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University Placements

Devon Wildlife Trust Placement Blog

(by Daniel Hosking, Jordan Holmes and Hayley Partridge)

June 2014Calopteryx Splendens (Photo: Daniel Hosking)

We first heard about a placement with Devon Wildlife Trust through Plymouth University. Conservation Biology students were interviewed for three placements with the North Devon Nature Improvement Area (NIA) team at the Cookworthy Office near Holsworthy.

Covering 72,000 hectares, the NIA aims to work with local landowners and the community to improve the quality of the River Torridge and restore important habitats, one of which is culm grassland. North Devon holds 35% of the UK’s remaining culm, which is a mixture of wet heath, rush pasture, mire and swamp. Many rare species are found here, including wavy St John’s wort and whorled caraway, and the nationally scarce marsh fritillary butterfly. This species has suffered a population decline of 60% since 1990, which is one of the reasons we will be monitoring this species over the course of the placement.

After an introduction to everyone at Devon Wildlife Trust and days out in the field learning to identify over 40 plant species found on culm grassland, we were soon carrying out marsh fritillary surveys. On each site, we followed the route taken by last year’s students, while noting the species found and marking on maps where and when we saw a marsh fritillary butterfly. These places varied from small fields on farms to larger moorland areas. Many butterflies were spotted, including over 70 individuals at one site; however, some places saw decreases in population numbers with no marsh fritillary seen. The data from these surveys will be added to several years of records, which will be reported to larger organisations. We will also write a report looking at the trends seen at local sites.

In addition to the marsh fritillary butterfly, we saw many other interesting species, including common lizards, grass snakes, cinnabar moths and a red legged partridge, as well as lots of dragonflies and damselflies.

Other activities we have taken part in included looking at green hay meadows, looking for evidence of otters and bats around the River Torridge (near the Tarka trail), and writing species lists for an area of farmland in South Devon. This week, we have had an introduction to riverfly surveying. These surveys involve kick sampling to see if certain species (mayfly, stonefly or caddis fly larvae) are found, which will then give an indication into the quality of the river. Many locals take part in this survey once a month, because if these species are not found, there are knock-on effects for anglers, as well as otters, kingfishers and herons.

On the 24/06/14 we visited the Meeth nature reserve. Meeth is a disused clay quarry. After 2004, when production ended after 100 years, the quarry flooded, resulting in two massive lakes. These two lakes have large numbers of dragonfly and damselflies. Clay spoil is another dominating feature along with smaller ponds found around the site. Our initial visit to the site was to show us around the site. The largest lake may change over the years, as cracks have been found around the edge, as the decision to allow water to escape or to fill them is yet to be made. The smaller ponds are also interesting as one has very recently drained, and it was found that there was a drainage pipe open which must have unblocked recently. The drainage has resulted in the death of the majority of reed mace in the pond. The pond which drained is the overflow of a higher pond, where the reed mace is still alive. There is also a small stream known as Little Mere which we looked at, however, we found very few organisms in there due to the low flow and sediment. We also had a quick glance at Ash Moor which was going to be a foot and mouth burial site but was never used. It is now a large area of Culm Grassland in the Higher Level Stewardship scheme.

We have really enjoyed our first month with the NIA, and have already learned so much about the project and the species found on culm grassland.











July 2014

This month at Devon Wildlife Trust, we’ve been working on National Vegetation Classification, which meant improving our plant ID skills more. To do an NVC survey, a quadrat must be placed on the ground and every species within it identified and its % cover of the quadrat estimated. When we have done five quadrats in each habitat, we can analyse the species composition and find which plant community it is.

We attended our first team meeting and there are lots of upcoming projects, including agricultural shows and events for schoolchildren.

Following our NVC surveying, we went to Avon Valley and carried out hedgerow surveys. Each hedgerow can be more than 100 metres long, and both sides must be surveyed for height, width, species, gaps, signs of nutrient enrichment or mammals, large trees, dead wood, and the overall shape and management of the hedgerow. The hedgerow surveying was a lot of walking but the weather was really hot and sunny, and we got better at identifying trees.

After this, we worked on our devil’s bit scabious project. We took soil samples from county wildlife sites where scabious is present and samples from sites where it isn’t. This is because about 10,000 seedlings are waiting to be planted, and we need to find out if there is a common factor that means either encourages or discourages scabious. Devil’s bit scabious is the plant which the marsh fritillary butterfly larvae feed on, so if we can establish more scabious populations, hopefully the range of the butterflies will grow.

Linked to our work on the County Wildlife Sites, we attended a training day where we learned about what makes a County Wildlife Site, how they are designated and surveyed, and we made two site visits to work on species and habitat identification.

As part of the Avon valley project, we also looked at bats in the area, due to there being a nearby greater horseshoe bat colony. Greater horseshoe bats are common in southwest England and Europe, but are rare in the rest of the United Kingdom. To determine what bat species are present, we placed an Anabat (a device which records bat vocalisations over all frequencies) overnight in one of the fields. Additionally, we walked the site at night with bat detectors, which are tuned to one frequency and allowed us to hear the different bat calls. When we were surveying with the bat detectors, we managed to find a greater horseshoe bat which is generally at a frequency of 80khz, pipistrelles which were around 45khz and we believe we heard a lesser horseshoe bat at 108khz. The Anabat recorded greater horseshoe bats, pipistrelles and noctules.

We have also done more Riverfly surveying this month, where we use kick-sampling to find river invertebrates and larvae. We surveyed three sites and found stonefly, mayfly and caddisfly larvae, as well as shrimps, worms, leeches, snails and even fish. We use the species we find as indicators of river water quality, as many species are intolerant to nutrient enrichment or pollution, and our results showed good water quality in these sites on the river Torridge.

At the end of July we attended the Woolfardisworthy agricultural show. We were part of a stand about the North Devon Biosphere, which involved talking about the NIA project we are currently working for, and interacting with the public in order to raise awareness of the project. Also we were approached by landowners who were looking for grants to carry out work, or potentially applying for an environmental stewardship scheme, as well as people who were simply interested in becoming members of Devon Wildlife Trust.           







August 2014

Throughout August we have been making many site visits. Towards the beginning of the month we concentrated on completing the soil sampling we began in July, in order to find out the differences between soils which support Devil’s Bit Scabious and those which don’t. Soil structure and texture was also analysed and we dried out our samples so we will be able to analyse them for pH, potassium, phosphorus and organic matter content in the laboratory. We also recently visited the university to find out how to analyse our soil samples, and we should begin this very soon.

We have also had four days in South Devon this month, working on the farm in the Avon Valley. Here we have been surveying hedgerows, which was difficult at first due to the number of new species we found. However, we added many to the list of species we can now identify, and learning the trees will be an asset in the future. The hedgerow surveying was very interesting, and we also looked for mammal signs such as badger snuffles, rabbit scrapes and vole holes. We even found evidence of deer. We should have done a bat and moth survey early in August, but this was postponed due to bad weather. In the last week of August we were able to carry out this survey on the farm, which was very successful as we found noctules, pipistrelles, soprano pipistrelles and lesser horseshoe bats. Our moth survey involved setting up two moth traps, which are wooden boxes lit with a bright light, with two Perspex sheets beneath to funnel the moths into the trap. Egg boxes are laid in the bottom to give the moths shelter and a place to hide when they have been caught. We identified around 27 species of moth, with over 210 individuals captured (and then released).

This month we have also attended Okehampton country show, where we spoke to landowners and members of the public about how Devon Wildlife Trust operates and where we can help landowners with grants or free advice, and also when and where family events are run and how members of the public can get involved with nature in Devon. We also ran a small table for children’s activities which was quite popular, where the children could make and decorate paper flowers, butterflies and bats.

We had a day of Riverfly surveying on three sites, and we were met by our placement sponsor Martin Stanley, from the Holly Hill Trust, who came to one site to see how we were getting on.

Towards the end of August, we have also been seed harvesting, where seed is collected in a harvester pulled by a quadbike, turned out, and then filtered through metal frames onto tarpaulin. This is then left to dry in the barn and later used to increase species richness in other meadows, as it is spread over sites as green hay.

We also visited two nature reserves in order to begin looking at marsh fritillary larval webs. The flying season of the butterflies is over, they have laid their eggs, and the caterpillars are beginning to make an appearance in small webs over the basal leaves of the flowering Devil’s Bit Scabious plants. Next month we will begin web surveys properly, as we’ve had practice finding and identifying them.

We have also begun collecting data on sites which could be classified as County Wildlife Sites following site visits, should they meet the criteria. We have had responses from many landowners, and have our first site visit at the start of September.

September 2014

At the start of the month we were introduced to unconfirmed county wildlife site surveying. Several landowners were contacted about land which was of potential county wildlife site standard. When we visit a site, we make detailed descriptions on a map, noting the NVC type, major features, species lists and management. An area can also be county wildlife site standard if it meets a certain criteria – for example, it may have at least 5 Devon notable species and be over 0.5 hectares.

We had our last visit to the site in the Avon Valley this month, where we finished hedgerow surveys in two additional fields and looked for signs of mammals. We also dug some pitfall traps to try and find some of the insect species present, however, the main insect found was ground beetles. We also carried out another bat survey using bat detectors, and placed two moth traps. One moth trap only managed to attract a couple of hornets, while the other managed to attract about 4 species of moth, compared to 27 last month. This is most likely due to the time of year, as we also only found a pipistrelle when searching with the bat detectors. However, we did see a badger. The Anabat did pick up both greater and lesser horseshoe bats in addition to pipistrelles as it was left overnight. All the results from the data collected at Avon Valley over the last few months will go into a report.

During September, we attended a riparian management workshop in Liskeard. The workshop involved a walk around a farm which had good water management practices, and the talk was mainly aimed at farmers who were looking to improve the quality of the water in the river by preventing agricultural runoff and bank erosion. A lot of the work required permission from various agencies such as the Environment Agency. Some of the methods shown involved fencing a certain distance from the river bank, limiting the area livestock can drink from by using gates, preventing them from disturbing the river bed and limiting the amount of extra nutrients that can be added to the river from livestock waste. While on site we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a kingfisher which flew past!

The majority of work this month was carrying out marsh fritillary butterfly larval web surveys. As the devil’s-bit scabious was in flower, it was easy to target areas to look for webs. Results varied from having 4 webs to over 100 being found at a site. A highlight for us was the discovery of several new marsh fritillary populations which had not been previously recorded as having any webs or adults. It was great to see how pleased landowners were when we found a new population after they committed so much time to maintain a suitable habitat for these butterflies. While in the field, we saw many common lizards and deer. On Common Moor, a grass snake skeleton as well as an adder skin was found!

BBC Spotlight came to the Cookworthy office during September to film a small segment about the seed harvesting and spreading going on in the county. Particular attention was paid to the Devon Wildlife Trust as this is one of the first years where they have harvested their own seed, due to the cost of buying it. The segment was aired on BBC spotlight on the 15th.  We also carried out our last Riverfly survey this month, and also attended a team meeting.

We also spent a couple of days in September at university, analysing the soil samples we collected in order to determine the distribution of the devil’s bit scabious plants.

Dan carrying out a larval web survey (M Symes)


October 2014

This month we have focused on completing Unconfirmed County Wildlife Site (UWS) surveys. We met landowners, who showed us their UWS and explained to us how they managed the land. In most cases, grazing was being used; however, some sites appeared unmanaged with a lot of scrub. Most sites we visited were County Wildlife Site standard, as they had NVCs of M23 or M24/25. The constant species in a M23 community (rush pasture) include sharp flowered rush, soft rush, marsh bedstraw, greater bird’s-foot trefoil and Yorkshire fog, whereas M24/25 communities (Fen meadows/purple moor grass mires) are dominated by purple moor grass, with greater bird’s-foot trefoil, tormentil and carnation sedge. We found that many sites had devil’s-bit scabious, which could be important in the future for extending the distribution of the marsh fritillary butterfly. We saw evidence of deer, foxes, woodpeckers and badgers. A UWS form was completed for all the sites we visited, which will then be sent to Devon Biodiversity Records Centre (DBRC) for review.

While in the office, we organised the data we collected for the marsh fritillary larval web surveys. This involved scanning the forms into the system and marking where we found webs at sites using MapInfo. The data was used to write a report for DWT, and we have compiled the larval web and adult count results to make a marsh fritillary report for 2014. We have compared data with previous years, as well as seeing if the abundance of devil’s-bit scabious, vegetation height and poaching affects marsh fritillary populations.


We also completed our Avon Valley report. It included results from our grassland, hedgerow, small mammal and invertebrate surveys. We found that fields were more species rich where yellow rattle was planted, and hedgerows followed a species-area relationship. We made some management suggestions to increase biodiversity at the site, such as changes to the timing of hedge trimming. However, some results, such as the effect of yellow rattle and mob grazing, cannot be commented on as more long term data is needed. We hope that these surveys will continue each year to establish the best management techniques for the site.



At the start of the month, both the Nature Improvement Area (NIA) and Working Wetlands (WW) team took part in the planting of devil’s-bit scabious seedlings. Over 1,400 plugs were planted over two sites in North Devon. We have started to type up our report on the effect of soil on devil’s-bit scabious distribution, after completing analysis of samples in the lab at university. We also took part in a practical at university to identify freshwater invertebrates and how they assess water quality (The Biological Monitoring Working Party - BMWP index system). We identified stoneflies, caddis flies, mayflies and dragonfly larvae to family level.

Finally, we attended several team meetings this month. One meeting took place in Exeter, and included DWT staff from all offices. There were presentations about DWT and future plans, as well as several workshops where DWT aims, achievements and improvements needed were discussed.

Next month, we plan to carry out research about drainage at Meeth Quarry, survey more Unconfirmed County Wildlife Sites, learn hedge laying techniques and complete our soil/ devil’s-bit scabious report.