For a few months last year I helped in the Visitor Centre, first as a visitor experience volunteer, then spending time with the second hand books. Visitor experience volunteering involved meeting, greeting, and welcoming visitors and trying to ensure that they have the best time possible at Ashridge. We offered advice about walks, handed out leaflets, answered all manor of questions and at times manned the base to enable visitors to climb the Monument. Part of our role was also to sell memberships.
I also helped with the veteran and ancient tree survey last year. This was an incredible opportunity not only to get to know Ashridge better but also to spend time in the woods and countryside with a wonderful small team of like-minded people. At an initial training session we learnt a little about trees, but on later dates, we were able to go out in the field and put what we had learnt into practice. Our small group spent many wonderful mornings in our chosen area (Golden Valley). We measured the girth of the trunks, counted the number of scars, assessed the amount of fallen wood and the amount of rot. These were just a few of the things we noted. During our time doing the survey we also saw plenty of fungi (which I really like) saw and heard birds, met and chatted to dog walkers and other visitors and saw wild plants and insects such as butterflies and hornets. We even had a young badger wander up to us on one morning, and it sniffed my wellies before pottering off into the brambles, where it lived.
Prior to helping with the tree surveys I could only identify a very few types of tree. Now I can confidently identify many more and have some idea of their condition. Having not been particularly interested in trees before, I am now as fascinated by trees as I am with flora and fungi.
I currently help with the bird survey on Northchurch Common
Bird Surveys on Northchurch Common
What could be better than getting out into the Ashridge countryside early on a Friday morning with a small team of other volunteers, and accompanied by a member of staff? – from whom we can learn more about our local ecology? And of course, we can learn new skills, develop those we already have, and get to know Ashridge and each other a little better as well.
The surveys take place on the open grassland that stretches from the B4506 to the brink of the woodland that surrounds it. Although I describe it as open grassland, it is peppered with thistles, shrubs and the occasional tree, all of which provide convenient perches that can be used as lookout points and prominent places upon which to sit and sing, for our sought after feathered friends. We only go out in good weather – that’s a bonus! This is because it is more likely to hear the birds singing in better weather. If we can hear them singing, we have an idea where their individual territories are. We also note down the number of birds we see in each approximate area, ensuring as much as possible that we don’t count the same one twice. Amongst the criteria is to note what the birds are doing at the time we see them, and whether they are male or female (if we can see them close enough to tell).
For this survey, we are particularly interested in Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. Both of these species nest in the long grass that can be found on the common. We go out armed with binoculars, keen eyes and ears, plus the occasional pet dog. Of course we also take a recording sheet or two.
We often hear the birds before we see them. The sounds of these particular birds is quite a treat, especially Meadow Pipit, which can sound a little like a coasting bicycle that is descending a musical scale and if we are lucky, they end their song with the word “pipit”. Some mornings we are also lucky enough to see and hear the Yellow Hammer – the brightly coloured male birds, like to sing about “cheeeese”!