Locked out during lockdown: My summer at Trumpington Meadows

One of our Trumpington Meadows interns from Cambridge University, Sam, gives us the lowdown on what got him involved with nature conservation, and what volunteering this summer has involved..

I entered into the world of natural history via birdwatching when I was 8 years old. Learning about issues such as persecution, habitat destruction and climate change at a young age motivated me to study ecology at the University of Cambridge and I’m now going into my third year.

A couple of months ago it looked like the pandemic would totally derail all of my plans for gaining more experience, outside of a lecture theatre or library, in ecology and conservation: field trips to Portugal and Panama with the university, had both been cancelled. It was therefore such a relief to see that the team at Trumpington Meadows were still giving the go ahead for the 6-week internship I had secured. The work plan had changed significantly due to a loss of volunteer hours, and the fact that we would be effectively locked out of the office but, at the end of my fourth week, I can say that the experience has been just as enriching and informative as I had hoped for.

A large part of the experience has been practical, hands on habitat management. Trumpington Meadows is based on the site of former plant breeding fields; the soil was prepared and a seed mix designed to emulate dry, unimproved grassland was sewn just over 10 years ago. Changing land-use practices have made this once ubiquitous habitat fairly scarce, so maintaining the meadows and preventing scrub encroachment is hugely important and rewarding work. The most visible management practice is annual hay cutting which prevents nutrient accumulation in the soil, thereby stopping competitors (such as nettle and dock) shading out the meadow herb species. This means a lot of ragwort pulling (in order for the hay to be useable for farmers and not poisonous to livestock) and hay raking. Ragwort pulling is normally polished off by large teams of volunteers, so we had a lot to do. These repetitive practical tasks have been quite therapeutic and a meaningful way to spend time out in nature whilst seeing some choice species; clouded yellow butterflies and a red kite are two highlights for me.

Despite the health benefits I’m very thankful that there has been a lot more to the internship than physical labour! Jazz and I (there were 2 interns from the university this year) have played an active role in a lot of the routine ecological monitoring work on the reserve; carrying out weekly moth traps, butterfly transects and grassland surveys. This has strongly developed my ID skills in these species groups. We have also conducted fixed point photography, to monitor vegetation changes over long time scales, and set out trail cams. Additionally, we have had the chance to explore our own interests using the array of ID books available – I chose to brush up on my Dragonfly and Damselfly ID skills which came in handy when I was able to confirm a siting of the rare Willow Emerald Damselfly on the reserve.

It’s been inspiring to work at a location such as Trumpington Meadows, where the land is managed as a biodiverse greenspace for the benefit of people and nature

 

As well as carrying out existing surveys, we have had the opportunity to make a long-term contribution to ecological monitoring on the reserve by setting up 2 new surveys – a new butterfly transect in the North of the Reserve and a reptile survey using 32 bitumen reptile refugia. The latter involved another important aspect of the intern’s role – public communication. I wrote a Facebook post on the reserve page explaining, for the validity of the results, the importance of leaving the reptile refugia undisturbed. Throughout the internship we have had the opportunity to post sightings and things of interest, such as trail cam footage, to engage the local community with nature and the trust’s work.

Finally, we have participated in mapping work: vital for ensuring areas of overwintering value are avoided when hay cutting and for facilitating and monitoring the progress of management. This has involved using high resolution GPS hardware in the field and getting familiar with QGIS to map transect routes and map habitat types.

Overall the internship has been a fantastic experience: I’ve spent so much time in the great outdoors - with lovely people and beautiful wildlife - and have learnt a lot. It’s been inspiring to work at a location such as Trumpington Meadows, where the land is managed as a biodiverse greenspace for the benefit of people and nature. Hopefully, projects like this will provide a blueprint for sustainable development into the future.

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We are slowly reintroducing opportunities for volunteering across the three counties after a hiatus during the Covid-19 lockdown.

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