Katie Pownall – Conservation Research Student
My name is Katie Pownall and I am currently working at the North York Moors National Park for my year in industry, before heading back to the University of York to complete my biology degree next autumn. So many people have told me how valuable a year in industry can be for future employment prospects, and I feel very lucky to be able to spend my year with such an inspiring organisation. I hope to gain skills and knowledge from this placement that will allow me to pursue a career in ecology when I have graduated. What other job would involve me doing some of the things I’ve already had the chance to do so far?
Reptile monitoring at Sutton Bank…
Four of us travelled to Sutton Bank Visitor Centre and walked round existing paths on the heathland area there to locate the mats previously placed on the ground to act as attractive refuges for reptiles. We were looking for three particular species – Adders, Slow worms and Common lizards, all of which are protected by law in the UK. The ongoing monitoring was to provide evidence to consider as part of a planning application for a car park extension.
After carefully looking under about a third of the mats and having had no luck, we decided to wait a little to allow the sun to heat up the mats a bit, which would encourage the cold blooded reptiles to rest there in order to warm up. When we continued we had more luck, finding some Common lizards as well as some Common toads. Unfortunately we did not come across any slow worms or adders, nevertheless we were pleased with what we had found, and a Fox moth caterpillar and a vole or two added even more excitement to the day!
Water vole surveying at Eller Beck…
The next day I joined the search for Water voles, or at least for signs that they are living in the area around Eller Beck, Fylingdales. Water Vole populations have suffered in the UK due to habitat loss as a result of agricultural intensification. More significantly populations have come under threat from the American mink as a short lived mink fur industry in the 1960s/1970s declined and mink were released into a wild without natural predators. Between 2004 and 2007 the UK’s Water Vole numbers decreased by around a fifth. In many areas mink have wiped out water voles completely; the remnant populations hang on in less than optimal habitats for Water voles but where mink find it very difficult to survive – upland areas such as Eller Beck and urbanised areas such as Burdyke in York. The fragility of the populations are why surveys to ensure they’re surviving in the North York Moors are so important.
Having donned our wellies and waterproofs we started trying to make our way over the rough terrain of a former plantation to find the beck. The ground was very tricky to move across, and we soon found multiple smaller streams running across the landscape by putting our foot down in the wrong place! Eventually we found the actual water channel that we were going to survey and started searching for clues that Water voles had been there. We were looking for latrines (piles of water vole droppings that look like dark green or brown tic-tacs!), grass that had been chewed and cut at a 45° angle, and Water vole burrows along the side of the bank (which should have a clean opening with a diameter of 4-8 cm). After carefully treading along the banks of the beck we came across several latrines, some cut grass and potentially one or two burrows. This was encouraging since it proved that Water voles were still living in the area. Also, we didn’t find any evidence of mink in the same area, which is great news.
As the day progressed we found that some channels where signs of Water voles had been recorded in the past now seemed less suitable since the vegetation on the banks was particularly overgrown and so latrines and burrows could be less easily formed here. Water voles may still have been using these channels, but possibly just not living in them.
Just after lunch we were surprised by an individual who had been lying low in the grass and which we accidentally startled. After not seeing one the day before whilst doing the reptile surveying, I was delighted to see my first Adder! The excitement of this experience more than made up for having a welly full of water all day.
Plantation on Ancient Woodland Sites investigations…
As part of the This Exploited Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme, PAWS surveys are being undertaken to look for opportunities to conserve remaining ancient woodland features. The Ingleby Plantation was previously planted on the site of what might have been ancient woodland, so our job was to survey the area to identify any trees that we thought were over 60 years old, and would therefore have been present before the plantation. We recorded the level of threat to the amount of standing and lying deadwood, which is such a great habitat for invertebrates and fungi, and to the remaining ground flora.
We considered what changes could be made to the area to reduce these levels of threat. Where it seemed like there was little succession of ground flora some thinning of the trees preventing light from reaching the ground would help. Tree felling in a ‘halo’ around older, more vulnerable trees would help them to grow and stay healthy. Ring barking some trees – cutting off the nutrient supply to the tree – would create more standing dead wood where there is a lack of it.
Practical conservation work…
I joined a group of National Park conservation volunteers to clear an area of scrub near Rievaulx to encourage wild flowers to grow and spread next spring in a site of potential species rich grassland. To prevent the scrubland plants such as bracken and bramble from taking over the site again before the wild flowers get a chance to establish we had to remove all the cuttings from the area so that they didn’t reintroduce their nutrients to the soil. Wild flowers should grow better than the scrubland plants on nutrient-poor soil.
This kind of outdoor work was what I had imagined I might be doing quite a bit of during my time with the National Park, and despite the couple of downpours we had, it was good fun, and we all felt a huge amount of satisfaction once the job was done!
As the new Conservation Research Student I sarted my new job not knowing what the next week would hold, never mind the next year! I have not been disappointed so far, as so many opportunities to go out on site and get involved in a wide range of projects have been presented to me, and I am keen to gain as much experience as I can from them.