Did you know Hazel Dormice snore? No, I didn’t either until last week when I looked down on an amber ball of fur, pink feet neatly curled, eyes firmly shut and black tail end gripped like a miniature feather duster. The noise was the exact sort of high-pitched sigh you’d imagine from these little snoozers. I put my hand over my mouth to stifle a snort of glee. I needn’t have bothered as there was no waking him. The licensed handler I was shadowing took the dormouse out of his nest, checked his sex, weighed him, and placed him back in his nest without the dormouse so much as stirring. He snuggled back in position and took up his soft snoring once more.
My name is Jesse Mitchell and I started at East Dartmoor NNR at the start of March. I’m based at Yarner for two years undertaking an apprenticeship as a Countryside Ranger and will help manage the sites that make up East Dartmoor Woods and Heaths NNR, a career change from my previous role running a construction firm. I figured I’d be banging in fenceposts and filling the bird feeders for the first few months whilst the team got a sense of what I might be good for but that has not been the case at all. As NaturaI England don’t have a ‘Ranger’ position in their Reserve staff I’m going to be helping different members of the team in carrying out their roles to get an understanding of both the practical work of land management and the planning and contracting work. In a way, learning how to bang the fence posts in, then learning how to get someone else to do it. I’ll blog along the way about whatever subjects I think will be of interest to you, Gentle Reader.
So far, I’ve been shown how important a role the NNR plays as a laboratory for both monitoring nature’s health and for accessing new ideas in landscape management. I’ve seen the need for pursuing a balance in providing a place for people to be in nature and a place for nature to thrive and recover, and I’m becoming aware of the role of Reserve staff in communicating the work we are doing here to support this special site.
National Nature Reserves cover only 0.7% of the country and it is the Reserves Teams that are tasked with caring for these special places. As part of these teams of paid staff and fantastic volunteers, I will help deliver infrastructure projects like fences and bridges, help carry out and facilitate surveys on the reserves, and promote public engagement and enjoyment of the natural world.
Dormouse population surveys are just one example of the many pieces of data collection that are underway on the reserve at this time of year. This is the science that is used to guide the site management plans. I spend my nights trying to remember what the small, club-shaped balancers that identify true flies are called (they’re halteres, by the way) and looking up the Latin for marsh violet (Viola palustris, as you asked). I’m starting to think of this reserve as an open-air lab.
I am excited to be part of a team working towards a thriving natural environment for people and planet and find a sense of purpose in that ideal. It will be fascinating seeing how nature reacts to the management techniques we employ. I hope to learn a deeper understanding of Dartmoor and what has shaped its landscape and habitats over the millennia. I want to hear how people value and experience the natural world. I want to learn how to plan and manage activities on the reserve to make the most of the resources available to us. I want to learn how to help people understand how important designated places for nature are.
And I want to help those dormice sleep easy.
I am actually just the latest addition in a long and fine tradition of people being encouraged into the conservation world by Natural England over the years, having offered traineeships, apprenticeships, work experience, volunteering and foreign student placements at the NNR. Below is former trainee Jamie Neale’s reflections on his time at Yarner…
Being a Trainee at Yarner Woods by Jamie Neale
Working as a trainee at East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve was an invaluable experience. We gained knowledge and skills from an experienced team in how to effectively manage a National Nature Reserve (NNR). Thanks to the proactiveness of Reserve Manager, Albert Knott, trainees became accustomed to all the aspects involved in working on an NNR, from practical tasks such as fencing and gating to having the exciting opportunity to research the potential role East Dartmoor NNR could play protecting surrounding areas through natural flood management – a topical feature as we search for ways to mitigate increasing rainfall that is predicted in the future as a result of climate change.
Practical work at East Dartmoor was under the stewardship of Bryan and Nikki who taught us so much while having a great gift to make days working seem like they were spent with old friends. As seen from the image on the left below we helped Bryan and Nikki install gates to improve the access for the general public. We also learnt the skill of fencing; the image on the right shows me posing excitedly with our first ever fence! The fences gave staff more control of the location of ponies, preventing overgrazing.
While ponies overgrazing parts of the NNR was an issue I had foreseen, their appetite for bark from Elm trees was not. Many Elm trees had died as a result of ponies stripping their bark on the NNR. We therefore set about identifying elm trees on the reserve and put-up re-used chestnut paling fences around them to prevent ponies being able to reach them as you can see from the image below.
We benefitted enormously from Albert Knott being encouraging and proactive towards us getting qualifications to help our careers. During our 6 months at East Dartmoor, we gained qualifications in ‘Managing Equines for conservation grazing’, ‘Safe Application of Pesticides’ and ‘Off road 4*4 operating system’, all funded by Natural England. This was such an advantageous aspect of being a trainee at East Dartmoor NNR as other young conservationists would have to invest time and money to gain similar qualifications. Once qualified, a satisfying aspect of being a trainee was putting our new skills to use. 4*4 for getting around the NNR to carry out different tasks. The Safe Application of Pesticides helped us fight off invasive species and limit holly starving light to the forest’s understory. Managing equines for conservation grazing ensured we could look after the ponies, as seen by the image below showing trainee Ellen Smith assist moving the ponies from one part of the NNR to another.
There was also plenty of opportunity to get involved with ecological works on the NNR. I was taught about the rare lichens in the NNR, and how their presence denotes a healthy temperate rainforest. We also monitored light levels reaching the forests understory; data obtained from this was used for woodland management decisions such as controlling the growth of holly to help give other vegetation the opportunity to thrive. These activities were led by staff from the Woodland Trust and Plantlife conservation charity, with the help of some passionate, loyal volunteers who helped make these activities so enjoyable while being very educational. With ecologist Tom Williams we conducted river invertebrate surveys at locations in the NNR, down the Becka Brook, and the River Bovey where we counted river invertebrates to monitor water quality. Findings were then reported back to the Environment Agency.
Working as a trainee at East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve didn’t just give us opportunities to improve our practical conservation skills, Albert was very proactive in finding projects for trainees depending on interests and future career plans. Through this I had the opportunity to help staff start a project on the exciting prospect of the NNR playing a greater role in flood protection in the future through natural flood management measures such as leaky dams. This project is still ongoing now I have left and represents an exciting opportunity for future students or volunteers to conduct further research on this. It’s an exciting example of how NNRs can be on the frontline in combatting climate change.
I would recommend being a trainee or volunteer at East Dartmoor NNR to any young aspiring conservationist. It’s such an exciting opportunity to experience working somewhere you can benefit both nature and people in so many ways. From mitigating climate change through natural flood management to connecting people with nature, it is the most rewarding experience, made even more special with a fantastic team.
If you would like to read more trainee experiences please follow the links below: