Tamsin: As a middle-aged career changer I was thrilled to get the opportunity to be one of the 2016 Blackdown Hills Natural Futures trainees. April has been busy, varied and full of new experiences: trapping newts, checking dormouse boxes (all empty so far, but they were all new boxes so there’s time yet), surveying for reptiles (much more successful with four species on one site) and lots and lots of plants to identify and learn about. Notable highlights have been finding Herb Paris and Moschatel - both very distinctive, and several different sedges – much more tricky to ID!
Fiona: I’ve had a busy and enjoyable first month as one of the Blackdown Hills Natural Futures trainees. I’ve learnt a lot. Although the more you learn, the more you realise you have yet to learn! We’ve been out newt torching and bottle trapping, dormouse box checking, reptile searching and last, but certainly not least botanising. Indoors we’ve covered legislation, protected species and botanical basics. I’ve been held up a few times on my way to work by cows crossing the road. I’ve seen more foxes in the past month than I’d seen in the last year. We’ve seen a roe deer that thinks it’s a cow. And on our second day in the field we watched a ewe give birth. I definitely made the right decision to move out of my job in environmental education in London and go into ecological surveying.
Whilst learning how to identify plants we have been savouring and in a few cases been repulsed by the rich aromas of the British countryside. Sweet woodruff, as the name suggests, is meant to smell sweet and like vanilla. If you sniff really hard maybe somewhere in there is a hint of vanilla. Sweet vernal grass, which we’ve seen flowering at a few different sites, is also meant to have notes of vanilla. Personally I think it’s rather almondy. Yellow archangel smells of cucumbers, whilst one of the liverworts is a mix of mint and rooibos tea. Tutsan, an ancient woodland indicator species (when it isn’t a garden escape) has a curry like smell. Conrad is inclined to think it smells of a bakery, we’re not too sure which bakeries he has been frequenting!
Although we don’t agree with the books we did agree amongst ourselves that Stinking Iris, also known as Roast Beef Plant, smells like multivitamin tablets. And a real stinker is hedge woundwort. We’ve been having a nibble here and there too. Who knew cowslips taste like apricots?
Plants of the month: Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia) - Ancient woodland indicator species. Yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon)- It has a great Latin name!
Max:I’ve come from Edinburgh to work with Blackdown Hills Natural Futures for this 6-month trainee ecologist position. I have some good previous experience with small mammals and bats, and I was overjoyed to be given the opportunity to work with BHNF to develop my skills in other aspects of ecology and conservation. April started off as a difficult month with my struggles to find suitable accommodation only ending a few days before May. Nonetheless, working with Tamsin, Fiona and Conrad has been very enjoyable and took my mind off the situation. I was very eager to get outside and start learning things as quick as possible, and fortunately, we didn’t have to sit through too many presentations in the first few weeks.
We were introduced to the project and began with newt ecology, surveying, identification and bottle trap building followed by some net sweeping at a few ponds and our first glimpse of two male Great crested newts. The second week began with a presentation on dormouse ecology and surveying, with a trip to check around 40 dormice boxes over two sites. We also started to work on botanical identification and made a few visits to different habitats to gain more experience and to debate whether yellow archangel leaves do in fact smell like cucumbers, or if Conrad had lost his mind. Finally, we learned about the ecology and surveying of UK reptiles and went out to Buckland wood where we spotted slow worms, an adder, common lizard and a grass snake.
I’ve been surprised at how much I have enjoyed the botanical side of things so far, considering I’m incredibly inexperienced with botany, and I’m keen to pick up my skills in identifying plants over the coming weeks and months.