Bluebells at 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. Missed the last one? Check it out here.
The series continues with Tony Goddard, a volunteer at Garston Wood, here to tell us about volunteering and the wonders of Garston Wood.
What initially drew you to volunteering at Garston and what kind of work do you do there?
First, I've got to take you back 35 years, to 1986. It was really fortuitous – the RSPB had called a meeting about an opportunity for a local group of RSPB members. I went along, in all innocence, not realising there would be a call for volunteers. In the end, 12 of us decided to form a local group, calling ourselves the South Wiltshire Group. We decided our group could volunteer at the then newly acquired Garston Wood. We started in 1986 and some of us old timers are still doing it now.
Garston is managed on a coppice (cutting) cycle. It’s exciting to constantly see the renewal time and time again, it draws you back. Coppicing is a winter task, we start in October and finish by the end of March, when the plants, trees, and insects are mostly dormant and there’s less bird activity. As soon as there’s promise of flowers, insects, or nesting birds, we leave it alone. On the first day of the cutting season, the hazel is about 15-20 feet tall, allowing no light beneath it. The idea is to let that light in every 10 years for flowers to thrive, then the coppice is left to grow back, and we move to the next coupe (coppiced section) the following year. People might think the oaks are the oldest trees, but the hazel is technically the oldest. It’s a trick question really – the growth above the ground never gets older than 10 years old but the roots can be hundreds of years old. We never damage the roots, as we’re not trying to remove them, just keeping the conditions dynamic. Like in a garden, if you prune, it grows back more vigorously. If it were left, the woodland would become dark, overgrown, and sterile. Constantly renewing it and causing it to regrow, creates a vibrant situation with a lot of diversity - there are panels of various ages, from newly cut to 10 years old.
The 7 to 10-year-old sections are a habitat for ground nesting birds e.g. blackcaps, willow warblers, chiffchaffs, and garden warblers – they all like to nest in low dense regrowth. In the areas cleared, flowers can produce nectar, luring in the butterflies and insects. This creates a cycle of flowers and insects moving around the wood, then birds move around as the conditions become perfect for them. You’ve got to be careful there aren’t too many conflicts of interest. For example, dormice like well-grown hazel – if you're coppicing to the ground, you need to leave some avenues and bridges for dormice to use. We know from checking their survey boxes, they prefer to shoot up trees, not run along the ground, so aerial pathways must be available to them. Butterflies, however, like areas of open ground, full of flowers. Therefore, we ensure the rotation we coppice creates a wide enough variety of habitats for all the species present.
Garston Wood by Liz Coates
We work during the quieter season and it can look quite bare after the winter coppicing, but once you get to March/April, the wood comes alive and you can see the fabulous and rich environment we help to maintain. This isn’t the only reward, the physical act of volunteering is satisfying too. We call it the ‘green gym’ or ‘Natural Health Service.’ Volunteering as I do, allows me to exercise and give back to society at the same time as connecting with nature. Many people find solace in the natural world, and what better way to enjoy it and really become a part of it than volunteering. It is the most magical place, probably the richest wood I know for ground flora due to the sheer density and number of species, including a good proportion of ancient woodland indicator plants.
Garston is a semi-natural ancient woodland. It’s semi-natural because humans have worked there for hundreds of years, and ancient because it’s been mapped as a wood since the 1600s – but could have been there for hundreds of years before that. Occasionally, we come across a piece of flint with a sharpened edge – a possible tool used in the past to cut hazel. We’ve sent some flint pieces to the local Ancient Technology Centre (the experts) and they've confirmed coppice workers 3000 years ago could have been working where we are now! They would have built houses from the materials at Garston, using the oak to build a frame, weaving hazel into the gaps, then covering it with mud. Back then, the woodland was cut because there was a requirement for the materials, the conditions created for wildlife would have been purely incidental. Today, creating great conditions for wildlife is the priority but we always try to sell or reuse the materials where we can. It’s great when work can have an economic benefit as well as an environmental one.
What flora and fauna is there at Garston and how do you manage the woodland for this wildlife?
The obvious one is bluebells, people go specifically to see them in April/May. They are spectacular, but we also have other plants like the orchids, primroses, wood anemones, and columbine. Garston is home to Solomon's seal, and even a tiny fern called adder's-tongue, which only grows an inch tall.
There’s always something to see and they're not all tiny! We’ve many species of orchid at Garston Wood, with early purple and common twayblade being the first to appear, then common spotted. They're not in massive numbers, but if you watch the side of the footpath, you'll see greater butterfly orchid, which can grow a couple of feet tall. They are very architectural, white flowers – a real treat. If you look a bit closer, you'll see smaller, special things like moschatel, also known as Townhall Clock because the flowers are held in groups of four, like four faces of a clock tower. It's super small so you’ve got to get on your hands and knees to see that.
Early purple orchids by Liz Coates
These all attract a good range of woodland butterflies. One of my colleagues, who started the group at the same time as I (we recently got our 35-year volunteering awards) runs the butterfly transect (a fixed route that is walked the same way each time to record wildlife). For 26 weeks, from April to September, somebody on a rota will walk the wood for about an hour and a half and record the butterflies. All the common woodland butterflies are present, with July being particularly spectacular as you’ll often see the silver-washed fritillary, one of our biggest butterflies. A beautiful orange and black, they have the most fabulous display – if a female is flying down the ride and there's a male around, he'll catch up and loop around her as she flies, showering her with his pheromones. It's a spectacular sight. On warm, sunny days in June/July, you couldn't fail to see one, they're easy to spot and in good numbers too. They don’t fly though dark coppiced areas, they like to use the nice sunny rides (tracks and passageways within the woodland), which we've been widening over the last few years – they’re like motorways for butterflies.
Managing these rides is necessary for the conservation of these species and ensuring their return, but you need a range of habitats. The darker, older coppices are good for ground nesting birds, or birds that nest near the ground. Other species want more light. Some flowers like direct sunlight, some like dapple sunshine, etc. The beauty of an actively managed woodland is that it's dynamic – that's where you get more biodiversity.
Bluebells and wood anemones by Liz Coates
Unfortunately for the wildlife, we sadly have issues with dogs off leads here, not just at Garston and Arne but other reserves too. One of the biggest issues is when dogs run around and disturb wildlife. Early in the season, deer are having fawns and they can abort if stressed – dogs off leads sometimes chase the deer and this can lead to issues. The nesting birds are also in danger. If ground nesting birds are constantly disturbed by dogs, they will abandon their nests. It may seem like five minutes off the lead won’t amount to much, but someone else will come along with their dogs off the lead too. In the end, there’s a constant disturbance, not just five minutes. Disturbing birds does more than simply cause them to fly up - it causes them to use up energy unnecessarily, reducing the chances of the parents survival and leaving eggs and chicks to get cold. People who stray from the paths can also cause a disturbance to the wildlife we’re trying to protect. This is why it’s best to keep to the trails and keep dogs on leads. Garston has a fabulous network of trails so there's absolutely no need to leave these, everything you want to see is already at your feet.
Garston Wood is a truly is a magical place, and I encourage anyone who can (while complying with current guidelines) to visit in spring/early summer to see these spectacular sights.
Many thanks to Tony for sharing some of the work he does at Garston Wood. If anything you’ve read has interested you, or if you’d like to learn more about volunteering with the RSPB, we would love to hear from you – please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep a look out on the RSPB Arne website for Spring Flowers at Garston Wood guided walk events, including a Bluebell Spectacular guided walk event… COMING SOON!
A friendly reminder that, while we cannot wait for the bluebells and other wildflowers to blanket Garston Wood this spring, please be mindful of the current government restrictions and only travel to visit this wonderful place when allowed to do so.
Keep an eye out for next month’s entry as we continue the Inside Arne series.
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