Having clocked up a volunteering milestone on 4th April I thought I would share my personal experiences and a couple of anecdotes gathered during my ten years of volunteering with Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers.
Over the last ten years I have witnessed the evolution from paper copies of task programmes and newsletters to their electric equivalent, three trusty shining steads that have transported volunteers to weekly task days – relax non were written off, the SNCV safety record remains unblemished!, and seen in the region of a third of a tonne of biscuits being washed down with enough tea and coffee to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool – well probably!!!
Ten years! Well to use a cliché ‘it seems like only yesterday’ that I embarked out on my first mission with the team, to repair decaying wooden signposts. As the spring breeze blew through the surrounding hedge line I took in the tranquillity and freshness of the outdoors and contrasted it with the two previous years that I had spent working in a screen printers, amid large machinery and inhaling air heavy with the smell of inky chemicals.
This new experience of work was indeed a breath of fresh air – pun intended! After a few hours of wriggling, digging, levelling and vigorous tamping to get the replacement sign ship-shape, I made my way home, feeling tired and achy, but proud of the achievement and hungry for what the next task day may bring.
So what is it that has seen me return for nigh on 520 consecutive weeks in the best and worst conditions the British weather can offer? Well one aspect is the friendly and family like team, striving to maintain and indeed improve the nature sites of Sutton. Whatever the composition of the team, over the years the influx of new volunteers combined with regulars and the various members of Sutton’s Biodiversity Team, who expertly lead the task days, have always created a warm positive atmosphere. The generous addition of good humour, interesting stories and sometime review of banal TV shows make Task Days a joy.
Another reason is the continual opportunity to learn new things, from correct tool usage, maintenance and habitat management techniques through to plant and animal identification. There is also the introduction to hitherto unknown words into my grey matter. Starting with flora binomials I have considerably increased my lexicon of ecological idioms, mainly it must be said, courtesy of Dave, Sutton’s Biodiversity Officer.
Lastly it’s the ability to make a positive change for the natural environment, which can be overlooked all too easily in the hustle and bustle of modern life. It might be a cliché, but with only one planet all the people I have worked alongside over the years have, to differing degrees, been striving to do their bit to ensure it is cherished and safeguarded for the enjoyment of future generations.
So, what are my most vivid memories and escapades of being out and about with SNCV ?
Whilst there have been a few, some memories have lingered longer. Working in tight conditions with fellow volunteers illuminated only by means of a couple of pre LED torches has certainly left an indelible image in the mind. Being decked out in facemasks and goggles in order to create bat roosting opportunities in a disused chamber at Beddington Farmlands was certainly one of the most interesting missions I have embarked upon.
My next two recollections are notable not for unusual nature of the task but more for the extremes of weather which were endured to perform them. Heading to Therapia Lane Rough, during the early autumn the team were scheduled to incinerate a bountiful pile of troublesome vegetation. But as the fire began to leap into life so the clouds began to clear and reveal temperatures to equal the summer highs experienced that year. So despite the refreshment provided by the trusty SNCV tea kit the team were subjected to mid-summer Mediterranean like conditions. Words cannot fully express the toasty nature of this day as the sun beat down whilst the dried out vegetation flickered and crackled from the lick of the flame. Whilst Task Days with the lure of a fire are usually warmly welcomed this was one occasion on which the assembled we were not so keen to brave the inferno in order to ensure every last scrap of bramble was burned !
In contrast it was a January visit to Anton Crescent Wetland that saw the team call a rare premature end to a day’s task as a result of the extreme weather. Despite a couple of days of snow having turned the ground into an ice rink, sub-zero temperatures and a southern snow laden wind blowing, the team were determined to stick to the Task Programme. Braving the conditions we continued to lay a few metres of hedge line. Taking a billhook in an un-gloved hand and handling snow clad branches in the other damp gloved hand, it didn’t take too long before wind chill took its toll, numbing fingers and leaving every fibre in throbbing pain. It remains an enviable accolade that this is the only occasion in my time that the team had to admit defeat and bail out for the day – the slow slippery retreat still haunts me!!
The final memory that is etched into my mind is how a momentary lapse of concentration nearly set back conservation efforts. Having received a ‘Crash Course’ in the use of the trusty BCS mower I was carrying out a summer meadow cut at Wellfield East.
Having used the BCS numerous times before, I was confidently making hay as I trailed behind the formidable machine reducing the knee high vegetation to mere millimetres in seconds. All was going well until the machine slewed towards the steep bank along the edge of the grassland. At this point gravity and horsepower took over, turning the mower into an efficient excavator as its wheels and reciprocating blade ploughed great trenches under the fence. Once the panic had subsided and remembering that letting go of the handles would cut the engine calm returned. With a little team effort the weighty machine was returned to the more level areas of the meadow to continue the essential work. Since then it was decided that perhaps a brush cutter is best suited to the task of cutting the grass on the bank !
So where have some of the most notable site transformations taken place over my decade?
Well this is a struggle. All the sites have seen considerable change and improvement thanks to the input of the SNCV teams over this time.
Cattle introduced to Roundshaw Downs, the green haying and spread of wild flowers onto the island at Carew Manor Wetland, extensive clearance of fly tipping and vegetation control and the transformation of Therapia Lane Rough. So many to choose from, but I think the most marked changes I have witnessed are those at Victoria Avenue.
On my first visit here bramble was so prevalent that the site gate could open just enough to allow three people to stand shoulder to shoulder and survey the scale of the task that lay before us. Armed with loppers, rakes and armfuls of enthusiasm it didn’t take too long before the first phase of this transformation were complete. Amongst the tangle of mature Bramble, fly-tipped rubbish lay nestled like flies caught in a Spider web. Cutting through, it was galling to find everything from television sets to garden tool and toys.
Further visits over the years to tackle the persistent bramble growth and subsequent nettles have eventually seen the emergence of a wash of primary colours from the increased flora. This encouraging sight improves with each meadow cut and selective tree pruning, as more light fills the site. The once mountainous compost heap which arose from the cuttings of that first harvest of bramble has also gradually given way to the expanding meadow.
During the early years of my involvement The Warren was a hidden chalk-grassland gem untouched by development, but blocked off by an imposing chain link fence. In time an initiative to get the public closer to nature saw the removal of this barrier and a real community spirit develop as local residents joined Task Days. At first the opening up of this nature site proved a little detrimental with the increased trampling affecting the delicate chalk grassland plants. However in time and with a bit of creative thinking the site is now enjoyed by the public and the species that call it home.
To bring things right up to the present Queen Mary’s Woodland has been the latest SNCV work in progress. When the team first set their eyes on this expanse of land the most prominent feature beyond trees was probably the metre upon metre of chain link fencing, which marked out areas of the former hospital.
Early Task Days saw the removal of these containing barriers and the clearing of extensive areas of dominant cherry laurel. At first work focused around the area christened the glade, but once the cherry laurel had been felled from the immediate vicinity and the resultant higher canopy created something more reminiscent of a wood pasture so work expanded to the surrounding neglected woodland. As other patches of cherry laurel, and hidden deposits of rubbish were slowly cleared, so the task of carefully enhancing the woodland habitats have continued.
Now a year after the majority of the work at the glade was completed, the feeling of claustrophobia that was initially present has been replaced by a more natural transition into the denser heart of the woodland and the ground that, seemed so bereft of life has begun to show signs of life with new plants appearing all the time. Currently the focus of work is the improvement of the looping pathway which will not only enhance the habitat aspect in the form of woodland rides but will also afford future visitors the opportunity to enjoy this wonderful woodland. I for one can’t wait to see further changes that take place in this our newest nature site.
So as I bring my anniversary ramble to a close, I hope it has jogged a few memories and will encourage people to investigate what wildlife delights lay on Sutton’s doorstep. As you may have detected I am proud of the work that SNCV volunteers like myself have been able to carry out over the years. And whilst much of the work is not always easy to see and possibly overlooked, I now that Sutton’s wildlife is appreciative of our collective efforts.
Mike Ellis – SNCV Volunteer