Adventures in Conservation, by Andrew Gorton

Moving to the North Norfolk coast from London in 2007, I realised how little I knew about the beautiful countryside I found myself in. Fortunately, this part of the country is not lacking in opportunities to explore and develop a burgeoning passion for conservation and wildlife. I’d also begun a degree in natural sciences with the Open University, and the various projects I took part helped me decide on an environmental focus for the degree, as well as providing lots of practical experience.

In 2010 I was handed a flyer by my step-mother, produced by a group run by the Trust for Conservation Volunteers (or BTCV as it was then). This group, the North Norfolk Workout Project (NNWP), carried out habitat management such as clearing rhododendrons and other invasive species, wildlife surveys and planting trees, all at a number of sites around the county. The group was partly funded by BTCV, the NHS and the local district council, with the aim of improving the physical and mental health of the volunteers taking part, while doing construction work for the environment and the community. The work certainly benefitted me, as the low mood I was suffering from at the time really began to improve.

One of the first sessions I did with the NNWP was clearing bracken some public woodlands outside North Walsham, in an effort to encourage wildflower meadows to develop. This kind of work would be a mainstay of the NNWP over the years I was involved with – the removal of invasive plants to create or improve habitats such as meadows, heathland and woodland. A particular favourite of mine was tree planting at various during the winter to improve biodiversity. It is a nice thought that after an afternoon of this there will be a patch of woodland that will hopefully be around and growing after you are gone.

As rewarding as the work was, I also had the pleasure of working with a good crowd of people, both the two paid members of staff on the project and the volunteers who came from a wide range of backgrounds. We also worked with several different site owners who were knowledgeable and passionate about their particular patches and were glad for our help in realising their goals for the site.

At that first session at North Walsham, I also took part in an OPAL soil and earthworm survey. The results would be added to a national database of soil types and earthworm numbers. We didn’t actually find any earthworms that day, but in science, not getting a result is still a result. The survey did inspire me to carry out a number of different OPAL surveys such as water quality, insect surveys and examining the biodiversity of hedgerows. As with any citizen science project, it is good to know you are contributing actual data to a scientific project.

In the last couple of years, I have begun focusing in species ID and monitoring. Alongside national surveys such as the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey, I have been taking part in the fairly recently established Norfolk Bat Survey with the British Trust for Ornithology. This involves picking a 1km Ordnance Survey grid square from the survey website and booking a bat detector from one of a number of bat centres around the county (my nearest is National Trust Sheringham Park). You then set up the bat detector overnight, for three consecutive nights at different locations in the kilometre square. Bat calls are recorded on an SD card in the detector, which is then sent back to the BTO headquarters in Thetford for analysis. They are able to determine the number of bat passes recorded as well as the species present. Participants are encouraged to repeat surveys every year to detect any changes in bat numbers. One of the sites I have surveyed – Sustead Common – is run by the Felbeck Trust, a small conservation charity in Aylmerton. This dedicated group has been carrying out habitat restoration at Sustead and a number of other sites. I carried out a survey in May 2017, and 124 bat passes, split between six species, were recorded. A survey at about the same time the following year detected 280 passes (more than double last years’), split between eight species. We hope this is the result of bat boxes put up between the survey dates, and of habitat restoration activities increasing the number of prey insects. It will be interesting to see what further surveys reveal.

A third major project I’m involved in is the Norfolk Ponds Project, part of University College London’s wider pond restoration programme. This project aims to restore ponds, especially in areas of farmland, to provide biodiversity hotspots in otherwise species poor landscapes. In 2017 I joined a small group in Bodham, focusing on four ponds in the farmland there. These marl pits were initially dug to extract the calcium-rich clay (marl) for use in stabilising the surrounding soil to better grow crops. Over time, water levels rose in the pits, and soon well-developed aquatic ecosystems developed. However, trees and other dense undergrowth have grown around the ponds, blocking out the light. Falling leaves have also created thick layers of sediment, reducing the biodiversity there. To begin with, my group were taking readings of the water quality, including pH, alkalinity, conductivity and temperature every two weeks. Any wildlife seen during the surveys were also recorded. Towards the end of 2017, the trees and undergrowth on two sides of two of the ponds were removed by chainsaw teams, helped by my group with loppers. The sediment was also dredged with JCBs, providing some free fertiliser for the nearby patches of farm field. The two other ponds were left as controls. In the spring and summer of 2018, we repeated the water measurements and wildlife recordings over the spring and summer and sent the results to UCL. It will be interesting to see if the restoration will have any effect.

I’ve had the privilege to take part in a (bio)diverse range of environmental projects over the years, and it has been a great experience, and hopefully of benefit to the wider environment.

Andrew is a Natural Sciences graduate with the Open University, and has several years experience in the voluntary sector, in areas as diverse as wildlife conservation, habitat management, heritage and maritime safety with the National Coastwatch Institution.

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