Batty for Bats (and Badgers)

The Mole had long wanted to make the acquaintance of the Badger. He seemed, by all accounts, to be such an important personage and, though rarely visible, to make his unseen influence felt by everybody about the place

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Firstly- apologies, apparently I took approximately two photos this week, not up to snuff.

Day 1

Badgers! Ben was away all this week for his graduation, so instead of going out for water voles, I was taken out to do some badger baiting. Let me quickly say -this is not what it sounds like at all! What this involved for us, was to walk around a beautiful farm and locate known badger sets and then… bury peanuts! Badgers love peanuts. The reason we were doing this was because we have received some TB Vaccine for the badgers so we then need to be able to catch the badgers. The easiest way of doing this, is getting them addicted to the peanuts, and then using peanuts to lure them into cages, where we can safely vaccinate them, mark them so we don’t vaccinate the same individual twice, and then let them go. The idea is to vaccinate roughly 75-80% of the population if we can, to get some level of full protection across the population.

So it was very very hot all day, and walking around with spades and a rucksack full of peanuts was quite intense. We would move from each sett digging a couple of holes in each location putting a few handfuls of peanuts in each hole, and then bury them again. This is to give the badgers peanuts, but also making them forage for the nuts, so that they don’t become lazy.

Despite the heat, and the flies, it was a nice walk around a fairly nice farm (just too much arable) but the farmer is pretty good at keeping wild borders for his field, including woodland and large broad hedges, extremely good for wildlife and breeding birds. It is also nice that the farmer is friendly towards the badgers on his land, despite the fact he has cattle!

 

Day 2

Today was my formal introduction to BBOWT, better late than never! The history of how BBOWT was formed etc, various social media policies and how we can help, whether we are volunteers or paid staff. It was an interesting day, but long and hot, and stuck in one small room with about 20 other people! Not ideal.

That evening however, I went on a Bat survey! It was an emergent survey, which means that you arrive at the site, before sunset, set up yourself in a position where you can see the entirety of the roofline/tree/ outbuilding/ whatever it is that you’re surveying and settle in. The survey starts about 15 minutes before sunset and will continue for at least an hour and a half after sunset, or until all bat activity has ceased.

In this instance we were surveying a house, so I stood watching the house to see if I could see any bats emerging from the house. As bats are (surprisingly) tiny, they can emerge from the smallest crevices, so cracks in mortar, underneath roof tiles, or gutters can all be potential roosts. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any bats this time, but it did mean that I could familiarise myself with the equipment and forms that I need to use in the future.

 

Day 3

So on the hottest day in June since 1976, I was outside, in a hay meadow, completing a rapid assessment. It was tough!

I drank a lot of water, and made some new acquaintances, complained about the heat a lot, and had fun! My botany identification skills are really improving because of the repetition that comes from doing multiple rapid assessments in the same habitats. I do need to expand my knowledge past the limited plants I see on rapid assessments, but this is a good way of getting to know some more about various families and where I can expect what plants etc.

I also did another bat survey, at a different site. This time looking at some abandoned outbuildings in a field. It was another lovely site, which I assumed would be perfect for bats, but alas, there were none! What I did get to see though, was a very active pair of barn owls, going back and forth to where they were raising their chicks! It was such a special thing to see the strength and grace of these birds.

 

I was also thinking that I want to try a new direction with this blog. A lot of my days can be repetitive, which can make it less interesting for anyone who reads this, and for me to write, so I was thinking it would be nice for people to ask me questions or suggest themes. i.e. do you want to know more about specific chalk grassland flora, mammals, butterflies or general management and ecology questions? If so get in touch and I can try and write something about it! This is on the back of my article that I wrote a short while ago for the Oxford Times- I really enjoyed researching it and structuring an article, so if anyone has any questions… let me know!

 

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Week 13 – Wandering in Willows (quite literally)

There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”        – Lord Byron

So the past few weeks when I haven’t been writing, have all been fabulous as usual, although I think I have settled in and got used to it more now. It isn’t such a novelty. They do then to follow a pattern, so it has felt a little bit like I don’t have many new things to say. That, coupled with moving house and getting to know flatmates so being busier in the evenings, and a week away on holiday to Devon has meant I fell off the writing wagon- but, my new month’s resolution is to keep writing. Even just for my own records!

(I also have some news of not only getting one new job to have on the side, but THREE, two of which involve doing surveys, one of which is office based within BBOWT).

 

Day 1

So Monday this week was DRAMATIC. We had to do what we thought would be a fairly innocuous and easy survey day. It took place in the Oxford Science park, so we thought that the rivers would be more like ditches- easy to wade, not necessarily a lot to see, but should be an easy walk (maybe 3 or so Km of river).

The first survey stretch was exactly what we anticipated. We did the whole thing in about 45 minutes absolutely no bother, getting into and out of the river was a bit tricky, but ultimately it was ok.

BUT THEN.

We moved on to the next stretch of river, which involved more of a walk, carrying waders, life jackets and all of our equipment and bags in the warm sun, making me hot and flustered. Then we climbed over a fence, and waded through some fairly rank grassland, with our stuff, over two huge pipes, more grassland, and then 3 metres of nettles that were taller than me. Excellent.

THEN, the water was too deep for me to get in, so just Ben got in and I tried to walk along the bank, but it was too overgrown and the river ran under a major road, which I obviously couldn’t cross. So I had to get in. By climbing through a willow that had fallen across the river, I managed to gain access to the river, which wasn’t too deep by this point. We walked on a little bit and all of a sudden the depth increased, meaning the water came in over the top of my waders. This bit was actually quite fun, both Ben and I were giggling, then we tried to walk up river under the road and the water kept getting deeper, and deeper… and deeper until it reached up past my bellybutton – at which point I decided that it was too much, and we had to turn tail and go back on ourselves.

Back down the river, back through the willow, up onto the bank through the nettles and into the field. We sat down for a bit in the grass to empty our waders then had to walk back, for a couple of miles in wet clothes to try and find a safe way to cross the busy road. It was hot, we were soaking, and uncomfortable, but we carried on.

Again the river was too deep for me to get in, so I fought along the bank and Ben got in. It quickly became too deep for him too, and so he got out, slipped and fell through nettles. At this point, we decided to call it a day, and we walked back in the heat, to the office.

It’s nice to know that I can have bad days too.

 

Day 2 & 3

Rapid hay meadow assessments both days. Which meant two truly beautiful days, which has also improved my botany skills ten-fold. It also gave me a chance to see some more beautiful butterflies, like the Grizzled Skipper (featured below).  On the flip side, it was getting hotter and hotter and hotter.

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We didn’t have enough water, the heat was almost unbearable, and being in a hay meadow there was little to no shade.

It was a really nice way to get to know some of the regular volunteers and other BBOWT teams that we don’t get to interact with on a regular basis.

These meadows are beautiful neutral or chalk meadows, quite specific to the region. BBOWT’s doing their best to manage the meadows as traditionally as possible to try and preserve the diversity of the flora. It then also means that if there is a particularly good meadow, when the sward is cut, it is spread across a poorer meadow so the rich seed can fall into the grass and encourage better growth.

I’m learning so much! But it has been a really tiring week – heat exhaustion is becoming a more of a genuine possibility these days!

 

 

 

 

Mammal Trapping

There have only been about a half dozen genuinely important events in the four-billion-year saga of life on Earth: single-celled life, multicelled life, differentiation into plants and animals, movement of animals from water to land, and the advent of mammals and consciousness” – Elon Musk

First of all, Many apologies for being rather distant in my posts- and I was doing so well! Unfortunately, I have got rather out of the habit of doing any writing, so it just fell to the wayside. But I am back. Hello!

A couple of weeks ago, I went on a Small Mammal Trapping course. Not only did this teach me how to identify all of Britain’s land mammals, it taught me how to safely trap, handle and identify small mammals such as shrews, voles and mice.

I had such a lovely lovely LOVELY weekend.

 

The course took place at the FSC centre at Juniper Hall near Dorking. It is a lovely spot, right at the base of Box Hill, and is a place of woodland and chalk grassland, so perfect habitat for all sorts of beasties.

The course was a mixture of classroom and practical sessions so that we can put our theory into practice. The classroom sessions involved learning the law in relation to wild animals and protected species in particular, identification techniques, and trapping methods. These were great, and really helped us when we did field sessions.

First field session, was learning how to assemble a Longworth trap, bait the traps and then set them safely – especially with regards to putting enough food and moisture in the trap, as some small mammals like shrews get incredibly dehydrated, and will often die in traps if enough attention isn’t paid.

We then set the traps and left them overnight, whilst we slept and emptied them first thing in the morning. Unfortunately – with Corvids being as clever as they are, the majority of our traps had been found and broken open by crows. Hopefully there was nothing in there! We did find one successful trap which contained a lovely bank vole. 20170513_092522

These little critters are the most docile of the small mammals, and will often sit on your hand! We processed him, by weighing him and figuring out if he was a boy or a girl, and then released him where he was found.

The next few field session were very similar, in that we would set the traps and then leave them for 6-12 hours (which is the maximum length of time you can leave a small mammal trap without checking it), and empty what we found.

We found voles, shrews and mice! They really are beautiful little animals, especially up close. I had the pleasure of learning how to scruff and handle a woodmouse.

It was just a fantastic weekend, I had a lot of fun, gained a shrew license and a new set of skills!

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Week 5&6 – Rapid Impact Assessment

A lot to write about, but I have combined the two weeks into one post, as I have had two, two day weeks on the trot.

Week 5, Day 1 – Butterfly survey

Beautiful trip to Hartslock nature reserve, one of BBOWT’s steepest reserves in order to look for butterflies. It is still quite early for most species, but since it’s been so warm, there are a few that have started their flight seasons.

We saw beautiful Green Hairstreaks, Dingy Skippers, Brimstones, Orange tips and a Mother Shipton (which is a day-flying moth).

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It was a steep, hot, but rather fantastic day. It was nice to do a butterfly survey where we actually saw some butterflies, and gain some experience in identifying butterflies on the wing. I’m finding identifying the white butterflies particularly difficult, as when they’re flying, you can’t necessarily distinguish the delicacy of some of their markings.

I think the butterfly surveys are becoming one of my favourite surveys though. You’re always in beautiful countryside, usually with stunning views, and it helps that in order to carry out a survey, it has to be sunny!

We also saw the very beautiful Lady Orchid flowering, one of the first of the season, and it should be noted, that Hartslock nature reserve is one of the best places to see them.

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Week 5, Day 2 – Workshop Presentation

This day was a half day course on how to better be able to deliver presentations to a wide range of audiences. We had to bring in a personal object of some meaning to us, write down several good and bad points about how we communicate and prepare a short 5 minute presentation on a project that we were proud of.

This was a surprisingly good day. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as historically I haven’t enjoyed giving presentations. I amazed myself at how confident I was, though I put that down to the group being very small, and knowing most of them.

I chose to do my presentation on my masters dissertation project, where I was able to explain the history of the project, what I learned and why I was proud of my contribution. I tried to utilise some of the techniques that I was taught that day, such as how to hold the room and keep my body language confident by not shifting around. Minimising hand gestures, and maintaining eye contact were also very important, but I think the most useful thing that I was taught was how to embody confidence. We were told that a lot of people, such as actors or lecturers, envisage a circle on the floor where they will be standing for the presentation, and project good feeling into the circle, such as confidence, relaxation etc, and then when you walk into that space you feel the things that you have previously projected into the space. It is a very simple mind trick, but it works wonders!

Another important point, was that we were told to think carefully about our audience. So before you even add information to your presentation, do some background planning on your audience. Find out how to capture their attention, keep their attention, your method of delivery – what does your audience want from your presentation. After you’ve done that, introduce your subject to your planning, and make a list of questions you want yo answer and bear in mind as you write your presentation. Finally, you “storyboard” your presentation, laying out how you will tackle your questions, and only after you have done that- add your information in. It is remarkably effective!

 

Week 6, Day 1 – Data Crunching

A day in the office, important to start gaining some more experience in how to input data into the (numerous) databases that BBOWT uses to record data. Accuracy is incredibly important as all of our data are reported back to government bodies such as Natural England to assess the state of Britain’s nature! This is obviously a cause close to my heart, and the whole of BBOWT’s!

It is also nice to spend some time in the office to get to know other members of the team better. As trainees, Ben and I have mainly been spending time with the person who would be classed as our line manager, as he has done most of our training. It is still a really lovely office, there always seems to be cake, everyone has lunch together and everyone laughs and has a good time. But unfortunately not the most interesting day to write about and take pictures of!

Week 6, Day 2 – Rapid Impact Assessment

Today we went back to Moor Copse Nature reserve for a full day of Rapid Impact Assessments. These are surveys that help you determine the health of your reserve and the success of your management by filling in a site-specific form, of species that should or should not be present.20170426_135716

This then gets transferred to a (you guessed it) database, which can them cleverly tell you whether or not the reserve is up to snuff. Things you are looking for when you complete this are the presence of key species such as Native Bluebells, and that there is less than 25% of the ground in the survey area covered in bramble. Those are just two examples, there are usually something akin to 40 criteria!

The whole reserve is sampled by splitting it into habitats ie. woodland, heathland, wetland, hay meadow etc etc, and then each habitat is surveyed in one go. We were focusing on woodland habitat, so we walked 100 paces into the wood, surveyed a 2m square, then expanded it to 15m square to fit different criteria. Walked 100 more paces did the same, until you hit a boundary. Then you walk 50 meters at a right angle, turn another 90 degrees and walk back in the original direction for 100 paces. It’s a way of making the sampling random, so then you don’t skew the sample by choosing an area with all the ground flora that you’re searching for. It probably sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is, but I found it a very interesting day. It was great to see how fast my species knowledge improved with repetition.

Aside from the slightly *ahem* dodgy goings on at Moor Copse, it really is a beautiful wood, especially for bluebells at this time of year!

 

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!