A couple of weeks ago I had a rare opportunity to do some actual conservation work. That may sound a strange thing to say for someone who has worked at Minsmere for 16 years and in nature conservation for most of my working life, as surely I'm doing conservation work all the time.
In many ways that is, of course, true. I have done my bit to increase support for the RSPB by helping to recruit new RSPB members, managing a team of fantastic volunteers, and ensuring that our visitors have an amazing time at Minsmere. This, in turn, means that my colleagues have been able to carry out the vital habitat management, survey and monitoring work that keeps Minsmere in tiptop condition for the thousands of different species that call Minsmere home.
But actually doing some of that vital conservation work for myself is something of a rarity. About a once a year rarity usually. All RSPB staff get one volunteer day per year and I have often used this to help our wardens with tasks such as reedbed management or removing invasive pirri-pirri-burr from our grasslands. This was different though, as I wasn't using my volunteer day to do conservation work.
A few years ago we hosted the launch of the annual Suffolk Walking Festival here at Minsmere, and we continue to lead at least one walk per year as part of the festival, so when the Rights of Way and Access Team in Suffolk County Council's Highways Department were looking for a venue for a team building day, they approached me. I had a chat with Katie, one of our wardens, and we devised a plan for the day. As the link with the council team, it was agreed that I should join the work party too. The only thing that was left to organise was the weather, but even I don't have control of that.
Luckily, the day in question dawned bright and dry, with almost no wind. Perfect conditions for habitat management. I met Katie, Henry and Dave who had already loaded the truck with a variety of hand tools and flasks of hot water and we drove the short distance to Dunwich Forest, where the RSPB manages several blocks of former plantation for the Forestry Commission. Here we met the team of enthusiastic team from Suffolk County Council - all 26 of them!
We were met on site by our resident team of habitat managers - these lovely Exmoor ponies.
After a quick tool and safety talk from Katie we were all quickly into action. The aim of the day was to remove young birch and pine trees from the clear-felled area to allow heather and other heathland species to develop. In turn, this will attract species such as Dartford warbler, nightjar and woodlark to colonise the area, along with various reptiles and heathland insects. There were three different techniques used to remove these birch trees. Most of chose to use either loppers or bow saws to cut the small trunks as low to the ground as possible, while wardens followed behind to brush the stumps with weedkiller to prevent them from re-growing.
The more adventurous members of the group used a tool called a tree-popper which, with a bit of brute force, allowed them to pull the whole tree up, roots and all. Once cut, the saplings were laid in rough piles ready to be collected at a later date using a tractor. These will then be used to create brash fencing to protect sensitive areas of the reserve from trampling.
Of course, the day wasn't only about work. There was also a chance to spot some wildlife, with common buzzards circling and mewing overhead almost constantly. We managed to spot this gorgeous slow worm - the first one that I've actually managed to find for myself at Minsmere - as well as my first ever minotaur beetle.
With so many hands at work we had a very successful day, clearing a much larger area than we expected.
If you are interested in bringing a corporate work party to Minsmere, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for further information. Of course, you can also volunteer at Minsmere as part of work party, in our reception or cafe, or in a variety of other roles. For full details, please see here.
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