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.

Gratitude – in memory

Eighteen months ago, I made a routine phone call to the walking coordinator of the organisation where I volunteer as a walking leader to review the walks we had done between us and discuss plans for the coming year. I knew he had been unwell, so I asked him if he was ok. Expecting him to say he was fine, he replied, in a matter-of-fact way that he had cancer. An inoperable brain tumour. I was taken aback by the news and tried to keep the rest of the conversation as positive as possible. He was planning walks and trips and sounded like he was going to make the most of the time he had left.

Sadly, I found out last week he has finally lost the fight. Whilst we were never close friends, we always had lengthy chats about the outdoors, and would see each other four or five times a year for group walking duties. He was, however, one of the most important figures in steering my life towards the path I’m on now. We met through mutual friends, as he was looking for walking leaders and I was looking for volunteering opportunities, and his number was given to me. After a long chat on the phone, we met face to face and I began to organise and lead walks for his groups. That was 2011, and since then, I’ve carried on with my ambitions to spend more time outdoors.

See, in 2010, a previous voluntary opportunity had disappointingly wilted away to nothing. When this one presented itself, I fully took it.  Steve took me on (probably because he was desperate) but I like to think I paid him back. Together we introduced a winter walks programme that operated in the off months when the organisation wasn’t so keen to put on any walks, but had interested parties. Numerous pub lunches all over the place, and great memories like the flighty pony that chased him down and stole his hat, which I then had to retrieve, despite having an 18kgs backpack on. I managed to get it, while he and everyone else hid in the next field (I couldn’t jump the gate – my bag was too heavy).

A great guy, as always, taken away too soon. His enthusiasm and energy will mean he will live on in the stories told about him.