Bloody foreigners

A couple of weeks ago, an email popped in to my inbox, entitled ‘Volunteer day’. Curiosity got the better of me and I opened it. It was an invite to a corporate volunteer day at a local nature reserve. This is right up my proverbial autobahn so I registered my interest and as luck would have it, I was accepted. The day was to be spent on an RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve, and was not specific about what work we would be doing. I imagined it would be putting up bird nesting boxes, or if I was very lucky, standing in the lake up to my nicky-nacky-noos in rubber waders clearing it of unwanted filth and algae.

A few years back, I really looked into changing career to conservation work. I chatted to a few people in that sector and the general feeling was the same – stay in the job you’re doing and volunteer whenever you can. The reason for this is that in order to be paid a decent wage to do it, you more or less have to be desk-bound, carrying out site surveys and risk assessments, while all of the hands-on, mucky, fun bits get done by volunteers.

When the day arrived, we were all gathered together and given a brief overview of the organisation, the reserve itself and the work required. We were then put to work raking up grass cuttings in the wildflower meadow on the edge of the lake. No waders in sight. The purpose of this raking is so the nitrogen rich grass cuttings don’t lie around enriching the soil. Enriched soil isn’t as good as it sounds. It is a breeding ground for common, more dominant plants like netyles, dock leaves and dandelion. Impoverished soil is the stuff that the more rarer, interesting and diverse flowers love, and they will thrive.

A good example of wildflowers taking over is a hundred years ago. In November 1918 when the armistice was signed, bringing (at that point) a ceasefire on the Western Front in World War 1, the landscape was completely destroyed. Shell holes pocked the farmland, and some villages and roads were completely wiped off the face of the Earth. The four years of shelling, marching and trekking in the mud had churned the ground over and over again. By the following spring, these Flanders Fields were bright red. The red of the poppy. Poppies, you see, love impoverished soil, and the seeds will lay dormant for years waiting for exactly the right moment to germinate. In 1919, the conditions were perfect.

Well, we raked up all the grass cuttings until mid-afternoon while someone got on and burned them. We then moved on to the next task in hand. Between the meadow and the lake, there is an area usually called a scrape which is where the wading birds can potter about and is usually quite shallow. At low water, it was fairly evident that all was not right. What was usually muddy with occasional vegetation, but it looked more like a lawn out there. It turns out it is a plant from New Zealand, called Crassula, or New Zealand pygmy weed. Like most invasive species, it found its way over here because some idiotic explorer thought it looked ‘pretty’ and wanted to spruce his rockery up. A century later and it’s everywhere because firstly, it doesn’t belong here and secondly, it has no predators or parasites here to control it. This carpet of foreign trouble was in the process of being scraped up and destroyed while we were there, using a digger. All equipment used, including boots, tyres, buckets etc needs to be jetwashed immediately after use so none of the plant can spread elsewhere. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

We were put to work cutting down willow trees that have gone beserk and taken over on the fringes of the water. We all looked like beavers, scurrying across the scrape dragging huge branches behind us that were three times the height of us. These all went on the fire, that I swear some people were becoming obsessed/enchanted by, almost a primeval urge, a calling from our ancestors. Man’s obsession with fire still reigns despite the new age of smart devices, money and fast cars.

Crassula is only one offender on the unwanted (and costly) foreign invaders list. Here is a list, in no order, of what we are facing in the UK. To any international readers, it would be great to hear your lists too!

  • Signal crayfish (no, it doesn’t improve 4g reception)
  • Himalayan balsam
  • Rhododendron
  • Japanese knotweed
  • Pirri-pirri burr
  • Floating pennywort
  • Brown rat
  • Mink
  • Grey Squirrel

There are countless others that belong on this list, which can be covered on another post. Whilst some of these are nice to look at, it is at the expense of our own flaura and fauna, and ultimately, our ecosystem, which is already at crisis point as well as practically every country on the planet. Restoring a natural ecosystem should be high on every environmental agency’s list. I just hope it’s not too late.

Another summer’s promise almost gone

After a week away from it, I decided I would make the most of the early autumnal sunshine and walk down to the rough ground. I find September to be a melancholy time of year. The end of summer, impending winter, watching things die back. I used to dread the end of August. But in recent years, I’ve grown to embrace it. Not like it, just embrace it.

One advantage to shorter days is you get more time to catch up on any reading. I especially like reading books about natural history and reading about spring and summer flora and fauna leaves you looking forward to the new year, giving hope. Autumn and winter also help me to get out more, as strange as it sounds. The cold doesn’t bother me, it’s more the wet and grey that gets me down, so if there’s a sunny day, it’s a great chance to drop everything that can wait, and plan a last minute trip to the hills, lanes, rivers and fields.

I get reflective at this time of year. I used to get depressed that another summer had drifted by without much thought and appreciation but nowadays I’m not like that so much, probably because I do more things that fill my imagination and needs, things I love doing, so when August comes and goes and that fluttery panic feeling creeps in, I smack it back with memories of the past four months. Walks, runs, camping trips, time at the allotment. Basically, less time on the sofa, in front of the TV.

The rough ground looked different yesterday. It was bathed in sunshine. The greenery slowly turning yellow and red. I heard more birds, a couple of crickets and began looking at what trees grow there. I noted a few maples more than anything.

I started to imagine if I could take ownership of the rough ground. What would I do with it? Would I close it off and leave it to mother nature or actively manage it? I thought first and foremost that I’d manage it. Remove non-native trees and plants, and encourage young saplings to grow up to regenerate the area. I pretty much worked out that I was more or less taking things away, not adding anything, which sounds unproductive but in the long term, it’s adding new trees and plants. It’s hard to work out what is ‘natural’ for an inner city scrub. Invasive species thrive. Being near a river, in flood, seeds will wash up. Damp ground fauna will survive over ill-planted species. I did definitely decide to keep it as open access, I mean, what’s the point in creating an urban wild patch that no one can appreciate also? Other that the obvious litter problem and the burned out car, and trolleys, there’s no sign of vandalism. If I showed care for it, would other people? Would I even mention it to friends? I haven’t even told my friends about this blog.