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New in North Devon

Posted: Monday 18th December 2017 by DevonWildlifeTrust

Tom Parson's takes to four wheels in his new role in North Devon

After a year as a Wildlife Skills practical conservation trainee with Devon Wildlife Trust, Tom Parsons has recently joined Devon Wildlife Trust’s Nature Improvement Area team (NIA for short) as a ‘proper’ paid-up, full-time employee. What better testament to this outstanding traineeship scheme? From zero experience in the sector to permanent employment within 2 years! Tom takes up the story of his first few weeks in his new role...

Based out of the Cookworthy Office, the NIA team works with landowners across North Devon, striving to improve, protect and re-create important habitats in the region on a landscape scale. The nature reserves and conservation areas that Wildlife Trusts and numerous conservation organisations manage and maintain are wonderful places, havens for wildlife. 

However, as economic and social pressures cause land use changes and intensification of farming practices, the areas that are important for wildlife become fewer and further between. Corridors for movement are lost, important populations of species become isolated, meta-populations are split into pockets. The risks of localised extinctions increase dramatically and before you know it you’re losing species forever.

Advice on a grand scale

The only way to attempt to reverse such a wide-ranging downward trend is to try to tackle it across large areas: landscape-scale conservation.

My job within the team is as an advisory officer working on the Culm Grassland Natural Flood Management Project. Catchy name, as everyone keeps pointing out. Once you get past the title, this is a really exciting and far-reaching project, influencing land use to benefit wildlife and help to manage flood risk.

Changing land use has been strongly linked to increasing risks of flooding. In some parts of England the sheer quantity of impermeable concrete and tarmac, roof slates and corrugated iron, leads to zero infiltration and faster run-off after rainfall.

In Devon we’re happily not at this stage, but we can see the impacts of rising pressure on land use. Soil compaction can quickly reach the point at which land absorbs only a tiny fraction of its water capacity. Run-off after rain floods roads and removes valuable topsoil and nutrients. Wet grassland, extensively managed, has a huge capacity to absorb and hold back rainfall, drastically reducing the risk of flooding after storm events.

Create, restore, maintain

So, in brief, the project I am working on aims to create, restore and maintain Culm Grassland, both as a wonderful habitat and as a natural flood management system. Win-win!

Work at this time of year largely involves finding sites to focus our practical efforts on over the coming year. Wet, species-poor grassland is a target for creation work, which will involve spreading green hay or wildflower seeds in the early autumn.

Existing Culm grassland may be in need of a little care and attention. Some sites would benefit from swaling (controlled burning) in the late winter. Ongoing management by grazing is often the ideal management technique, but requires infrastructure in the form of fencing and water supply.

Areas which are suffering from scrub encroachment need some practical intervention to prevent further loss of valuable grassland to scrub: winter is the time for such work as bird nesting hasn’t started yet. Unfortunately it’s also the rainy season!

Tricky tasks

Over the past month I’ve been visiting farms, smallholdings and areas of common land to assess the habitat and its current level of diversity and try to advise the best ways to manage the land to increase diversity. The clearest indicators of biodiversity are the plants present in a habitat. However, figuring out how many wildflower species are present in a wet field can be quite tricky in late November: very few plants are considerate enough to still be in flower.

Plant identification in winter can be tricky - here's a cuckoo flower.

Many sites are grazed (by deer, if nothing else!) so what herbage is present has often been reduced to a few small or damaged leaves. Hence my recent obsession with all things leaf-like, as I try to get to grips with vegetative plant identification. My favourite so far is cuckooflower; a beautiful spring flower providing early nectar for pollinators, the larval food plant for Green-veined white and Orange-tip butterflies and, most important of all, easily recognised leaves!

I wish more flowers were as distinct and unique in winter, but don’t even get me started on grasses….!


Whose supporting this project?

The Culm Grassland Natural Flood Management Project is led by Devon Wildlife Trust, supported and funded by the Environment Agency, Devon County Council, Exeter University and the European Union through Interreg 2 Seas. For more information on the project, contact the DWT Cookworthy office on 01409 221823.



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