Pissed as a newt

Yesterday I finally got round to doing something I really should have done a while ago; I started volunteering with my local Wildlife Trust. For me this is the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. They run midweek volunteer groups that go out to reserves all over the county on Wednesday and Thursdays. As the Wednesday group is currently full I offered my services to the Thursday group. 

As I can’t drive and my parents are currently enjoying themselves on the other side of the world I had to get the bus to the Wolseley Centre where we were meeting. Just to be on the safe side, as I didn’t want to be late on my first day, I got the earlier bus. I’m actually extremely happy I did. To get to the visitor centre you have to walk through some of the grounds. Whilst doing this I came across a plaque with an abridged version of W. H. Davies poem Leisure. The poem was encouraging people to stop and stare in a bid to appreciate the beauty of the world around us and as I had the time I did just that. I can’t think of a better way to have started my first day volunteering. Moorhen chicks swam across the lake, mallards were just waking up and a young blackbird ate his breakfast behind me. I was even treated to the sight of a rabbit hopping across the path. I haven’t seen a wild rabbit in a surprisingly long time!

When I judged I wouldn’t be turning up unseemingly early I made my way to the visitor centre where I was introduced to Lucy who is in charge of the midweek volunteers. We had a chat as we waited for everyone else to turn up. I’ll take the chance now to apologise if any of the volunteers read this and I’ve got your names wrong. I think I’ve got everyone’s but not 100% sure.

The group was largely male, and mostly older gentlemen but everyone was absolutely lovely; they were really friendly and welcoming and really made me feel part of the group. Any inside jokes or references to things they’d done before were quickly explained to me and they all seemed genuinely pleased when I said that I’d be coming back next week. 

On the bus it quickly became clear that knowing the more experienced volunteers would be good for my wildlife knowledge. They were full of stories of their experiences and random facts. Talks turned to newts, and how they seem to survive being hit with a shovel (one of the volunteers had been digging in his garden and done it by accident). This led to me being asked how hard can you hit a newt without killing it? I’d told them all that I’d studied Zoology which meant that most of the animal questions of the day were directed at me. Unfortunately that wasn’t a topic we covered at university. I was then told the origin of the phrase ‘pissed as a newt’. One of the volunteers, Paul, told us that a newts movements around a pond had been tracked. They were recorded as going as far as three miles away but took a zig zag route rather like they’d indulged in a few too many alcoholic beverages. 

The reserve we were heading to for the day was Croxall Lakes, a site that used to be quarried for sand and gravel but has now been restored into wetland. The midweek volunteers spend their time looking after and managing the different reserves, controlling invasive species, cutting back overgrown vegetation and various bits of woodland work. Our main job for the day was to remove the ragwort from the site. Ragwort is a plant with quite distinct yellow flowers. Although it is a food source for many insects it is also poisonous to cattle and horses and can occur in vast quantities so is removed from the reserves. I was purely on ragwort duty but a few of the other volunteers were involved in cutting down a few patches of Himalayan balsam, cutting up some scrap wood and strimming around the carpark.

A bee on some ragwort flowers
A bee on some ragwort flowers

The reserve has two main lakes separated by a railway line so we started on one side and then moved on to the next. Pulling up ragwort is pretty easy, though some of the larger plants put up a bit of a fight. I discovered that ragwort likes growing in the same place as thistles as nettles. My hands were very grateful that we had to wear gloves as the plant is poisonous, especially after I grabbed a few thistles! My legs weren’t so happy about my choice of shorts, as the numerous nettle stings and scratches will show, but it turned out to be a gorgeous day, despite the drizzly start, so I think overall it was a good choice. 

You may think that pulling up a plant would get boring pretty quickly. If you do you’re wrong. It was lovely just to be spending a day outside, the company was good and I got to spot wildlife all day.

2013-07-25 12.37.02
One of the views I got to spend all day looking at

The ragwort itself was covered in all sorts of creepy crawlies; there were lots of bees and ladybirds and hundred of a little red beetle that I’ve promised I’ll identify before I go back next week. Many of the plants were also host to the striking orange and black cinnabar moth caterpillar. The caterpillars feed on the ragwort, assimilating the toxic alkaloid substances from the plant making themselves unappetising to predators. When caterpillars were present on the plant we left it alone, trusting in Mother Nature to do her own pest control.

A cinnabar moth caterpillar
A cinnabar moth caterpillar

There was also wildlife of the four legged variety. I startled a rabbit out of a bush and a flash of movement across a cowpat turned out to be a common newt; the first one I’ve seen in years.


Now I think it’s time that I made a confession. Despite spending four years studying Zoology and the advice of my lecturers my id-ing skills are not as good as I would like them to be, especially when it comes to birds. I am taking steps to remedy this (so please don’t judge me on it) but I thought I should warn you as I may not be always be right in my identification.

Luckily for me this was not a problem with the group I was working with. Everyone’s id skills are at different levels and they are all more than happy to help out and share their knowledge. We had a party of four very vocal birds fly above us for a while. All we could really see was their black and white undersides but I think the general consensus at the end of the day was that they were some sort of tern. There was also debate as to whether we saw a heron or an egret fly over. I really need to get myself some binoculars as that would make this so much easier!

So when you have a whole reserves worth of ragwort piles up in a trailer what do you do with it? You burn it of course! It seemed a little strange to, in the middle of summer, be eating your packed lunch while sat around a roaring fire but hey ho! Burning the ragwort helps prevent it’s spread as even when pulled up the flowers can go to seed. We’re removing ragwort from another reserve next week and someone had the genius suggestion of taking marshmallows! I’m putting some skewers in my bag just in case!

The remains of a whole reserves worth of ragwort!
The remains of a whole reserves worth of ragwort!

I loved my first day volunteering and will definitely be going back next week. I can’t wait to hear more stories, learn more about our wildlife and see what else we spot. I’ll be taking my identification guides so I can actually work out what things are!

Beth x

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