomm Valley and Homefield Wood reserves, both of which are in the Chilterns so mainly consist of chalky grassland, scrub and some established woodland. The Gomm Valley transect was relatively straight forward, but Homefield wood was much trickier! The instructions weren’t particularly clear, but also as it’s a more intensively managed area, it is possible that site of the landmarks that were mentioned had been moved, or might have disappeared.

I’d like to focus particularly on Homefield wood, as it is really a hidden gem. Used mainly by local dog walkers, it is a steep wooded reserve in the heart of the Chilterns, with open glades perfect for Military Orchid. I also saw a pair of nesting ravens, fire crests, gold crests, marsh tits and a jay. All stunning birds that I haven’t previously had a chance to properly look at. I really love this job, I’m outside for most of the day, and I get to see places and things that I would never have had the chance to see before. Plus I’ve walked over 33 kilometres in the past three days, so I have a sneaky feeling that I will also get fitter.

One of the other things I’m beginning to love about this job is that it always seems to work out that the reserves are in close proximity to quintessential country pubs so if the weather is awful, there’s always great places to shelter! But that’s just a small perk.

 

Next week I should be going out on deer impact surveys and water vole surveys, plus even more!

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