Thursday, 4 June 2015

The National Trust Ranger Academy

National Trust Ranger Academy
My name is Pete and I work as an academy ranger for the Trust in the Lake District. The academy scheme provides training, both theoretical and practical, to those with passion but without the background skills or knowledge. Myself and Bruna – an academy ranger based in Snowdonia – have recently spent a week at Blakeney Point in North Norfolk to help the team monitor a variety of sea birds and learn from them.
The A-team: from left Josh, Paul, Sarah, Bruna, Pete and Ajay

The ability to work between sites is one of the key strengths of the academy programme. Sharing best practice not only saves the time of wheels being reinvented, but is also a great way to be re-inspired and share time with like-minded people. Preserving areas for the next generation is not always an easy task, especially when it can mean change for the current generation, and the challenges that this change brings. However, we share the belief that conservation is worthwhile. We have been gifted with a glorious planet and so of course we want to share it with others – a little compassion goes a long way.

The ability to engage, educate and inspire is just as important as practical skills, as we need future supporters, members and volunteers to continue our work indefinitely. It turns out meeting our core target of “for ever, for everyone” is quite a task! Education and engagement can prevent misunderstandings occurring. For example, the site of a tree being cut down can easily evoke mental images of mass deforestation. But with vast timber imports from Europe and further afield a sustainable wood industry is vital to stop deforestation elsewhere, especially in countries with less stringent controls. Conservation is a truly global concern and so it is important not to become too fixated on making our grass green if that comes at the expense of the metaphorical grass elsewhere. Wood is often a bi-product of our core woodland aims of habitat management, visitor safety and access. Having a varied age structure, different light levels and allowing some trees to reach maturity of a large girth (providing nesting holes/deadwood habitat) are important for a valuable habitat, and as such some trees are removed.

Good communication is key. With such a large organisation this can occasionally be difficult but staff and volunteers are committed to sharing our passion, knowledge and expertise. Here at Blakeney, coastal ranger Ajay Tegala and the team do a fantastic job, speaking to almost every visitor to the point. This not only helps to educate and inspire the visitors but enables the rangers to point out safety concerns and help protect the vulnerable ground-nesting birds and fragile sand dune, salt marsh and shingle habitats. String fencing and signage deters boats from mooring in the tern colony (sandwich, common, little and arctic) and near other ground-nesting birds.

Our time at Blakeney 
We were extremely lucky to be greeted on our very first evening by a friendly visiting Bluethroat (Luscinia svecia).The Bluethroat was once a regular migrant to Blakeney Point, sometimes in numbers up to 25, but declined in the 60's and by the 80's were rare visitors. There is now just one Bluethroat spotted almost annually, and rarely two, so this was a great site to see. Another interesting sighting during beach patrols and nest surveys was several Garden Tiger (Arctia caja) and Brown Tail (Euproctis chrysorrhoea) moth caterpillars.
Bruna looking out for the Bluethroat
Bluethroat (Luscinia svecia), a rare migrant

Brown hare (Lepus europaeus), fairly common on the Point
Caterpillar of the Brown-tail moth (Euproctis chrysorrhoea)
Birds-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), one of many Spring flowers brightening up the dunes
Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) chicks using one of the nest boxes - they have since fledged

The only access to Blakeney Point is by the seal boats (externally run boat tours) or via a three-mile shingle walk from Cley beach – suffice to say, the ridge between the boat landing and the Lifeboat house (pictured at top of blog) is the busiest part of the Point! This also happens to be where several Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) choose to “nest”. I use the inverted comma's because their idea of a nest is simply laying eggs on the floor into a small scrape in sand, grass or shingle. They lay one egg a day to a total of four – however, females will sometimes share nests, hence the five eggs we found in one nest! This means they can share incubating duties and have extra defence against gulls (particularly common and herring) and other predators. In order to protect the eggs from accidental damage, and minimise stress to the female, we erected temporary fences around each new nest.

Bruna enjoys spotting her first (of many) Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) nest

A rare five-egg osytercatcher nest, the result of two females sharing a nest

On Wednesday we were joined by two ecology consultants from ECON to survey the local fish population in relation to the food supply for little terns (Sternula albifrons) and sandwich terns (Thalasseus sandvicensis). We used a 50m net in Pinchen's creek, using smaller nets and buckets to remove the fish and crabs, take measurements and then return them to the water. Species found included Bass, Herring, Lesser and Greater sand eels, Flounder, Crangon and plenty of crabs. The plan is to return to survey at different tide levels and build more robust figures.

Pulling the net across to sample the local fish population
Measuring the fish before returning them swiftly to the water

Over at Blakeney Freshes, ranger George took us out to monitor a variety of nesting birds. George was himself an academy ranger at Blakeney before securing his permanent role. There were a few Oystercatchers and lapwing still on nests but the avocets and a pair of lapwing already had chicks, who seemed to be doing well. Large drainage channels and sluices were dug out last year with the help of the RSPB to help regulate water on the freshes, and new scrapes dug out by digger with small islands. The avocets in particular took well to this improved habitat. The spot of the day was a pair of little ringed plovers with three chicks in tow, with a third adult being chased away by the pair. This may mean there is a second breeding pair – fantastic news for this schedule one species, which has just 1,200-1,300 nesting pairs in the UK.
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) male on grassland Norfolk, England
The stunning Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), which has had breeding successes on Blakeney Freshes
We both had a fantastic time and have learnt a huge amount - not least how to live for a week without running water or mains power - some of which we will be able to take back to our properties and use again in the future. Ten academy ranger positions are advertised near to the start of each year across England, Wales and Northern Ireland - please visit National Trust jobs for this and more. 

To read more about the work of the National Trust at Blakeney Point and across the North Norfolk coast please visit their blog at

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