Renowned journalist reviews a weekend with us in Dorset……………

By Peter Lynch
Author of ‘Wildlife & Conservation Volunteering – The Complete Guide’, published by Bradt.

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There’s no reason why a holiday shouldn’t be about self-indulgence but they can also be meaningful. Volunteering holidays are also on the increase – doing something consequential and worthwhile instead of just ‘me’ centred? Maybe helping endangered wild animals or doing something that helps reduce our destructive impact on the planet?

For years I have been hooked on ‘hands-on’ volunteer wildlife holidays, which are so much more interesting than being carted around on a safari tour bus, all too often looking at morose, semi-wild animals in a game park.

These types of holiday in exotic destinations, where you’re personally and practically involved, are exciting, enjoyable and inspirational, but they can be pretty expensive and may not suit everyone.

When returning from an overseas trip, full of eco-enthusiasm, I’ve always been disappointed to find so little support for similar activities in the UK – even though we’ve wiped out proportionately more of our native species than most of the underdeveloped countries we’re trying to help!

So I am excited to find that at last someone has realised that there’s as much need for wildlife and landscape conservation volunteering in the UK as there is in far flung countries.

Wild Days Conservation’s first programme was held at Kingcombe Meadows nature reserve in Dorset. This area of meadows, wild woodland and rolling hills is officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The organisers collected a few of us from Dorchester station for a transfer to the Kingcombe Centre, in the heart of a stunning nature reserve.

Our attractive en-suite bedrooms were in a smart barn conversion that could have been straight off TVs ‘Escape to the Country.’ Our chef welcomed us with some homemade elderflower ‘champagne’ as we heard plans for our ‘citizen science’ activities in Dorset and had our introduction to identifying small mammals.

In fact being spoilt with good food and comfort are key ingredients of Wild Days Conservation programmes.

‘We’re not about sleeping bags and bunk houses or cooking your own food and doing the washing up’ said organiser Kathy Gill. ‘Our ‘citizen science’ activities might be hard work and we will have to rise early some days but we’re also about enjoying the beautiful countryside, comfortable accommodation and eating the best local food available.’

After lunch Dorset Wildlife Trust ranger, Maurits Fontein, took us on a walking tour of the unimproved meadows, identifying and explaining how the wild flowers vary with soil, moisture and grazing patterns. The absence of fertilizers and insecticides has enabled a very different countryside to develop – one blooming with wild flowers.

Our first serious task was to assist the local Wildlife Trust and the Mammal Society by collecting data about what small mammals live in the reserve. Most British mammals are nocturnal and poorly studied, so we need to set humane traps.

Setting Traps we placed straw nesting material in the trap along with seeds, dead mealworms, apple and some dog food – so there’s plenty of food and nesting material so any captured animals would feel safe and warm. We placed them in hedgerows and other likely places. We also set out camera traps, activated by heat and movement and a hedgehog footprint marker tunnel.

After an excellent dinner we walked it off at dusk with some bat detecting. Armed with high frequency bat detectors Emily from the Dorset Bat Group led us along pathways, rivers and hedgerows. Bats are so silent that if I had been walking alone I wouldn’t have noticed any of them, but the Geiger counter-like clicks of the detector indicated when they approached, and I spotted at least three.

If anyone tells you they don’t like bats, just inform them that one small Pipistrelle bat can eat 3,000 midges in a day and that should be sufficient to gladden the heart of any outdoor wanderer.

We were up early the next morning to check the traps and set the animals free as soon as we had identified, weighed and sexed them. Around 40% of the traps had collected a mixture of common shrews, long tailed field mice and voles. The baited hedgehog tunnel recorded a number of hedgehog footprints but the camera traps, that we hoped would detect otters, were disappointing and recorded nothing.

The next day’s task was to help protect and restore riverbanks by removing the invasive Himalayan balsam. This attractive plant was introduced into gardens by the Victorians, but it soon escaped. The problem is that it grows very quickly and shades out native plants that naturally prevent bank erosion in the winter. It also spreads at a phenomenal rate once established, so it has to be uprooted before it sets seed.

It was a fairly hard days work but in a beautiful location. Himalayan balsam uproots easily and the growing pile, that ran into several thousand, was very satisfying. Our lunchtime picnic was a gourmet feast of riverside dining.

Back at the centre we reset the mammal traps and set up a light-trap to attract moths before heading for dinner at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Canteen in Axminster.

Checking our traps on our last day we caught even more small mammals although no additional species. The moth trap had attracted a bewildering array of moths and how amazing to see so many brightly coloured moths. Why so many night flyers were brightly coloured was a puzzle to us and I suspect there is another citizen science project in the offing.

These few days were a fascinating introduction to some citizen science and how amazing it’s been to discover so much mammal activity around us – which we just don’t normally see.

Andy Jefferies, our ecologist and local leader explained that, ‘Wild Days is a social enterprise aiming to make what’s important, enjoyable and accessible. It helps people get in touch with nature and its citizen science ethos investigates issues related to sustainability and our ever diminishing biodiversity.’

So, if you were contemplating joining a wildlife conservation volunteer project abroad and want a taster to see if its for you or if you want to discover how conservationists work – these bite sized Wild Days Conservation holidays, engaging in some real wildlife conservation and research, might be just what you’re looking for.