Always something new to learn

Something I’ve been struck by during the last couple of weeks is that whilst volunteering, even when I’m not aware of it, I’m learning new things. In the last fortnight some of these have been a little more obvious than others.

My fortnight started off with me learning about dry stone walling. We were back at Black Brook with the Northern Work party attempting to fix the gaps in the wall we’d spotted last time we were there. I started off rather dubiously staring at the stones, unsure how I was ever going to make all the mish-mash of shapes somehow fit together to make a solid structure. Once I got into it, it wasn’t quite as difficult as it first appeared, though I was rather picky about which stone I used, whereas some of the other volunteers seemed to have the knack of making any stone they picked up stick.

How far we got with fixing the wall. I was working on the left hand side of the hole. I don't think my section looks too bad!
How far we got with fixing the wall. I was working on the left hand side of the hole. I don’t think my section looks too bad!

Overall I don’t think I did too badly, none of the stones fell off from where I put them and when I stepped back it wasn’t too obvious which bit I’d been working on. I’d say my first attempt at dry stone walling was a success!

Black Brook also gave me the chance to try out bee identification for the first time this year. Whilst we were eating lunch a bee became fixated on my drinks bottle and as it stayed still for so long I managed to get a photograph. It was the first bee of the year that had stayed stationary long enough for me to get a picture so once I was home I had a quick flick through my insect book. It turns out the bee is Bombus pascuorum or the Common Carder Bee. It’s gingery thorax is probably its most distinguishing feature and I’ve noticed a few of these little guys around since.

Very obliging Common Carder Bee
Very obliging Common Carder Bee

The next two days were more a case of learning the slightly more random things; such as how steep the hill at Castern Woods all the volunteers have talked about actually is and how to use a brush cutter whilst your balancing rather precariously on a slope. We were at Castern to cut the grass/brambles so that the wildflowers, particularly orchids, have a better chance of growing. Castern Woods is situated in the Manifold valley, and the area we were working in was right at the bottom. Getting down there isn’t too bad. Getting back out, whilst carrying all of the equipment is a slightly different matter, especially when on one day you have a volunteer with a twisted ankle and on the next one of the grass cutting machines gets stuck on the path! At the bottom of the reserve the slope is gentle enough to use the two big grass cutting machines but higher up it’s too steep and a job for the brush cutters. Carrying a brush cutter up a hillside covered in brambles is not the easiest task I’ve ever done but I managed it and then even managed to start the machine by myself for the first time ever! Both days ended with a lesson on how to tow a minibus out of a muddy field.

My view for the two days at Castern
My view for the two days at Castern

Last week started with me having the keys of the Mitsubishi pick up handed to me and being told I was driving. I passed my driving test back in February but haven’t driven since then. I also learnt to drive in a Ford Fiesta (I think that’s what it was anyway) so there was quite a bit of difference from what I was used to! Despite my initial nerves I don’t seem to have lost my ability to drive and we made it to our destination in one piece!

We started off at Rod Wood, checking some bits for the work to be carried out this week, but also to do safety checks on bits around the reserve. We were checking gates and stiles and noting down any problems with them. After walking round there we visited the three reserves that make up Ipstone’s Edge. At Swineholes Lucy pointed out Bilberry to me on our epic treck down to the bottom of the reserve. At Black Heath, although there was only one stiles, we wandered a little further in so I could see where they’d used fire to encourage regeneration of the plants. The ponies were up to mischief on Casey Bank; two had managed to get through a hole they’d made in the fence so were where they shouldn’t be and another of them somehow managed to sneak up on us! Safety checks complete it was back to Wolseley to swap to the Landy and complete a few little jobs before home time.

On Wednesday and Thursday I learnt that citronella has more uses than keeping away flies and that getting a group of volunteers to walk in a straight line is a lot harder that it would first appear! We were working at Cotton Dell treating the ragwort rosettes that have started growing (yes I know some species use ragwort for food but it becomes a problem when it’s a whole field full!). We were using citronella, a chemical from lemon grass, to treat the ragwort rosettes. I’m used to citronella from the flyspray we used on the horses when I was younger but it is pretty effective on ragwort; within minutes of spraying it on the leaves they start to blacken and shrivel. It’s also good to use as it doesn’t affect other plants. We were walking across Star Bank in a line using markers to note where we’d covered, spraying any rosettes we find. By criss-crossing across this field in this manner we hope that we should have managed to get all of the ragwort. Our lines were a little bit of a shambles if I’m being honest. We seemed to struggled whenever we weren’t moving perpendicular to the fence (so most of the time) and when the ground wasn’t flat (all of the bottom half) but we did manage it in the end. It’s be interesting to see how much ragwort is there in the summer.

There were a few interesting wildlife sightings as well. On Wednesday we spotted a pair of Red Kite flying above us; this was the first time any of us had seen them in Staffordshire. Everywhere I set my feet over the two days would send spiders darting away through the grass and I spotted three species of butterfly (Orang-Tip, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell). On Thursday we came across a Great Tit and female Black Cap dead on the grass. There weren’t any obvious signs of death, so it was a rather unusual find. It was the first time I’ve seen a Blackcap and though I would much rather see one alive, it was really interesting to see one so close. There were plenty of spring flowers open, so I could learn some more of them (can read more about that here).

Dead female Blackcap
Dead female Blackcap

I love the fact that I can constantly be learning new things. It may not be all academic like I’m used to from university, but it’s useful and interesting and I feel like I won’t ever stop learning about the natural world :)The learning will be continuing this week but will be a little bit more obvious; tomorrow and Wednesday I’m doing a Outdoor First Aid Course but I will get my volunteering fix on Thursday.

Beth 🙂


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