In October 2021, I was given the chance to join the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust as a Practical Conservation Trainee at Spurn National Nature Reserve. With my boots firmly in the ground as a watcher of my local patch in Milton Keynes, recording birds, odonata and carrying out yearly butterfly transects, the idea of travelling 200 miles to spend most of a year in a totally new environment was initially very daunting but after some lengthy consideration, I decided it was an opportunity that was too good to miss for my career aspirations.
Spurn is located at the tip of the east Yorkshire coast, about 45 minutes’ drive from the city of Hull. One of the country’s most renowned sites for birding, it delivers scarcities and rarities on a regular basis. The sea and the Reserve’s habitats are closely monitored by a dedicated band of local birders and recorders. Located just outside the reserve is the Spurn Bird Observatory, working in association with The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust for a wide variety of projects across Spurn and its neighbouring reserve Kilnsea Wetlands.
While it may be as close to the sea as you can get, Spurn’s traineeships are tailored to develop highly transferrable knowledge and practical skills that can be taken to a wide variety of landscapes. Whether you are already familiar with coastal areas or coming from a more inland setting, it’s an ideal place to kickstart a career in conservation. Trainees are quickly given hands-on experience with a variety of tasks including livestock management, site maintenance and use of reserve vehicles.
Some of Spurn’s livestock include Hebridean Sheep and the popular Highland Cattle, which are frequently checked and moved across the site between autumn and early spring. Their grazing helps to prepare the reserve’s wildflower meadows for spring and summer, protecting root systems which could be damaged by machinery and supporting ground-nesting bird species including Meadow Pipits and Skylarks.
A large portion of the autumn and winter work involves site maintenance, trimming vegetation near the footpaths and increasing access to the Reserve’s features. There is also the Population Control of Brown-tailed Moths, a species that has had a strong foothold on the Reserve for many years. With their highly irritant hairs they are rarely eaten by birds, prevent the growth of berries and present a health risk to the general public as their caterpillars emerge in early spring. Thought to have arrived from Lincolnshire, the parasitic wasps that typically prey on the species are unfortunately yet to colonise the area, meaning controlled human intervention is currently the best way forward on this SSSI.
A more exclusive task for Spurn over the past few months has been Eelgrass Restoration. Now present in just a small portion of the Humber after a significant decline many years ago, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Marine Team have been hard at work to get this unique species. Some of the rainier days of the autumn were spent making Sea Grass bags, small sacks of Hessian with the tiny seeds and sediment wrapped inside, ready to be planted at the edge of the Humber at low tide.
The everchanging washover is a good place to practise off-road driving. Once holding a road connecting the northern half of the reserve to the southern half, it is now only accessible by the Spurn reserve team and the RNLI, based at The Point. On some days it can be largely flat and smooth with a thin layer of shingle, on others it can be more rocky but negotiable with the Reserve’s 4×4 vehicle.
A more recent task has been installing electric fencing on the Reserve’s thinnest section of beach, the washover, protecting Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers from ground-based predators and preventing human disturbance. Carrying out beach patrols in this area has been a good way of interacting with visitors, raising awareness of ground-nesting shorebirds, talking about other recent finds on-site with the bonus of possibly seeing a seal, porpoise or even a dolphin!
As I write this in early June, just over halfway through the traineeship, I can happily say this was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s already given me so much knowledge and new skills that I never initially saw myself gaining! With thanks to on-site LANTRA training and practice with Spurn’s Reserve team, I recently passed my Brushcutter training, meaning I and the other volunteers who participated will be gaining a license for using them across other parks and reserves nationally.
It’s also been a massive eyeopener to the everyday running of a nature reserve throughout the year in so many ways – seeing how tasks are co-ordinated around weather and tide times, how events are planned and promoted and the interactions between regional teams within The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. It’s an access-all-areas opportunity, so trainees are at the forefront of the fieldwork and behind-the-scenes projects at the Reserve and heavily integrated with the rest of the team. There’s also the opportunity to partake in external training hosted by The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust at other Reserves in the county.
On days off you are free to your own devices but there is so much to explore and do across Spurn and its neighbouring reserve, Kilnsea Wetlands. For birding the possibilities are nearly endless here, with scarcities and rarities being found on a near daily basis especially around the peaks of spring and autumn migration. Some of my favourite “firsts” from here have included Brown Shrike, Red-backed Shrike, Temminck’s Stint, Glaucous Gull, Red-rumped Swallow, and just days after I started in October, Britain’s 10th Two-barred Greenish Warbler which lingered for several days by the Discovery Centre.
I cannot thank the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust enough for giving me this amazing opportunity. It’s been well worth while for gaining confidence in travelling further afield and working in new and exciting parts of the country. The ride isn’t over yet though and I can’t wait to see what the next few months bring!
Top photo: Sunrise, Spurn 11 December 2021 (Photo © Harry Appleyard)