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!