Image: Liz Coates at RSPB Garston Wood by Patrick Cashman (rspb-images.com)

A series of monthly blogs by Midnight Sparkle, Inside Arne gives you exclusive insight into some of the work that is vital to help manage and maintain the RSPB’s wonderful Dorset reserves. Each month, this blog series will feature a different member of the team, be they staff or volunteer, sharing personal stories and behind-the-scenes knowledge.

Cutting Back: An interview with Liz Coates, Warden

For the first in this series Liz Coates talks about her role as Warden here, conservation as a whole, and deep-dive into the benefits of ‘cutting back.’

How did you know you wanted to work in conservation and what steps did you take to get to your current role?

Growing up, I always went on walks with my dad and loved being immersed in nature from a young age. I studied Marine Conservation at university, then went on to do a Masters. I loved field work but wasn’t so keen on the statistical side. After my Masters, I started volunteering locally with Avon Wildlife Trust in Bristol. I loved doing the survey work and the practical side of things was much more up my street.

I hadn’t realised you could do volunteering full-time until another volunteer at Avon Wildlife Trust recommended the RSPB’s Residential Volunteering Scheme. It sounded great to be able to get involved in so many aspects of conservation. So that’s what I did at West Sedgemoor on the Somerset Levels and absolutely loved it. I continued to volunteer for other organisations as well to gain varied experiences.

Before moving to Dorset, I had a year's contract as Assistant Warden up on the RSPB’s Humber reserves. When that came to an end, I moved to Dorset with a six-month contract for the National Trust on Studland Beach. During that time, I volunteered to do butterfly surveys at Arne as a way to network within the RSPB and do something more conservation based. At the end of my job with the National Trust, a six-month placement at Arne came up - it was fate.

And that job lead to your current role as Warden – could you explain what that role entails?

It's very varied. It's mostly being a point-of-contact for the other teams within Dorset as well as work planning. If the Visitor team, Shop, or Café need any practical help, they contact the Warden team and I’ll distribute those jobs. We’re also involved in partnership working (collaborating with external teams) - I’m leading on the Purbeck Swailing Group where I meet with the National Trust and Forestry England to help organise dates for controlled burns. Externally, we will use contractors for jobs that can’t be delivered by the team, e.g. last-minute tree surgery, so I will help organise those.

I spend a lot of my time liaising with other teams and keeping track of jobs and dates – Stewart (Estates Operations Manager) does this from an overarching position, but I'll draw out the work plans from our priorities and keep track of progress. It helps to make sure we're focused on the right things.

At the moment, I’m working from home, which is weird as this is usually such a connected role. Nowadays, I'm mainly ‘office’ based but I still love doing practical jobs too, so it's nice to occasionally get out and be amongst the habitats and species. It can help you see the bigger picture, as a reminder that this is the work I am facilitating.

Last year we didn't get to have a survey season, we had a pandemic instead! We survey loads of species across our reserves and hopefully will get to do more this year. I manage the Arne ones, Hollymay (Assistant Warden) looks after Weymouth sites, and Anthony (Assistant Warden) will do Garston Wood. Coming up first are the woodlark surveys as they start breeding towards the end of February. Last summer, I trained in ladybird spider monitoring, so I’m excited to get involved in that one too.

Image: A volunteer team working at Arne by Terry Bagley (rspb-images.com)

We’re starting this series by taking an inside look at cutting back – so what is cutting back?

Cutting back is a form of habitat management. Most habitat management we do through winter involves cutting vegetation. We've got a nice mix of different habitats throughout Dorset, so depending on the habitat, we'll be cutting a different plant and for a slightly different reason, on a different rotation. It’s usually carried out from September through February because that’s when birds aren’t nesting, and trees are dormant, so that's when we're allowed to carry out this work in terms of cross-compliance (Government rules as part of their stewardship schemes for farmers and land managers).

Aside from habitat management benefitting lots of species, cutting back has practical reasons too - clearing viewpoints and visitor paths to create improved visitor access, which is particularly important at the moment due to social distancing. We’ve widened our narrow paths and added safer passing places. We also ensure access to gateways, track edges, fence lines, etc. The team are currently clearing around fence lines at Arne because we’ve been given funding to add pig netting as part of the Purbeck Grazing Unit. The Gun Emplacement at Arne is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, so we’re obliged to keep that clear too.

Are there any species in particular that need human management to thrive?

Absolutely! It’s essentially about creating a mosaic of different age structures by cutting on rotation. The habitats we predominantly manage are heathland, wetland, and woodland. In the past, people worked this land using traditional practices and created the conditions needed for species to thrive. Nowadays, with those practices no longer occurring, we mimic them to help maintain the habitats and species that call those places home.

On heathland we've got gorse which we coppice to make sure there's different ages – it’s essential to make sure you've got a mixture in the same area as different species like different ages of gorse. Dense gorse is used by nesting Dartford warblers and stonechats, and creates a nice microclimate for invertebrates. Bigger, mature gorse, is great for birds to perch on top of, singing to mark their territory. When gorse is covered in snow, it creates a safe place underneath which is essential for survival during winter.

Image: Dartford warbler by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

Heather is regenerated through cutting and burning - often contractors will come in and do this for us as we spend a lot of our time managing the pines on the reserve. The Scots pine is native but very invasive on heathland. A consequence of an old pine plantation here, there is an under-layer of pine seeds in the soil. We concentrate on trying to reduce the number of new trees that grow, while keeping isolated clumps of mature pine for rare heathland birds like nightjar to sing from and others use for nesting. They have their place, but we must keep them controlled, otherwise they would smother the rare heathland habitat here and it would be lost. This is one of the benefits of our Pull-a-Pine event, which allows the public to cut their own Christmas trees.

Wetland; we do a lot of scrub cutting (willow, blackthorn, bramble...) on the edges of the reedbed. Again, it’s about cutting it on rotation because a lot of species – Cetti’s warbler and moths in particular, will breed and lay their eggs on scrub species. Scrub and trees take up a lot of water, which would have negative effects on the reedbed if left alone. It can be tricky to get that balance to benefit all species on site - bearded tits like old reed for nesting, but bitterns like younger reedbeds. We purposefully cut wiggly lines to create these different structures to benefit the maximum number of species. The Radipole Lake Discovery Centre roof was actually partly thatched using reed from our reserves!

Then there’s woodland. At Garston, we coppice on rotation, which has been traditionally done since 1618 (classing it a semi-ancient woodland.) We've taken out some of the canopy to let more light in – that's to promote the ground flora which makes Garston a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). We've got around 40 ancient woodland indicator species of flowers, which is staggering! These are slow to spread, so the more you have, the longer the area has been a continuous woodland. The more variety of flowers you have, the more variety of invertebrates you'll get, which means more food for birds. A lot of invertebrates rely on a single species of flower, so variety is key. Again, cutting on rotation is crucial, it ensures the woodland contains the diversity of habitats needed to sustain all the different species. Newly cut woodland benefits ground flora. Bramble will then grow out of those bare areas and this is a great source of nectar for invertebrates. The last to grow back is the hazel, which is really good for nesting birds and dormice. Scrub trees are also great for moths, which in turn is good for bats.

Image: Garston Wood by Patrick Cashman (rspb-images.com)

We have a very small population of drab looper moths, which is nationally scarce. We're hoping to encourage more by promoting a plant called wood spurge, which they lay their eggs on and the caterpillars eat. Wood spurge really responds to having light, so where you cut areas, it will be one of the first plants to spring up. Hopefully, if we can encourage more wood surge growth, the drab loopers will grow in number too.

What we cut, we try to utilise where possible. We sell bean poles and firewood in the shop at Arne and we sometimes use the wood to make barbecue charcoal. Some materials are sold for timber or pulp, which is a great way to help offset the cost of our work, and some oak we keep to be milled. The Raptor screen was predominantly built from Garston oak as are the memorial benches you may see dotted around the reserves.

Image: Pull a Pine event by Terry Bagley (rspb-images.com)

Finally, what advice would you give for anyone interested in a career in conservation?

Most people in this line of work have gone through the volunteering route. It’s necessary to gain experience - there’s so much competition, not only for jobs but for residential placements as well. It's all very well studying the theory, but you need practical experiences too. Volunteering is a great way to experiment, trying different roles with different organisations to see what does and does not suit your interests. In this kind of role, where you have to be a Jack-of-all-trades, getting that diverse range of experiences is really valuable.

Many thanks to Liz for sharing some of the work she does on the Dorset reserves. If anything you’ve read has interested you, or if you’d like to learn more about how you can help save nature, we would love to hear from you – please email us at arne@rspb.org.uk.

Keep an eye out for next month’s entry as we continue the Inside Arne series.

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