Running for wildlife

Six BBOWT staff are running the Oxford Half Marathon to fundraise for BBOWT. Lucy Garrod, Assistant Reserves Officer at Chimney Meadows, has been using the local area for training.

Training begins here

I’ve signed up to run the Oxford Half Marathon to raise money for BBOWT. A sudden panic takes hold. Will I be expected to run the 13.1 miles in a badger costume (the Wildlife Trust’s emblem)? 

After a week of unseasonable rain, causing water to sit in places that were unseasonably dry all winter, it feels good to be out for a debut training run in the sun. I know it’s highly likely this good feeling will be challenged between now and crossing the finish line on 13th October. 

On the lane leading from Chimney Meadows song birds from the hedgerows and skylarks in the adjacent fields perform a musical accompaniment. The roadside grasses have gone to seed and flop, heavy with rain. Vibrant red poppies, deep purple thistle heads and splashes of yellow clash spectacularly in the way only nature can get away with. Yellowhammers frequent this stretch of the lane. Like the skylark, their population has declined in recent years putting them on the UK conservation red list. The brightness of the males’ canary yellow head never fails to amaze.  

BBOWT's conservation livestock is bred and raised at Chimney Meadows. This year we have three lambs being bottle-fed. I’m on the weekend shift and back in time to give them their breakfast. Raising funds for BBOWT has inspired me. As the lambs greedily guzzle down their milk, I reflect that there are so many accessible ways for people to support wildlife, whether it be fundraising, campaigning, volunteering, donating or taking care of their own outdoor patches. 

Curlew at Chimney Meadows

Curlew at Chimney Meadows by Andrew Marshall

Up with the Curlew

It’s a dawn run up the Thames Path before work. The alarm call of a curlew from the National Nature Reserve carries through the morning air. I should sensibly be looking out for mammal diggings in the path, but can’t resist the temptation to look up to scour the sky. Avoiding twisting an ankle I’m rewarded as a curlew briefly lands on the Second World War Pill Box ahead, before taking off in pursuit of a red kite.

This year following the fortunes of the curlews here has been a rollercoaster experience. After an initial predation of eggs, chicks hatched and fledged on both the Chimney and Duxford sides of the reserve. As the UK breeding population of curlews has declined significantly, this was a triumph. 

My route takes me past a new barn conversion. Desirable though this new human habitat is it marks another loss of a potential roosting and nesting site for barn owls. Eleven owlets, with large grubby talons, beady jet black eyes and downy white feathers were ringed at Chimney Meadows this week. Raised in nesting boxes erected across the site, each of these young barn owls will shortly need to find their own territory.  

Wading across the ford I give a silent nod of appreciation to the Friends of Chimney Meadows who gave their time to litter-pick here yesterday, and also to all those other unsung local litter fairies who pick up other peoples’ discarded rubbish.

Team Badger

Our BBOWT running team has been officially registered. We are Team Badger. This pushes me to get out training in the evening, despite feeling weary from hay-making.  A red kite glides effortlessly above, in contrast to the shaky fight of the barn owl fledgling seen earlier in the day, precariously coming down to  perch in a similar way to how toddlers fall on their bottoms.  

Tree sparrows congregated on the seed feeders outside our office today. They are such neat, smartly turned out birds, but sadly yet another red list victim. Thinking about today’s birds has helped another mile go by and given me some extra oomph to raise as much money as I can to protect local wildlife.

Linnets and rosehips

Linnets and rosehips by Amy Lewis

A distraction of birds

The wind is no longer an excuse.  It has dropped enough to get running shoes on. What’s always magical about going out is never knowing what you’re going to come across. Today on the road near Chimney there are linnets, characteristically and delightfully bouncing up and down in flight over the hedgerow, twittering away. I pause to watch (apologies for being repetitive, but they too are on the red list).  

It’s not long until I come to a halt again, this time to admire three kestrels aerodynamically twisting and turning low over a field of stubble. Aware that today bird watching is proving a distraction to training I push on. I think I’m moving rather well, until I realise it is the residual wind behind providing the propulsion.

One of our valued weekend volunteers is returning from the daily stock check on our Dexter cattle and Hebridean sheep. I stop briefly to hear all is well before arriving back at my start point, another run ticked off.

Obedient sheep don’t help with training

Today a trembling of 30 plus flighty goldfinches was feeding on thistles heads on the reserve, fluttering up into the wind like leaves, before dropping back down again.   

I had been anticipating that rounding up sheep would provide an opportunity for some short sharp sprints, similar to “fartlek” sessions - Swedish for “speed play” and recommended for half marathon training. However, there was no call to block any wayward animals who didn’t want to be followers, as the whole flock was content to walk straight into the pen. 

Grey heron

Grey heron by Jon Hawkins

A melodious heron

We had some weekend work to do, fetching the last of the hay bales in. Keen to add to the leg strength and endurance built during a few days away in a hillier part of the country, an early morning run before we started seemed like a good idea. 

Heading down the Thames Path, there was a chill in the air and a heavy dew. The spiders had been busy constructing elaborate cage-like traps across the grass. Along the water’s edge, between the stems of dying thistles and willow herb they’d spun cradles and geometrical masterpieces.

A bird darts past, flying fast and low across to the far bank suggesting a kingfisher, infuriatingly too quick to even catch a flash of blue.

A herd of brown cows dozed – a flicker of an ear, a slight turn of a head and a batter of eyelashes was the most they moved as I trod a quiet path through them. Like them the river within it’s curvaceous banks was almost still. A moorhen unobtrusively going about it’s business paddled across the width of the river, shiny black feathers contrasting with bright red bill in the morning sunlight. Overhead, a mute swan beat its heavy wings gaining height, whirring as it rose.

Heading back upstream, the heat of the sun intensified, my sodden feet squelched, my breathing was laboured and my pace slowed. Who said it would be a good idea to get up early?

Out of sight a heron squawked. Their irritable screech fits the appearance of the angular bird so well. Obscure thoughts can drift into your head when you’re running. Today it was “What if herons sang melodiously?” This daft notion was enough to distract me from my energy slump and I was soon back in time to climb onto a trailer and start heaving bales of hay around.

kingfisher

Kingfisher by Margaret Holland

Six weeks to go

I’m up to 10 miles now. The Oxford Half organisers have messaged to say there’s only six weeks to go until the event. At Chimney Meadows we are busy implementing the badger bovine TB vaccination programme. The preparation for this involves scrambling in and out of ditches and contorting yourself into awkward spaces. Running in the evening provides a chance to stretch out again.

Architecturally impressive as the “dreaming spires” of Oxford are, 13.1 miles on the road will be hard compared to being on footpaths near to the reserve with wildlife to spot. Hopefully, the crowds will cheer us on – if you’re out there on the day (here's a map of the route), please give a shout out to Team Badger. We will be wearing green vests with our badger emblem (not full badger costumes!).

BBOWT staff

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