Helping Hands to Help Heathland

Students from Exeter College’s Supported Internship Programme spent two days this autumn working with Natural England to protect an important heathland area at East Dartmoor Woods and Heaths National Nature Reserve. They gained new skills, while helping to conserve the environment – this blog describes their time at the Reserve.

We learnt about the importance of protecting heathland areas because it provides habitat for a variety of species such as the Nightjar. This rare bird travels from Africa in April and May, nesting on the low heathland ground. We also spotted a Stonechat, another heathland bird, which makes a call like two stones being hit together.

Heathland birds include Nightjar (left) (photo credit: NE (c)Allan Drewitt) and Stonechat (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.Partonez).

Heathland is also a vital habitat for many plants that thrive in its acidic soil. These include plants like Bog Myrtle and species of Heather, such as Bell, Cross-leaved and Common Heather. If the heathland is not preserved the surrounding woodlands would gradually encroach and put these plants and species at risk.

Heathland plants include Bog Aphodel (left) and species of Heather

We used bow saws and pruning loppers to remove small trees and saplings which had self-seeded in the area, such as Birch, Oak and Holly. This needed new skills and teamwork. We then dragged these felled trees to create ‘dams’ to block various access points. This was to discourage people from using the heathland as a short cut from nearby paths, which also helps reduce littering in the area. People trampling across the heathland damages the soil and plants, while disturbing the wildlife which lives there. The aim was to direct people around the permissive bridleway round the edge of the heath.

We really enjoyed our experience working at the National Nature Reserve. It was great to get out on the moors and we were very lucky to have mild and sunny weather. Some of us were not used to walking on uneven ground and had to overcome our nerves about ticks and snakes! However, we overcame any challenges, learning new and transferable skills, while gaining a greater appreciation of this crucial environment and its unique wildlife.

Albert Knott, Natural England’s Reserve Manager was impressed with our background knowledge and concentration on our team’s health and safety and the way we worked together.

With thanks to the students from Exeter College’s Supported Internship Programme for this blog

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