Thousands of volunteers are out there in the cold and the wet helping toads cross the road, or counting barn owls. We meet six such volunteers.
All over Britain, there are Without these unsung heroes, some Above: he spends seven days a week driving people sporting shape-less, bulky overcoats, fluorescent tabards, Wellington boots and yellow Marigolds as they load a muddy, cold toad into a bucket to take it across a road. The attire is likely to be similar, but minus the rubber gloves and fluores- cent gear, as someone tries to extract a sickly hedgehog from a drain or captures a woodcock with a net, before ringing it in order to record its flight data.
These people who assist wild creatures, often in the cold, damp dead of night, when the rest of us are curled up in front of the fire watching David Attenborough, are the UK’s indispensable band of wildlife volunteers. We owe the resurgence of the otter and the water vole on English rivers and that of the red squirrel south of the Scottish Borders to public- spirited landowners and volunteers, whose efforts are becoming even more important in the light of Defra cuts and the muddled launch of the Countryside Stewardship Schemes.
Without these unsung heroes, some species would be facing extinction and our knowledge about the distribution and numbers of birds, insects and reptiles would be the poorer indeed, many conservation charities couldn’t function without volunteers doing their observing and counting for them. ‘We’d miss the toads if they were gone,’ says John Heaser, one of the UK’s estimated 8,080 toad patrollers, summing up the reason why he and so many like him give so generously of their time.
The barn-owl counter
Bob Sheppard received a British Empire Medal in 2012, in recognition of his tireless voluntary work with owls first tawny and then, more recently, barn and little owls all of which began 40 years ago.
The ebullient Mr Sheppard, a former primary-school headmaster, describes his unpaid role as a Barn Owl Conservation Network rep- resentative as ‘pretty much a full- time job’. Between April and July, all over Lincolnshire to check nest- ing boxes and ring young birds. The county, which had 300 breeding pairs in the mid 1980s, now boasts 900 the UK’s highest number and density of the bird thanks to Mr Sheppard and others.
He advises farmers on how to provide the best barn-owl conditions and undertakes land surveys in preparation for nesting-box schemes. During the ‘quiet’ winter months, he spends hours in his workshop making nesting work with owls
‘I’m a widower and I live alone, so the work gives me a purpose and my children are quite proud of me,’ explains Mr Sheppard, whose passion for owls began when he accompanied his father to the River Trent during the latter’s civil-defence work following the Second World War. ‘I saw a barn owl flying and thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I’ve spent an incredibly happy 40 years with owls and I still get a thrill when I see one.’
Saving the grey partridge
Some people count sheep to induce sleep, but Donald Morton tots up the grey partridges on his Norfolk farm during his waking hours.
Mr Morton is one of a number of farmers and gamekeepers in north Norfolk, including those on the Sandringham, Holkham, Hilborough and Houghton estates, who are working to reverse the dramatic decline in num- bers of these native game birds.
This year, Mr Morton collected the Mills & Reeve Norfolk Grey Partridge Award, both for grey-partridge habitat creation and management on his Bag- thorpe Farm and his spring and autumn counts for the voluntary Partridge Count
Scheme (PCS), run by the GWCT for more than 80 years. ‘I count them morning and evening, when they’re usually at the centre of their territory,’ explains Mr Mor- ton, who submits a copy of his counts to a national database. Bagthorpe Farm boasted 35 breedingpairsthisspring,double the number of a decade ago.
‘I’m lucky that my neighbours are all of the same mind, so the partridges have large areas of land available to them, which is healthy for genetic variation.’
Mr Morton has also learned a lot about the shy, skittish Perdix perdix: ‘They’re incredibly good parents. An adult will pretend to have a broken wing to divert attention away from its young.’
Mad for a woodcock moon
There is clearly one big passion in Owen Williams’s life: woodcock. The mystical gamebird first caught the attention of the sporting and wildlife artist during his childhood and many now feature in his water- colours, as well in as his sculptures. In 2007, Mr Williams took his fascination for the bright-eyed Scolopax rusticola one step further and began catching and ringing them.
He’s now ringed more woodcock than anyone else in the UK about 1,100 on his 10 monthly night-time sorties closeto his home in West Wales. ‘When I started, ringing had been going on in France for 20 years,’ he explains. ‘But few woodcock had been ringed in the UK because of the compli- cated and unorthodox method of cap- turing them, which involves going out on a dark night, dazzling them and catching them in a net. However, it struck me that it was important to get a national picture about their migration.’
In 2007, Mr Williams set up the Woodcock Network and there are now more than 30 people ringing, as well as collecting weight and age information and measuring beak and wing length. ‘It’s a useful dataset, which we feed over to the GWCT. It’s a great research success story.’ Mr Williams only found out about his grandmother Ann Jordan’s fascination with woodcock after her death. ‘It must be in the genes,’ he concludes with a smile.
On the toad patrol
‘They’re not fluffy or exotic and so they aren’t something that prompts people to put their hands in their pockets to help, but if you see hundreds of toads dead or dying on the road, it’s a sight you’ll never forget,’ discloses John Heaser, a software consultant who has been helping common toads across Norfolk’s roads for more than a decade.
When Mr Heaser encountered a large number of dead toads outside his house in 2004, he donned a pair of gloves, picked up a bucket and carried tens of them safely from one verge to another in Little Melton. Since then, numerous patrols have been added in the county under the Toadwatch banner and Mr Heaser is a county-level co-ordinator.
Mid February is when the migration generally starts. ‘If you’re lucky, they’ll all make it to the pond in a week, but that rarely happens,’ confirms Mr Heaser, whose wife, Rebecca, often joins him on his regular night missions, as do some of the area’s 20 volunteers.
The charity Froglife, with which Mr Heaser is working to improve its toad-crossing software, blames increased traffic volumes evening rush hour clashes with the toads’ dusk migra- tion and Bufo bufo’s kamikaze instinct to cross a road in one spot en route to a breeding pond for its high mortality rate and consequent endangered status. ‘We’re always in need of more people for patrols. In my area, we’ve reduced toad mortality by 90%,’ he adds.
Solving a prickly problem
Firefighter Anna Nicholas’s love of hedgehogs grew out of assisting her mother, Megan Morris- Jones, with her homegrown charity Cuan Wildlife Rescue.
Although an eclectic collection of creatures has passed through the doors since the charity was set up in 1990, it’s the prickly mammal that Mrs Nicholas particularly remembers caring for as a child. ‘Hedgehogs have always been a favourite with me, as they are with the volunteers,’ says Mrs Nicholas, whose husband, Sean, combines assisting at the charity with his ‘proper job’ as a firefighter.
The centre at Much Wenlock in Shropshire, which boasts a purpose- built animal hospital, currently contains 60 hedgehogs. ‘Our busiest period is in early autumn, due to the birth of second litters. Some hedgehogs are very sick and in the hospital and others are in rehab- ilitation in the blocks outside, awaitingrelease.’
Last year, Cuan Wildlife rescued and rehabilitated 550 hedgehogs from all over Shropshire and sometimes beyond. One couple travelled for four hours from Anglesey with a sick animal in their car. ‘We get a lot of adult hedgehogs in during harsh winters, when they aren’t coping well with the conditions, plus a number of babies, some of which need to be bottle-fed every three hours. You can be up all night with the sick ones, but there’s something really special about being able to save them.’
No time for slumber
Lorna Griffiths found herself up close and personal with a hazel dormouse during her first live encounter with the small, furry-tailed mammal. The former BT employee had placed a nesting box on the ground, opened the lid and, because Muscardinus avellanarius is arbo-real, it scurried vertically to escape. In this instance, there was no nearby box. The tiny tree, so Miss Griffiths’s leg had immediately hooked.
Today, despite a full-time job as an ecologist with EMEC Ecology, she spends the majority of her spare time working with hazel dormice in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. She’s now licensed to handle them and is chairman of the Nottinghamshire Dormouse Group (NDG).
Four days every month during the summer, she drives for an hour each way to check nesting boxes and collect data as part of the PTES’s National Dormouse Monitoring Programme. Three years ago, the charity asked her to lead its three Nottinghamshire reintroductions, each of which has involved putting out 200 nesting boxes, as well as release cages, then organising a volunteer rota to feed the cuddly, black-eyed creatures for six weeks.
‘I usually do the weekend feeding myself and the weekdays are covered by other volunteers from the NDG,’ explains Miss Griffiths. ‘My brother and my work colleagues think I’m crazy, but my mum isn’t surprised by my hobby. She tells me that, when I was a child, I was constantly bringing home wild animals.’
Which wildlife takes your fancy?
British Trust for Ornithology (01842 750050; www.bto.org)
Cuan Wildlife Rescue (www. cuanwildliferescue.org.uk; 01952 728070)
Froglife (01733 602102; www. froglife.org)
GWCT (01425 652381;www.gwct.org.uk)
Hawk and Owl Trust (http:// hawkandowl.org; 0844 984 2824)
People’s Trust for Endangered Species (020–7498 4533; http://ptes.org)
RSPB (01767 680551;www.rspb.org.uk)
The Barn Owl Trust (01364 653026; www.barnowltrust. org.uk)
The Wildlife Trusts (01636 677711; www.wildlifetrusts.org)
Woodcock Network (www.ring woodcock.net; 01974 272654)