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The clumsy adventures of Alix and Mélanie

Posted: Monday 2nd September 2019 by ERC Team

Hello and welcome to Alix and Mélanie’s (hopefully) weekly blog. We are both French students from the same engineering school based in Angers, where we study agriculture and ecology. On this blog we will be posting about the activities and work that we do during our placement at Gwent Wildlife Trust. Alix – I am a 19-year-old student originally from Brittany and Normandy. I feel passionate about wildlife conservation. I would later like to specialise in either ecology or food science. When I saw the opportunity to work in a nature reserve in Wales, I thought it would be a great way for me to improve my English level and help me determine what I later want to study. Mélanie – I am a 21-year-old French student. I am studying in an engineering school in the West of France (Angers). I would like to work in the field of environment either in wildlife conservation or in the construction of eco-buildings. This internship is the opportunity for me to know more precisely what I want to do and to improve my English level.


• Week 1:

Monday 1st of July:
For the first day of our internship, we were introduced to the team and to the company. We met Liz (Reserves Officer), Becky (Learning Officer), Natalie (Living Landscapes Manager) and Antony (IT & Health and Safety Officer). Liz gave us a tour of the premises, showing us the building and the nature reserves. After a warm welcome we were able to settle into our new workplace for the next three months.

Tuesday 2nd of July:
With our supervisor Tom (Senior Reserves Officer) on holiday for the first two weeks of our internships, we weren’t really able to begin working on the projects we had been assigned by him. Alix’s project is to map an area in Silent Valley. Mélanie’s project is to survey the adder population in Silent Valley.
Therefore, we did some volunteering work with Liz, repairing the decking. Indeed, some parts of it were old and becoming a bit hazardous for children to lean against during pond observations. Liz taught us how us a screwdriver and a saw, and we were off! We spent the whole day measuring, sawing and replacing boards. In the end, the decking looked as good as new and we were glad to have been helpful in making it a little bit safer.

Wednesday 3rd of July:
In the morning, Becky welcomed a group of 12 children with their teachers in the ERC. They were all very interested in the environment and in what Becky was explaining to them. She showed the children some moths which had been trapped during the night thanks to the moth traps, and then took them to the outdoors classroom where she told them about dragonflies and their life-cycle. We assisted her when the children did the pond dipping in order for them to learn about the fauna in the ponds.
Once the class left, we helped Liz rebuild the compost bin which was falling apart. Unfortunately, to complicate the task, a wasp’s nest was found in the old compost bin and the wasps seemed very unhappy to be disturbed. Mélanie and I were very cautious and managed to avoid them but Liz and Gareth, a volunteer who was working with her, did both get stung. Despite the trouble, we were able to advance quite a lot in the construction of the new compost bin.

Thursday 4th of July:
After two days of intense labour, we finally finished building the compost bin, and this time without any wasp casualties! Once this was done, Liz showed us how to build little pond islands for any animals who may have fallen in the pond and need land or for ducks to rest and lay eggs. She taught us how to remove turf to then place it on the wooden rafts.

Friday 5th of July:
Friday was a quiet day. We spent most of the morning at the office, working on our school report. We for example translated an important document from French to English, which took us about two and a half hours to do. Once this was done, Liz took us to the nature reserve in Silent Valley for the very first time. She showed us the different entrances, paths and most importantly the sites we would be working on. For Alix, that area is one that was heavily grazed for many years and is now fenced off in order to let the plants grow back. It is right next to the beech woodland. For Mélanie, her work area is right along the fence line at the top of the reserve.

• Week 2:

Monday 8th of July:
To begin the week, we set up a list of all of the common plants of the area, using the leaflets available at the ERC and the books that the team had given us. We wrote this list in English but also in French in order for us to remember it better and to link it to what we had already learned at our University.
In the afternoon, Becky tested our plant identification skills in the garden just outside the ERC. Thankfully we were able to recognise a few of them but she helped us learn the ones we didn’t know. Afterwards, she also taught us how to set up the moth traps, in order for volunteers to identify them the following day.

Tuesday 9th of July:
For volunteer day (Tuesdays and Thursdays), a walk was organized in Central Valley. This walk was led by Liam, an expert in entomology. Everyone had a net and small clear containers to catch and observe insects. We caught moths, butterflies, bumblebees and bugs. We also took the time during this walk to identify different species of plants. It was a lot of fun, both learning about the insects and also meeting other volunteers who felt passionate about wildlife.

Wednesday 10th of July:
In order to prepare Mélanie’s project, we laid the trays for the adders all along the fence line at the top of the reserve in Silent Valley. Liz showed us where it would be ideal for us to lay the trays: in the sunlight, on flat areas and near different kinds of habitats for Mélanie to figure out what the adders seem to prefer.

Thursday 11th of July:
On Thursday, Liz drove us to Branches Fork Meadow to do some bracken bashing. We met up with two other volunteers there. The point of bracken bashing is to reduce the amount of bracken in the reserve, in order to let other plants grow such as various grasses and flowers. The bracken tends to spread out a lot and doesn’t leave much space for other species to grow and thrive.
We spent the whole day doing this and by the end of it, the amount of bracken had drastically reduced.

Friday 12th of July:
For the first time, we were able to check the trays for adders in Silent Valley. This was a good way for us to determine how Mélanie was going to conduct her project. We decided that we would go to Silent Valley twice a week to check the trays. For each tray, Mélanie was going to measure the temperature, the wind, the sunshine and note the time. She would also have to write down any animal that she would see underneath the trays, in particular reptiles. This Friday, we only observed ant’s nests under a few trays, probably due to the sun already being out.
While we were in Silent Valley, we also went to Alix’s designated work area where we identified as many plants as possible. We also had an adrenalin-full moment when we chased some sheep on the loose who weren’t supposed to be in this area.

• Week 3:

Monday 15th of July:
In order for us to hone our bee-identification skills, we spent the morning doing what any student does best: studying! Focusing especially on bumblebees, we realised how difficult it can be to rightfully identify because of all of the similarities between some species. For example, the buff-tailed and the white-tailed bumblebees look very similar, with only a fine yellow line differentiating their respective queens and workers.
Before leaving the office, we set up a few moth traps.

Tuesday 16th of July:
Thanks to the moth traps set up the previous day, there were a lot of moths to identify. Jane and a few other volunteers came to the office and identified everything. Mélanie and I tried to identify as many as possible but only got as far as 5 (of which two were wrong). Nevertheless, this little course on moth identification was very educational as well as interesting.
In the afternoon, we donned our prettiest yellow vests and headed to the parking lot to pick up litter. Although we thoroughly enjoyed our outfits, a kid passing by seemed to think that we were offenders when he asked us if we were doing our community service.

Wednesday 17th of July:
On Wednesday, Becky held a course on dragonflies and damselflies. She explained their life cycle and taught us and a few volunteers how to identify many different species found locally.
After an intense morning of learning all about dragonflies in the classroom, the whole group went to Beaufort Hills, Ponds and Woodlands to put our newly learnt knowledge to the test. There, Becky showed us how and where to spot them. With her help and the aid of binoculars, we were able to identify a few species such as the Common Blue Damselfly, the Large Red Damselfly, the Emperor Dragonfly, the Emerald Damselfly and the Broad-Bodied Chaser. We even got to see some of the wonders of nature as a male drowned the female he was mating with.

Thursday 18th of July:
Accompanied by Liz, John and his volunteer John, we built fences. We were taught how to use the post rammer and barbed wire without hurting ourselves. Ironically enough, the only ones who did get hurt were our teachers, who put up barbed wire without gloves (warning: don’t do this at home).

Friday 19th of July:
With the Welsh weather finally making an appearance after three weeks of sunshine, this day was spent in the office, advancing on our projects. Tom answered our questions concerning Gwent Wildlife Trust, Silent Valley and on how to monitor adders for Mélanie’s project.

• Week 4:

Monday 22nd of July:
With the help of Nadine and Paulina - shepherds from a nearby farm -, we moved sheep from their enclosure in Silent Valley to a new farm. The lambs and their mothers met their new owners and happily grazed the fresh grass of their new home.

Tuesday 23rd of July:
On Tuesday began the two-day long stone walling course. We met up with all of the other volunteers directly at the farm where we were about to spend the next two days. Our instructor, Stewart, a member of the dry stone walling association of Great Britain for over 30 years, held a class for everyone in the barn. He taught us the fundamentals of dry stone walling and its history. He also explained the geology of Wales and especially of the Valleys. Dry stone walls are quite common in the UK but their design varies a bit depending on the region. However, all walls built by the DSWA follow the same expertise. The walls have to have a strong foundation, a little bit dug underground but not much to avoid water accumulation. After foundations are laid, come the big and heavy stones which are capable of supporting the weight of the wall. Then gradually the stones get smaller. At about half of the height of the wall are put the through stones: usually the entire or ¾ of the width of the wall, they help it stay in place.
After the lesson, we were finally able to begin dry stone walling. However, contrary to what we might have believed, we did not begin by building the wall immediately: we first had to tear down the remains of the old one and sort out the stones. This step is particularly important in order to know which stones to lay where, when later building it.

Wednesday 24th of July:
For the second day of the course, Stewart once again welcomed us in the barn for a morning class. There, he explained in detail how important the foundations of a dry stone wall are, as well as how to finish it. After having piled up all of the stones to the height of the old wall, big cover stones are put on top in order to maintain the stones and make sure water does not infiltrate the wall. On top of those are deposited cobble stones: heavy stones used as weights in order for the cover stones not to be blown off by the wind.
We were all very proud and happy to finish building the wall at the end of the day. Mélanie and I were especially happy as the owner of the farm graciously offered us both a piece of the famous (and delicious) Welsh wimberry pie.

Thursday 25th of July:
After all of the hard done these past two days, we were glad to have a quieter workday on Thursday. The morning was spent in the Ebbw Vale cemetery with Liz, Becky and a small group of volunteers. We were there in order to clean out the nest boxes and write down their locations using the gps units. Becky explained that the reason behind putting the nest boxes in the cemetery is its peaceful and quiet nature, which is excellent for wildlife to develop and thrive. The nest boxes are checked once a week, starting from the beginning of April and until the birds are gone, in order to monitor the species living there. The nest boxes are then all cleaned once all of the birds have left.
In the afternoon, we escaped from the hot temperatures of the outside by working at the ERC on our projects, our reports for school and this blog.

Friday 26th of July:
With Friday as our newly designated “project day”, we headed to Silent Valley to officially begin the adder survey and the mapping. Most of the day was spent walking, lifting the trays and recording the weather variables. We were very excited to discover three slow worms, a toad and a common, of course in addition to the obligatory ant’s nest.
Having spent so much time on Mélanie’s project, we weren’t able to do much plant identification or mapping, but at least it taught us how to manage our time better for the next times.

• Week 5:

Monday 29th of July:
On Monday, the team and us did a phase 1 training in Silent Valley led by Andy, Senior Conservation Ecologist at Gwent Wildlife Trust. Phase 1 habitat surveying is a standardized way of mapping a large habitat. To conduct a phase 1 survey, one must go on site and try to identify from a distance the different types of habitats in the area. The goal of this is to quickly identify the whole site in order to get a rough idea of everything and to begin placing it on the map. After this is done, the identification is done in more detail by going in the different habitats. A short list of the main species is drawn and the type of habitat is determined by following the standardized guide.
This is exactly what we did in Silent Valley. We tried our best, despite Mélanie sitting on an ants’ nest and I being attacked by a moth. After having mapped an area for most of the day, we went back to the office where we asked Andy a few more questions, and tried applying what we had just learned.

Tuesday 30th of July:
The plan for Tuesday was to go back up to Silent Valley. We were going to meet up with a few volunteers and do some restoration work. However, upon arriving soaking wet at the office in the morning, the team agreed that staying in the ERC was also a very good plan. We therefore all worked on our projects and postponed the volunteering work until a sunnier day.

Wednesday 31st of July:
A walk was held with Liam in Silent Valley. There were a few volunteers as well as some members of the staff. During this walk we caught and identified insects of all sorts: from red-tailed bumblebees to leaf bugs. With everyone being so eager to discover more about entomology, the group found itself stuck in the field next to the parking because of all of the biodiversity. We all got so carried away looking at insects down in the parking lot that we forgot that the main objective of the day was to observe insects on top of the Valley. Eventually, we managed to get out of the field and begin our little hike to the top, where we caught butterflies and even more bumblebees.


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