A Volunteer’s Diary

March 2012 – A Volunteer’s Diary #6 – by Chris Bean

Over the winter months volunteering has followed a fairly routine pattern – cutting down scrub birch, alder and bramble plus, of course, lots of bonfires to keep us warm and toasty!  A couple of days ago the opportunity arose to do something a little different.  An Angling Club was carrying out work to remove floating pennywort from a pond near to the River Blackwater using an excavator and we were invited to come along and remove the pennywort which could not easily be accessed by it.  The aim was to keep this invasive weed from getting into the river and causing problems further downstream.

Pennywort forms dense rafts and out-competes native plant species.  This results in reduced light levels below the rafts and causes native waterweeds and algae to die off, as well as reducing water oxygenation levels.

So it was on with waders and buoyancy aids and into the waters of the old mill pond armed with pitch forks, rakes and, eventually our hands, to remove the areas of weed which the digger couldn’t reach.  We used our trusty boat to load the pennywort onto which, once filled, was dragged to the bank and tipped onto the piles of weed already removed.  Fortunately the water was mostly no more than a metre deep, although there were the odd deep muddy patches and sunken logs which made the task interesting at times.  The boat was useful more than once to prevent an unintentional dip!!

At the end of the day we had managed to clear the pennywort from the pond and hopefully this will slow down the spread of this very invasive water weed into the Blackwater and other watercourses in the area

October 2011 – A Volunteers Diary #5

The ‘phone rang – “Fancy a day out putting your recently acquired powerboating skills into practice?” asked the Chairman.  Great, I thought, he has arranged a relaxing day out on the coast for the hardworking volunteers.  Thoughts of a trip to the Isle of Wight followed by a pint or two in Cowes drifted into my mind.  Well, I was right about an island but the one in question was on a lake at Frimley Hatches and the relaxing day out turned into a hard and dirty few hours’ work clearing the bramble, nettles and brash from the island to benefit over-wintering birds!

So it was that Geoff (one of our Tuesday volunteer regulars) and I turned up at Ash Lock Cottage to load up the boat and various other bits of kit required for the day. We set off and met up with three other Trustees and after a brief hiatus over gaining access to the site – should you really need a hammer to open a gate? – we unloaded everything and set off to the island.  Three hours later the island was more or less clear of nettles, bramble and other scrub so, job done, we set off back to the mainland.

The boat is quite small and can really only take a couple of people at a time along with the kit.  Everyone was back on shore except for me and the Chairman when disaster struck.  A few metres from shore en route to the island the outboard cut out suddenly and I discovered the prop was tangled up with rope.  Not a problem I thought, just paddle back to shore, disentangle the rope and set off again.  No such luck, as the other end of the rope was attached to something pretty heavy on the lake bed.  So it was a matter of hanging out the back of the boat and cutting the rope (fortunately I had a knife with me)  from around the outboard, then back to the shore to disentangle the remaining rope from the prop before I could rescue our marooned Chairman who thought he had been left on the island for the winter!

August 2011 – A Volunteer’s Diary #4

Volunteering has, over the last few weeks, involved two main tasks – Haymaking, and pulling up Ragwort which on the few hot days we have had this summer can be both hot and sweaty work.

Haymaking involves cutting down the tall grass and sedges in a meadow using a motor scythe, raking the cut grasses into heaps and then loading them onto a tarpaulin or trailer to be taken to a corner of the site where the cut grass is unloaded.  The purpose of this work is to help lower the nutrient value of the meadow  and encourage wildflowers to grow.  If we did not cut back the grass, it would die back in the winter and create a mat of dead material which the wildflowers could not penetrate.  So cutting back the grass will over the longer term will result in more wildflower meadows and increase the numbers of butterflies and insects there for us to see.

We will all have seen the bright yellow flowers of Ragwort alongside road verges and field edges at this time of year – it seems to be everywhere at the moment. So why, you might ask, do we spend time and effort pulling it up in meadows at places like Hawley Meadows  and at Moor Green Lakes?  The answer is that we need to do so because cattle graze these meadows, and Ragwort is toxic and, if eaten by cattle (or indeed horses), the toxins in the plant accumulate in the animal’s liver and slowly poisons them (quickly in the case of horses).  Sometimes it seems a shame to pull up this plant because it seems to attract a lot of pollinating insects and, in particular the caterpillars of  the Cinnabar moth (opposite), but the welfare of the grazing animals is paramount and there are still plenty of Ragwort plants about for the insects!

July 2011 – A Volunteer’s Diary #3

While I was out and about carrying out a Dragonfly survey in the Blackwater Valley  a few days ago I came across a rather interesting little plant growing around the edges of a small pond on a patch of heathland.  The plant was a Sundew and it must rank as one of the most interesting plants to be found in the Valley, because it is insectivorous.   Sundews supplement the meagre nutrients found in the acid, wetland soils by absorbing minerals from insect prey.

The flat, rosette of long-stalked, reddy-coloured Sundew leaves are, perhaps,  the most interesting part of the plant, and certainly the most dangerous( for insects that is!) as they have evolved to hold tight and absorb unsuspecting midges and other insects foolish enough to land on their sticky surface.

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Each Sundew leaf has hundreds of hair-like tendrils, all tipped by droplets that, just like dew, glisten in the sun, giving these plants their common name. On contact, insects quickly become ensnared; the surrounding hairs bend towards the victim to prevent escape, and the whole leaf eventually curls over to enclose the unfortunate creature. The dewdrops also act as digestive juices that dissolve the softer parts of the insect’s body before the resultant liquid is absorbed by the plant – a gruesome fate, indeed.

In former times, Sundews were thought to posses many powers. The herbalist John Gerard, writing in the late 16th century, referred to physicians who thought: ‘this herbe to be a rare and singular remedie for all those that be in a consumption of the lungs, and especially the distilled water thereof: for as the herbe doth keepe and hold fast the moisture and dew, and so fast, that the extreme drying heate of the sun can not consume and waste away the same; so likewise men thought that heerwith the naturall and lively heate in mens bodies is preserved and cherished’.

Gerard also rather intriguingly noted of Sundews that: ‘cattle of the female kinde are stirred up to lust by eating even of a small quantitie’! When distilled with wine, it was also said to have an alternative name – youthwort.

Sundews don’t often seem to flower but that afternoon they were putting on quite a show as this second image shows.  It just goes to show what you can see if you closely about you as you walk around the Blackwater Valley.

June 2011 – A Volunteer’s Diary #2

When I first started to volunteer  I spent a few cold days in November up at Noah Hill (just outside Selbourne) helping a Ranger and a group of other volunteers improve the area to encourage the Duke of Burgundy butterfly to breed on the site.  If I remember correctly the task involved cutting back and laying blackthorn hedging, as the butterfly will only lay its eggs on branches of the bush which are near to the ground.  Did this effort pay off? Well for several years since I have been back to the site at around this time of year to see if I could catch sight of this increasingly rare butterfly but with no success – until today. The recent spell of hot weather seemed to have resulted in relatively large numbers being seen at the site – several websites were reporting up to 50 being seen, so I visited the site today to see if I could see them.  As these two images show I not only saw but managed to photograph the butterfly; they really are quite beautiful insects and are only around for such a short time.

Yes, I know that Noah Hill is not in the Blackwater Valley but the message is clear – volunteers can, through helping out with tasks aimed at improving biodiversity, really make a difference to our countryside.

3rd May 2011 – A Volunteer’s Diary #1

On Tuesday, 3 May, I was out with the Blackwater Valley Tuesday volunteers, litter picking along the Path in preparation for the Walk the Path event the following weekend.  Not the most exciting of days but it needs to be done.  As we were walking along we came across a cloud of horrible looking big black flies hovering over the path and surrounding area bobbing up and down.  What made them look particularly nasty was that they all had long appendages hanging limply below them – could it be a sting?  We passed through the cloud quickly fending off the insects by waving our arms in the air and, you will be pleased to know, with no stings. But they do settle from time to time as this picture shows.

When I returned home I spent a few minutes on Google to try and identify what these insects were.  They are called St Marks Fly and although I had never seen so many before this large black fly is, I am told, widespread and common and can be found swarming over grassland or in the lee of bushes in May and June with its long legs (not a sting thankfully) dangling below. The recent spell of hot weather may well be the reason for the large numbers around at the moment.

The name comes from the fact that the adults usually emerge around St Mark’s Day, 25th April and only live for a few days. These flies are thought to play an important role in pollinating fruit trees and other plants. The larvae feed on the roots of grasses and they are occasionally cereal pests as well as on decaying organic matter and are frequent in compost heaps.

So what I thought would be a rather tedious day turned out to be interesting after all!