It’s liberating on my first day as a Wildlife Trainee for my work bag to be a day sack slung over my shoulder and my clothes to be what I’m most comfortable in - walking trousers, fleece and boots. Even better is that my journey to work is a bike ride along a country track – far more enjoyable than the old commute. A runner, a dog walker and two tractors with trailers are the only other traffic. Maybe listening to that gremlin inside me was already reaping rewards. He had been rooting for a change. Thrown into the pot with a bit of luck, a bit of risk taking and the Wildlife Trust being accustomed to people wanting a switch in direction, I was signed up for a year’s placement as a volunteer trainee at Chimney Meadows nature reserve in Oxfordshire.
In the initial weeks as a “newbie” I am cack-handed and green in comparison to the seasoned volunteers and our patient mentor. I fumble with ratchets, wheel locks and reels of electric fencing. There’s only one way to become more proficient though, and that’s not to shy away from having another go.
Warm September days are spent walking the pasture perimeters mapping out active badger setts in preparation for the TB vaccination programme. Common blue butterflies fly up from the margins and perfectly formed inkcaps protrude from the ground. Over the tussocks green woodpeckers rise and dip away, alerting us with their shrill alarm call. Slithering into muddy ditches, clambering up banks and stooping through tunnels of overhanging branches we learn to read badgers’ habits.
New words jump out. “Scarify”, “brash” and “predated” sound satisfyingly guttural. Others like “bund” and “serve” sound like they’ve escaped from an ancient tome; “mizzle” and” “slime mould” liked they’ve jumped out from a children’s fantasy adventure. Each field has a name, dating back to long gone owners, their crops or characteristics of their land – Bernard’s Meadow, Rye Furlong, High Field, Ashy Piece, Long Acre. Like London cab drivers we learn the names to describe our whereabouts.
There’s a race to finish haymaking before the weather turns. Towers of sweet-smelling bales of hay need loading and transporting back to the barn to be stored for winter sustenance. A barn owl silently arcs over our heads, vacating its roost while we work. Stable sides and no gaps are the aims of bale stacking. It’s an art form which tests your spatial planning, and broadens your shoulders.
Well-meaning, but sceptical friends ask if I’m “bored with digging holes yet?” I answer that I haven’t dug a hole yet and try to explain that spending a whole day immersed in a single task, such as using hand tools to cut back bramble and blackthorn with Dexter cattle for company is incredibly absorbing and tranquil. And should you want something else to think about there’s plenty of issues to ponder on; like the interwoven issues of wildlife, food, farming, local communities, social, economic and agricultural policies and future trade agreements post Brexit. Refocusing on the blackthorn comes as a welcome relief.
Mottled proboscis-like elephant hawk moth caterpillars munch on the remnants of some Himalayan balsam; a hare bolts from its form leaving an oval of flattened grass warm to the touch. A little owl in a skirt of ivy resides nearby dozing on a branch. On a work party day we sit in a line on the boardwalk to eat our sandwiches contentedly gazing up at a hovering kestrel against a cloudless blue sky.
In October we survey for bats. Pipistrelle and long-eared bats snooze in furry huddles in the boxes that have been put up for them. With a detector at night we pick up noctules and barbastelles; and with the Beaver cubs we do some live moth trapping. The beauty of the aptly named autumn green carpet moth is a favourite with us all. An ingenious game of bat and moth releases some of the Beavers’ energy before parents arrive to take them home.
Like a forensic search team we painstakingly survey clumps of vegetation for harvest mouse nests. With the breeding season over, the mice have descended to take refuge at ground level. The abandoned summer nests woven among the stems are neat and symmetrical with finger-sized entrance holes. Some people are frustratingly good at spotting them.
A couple of the speckled face Beulah sheep are limping, prompting an afternoon of inspecting and treating their feet. Turning a sheep over to do this is a skill requiring co-ordination and a positive attitude. Don’t get it right first time and the sheep leads you on a dance instead. Like many skills done well it looks easy.
The first cold day comes in October. We learn to fix fence breaks cutting extra lengths of wire and knocking in staples. Three roe deer watch. There’s a tool called a twizzler for tidying the sharp ends of wire into neat twists. A length of wire which has snapped is pulled together and joined using a gripple. Worryingly, on walks at the weekend, I find myself inspecting the fencing on other peoples’ land.
A flock of fifty plus fieldfares and redwings arrive in November, grazing across Stamps Corn Ground. From then on we see them daily flitting from tree to tree, flashing speckles and rouge. Bullfinches are about. A female answers our, “tit, tit” back. The shorter days motivate us to get going promptly in the mornings. By 3.30pm the temperature drops and the fading blue sky is brushed with orange. Flocks of starlings sweep in and gaggles of geese honk urgently.
Biting winds and downpours feature in December. The cattle chew satisfyingly on the reserve’s hay, hot breath wisping into the cold air. We have mastered the electric fencing wheelbarrow, and successfully move sheep unsupervised. Meadows prone to flooding are put to bed for the winter and the sheep moved to higher ground. They are happy to be on new grazing.
In sunshine and showers with the other volunteers we plant a woodland strip for the future with English oak, goat willow, crab apple, grey sallow, guelder rose and hawthorn before heading back to the barn for a bring and share Christmas lunch.
Snow falls, settles and freezes. Crystallized and dazzling in the bright sunshine it’s marked only with the tracks of mammals and prints of birds, untrodden by humans. Snipe and a kingfisher hunt along the water-filled ditches, a barn owl perches on a singular fence post, while stonechats fly from post to post. Then, as the sky clouds over, the colours mute to a monochrome mix of pastel greys and pale blues.
A third of the traineeship has gone by already, but there’s still two thirds left to enjoy.