Dormice, Hedgelaying and Coppicing: the life of our 2nd year trainee

Photo credit: Joyce James


Dunsmore’s Living Landscape’s 2nd year trainee Jake McAlister talks on his year with us on the project:

My first experience of hands-on habitat management and conservation was whilst I was volunteering with the Dunsmore Living Landscape.  I have always felt an affinity to Nature and the wildlife that we share the world with, but until I got in touch with the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust I never knew how I could get involved.

The first task I found myself helping out with was raking and removing hay from a freshly cut meadow in Ryton-on-Dunsmore. Doesn’t sound very interesting, I know, but the combination of an almost meditative, repetitive task entwined with knowing you are replicating natural systems for the benefit of wildlife felt really good. I was hooked! From then I would go on to help survey other meadows and hedgerows, plant up old gappy hedges to reconnect the arable landscape, help replace an old bridge in Wappenbury Wood and put up Dormouse nest boxes to monitor the success of a reintroduction in the area. I loved every minute of it, plus I got free tea and biscuits!

Fast forward 1 year and a trainee post opened up on the Dunsmore Living Landscape team. By this time I knew working in the conservation sector was something I wanted to be doing. I applied for the position and lo and behold, I got it! A year long traineeship; a chance to learn practical habitat management skills throughout all 4 seasons in the nature reserves, country parks and farms that made up the background of my childhood. I knew the previous trainee quite well, having volunteered with him for a while now, he said to me on the first day that it was the most enjoyable year of his life, and I couldn’t agree more. I got to see some amazing sites, experience some incredible things and meet some very interesting people! Within my first week I jumped at the opportunity to accompany a professional bird surveyor to Ryton Wood. I had done dawn chorus walks before but with a blanket appreciation of the soundscape, however that day, every bird sound was identified to me, introducing me to the vastness of the diversity within that wood. Slowly but surely I started to be able to pick out a few birds. Not quite at Mike’s level… ”that’s a blackcap mimicking a willow warbler” I thought he was having me on at first when he said that!

Later on in the year, we were gearing up ready for the second reintroduction of Hazel Dormice. We put the dormice into what were called soft release cages, these were approximately 4ftx3ftx3ft wire cages suspended in a mature Hazel understory. Putting these up was a bit of a mission, they weren’t exactly heavy but believe me there was no easy way to carry them. I experimented with a few techniques and positions, all of which were as uncomfortable as the other, especially when carrying them through a woodland! But it was all worth it come the release day. We carried the dormice through the woods in the wooden nest boxes that they were transported it. The mental imagery of a sleepy dormouse inside a box in my hands made sure that every step was cushioned so not to disturb or frighten them. Once outside newly furnished soft release cages, decorated with some hazel branches and a little water dish, I placed the nest box into the cage for them to become acclimatised to their new surroundings. They were in locked in these cages for 10 days, continually watered and fed, then a small hatch was opened on the side for them to explore their new home as and when they liked. We slowly reduced the amount of food we were providing for them to encourage them to find it for themselves. One feeding trip, however, stands out from the rest. Me and the project officer, Tom, were treated by the sight of one of the Dormice perched on a branch above one of the soft release cages. He or she didn’t stay for long, after a quick glance our way with those huge black eyes it scurried up to the canopy out of sight, leaving me and Tom mesmerised and a little bit paternal.

Come the winter months the Dunsmore Living Landscape hosted a hedge laying training session, leading the session was an accredited and award winning hedge layer. I was familiar in principle with hedge laying but had never had the opportunity to try it, and I loved every minute of it. Traditional land management practices which allow space for wildlife to co-habit our landscape are essential to reverse this biodiversity crisis we are experiencing. Not to mention the fact that a laid hedge also looks amazing, I mean what’s not to love about a living fence! The combination of sensitively managed coppiced woodland and using the harvested material to create wildlife corridors is a great example of humans living harmoniously within their environment.

During this traineeship I was constantly surrounded by incredibly knowledgeable people who I could learn from. My favourite way to learn is to be taught by a professional, and there was no shortage; Hedgelaying, Grassland ID, Coppicing, Tree ID, Small Mammal Ecology, Bird Surveys, Bats and Chainsaws to name a few!

I now work as the Assistant Wetlands Project Officer at the Trust, delivering a variety of wetland enhancement projects. I know for a fact that almost everything I know regarding habitat management and conservation can be traced back to my time as a trainee with the DLL team, for that I’ll always be grateful!