Nature surveying in action…

Survey Force is our regular volunteering day. The team of volunteers go out to survey our nature reserves for habitat indicator species, mammals, reptiles and lots more. It happens every other Monday, and because of the nature of survey work is a brilliant way to visit different reserves, and acquire new knowledge about Warwickshire’s flora and fauna. We’re approaching the end of the survey season now, but sessions are running up until October 27th, and will start again in early Spring.

We asked Kay, one of the newest Survey Force volunteers, to write us a short diary of her experience of volunteering. This is from a visit to Harbury Spoilbank in early September, and should be great inspiration for anyone who feels like they don’t have enough knowledge and expertise to volunteer. 

Being of the ‘there be green stuff’ school of botanical knowledge, a nature survey seemed rather daunting at first. However the bunch of volunteers are so friendly and laid-back that it’s hard to go wrong.  I spend the odd day here and there with the survey team, and I find that it’s a really pleasant pick-me-up while I look for employment.

On my last visit I hopped off the minibus to join the other volunteers, and confidently declared, ‘I think this is a knotweed,’ (a potential house felling toxic weed) when really it was knotgrass (a safe little commoner). When the palpitations subsided, I was forgiven.  Best to let everyone know where you are coming from right from the start!

The Harbury Spoilbank site is an 1840’s dumping ground for the railway cutting which abuts it. The morning’s task was to evaluate the growth and diversity of vegetation on the chalky soil. We split into groups of six or seven to examine patches of ground of a metre radius, which were randomly scattered across the site. Height of growth and bare patches were noted. The experienced eyes then began to pick out the many plants within the circle and their distribution. As a novice, I thought, ‘a chart, I will compare to a chart.’ And thus I discovered a way to achieve a bewildered headache! A more successful approach was to play spot-the-difference; listening carefully to those in the know as they made their observations and pointing out any perceived differences in the ground around my feet.

I finally had some success as I spotted our first forget-me-not. At the next patch, we discovered Harrows Rest, wild carrot and St. John’s Wort (perforated). A tall pink, fluffy seeded plant repeatedly niggled and jabbed at my thigh for attention, but even trying to remember all of the names I had heard so far was too much for one session. It will, in my mind at least, be christened another day.

As we ambled between assessment patches, people told me the delightful reasons for the common names of the plants we spot. Dry scientific names have their place, but they were not part of our day. It’s far livelier to delve into our folk history with the knowledge that Lady’s Bedstraw was stuffed into mattresses to deter fleas and that Harrow’s Rest creates such a tangle it would bring the farmer’s horse-drawn harrow to a halt.

A hot cup of tea and a biscuit at lunch time was gratefully received as we sheltered from the rain in the minibus. In the afternoon, we performed a breakdown of the patches of shrubs and trees. At the end of the day, as a comfortable mental tiredness set in and as my plant-name-muddling returned I called out, ‘I’ve got a bearded old man.’ A mystery voice responded, ‘Ours has wellies on, does yours?’

Old Man's Beard (Traveller's Joy)
Old Man’s Beard (Traveller’s Joy)
Old Man's Beard (Traveller's Joy)
Old Man’s Beard (Traveller’s Joy)

Since the survey, I have been keeping my eye out for Old Man’s Beard (the wellie-free variety) and a few other climbers. Blackberry picking has been transformed for me now. Ivy and hawthorn are common sights of course, but in a short stretch up popped Old Man’s Beard in flower with its fluffy seeds, Woody Nightshade (Bittersweet), Bindweed, Black Bryony and Russian Vine with its fragrant cascades of cream flowers (a garden escapee, so a bit lowbrow). Unfortunately sparse on the blackberries though!

Russian Vine
Russian Vine

I have been concentrating on climbers but there are plenty of other great discoveries hiding in plain sight. I am still really pleased with finding a curious scarlet tuft of punkish hair on a dog rose called Robin’s Pincushion. This is the plant’s response to gall wasp larvae. Although it’s quite common, to my eye it’s a delightfully weird looking bit of nature. I can’t wait to point it out to my friends.

I am trying to compare and keep in mind the shape of the mature leaves for next time. I’d like to remember some of the useful facts that I’ve learned, e.g. that Old Man’s Beard (Traveller’s Joy) is the only native climber where leaves come as a pair from a stem node (pinnate); the other climbers will only have one leaf per node.

Woody Nightshade (Bittersweet)
Woody Nightshade (Bittersweet)

The Woody Nightshade (Bittersweet) berries have yet to ripen and turn red in this photograph. Finally, here are some excellent pictures of Black Bryony with its glossy heart-shaped leaves and cascades of red berries. The aforementioned good-humoured ‘bearded old man in wellies’ has repeatedly told me that Black Bryony is one of his favourites and I have to agree. How could I have not seen it before?


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