Tuesday, 17 February 2015

MSc Students look at Restoration.

Our Nature Reserve is a valuable resource for educators and students; an outdoor classroom that can be used by students of all ages from pre-school to the University of the Third Age (and probably beyond.)

Our colleagues at the Wildlife Trust manage most of our early years education but the Rangers still get involved in Special Education (for those who need extra attention) and Further Education for university and college students up to PhD level. In the past we have had a PhD student from UEA to study nightingales and several MScs from Reading who looked at invertebrates and small mammals.

Last year we hosted an MSc student from Cranfield University who mapped the hydrology of the pits that are still in the quarry but will eventually come into the extension. Just this week, Ray Matthews and I welcomed more MSc students from Cranfield who wanted to look at how you might measure success in restoration projects.

On the surface, this sounds like a really simple question! Answer: If the site is better than before you intervened, success! But the students were keen to find out how we arrived at targets for restoration. They asked us what would happen if we just let everything grow and let nature take its course. This would be a more sustainable approach surely? I guessed that it would be the right approach if we had a whole county to play with but with small reserves we have to select which habitats we want to preserve, or even create. 

In the UK we have had about 7,000 years of man's interference in the landscape. Settlers introduced animals, plants, farms, towns, motorways, drive-ins and bowling alleys so that today, the only "natural" site that I know of is Wistman's Wood in Devon. Here the stunted and wind-planed trees grow in a rocky outcrop that has always prevented grazing animals from modifying the habitat.

Wistman's Wood
Ray and I explained that some habitats are considered by conservationists to be more desirable than others usually because of their scarcity. At the same time, we have to work with the geology, soil, drainage and local climate and take into account the most valuable features that already existed on the site before it became a reserve. Finally, I was forced to admit that a lot of us are driven by nostalgia. We want to hold on to a world that we fear is disappearing and perhaps recreate an imagined golden age when the landscape looked like those in Constable's paintings.

For our examples of restoration, we looked at two areas that had been quarried but restored in entirely different ways.

1. The meadow by the visitors' centre looks like a "proper" bit of rural Cambridgeshire. It is now a classic hay meadow, but you have to remember that the whole thing is now 6 feet lower than it was because of gravel extraction. At the wet edges we constantly have to fight back encroachment by willows and we have to cut the hay and have it grazed by cattle every year. The measure of our success is the fact that people do not realise that we made the meadow. They think that all the orchids, flowers and butterflies we have there just happened.

2. The woods along the Haul Road (including Rory's Wood) have grown tall and the lower levels have been shaded out so that there is no understory. By felling trees selectively, we have let the light in and created a jumble of rotting logs that are rich in fungi and invertebrates. We will measure our success there by counting the lost birds that re-colonise the wood. In Rory's Wood, for example, we have seen nightingales and turtle doves return, as well as more common birds like willow warblers.

We were asked some really interesting questions about how people use the area and about how our work might increase the utility of the area for people. The examples I could think of were gathering black-berries and wild strawberries, and fungi. We do not provide firewood because we prefer to see the wood rot where it stands. Another question asked if the site was used by religious groups or if we had spots of cultural significance such as sacred groves, standing stones, old chapels etc. I wish we had!

Both Ray and I have teaching backgrounds (I was a primary school teacher and he was a University Professor) and we still get a kick out of teaching. It's a rewarding thing to do and quite an honour, in my view. The students often challenge my opinions and prejudices and make me stand outside myself. That can't be a bad thing. 

Thanks to Dr Jenny Mant for bringing her students to visit us. Let's do it again next year.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if more students chose some aspect of the Reserve for their final thesis. There's so much more that we need to know about how nature works.