Havens for wildlife and people

Volunteering is good for the soul. There are many benefits to be gained from volunteering your time, energy, and knowledge. I’ve volunteered extensively over the last 15 years with the vast majority of my time being given to nature conservation organisations.

This morning I headed out on to my local patch to volunteer at Three Hagges Wood-Meadow. I had been asked if I could help engage local children with the natural world and of course I answered, “YES!”

Oasis amongst agriculture

The site measures just 9 hectares in area but it has quickly become a new haven for wildlife since its inception in 2012. Three Hagges is not only a refuge for plants and animals but also for people. At this time of year you cannot help but become entranced by the waving grasses, darting dragonflies, hovering kestrels, and slinking grass snakes. Sitting quietly amongst the richly diverse meadow, it is hard to believe that you’re just a stone’s throw from the busy A19 running from Selby north to York.

There are 28 species of native tree planted surrounded by numerous wildflower species. In order to protect the juicy vegetation from browsers it is fenced around the entire perimeter against rabbits and deer. Three Hagges Wood-Meadow is an oasis amongst another wise factory-farmed arable landscape and so it would readily be gobbled up without such protection.

I met some fantastic people today, which is another added bonus of volunteering. One of whom was Zach who I have seen numerous times online and on television talking of his passion for all things wild. He had his camera to hand to capture the smiles of the children that were engrossed in swishing nets and observing the wide range of beautiful invertebrates.

Does size matter?

In the early days of my conservation career I headed to Australia and actually paid for the privilege of volunteering. Mind you, when you get to spend 10 whole days and nights working alongside Uluru (Ayers Rock) it is well worth paying. That was back in 2004 having decided to leave the world of IT behind and move into countryside management. I went from the air-conditioned server room to the centre of Australia where air-conditioning is more than welcome on blisteringly hot days.

Volunteering with Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA) was an absolutely fantastic way to gain experience in my new profession and I complemented this with stints helping out on reserves with Shropshire Wildlife Trust and RSPB.

Another CVA project that year took me to a place called Newhaven where I assisted Birdlife Australia in removing barbed-wire fences and the invasive non-native buffel grass. Previously, livestock had been grazed on the sparse native grasses and other vegetation. Buffel grass was introduced from the African continent as it grows well in drought stricken areas. However, it was eventually realised that the area was far from suitable to raise cattle and the station ceased to be. Upon leaving the red centre I never imagined I would return.

The 3 months that I spent in Australia in 2004 was out of this world in terms of landscapes, species, and the memories made. The country, both in a sense of the nation and the diverse habitats, really got inside me. I returned a year later for further experiences with CVA including a coastal debris clean-up on the remote northern coast at Nhulunbuy.

I continued to give my time to volunteering throughout the period (2004 – 2008) of studying BSc Countryside and Environmental Management. I knew that this would stand me in good stead for my career switch and it proved to be the case in helping land a job at Severn Gorge Countryside Trust.

Volunteering over money

Late in 2009 I headed to the Kimberley region of Australia to volunteer with Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). I took the bulk of my annual leave and spent 4 weeks volunteering on the first dedicated fauna survey of the newly acquired Marion Downs sanctuary. I met more great people making some life-long friends while trapping and recording the incredible wildlife of the region including northern brown bandicoot and spiny-tailed gecko.

It was during that trip that I made enough of an impression to be invited to volunteer with AWC on a long-term basis. The decision to leave a full-time job in the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site was far from easy but such opportunities don’t come along too often.

Newhaven had been acquired by AWC since my first visit down under and it was there that I headed in March 2010. The sanctuary covers an area of over 262,000 hectares and is absolutely incredible on so many levels. Unlike the UK, where the majority of our habitats starkly interface, on the landscape scale of AWC sanctuaries the habitats merge almost seamlessly. Here, species of a generalist nature can move across the wider environment while specialists have enough space to still persist in healthy populations. However, even intact habitats and their associated species can suffer degradation when invasive non-native species are present.

I initially worked as part of a dedicated team carrying out the annual fauna survey. Pitfall traps are opened in fixed locations representing a variety of habitats with cage and Elliott traps adding to the suite enabling a wider range of species to be caught. Small mammals and reptiles are the intended quarry and once captured they are counted, weighed, and measured with all of the data used in guiding the sanctuary management.

Upon departure of the fauna survey team my attention switched to a dedicated survey of black-footed rock-wallaby Petrogale lateralis. This is a small and agile marsupial weighing up to 7kg as an adult. Rocks and boulders are their preferred habitat and they find refuge amongst cracks in the sandstone escarpments. Here they are protected from the heat of the sun, wind exposure, and predators such as wedge-tailed eagle. However, one predator was not present until relatively recently when European settlers arrived.

Able to climb and jump amongst rocks the new predator also has the ability to hunt in darkness. They are companions to many humans worldwide but when free to roam a land full of relatively naive prey they are bound to have an impact. Now they are thought to number more than 2 million in population and are eating their way through small mammals, birds, and reptiles across the entirety of Australia. Cats are drastically impinging on the native fauna of this great land and something needs to be done to prevent further extinctions.

Protect before they perish

Thirty native mammals have become extinct in Australia since European settlement. This is a startling figure but thankfully help is at hand for the natives and AWC are leading the way.

I contributed at Newhaven by walking a transect along all of the dramatic escarpments within the landscape and surveying for black-footed rock-wallaby. Initially, this was simply finding and counting scats, as the animal hadn’t been seen for several years prior to 2010. I worked my way meticulously along the rock-strewn locations poking my head and hands into all nooks and crannies that I deemed safe and accessible.

Fresh scat on rock

Eventually, after around 10 days I struck lucky and spotted a live animal high above me on the rocks. To my absolute surprise it gradually ventured down the rockface and came to rest about 3m from me looking right in my eyes! I had a suspicion then that this beautiful animal wasn’t so good at recognising a potential threat. Of course I wasn’t going to hurt this curious creature but a hungry cat definitely would.

BFRW outside refuge

After more than a month surveying I found a number of live animals amongst several small clusters of distinct populations. This was brilliant news and something to consider in terms of habitat and species management at Newhaven. I returned in 2012 and carried out a repeat survey.

Building for the future

Recently, the AWC team have been very busy at Newhaven on a world-leading project. They have built the world’s largest cat-free fenced enclosure where not only black-footed rock-wallaby can increase in population, but where other threatened species can be introduced back to the wild.

In the long-term a fence is not the answer to the cat problem but at least AWC are making a dedicated move and helping to protect the small mammals and reptiles of the red centre before it’s too late.

Check out the following video showing the beautiful rugged landscape of Newhaven and explaining more about the fence project.

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